"For years I had tried to measure up to the rest of the Beechers."
- Isabella Beecher Hooker
A historian once wrote that the kindest thing he could say about Isabella Beecher Hooker was "she must have been a little mad."
In a family letter, Harriet once called Isabella a "monomaniac." Because of Isabella's tendency to talk to the dead, her sons-in-law periodically banned her from seeing her grandchildren. Comparing herself with Harriet, Isabella herself wrote, "Seeing the evidences of genius all around me here - my own littleness fairly stared me in the face."
Isabella's perception of her own littleness in the panoply of the fabulous Beecher family never left her, although she blazed trails and challenged public sensibilities with a vengeance. By combining some qualities from her domineering older sister, Catharine, and the whip-smart Harriet, Isabella established herself as a mover in the American suffragist movement and in American spiritualism - and labored under public scrutiny unheard of by her famous siblings.
She published brochures, articles and letters to the editor. She traveled west on a speaking tour. She advocated birth control and co-authored legislation that gave property rights to women in Connecticut. She took a public stand against a brother she thought was a philanderer, the same brother who earlier had been called "The Conscience of America" by President Abraham Lincoln.
Mostly, though, she left history confounded with what to do with her.
"She was eccentric - but in a good way," said Allyn Van Deusen, a doctoral candidate at Binghamton University in New York, where she is writing a dissertation on Isabella and her husband, John Hooker. "She was out there, and she wasn't afraid."
From the beginning, Isabella went her own way.
Lyman Beecher, son of a blacksmith, was married three times and sired 13 children, four from his second wife, Harriet Porter. The second Mrs. Beecher, whose uncles were governors, bishops and congressmen, was aloof to her stepchildren.
Harriet Porter's only daughter was Isabella Holmes Beecher, born in 1822 in Litchfield. Harriet died of consumption in 1835, and Isabella, a pretty 13-year-old whom the family feared was becoming a clotheshorse, moved to Hartford to live with her half-sister, Mary Perkins, and to attend her older sister Catharine's school, the Hartford Female Seminary. There, Isabella practiced her handwriting and once in a composition allowed that vanity "was the worst vice."
Of her education, Isabella wrote: "At 15 my dear good father (instigated of course by his new wife) came to me & suggested that I should begin to teach school now & support myself. I, who had never been to school in earnest for two years together in my whole life. At sixteen & a half, just when my brothers began their mental education, mine was finished - except as life's discipline was added with years. Till twenty-three, their father, poor minister as he was, could send them to College & Seminary all six - cost what it might, but never a daughter cost him a hundred dollars a year, after she was sixteen."
At 17, Isabella met John Hooker, a law clerk in her brother-in-law's office and a descendant of Hartford's founder. When he proposed, Isabella wrote to him: "I acknowledge great cause for thankfulness that you dear sir are one to whom I can in all love render the required obedience without being constantly reminded that such is the will of God & the expectation of man - I don't know how it can be otherwise than galling to a sensible woman."
After two years of vacillating, she married John Hooker in 1841 and moved to Farmington until the family settled into a large, new Hartford home on a section of land purchased by John and his brother-in-law, Francis Gillette.
At their Forest Street home, the Hookers hosted freewheeling salons in which neighbors and friends gathered for discussions that lasted for days. Gillette was decidedly anti-feminist, and his arguments with Isabella extended to long public letters in The Courant. In 1868, Mark Twain came to Hartford to arrange for the publication of "Innocents Abroad." He stayed with the Hookers, fell in love with the neighborhood, known as Nook Farm, and in 1871 started buying land for his own brick mansion nearby.
The Hooker house was less formal than the neighbors' and was crowded with bric-a-brac Isabella brought home from her travels. Because of those trips - and the family's year-round entertaining - the Hookers frequently faced financial disaster.
The Hooker marriage bent under the strain, but it remained, more than most marriages of the time, a partnership, Van Deusen said.
"She read John's law books to him because his eyesight was so bad," Van Deusen said. "Isabella is always full of surprises, and John Hooker is a funny, patient guy. He adores his wife. He adores his children."
