NORTHAMPTON’S RIVER OF TIME
An Old Order Yields to Diverse Newcomers
By BRIAN TURNER
By the 1820s the old Puritan order in Northampton had ended, and religious traditions once thought unassailable melted away. In 1825, the Second Congregational Society was organized, followed in 1826 by the Episcopal Church and the First Baptist Church. In 1833, members of the First Church broke away to form the Edwards Society. Where the First Church had dominated since 1661, the varieties of religious experience multiplied and co-existed, with the exception of Northampton’s Catholics, who formed a church in 1834 but continued to meet resistance.
Northampton, however blessed by religious tradition, was not immune to displays of cruel and unusual punishment. In 1805, two Irish Catholics, Dominic Daley and James Halligan, were “observed” in the vicinity of a murder site in Wilbraham, a town then in Northampton’s jurisdiction as county seat of Hampshire County. Based on scant evidence, the two men were tried, found guilty and hanged before 15,000 spectators. Similar public executions took place in other communities, and comparably large crowds gathered to watch, so in this regard Northampton was not unique.
Over the centuries, the Daley and Halligan case has drawn the attention of locals, especially Irish-Americans who argue that the arrest and trial showed anti-Catholic, anti-Irish bias. Others argue that the proceedings, however flawed, were typical of trials and executions of that era, with the condemned, whether Irish or native-born, sharing one essential trait: poverty. In 1984, Gov. Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation that acknowledged the “unfairness of the circumstances surrounding their trial” and formally removed “any stigma and disgrace associated with their names.” His carefully chosen words stop short of proclaiming the innocence of Daley and Halligan.
The Irish continued to arrive in large numbers, for industrialization demanded a workforce. Native-born resentment toward the Irish became pronounced, not only because of their Catholic faith, but because they took jobs in the industries along the Mill River, the area’s leading employers. The Irish soon had company in the migration to find work here: French-Canadians worked in the mills; many Polish turned to farming; Italians opened shops and small markets. Parishes formed, and a parochial school system opened in the 1890s to accommodate the growing number of Catholics here.
During the 19th century, immigration gave rise to schemes of social improvement. Nationally-known author George W. Cable proposed Home-Culture Clubs to “Americanize” young working immigrant women, who in turn would socialize their children. The courses were conducted in what is now The Peoples Institute, a building financed by a $50,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie, one of Cable’s well-placed friends. Cable had moved to Northampton from New Orleans in the mid-1880s, in part because he had gained notoriety for his portraits of people of mixed race. Cable’s stories of Creole life in the antebellum south are little read today, but at the time his popularity was such that when Mark Twain and Cable (photo at right) toured the Northeast, they promoted themselves as the “Twins of Genius,” and no one demurred.
However discomforted Northampton’s native-born may have been by the influx of “foreigners” or by the proliferation of social and religious practices, the city continued to accommodate itself to newcomers and continued to thrive. Well into the last century, one could hear French spoken on a Sunday morning as congregants left mass at Sacred Heart on King Street or Polish spoken as congregants left St. John Cantius on Hawley Street. In 1904, Northampton’s enclave of Jewish families formed the Congregation B’nai Israel on Bridge Street, forerunner of the synagogue now on Prospect Street. New forms of worship have continued to transform Northampton; today a priest in a cassock is a less common sight on Main Street than saffron-robed Buddhists beating drums to protest a war.
The Spirit of Reform
Many progressive thinkers saw education as a vehicle for reform, and Northampton had its share of educational experiments. From 1823 to 1834, Joseph Green Cogswell and George Bancroft ran a progressive school on Round Hill. Founded as a preparatory school for Harvard, then the nation’s most prestigious university, the Round Hill School’s curriculum included physical education. An outdoor gymnasium was built, the first in the United States, though Harvard and Amherst College soon followed.
The Round Hill student body came from America’s wealthiest families, and the education they received enabled them to enter Harvard as third year students. Harvard administrators encouraged Bancroft and Cogswell, who were Harvard alumni, but also refused to waive tuition for the years that Round Hill graduates were prepared to skip. The fathers of Round Hill students had not made their fortunes by paying for the same service twice, and so the school fell upon hard times.
Bancroft sold his share in the school to Cogswell, and went on to become a much honored historian, publishing his 10-volume History of the United States—today, the Bancroft Prize for history bears his name. Bancroft also served as Secretary of the Navy, and the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis was established under his tenure.
Cogswell became the director of the Astor Library in New York City. The Round Hill boys remembered him with affection for leading week-long treks from Northampton to Boston or New Haven. He also permitted them to build a shanty-town on Round Hill, called “Croney Village.” Cogswell supervised the village’s destruction when a local girl paid one shanty an unsupervised visit. Thomas Gold Appleton, the Boston raconteur and writer, recalled Cogswell’s coffee-grinder run by squirrel-power, i.e. a squirrel that ran in a wheel. And it was for Cogswell in 1864 that his students staged a festschrift in Cambridge. Bancroft sent congratulations but did not attend.
