Sunday, February 21, 2010

Above all, the friend of truth

So how did Baltimore react to this news of a female editor in 1806, at a time when such a thing was generally unheard of?

Initially, at least--as far as can be determined--there wasn't much of a reaction at all. But in the same editorial quoted in the previous post, the new female editor (later female editors would embrace the term "editress," but this one didn't) announced that there would soon be "alterations" in the "plan" of the Companion--alterations that were to include more assistance for the overworked editor. And, as it turned out, these alterations also entailed scrapping the Companion altogether and founding a new publication, to be called the Observer. The last issue of the Companion appeared at the end of October, and a prospectus for the Observer appeared towards the end of November. Although the first few issues of the Observer are either obscure or misleading about the editor's sex (the editor is sometimes referred to as "he"), it was soon revealed to be female--and,not surprisingly, to be the same female who had previously been editing the Companion.

Why start a new magazine? Apparently because the new editor wanted to inject more satire into the magazine than the philanthropist who had backed the Companion was willing to tolerate (at least, that's the explanation that appears later on). This new magazine was to be not only more satirical but, at times, downright acerbic, skewering various denizens of Baltimore who were thought to be wanting in culture or refinement. The change in tone was reflected in both the name change (from the Companion to the Observer)and the change in motto (from "A safe companion and an easy friend" to "The friend of Socrates, the friend of Plato, but above all, the friend of truth").

But here's the real question, at least for our purposes: who was this new female editor? Given the early 19th-century penchant for anonymity and pseudonyms, her real name appears nowhere in either publication (the pseudonym she eventually settled on was "Beatrice Ironside"). As anyone who has read previous postings of this blog might know, I have identified her as 26-year-old Eliza Anderson--the daughter of a Baltimore doctor, the abandoned wife of a ne'er-do-well merchant, and the mother of a now six-year-old girl--and the friend of a local celebrity, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte.

How do I know Eliza was the editor? The first clue comes from an early contributor to the Observer: Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the first professional architect in the United States, who oversaw the design and construction of the U.S. Capitol. (There was a terrific documentary about his life on PBS not long ago.) On October 28, 1806--just after the last issue of the Companion had appeared, and shortly before the Prospectus for the Observer would appear--Latrobe wrote a note on the flyleaf of a journal he kept: “'No. 1. Ideas on the encouragement of the Fine Arts in America’ written at the instance of some friends in Baltimore for the paper edited by Mrs. Anderson.” The essay that follows in Latrobe's journal corresponds exactly to an article that appeared in the Prospectus, signed "B." (A second installment appeared in the Observer's first issue.)

Conceivably there could have been some other "Mrs. Anderson" editing a magazine in Baltimore in 1806, but this seems unlikely. Especially when you add to Latrobe's note the evidence that was to come a year later in the form of impassioned denunciations of "Mrs. E.A., the fierce fury who edits the Observer," in Baltimore's newspaper.

But we're getting ahead of our story...

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Safe Companion and an Easy Friend

So, what of this early 19th-century magazine, the Companion? This much we know: It was founded in Baltimore towards the end of 1804 and continued to publish until October 1806--a fairly long run for a "literary miscellany" of the time (the Companion's full title was The Companion and Weekly Miscellany). Apparently these journals would often spring up and then vanish a few weeks or months later.

In 1811 another Baltimore publication attested to the genre's generally short lifespan: "In the City of Baltimore so many abortive attempts have been made to establish a Literary Miscellany, that Experiment and Disappointment have become synonymous terms." The author even mentioned the Companion by name, despite its relative success: "The weekly visits of the Companion were scarcely greeted by a civil salutation," the author lamented. (This was part of a series of puns on the names of various defunct publications: "the rays of Moonshine were speedily extinguished: no one could see through the Spectacles," etc.)

Just as 18th- and 19th-century newspapers bear little resemblance to what we now call a newspaper (their front pages were usually entirely taken up with ads, they freely mingled opinion and reportage, and their "news" was often weeks old), these magazines were rather different from their modern counterparts. For one thing, the "profession" of journalism hadn't really been invented yet. The editors and contributors were all unpaid amateurs, often pressed for time--which may explain the brief life of many of the publications. Many of the writers in a given city actually knew one another--which enabled them to see past the pseudonyms, a convention originally adopted because a gentleman wasn't supposed to be engaging in this sort of activity. A typical issue might include a column or two, often written in a humorous vein, an essay on a historical or philosophical topic, a poem, a review of a concert or an art exhibit, and perhaps a smattering of stale news from Europe. And the pages of these magazines reveal a number of lively ongoing dialogues: one issue might well contain a vigorous response to an article published in the same magazine the week before, or to something that had appeared in another local publication.

