Mrs. Stowe Gets Derailed in Rochester

Mrs. Stowe Gets Derailed in Rochester

[Images provided by Michael Nighan. His Great Grandmother’s copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin]

Such confusion of tongues, such shouting and swearing, such want of all sort of system and decency in arrangements, I never desire to see again. I was literally almost trodden down and torn to pieces in the Rochester depot. — Harriet Beecher Snowe

by Michael J. Nighan

She stood just five feet tall.  She was a friend of Frederick Douglas and nearly every other abolitionist leader in America. All seven of her brothers and half-brothers became Congregationalist ministers like their father.  One became the most famous preacher in America.  Her sister helped Susan B. Anthony found the National Women’s Suffrage Association.   Another sister published 18 pioneering books on women’s education.  In a more-than-half century career as an author she wrote countless periodical articles and over 30 books, one  becoming the largest selling book in America (next to the Bible of course) and the most influential anti-slavery book ever written. A book which allegedly prompted Abraham Lincoln to call her, the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war. (1)  And while she doubtless traveled through Rochester several times and had many connections to the city, we only have evidence that she stopped here once.  But that once was a doozy!

She was Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Born Harriet Elizabeth Beecher (called “Hattie” by her family) in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811, at a time when slavery was still legal in that state (slavery would not be abolished in Connecticut until 1848), the fact that her aunt owned slaves means she had some knowledge of the “peculiar institution” from an early age.  Looking back on those days in old age, Stowe innocently wrote that, visiting her aunt’s home as a young child, she was delighted to discover that she held “status” over that of “black Dinah” and “Harry the bound boy”.  Her later relationship to two black indentured servant girls in her parents’ home may have been of greater depth.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)

The Peripatetic Traveler

Stowe moved to Hartford as a teenager to attend a school run by her sister where, at the age of 13, she experienced a religious conversion that would become the major influence in her life.  She moved again in 1832 to Ohio with her father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, who had been named to head Lane Seminary.  Opting to travel from New York City to Philadelphia and then west on an arduous journey across the interiors of Pennsylvania and Ohio via coach and carriage, the Beechers made just 30 to 40 miles a day jolting over heavily-rutted roads, arriving in Cincinnati, a small city then the same size as Rochester but one that would soon steal Rochester’s crown as, “The Fastest Growing City in America”.  Meanwhile, the lives of other members of the Stowe family had begun to intersect with Rochester and surrounding communities.

Appointed to a church in Batavia in the late 1820s, Harriet’s brother George married Sarah Buckingham of that town.  As with many rural churches, Batavia had problems paying their ministers, causing the Rev. Beecher to soon seek a pulpit elsewhere.    Eventually finding a position as pastor of the Brick Church in Rochester, (now the site of the Spiritus Christi Church on North Fitzhugh Street), George was soon immersed in the local anti-slavery movement, by 1838 becoming a lecturer for the Monroe County Anti-Slavery Society. He resigned from the church in 1840, and moved his family to Ohio.

The Brick Church

In 1834 Stowe traveled to Massachusetts with a friend, journeying via Toledo, then to Buffalo by steamer and down the Erie Canal through Rochester.  Or possibly she took the Albany coach from Buffalo and jolted down the Genesee Road (approximately today’s Route 20) bypassing Rochester altogether.  The scanty references to her travels conflict. (2)  I lean toward her taking a canal boat, not just because it was a more comfortable, if slower, means of transportation, but because, unlike stagecoach travel, it was socially acceptable at the time for ladies to travel via canal boat because, perversely, the lack of privacy was viewed as providing greater protection for their reputations than nightly stops at stagecoach inns of dubious social standing.  Also, in as close a family as the Beechers I don’t see Stowe missing an opportunity to visit with her brother George and perhaps hear him preach.  For her return trip to Cincinnati, I would assume the same route.

Back in Cincinnati, by 1836 Harriet Elizabeth Beecher became Harriet Beecher Stowe, having married the Rev. Calvin Ellis Stowe, widowed husband of one of her Ohio friends.  Over the years they would have seven children, four of whom would predecease Stowe.

