"All I want is for Cate to leave me alone."

In September 1848, a portly man strode to the middle of a bridge over the Connecticut River, ripped a fistful of letters to bits and tossed them into the swirling waters.

Calvin Stowe was tired of taking orders from his domineering sister-in-law.

"Cate has neither conscience nor sense - if you consent to take half a pound, she will throw a ton on your shoulders & run off & leave you saying - it isn't heavy at all, you can carry it with perfect ease," he wrote to his wife, Harriet Beecher Stowe. "I will have nothing to do with her in the way of business, any more than I would with the Devil, not a bit -- & you ought not to have. She would kill off a regiment like you and me in 3 days."

As the oldest of 11 children, Catharine Beecher had always been queen of the "Beecher buzz" - that whir of activity emanating from the family parsonage in Litchfield.

Like the Kennedys of Massachusetts in the 20th century, the Beechers of Connecticut were America's most prominent family of the 19th century. The Beecher family's fortunes were not financial but intellectual; Lyman Beecher came to be known as the "father of more brains than any other man in America."

People loved or hated the Beechers - or "those damn Beechers" to those who saw the family as troublesome meddlers and even radicals, always getting involved in things that didn't concern them as they relentlessly, sometimes shrilly, challenged the nation's silence on slavery, intemperance and women's rights.

For many years, Hartford was the Beecher "annex" - home to Lyman Beecher's grown daughters and various family members, who boarded together in the same Hartford residence in their early years and later, when finances improved, lived near each other at the Nook Farm compound on Forest Street.

Unable to follow their father into the clergy, as all their brothers did, the Beecher daughters found their own pulpits for social reform.

Catharine pioneered the notion of a serious academic education for women. Harriet subverted the nation's blasé acceptance of slavery with her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And their flamboyant half-sister, Isabella, helped lead the fight for women's suffrage.

Bossy, funny and smart, Catharine made it all happen, shaping her sisters not only through force of personality but by unshuttering their minds. At a time when girls were considered incapable of mastering "difficult" subjects beyond embroidery and stenciling, Catharine taught Latin, mathematics and philosophy. But first she had to educate herself, then write the textbooks and create the classrooms to pass on her knowledge. One of her earliest pupils was her sister Harriet.

In fact, until the publication of the serial "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe's chief fame was being the sister of Catharine Beecher, who had become the popular author of publications on homemaking and child-rearing, making her the Dr. Spock-Dr. Laura-Martha Stewart of her era.

"She was an agent of change," said historian Kathryn Kish Sklar, author of a biography on Catharine. "She started in the domestic world, where most women lived their lives, and encouraged them to take more control of their lives."

By the end of the 19th century, however, the roles had reversed and Catharine's accomplishments faded as historians focused on her famous young sisters Harriet and Isabella. Catharine became the "forgotten" Beecher - a term that surely would have amused her brothers and sisters.

"A man cannot ravel out the stitches in which early days have knit him."

- From "The Minister's Wooing" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1859

Every Sunday, the Beecher children would file out of the family home in Litchfield, cross the green to the Congregational church and watch their minister father work his magic from the pulpit. They couldn't understand much of his evangelical rants, but they noticed the way he moved an entire congregation.

Warm, impulsive and at times amazingly insensitive to the feelings of others, Lyman Beecher profoundly influenced all of his children, especially his oldest daughter, who looked like a miniature version of her father, with her lithe build, angular features and chestnut-color hair.

Religion was not just for Sundays at the Beecher parsonage; Lyman made no distinction between church and home when it came to "snaring" souls. Each of his children, perhaps none more courageously than Catharine, had to cope with their father's well-intentioned but psychically exhausting remonstrances to be "saved" or suffer eternal damnation.