That adoration did not prevent conflicts. In 1878, Isabella wrote to John, "My husband's lack of confidence in me is a steady drawback to my happiness. You have trespassed on my individuality just as sister Catharine on her friends." To which John wrote, "I have given up more than you." He once admitted lying to a family member, but explained that fibbing was "almost necessary in your defense."
Isabella's world shrank with each child. In 1842, she gave birth to a boy who died within the year. In the next 13 years, Isabella gave birth to three more children, Alice, Mary and Ned. The rivalry of Alice and Mary caused her much pain. In a February 1847 letter to John, she wrote: "The cares of housekeeping and children will make any effort at mental improvement difficult if not impossible. I can never cease to regret the very early age at which I was compelled to leave off study - it was my intention to be a school girl till I was twenty at least."
In her diary, she wrote: "I should enjoy reading [a scientific book] through, but it requires close attention and this is almost impossible for me to give with Mary at my elbow and with my brain half asleep from want of fresh air and company and exercise."
Even before Harriet Beecher Stowe, Isabella and John published articles and spoke in favor of abolition. In a letter to Catharine dated 1838, Isabella wrote: "You must become an abolitionist or you will be left in the background."
But abolition work wasn't enough. In 1868, the 46-year-old mother of three often referred to her "half-forsaken nest." Daughter Mary had wed two years earlier; over her mother's objections, Alice would marry John Calvin Day the next summer. That left only affable son Ned. Isabella needed an outlet for her prodigious Beecher energy.
At one New Year's Eve gathering at the Hookers' home, Isabella alternately entertained the Clemenses - Samuel and Olivia - and other neighbors, and three different mediums, whom she moved to upstairs bedrooms. The evening ended after one of the mediums, a female of small build, ran down the stairs and beat on John Hooker as she channeled the energy of an Indian warrior, she explained later.
It was not necessarily an out-of-the-ordinary night on Forest Street. Unlike her father's Christian Calvinism, spiritualism made no threats or demands and had no clergy. Isabella wrote that she could sink into trances and speak or write as another person, and she embraced that ability.
Her son, who would become a doctor, indulged his mother's trances. Her daughters - and, more particularly, her daughters' husbands - were less forgiving. At different times they refused to let Isabella have contact with her grandchildren. Still, Isabella would not abandon spiritualism, which she first saw practiced by her older sisters Mary, who'd been her surrogate mother, and Harriet, whom she revered.
In an 1890 letter to her daughter Alice, Isabella described a speech she'd given to Washington suffragists. She relied, she said, on the oratorical skills of her minister brother, Henry Ward Beecher, who had been dead for three years. "He has entreated me many times to give myself up to his control," Isabella wrote, "but I have not been quite ready to trust him to speak for a woman's soul."
After one argument with John, Isabella wrote to apologize and said her harsh words actually came from Catharine, who had died earlier that year.
Not all suffragists were spiritualists, but spiritualism embraced universal equality and was a popular religion among early feminists. In the 1860s, steeped in the egalitarian teachings of spiritualism and the legal writings of Sir William Blackstone, Isabella began reading John Stuart Mill. In 1868, she anonymously wrote for Putnam's Magazine "A Mother's Letters to a Daughter on Woman Suffrage."
The next year, she organized a convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association in Hartford, from which sprang the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. Anxious that suffrage take hold in stuffy Hartford, Isabella was explicit in her instructions on dress and manner to the main speaker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was not accustomed to such guidance. Later, Stanton told suffragist Susan B. Anthony that the members of the association seemed to like "the most inoffensive speech I could produce."
Sitting in the audience for Stanton's speech were elderly Glastonbury sisters Abby Hadassah and Julia Evelina Smith. After the meeting, they refused to pay taxes until they were allowed to vote. Like Isabella, the sisters had been involved in the abolition movement from girlhood, and their father, a minister who'd become a lawyer, had heightened their interest in human rights. For the next seven years, seven of the Smiths' eight cattle were confiscated by town officials, and every year the women bought them back at public auction.
In 1870, Isabella, with husband John, wrote a property tax bill that for the first time recognized the right of Connecticut women to hold property. When the bill became law in 1877, the Smiths' cattle were safe. Anthony called Isabella "the soundest constitutional lawyer in the country."
