The Case of Jenny Bullard

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

Sarah Jane Wollstonecraft (Jenny)Bullard,” (1828-1904), was born in Boston to Mary Ann (Barrett) and Silas Bullard.   She was neither an “actual Wollstonecraft” by birth or by marriage, but her (second) middle name was something more than just a random, if tantalizing, bit of social evidence about the “reception history” of Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas in America    a generation after her death in 1797.   Mary Ann Barrett was the daughter of Charles Barrett, Jr., of New Ipswich, N.H., who was an ally and an agent of Sarah Garrison Wollstonecraft in the abduction of her daughter, Jane Nelson Wollstonecraft, in 1818.  Sarah Jane’s father, Silas Bullard, was a Boston merchant and an industrial partner of Charles Barrett, Jr., in a series of mills at or near New Ipswich early in the nineteenth century.  The Bullards were an important, if non-elite, New England family from the early days of the puritan “Great Migration” to the New World in the 1630s.  He was a member of a branch of his family that migrated north from the family core at Dedham, Massachusetts to New Ipswich early in the eighteenth century.

Mary Ann, a late adolescent, and several of her girlfriends, befriended Jane when she entered the household of Rev. Richard Hall in 1818.  They apparently served as lookouts or decoys who got Jane far enough away from his house for the abduction to succeed that August.  In newspaper debates over the episode, supporters of Barrett and of Jane’s birth mother printed purported letters from her—by then living in New York State—to Mary Ann, thanking her for her assistance in escaping from Rev. Hall, and implying continued friendship between the two.  (It should be noted that supporters of Nancy Wollstonecraft, the de facto, if absentee, “evil step-mother” in this scenario, published purported letters from Jane to precisely the opposite effect.)

In 1820, Mary Ann married her father’s partner, Silas Bullard.  They had four children during the next eight years, the last of whom was Sarah Jane Wollstonecraft (“Jenny”) Bullard.  It is hard not to conclude that her name(s) memorialized an event still resonating powerfully in Mary Ann’s emotional consciousness a decade later.  Another daughter from this marriage, Mary Bullard Dwight, was a member of the Brook Farm community in Massachusetts, who in 1851 married John S. Dwight, a prominent transcendentalist teacher and musical scholar/editor.

Little is known about the early and middle years of Jenny’s life (or any of it, really).  Silas Bullard died in 1835 and his widow married Alfred C. Hersey, a Boston businessman, in 1838.  The U.S. Census catches Jenny in abstract slices once every decade from 1850.  In that year Mary Bullard, still unmarried, and “Sarah J[ane] Bullard,” lived in Boston with their mother and step-father.   In 1860 John and Mary Bullard Dwight lived in Boston, housing her sister “Jennie Bullard,” along with a woman music teacher and a domestic servant.   (Mary Dwight died in September of that year while her husband traveled in Europe).  By 1870, “Jennie Bullard” was living in her mother’s hometown in New Ipswich, listed singly as “keeping house” there. The Herseys lived until 1875 (for Mary), and until1888 (for Alfred), probably still in Boston.      Jennie may have kept house in New Ipswich at their “summer residence,” an increasingly popular amenity or asset class for Boston’s affluent elite inhabitants after the Civil War.  She probably resided in the house of her late great grandfather, Charles Barret, Sr. who built the huge mansion next door (to which Jane N. Wollstonecraft had been brought, kicking and screaming by some accounts, in 1818) as a wedding present for Charles Jr and his new bride. .

In 1880 “Jane W. Bullard” was again listed as heading a household in New Ipswich, now with two middle-aged female boarders, Mary F. Dean and Mary E Miller, and an Irish servant.   Neither of the boarders was identified by her occupation, if they had any.  In the fragmentary modern consciousness remaining today about Jane, there is a vague sense that this circumstance —a group of unrelated, or at least unmarried, female co-residents living autonomously without visible sources of income—became locally defining about the house; perhaps in a context of unease if not even scandal.  But this premise is based on no scholarship whatsoever, merely my own awkward stab at digesting ragged snippets of text in numerous ambiguous publications. [1]

This ambiguity is bolstered by the fact that Massachusetts’s federal census records for 1890 were destroyed in a fire.   In 1900 “Jennie W.Bullard” was still listed as residing in New Ipswich, now with Mary Dean but not Mary Miller.  There was a new and younger resident, Laura N. Barr, who was related to Jenny, about whom, see more below or in a later post.