Due to its location on the Ohio River separating free state Ohio and slave state Kentucky, Cincinnati became a locus for both pro and anti-slavery activities.  Unlike the less virulent form of slavery practiced in her native Connecticut, Stowe now saw slavery in the raw on a daily basis, and experienced first hand the race riots which racked the city in 1836 and 1841.  Eventually Stowe and her husband worked as “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, helping fugitive slaves escape north and even hiding them in their home.  These experiences, her religious conversion, and the religion-based anti-slavery views held by her husband (and indeed by most of her family) and her social circle, made Stowe a fervent abolitionist, one who believed that devout Christianity would be the key to destroying slavery.

In 1839 Stowe and her husband traveled east where Calvin was to give an address at Dartmouth College.  As with her 1834 trip, details are almost non-existent, so I will again assume a water journey to and from New England via the Erie Canal and Rochester. (3)

By 1842 Stowe had authored two books and written numerous articles for various periodicals.  Contacted by a Boston publisher with a proposal to issue a collection of her writings,  Stowe traveled east again in the spring of 1842, this time with her 6 year old daughter Harriet, to discuss the details of publication.   Calvin remained at home but joined her as the summer progressed.

Writing Calvin from New England, Stowe confided some of her literary plans and aspirations to him.  As many of her writings had been published under the name “Mrs. H. E. Stowe”, Calvin was prompted to write back…”My dear, you must be a literary woman. It is so written in the book of fate…..Write yourself fully and always Harriet Beecher Stowe, which is a name euphonious, flowing, and full of meaning…You must therefore make all your calculations to spend the rest of your life with your pen.”

 Rochester Travails

American Railroad Engine and Cars. Circa 1840

Returning to Cincinnati with Calvin in August, Stowe had her first experience traveling by railroad.  Planning to stop in Rochester on her way to visit her brother William who, like brother George, had become a minister in Batavia, Stowe and her husband steamed west from Albany through Geneva, Canandaigua and Victor into the Auburn and Rochester railroad depot on Mill Street (near today’s Inner Loop) and into a bedlam of confusion.

Writing later from Batavia to her daughter Georgiana May, Stowe expressed in no uncertain terms her dislike of rail travel!

 August 29, 1842.

Here I am at Brother William’s, and our passage along this railroad reminds me of the verse of the psalm:—

“Tho’ lions roar and tempests blow,
And rocks and dangers fill the way.”

Such confusion of tongues, such shouting and swearing, such want of all sort of system and decency in arrangements, I never desire to see again. I was literally almost trodden down and torn to pieces in the Rochester depot when I went to help my poor, near-sighted spouse in sorting out the baggage.

You see there was an accident which happened to the cars leaving Rochester that morning, which kept us two hours and a half at the passing place this side of Auburn, waiting for them to come up and go by us. The consequence was that we got into this Rochester depot aforesaid after dark, and the steamboat, the canal-boat, and the Western train of cars had all been kept waiting three hours beyond their usual time, and they all broke loose upon us the moment we put our heads out of the cars, and such a jerking, and elbowing, and scuffling, and swearing, and protesting, and scolding you never heard, while the great locomotive sailed up and down in the midst thereof, spitting fire and smoke like some great fiend monster diverting himself with our commotions. I do think these steam concerns border a little too much on the supernatural to be agreeable, especially when you are shut up in a great dark depot after sundown.

Well, after all, we had to ride till twelve o’clock at night to get to Batavia, and I’ve been sick abed, so to speak, ever since.”                                          

Twice more, in 1845-1846 and 1846-1847, Stowe would travel to New England on lengthy visits, the latter time to take the “water cure” in Vermont. (4)  By this point in time her travel options would have included canal or train transportation across New York or a canal trip across Pennsylvania.   Again, limited details of her travels have survived, although her return to Cincinnati in the spring of 1847 is documented as being by canal as she wrote that she needed to delay leaving until the waters had thawed.

Before Uncle Tom

In 1850 Calvin Stowe had been offered a teaching position at his alma mater, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  Bidding her friends in Cincinnati goodbye, Stowe, pregnant with a seventh child, packed up her family and her home and once more set out east, apparently traveling through Pennsylvania to New York City via a series of canals.   At this same time, slavery was rapidly eclipsing all other national issues as Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act which required all Americans to aid southerners in the recovery of their escaped slaves.   Shocked by the moral implications of the Act, and braced by her conviction that only a Christian outlook could defeat slavery, Stowe began thinking about writing a novel depicting the evils of slavery, encouraged by her sister-in-law, Isabella Porter Jones Beecher, who wrote her that, “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”.