But Isabella's sisters disagreed, and portions of their circular family letters were devoted to trying to convince Isabella she was wrong. Wrote Catharine: "This woman's movement is one which is uniting by co-operating influences all the antagonisms that are warring on the family state." Harriet supported women's rights, but she wrote with nostalgia of Puritan women and large families.
Isabella's notoriety would increase tenfold through her friendship with Victoria Woodhull, a medium-turned-broker-turned -editor. The flamboyant Woodhull called for voting rights and free love and angered as many people as she enthralled.
While sisters Catharine and Harriet Beecher exchanged barbed shots with Woodhull in newspaper and magazine articles, Isabella's support was unflagging. In a letter to Anthony, Isabella wrote: "I could make pages of commendations of her brain, her heart, her manners." In response, Harriet wrote in a letter to one of her children that Isabella was a "monomaniac."
In November 1872, Woodhull published an account of Henry Ward Beecher's alleged adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, a married member of his Brooklyn Heights Plymouth Church. Woodhull was angry that the married Beecher concealed what she thought was his support of free love.
The scandal reached a crescendo in the summer of 1874. Henry Beecher's case went to a civil trial, but a jury could not agree on a verdict, while a council of ministers exonerated Beecher.
The Beecher clan split over Woodhull's action. Harriet was particularly outspoken in her condemnation of Woodhull, called "Mrs. Satan" by some newspapers. Beecher brother Thomas remained silent; Isabella sided with Woodhull.
Isabella's stance was an egregious breech of family loyalty. Rumors flew that Isabella was crazy, that she'd been romantically involved with a senator in Washington, that she entertained an "unnatural affection" for Woodhull. She was ostracized by Harriet and alienated from her daughter, Mary, who felt her mother's support of Woodhull created difficulties for John Hooker.
John and Isabella fled to Europe. There, Isabella began experiencing visions she insisted were sent by her long-dead mother. Through the ensuing years, Harriet Porter Beecher would give her daughter advice on everything from speeches to proper clothes.
It was three years before Nook Farm - where Olivia Clemens stood at the head of the pack in shunning Isabella - regained its status as a salon. But after she returned, Isabella never regained the momentum she'd enjoyed previously with the women's movement. She wrote and spoke, but her audiences were noticeably smaller.
By the Hookers' golden wedding anniversary in 1891 in Hartford, the couple was hailed as "Queen Isabella and Apostle John." Susan B. Anthony attended the party, as did many of Hartford's elite. When John Hooker's "Some Reminiscences of a Long Life" was published in 1899, he dedicated it to his wife, "whose enlightened and inspiring companionship for over half a century has made my life well worth living."
By now, Isabella kept contact with the spirit world more than the temporal one. John said they had corresponded with as many as 450 spirits - including friends, relatives, Napoleon, Joan of Arc and Beethoven.
After John died in 1901, Isabella insisted that he contacted her, as did their daughter, Mary, who had died of tuberculosis at age 39. Isabella devoted herself to the spirit conversations, but even then she was, she wrote, "waiting for time to track old Connecticut into line" with the vote for women. Every year until she died, Isabella cajoled the legislature to consider a suffrage bill in Connecticut.
But like so many of her contemporaries, she would not live to see the vote. She died at home of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 86 in the wee hours of Jan. 18, 1907. Mark Twain was an honorary pallbearer at her funeral; a chorus sang a hymn written by sister Harriet, and the eulogy was delivered not by a Congregational minister but by a Unitarian one.
In her obituary, The Courant devoted more ink to the family than to Isabella, the last of the Beecher siblings. Of the Beechers, the paper said: "It was a family with ideas and convictions. They followed no band but their own."
Of Isabella, the newspaper got in one last dig about her life's work in spiritualism and then wrote: "We like better now to recall the earlier Nook Farm years - the open door, the simple but fine hospitality, the strong, luminous face, the delightful talk, the occasional absent-mindedness that so suddenly became keen attention, and the unfailing kindliness."
She was buried in Hartford's Cedar Hill Cemetery. Her mottled legacy most likely would have made her furious - a complex woman, Van Deusen said, who is easier to dismiss than embrace.