An Old-Time Sorosis

As you ascend the narrow valley of our New England Thames, and notice here and there a ship dropping down the placid little river, the sight of the infrequent craft may remind you of the fact that many vessels ploughed those waters at the opening of the present century. Trade with the West Indies was brisk at that time, and to the dwellers in the stately houses of Chelsea or “The Landing,” as what is now the business portion of Norwich was called, Spanish Town must have been almost as familiar a name as New London. The thrifty community, however, was not wholly absorbed in material things,— the voyages of the Charming Sally or the Little Joe, for instance, and the incoming of sugar and old Jamaica. — and there was at least one concerted attempt at mental culture, an account of which is given to the public, for the first time, in this paper.

In the year 1790 some thirty-eight ladies, members of the Congregational Church in Chelsea, agreed to meet weekly for the purpose of assisting each other in their Christian course. In subscribing to “ a form of sisterly covenant,” they promised to attend the exercises regularly “ at the time of lighting candles; ” to spend the hour in reading the Bible and other good books, in conversation on religious topics, in singing, and, above all, in prayer for each other and for all their fellow-creatures. They promised not to divulge the infirmities of fellowmembers, nor anything the discovery of which might be a disadvantage to the circle, resolved to he charitable to each other, to advise, caution, and admonish, and in turn to accept reproof kindly and thankfully. Provision was made for the exclusion of members committing any offense and refusing to heed admonitions until evidence was given of sorrow for past conduct. The covenant resembles the “ orders ” used in religious societies of young men as described in Cotton Mather’s Essays to do Good, and reads like a page from some chronicle of the early Church. Probably nowhere but in New England, at that date, could a sight have been witnessed such as these elect ladies presented from week to week, when, ignoring social distinctions, they assembled in each other’s homes to converse in the language of Zion or to kneel side by side. One was the daughter of a judge of the supreme court, another a tailoress, another the granddaughter of Ursula Wolcott and Matthew Griswold, and a fourth has been described as “an aged dressmaker.” To read the list of members is to lose one’s self in a genealogical maze, and since, in any part of the world, the meeting of a Huntington and a Perkins necessarily produces good society, we have, with the addition of Lnnmans, Howlands, McCurdys, Breeds, Coits. Rockwells, Williamses, and others, a company into which, even if saintliness were not a sufficient magnet, the Honorable Mrs. Jamieson, of Cranford, would have felt proud to enter.

The family papers from which these preliminary facts have been drawn give no further details, but a book of manuscript records is extant which states that, in 1800, a literary society was “founded ” in Chelsea, and inasmuch as this did not differ greatly from the religious society already described, we must conclude tliat the latter had been discontinued before the new century came in. The admission of a member, it seems, was no longer left to the discretion of an individual selected to decide on her qualifications. Prayer is never mentioned as a part of the exercises, strangely enough, and the circle had become more catholic, including now the daughters of Rev. John Tyler, rector of Christ Church, for instance, and probably some of other “ persuasions; but its constituency was largely the same as before, and it still embraced matrons advanced in years and young women scarcely out of their teens. The name of Miss Sally Smith, a lifelong schoolteacher. no longer appears on the roll, and the names of Fitch and De Witt are there for the first time. The De W itts may be regarded as new - comers in another sense, as their residence as a family in Chelsea did not date back of 1750, but the Fitches had rightful place by virtue of long settlement, if not because of their desire to be illumined by the lamp of knowledge.

The slurring old lines,

“ Constantia took a serious fit,
Resolved to give up balls and plays,
And only read what saints had writ,”

could not be applied to these ladies of Chelsea. Although dancing-masters found employment in the place, they must have piped in vain to the covenanted sisters, whose thoughts would seem to have been above the world from their youth upward. "Why Mrs. Keziah Norris, the founder, encountered some gloomy prophets, as it seems she did, is unaccountable. The fact that Mrs. Lucy Trumbull edited the Norwich Packet for one year (1802-3) tends to prove that in the region drained by the Yantie and Slietucket the limits of woman’s sphere had not at that time been fixed by public sentiment. The unobtrusive way in which the prayer-meetings had been held, even the children, it is said, being ignorant of the errand that called their mothers from home on certain afternoons, must have commended them. Was it because she considered gatherings with a literary bent but a waste of time that Miss Mary Harris "declined joining”? It is rather late to inquire, and it may be none of our affair, but it would be a great relief to know the reason.