In some ways, though, these magazines seem strikingly modern. Think about it: a community of individuals, many of them more or less protected by pseudonyms, often engaging in heated written argument in a public venue--sometimes, indeed, "flaming" each other. Remind you of anything? Yes, the internet. And the give-and-take nature of these publications, with many readers doubling as contributors (or leaving "comments"), is reminiscent of an early version of a blog (not to mention the fact that the writers weren't actually getting paid--just like most bloggers). Of course, people weren't only using these magazines to argue with each other. Like the internet, the publications also fostered a sense of community among their readers. (My neighborhood listserv is an amazing example of this. Neighbors who may never have actually spoken to each other are constantly trading household tips, finding each others' lost pets, and arranging to shovel sidewalks for the elderly.)

It's hard to say who the first editors of the Companion were. The pseudonyms they used--Edward Easy, Nathan Scruple, etc.--generally obscured even more than their real names: they came with entire fictional personae. "Edward Easy," for example, was supposed to be an elderly Quaker gentleman from Pennsylvania, with a backstory too complicated to go into here. But it's clear from later issues of the Companion (whose motto was "A safe companion and an easy friend") that those who were involved were all fairly young. In one issue, after the magazine had gone through several editors and suffered some publication difficulties, the editor of the moment pleads with readers to attribute any mistakes to the editors' "youth and inexperience."

My best guess is that the founders were a group of young men who were students at, or possibly recent graduates of, St. Mary's College, an institution founded by French Catholic priests in Baltimore in 1791. (It still exists as a seminary--and in the 20th century produced the famously anti-war Berrigan brothers--but in its early days it provided a secular education as well.) Similar "circles" of young men in other cities sometimes produced publications as an outgrowth of their discussions of books, philosophy, and current events.

There may have been a few women involved as contributors--some of the articles carry female pseudonyms like "Flavia" and "Biddy Fidget." But when an editor is referred to, the pronoun is always "he."

Until the issue of October 4, 1806, that is. That issue carries an editorial ringing the familiar theme of apology for a dearth of lively material. Note, however, the pronouns used:

… But when it is considered that the entire arrangement of the Companion depends on one alone, and whether the editor is grave or gay, whether visions of hope and pleasure play before her imagination, or she is sunk into despondence and beset with a whole legion of blue devils, the printer, like her evil genius, still pursues her at the stated period, and the selections must be made, and the proofs corrected, and of consequence, “The Safe Companion and Easy Friend,” must sometimes as well as safe and easy be sad and soporific ...

Yes: not "him" and "he," but "her" and "she." Thus it was announced, without any particular fanfare, that the new (or perhaps not so new) editor of the Companion was a woman--quite possibly the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States.

How would Baltimore react to this anomaly?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

"From a Learned Wife, Ye Gods Deliver Me"

As I sit here anticipating a winter storm--the second in a week--that may knock out power, I feel a particular kinship with the people of the early 19th century who I'm writing about here. Imagine a world with no electricity, no internet, no central heating, no cable TV ... Sounds a lot like the world they inhabited. At least we'll still have indoor plumbing. And even if I'm reduced to writing with a pen, I won't have to use a quill (I tried that once and don't recommend it).

But now, to Eliza. What became of her after she accompanied Betsy Bonaparte on her voyage across the Atlantic? The first year or so after her arrival back in Baltimore, in November 1805, isn't well documented. In 1802 her father mentioned in a letter that she had taken up teaching school--presumably teaching girls, since boys were generally instructed by men--but we have no information on where she might have done that, or how long the job lasted.

But by October, or perhaps earlier, of 1806, she had taken up a new line of work, albeit an unpaid one: she had become the editor of a magazine.

Now, let us pause for a moment to consider how extraordinary it was for a woman--and a woman of only 26 years of age--to do such a thing in 1806. Although during the Revolution and its immediate aftermath there had been some talk of women's rights in the United States--including Abigail Adams's oft-quoted plea to her husband to "remember the ladies"--it didn't lead to much in the way of actual rights. Women today complain of glass ceilings, lack of pay parity, and having to shoulder most of the housework when they get home from their jobs--as well they should. But when you compare that to the legal disabilities women labored under 200 years ago, and then-prevailing attitudes about their capacities and their rightful place, it becomes clear that women have indeed, as the cigarette ads used to say, come a long way. And not just because they're now allowed to smoke.

