Grave Thursday: Julia Ward Howe

Each week we are highlighting the final resting place of someone related to the Lincoln assassination story. It may be the grave of someone whose name looms large in assassination literature, like a conspirator, or the grave of one of the many minor characters who crossed paths with history. Welcome to Grave Thursday.


Julia Ward Howe

Burial Location: Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A Happy Women’s History Month to you all you researchers out there. This is Kate, taking over for Dave today.

For this Grave Thursday, we are going to discuss the strong willed social activist and suffragist who not only gave the Union one of its most recognized anthems but also wrote a lesser known, though equally beautiful, poem for the Booth family.

Julia Ward Howe is most often remembered for transforming the lyrics of “John Brown’s Body” into the patriotic hymn “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This is rather appropriate considering her husband, Samuel, was a member of the Secret Six, a staunch abolitionist group that financed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. However, Howe wrote many other poems during her lifetime that were never set to music.

Long before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Julia Ward Howe had made the acquaintances of various members of the Booth family, specifically John Wilkes’ older brother, Edwin, with whom she developed a close friendship. In writing about her life, Howe spoke of her early admiration and introduction to the great actor:

“It was in the days now spoken of that I first saw Edwin Booth. Dr. Howe and I betook ourselves to the Boston Theatre one rainy evening, expecting to see nothing more than an ordinary performance. The play was “Richelieu,” and we had seen but little of Mr. Booth’s part in it before we turned to each other and said, “This is the real thing.” In every word, in every gesture, the touch of genius made itself felt. A little later I saw him in “Hamlet,” and was even more astonished and delighted. While he was still completing this his first engagement in Boston, I received a letter from his manager, proposing that I should write a play for Mr. Booth. My first drama, though not a success, had made me somewhat known to theatrical people. I had been made painfully aware of its defects, and desired nothing more than to profit by the lesson of experience in producing something that should deserve entire approbation. It was therefore with a good hope of success that I undertook to write the play. Mr. Booth himself called upon me, in pursuance of his request. The favorable impression which he had made upon me was not lessened by a nearer view. I found him modest, intelligent, and above all genuine, — the man as worthy of admiration as the artist. Although I had seen Mr. Booth in a variety of characters, I could only think of representing him as Hippolytus, a beautiful youth, of heroic type, enamored of a high ideal. This was the part which I desired to create for him. I undertook the composition without much delay, and devoted to it the months of one summer’s sojourn at Lawton’s Valley…

Edwin Booth circa 1860

And here, through the summer heats, and in spite of many wasps, I wrote my five-act drama, dreaming of the fine emphasis which Mr. Booth would give to its best passages and of the beautiful appearance he would make in classic costume. He, meanwhile, was growing into great fame and favor with the public, and was called hither and thither by numerous engagements. The period of his courtship and marriage intervened, and a number of years elapsed between the completion of the play and his first reading of it.

At last there came a time in which the production of the play seemed possible. Charlotte Cushman and Edwin Booth were both in Boston performing, as I remember, but not at the same theatre. They agreed to act in my play. E. L. Davenport, manager of the Howard Athenaeum, undertook to produce it, and my dream was very near becoming a reality. But lo! On a sudden, the manager bethought him that the time was rather late in the season; that the play would require new scenery; and, more than all, that his wife, who was also an actress, was not pleased with a secondary part assigned to her. A polite note informed me of his change of mind. This was, I think, the greatest ‘let down’ that I ever experienced. It affected me seriously for some days, after which I determined to attempt nothing more for the stage.

In truth, there appeared to be little reason for this action on the part of the manager. Miss Cushman, speaking of it, said to me, “My dear, if Edwin Booth and I had done nothing more than to stand upon the stage and say ‘good evening’ to each other, the house would have been filled.””

