THE SEARCH FOR MARY LOUISE BOOTH
I found the name Mary L. Booth on a small wood-shingled house in the hamlet of Yaphank, Long Island where I had just bought a similar house one door away. The house was built circa 1830 and had a worn hand-painted sign, announcing that it was the birthplace of Mary L. Booth, “Famous Author and Magazine Editor.” She was known locally as the young woman who moved to the city, became a writer and was featured in articles on inspirational Long Island women over the years; in the late 1800s, girls came on pilgrimage to see the birthplace of this famous author. As an editor and author myself, I was intrigued and set out to learn about her. After many years of researching her life, her family, her work, in between my own work and travels, her story came together, unfolding with amazing details of her life. From a small rural village on Long Island to her adolescence in Brooklyn, through the Civil War, to the international publishing world during the Gilded Age, Booth created a life of her own, accomplished and lauded as a successful writer and independent woman.
Who was this woman, Mary L. Booth, who received letters from President Lincoln and Édouard de Laboulaye, the “Father of the Statue of Liberty?” She knew everyone who was anyone in the 19th-century – writers, statesmen, poets, artists. She was the Secretary of the Women’s Rights Convention with Susan B. Anthony in 1855, an esteemed author who wrote the first History of the City of New York in 1859, and was the founding editor of Harper’s Bazar where she reigned for 22 years. She translated more than 40 books – from history to poetry, fairy tales to economic treatises, working with the leading French writers of the day; she kept up her correspondence with them throughout the Civil War and for the rest of her life. She was a suffragist and abolitionist who counted among her friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. She moved in American intellectual and reform circles from Boston to Hartford, Brooklyn to New York. She was involved in promoting the first women’s infirmary and college for woman doctors in the U.S., and was a member of the American Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood art movement. She went to Washington during the Civil War to write for the Union cause and was a liaison between the abolitionists of France and the U.S. She was renowned and respected among her peers in the worlds of literature and publishing, both in the United States and in Europe. This once-famous author and editor was an extraordinary woman whose accomplishments – whose life – made a difference. And yet, 130 years after her death, no one knows her name. There is no archive of her papers, correspondence, her library; no single repository of her books, no family left with any memory of her legacy. This illustrated biography has been a 25-year project of searching for the missing pieces, to tell the story of this woman, and to correct some of the misinformation that has been repeated over the years. It was said that she was a teacher, but in a recently found letter, she refutes this in her own words, saying that she may have helped her father teach from time to time, but she never considered herself a teacher. And that she changed her profession from teaching to writing because of health problems, but she wrote that she never had health problems when young. It’s been said she was a Francophile, because her maternal grandfather was a refugee from the French Revolution, but he was American and of English heritage, nowhere near France. It’s often written that she was self-taught and had no formal education, but she was tutored by her father and attended three high-level academies when she was young, and then a Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn in her later teens. She was a voracious reader and supplemented this early education herself, but she had a good academic foundation.
Booth was born in 1831, the eldest of four, on Main Street in the small hamlet of Millville, now Yaphank. Her parents, schoolteacher William Chatfield Booth and his wife Nancy Monsell Booth, were both from old English families that came to the east end of Long Island in the mid-17th century. She was a child prodigy who had finished reading the Bible at five years of age, and read Hume, Locke and Gibbon by nine. After being tutored by her father at home in her early years, she attended two Long Island academies and a female seminary to study Latin, mathematics and the classics. At 14, she moved with her family to Brooklyn, where her father became the new headmaster of the first public school in Williamsburgh and she attended a French collegiate institute to refine her conversational French skills.
She was involved early in the cause of equal pay for women teachers, and began working with Susan B. Anthony in the women’s rights movement. In her mid-20s, her History of the City of New York put her on the map. Published in 1859, it was the first comprehensive book of its kind. Originally meant as a textbook for New York City schools, it was recognized not only in this country, but internationally, as an important reference book for libraries and private collection. Collectors ordered custom portfolios with up to 2000 illustrations and maps for private and public libraries. Her plans for writing a series of books on the histories of London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Vienna ended when the Civil War broke out. She put her efforts into the support of the Union cause, and her translations from the French on abolition and reconstruction were instrumental to the government and inspirational to its people. She was very patriotic and proud of her family’s early American roots and felt compelled to do what she could do for the country. She was now known as a respected historian.
In the mid-19th century, Harper’s Weekly was the important news magazine in America. In 1867, the Harper brothers were so impressed with Booth’s accomplishments and reputation that they approached her to start a new woman’s magazine called Harper’s Bazar. Every morning for 22 years, Mary L. Booth went to her office at Franklin Square in downtown Manhattan, where she was editor of the most important women’s magazine of the day. Harper’s Bazar touched the lives of thousands of women every week, filled with stories by Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and illustrations by Thomas Nast and Winslow Homer. But it also carried news reports, and talked about what was happening in the worlds of art and science, home keeping and fashion, travel and foreign affairs, as well as women’s rights and the abolitionist cause. Informing, educating and reassuring women about the way to live their lives, she was respected and revered by her colleagues, her friends and her readers. She was a successful businesswoman as well as a well-paid editor. She lived with her companion, Mrs. Anne Wright, in a brownstone on Madison and 28th Street and later owned adjoining townhouses on 59th and Park Avenue. Their home was a welcome destination for family and friends, colleagues and visitors. She vacationed during the summers in New England, and traveled around the country and to Europe over the years, but returned to Long Island many times to visit the village she grew up in and the North Fork where her ancestors lived.
It was to Booth that Édouard Laboulaye, “Father of the Statue of Liberty,” turned when the people of France wanted to bestow a monument upon the people of America. Sculptor Bartholdi’s first visit in New York was to Booth’s office to meet and have her make the connections he needed to get support for this iconic statue in New York Harbor. She was well-known and written about regularly in her time, and was featured in books such as Our Famous Women, Successful American Women, Notable American Women. She was listed among the important 19th-century authors in America and recognized by all the publishing and women’s rights organizations. Her intellect, demeanor, and work ethic gave her entrée to New York society and the upper echelons of the publishing world.
But today, she’s not remembered and there are missing links in her life story. When she died unexpectedly just before her 58th birthday, she was unmarried with no children and left her considerable library and all her papers to her nephew, an up-and-coming figure in magazine publishing. Her will requests that he publish her biography and keep her library and correspondence intact. What happened? He filed for bankruptcy two years later and all her life’s work and property were sold, her signature cut from letters to sell to autograph collectors. Her correspondence is now scattered in collections at more than a hundred historical societies, libraries and universities around the country. An auction catalog of 200 of her letters was found at Brigham Young University. Her personal Bible, given to her by her father in 1845, surfaced when Antiques Roadshow spotted it in a box of old books in Miami, scouting for material for a show. She is mentioned in many period books and academic papers on women’s rights and publishing, but there has never been a book about her life.
I’ve pieced together her story and period visuals, to bring to life not only her accomplishments, but the houses she lived in, the schools she went to, the office she worked in, the people she lived with, worked with, loved – the story, in her own words when possible, of the choices she made, the discipline she lived by, the paths she followed. Her writings about the abolitionist movement, women’s rights organizations, and publishing, as well as her work in the arts and sciences, have left an imprint in 19th-century literature that is her legacy and gives us an insight into the life of an extraordinary woman. She signed her letters, “Believe me, Mary L. Booth.” And people did believe her.