Married women couldn't make contracts or own property in their own names--which made it impossible for them to operate a business. Single women were spared this disability--and in New Jersey, up until 1807, they were even allowed to vote--but few professions were open to them. And, since marriage was considered to be the be-all and end-all of a woman's life, an unmarried--or, worse, divorced--woman didn't fit particularly well into the society of the time. Young women were supposed to get married; after that, they were supposed to devote themselves to their husbands and children (assuming they didn't die in childbirth, as many did).

True, Mary Wollstonecraft had written A Vindication of The Rights of Woman in 1792, but even its modest claims--such as that women should be educated, in part because that would make them better companions for their husbands--were considered pretty far out there. And after Wollstonecraft's well-meaning widower published a memoir in 1798 that exposed the details of her unconventional life, including the fact that she'd had a child out of wedlock, no one wanted to have anything to do with her ideas.

For a sample of contemporary opinion on women, we need look no further than the very magazine where Eliza Anderson became editor--it was called the Companion--just a few months before she assumed that post. In May 1806, the magazine published an article by an author using the pseudonym "Tibullus." (Virtually all early 19th-century contributors to magazines used pseudonyms, a convention that served its purposes at the time, but that now makes life exceedingly frustrating for the historian.)

This Tibullus opined,"There exists not an instance on record of one noble discovery being added to human science, through the exertions of a female.” He added that this was a good thing: “Vanity holds so predominant a sway in the breast of woman, and is so prone to distend itself at every increase of knowledge, that science becomes with her a most pernicious acquisition.” Occasionally a women might be able to engage in a few "sprightly flourishes of the mind." But, he added, "when she attempts the critic and philosopher, nature is outraged; man revolts at a monster so unnatural in the creation, and exclaims with the Roman poet--O sit mihi non doctissima consors." This last bit is helpfully translated as, "From a learned wife, ye Gods deliver me."

Now of course, not everyone in 1806 agreed with Tibullus. The following week another correspondent--signing himself "A.B.C.Darian"--weighed in on the issue. But his response also sheds light on what women were actually up against. Maybe it's true, he says, that women are "just smatterers in learning," but that's because of "proud man, who in the plenitude of his power, selfishly restricts them to the arts of dalliance and the charms of pleasing." It's not that women are incapable of learning, it's that they're prevented from getting any. "What parent," A.B.C.Darian asks rhetorically, "thinks of giving to a daughter the education of a son?" A little French, maybe some Italian, and instruction in "music, dancing, embroidery or needle work" ... such was the extent of most women's education (and of course we're talking about the wealthy ones--the poorer ones were lucky to learn how to read and write). Buck up, he says to women, "ye fairest flowers of creation." Don't believe those who deny that a woman has a brain, those who "can grant her no other attainment but what conduces to her lustre as a mistress or a slave."

So how, in these circumstances, did a woman manage to become editor of a magazine--a magazine not devoted just to fashion and food and other "feminine" concerns, but a magazine that included articles on politics and history and criticized the local arts scene? I'm not sure I can actually answer that question, but stay tuned for a description of what happened next.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Tiny Animals That Cause Disease?

So much for Eliza's brother Thomas. What of her father, Dr. John Crawford? Alas, poor Crawford. Like his daughter, he suffered for being ahead of his time.

Crawford's learning went beyond his medical expertise. According to the eulogist at his funeral, he was well read, conversant in French and German, and well acquainted with Latin and Greek. But medicine was his profession and his primary concern, and he did his best to use his knowledge to serve the cause of public health.

In 1800, after having been in Baltimore for four years, he submitted a report on local health conditions to the City Council. That summer, he introduced the new practice of vaccination to the city--no small accomplishment, since vaccination was far safer than the previous method of immunizing people against the dread disease of smallpox, called variolation or inoculation. When you're inoculated, you're actually given a case of smallpox--and you keep your fingers crossed that it's a mild one. (For some reason, when smallpox is deliberately introduced into your system by a doctor, it's usually--but not always--a mild case.) But when you're vaccinated, instead of smallpox you're given cowpox--a disease that causes few or no symptoms in humans but has the effect of immunizing them against smallpox. (The word vaccination actually comes from the Latin for "cow.")

