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One Beecher Sister Stuck Close To Home
"Good bye dear sis - write home often + come home as soon as you can."
- Mary Beecher Perkins in a letter to her sister, Isabella, in 1841
There was a fourth Beecher sister who led a more private life than sisters Catharine, Harriet and Isabella.
Mary Beecher Perkins was the only truly "stay-at-home mom" of the Beecher sisters. Although she never wrote a book or traveled around the country giving lectures, Mary played an important behind-the-scenes role in the successes of her sisters.
"She was the woman behind the women," said Margaret G. Mair, a historical research consultant who wrote her master's thesis at Trinity College on Mary Beecher Perkins. "Mary made it possible for the other three to pursue their careers."
Like the volunteers who stuff letters and answer phones for political candidates, Mary worked at various times as a teacher, secretary, administrator and housekeeper for her sisters.
After marrying Hartford attorney Thomas C. Perkins in 1827, Mary moved to a house on Hawthorn Street in the Nook Farm area. It was Mary, in her well-regulated, genteel home, who lived the life of domesticity glorified by Catharine and Harriet in their bestselling homemaking manual "American Woman's Home," published in 1869.
After Lyman Beecher and other family members emigrated west in the 1830s, the Perkins home became the Beecher family's Connecticut homestead for far-flung family members.
Mary first moved to Hartford from Litchfield - where the Beechers were raised in a parsonage - to help older sister Catharine open a secondary school for girls, one of the first in the country. Despite her father's warnings to Catharine to "apply herself and not let the work fall on Mary," much of the work apparently did fall on Mary. Catharine saddled her with the duties of teacher /administrator/ housekeeper.
Mary eventually collapsed with what her family believed to be consumption but later proved to be exhaustion. Mary's remedy was very un-Beecher-like: She left the school and rested. (She was replaced by younger sister Harriet, who thrived on Catharine's demands.)
Shortly after Mary's marriage in 1827, the newlyweds became surrogate parents to her half-sister, Isabella. Lyman Beecher sent Isabella to live with Mary after the death of Isabella's mother and because he feared Isabella was becoming too "worldly."
Mary was a stabilizing influence on the headstrong Isabella, who later in life credited her sister with softening "a sometimes wayward spirit."
In letters preserved at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, it is clear that Mary played an important role in advising family members in times of controversy and crisis. Writing in a style that is direct, pointed and witty, it is clear that Mary was very much a Beecher.
Abolition, depression, child- rearing - all are discussed in the letters that crisscrossed the country between Mary and her siblings.
"I do not like one word of Catharine's letter + I am very surprised at many parts," she wrote in a letter about her oldest sister's propensity to stir up trouble in the family.
Mary's letters to Harriet and Isabella, however, tended to be more motherly.
"What a naughty girl you are to have the blues so dreadfully ... you are exceeding ingenious I allow in the art of tormenting oneself," Mary wrote to Isabella in 1839.
She counseled Isabella to avoid "excitement," the Beecher family's word for the mood swings that affected them to various degrees, particularly Isabella.
In another letter to Isabella, Mary warned: "Do not go too much to meetings - the more interesting they are to you the more injurious they will be. ... this is a novel doctrine to preach but I believe it is the true one for such excitable beings as you and I are ..."
Mary believed these mood swings - which some latter-day historians believe indicate some form of bipolar disorder, or manic depressive mental illness - could be avoided through self-discipline and routine. She seems to have deliberately sought to moderate the emotional turmoil in her own life by marrying an upbeat, financially secure man - quite the opposite of her volatile father - and staying geographically distant from her energetic but exhausting siblings.
"She wanted a very steady life. It sounds like her siblings were all just a little bit over the edge," Mair said.
Mary's life was not without tragedy; her oldest son, Frederick, abandoned his wife and child, creating a scandal in Hartford. (The grandchild grew up to be feminist writer Charlotte Gilman Perkins.)
Mary died in 1900 at age 95.