Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811. She was the seventh of 13 children born to religious leader Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) and Roxana (Foote) (1775- 1816), a deeply religious woman.
Lyman Beecher was among the best known clergymen of the first half of the 1800s. He began to attract national attention in the 1820s when he preached anti-slavery sermons in response to the Missouri Compromise. Lyman's dynamic preaching and energy had a profound impact on all of his children. He taught his children that a personal commitment was necessary for their spiritual salvation, but he also taught them to think for themselves and to ask questions. The result was that the Beecher children grew into adults who shared their father's love for God, yet who came to define God in more loving and forgiving terms. Like their father, though, the Beechers believed that the best way of serving was to take action to make a better world.
Their aunt, Harriet Foote, deeply influenced Stowe's thinking, especially with her strong belief in culture. Samuel Foote, her uncle, encouraged her to read works of Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott.
|Henry Ward Beecher|
|Lane Theological Seminary|
|Harriet Beecher Stowe House|
Home to Lyman Beecher and his family
|Calvin Ellis Stowe|
In 1833, Harriet Beecher made a visit to Washington, Kentucky, a major community of the era just south of Maysville. She stayed with the Marshall Key family, one of whose daughters was a student at Lane Seminary. It is recorded that Mr. Key took her to see a slave auction held in Maysville. Scholars believe she was strongly moved by the experience. The Marshall Key home still stands in Washington. Key was a prominent Kentuckian whose visitors also included Henry Clay and Daniel Webster.
|Gravestone of Harriet Key, |
Wife of Marshall Key of Washington, Kentucky
|The Underground Railroad|
Painting by Charles Webber
|Lydia Beals Jackson Beecher|
A former slave owner from Alabama, James Gillespie Birney, had become an abolitionist. In January 1836 he set up the Cincinnati Weekly and Abolitionist, a newspaper sponsored by the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. At first, the newspaper was printed in nearby New Richmond, targeting slaveholders across the Ohio River in Kentucky with anti-slavery propaganda. This angered local businessmen who were keen to do business with the southern states. In late January 1836 some of the most prominent citizens organized a meeting opposing abolition which was attended by over 500 people. Birney attended the meeting but was not allowed to give his views.
|James G. Birney|
At a public meeting on July 23, chaired by the city mayor, resolutions were passed that included promises to use all legal means to suppress abolitionist publications. On July 30, a mob again attacked and destroyed Birney's press, scattering its type. The rioters threatened to burn down Birney's house, but were dissuaded by his son. Men from Kentucky had a prominent role in the mob. The angry whites marched to a black neighborhood nicknamed the Swamp, where they burned down several houses. They went on to Church Alley, where they met resistance from armed blacks, but again destroyed their property.
"The mayor was a silent spectator of these proceedings, and was heard to say, 'Well, lads, you have done well, so far; go home now before you disgrace yourselves;' but the 'lads' spent the rest of the night and a greater part of the next day (Sunday) in pulling down the houses of inoffensive and respectable blacks. The 'Gazette' office was threatened, the 'Journal' office was to go next; Lane Seminary and the water-works also were mentioned as probable points to be attacked by the mob. By Tuesday morning the city was pretty well alarmed. A regular corps of volunteers was organized, who for three nights patrolled the streets with firearms and with legal warrant from the mayor, who by this time was glad to give it, to put down the mob even by bloodshed".An 1888 biography of Stowe said: "During the riots in 1836, when ... free negroes were hunted like wild beasts through the streets of Cincinnati, only the distance from the city and the depths of mud saved Lane seminary and the Yankee Abolitionists at Walnut Hills from a similar fate".
|Salmon P. Chase|
Discussing the riots, Harriet Martineau said of the businessmen of Cincinnati: "The day will come when their eyes will be cleansed from the gold-dust". She condemned them for violating the principle of freedom of speech, and described them as "more guilty in this tremendous question of Human Wrongs than even the slave-holders of the south". William Ellery Channing echoed this sentiment in a letter to James Birney, saying "The abolitionists then not only appear in the character of champions of the colored race ... They are sufferers for the liberty of thought, speech and the press".
In 1838, her younger brother, Charles, moved to New Orleans and supplemented his income as a church organist by collecting fees for a counting house. His years in New Orleans, and the letters he wrote home, provided first hand accounts of slavery that sister Harriet Beecher Stowe later incorporated into her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's first book, The Mayflower, appeared in 1843.
