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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Laura Towne

Laura Towne: Answer to a Slave's Prayer

So how did a woman who refused to fit in manage to leave a legacy of changing her world?  Well,  let’s look at her personal quirks from a different angle.  While Laura Towne was not ever going to find a real home in Philadelphia, the Low Country of South Carolina became her natural habitat.
 
The teachers and abolitionists who took part in what was called the Port Royal Experiment were forced into some very strange living arrangements as they settled into abandoned plantations.  There were a few married couples among them, and a couple of brother-sister groups, but for the most part, they were all single and needed to share accommodations, both for safety and in order to provide all the varied services they wanted to offer to the newly freed slaves.  So no one regarded Laura and her life-long companion, Ellen Murray, as anything other than natural housemates.  As time went by Laura and Ellen were able to purchase a small house they could call their own, and they lived together as a family with combined resources without raising a single eyebrow.
 
Laura’s brand of homeopathic medicine was exactly what the freed slaves needed.  They often had their own remedies for illnesses, but like most people, they wanted to be cared for, and Laura offered that.  One slave woman remarked that Laura could make you feel better just by walking into a room. Her experiments with homeopathic remedies also made her more open to considering alternate forms of medicine. She was shocked the first time she found a slave’s  leg wound covered in honey.  But when she realized that it was healing with no sign of infection, she was willing to adopt the use of honey as one of her remedies. Because she was caring and non-critical, the slaves accepted her ministrations but rejected traditional doctors.
 
Similarly, Laura’s Unitarian faith made her more accepting of the slave traditions.  She delighted in the Shout, a quasi-religious celebration that gave slaves a chance to express the feelings they had to keep hidden most of the time. She did not demand that her patients and students follow her own brand of religion, as so many of the missionaries did.  She urged open worship services and actively worked to get rid of any pastor who arrived with notions of converting the slaves to his own peculiar brand of religion.
 
It was only natural that people who had been slaves all their lives would welcome an abolitionist who demanded getting rid of all forms of slavery.  But Laura went further than that.  She strongly believed what others only preached.  Every abolitionist praised freedom and equality, but all too often, they meant that slaves had freedom to do as they were told and that they were equal to each other but not to their betters. Laura had a strong belief that if a black child received the same education as a white child, they would be equal in every way.  Others wanted to teach the former slaves how to be cleaner, how to raise more cotton, or how to run a small shop or create crafts.  Laura offered them Latin, composition, algebra, history, and geography, and the children flocked to her schools.
 
In short, the very qualities that had kept Laura from fitting into Philadelphia’s high society were the qualities that former slaves could value.  And that, perhaps, is what allows such a woman to become a world-changer.  She remained true to her core beliefs and used them for the betterment of those around her.
 

The Road to Frogmore,  a biographical novel by Carolyn P. Schriber, was published in 2012. In 2013, it won a Silver Medal from The Military Writers Society of America. A digital version will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.  

Laura Towne: Misfit

For all of her adult life (and much of her childhood as well), Laura Towne had known that she did not fit in with the society around her.  If someone had told her that in 150 years she would be touted as an example of a woman who made a permanent difference in the world, she would not have believed it.  Nor would she have believed that anyone would ever write a book about her life.  She knew she was different; she just didn’t know that being different was going to make her important. I see her as an example of how women can change their world. 
 
Laura’s world demanded that women fulfill one of two roles in society.  She could either marry and become a dutiful wife and doting mother, or she could remain in the family home as the caretaker of her parents, the support of her brothers and sisters, the family anchor. Laura wanted no part of either one.  She could not bring herself to be subordinate to a man, especially one who was not as intelligent or capable as she was.  She loved children but wanted to encourage them to flee the nest, not hover over them as protector. Her mother died when she was nine, her father when she was in her early twenties, so there was no need to take on the role of caregiver.  And she had no interest in encouraging her siblings to lean on her any more than they already did. She cherished a close friendship with another woman whom she considered her equal in every way.  She dreamed of sharing their lives, but knew that while Philadelphia society might allow two women to live together, they would never give their relationship the status of family. She thought she would always live a solitary existence, without the bonds of love and affection that sustained other people.
 
Laura wanted a career, even though she knew that there were few career options open to her.  She petitioned for years to be allowed to attend medical school, and finally found admission in Philadelphia’s first medical school for women.  There she was allowed to attend academic classes and lectures, but barred from any clinical experience on the grounds that women should never see the body of a man other than their husbands or children. Frustrated with the lack of contact with patients, she gave up her pursuit of a medical degree and turned to the study of homeopathic medicine, which put her even further outside the boundaries of acceptable careers. Most trained doctors looked down on homeopathy as quackery, but Laura found much to like.  It allowed her to be in close contact with her patients; treating them as individuals, not  cases; offering comfort and palliative care; and avoiding the harshness of dangerous medicines, quick amputation, or blood-letting.
 