Despite Howe’s deep disappointment over Edwin never performing the play she had written for him, the two remained close friends. This friendship extended to the woman who would become Edwin’s wife and the love of his life, Mary Devlin. Howe recalled the object of Edwin’s affection with great fondness:

“Mr. Booth, in the course of these years, experienced great happiness and great sorrow. On the occasion of our first meeting he had spoken to me of “little Mary Devlin” as an actress of much promise, who had recently been admired in several heavy parts.” In process of time he became engaged to this young girl. Before the announcement of this fact he appeared with her several times before the Boston public. Few that saw it will ever forget a performance of Romeo and Juliet in which the two true lovers were at their best, ideally young, beautiful, and identified with their parts. I soon became well acquainted with this exquisite little woman…”

Mary Devlin Booth, Edwin Booth’s first wife

In time, Howe’s friendship with the Booths extended to their daughter, Edwina. Much later in her life, Howe maintained a correspondence with Edwina Booth, even after her father’s death. In 1908, just two years before Howe’s own death in 1910, the 89 year-old Howe sent two poems to Edwina. According to the accompanying letter, Edwina, who was 48 at the time, had come across two poems that had been in her father’s possession. She believed one or both of them to have been written by Howe many years before. Edwina asked Howe to write her name below the verses she recognized as her own so she could correctly identify them. One of the pieces included with the letter was authored by Mary Elizabeth Blake, though Howe mislabeled the work as belonging to poet T. W. Parsons. The other poem, which was the work of Howe herself, was entitled To Mary. This poem had been written by Howe in 1863, upon her attendance at the funeral for Mary Devlin Booth.

To Mary

Thou gracious atom, verging to decay,
What wert thou in the moment of thy stay?
The flowers in thy faded hands that lie
More briefly than thyself scarce bloom and die.

How was it when swift feet thy beauty bore,
And Life’s warm ripple sunned thy marble o’er?
A slender maiden, captured by a kiss,
Wed at the altar for a three year’s bliss;

No longer space my life’s indenture gave,
From Juliet’s courtship to Ophelia’s grave.
The modest helper of heroic art,
The heaven bound anchor of a sinking heart.

Ask him who wooed me, earliest and last,
What was my office in Love’s sacred past?
What was she, here in silken shell empearled?
But my life’s life – the comfort of the world.

In addition to the poem, Howe recalled Mary Devlin Booth’s funeral in her autobiography:

“These lines recall to me the scene of Mary Booth’s funeral, which took place in wintry weather, the service being held at the chapel in Mount Auburn. Hers was a most pathetic figure as she lay, serene and lovely, surrounded with flowers. As Edwin Booth followed the casket, his eyes heavy with grief, I could not but remember how often I had seen him enact the part of Hamlet at the stage burial of Ophelia.”

Julia Ward Howe was one of the few guests present at Mary Devlin’s funeral. Edwin was also joined by his mother, Mary Ann Holmes Booth, who had traveled from New York to Massachusetts to comfort her son. Edwin’s brother-in-law, John Sleeper Clarke was present but not his wife Asia Booth. Asia had never liked Mary Devlin (or really any other woman) and stayed home in Philadelphia. Howe described the only other family member who tended to Edwin in his grief:

“Beside or behind [Edwin] walked a young man of remarkable beauty, to be sadly known at a later date as Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Lincoln and the victim of his own crime.”

John Wilkes Booth was the only Booth sibling who was able/willing to attend the funeral service of his sister-in-law. John Wilkes cancelled his upcoming acting engagement and hastened to Cambridge to be with his grieving brother.

Though life expectancy in the nineteenth century was much lower than today, Julia Ward Howe was one of the exceptions to the rule, living to the old age of 91. During that time, she buried her own husband at Mount Auburn Cemetery in a grave about 80 yards away from Mary Devlin’s. In 1893, Howe returned to Mount Auburn to mourn the loss of Mary’s husband, Edwin. She returned to Edwin’s grave a year later when his beautiful monument was unveiled.

Julia Ward Howe, the groundbreaking poet, abolitionist, and suffragist died of pneumonia on October 17, 1910. She was laid to rest next to her husband in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Howe now lies just across from the hill atop which, 47 years earlier, she witnessed the funeral of a soul taken too soon. She never forgot the picture of the heartbroken husband, “his eyes heavy with grief,” and the dutiful brother by his side, “a young man of remarkable beauty.”