Sketching out a tale of slave master, slave hunters, and runaway slaves escaping to freedom, all centered on a deeply-religious and forgiving slave named Uncle Tom who dies a martyr’s death, in March 1851 Stowe offered the publisher of the abolitionist newspaper The National Era a serialized story, “written either from observations, incidents which have occurred in the sphere of my personal knowledge, or in the knowledge of my friends.  I shall show the best side of the thing, and something faintly approaching the worst….I feel now that the time has come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak”.

The first installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Initially expecting to tell the story in three or four installments, after the first installment appeared in the paper’s June 2 edition, Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, like her character Topsy, just “growed”, spreading over 40 issues of the newspaper but only earning her a less-than-munificent $300.

Despite years of being a close up observer of slavery, Stowe realized that first hand knowledge from former slaves would add immeasurably to her story’s impact and authenticity.  Among those she contacted was Frederick Douglass.  Writing from her home in Brunswick, Maine to Douglass in Rochester, while asking for his help she managed to tout her own credentials and display her optimism that religion was the key to abolition:

                                                                                                                        July 9, 1851.

Frederick Douglass, Esq.:

Sir,—You may perhaps have noticed in your editorial readings a series of articles that I am furnishing for the “Era” under the title of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life among the Lowly.”

In the course of my story the scene will fall upon a cotton plantation. I am very desirous, therefore, to gain information from one who has been an actual laborer on one, and it occurred to me that in the circle of your acquaintance there might be one who would be able to communicate to me some such information as I desire….I will subjoin to this letter a list of questions, which in that case you will do me a favor by inclosing to the individual, with the request that he will at earliest convenience answer them.

As for myself and husband, we have for the last seventeen years lived on the border of a slave State, and we have never shrunk from the fugitives, and we have helped them with all we had to give…This movement must and will become a purely religious one. The light will spread in churches, the tone of feeling will rise, Christians North and South will give up all connection with, and take up their testimony against, slavery, and thus the work will be done.”

With the success of the serialized “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, plans immediately went ahead to issue the story in book form.  The two-volume first edition of 5,000 copies, published in 1852, sold out within days.  While Stowe received a royalty of only 10%, (supposedly she had told her husband that she hoped to earn enough money to buy a new silk dress) within four months enough copies had been sold to earn her an impressive $10,000, the equivalent of $350,000 today.  And sales, soon to be unprecedented for any American book, took off from there, both in the United States and in Europe.  While it’s estimated that by end of the first year of publication 300,000 copies had been sold in the US, with 500,000 sales within five years (figures made more impressive by the fact that few copies were sold south of the Mason-Dixon line), and as many as one million copies being sold in Great Britain and Europe in an equally short period, the numbers tend to vary depending on the sources utilized.   Suffice to say that the book was a publishing bombshell, blasting out of the water sales figures for all books other than the ubiquitous Bible.

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only translated into foreign tongues, it was transmuted into song, theater, statuary, toys, games, handkerchiefs, wallpapers, plates, spoons, candlesticks, and every form of kitsch that the commercial mind could imagine.” – Joan D. Hendrick, “Harriet Beecher Stowe; a life”

(“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is) perhaps the most influential novel ever published, a verbal earthquake, an ink-and-paper tidal wave” –  an unnamed Harriet Beecher Stowe critic

Back in Rochester, while Stowe was on her way to becoming a household name, her brother, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher lectured at Corinthian Hall on Dec. 2, 1851.  (Reportedly her father, Dr. Lyman Beecher, on a fundraising tour for Lane Seminary appeared in Rochester about this same time, although this visit might be apocryphal.)   Within another two or three years, the first productions of a theatrical version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” appeared on the stage of Rochester’s Metropolitan Theatre. (5)  And in 1853 a touring panoramic painting of an actual Uncle Tom’s cabin was exhibited in town.

 After Uncle Tom

In the midst of publishing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Stowe had to pack up children and home for another move.  This time to Andover, Massachusetts where Calvin had taken a teaching position at Andover Theological Seminary. Visiting New York City in May 1852, Stowe met Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (Lind had appeared  in Rochester the previous December), who sent her tickets to one of her concerts with a note, “You must feel and know what deep expression ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ has made upon my heart that can feel for the dignity of human existence.”