Edward Jenner had first experimented with vaccination in England in 1796. He wrote up his findings in 1798, but it took a little while for the idea to reach these shores. According to a pamphlet about Crawford published in 1940, Crawford actually introduced vaccination to Baltimore at the same time Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse introduced it in Cambridge, MA. But because Waterhouse devoted a great deal of energy to publicizing his success (and, some say, to profiting off of it), and Crawford did not, Waterhouse has gotten all the credit.

The following year Crawford helped to organize a "General Dispensary" in Baltimore. This appears to have been an institution devoted to the medical needs of the poor, with a particular emphasis on the yellow fever that plagued Baltimore--and other American cities, including Philadelphia--on a regular basis. Crawford was involved in other good works as well: he was a member of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, a director of the Baltimore library, and, in 1802, a founder of the local penitentiary. (This qualifies as a a "good work" because a penitentiary--where prisoners were supposed to become "penitent" and reform--was an improvement over a jail, where they were just warehoused until they were released.)He was also an elder of a Presbyterian church and, for many years, he held the position of "Right Worshipful Grand Master" of the local Masonic order. And he was apparently generous in his personal life. Years after his death, his son-in-law recalled the hospitality he provided to "all who were unhappy."

But Crawford's opinions got him in trouble. First there was some theological difficulty. In an 1806 letter to his friend Benjamin Rush--the foremost American physician of the day, who, unfortunately for the population at the time, was an enthusiastic proponent of massive bleeding as a cure for yellow fever--Crawford lamented that his opinions about the doctrine of revelation had cost him a lot of his business. Apparently Crawford believed that revelation--the process of God's revealing himself--was coeval with creation. Personally, I don't have a position on this question, but even if I did I can't imagine that I would care what my doctor thought about it. Things were different in the early 19th century, though. "The premature disclosure of my opinions," Crawford told Rush, "has afforded a means to the envious and malignant to prejudice those I had every reason for valuing myself on, so as to deprive me of all the valuable practice in this City."

And that wasn't Crawford's only controversial opinion. The following year Rush recorded in his diary that Crawford "had lost all his business by propagating an unpopular opinion in medicine, namely, that all diseases were occasioned by animalculae. He said he was sixty-two years of age and not worth a cent, but in debt.”

Basically, Crawford was saying that tiny animals--"animalculae"--somehow entered the human body and caused disease. Sounds pretty weird, huh? But in fact, Crawford was anticipating germ theory by many decades. While Crawford wasn't the first person to propose a theory like this, he was considered something of a crackpot for doing so. (Are there theories around these days that sound nuts to us but that will, in 50 or 100 years, be proved eminently sensible?)

So that was pretty much it for Crawford. Nobody wanted to go to a doctor who espoused not only the idea that revelation was coeval with creation, but--get this!--that disease was caused by germs. Who cared that he'd saved untold lives by introducing vaccination to the city? He died in 1813, heavily in debt. His estate consisted primarily of his collection of 400 books--the finest in the city, it was said. The books were sold to the fledgling University of Maryland, where they became the nucleus of its medical library, one of the oldest in the country. The sale brought $500, but that wasn't nearly enough to cover the claims against him.

In his will, he left his daughter Eliza any money left over from his estate after his debts had been paid--an empty bequest, as it turned out. But of course, long before he died,he had given her something else: an education, and a sense of her own worth, despite the fact that she was female. And as we'll soon see, she put those things to pretty good use.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Life of Wicked Idleness

Before we turn to Eliza's next adventure, let's pause to examine the rest of her family--which will allow me to unburden myself of some information I've come across only in the last week or so.

As I mentioned, Eliza--after a disastrous early marriage that effectively left her the single parent of an infant daughter--lived with her father, Dr. John Crawford, in Baltimore. What I've only just discovered is that she also had a brother, named Thomas.

The small family--father, son, and daughter--had arrived in Baltimore in 1796 at the invitation of Crawford's brother-in-law, a prominent Baltimore merchant named John O'Donnell. (Crawford's wife--that is, Eliza's mother--had died on a voyage from Barbados to England in 1782, when Eliza was only about two years old.) Before that, Crawford had left his native Ireland to study medicine in Holland and then practiced medicine in both the East and West Indies, where he'd had the opportunity to study tropical diseases--and, unfortunately, to contract them. In both 1782 and then again in 1794, ill health forced him to return from the West Indies to Britain to recuperate. After the second trip home he'd been planning to head back to Demerara--once a Dutch colony, now a British colony--when the invitation came from O'Donnell in Baltimore. Crawford accepted the invitation in hopes that "it might prove advantageous to his children." Not to mention that, despite annual yellow fever outbreaks, Baltimore's climate was pretty healthy compared to the West Indies.