Census data can only say so much beyond its primitive locational or tracking function.  The appearance, disappearance, and reappearance of initials in Sarah/Jane/Jennie’s mutating census name, especially the perhaps diagnostic “W,” is intriguing.  But we know nothing about the ceremonies of interaction between visiting enumerators and resident(s) of a house.  What did having the name “Wollstonecraft” mean to a provincial American woman in the late nineteenth century?   Non-census information is surely suggestive, but fragmentary enough to be galling. An undated scrawl in a notebook kept episodically by the poet Walt Whitman (of Brooklyn, or Camden, N.J., or Washington, DC) carries the mystifying signifier “Case of Jenny Bullard.”[2]

Another fragment about Jenny that we have to fill the gap between the 1880 and 1900 censuses is an “Account Book” of a Boston business, the “E.G. Bullard Apothecary,” for 1882-1883, held with the Barrett Family Papers in the collections of Historic New England.  The book is, on its face, about as articulate as any document created to record debts and receipts.  But one page has the notation “Jenny W.Bullard, proprietor.” I have found little information about E.G. Bullard beyond some prosaic references in pharmaceutical industry publications.  But Jenny’s first cousin, Enoch P. Bullard, was born in Boston and he grew up in Concord and Littleton, New Hampshire.  He worked in dry goods and in private merchant banking in Boston.  In 1857 he moved to New York City to marry Laura Jane Curtis, a feminist and abolitionist writer and editor who mixed literary production with suffragist and other women’s rights political work.  He was an executive in a wholesale drug company that grew out of the Curtis’s family’s involvement with the distribution of patent medicines. Still a third Yankee Bullard, Edwin, spent his career as a partner in a drug store in Keene, N.H,  a proverbial “few towns over” from New Ipswich., [3]

These factoids may be coincidental but coincidence and cultural connection are entangled phenomena in early modern New England family and community history. Take “Wollstonecraft” out of Jenny’s cascade of names—and its increasingly prevalent diminutive, “W” in her use of those names—and I might be inclined to think that this inquiry, or at least its book version, can end with Jane Nelson Wollstonecraft Sims’s death in New Orleans in 1882.  But Jenny died in New Ipswich in 1904 (the same year that Enoch did in New York City). Her probate executor and heir was her housemate and step-second cousin, Laura Maria Barr.  Barr’s middle initial was not “N.,” as the census taker heard it, but neither was it “W.” She was definitely, as Jenny was perhaps only inferentially, a feminist, a suffragist, an activist, and an agent of change.  She lived in the Old Barrett Place (at least during summers), as unmarried and as unconventional as Jenny had been for much of the rest of her life, which ended in 1949.  I want to get the Wollstonecrafts in America story as close as possible to the Nineteenth Amendment, if not down to my own time. For which reason, I think that I’ll proceed to investigate these things for a little while longer.

1  See, for example, Brock Jobe and Myrna Kaye, New England Furniture: The Colonial Era: Selections from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. (Boston, 1984), pp. 154-156,   “Chest of Drawers,” Provenance:  “…. A series of single people—widows and unmarried women—resided in the house….[including] Mary Ann Barrett Bullard Hersey until 1875; [and] Mary Ann’s daughter, Sarah Jane Bullard, until 1903…” 

[2]   The editorial apparatus for the published version of Whitman’s notebooks leads us to a “Letter from William D. O’Connor to Walt Whitman,” October 19, 1865, from New Ipswich, N.H., in which Whitman’s friend O’Connor writes “I am staying here at the house of Miss Jenny Bullard, a friend of whom I believe I have spoken to you.  I wish you knew her.  You would like her…. She told me today that she wanted me to invite you to come up here…”  The apparatus for this letter says that this is “the only other reference to Bullard in the poet’s papers. Bullard’s full name was Sarah Jane Wollstonecraft Bullard…..Bullard never married and is said to have lived with two women.”

[3]Denise M. Kohn, “Legacy Profile, Laura Jane Curtis Bullard (1831-1912),”  Legacy, Vol. 21 No. 1  2004. 

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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1 Response to The Case of Jenny Bullard

  1. Pingback: The Wollstonecrafts in America – links and summary | Feminist History of Philosophy

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