Fascinating Ladies

(Copyright (c) 2011 Cynthia Shenette)

Famous and Infamous Women in Worcester County History

What do anarchist Emma Goldman, social reformer Dorothea Dix, stage coach driver Charley Parkhurst, and author Esther Forbes all have in common? How about American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, women's rights activist Lucy Stone, author Louisa May Alcott, and captive Mary Rowlandson? All of these women spent time or lived a portion of their lives in Worcester or Worcester County, Massachusetts.

I've been interested in women's history for years. I also love local history. Put both things together in a newspaper, magazine, or journal article and you can pretty much guarantee if I see it, I'll read it. I'm constantly fascinated at how many interesting women, both famous and infamous, have Worcester County roots or connections. Not only that, did you know that the very first
National Women's Rights Convention was held in Worcester in 1850? Now you thought it was in Seneca Falls, NY didn't you? Nope. Seneca Falls was the first Woman's Rights Convention, but the first national convention was held right here in Worcester, MA.

Here are some well known or fairly well known women with Worcester County connections:

Mary Rowlandson (c.1637-1711), who lived in the Worcester County town of Lancaster, MA, was captured by Native Americans during King Philip's War and eventually released at Redemption Rock, in the Worcester County town of Princeton, MA. She later wrote a book about her experience, The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

Bathsheba Spooner (1746-1778), the daughter of Brigadier General Timothy Ruggles, was tried, convicted, and hanged on July 2, 1778 for her part as an accomplice in the murder of her husband, Joshua Spooner. She was the first woman to be executed in the new republic. She was five months pregnant at the time of her death.

Deborah Sampson (1760-1827) served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. She disguised herself as a man, Robert Shurtliff of Uxbridge, MA (Worcester County), and was mustered into the 4th Massachusetts Regiment in Worcester, MA in May of 1782.

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) spent part of her childhood in Worcester. Later in her life she outlined the harsh realities and living conditions of the mentally ill poor living in Massachusetts in writing. She presented her findings to the Massachusetts legislature which resulted in funds for what is now known as Worcester State Hospital.

Mary Sawyer (1806-1889), of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" fame, lived in the Worcester County town of Sterling, MA. Sadly, her home which stood in Sterling, was destroyed by arsonists in August of 2007. The school house mentioned in the nursery rhyme was purchased by Henry Ford and relocated to Sudbury, MA in 1927. It is part of the property of the Wayside Inn.

Abby Kelley Foster (1811-1877), abolitionist and women's rights activist, lived the majority of her life in Worcester. She was a speaker and organizer at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester in 1850. Her home, Liberty Farm, was a stop on the Underground Railroad and is a currently designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Charley Parkhurst (1812-1879) lived her life as a man, and was a stagecoach driver in old California. As a youth she learned to work with horses as a stable hand for Ebenezer Balch in Worcester before traveling west.

Lucy Stone (1818-1893), abolitionist and suffragist, was born on the family farm in the Worcester County town of West Brookfield, MA. She was the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree, attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, MA and later Oberlin College in Ohio. She also attended and spoke at the National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester in 1850.

Clara Barton (1821-1912), nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, was born and lived her her early years in the Worcester County town of Oxford, MA. At the age of 16 she became a teacher in a one-room school house in North Oxford. Her birthplace in Oxford is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Clara Barton birthplace is home to a museum and The Barton Center for Diabetes Education.

Esther Howland (1828-1904), Worcester's own "Queen of Hearts," was an astute business woman and Valentine maker. She was the daughter of stationer and bookseller Southworth Howland, and is credited with popularizing Valentine's cards in America and for a time making Worcester central to America's Valentine production industry.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), the author of Little Women, lived in the Worcester County town of Harvard, MA at Fruitlands, an experimental Utopian community founded by her father Bronson Alcott and fellow transcendentalist Charles Lane. The Alcotts lived at Fruitlands from June of 1843 to January of 1844.

Emma Goldman (1869-1940), political activist and anarchist lived in and visited Worcester on different occasions. A quirky bit of Worcester history, Goldman and her companion and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman ran an ice-cream parlor for a short time in Worcester in 1892. She was also in attendance for Sigmund Freud's American lectures at Clark University in 1909.

Frances Perkins (1880-1965), United States Secretary of Labor under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, was born in Boston, MA but spent much of her childhood in Worcester. She attended Worcester's Classical High School. One of the branches of Worcester's public library system is the Frances Perkins Branch, a Carnegie library, in the Greendale section of the city.

Olive Higgins Prouty (1882-1974) was a poet and romance writer, and friend of writer Sylvia Plath. Two of her works were made in to films, Stella Dallas (1937) starring Barbara Stanwyck and Now, Voyager (1942) starring Bette Davis. Stella Dallas was most recently made over as Stella in 1990 starring Bette Midler.

Esther Forbes (1891-1967) was the author of Newbery Award winner Johnny Tremain and received the Pulitzer Prize for History for her biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Interestingly, her 1938 novel The General's Lady, is a historical novel about Bathsheba Spooner. She was born in Westboro, MA and spent a good part of her life in Worcester. Much of her writing was done in Worcester.

Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952), the legendary English actress best known for her Tony Award winning role of Anna Leonowens in the King and I, was buried in her husband Richard Aldrich's family plot at the Lakeview Cemetery in the Worcester County town, of Upton, MA. She was buried wearing the champagne-colored gown she wore in the Shall We Dance? number from The King and I.

Agnes Moorehead (1900-1974) , the actress probably best known for her role as Endora in the classic television show Bewitched, was born and lived a short time in the Worcester County town of Clinton, MA. Her father was the Reverend John Henderson Moorehead, a Presbyterian minister, who eventually relocated the family to St. Louis, MO.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)--Poet Laureate for the United States, Pulitzer Prize winner, and National Book Award winner--was born and spent part of her childhood (much of it unhappy due to family discord) in Worcester. Her poem, "In The Waiting Room" mentions Worcester briefly.

Are there any interesting women who lived in your area?

Other Posts You Might Like:

Meditation: The Strength of Ordinary Women
The Stories My Grandmother Told Me
COG 97: Researching "The Coldbrook Tragedy" (Part 1 of 4)
A Matter of Habit: Solving a Mystery


Carol said...

What a wonderful post!

Kristin said...

I had to go check and see what county Springfield MA was in because I thought perhaps I shared a location with all of those women. It is in Hampton County though so I don't. Quite a varied list you have here.

Jasia said...

Very nicely done, Cynthia. A great tribute and a wonderful addition to the COG!

Joan said...

Fascinating! Thanks.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Thank you ladies for all your nice comments. This was a fun COG entry to put together!

Wouldn't you know I found out about one more woman the other day. Apparently actress Bette Davis went to boarding school in the Worcester county town of Ashburnham. She met her first husband while she was there.

Maybe next year I'll have to do a part two for Women's History Month.

Nolichucky Roots said...

What fun and such wonderful information. I wish I'd known all this when I was regularly driving through Worcester on my CT to Boston trips. I'd have at least saluted Esther Forbes and Dorthea Dix (my personal favorites).

By the way, Miss Davis lived for many years near my home in CT. She used to scare the daylights out of us when she went shopping. We were far too young to realize that she was nothing like the roles she was playing then. A grande dame.

Linda Gartz said...

Thanks for this list of accomplished women! I've learned a lot. Thanks!

Heather Rojo said...

Wow, I remember most of these names from growing up in Worcester County. I especially remember Mary Rowlandson and Redemption Rock (it was a popular "parking" spot in high school). If only I knew 30 years ago that she was in the family tree! Maybe her ghost would have rapped on the window!