Not surprisingly, as the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” progressed and its popularity grew, Stowe began to receive hate mail, culminating with her receipt of a small package containing the severed ear of a slave.   The major thrust of the mail, which came from both southerners AND northerners, was that Stowe was lying about the condition of American slaves and that slavery was beneficial to African Americans. Deciding to throw the charges back in the teeth of her attackers, in 1853 Stowe substantiated her case through the publication of, “A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, drawing almost entirely from southern newspapers and periodicals for backup and validation of the details and impact of slavery she had related in her story.  In the preface to the book Stowe pulled no punches.   “Slavery, therefore, is not the element which forms the picturesque and beautiful of Southern life.  What is peculiar to slavery, and distinguishes it from free servitude, is evil, and only evil, and that continually.” 

Responding to Stowe’s next anti-slavery novel, the far-less-successful, “Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp”, South Carolina poet and slavery apologist William Grayson castigated her, and others, in a 54 page epic of verse for what he argued was her cynical use of anti-slavery sentiments merely to make a buck:

There Stowe, with prostituted pen, assails

One half her country in malignant tales;

Careless, like Trollope, whether truth she tells,

And anxious only how the libel sells.


A moral scavenger, with greedy eye,

In social ills her coarser labors lie;

Snuffs up pollution with a pious air,

Collects a rumor here, a slander there;

With hatred’s ardor gathers Newgate spoils,

And trades for gold the garbage of her toils.

Prior to Stowe’s first trip to Great Britain in 1853 where she hoped to obtain a copyright on her books (international copyrights did not yet exist and she was losing substantial sums on pirated British editions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Frederick Douglass visited her in Andover to discuss, not what could be done for the slaves, but what could be done for the free colored people of the country”.  Following their talk, Douglass held, the largest and most enlightened colored convention that, up to that time, had ever been assembled in this country in Rochester in July 1853 to seek input.

Lionized by the high born and the low in Great Britain, “The Most Famous Women in America” was feted around the country and presented with a petition attacking American slavery (slavery had been outlawed in the British empire since 1834) signed by 500,000 women.    She followed this trip with additional trips to Great Britain and the continent in 1856 and 1859.

Also in 1859, Henry Ward Beecher made one more visit to Rochester.  But for what purpose his correspondence doesn’t say.

“From Syracuse we went to Buffalo.”

Taking the Show on the Road (Except Rochester)

In the early 1870s, although shy and not possessed of a voice calculated to reach the far edges of an audience, Stowe nevertheless elected to follow in the path of other contemporary authors such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and give a number of public readings of her works.  Not for the thrill of meeting her fans, but for the plain, humdrum reason that she needed the money.  And perhaps for other reasons as well.

Despite having obtained a large income from the royalties of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and her other books, Stowe and her husband were not adept at handling money, losing large sums through excessive philanthropy and poor investments.  As an example, after becoming early “snow birds” wintering in Florida, the Stowe’s managed to lose over $40,000 investing in that state’s real estate.

Perhaps among the other reasons for a speaking tour was that it would be a way for Stowe to deal with personal griefs by keeping busy.  In 1871 her son Frederick, in the throes of alcoholism, took ship for San Francisco where, after  arrival, he simply disappeared.  And in 1872 her brother Henry Ward Beecher was involved in the “Trial of the Century”, fighting in a New York courthouse for his personal and professional reputation against charges of adultery with a parishioner.

Starting in the fall of 1872, Stowe limited her reading itinerary to cities in the New England states.   But by 1873, having gained experience and confidence, Stowe jumped on the trains (apparently abandoning her earlier distaste for that form of transportation) and really took her show on the road.

Beginning her one-night stand readings in Reading, Pennsylvania on Sept. 30, she next traveled to Elmira and Oswego, then down to Syracuse where she appeared on Oct. 3.  Then back onto the trains to give a reading in Buffalo on Oct. 6.

Wait a minute! Buffalo?  What happened to Rochester?

The answer is, we don’t know. There’s simply no mention of Stowe in the Rochester papers during the three missing days.  Or an explanation in her correspondence or by her biographers of this curious oversight.

