Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born June 14, 1811 in Litchfield, CT to the Rev. Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) and Roxanna Foote Beecher (1775- 1816); the sixth of 11 children. The Beechers were one of the most influential families of the 19th century.
Roxanna Foote, a granddaughter of Revolutionary War officer General Andrew Ward, was literate, artistic, and read mathematical and scientific treatises for pleasure.
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.
Click HERE for the 2014 podcast featuring Beecher and Stowe biographers Joan Hedrick, Debby Applegate and Susan Campbell with WNPR’s Colin McEnroe.
Catharine Esther Beecher (1800-1878)
Catharine Beecher was the eldest Beecher child. She attended Miss Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy which was considered one of the best schools of its time for girls and young women. When Catharine's mother Roxanna Foote Beecher passed away in 1816, Catherine became responsible for the care of her siblings.
Catharine Beecher was engaged to be married to Alexander Metcalf Fisher, a mathematics scholar from Yale College. In 1822, Fisher sailed for Europe to further his studies. His ship sank off the coast of Ireland and he drowned. Using the small inheritance Fisher had left her, Catharine Beecher turned to the cause of providing quality education for girls and young women.
In 1824 Catharine, with the help of her brother Edward and sister Mary, opened the Hartford Female Seminary on Main Street in Hartford, CT. At first, Catharine and Mary were the only teachers, and Catharine was working to stay two steps ahead of her students. She found many of the books unsatisfactory and decided to write her own. The students were taught rhetoric, logic, natural and moral philosophy, chemistry, history, latin, algebra and drawing.
Most 19th-century girls expected to marry and manage homes, and many felt they needed little formal education. Catharine argued that running a home was as complicated as running a business, and that young women should be instructed in these responsibilities the same way boys received instruction in their careers. Using her own life as an example, Catharine Beecher also wanted to prepare young women for the future and train them to become teachers.
When Lyman Beecher became the president of Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, OH, in 1832, Catharine found a successor to run the Hartford Female Seminary and moved west with him. Soon after settling in Cincinnati, Catharine founded the Western Female Institute, and went on to establish schools in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Catharine Beecher was a prolific writer on topics ranging from education and religion, to health and home economics. Her best known work was A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841). In 1869, she co-authored The American Woman's Home with her sister Harriet.
William Henry Beecher (1802 – 1889)
William Henry Beecher was Lyman and Roxanna's oldest son. Less scholarly, but more mechanically skilled than his other siblings, William apprenticed as a cabinetmaker and a clerk in Hartford and New Milford CT, and New York City before becoming a licensed preacher in 1830. His first parish was in Newport, RI, and over the next 20 years William worked at churches in Middletown, CT, Putnam, OH, Batavia, NY, Euclid, OH, and finally North Brookfield, MA, where he remained for nearly two decades. He was an advocate of Spiritualism and phrenology, publishing an article in Fowler's Phrenological Journal.
He wed Katherine Edes of Massachusetts in 1830, and they had six children. Katherine shared William's commitment to anti-slavery and temperance. When she died in 1870, he retired and moved to Chicago to live with his daughters. One of the least famous Beechers, William was an early advocate of abolition, and a proponent of temperance as a means to broader social reform.
Edward Beecher (1803 – 1895)
Edward Beecher entered Yale at 15, and worked his way through college by teaching, graduating as class valedictorian. More religiously liberal than his father, he blended Lyman Beecher's old Calvinism with the newer tenets of Unitarianism, and even explored Spiritualism. Edward was also more liberal regarding social reform, and embraced abolitionism, or the immediate end to slavery, as opposed to Lyman Beecher's support of colonization. Edward was friends with the Rev. Elijah Lovejoy and left him just hours before the abolitionist was killed by a mob in 1837. In response, Edward published a Narrative of the Riots at Alton, a broad indictment of slavery and mob violence. Edward believed all of America was responsible for slavery, since the entire society profited. His writing helped fuel the fire that would lead to younger siblings Harriet's and Henry's fame. The earliest known letter written by young Harriet Beecher was to her brother Edward in 1822 as he studied at Yale.