The first convention of the Ladies’ Literary Society of Chelsea was held January 29, 1800, at the house of Mrs. Keziah Norris, “ out of respect to her as founder,” so runs the record. The meeting was opened with the reading of the articles, one of which states that the special object of the society is to enlighten the understanding and expand the ideas of its members, and to promote useful knowledge. “ Then, by request of Mrs. Lanman and concurrence of the Ladies present was read by tHe presiding member a part of the 2nd Chapt. Proverbs. Our thoughts were insensibly drawn to consider the importance of improving the Tallants given us; the beautiful lines of Miss Hannah More were quoted : —

' If good we plant not vice will fill the mind
And weeds despoil the place for flowers designed.'

The evening was closed with reading the Hist. of Columbus, the first discoverer of this vast Continent, with suitable comments on the Heroic act of Queen Isabella in being bis patroness. At the second meeting, after the twelfth chapter of Proverbs and extracts from Watts’s Treatise on the Mind had been read, “ the evening was concluded by Mrs. Norris beginning Trumbull’s History of Connecticut and continued with much elegance by Mrs. .Tabez Huntington.” The present of a blank-book for a register by Mrs. Norris was accompanied “withan animated address on the exquisite pleasure which a fund might procure by enabling us to assist merit.” The reflection of Miss Sally Lanman, secretary pro tem., that “ perhaps a mind well stored with history will have more energy than if filled with any other knowledge,” deserves consideration by those educators of the present day who are striving to find some substitute for the dead languages.

On February 26, after some pages from Knox’s Elegant Essays and Fordyce’s Sermons to Women had been discussed. and the usual amount of history had been read “with much propriety by Misses Susan and Rebecca Breed,” Mrs. Norris renewed her plea for a fund to help the ignorant and hungry, remarking, “ If it had not been owing to the Generous aid of a woman’s bounty America to this day (for aught I know) would have remained known only to Savages, and we, where should we have been? I tremble at the thought! perhaps our sons chained to the Gullies, our Daughters servants to some pampered Lord—our husbands drag’d into unnatural wars, whilst we wretched Mothers obliged to earn from day to day a scanty pittance — but let us turn from what we might have been to what we really are, daughters of Columbia inhabiting a delightful land freely purchased of the Natives. I recommend that each member contribute one penny every eve. There being 33 members, the amount in one year would be £7.3.”A footnote tells us that every band was raised in an instant, and a few weeks later Mrs. Norris reported that she had placed the moneys “responsibly at interest.” A constitution was soon submitted. and a warm debate arose over an article forbidding the introduction of spectators without previous permission, “ excepting the relatives of the lady residing in the House.” “The benevolence of some,” writes Miss Sally Laninan, “ who wished to extend the society very largely, and the judgment of others who thought such extension an infringement of the first principles on which the society was founded, clashed.” It was ordained that the presiding member should produce “some religious, moral, or sentimental piece, novels excepted;” that religious and political disputes should never enter ; and that any member dishonoring herself or the society should be expelled by a two-thirds vote ; while another article, introduced by warm-hearted Mrs. Norris, granted the motherless daughters of any member the right to claim the friendship and guardianship of the society, to choose a particular friend therefrom, and to ask for pecuniary aid if circumstances required. There is one reference to a case of expulsion, hut that is so brief and vague that no conclusions can be drawn. Perhaps the offender strove to introduce novels or the discussion of fashion-plates, hut in either case, surely, the penalty was disproportionate.

Now that the society was formally organized, one would expect to hear that its sessions continued with monotonous regularity of time and topic, although a believer in the influence of environment would be warranted in insisting that mental dead levels are impossible in Norwich. No meeting was ever held during Thanksgiving week, of course, nor during “the Christmas Festival,” as the records call it; a graceful concession, in the latter instance, to the churchwomen, who must have been in the minority. The works selected for perusal were irreproachable. The Polite Lady, Hunter’s Sacred Biography, and Harvey’s Meditations Among the Tombs tended “ to improve and instruct,” and naturally suggested such subjects of conversation as “ the improvement of time ” and “ sobriety of mind.” The phraseology of the secretaries is somewhat set. The “ observations ” on the Scriptures are usually spoken of as “ free and satisfactory or “ few but interesting.’’ The History of Connecticut and its successor, Ramsay’s History of the Revolution, are “continued with much propriety,” or “ interested the feelings of the hearers till five o’clock,” or “were attended to with satisfaction.” Occasionally the remarks were “ free but not satisfactory,” or “ serious and without reserve ; ” and in one place “ the pathetic observations of the elder Mrs. Lanman ” are alluded to. The rule respecting the admission of members was rigidly observed, and the lady proposed waited patiently for a week while her neighbors and kinsfolk discussed her qualifications. The office of secretary must have been considered onerous, judging by the frequent changes, only one “ transcriber,” Mrs. Captain Ingraham, offering to continue her services; and one would suppose from the omission of names of rejected candidates and the guarded language generally used that the book was passed from house to house through the town. Why the Chelsea Courier should be mysteriously referred to as “ an esteemed public paper ” is by no means clear, and if the “ Mrs. B——n ” who is spoken of as “ an indigent person ” was, as is probable, a lady whose home and possessions had been destroyed by tire, and whose misfortunes were matters of public talk from Bean Hill to The Landing, it was useless to attempt to conceal her identity.