In 1847, her brother, Henry and his wife, Eunice moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Henry shaped Plymouth Church into one of the most influential pulpits in the United States.
|Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, New York|
Following the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act;, the Plymouth Church paid to ship rifles to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and Nebraska in crates marked "Bibles." Sharp's rifles became known as "Beecher's Bibles."
|Henry Ward Beecher|
In the summer of 1849, during a cholera epidemic in Cincinnati, Stowe experienced for the first time the sorrow of many 19th-century parents when her 18-month old son died of the disease. Stowe called the blond, blue-eyed Samuel Charles Stowe, nicknamed "Charley", "my sunshine child". Stowe later credited that crushing pain as one of the inspirations for Uncle Tom's Cabin, because it helped her understand the pain enslaved mothers felt when their children were taken from them to be sold.
|"My Sunshine Child"|
Samuel Charles Stowe,
It also eliminated what little legal protection fugitives once had. Before 1850, some northern states had required slave-catchers to appear before an elected judge and be tried by a jury which would determine the validity of a claim.
|Lyman Beecher and 9 of his children in 1850|
Stowe was furious. She believed the country was requiring her complicity in a system she thought was unjust and immoral.
|Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine|
"I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak... I hope every woman who can write will not be silent."
|The Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Brunswick, Maine|
The house where Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form on March 20, 1852, by John P. Jewett with an initial print run of 5,000 copies. In less than a year, the book sold an unprecedented three hundred thousand copies. In Great Britain, it sold 1.5 million copies in one year. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a best seller in the United States, Britain, Europe and Asia, and was translated into over 60 languages. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the world's best seller of the nineteenth century other than the Bible.
"I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity - because as a lover of my county, I trembled at the coming day of wrath."
~ Harriet Beecher Stowe
|"Little Eva" with Uncle Tom|
From Brunswick, the Stowes moved to Andover, Massachusetts, where Calvin Stowe was a professor of theology at Andover Theological Seminary from 1853 to 1864.
Attacks on the veracity of her portrayal of the South led Stowe to publish The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), in which she presented her source material. A second anti-slavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), told the story of a dramatic attempt at slave rebellion.
Even before the final installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared, Stowe was contacted by Asa Hutchinson, the patriarch of the anti-slavery performers, the Hutchinson Family, to collaborate on a dramatization of her novel. Stowe's Congregational upbringing taught her that theater was an immoral waste of time, so she declined, losing her opportunity to help frame how the tale would be told from the stage. Asa Hutchinson honored Stowe's aversion to the theater and did not produce his play. Others were less scrupulous, and the copyright laws of 1852 did not protect works of fiction from being adapted by others.
Dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin for the stage meant shortening and simplifying a complicated story. The characters became caricatures and the story was fused onto blackface minstrel traditions. Known as "Tom Shows," loosely based on Stowe's story and produced in theaters and traveling shows across the country, these performances frame modern understanding of the novel. "Tom Shows" added extravagant special effects and changed the story. With actors in blackface and simplified plots, racial stereotypes were highlighted. Eliza's escape across the ice added bloodhounds for the stage. Topsy, a tragic child in the book, the product of raising children "like pups," was changed to a slapstick figure. Strong, young Tom aged to a submissive, shuffling old man. Professional "Tom Shows" toured annually for nearly 90 years, and eventually versions were filmed for movies and cartoons.
"Tom-Shows" were not the only way others profited from Stowe's ideas. A wide range of products such as wallpaper, silverware, board-games, song sheets, clothing and ceramics featured characters or scenes from Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe neither endorsed nor profited from the plays or memorabilia. Uncle Tom's Cabin was not the first book to inspire such marketing, but the large number of readers and playgoers created a larger and more enduring demand than earlier works had seen.
Uncle Tom's Cabin brought not only financial security, it enabled Stowe to write full time. For a while she was the most celebrated woman writer in The Atlantic Monthly and in the New England literary clubs. In 1853, 1856, and 1859, Stowe made journeys to Europe and became friends with George Eliot, Elisabeth Barrett Browning, and Lady Byron. Her brother Charles kept a journal when he accompanied his sister on her first trip to Great Britain and Europe in 1853. Stowe published Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands in 1854, crediting her brother for his keen observations. Charles was a successful author and his publications included works on the Fugitive Slave Law, theology, spiritualism, and the autobiography and the correspondence of his father.
|Henry Ellis Stowe|
Stowe's youngest brother, James, entered Andover Theological Seminary, saying "Oh I shall be a minister. That's my fate. Father will pray me into it!" While attending Andover he married Anne Morse, a widow with a young child. The couple had no other children. James and Anne left Andover to become missionaries in Canton and Hong Kong. In 1859, Anne Beecher returned from China for what the family euphemistically called health reasons. She appears to have suffered from drug and alcohol addiction. She spent time in sanitariums, and the water cure facility in Elmira, New York, near her brother-in-law Thomas Beecher.