Laura was a non-conformist when it came to religion, too.  In a city involved with evangelism in all its many forms, as well as a city that had been founded by Quakers, Laura was a Unitarian.  What was that?  The question bothered other people, too.  Unitarians believed in one God.  Only one, not a Trinity, which seemed to make them non-Christians.  They disliked dogma, official church doctrine, and any and creeds.  They believed religion should be a quiet and private affair.  They were ethical and reasonable, believers in free will, and flexible in their religious observances.  They were particularly irritating to traditional Christians because they denied the divinity of Jesus while following his teachings more closely than most Christians did.
 
Finally, there was the matter of politics.  Women did not have the right to vote and  were not expected to have political opinions.  They certainly were not expected to speak out about their views. But Laura was an abolitionist, and an outspoken one at that.  She was not afraid to express her hatred of slavery and demanded equality for all people, including women.  Abolitionists were usually northerners, but they were no more popular in the north they were in the south.  Workers feared an influx of free blacks would take away their jobs, while the wealthy feared attacks from those who had much less than they did. Laura the abolitionist was one of a very few uppity women who were hated by nearly everyone.





The Road to Frogmore,  a biographical novel by Carolyn P. Schriber, was published in 2012. In 2013, it won a Silver Medal from The Military Writers Society of America. A digital version will be available for free in the Kindle Store from Monday, April 25, 2016, through Wednesday, April 27, 2016. Don’t miss this chance to read the story of a remarkable woman.  


Lunch and a Book Discussion at Frogmore


The Road to Frogmore provides much fodder for a book club discussion, and my new Pinterest board offers some ideas to be considered along the way.  It starts with a bit of author biography, in which I talk about some of the ways I have always felt myself to be something of a misfit. (That’s an observation that most writers could make, I suspect.)

Then we move to a longer passage about Laura M. Towne and the reasons I became interested in her rather than some of the other missionaries whom she accompanied to the Low Country. Laura was also a misfit, and the ways in which she differed from her companions explain much about her later life.
 
Next, I have offered some questions to stimulate discussion.  They center on the usual breakdowns of setting, plot, theme, and character, but they are only starting points for those who seek to understand the book.  I’ve also included two reading lists — one listing the other books in this series, and (more importantly) several other books that cover the same events as this book. Dr. Rose’s massive study,
Rehearsal for Reconstruction, provides an overview of the Gideonite experiment; the others are first-hand accounts written by Laura and others among her friends.

And then we come to the good part — suggestions for what to eat and drink at such a meeting.  As I have done with my other Book Club Guides, I have tried to keep the choices true to the book itself. Laura and her housemates were on limited rations.  The Army provided them with small allowances of commodities such as flour and sugar, but for the most part, they relied on the same sources of food as did the slaves.  They had their own gardens for vegetables, and a few chickens to provide eggs (or meat, if the chicken quit laying eggs.).  Most of their protein came from seafood or the white fish that could be pulled from the freshwater streams in the area. They had no access to alcohol, so this luncheon will be one fit for teetotalers.

Laura’s diary describes some of their meals in detail. At almost every meal they ate turtle soup, so that might be a natural choice, if it were not for the fact that now, most turtles in the Carolinas are endangered species, and trying to find recipes for turtle soup is likely to yield an internet lecture on why the turtles may not be eaten. I’ve included a recipe, but I really don’t expect anyone to serve it.
The slaves the missionaries had come to help continued to work for them as cooks and fishermen, so Laura’s table served Gullah recipes, which fall into two categories.  One set starts with seasonings of tomatoes, onions, and peppers, along with a bit of fatback or bacon, adds some sort of seafood, and then serves the resulting dish over grits.  The recipe here is for the iconic shrimp and grits of South Carolina.

The other variation starts with the same seasonings to create a type of gumbo, although this is not the gumbo we’ve come to know from New Orleans.  The Gullah variety uses okra as the thickener instead of a rich dark roux and is served over rice, which continued to be grown on the plantations of the Low Country.  Either dish, accompanied by some fried green tomatoes, would provide a satisfactory and authentic Gullah lunch.

Another possibility is to rely on that perennial favorite, Frogmore Stew, a tradition that also began with the slaves of St. Helena. What does one do when no one has enough to provide supper?  You get together with the neighbors, and each cook throws into the pot whatever she has -- a chicken, some sausage, a few potatoes, an onion, some cobs of corn, some shrimp, or crabs, or oysters, or fish.  It all boils together, and then is poured out onto a table, where the diners gather around and help themselves.

If the group does not want to eat a sit-down meal, they might snack on boiled peanuts and soft ginger cookies. Peanuts were a staple of slave diets. The cookies remind the reader of the ginger cakes that Lottie Forten baked for her friend, Dr. Seth Rogers, surgeon of the famous 54th Massachusetts.

If this menu were completely legitimate, the only beverage would be molasses water, which the slaves loved and the missionaries drank grudgingly.  If you want to get an idea of what it tasted like, think of a glass of coke poured over ice and allowed to sit for several hours, until the ice all melted and the soda went completely flat. A pitcher of lemonade might better bring this meal to a close.



