"For years I had tried to measure up to the rest of the Beechers."
- Isabella Beecher Hooker
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."