Edward's wife, Isabella Porter (Jones) Beecher, wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe "if I could use a pen like you Hatty, I would write something that would show the entire world what an accursed thing slavery is." They had 12 children, including one with special needs whom the Beechers fully incorporated into family life – an exception to 19th-century practice.
Mary Foote Beecher Perkins (1805-1900)
Mary is the one daughter of Lyman Beecher who never became aggressively political. She did not speak out against slavery or on behalf of women's suffrage and was purely private throughout her life. Mary received her primary education at Miss Pierce's school in Litchfield, CT along with her sisters Harriet and Catherine. She partnered with Catharine Beecher to open the Hartford Female Seminary, but disliked teaching. She married Thomas C. Perkins, a prominent lawyer in Hartford, and settled there for the rest of her life. She and Thomas had four children. She is grandmother of author Charlotte Perkins Gillman.
George Beecher (1809-1843)
George Beecher, the fifth of Lyman Beecher's children, grew up in Litchfield, CT. He attended Miss Porter's Academy with his siblings, went off to Hartford Grammar School when he was 14, and enrolled at Yale College to study the ministry at 16. George left Yale to move to Ohio with his family in 1832. There he was ordained as a minister and accepted his first pastorate in Batavia. George married Sarah Buckingham of Batavia in 1839, and they had a son. Like his older brother Edward, George was an abolitionist, and joined the Anti-Slavery Society.
Batavia, like many small churches, had difficulties paying their minister, and George relocated to Rochester, NY. Rochester was at the heart of the Burned Over district of western New York, so-named because of the repeated religious revivals and reform movements which swept through the area. As a Beecher raised to improve both himself and society George found many new ideas here. He was particularly attracted to Perfectionism.
George and Sarah Beecher returned to Ohio, where George began writing about Perfectionism, teaching music, and studying plants. In July of 1843, he walked into his gardens to shoot some birds and was found dead of a gunshot wound. The Beechers believed that it was an accidental death and the family mourned over the loss of their beloved brother. Stowe confessed that "the sudden death of George shook my whole soul like an earthquake."
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
Henry Ward Beecher, the seventh child of Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote Beecher, became one of the most famous men in the United States during the 19th century. Among the Beecher family, only sister Harriet bested Henry's life time celebrity and historical legacy.
Henry was only three when his mother Roxanna died. The toddler formed a close reliance on five-year-old Harriet, and their bond remained throughout their lives. As a boy Henry was more attracted to open pastures and wooded fields than schools or books. As an adult, Henry turned this early affinity with nature into visions of a loving deity. Henry was barely 13 when his father Lyman and step-mother Harriet Porter Beecher moved from Litchfield, CT to Boston, MA. The city held only one attraction for Henry – sailing ships. Henry Ward Beecher, like many 19th-century children, associated sailing ships and the sea with travel, adventure, the possibility of fortune, and, freedom from the structure of schooling. Lyman Beecher convinced him to gain the credentials to become an officer. 14-year-old Henry enrolled at Mount Pleasant Institute in Amherst, MA. Henry found Mount Pleasant's military-type discipline difficult, but the school gave him the skills to eventually become a powerful orator. By the time Henry graduated, the boy who had been embarrassed into silence by a childhood speech impediment, presented speeches and performed in plays. This talent coupled with a religious revival led to Henry's determination to become a minister and his admission to Amherst College in 1830. He enjoyed classes in debating, speech, and English literature, but found no use for Latin, mathematics or science. While at Amherst, Henry met Eunice White Bullard, the sister of a schoolmate and daughter of a physician. The two became engaged to marry, but it would be years before they wed.
