Portsmouth Women: Ellen Gustin, Preacher and Suffrage Pioneer.

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Vintage image of Christian Union Church

Maybe Portsmouth welcomes women preachers and pastors because Anne Hutchinson is part of our heritage.  I knew that Julia Ward Howe had “supplied the pulpit” at the Christian Union Church (now the headquarters for the Portsmouth Historical Society). As I went through church records I was surprised that in the 1870s the church welcomed a woman preacher who did more than guest preach.  Rev. Ellen Gustin was an evangelist who had more of a pastoral role in a time when the congregation had lost a strong pastor.

Ellen led a long and productive life.  When she died at age ninety in 1924, the New York Times carried an obituary that claimed she was the third woman in America to be ordained in the ministry.  She was born in Frankfort, Maine and delivered her first sermon in a school house at the age of eleven.  She toured as an evangelist before she joined the Christian denomination.  The Christian Union Church in Portsmouth was part of this loosely connected group.  Anti-slavery leader Stephen Hopkins was one of the originators of the Rhode Island Christian Church.  The church was progressive and offered a welcome to everyone and sought to work for peace and justice.  Ellen Gustin worked as President of the Women’s Board of Foreign Missions – part of the national organization of the denomination.

From Church Records, George Manchester Clerk

Rev. Gustin supplied the pulpit and served unofficially as a co-pastor from 1872 to 1878.  Church records show no concerns about a woman taking on such a leading role in the congregation.  Ellen was a friend of Julia Ward Howe and shared her work in the Suffrage movement.  In 1872 the Executive Board of the church voted to allow a lecture on suffrage at the church.  Ellen spoke at major meetings of the Woman Suffrage Association in New England.

Julia was even a little jealous of Ellen’s abilities.  Sunday, September 29, 1872, Julia writes:

“Reverend Mrs. Gustine to dine.  I afterwards to church to hear her.  A sweet woman, called of God, with a real power.  Her voice, manner, and countenance, most sweet and impressive.  Intellection not remarkable, I think, but tone, feeling and effect very remarkable.  No one, I think, would doubt the reality of spiritual things after hearing her.  I asked myself why I am not jealous of her, as she preaches far more effectively than I do.  Well, partly because I believe in my own gift, such as it is, and partly because what she does is natural, genuine, and without pretense or pretentious.  Her present Society was much disturbed by strife when she was called to its care.  No man, she told me, could have united the opposing parties.  A true woman could.  This shows me a work that women have to do in the Church as well as elsewhere.  Where men cannot make peace, they can.  Mrs. Gustine says that by my writings and example I have helped her a good deal. I am glad to hear this, but pray to do far better than I have yet done…Thought much about Mrs. Gustine, who, without any of my training and culture can do what I cannot.  I can also do what she cannot – think a subject out. She can only shadow and suggest, yet how powerful is the contact of her soul, and what a good power!”

Recorded in:  Julia Ward Howe. Compiled by  Richards and Elliott – Houghton Mifflin, 1916 page 387.

A short Newport Mercury article from November 11, 1878 shows another one of her causes.

“Rev.  Ellen Gustin has been holding services and speaking at temperance meetings at the Christian Church with great acceptability.  She is a favorite with the people of this congregation and has done much good.”

Ellen continued on to pastor churches in Attleboro and Mansfield, Massachusetts.  Even though Ellen Gustin stayed and ministered in Portsmouth only a few years, she had a remarkable gift of evangelization that recharged the Portsmouth community.

What Julia Ward Howe and a Murder Victim have in Common

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Julia at her first Lawton Valley home.

Portsmouth women were at the forefront of the Woman’s Rights Movement.  We focus our attention on the effort to gain the right to vote, but there were many more rights that needed to be gained for women along the way.  As I worked on research for a play and read a biography of Julia Ward Howe for a book club the sad situation for married women kept emerging.

We recently presented a play (Murder at the Coal Mines) that was based on a true case of domestic crime. I wrote the court room drama from the detailed newspaper accounts of the testimony given in the murder trial of miner Robert Casey in October of 1875. Casey had acted in jealousy.  He had spent eight months away from his family and returned to accuse his wife of infidelity.  He tried to poison both her and himself and then provided an antidote so they would live.  At gunpoint, Casey made his wife “confess” her adultery to his children and then he took away the two older children to New Jersey to live with his family.  His fury was not spent.  Using his pistol again, Casey made his wife and the man he accused of adultery travel to Fall River and get married by a justice of the peace.  One newspaper account said he even “gave away the bride”.  Fearing for his life, the “other man” ran away, but Lizzie was left in the home with Casey.  When the sheriff came to arrest Casey for assaulting another miner, Casey shot himself and his wife.  Lizzie, his wife, died.  Casey recovered from his wound and stood trial for the murder.