Some men and women came to Northampton to do more than educate, but to transform society at its foundations. In 1842 these radical souls formed an intentional community, the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, in the Warner School District (later Florence) to demonstrate their ideals. Many of the original communards came from northeast Connecticut, and had grown impatient with traditional religious institutions that skirted the issue of slavery or ignored the social ills brought about by too-rapid industrialization. For an insider’s account of life at the Association, see the book of letters by the Stetson family, with essays by Christopher Clark, Marjorie Senechal and Paul Gaffney: Letters from an American Utopia: The Stetson Family and the Northampton Association, 1843–47 (2004), edited by Christopher Clark and Kerry Buckley.
The Association members were derided by many in Northampton for being “long-haired men and short-haired women,” and for their non-sectarian, communitarian ideals. African Americans such as Sojourner Truth and David Ruggles joined; the Association was the only utopian community known to have permitted non-white members. Former slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass stayed at the Association whenever he spoke here; the radical newspaperman William Lloyd Garrison was a summer visitor and lectured in a natural amphitheatre under a grove of tall pines above Nonotuck Street. After the Association dissolved in 1846, Sojourner Truth stayed on to dictate the autobiography that would make her famous.
Former communitarians, such as Samuel L. Hill, who later became a wealthy manufacturer of silk, served as “conductors” on the Underground Railroad. His son Arthur recalled riding in his father’s wagon as fugitives were transported at night to Cummington. The Ross Farm on Meadow Street, once the property of the Northampton Association, has been accepted as a registered landmark of the underground.
The extent to which Florence welcomed African Americans accounts for the fact that, before the Civil War, Northampton had a higher percentage of African Americans, about 3 percent, than Boston or Springfield; by far, the greatest portion of Northampton’s African Americans lived in Florence.
The Philanthropic Impulse
Philanthropy was the approved vehicle for creating social change, yet one such instance gave rise to controversy. In 1847, the will of Hatfield’s Oliver Smith was contested by his relatives and defended by the lawyer and orator (and presidential candidate) Daniel Webster. The story of the case is told in Courtroom Crucible by Donald C. Ebbling (1976).
Smith’s will had been drafted over a period of years as the eccentric Hatfield farmer saw fit. The will had a populist flavor, for it valued tradesmen and farmers above those who sought a classical education in elite institutions, upon which Smith looked with suspicion. The Gazette criticized the will because the greater part of its endowment was to accumulate interest for years before being spent: “we think that [Oliver Smith] is not entitled to have his name enrolled among the truly benevolent.” The Gazette added that it would be “no matter
of regret with us” if the Smith family defeated the will.
The trial attracted wide attention. People who couldn’t get a seat in the courtroom placed ladders against the windows and took turns watching the proceedings from outside. The relatives’ case turned on the determination of one man’s sanity, since Massachusetts law held that not only did the testator have to be of “sound mind” but so did the witnesses. Theophilus Phelps, the son of Attorney Charles Porter Phelps, who had drawn up the document in 1844, had witnessed the will along with his brother. But Phelps had once attempted to drown himself and was committed to a hospital for the insane. In 1847 Webster interviewed Phelps, no longer confined, and judged him to be sound enough to testify. Ultimately, the prosecution could not establish that Phelps was “insane” at the time he witnessed the will, so Webster won the case. Of the will, the Gazette sniffed, “The public will have an opportunity to judge of it in practice.”
Under the Oliver Smith will, apprentices, nurses, brides and widows were to receive cash grants dispensed by Smith Charities, today housed in a building
on Main Street, with a true rarity for downtown property, a small lawn. Another $30,000 was designated for Smith’s Agricultural School, now Smith Vocational, which opened in 1908. One of Oliver Smith’s bequests, $10,000 for the American Colonization Society to ship “Negroes” back to Africa, never came to pass. The American Colonization Society failed to apply for the money in a timely fashion, so the $10,000 went into the fund for the agricultural school.
Over time Smith Charities altered some original stipulations, such as the requirement that apprentices live in the homes of the tradesmen to whom they were apprenticed. Also, during World War II, recipients who served in the armed forces no longer forfeited their awards, as had happened in the Civil War and World War I.
Throughout the 19th century, the spirit of philanthropy flowed unabated here, in particular from Hatfield to Northampton. Oliver Smith’s niece, Sophia, inherited a fortune from her brother Austin, who had failed in his attempt to contest Oliver’s will. With the counsel of Rev. John M. Greene, Sophia Smith endowed a college for women, so that “their wrongs will be redressed, their wages adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased.” Smith College opened in 1875. Its impact upon Northampton has been incalculable.
Brian Turner, who teaches composition at Smith College, is co-author of The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northampton , 1823-1953 (2002) and co-author of A History of the United States Air Force (2004).
Downstreet.net editor Edward Shanahan prepared the series of articles for publication.
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