After graduating from Amherst College in 1832, Henry joined his family in Cincinnati, OH and enrolled in Lane Seminary where his father, Lyman, presided. After completing his studies, Henry married Eunice in 1837 and the newlyweds moved to Lawrenceburg, IN. Henry and Eunice eventually had 11 children, but only four lived to maturity. After two years Henry accepted a new job in Indianapolis, IN. Neither parish could afford to pay well, and the young family struggled. In 1847, Henry and Eunice's poverty ended when Henry was recruited by Henry C. Bowen, a wealthy merchant, newspaper editor, and anti-slavery advocate in Brooklyn, NY. Henry shaped Plymouth Church into one of the most influential pulpits in the United States. By 1850, the crowds coming to hear Beecher's sermons on temperance and the wrongs of slavery often could not fit inside the building.
Henry Ward Beecher actively used the Plymouth Church to fight slavery. Staging elaborate mock auctions, Henry led his congregation to redeem enslaved individuals by purchasing their liberty. 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."
President Abraham Lincoln sent Henry to London during the Civil War to persuade Great Britain to remain neutral. And at the close of the Civil War, Henry Ward Beecher was given the symbolic prize of presenting a sermon at Fort Sumter, when the U.S. flag was once again raised there.
In 1872, Victoria Woodhull, a controversial woman's rights advocate, accused Henry of committing adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of Theodore Tilton. The Tiltons were members of the Plymouth Church, and Theodore was co-editor with Henry of The Independent, as well as a close friend. In 1875, Theodore Tilton sued his former friend for "alienation of affection." The resulting trial lasted more than six months and became the most notorious scandal of the 19th century. Dissenting opinions over Henry's guilt caused rifts in society, Plymouth Church, and the Beecher family itself. Sisters Harriet and Isabella were temporarily estranged. Harriet remained her brother's supporter and advocate while Isabella believed Victoria Woodhull. Ultimately a civil jury was unable to reach a conclusion, and a mistrial was declared. Henry continued to work at the Plymouth Church, and despite the controversy, remained a popular figure. When he 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.
Charles Beecher (1815 –1900)
Lyman and Roxana's youngest child, Charles, spent his earliest years in Litchfield, but at the age of eleven he moved to Boston with his father and stepmother. There he attended Boston Latin School and Lawrence Academy before entering Bowdoin College. In 1834 he joined his family in Cincinnati to continue his theological training at Lane Seminary.
Charles was a tall athletic man, a natural scholar and gifted in languages, but his first love was music. He played the violin and organ and tried to support himself as a musician, giving lessons, playing in churches, and writing articles on music theory.
In 1838, 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. In 1840 he married Sarah Coffin of Massachusetts.
Charles and Sarah returned north in 1841 and joined his brother Henry Ward Beecher in Indianapolis. As he ran the music program for Henry's church, Henry's sermons helped Charles decide to become a minister. Bringing his passion for music to his sermons, he was immediately popular. Charles easily passed his ministerial licensing exams and in 1844 he was installed as pastor of the Second Presbyterian church in Fort Wayne, IN. He also served as minister of churches in New Jersey and Massachusetts.
Charles Beecher's religious beliefs included mysticism and a spirituality that often challenged the orthodoxy of the organized Congregational church and in 1863, while he was in Georgetown, MA, he was tried for heresy. Found guilty, his Georgetown church split between his supporters and critics. Charles was not only asked to remain at the First Congregational, he was elected to the Massachusetts General Assembly for 1864. His heresy conviction was later overturned.
Charles kept a journal when he accompanied his famous sister Harriet 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 correspondence of his father, Lyman Beecher. Charles continued to write and publish until late in life.
The 1860s were difficult for Charles and his wife Sarah. In addition to his heresy conviction, their son Frederick was badly wounded at Gettysburg that same summer, two of their daughters, Hattie and Essie drowned in 1867, and Frederick, who had recovered from his war injuries and remained in the army, was killed in 1868 in a battle with the Cheyenne in what is now Colorado.