Until next time.

Kate

P.S. By Dave: Julia Ward Howe stated that one of her greatest disappointments in life was that the play she had written for Edwin Booth was never performed. After Howe’s death, actress Margaret Anglin sought to rectify this oversight. During her engagement in Boston in March of 1911, Anglin received permission to perform Howe’s forgotten play. Hippolytus was performed for one night only on March 24, 1911 with all the proceedings going to benefit the Julia Ward Howe Memorial Fund. The title role, which had been written for Edwin, was played by Walter Hampden with high praise. Years later, Hampden would become the fourth president of Edwin Booth’s private club, The Players. Today, the research library housed in The Players is known as the Hampden-Booth Library.

GPS coordinates for Julia Ward Howe’s grave: 42.369612, -71.147075

Categories: Grave Thursday, History | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Grave Thursday: Julia Ward Howe

  1. Richard Sloan

    Great piece,, Kate! Julia Ward Howe’s dad, Sam’l Ward, had a mansion on Bway in Manhattan, near Bleecker Street, and only about 3 blocks where Laura Keene later lived on Bond. Ward
    had a great art collection. Julia lived there as a teenager. I always thought it ironic that when Lincoln’s casket went up Bway, it passed the house where the author of the song most closely identified with him once lived.

    • Kate H.

      Thank you. That’s interesting about the Ward House. How fitting that the path of Lincoln’s casket passed right by there. I always think of Theodore Roosevelt seeing the funeral procession from his window. Do you know if any of Wade’s artwork was given to the MET or the Museum of the City of New York?

  2. JLerew

    Beautifully written!

  3. Rich Smyth

    Excellent story Kate. Julia was arguably the most famous woman of her time. Although an abolitionist and fierce supporter of John Brown she suffered from a prevalent feeling of the time regarding the Black race, once stating that Negroes were a “coarse, grinning, flat-footed, thick-skulled creature, ugly as Caliban, lazy as the laziest brutes.”

  4. Kate H.

    Thank you. That mindset appears rather often in the nineteenth century. The suffrage movement is a good example. At one point, women’s rights and emancipation were closely entwined. Yet many of the “supporters” were shown making pendulum like comments about African Americans.

  5. Laurie Verge

    Thank you, Kate, for this article on a very inspiring lady. I became interested in her many years ago when I first read of her husband’s activities with the Secret Six and the John Brown Raid. I did some reading on her and grew to admire her.

    I learned that she came from strong American roots with Roger Williams of Rhode Island on her father’s tree and Francis Marion (remember the Swamp Fox of the Revolution?) on her mother’s side. Her brother married a granddaughter of John Jacob Astor.

    Julia’s mother died when Julia was quite young, and her father had strong Calvinistic beliefs that worked against the very intelligent and adventuresome young girl. She married early and quickly to a man twenty years her senior. She and Samuel Howe did not have the best of marriages. He was well-known for reform work, especially in the field of educating the blind, but he also was autocratic and demanding — and believed in traditional “wifely duties” and motherhood. Julia gave him seven children.

    Her husband also took over all the finances, including a sizable estate that she had inherited from her father. She never controlled her own money until her husband’s death in 1876 (which was not unusual for 19th-century women of means). By the time of Mr. Howe’s death, he had squandered most of the money anyhow.

    Julia chafed under the bit of her marriage and experienced sorrow and depression. She began writing about the struggles of women of her day, and some of her ideas shocked proper Boston society.

    Samuel Howe fled to Canada after being exposed as one of the Secret Six behind the John Brown Raid. He returned, but they also separated for a while. He needed her to write for the newspaper that he owned, so they somehow reached some sort of marital arrangement, and her influence on society began to blossom. It really took off after his death. The first entry in her journal after his death was, “Start my new life today.” And, boy did she ever…!

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