|President Abraham Lincoln|
|Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe|
Her son Fred left Harvard Medical School to enlist in the army for the Civil War. Fred was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, but re-enlisted and fought through 1864.
|Georgiana Stowe Freeman|
|Isabella Beecher Hooker|
|Harriet and Calvin Stowe|
Newly expanded railroads also made shipping citrus fruits north a potentially lucrative business, and Stowe purchased an orange grove which she hoped her son Fred would manage. The relatively mild winters of northern Florida were a welcome respite from Hartford winters and the high costs of winter fuel.
Fred and his family struggled unsuccessfully with his alcohol addiction. He traveled to California in 1870 and disappeared. Historians believe he died shortly after arriving. Fred was the inspiration for the character Tom Bolton in My Wife and I and We and Our Neighbors. In these books, Stowe described alcoholism as an illness, at a time when most people believed it was a moral failure.
|Stowe with family in Florida|
When Calvin Stowe retired from Andover, the family relocated to Hartford, Connecticut. Harriet Beecher Stowe built her dream house, Oakholm, in Nook Farm, a neighborhood full of friends and relatives. The high maintenance cost and the encroachment of factories caused her to sell her mansion in 1870. In 1873, she settled into a brick Victorian Gothic cottage-style house on Forest Street. She lived there for the rest of her life.
By the 1870s, Stowe's neighborhood on the western edge of Hartford was a celebrated center of New England literary life, and the words "Nook Farm" were as evocative as "the Hamptons" are today. The neighborhood that would become Nook Farm began in 1853, when brothers-in-law John Hooker and Francis Gillette purchased 140 acres of pasture and woodland. Over the years, as Hooker and Gillette sold parcels of land to relatives and friends, a community of reformers and activists grew. Some were politicians; others were journalists, feminists, spiritualists, painters, or writers.
|"Hattie" and Eliza Stowe|
|The Beecher-Tilton Scandal|
|Charles Edward Stowe|
Their youngest son
In 1881 Henry Ward Beecher asked his youngest brother, James Beecher, to take over Plymouth Church. James reluctantly agreed, although he preferred a more rural life. He soon suffered what may have been a nervous breakdown and eventually went to Dr. Gleason's water cure sanitarium in Elmira, New York, where his first wife had sought help. While in Elmira, James took his own life.
|The Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Hartford, Connecticut|
Widowed in 1886, Stowe enjoyed the company of neighbors Mark Twain and Oliver Wendell Holmes, and occasionally, a little too much wine. "I won't be any properer than I have a mind to be," she wrote.
"I was seventy-six on my last birthday, and have all my bodily powers perfect; can walk from three to seven miles per day without fatigue; have a healthy appetite, and quiet sleep every night."
When Henry Ward Beecher died of a stroke in 1887, Brooklyn held a day of mourning, the New York legislature adjourned its session, and the funeral procession was led by national figures.
Stowe's mental faculties failed in 1888, two years after the death of her husband. Harriet Beecher Stowe's writing career spanned 51 years, during which time she published 30 books and countless short stories, poems, articles, and hymns.
As an adult, her youngest daughter, Georgiana, became addicted to the morphine first given to her as a painkiller after the birth of her son. In 1890,"Georgie" died of septicemia in Boston at the age of 47.
Harriet Beecher Stowe died at noon on July 1, 1896, at age eighty-five in Hartford. By her bedside were her son, the Reverend Charles Edward Stowe of Simsbury, her two daughters, Eliza and Harriet; her sister, Mrs. Isabella Beecher Hooker, and John Hooker; Dr. Edward B. Hooker, her nephew, who was also her medical attendant, and other relatives.
|Grave of Harriet Beecher Stowe|
|Inscription on Harriet Beecher Stowe Monument|
These opening phrases of Paul Laurence Dunbar's sonnet to Harriet Beecher Stowe appeared in Century Magazine, November 1898, two years after her death and almost a half century after the publication of her best-know novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, in 1852.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Cincinnati, Ohio is the home of her father's family on the former campus of the Lane Seminary. Harriet Beecher lived there until her marriage. It is open to the public and operated as a historical and cultural site, focusing on Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Lane Seminary and the Underground Railroad. The site also presents African-American history.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Hartford, Connecticut, is the home where Stowe lived for the final decades of her life. It is now a museum, featuring items owned by Stowe, as well as a research library. The home of Stowe’s next-door neighbor, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), is also open to the public.