Weary of the duties of a small town pastor, Charles and Sarah moved to Newport, FL in 1870 where Charles worked in education and served as Florida's State Superintendent of Public Instruction for two years.
Isabella Holmes Beecher Hooker (1822-1907)
In 1871, Isabella organized the annual convention of the National Woman's Suffrage Association in Washington D.C. and was invited to present her argument before the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate. Her husband, John Hooker, believed in his wife's abilities and supported her activity. John Hooker helped Isabella draft a bill presented to the Connecticut Legislature giving married women the same property rights as their husbands. The bill passed in 1877. Isabella annually submitted a bill granting women the right to vote, but never witnessed its passage.
Click HERE to see photos from the launch of Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker, the 2014 biography by Susan Campbell.
Thomas Kinnicut Beecher (1824-1900)
From a young age, Thomas Beecher had shown a disinterest in the ministry and an aptitude for natural sciences and education. He graduated from Illinois College, and helped his older brother Henry in his church in Indiana for a short time. Like Catharine Beecher he turned to education as a career. He taught in Philadelphia, and spent two years at Hartford Public High School. In 1850 he married Hartford native Olivia Day, who died in childbirth in 1853. By then Thomas had followed the pattern of his older brothers and accepted a position at New England Church in Williamsburg, NY.
Thomas also differed from most of his Beecher siblings in being more politically and socially conservative. He opposed abolition as too radical up until the beginning of the Civil War. And disagreed with the woman's rights movement his sister Isabella and brother Henry supported. These views led to his dismissal, and he accepted a call from the Independent Congregational Church in Elmira, NY in 1853. Among his parishioners were the Langdon family, whose daughter Olivia would marry Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Thomas officiated at their wedding. Thomas himself remarried in 1857. His second wife, Julia Jones, was his first wife's cousin. Julia and Thomas adopted three daughters.
Despite Thomas' anti-abolition stance there is evidence he participated in the Underground Railroad, and he joined the Union army, serving as a chaplain in the 141st New York Volunteers, the same regiment as his brother James. He disagreed with the expansion of legal rights for women, yet acknowledged his wife's crucial role in running his parish, and accepted a woman as his own minister after he retired. He was a temperance advocate who showed remarkable compassion to his sister-in-law Anne Beecher's alcoholism.
Thomas died of a stroke in 1900. He is buried in Elmira, NY.
James Chaplin Beecher (1828-1886)
James C. Beecher was the youngest child of Lyman and Harriet Porter Beecher. Like his half-sister Harriet, James lost his mother while he was very young. He was raised by Lyman Beecher's third wife, Lydia Beecher. Less scholarly than his oldest brothers, James eventually graduated from Dartmouth, then pursued a life at sea. He served on a coaster which traded along the eastern U.S. coast, before sailing on a clipper ship for Canton, China. James ultimately served five years as a ship's officer in the East India trade.
James returned from sea and 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, NY, near her brother-in-law Thomas Beecher.
James remained in China until the outset of the Civil War in 1861. He enlisted in the army and served first as chaplain of the First Long Island Regiment, then as a lieutenant colonel in the 141st New York Volunteers. He briefly returned to civilian life because of his concerns over his wife Anne. After her death in 1863, he rejoined the army and was appointed to recruit an African American regiment, the First North Carolina Volunteers.
After the Civil War, James served as pastor at Thomas Beecher's church in Elmira, NY for nine months. In 1864 he married Francis "Frankie" Johnson, of Guilford, CT. The two opened a school in Jacksonville, FL for newly emancipated people. James and Frankie remained married for 21 years and adopted three daughters. In 1867 he became pastor of the Congregational Church in Oswego, NY, and later moved to Poughkeepsie. James purchased a tract of land in Ulster County to build a home for his family and to preach to the farmers of upstate New York.
In 1881 Henry Ward Beecher asked James to take over Plymouth Church. James reluctantly agreed, 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, NY, where his first wife had sought help. While in Elmira, James took his own life.