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  • The Bildung of a ReformerMary Livermore’s Poetic Involvement in the Anti-gallows Campaign of the 1840s
  • Birte Christ

In the summer of 1845, the Boston-based weekly paper The Hangman published two anti-gallows poems by Mary Livermore: “Orrin de Wolf” and “The Conqueror and the Murderer.” These poems merit attention for at least three reasons. First, they shed new light on the pre–Civil War life of Mary Livermore; the existence of the poems demonstrates that Livermore participated more actively in antebellum reformist causes than previously thought. Second, although the poems are part of the genre of popular anti-gallows poetry of the 1840s and 1850s, each transcends the usual poetic treatment of the issue of capital punishment and attests to Livermore’s literary ambitions. Third, by way of an intertextual reference, Livermore fashions herself as an heir to Anna Letitia Barbauld’s radical politics and thus as an activist building on a vibrant transatlantic history of women’s political work.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore (1820–1905) was one of the best-known women in the United States. During the Civil War she worked as a relief organizer and served as the associate director of the US Sanitary Commission; after the war she embarked on a career as a public lecturer and was soon hailed as the “Queen of the Platform” (Riegel 412), giving more than a hundred lectures and traveling twenty-five thousand miles per year on the lyceum circuit. Livermore advocated for women’s suffrage and temperance. She founded her own suffragist paper, the Agitator, in 1869 and assumed the editorship of the Boston Woman’s Journal a year later. She was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association, and she served as president of the American Woman Suffrage Association and the [End Page 356] Massachusetts Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. By the mid-twentieth century, however, her achievements had largely been forgotten, and they have remained in the shadow of women’s history until today. As Livermore’s biographer Wendy Hamand Venet has noted, her work on behalf of the Union cause is “an unknown story compared to the life of Clara Barton,” and her advocacy for women’s suffrage and temperance “ha[s] not captured the attention that the public has focused on Frances Willard, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton” (1).1

One major reason for Livermore’s descent into relative oblivion, not only among the public but also among historians, is that the sources on her life are few. By her death in 1905, Livermore had destroyed all her private papers, and hardly any of her correspondence before 1860 survives. For the same reason, what is known about Mary Livermore’s pre–Civil War activities in Massachusetts from her marriage to Universalist minister Daniel Livermore in 1845 to their move to Chicago in 1857 is almost exclusively what she chose to tell in her best-selling autobiography, The Story of My Life (1897). While it is established that Livermore, aged twenty-two, returned from a teaching position on a plantation in Virginia in 1842 an abolitionist who subscribed to the Liberator and who also became a supporter of the Washingtonian movement during her time as a single teacher in Duxbury, she describes her life during the following decade as focused on domestic duties, on supporting her husband’s work for the ministry and various reform efforts, and on writing religious poetry and fiction for Universalist publications (Livermore, Story 398–448). Venet affirms that between 1845 and 1857 Livermore lived the private life of a minister’s wife and that she “rarely broached controversial political or social topics during the 1840s” (51). She also claims that Livermore published her first explicitly political poems—against slavery—in 1856 (62).

“Orrin de Wolf” and “The Conqueror and the Murderer,” the two poems that appeared in The Hangman in 1845, are evidence that there is a different story to tell about the genesis of Livermore’s later, well-known activism. They demonstrate that already in her twenties, Livermore was involved in efforts at political reform. She did speak up publicly about controversial issues...


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