As we read through the play, there was something missing – the point of view of Lizzie Casey, the victim. We decided to add a prologue to the play where Lizzie would present her side of the situation that led to her husband killing her and attempting to kill himself.  I began to research the status of married women in Rhode Island during that time period.   Going through the facts of the case, I had many questions.  Why would Lizzie stay in a marriage after her husband had tried to poison her?  How could Robert Casey just take her older children away to New Jersey?  Why couldn’t Lizzie run away from the abuse and maybe support her children with a job somewhere else?

I’m not sure just when the laws began to change, but throughout most of the 19th century laws concerning married women in Rhode Island were rooted in British Common Law.  According to the bible, when a man and woman marry they are considered as one person.  At marriage the woman lost her identity.  As far as the law was concerned, the rights of that “one person” were centered on the husband.  When a woman married, she lost the right to own her own property, enter into contracts or even decide about the care of her own children.  Robert Casey, as the husband, had all the rights.  Any property she owned went to her husband, even the clothes on her back.   Even if Lizzie had left and tried to find a job, any income she earned would be given to her husband.

As I read Elaine Showalter’s biography “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,” I realized that even the famous Julia Ward Howe had much in common with Lizzie.  Julia wrote: “Even women of fortune possessed nothing individually after their marriage. The ring which promised to endow them with all the bridegroom’s earthly goods, really endowed him all that belonged to them, even to the clothes that they wore. Their children were not their own. The father could dispose of them as he might think fit.”

Julia Ward Howe did not come into her own until after her husband’s death.  Samuel Gridley Howe (Julia called him Chev) believed that a wife and mother should find all fulfillment in family.  Although Julia had a passion for writing, her husband refused to let her publish.  She learned stealth and published her poetry book anonymously.  Even the poem for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was only published because Julia’s minister had asked her to write it.  Julia became famous for her poem, but Chev insisted that she not make any public appearances.

Howe used his right to the children to threaten Julia into  re-establishing  a sexual relationship.  He took full advantage of his rights to her money when he bought the Lawton Valley property with her money but only put his name of the deed. Later he sold their first Lawton Valley home without consulting her.   He frequently uprooted his family and moved at will even though Julia would beg to stay in her home.

The day after Chev died in January of 1876, Julia wrote:  “Began my new life today.”  To add insult to injury, Chev left nothing to Julia in his will.  She had to move on and she moved to Oak Glen in Portsmouth with her daughter Maud.  Her lectures and writing became the way she supported herself.

Information on Julia from Elaine Showalter’s “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe.”  Simon and Schuster, New York, 2016.


Portsmouth Women: Sarah Gibbs, St. Mary’s and Oakland Farm


Oakland Farm in Sarah Gibbs day

Sarah Gibbs was the force behind the founding of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. She was born in 1784 in Newport. Her father, George Gibbs was a grain merchant.   His firm of Gibbs and Channing owned up to seventy-five vessels sailing from Newport. In 1787, he married Mary Channing of Newport, the sister of his partner, Walter Channing.  Among their children were Sarah Gibbs and Ruth Gibbs Channing.  Ruth would marry famed Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing.  Sarah Gibbs was a devout Episcopalian and would never go to hear William Ellery Channing speak, but that did not prevent her from opening her home (Oakland Farm)  in hospitality to him every summer.  The house was always filled with guests.  Channing brought not only his wife and children, but also governesses for his daughters.  Famed social reformer Dorothea Dix came with the family as a governess and she had a close relationship with Sarah.  Dorothea started her mental health efforts while here in Portsmouth.  She even started the Sunday School for the Christian Union Church across the street at Mrs. Durfee’s Tea House.  Dorothea continued to come to Portsmouth even after the death of Rev. Channing.

Channing found Oakland Farm was a retreat that refreshed him.  He would get up early and spend time out in Portsmouth’s nature before breakfast.  He enjoyed the gardens.  He wrote about Oakland Farm to a friend:  “Here I spend four or five months annually, enjoying my tranquillity almost too much; almost reproaching myself for being so happy, when I am doing so little for the happiness of others.”

