Arts and Leisure

Elizabeth Peabody, Always a Bridesmaid…

In 1832, a young widower named Horace Mann moved into a Boston boardinghouse where he met two intellectual schoolteachers from Salem, Mary and Elizabeth Peabody. They were sisters.

Elizabeth Peabody

Elizabeth Peabody late in life

Mary fell in love with Horace Mann at first sight. But Mary soon left for Cuba with a third sister, Sophia, to work as a governess for a few years. Elizabeth became Mann’s new best friend. She wrote frequently to Mary that the despondent Mann had held her hand and given her brotherly hugs. Mary was not pleased.

Elizabeth protested she only wanted to be Horace Mann’s friend. She may have protested too much. In one letter, she told Mary he’d signed a note to her, “Yours very affectionately,” and she confessed she “actually kissed those sweet words.”

Ten years later, Mary Peabody married Horace Mann, who became a celebrated education reformer, member of Congress and president of Antioch College.

Horace Mann

Twice Bitten, Never Shy

By all accounts, Mary was prettier than Elizabeth. Megan Marshall, in The Peabody Sisters, describes Elizabeth as “not unattractive, shiny-haired, slim and small – a woman who talked easily and could coax a shy man to speak freely as well. She was also messy, headlong and headstrong.” Of the three accomplished Peabody sisters, Elizabeth would achieve the most.

Except in love.

In 1837, Elizabeth Peabody, at 33, had moved back to Salem with her family. She befriended a handsome young neighbor named Nathaniel Hawthorne, who spent most of the last 12 years writing in the upstairs bedroom of his family’s house.

Elizabeth loved his Twice-Told Tales, and promoted his work to Mann. She also wrote a glowing magazine review and even sent the book to the poet William Wordsworth, with whom she corresponded.  Hawthorne’s work got some positive reviews, and he emerged from his seclusion.

Sophia Hawthorne

Sophia Hawthorne

Hawthorne courted Elizabeth– “flamboyantly,” according to Susan Cheever in American Bloomsbury. He also courted a woman named Mary Silsbee. Elizabeth helped get Hawthorne a job he needed desperately in the Salem Customs House. Then Hawthorne threw over Mary Silsbee and the rumor flew around Salem that he would marry Elizabeth.

Elizabeth later wrote, “Had Hawthorne wanted to marry me he would probably not have found much difficulty in getting my consent.”

Instead, Hawthorne fell in love with Elizabeth’s pretty younger sister, Sophia, also living at home in Salem. Sophia was an artist and an invalid, no doubt because of the mercury and opium with which doctors treated her. Hawthorne and Sophia were married five years after they first met, on July 9, 1842.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1841, by Charles Osgood

13 West Street

Elizabeth Peabody never married. She opened a bookstore and lending library at 13 West St. in Boston.

Mary Mann

Mary Mann

There she published periodicals, novels, children’s books, sermons and essays, including Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and the Transcendentalist journal The Dial.  Her bookshop frequently hosted authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and Oliver Wendell Holmes. She opened the first kindergarten in the United States with her sister Mary and later crusaded to open them across the United States.  She became an advocate for the Paiute Indians and helped them open a bilingual school.

Elizabeth Peabody died at 89 on Jan. 3, 1884, having outlived her sisters, their husbands and her Transcendentalist friends. She is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass.

This story about Elizabeth Peabody last updated in 2022. 


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