At one of the meetings in April, “ it was proposed to irradiate distant benighted regions by taking collections for the Missionary Society.” The regions aforesaid were neither Hindustan nor South Africa, for the American Board was not organized till 1810, but Vermont, western New York, the Western Reserve, and the Susquehanna Valley. The Connecticut Missionary Society, formed in 1798. had branches both at Town Plot and The Landing, and as Norwich was well represented in the settlements scattered through those sections, the needs of churchless colonies excited peculiar interest. It was in April, too, that the McCurdys entertained “ the Friends of Literature,” in their hospitable house on the hill overlooking Main Street. On that occasion, “ Mrs. McCurdy spoke poetical sentiments from Miss More, and Miss Ursula a beautiful poem called the Bird of Paradise by Dr. Stennet, from Mrs. Rowe two very solemn letters and a select piece from a public paper.” As the day was stormy, few were present, but enough to vote that “ whenever it rains, we defer each meeting.”Those who attended on May 14, after a week’s intermission on account of rain, heard Miss Susan King read “ a paper on dissipation peculiarly interesting from its intrinsic worth and its being originally addressed to Females. Some doctrinal points were introduced (after the reading of the Scripture) ; however, no disputes occurred.” On the following Wednesday there was presented “ an essay on Curiosity: that necessary appendage of woman and generally considered as stigmatical. This piece, however, proved it to be the source of all knowledge.” Mrs. L’Hommedieu favored them with an article on the Immortality of the Soul, which led to remarks that were “ highly proper,” and Miss Foster, of New Salem, Mass., “ took a seat, agreeable to previous permission.” It was voted that the ladies meet once a fortnight during the hot months. The annals for the rest of the year are not enlivening, but it is stated that at one meeting a piece of very entertaining morality ” was enjoyed ; that Mrs. Howland “was admitted without dissent,” a fact that should be a source of pride to her descendants, and that practical Mrs. Norris “ gave an original dissertation on the art of preserving the teeth.”

The first meeting in 1801 was made memorable by the reading of a letter from Mrs. Norris descriptive of her journey to Baltimore, whither she had removed, “ and of her present situation there.” She announced the formation in that city of a Humane Society, and of her appointment as a member of the visiting committee. This was followed by “ a piece on female coquetry which enforced the impropriety of Females arrogating to themselves those pursuits and employments which are more suitable to the other Sex.” Miss Lanman, who delivered the first Annual Address, avers that “ even female societies for the relief of man are not unprecedented,” mentioning “ the amiable and highly respected widows society in New York, and the Society at Newport for the Benevolent purpose of Prayer for the universal good of Mankind. Contemplating the common instability of the female character 1 perhaps we deserve the opinion of the world that this society would be transient as the meteor’s glare ; an opinion refuted, as the society has rounded the period of a year, and ardor and sympathy still inspire its members. Mrs. Norris, though absent, does not cease to afford improving entertainment.” Further on we find one of the questions propounded from afar by that lamented lady: “ How can a daughter, wife or mother be amiable when her actions are wholly unaided by her reasoning powers ? ”

A chapter on Burgoyne’s surrender inspired the following comments, in the beautiful handwriting of Miss Anne Breed: “ We, I mean females, are of importance in the scale of beings ; let us then enquire what we can do towards securing those rights and privileges we have so nobly gained.” The gentle “ transcriber,” we must suppose, was filled with patriotic exaltation rather than with longings for the emancipation of her sex. An interchange of opinions respecting education led to the conclusion that “ a lad naturally inclined to manual exercise would make but a dull scholar in the study of the dead languages,” and a timely piece on Consumption, read at one of the December meetings, resulted in “ a prevailing opinion that one reason why so many women fall a sacrifice to this fatal disorder is owing to inattention to dress.” It is instructive to learn that a Kev. Mr. Woodbridge “ waited on the ladies and made many observations approving female attempts for letters.” Another important event of that year was the transferring of Miss Ursula McCurdy to the equally select society of Litchfield Hill, as the wife of the Hon. John Allen, Esq.

