How Irish-Catholic Louise Guiney Outwitted Her Protestant Postal Customers

When Irish-Catholic Louise Guiney got the job of postmistress in Auburndale, Mass., the town’s Protestants boycotted her stamps.

Louise Guiney by Fred Holland Day

Louise Guiney by Fred Holland Day

Fortunately, she had many, many friends who helped her get by.

Called the ‘lost lady of American letters,’ Louise Guiney was born Jan. 7, 1861, in Roxbury, Mass.

Her father, Patrick Robert Guiney, emigrated from Ireland with very little money, but worked his way through college, became a lawyer, served heroically in the Civil War and was named brigadier general. After the war he entered politics, becoming one of the first Irish-Catholics to win office as a Republican. He lost a bid for Congress but won as assistant district attorney. Plagued by his war injuries, he died when Louise was 16 and left little money.

A devout Catholic, she was educated at a convent in Providence, but couldn’t afford college. She continued to study on her own and to write poetry that was published in the Atlantic, Harper’s and Scribner’s.

Her biographer, Henry Fairbanks, called her a rare combination: ‘pure of heart, brilliant of mind.’ She was considered a bridge between Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

She was also a bridge between intellectual and artistic circles in fin-de-siecle Boston.

Ralph Adams Cram. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Ralph Adams Cram. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

She was a close friend of a Bohemian group from a somewhat raffish Beacon Hill neighborhood that included the architect Ralph Adams Cram, Fred Holland Day, artist Tom Meteyard, poets Bliss Carman and Richard Hovey. Across the hill, she was part of a group of intellectual women that included Celia Thaxter, Sarah Orne Jewett, Annie Fields and Alice Brown, with whom she is believed to have a Boston marriage.

Her financial straits forced her to take a job as postmistress in Auburndale. The postmistress’ compensation was determined by how much business the post office did. Guiney became victim of an anti-Catholic plot. Ralph Adams Cram, who organized a response, recollected,

The suburb of Auburndale was a favorite retreat of retired Protestant missionaries. …Suddenly the business began to decline rather alarmingly. Certain Sherlock Holmes procedures … revealed just what was happening… .. The situation was intolerable to the evangelical mind; therefore the Papist incumbent must be driven out by the simple expedient of transferring the trade to other neighbouring post offices – which was done.

Concerted action on the part of Lou Guiney’s friends produced notable results. We all bought postage stamps … in such quantities that the Auburndale post office advanced in the matter of business done, and with such leaps and bounds that finally an emissary from the Post Office Department was sent out to ascertain what it all meant.

Louise Guiney eventually took a job at the Boston Public Library, where she wrote poetry and essays in her spare time. In 1901, she moved to Oxford, England, where she used the libraries to research an anthology of Catholic poets. Though her health suffered, she stinted on food and coal to buy books.

Louise Guiney died Nov. 2, 1920, of a stroke at age 59, leaving her work unfinished.




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