Rochester was an obvious stop between Syracuse and Buffalo. The elegant Corinthian Hall was certainly sufficient for her needs, and giving a reading at Rochester would have make far more financial sense than stopping at Oswego.  We also know from Stowe’s correspondence that she had several friends in Rochester (6), not the least of which was Frederick Douglass.  And yet in a letter written to her daughter Eliza on Oct. 12, she clearly states that, from Syracuse we went to Buffalo”.   So why did she simply roll past Rochester when she had three days to spare?  Given the lack of anything more definitive, I’m going to speculate to the extreme. Maybe Douglass is the very reason Stowe didn’t stop.

On a June night in the previous year, arsonists had set ablaze Douglass’ home on South Avenue.  By July he and his family had pulled up stakes and moved to Washington, DC.   It doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to assume that Stowe simply refused to give a reading in a city that had treated the nation’s leading African American spokesman, and her old friend, so shabbily.  And just maybe she still held a lingering resentment about her problems at the Rochester depot in 1842?

Stowe’s Buffalo reading – Oct. 6, 1873

If nothing else, from the description of her Buffalo reading, we can imagine what a Rochester audience would have heard.  There of course were the obligatory selections from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  Indeed the first half of her presentation was exclusively composed of that material.  Following intermission, she read several selections from her lesser known works.  In Buffalo’s case, readings from “The Minister’s Wooing”.

Continuing west, Stowe took the platform in Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Zanesville, and then east to Pittsburgh on Oct. 28.

For the remainder of her life Stowe was a homebody in Hartford where she and Calvin had moved in 1864. She continued to write books and articles, but let the world come to her rather then venturing out to see the world.   And as time progressed, she slowly sank into the throes of what has been subsequently diagnosed as Alzheimer’s.

Mark Twain, her neighbor in Hartford, wrote in his autobiography of her mental decline in her final years.

“Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes.”

Sadly, the “little women” who helped free the bodies of millions had ultimately been enslaved by her own body.  She died on July 1, 1896.  Despite the passage of time “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, the great work credited with forcing Americans to see the moral evils of slavery, remained in print, selling millions of copies in over 20 languages.  But in recent years it’s also come to be viewed less favorably. Prompting criticism that it promoted racial stereotypes and a patronizing attitude toward African Americans.


(1) Neither Stowe nor Lincoln ever wrote about their meeting.  The oft-repeated and oft-varied quote comes from the recollections of her family.

(2) While most of the details of Stowe’s early trips to the east and back home to Cincinnati are sketchy to non-existent, transportation routes at the time would have limited her travel options to coaches or the Erie Canal through New York State – and from 1842 onward railroads between Buffalo and Albany – or via a series of interconnected canals and coach routes through Ohio and Pennsylvania.

(3) In an 1841 article, “The Canal Boat”, doubtless based on her own experiences traveling on canals, Stowe wrote about how the separate, if cramped, sleeping accommodations for men and women were not always sufficient for privacy, “Let us not intimate how ladies’ shoes have, in a night, clandestinely slid into the gentlemen’s cabin, and gentlemen’s boots elbowed, or, rather, toed their way among ladies’ gear, nor recite the exclamations after runaway property that are heard.”   

(4) A popular fad of the mid-19th. Century, the “water cure” or “hydrotherapy”   consisted of drinking large quantities of ice water and being wrapped like a mummy in sheets continually soaked in cold water, the idea being that the water would flush impurities out of the body.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Rochester (1878)

(5) Theatrical productions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sprang up before the ink was dry on the first edition.  Operating in most cases without Stowe’s permission and paying her no royalties, and in many cases bearing only a passing resemblance to the actual story (in many versions the play presented a benign “Gone With the Wind” version of happy slaves on paternalistic plantations) hundreds of acting troupes (almost exclusively whites in blackface) toured the cities and small towns in America presenting their “Tom shows” into the 1950s.

(6) At various times Stowe wrote to family members about her Rochester friends.  For example when, Mr. Huntington our Florida next neighbor sent me from Rochester the other day a barrel….of pears”, and how she saw Mr. and Mrs. Smith of Rochester while staying in New Hampshire.


A Tale of One City: Charles Dickens in Rochester

Herman Melville in Rochester, 1840, 1846 and 1858

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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