Crawford was apparently in straitened financial circumstances when he arrived in Baltimore--O'Donnell put the family up in "an excellent well furnished house," Crawford wrote to a friend, "and supplied me with money as long as I would receive it." Which, he said, was only "until my earnings were in the barest manner sufficient to afford subsistence and cloathing for my Son and daughter and myself." Lack of money appears to have been a chronic condition for Crawford. “Oh! how grievous it is to reflect upon the deranged state in which my affairs have been in almost my whole life," he laments to his friend. But he had hopes that his luck was about to change. Alas for him, he wasn't entirely right about that.

Crawford appears to have pinned his hopes partly on his son, Thomas. In 1799 he spent a portion of his still scarce money to send Thomas off to study medicine in London. There are hints, however, that Crawford has some doubts about Thomas's potential. On the one hand, he tells his friend, the young man "has not discovered as yet an inclination to make sacrifices at the shrine of either Bacchus or Venus." But on the other, "his genius is not very bright." Still, he's a hard worker and determined to excel. (In this same letter, Crawford tells his friend of Eliza's marriage to Henry Anderson, who would abandon her less than two years later: he calls it a "union which has been highly to the satisfaction of every party, and promises much happyness.”)

Crawford keeps scrounging to send Thomas money for his education, but as the years go by danger signs begin to appear. In February 1802 Crawford writes to his friend that he hasn't heard from Thomas in quite a while. The young man has his good points, Crawford says, “but I fear he wants those which I am most desirous to recognise, industry, and a most zealous inclination to acquire information in the way I propose...” Maybe the problem was an excess of money at his disposal: “I now perceive the allowance he has had has been too much__ It has furnished him with the means of indulgence in a way I never contemplated, and he has sought for opportunities to pass the time agreeably, when I intended to provide alone for his ... application to the business in which he was engaged.” Apparently Thomas had by now discovered the allure of both Bacchus and Venus.

Ten months later Crawford still hasn't heard from Thomas, and he seems to despair of him. “I fear his sun is nearly set," he tells his friend, "but we must be resigned to the unsearchable ways of Heaven." And that's the last we hear of Thomas. As far as I can tell, neither Crawford nor Eliza every mentions him again.

In this same letter--of December 1802--Crawford says that Eliza "is doing very well. She is earnestly engaged in teaching the young idea how to shoot, and promises to excel in that line." "Teaching the young idea how to shoot" is apparently an allusion to some now-forgotten poem, but what it means is she's teaching school. Then, perhaps in a dig at the ne'er-do-well Thomas, Crawford exclaims, "How preferable is this to a life of unmeaning, rather let me say, of wicked idleness.”

This is a story that has no doubt been repeated throughout history: a son who has no particular interest in higher education has it forced on him, while a daughter who craves it is denied it. (Lest anyone think this kind of thing is a relic of the distant past, it happened in my own mother's family, just a generation ago.) But while Eliza--who appears to have had a mind like a sponge--was denied formal education, it's clear from her writing and correspondence that she learned plenty at home, presumably from her father.

What's odd is that Thomas apparently just disappears. "Wicked" and idle as he may have been, he was still a member of the family. Of course, Eliza and her father may well have sat by the fire many a night and lamented Thomas's absence; their thoughts just don't happen to have been recorded in any of the letters or other writings that have come down to us.

But there is one more letter in the series I've been quoting from--all of them written to a Hugh McCalmont, first in Demerara, then in London. This last letter is from 1805, and it was written just after Eliza had returned from her sojourn in London with Betsy Bonaparte. Apparently she'd seen McCalmont there, and he'd been kind to her. You'd think, if her brother were still in London--or anywhere in the British Isles--she would have seen him there, or tried to. But there's no mention of any such reunion, or attempt at one, in the 1805 letter to McCalmont. Apparently Thomas was now dead to the family--or perhaps, given the precariousness of life in the early 19th century, he was dead in a literal sense.

As we'll soon find out, this was only one of poor Dr. Crawford's many misfortunes.