Mary Ann and little Charles: Two Mysterious Wollstonecraft Children

This is the fifth of a series of posts by Wayne Bodle on the lives and works of the Wollstonecraft family in America. 

When Nancy K. Wollstonecraft placed her step-daughter, Jane Nelson Wollstonecraft, into the household of Rev. Richard Hall, in New Ipswich, N.H., in 1818, she allegedly brought two other children, a boy and a girl of uncertain circumstance and age, to her parental home in Rindge, a town lying just to the west.  In the newspaper controversy that erupted that fall over Jane’s abduction by her birth mother, Sarah, critics charged that the children–initially described as the “adopted” children of Charles Wollstonecraft–were actually his “illegitimate” offspring, presumably with Nancy.  As no other evidence about these actors existed, I thought that they might likelier have been literary props; vestiges of the vitriol often staining such bitter disputes.

Then, scurrying through a closing campus bookstore late one holiday evening later that year in search of wrapping paper, my reflexive stab at an interesting looking new book by Lucia McMahon, Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic(Ithaca, 2112), exploded this skepticism.   The index’s predictable entry for “Wollstonecraft” upended my shopping trip. In a chapter on the epistolary courtship of Linda Raymond, one generation younger than Nancy but living in Rindge, and Benjamin Ward, law-clerking in Massachusetts towns to establish himself professionally as a credible husband, Ward invoked Linda’s “late protégé,” Mary Ann Wollstonecraft, who he had found in an English history book.  McMahon used the item to analyze the lovers’ participation in the American “reception history” of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas about women’s rights, but I was puzzled by the middle name.   The empirical context suggested a Wollstonecraft relative living right there in Rindge, who I was certain had to be Jane!  At first glance it looked like a paradigmatic case of the “clueless boyfriend syndrome”—i. e., a suitor not listening carefully enough to even get the name right, but other than that, he knew everything.  The manuscript sources were housed at the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard.  I wanted to drop my presents, step away from the shelf, purchase the book, and race to the nearby Amtrak station in Philadelphia to hop on the midnight train to Boston—which providentially enough still ran in those days!   But prudence, the weather, and insufficient funds delayed this research trip for six months.  When I finally arrived on Brattle Street the next summer it became obvious that any cluelessness was mine.

Further reading in the Raymond-Ward correspondence showed that the girl, Mary Ann Wollstonecraft, and her younger brother, Charles, were almost certainly the two “other children” in the New Ipswich adoption controversy, legitimate or otherwise.  Nancy Kingsbury’s father, Benjamin, late in life apprenticed himself to Rev. Seth Payson and become a deacon in Rindge’s Congregational Church.  Although he gave “fearfully long” sermons, he was probably beyond the age of effective surrogate parenting, so Charles and Mary Ann lived with Linda Raymond’s own parents.  They both had made intensely favorable impressions on their hosts.  Payson was a ferocious critic of French “Illuminism,” and he would have been horrified to have anyone with their surname living in the community, much less in the house of one of his own deacons.

Linda Raymond’s letters to Ward disclosed that her circle of young female friends was under ferocious epidemiological assault in the late 1810s and early 1820s.  In February of 1818 and May of 1819, she reported the loss to disease of three of her intimate friends, and noted that their society of young ladies was “decreasing very fast.”    Dr. Payson died in February of 1820.     The evidence is far too fragmentary to be systematic, much less significant, but the contrast between the pious and spiritual tone of the late adolescent and young adult women of Rindge and the gleefully secular spirit of the similarly-aged Barrett and Champney daughters of neighboring New Ipswich, who served as “decoys” in the abduction of Jane in the same years, is striking and invites further study.  The affecting testimony of the demographer Lemuel Shattuck, celebrating the gendered and generational solidarities of his “two beloved sisters,” Rebecca and Betsey, who died of epidemics in New Ipswich in 1817 and 1822, underscores the same point.  Rev. Payson’s own daughter, Eliza, perhaps defying her father’s conservatism, reported to Linda Raymond and reflected mournfully on the death of “our dear Mary [Ann Wollstonecraft]” in 1819.  A year later Raymond told Ward that “our dear little Charles [Wollstonecraft]” was leaving for Cuba that very afternoon, hopefully to “find a good mother” in Nancy.    The question of these children’s “legitimacy” for practical purposes had seemingly melted into oblivion in this otherwise intense Second Great Awakening community as the debate over Jane’s abduction receded into the past.

Charles was doubtless the putatively ten year old passenger who customs officers listed as debarking in Portland with the Matanzas “planter,” “Madame Mary Woolstencroft” in 1824, and that is the last recorded glimpse of him that we have to date.   The evidence for much of this entire narrative is at once promiscuously abundant and maddeningly fragmentary.  We can  conclude, for now, by noting that Linda Raymond and Benjamin Ward finally married in 1823.  Their life together, however much it met their dream of a “union of reason and love,” was brief.   Ward died in 1828 of the same chronic illness that shaped the gradual pace of their courtship.  After four years of widowhood Linda Raymond Ward married Nancy Wollstonecraft’s much younger half-brother, Nathaniel Kingsbury, who left Harvard in his junior in 1820 to spend a year living with his sister in Cuba.  Of his four marriages, only the last one endured mortality for more than a few years, as epidemic diseases continued to sweep through a region that historians recall as the healthiest and most geriatrically-stable societal regime in early English America.  Nathaniel’s progeny, in specific ways that have still not been fully decoded, were vectors that brought Nancy’s botanical pictures and annotations to Cornell in the early Twentieth Century.

 

Wayne Bodle is a Senior Research Associate of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.   Before retiring two years ago, he taught at Penn, the University of Iowa, Rider University, and mostly, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is working on a book on the “Wollstonecrafts in America,” from 1792 until at least 1904.

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