The Anniversary Address, in 1802, by Miss Mary Tyler, contains the following sentences (the spelling she is not responsible for) : “ The idea of woman’s incapability is intively preposterous ; thier is no summits in the broad field of literature which a female cannot explore. . . . How many shining females do we see who equil in intellectual acquirements the most celebrated men. In this class I think we may rank Mrs. Norris who has left her heart with us for a season. I feel myself unequal to the task of saying anything which can add to the Brightness of her Character. Trifles engage not her attention for a moment, how capacious is her heart and how extensive her erudition.”

The beneficence of the society, which on the same day was “ unanimously enlarged from 38 to 40,” was further manifested in a vote to provide four children with books and money wherewith to enter school, and by a proposition to bang a bag in the entry or spaceway of each house where the society convened, in which each member from time to time was to deposit money or clothing for the poor. We next read that Miss Tyler presented the ladies “ half a ticket in the Norwich meeting-house lottery,” and that the elder Mrs. Lanman, whose name was a synonym for sanctity, was requested to purchase the other half. The First Church had been destroyed by fire in 1801, and it ill becomes us who live at a time when grab-hags are used to promote the cause of religion to cast reproach upon these mothers and daughters in Israel.

The ladies seem to have experienced alternate emotions of humility and of pride, as further extracts will show. “ Degrading as the truth is it must be admitted that the female sex allow their time to pass in Dekorating their body with far more pleasure than adorning the mind. . . . Instil into youthful minds [the theme was “ the Choise of a Husband ”] internal beautys of the mind rather than the pleasures of a fine equipage or the splendor of a great fortune.

. . . The charitable are never found in the Circle of fashion or the haunts of Disapation. . . . Man is insensible to the charms of a female mind cultivated by polite and solid literature ; from what does this dislike proceed ? from a want of taste for polite arts or from a consciousness of their own Deficiency the pride of men cannot have a superior female mind.” “ The character of a Methodist,” as delineated in a biographical sketch, was pronounced “ very perfect but hardly attainable,” and it must have been with feelings of relief that the auditors turned to material things and “ proceeded to arrange for the quilting of

Mrs. P——n’s bedquilt.” Menkind are rebuked again in the Anniversary Address of Miss Harris, in 1803. “ The pride of man has suffered female genius like the unpolished diamond to be buried in its native rubbish. Some few of every age have burst the shackles and shone forth in their native lustre. Among this class we may rank Mrs. Norris. All the social, all the benevolent virtues are hers.” The records go on to say that it was voted to apply the funds at interest “ to give better schooling to the misses near relatives of the first members,” and that having completed Kollin’s Life of Cyrus, the ladies “declined proceeding in Ancient History and agreed on reading next the history of Vermont.”

During the summer “ a dreadful malady ” broke out in Chelsea, and “the bonds of sisterhood ” were for the first time “ severed by death.” The funeral of Mrs. Hannah Hubbard was attended by the society “ habited in the emblems of mourning,” and after the service the ladies “ returned to the house of the deceased in the same order they followed to the grave to receive the thanks of the bereav’d companion.” The epidemic became so widespread that the society adjourned for several months, and the fact that the funerals of Mrs. Elizabeth Colt and Mrs. Sally Rockwell could not be attended with safety deepened the sorrow of their friends. In September the sessions were resumed. It was voted that apiece of crape be worn on the left arm as a badge of mourning ; at a later date there was substituted a black fan suspended from a black ribbon and worn on the right side for one month.