A Woman Who Refused to "Fit In"

When I first began top read about the Gideonites and their mission to bring education, religion, and medical care to the slaves of South Carolina, I did not focus on any one individual.  In fact, I saw the group as a whole and assumed they acted with a single purpose.  Eventually I ran up against clear evidence that a great deal of infighting was going on and I realized that these people had varied interests. Their diversity, however, made them hard to deal with.  I needed a strong character as the focus of my research.  There were many candidates, but eventually I chose to tell the story of Laura Towne.  Why? Because she was a misfit.

 
As the middle child in a family of seven, she received little attention growing up.  She was too young to accept responsibility but too old to be “taken care of.” That role seemed to carry over into her adult life, as her siblings alternated between lecturing her about her weaknesses and relying on her strengths – and resenting both.
 
She grew up in an era of evangelical religious fervor, but her family attended the Unitarian Church, which valued restraint and logic  rather than passion.  That alone made her stand out in the normal day-to-day life of Philadelphia, but Laura’s own value system brought her additional attention when she became strongly attracted to the abolitionist cause. 

Abolitionists were never popular.  Her association with them did nothing to help Laura’s  own isolation.
 
Girls of the  upper and middle classes were expected to become happily married wives and mothers, interested above all in taking care of their families. Laura hated the very thought.  She was distantly fond of children, so long as after a while their parents whisked them away.  She did not dislike men but could not imagine ever being subservient and obedient to one of them.  Courtship did not interest Laura, nor did the socially accepted feminine charms by which a lady was expected to attract a suitable husband.  Laura gratefully accepted spinsterhood as the better alternative.
 
Education beyond the rudiments was usually deemed unnecessary for a girl. But books wooed Laura with an attraction that a man could never have provided.  Laura longed tor scientific knowledge and dreamed of becoming a doctor. She enrolled in one of the very first medical schools for women but rebelled when she discovered that she could only read the texts.  Clinical experience was closed to her because society believed it was improper for a woman to see a man’s body. That limitation sent Laura off on yet another tangent, exploring the strange world of homeopathic medicine because traditional medical studies were beyond her reach.
 
So there she was – an abolitionist spinster who practiced the mysterious rituals of homeopathic medicine. She chose to travel to an unknown part of the country in the company of  an equally unknown group of people  rather than to stay close to her family. She chose another woman as her lifelong companion and settled down at last with a house full of adopted black children. Fascinating.  Her story cried out to be told.

Laura Towne: Answer to a Slave's Prayer

This is the second half of yesterday's talk at the St. Helena Library.

So how did a woman who refused to fit in manage to leave a legacy of changing her world?  Well,  let’s look at her personal quirks from a different angle.  While Laura Towne was not ever going to find a real home in Philadelphia, the Low Country of South Carolina became her natural habitat.
 
The teachers and abolitionists who took part in what was called the Port Royal Experiment were forced into some very strange living arrangements as they settled into abandoned plantations.  There were a few married couples among them, and a couple of brother-sister groups, but for the most part, they were all single and needed to share accommodations, both for safety and in order to provide all the varied services they wanted to offer to the newly freed slaves.  So no one regarded Laura and her life-long companion, Ellen Murray, as anything other than natural housemates.  As time went by Laura and Ellen were able to purchase a small house they could call their own, and they lived together as a family with combined resources without raising a single eyebrow.
 
Laura’s brand of homeopathic medicine was exactly what the freed slaves needed.  They often had their own remedies for illnesses, but like most people, they wanted to be cared for, and Laura offered that.  One slave woman remarked that Laura could make you feel better just by walking into a room. Her experiments with homeopathic remedies also made her more open to considering alternate forms of medicine. She was shocked the first time she found a slave’s  leg wound covered in honey.  But when she realized that it was healing with no sign of infection, she was willing to adopt the use of honey as one of her remedies. Because she was caring and non-critical, the slaves accepted her ministrations but rejected traditional doctors.
 
Similarly, Laura’s Unitarian faith made her more accepting of the slave traditions.  She delighted in the Shout, a quasi-religious celebration that gave slaves a chance to express the feelings they had to keep hidden most of the time. She did not demand that her patients and students follow her own brand of religion, as so many of the missionaries did.  She urged open worship services and actively worked to get rid of any pastor who arrived with notions of converting the slaves to his own peculiar brand of religion.
 
It was only natural that people who had been slaves all their lives would welcome an abolitionist who demanded getting rid of all forms of slavery.  But Laura went further than that.  She strongly believed what others only preached.  Every abolitionist praised freedom and equality, but all too often, they meant that slaves had freedom to do as they were told and that they were equal to each other but not to their betters. Laura had a strong belief that if a black child received the same education as a white child, they would be equal in every way.  Others wanted to teach the former slaves how to be cleaner, how to raise more cotton, or how to run a small shop or create crafts.  Laura offered them composition, algebra, history, and geography, and they children flocked to her schools.
 
In short, the very qualities that had kept Laura from fitting into Philadelphia’s high society were the qualities that former slaves could value.  And that, perhaps, is what allows such a woman to become a world-changer.  She remained true to her core beliefs and used them for the betterment of those around her.