An entry made during October states that a small collection was taken up for Airs. Congo, whose name relieves us of the necessity of speculating as to her family aiid circumstances, and there is another, dated December 1, to the effect that “ a voluntary contribution was appropriated for a ticket in the lottery for the relief of poor widows in New York.” This business over, some one read “ an extract from Mrs. Chapone’s letters on the first principles of religion.” The ticket having been applied for too late, it was voted to buy one for three dollars in the second class of the Union Lottery. Early in 1801 Mrs. Susan Gordon, another member, died, and her obituary was enriched, we are assured, “ with the most serious morality and enlivened with pathos and elegance.”A piece on Heaven followed, and was considered “ very instructive and entertaining,” In March, “ a piece from Mr. Dodd’s reflections on death called our attention.” During April, “ a very animated piece on Spring interested our feelings ; ” the History of Vermont was finished, and Lyttleton’s History (of Henry II.?) was begun. The lottery ticket drew a prize of ten dollars, and having added this sum to that already raised for contingent expenses, the good women bought two more tickets, patronizing the Episcopal Academy Lottery and the Union Lottery again. At this rather late day they “ compleated the charity begun to Mrs. B——r by furnishing a lining to a bedquilt, the outside of which was given last February.” Passages from Milton and Cowper enlivened subsequent gatherings, and Mrs. Samuel Wood bridge brought in as one contribution “an anecdote of a young lady who died in New York of a sudden illness who the night before had dreamed that she must read the 7tli of Ezekiel, and finally arose to do so.” A sermon on the Landing of the Pilgrims “ excited humiliating feelings ; the contrast between those Pious Emigrants and their degenerate descendants could not but have this effect.” The venture in the Union Lottery proved unfortunate, and it is to be hoped that the disappointment the annouucement caused was forgotten when Miss Betsey Tyler arose to read “ some anecdotes of Captain Cook his reprehensible conduct among the Heathen.”

The Annual Address in 1805, delivered by the queenly Mrs. Jabez Hunting-ton, contained the following remarks : “ It’ you agree with me in sentiment that this society is important as respects this life, and that its consequences extend also to eternity, you will also assent to the propriety of our individually adding to the importance of the female character, It may be thought, perhaps, that we need excitement to add to our already excellent opinion of ourselves, but I think we may venture to cherish the sentiment when it conies (not from our sex) but bestowed upon us by those who are eminent for just discrimination, and who would not hazard an opinion without well authenticated proof — they acknowledge the understandings of women are in every respect equal to those of men when equally celebrated and when they acknowledge that the affairs of the world are in a great measure regulated by women — how ought the idea to stimulate us to improve our minds so that our influence shall be directed to promote all that can render life more dignified and useful’ ” This address, the transcriber adds, ended “ with a Him in blank verse,”

About this time the spirit of speculation revived, and the treasurer proposed buying a ticket in the Lebanon Meetinghouse Lottery, but the members preferred to invest in the Channel Lottery, a plan for improving navigation on the Thames. The feast of reason proceeded, meanwhile. u The Life of Washington was attended to.” A lecture by Bishop Porteus was read, and “ the author’s ideas were coincident with those of the ladies. . . . Miss Coit read a pindaric ode on repentance, and the members conversed with peculiar energy on the 46th Psalm. Miss Nancy Parker 2d read from The Ladies’ Library, a piece showing the female character to be guilty of many deviations from the path of rectitude.” Bishop Porteus was again honored, the ideas in another lecture by him being “ perfectly agreeable to those advanced by the ladies.” The advent of summer seems to have occasioned a demand for lighter literature, for it appears that “a piece on fashion ” was read, probably declaiming against its tyranny ; another, on the Dew, “one of the many blessings we enjoy which we think little of ; ” and in August “ a beautiful serious drama from Maria De Fleury called the Wanderer.”The reading, on October 23, of the twenty-seventh of Genesis led to the unanimous conclusion that it was wrong for parents to show partiality among their children. “A few pages from Mr. Baxter’s Saints Everlasting Rest was then attended to with satisfaction, as it is ever new and excellent.” The year’s sessions closed with the selection of Mrs. Lydia Whiting to deliver the next Anniversary Address, and of Mrs. Nancy Fitch to “ transcribe.” No records of succeeding meetings have been found.

Miss Caulkins’s well-nigh exhaustive History of Norwich does not mention the Literary Society, but speaks of the formation in 1825 of a reading club and society for mutual improvement, one of several organizations of philanthropic character that sprang up in the town as the century advanced, and must have derived their origin from the Chelsea society, which, tradition says, was dissolved about 1820. The memoir of Nancy Maria Hyde, published in 1816, relates that she attended the sessions with profit, and that Grecian History and extracts from The Panoplist and The Churchman’s Journal were included in the literature enjoyed, A copy of the Anniversary Address of that year has come down, and contains heartfelt lamentations over the death of Mrs. Eunice Tyler. The wise and beneficent Mrs. Norris did not return to Norwich, but, in .1829, her admiring friends welcorned to their hearts and homes her daughter Eliza Jane, who had consented to take the arduous journey from Baltimore as the wife of Mr. Andrew Backus Huntington of their city. The last of the affectionate sisterhood, without doubt, was Mrs. Lydia Breed, who, having sustained the reputation of the Perkins family for longevity, died in 1861 at the age of ninety-four.

Henry Baldwin.