About the founding of St. Mary’s  Church

In 1843 Sarah Gibbs wanted to bring the Episcopal Church closer to her home.  She invited Rev. Hobart Williams to Portsmouth to begin a church.  The first service was December 17th, 1843 in temporary quarters.  In 1844 Sarah donated 88 acres known as “Potter Farm” as a site for a seminary and church.  The cornerstone was laid Sept. 2, 1847.  Architect Richard Upjohn was chosen to design the church.  On May 20, 1852 the building was consecrated.  Bishop Henshaw wrote:  “I consecrated St. Mary’s Church, Portsmouth, a gift of faith and love from a pious and magnificent churchwoman, Miss S. Gibbs, costing about $11,000.”  Sarah lived to see a vibrant church community at St. Mary’s, but the seminary never developed.   Sarah died in 1866 and is buried by the church she founded.

St. Mary

Vintage image of St. Mary’s Church




Portsmouth Women: Alice Brayton and Green Animals

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Vintage image of Green Animals from the collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society

Alice Brayton

Alice Brayton was born in Fall River in 1878, but she was a constant summer resident of Portsmouth.  She made her permanent residence here in 1938.  Her father, Thomas Brayton (treasurer of the Union Cotton Manufacturing Company),  bought property on Cory’s Lane in Portsmouth in 1877 to be a summer home for his family. Alice’s father hired a Portuguese mill worker, Jose Carriero, to develop and manage the grounds of his Portsmouth estate in 1905. Carreiro was superintendent of the property from 1905 to 1945, and his son-in-law, George Mendonca continued as superintendent until 1985.  They were responsible for creating the topiaries. There are more than 80 pieces of topiary throughout the gardens, including animals and birds, geometric figures and ornamental designs, sculpted from California privet, yew, and English boxwood.

When Thomas Brayton died in 1939 at age 96, he left this estate to his son and daughter – Edward and Alice.    Alice Brayton had re-opened the main house on the Portsmouth estate in 1936 to begin renovations to make it her permanent residence. She moved to the estate in the spring of 1939 naming it “Green Animals” for the topiary animals in the garden.

Alice Brayton was a woman of many interests.  During the Depression she helped to found a relief program in Fall River to bring milk, food and clothing to the needy.  She founded a nursing association in Fall River.  In Portsmouth she was active with the Red Cross and even opened her home for “home nursing” lessons.   She published many books and contributed  to “Gardens of America”  – a major work on historical gardens.  She wrote  a scholarly work on Bishop Berkeley who was a colonial resident of Middletown.  She encouraged excavations around the Old Stone Mill in Newport and wrote a paper on this.  She was a force in the early days of the Preservation Society of Newport Country.  Miss Brayton left Green Animals to the Preservation Society of Newport County at her death in 1972.  Newspaper accounts list her as a speaker for a number of local societies.  She spoke to the Portsmouth Historical Society in 1966 about “More Recollections of a Portsmouth Native.”  Obviously she considered herself a Portsmouth native.

Alice Brayton loved to garden and she loved to entertain  She hosted Jacqueline Bouvier’s (Kennedy) debutante party.  When President Eisenhower visited the area, she opened her gardens to the First Family and the White House press corps.  Alice’s topiary gardens survived the hurricanes in 1938 and 1944, but the 1954 hurricane badly damaged a double row of spruces and a large hemlock.  The famed topiaries were coated with salt spray.  Although some experts thought many could not be saved, George Mendonca and his helpers rewired and trimmed the sculptures.  Alice herself would putter around the gardens. She said she had a habit of mowing around the base of a topiary policemen “so that he wouldn’t hurt his feet standing all day on the grass.”  Alice Brayton was known for her wit.  One of her last public events was a $1,000 a plate dinner for the election of Nixon in 1968.  Alice took a sip of sherry and headed home without dinner “because it was past her bedtime.”

During her lifetime, Alice enjoyed letting the public enjoy her gardens.  Today “Green Animals” attracts thousands of visitors to Alice Brayton’s beautiful gardens.



Portsmouth Women: The Mitchels – Cora, Sophie, Floride and Clara May Miller


Womens suffrage photo

Cora Mitchel

The Mitchel Sisters – Cora, Sophie and Floride – were very active in Portsmouth culture and social reform movements.  Through their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, they had long roots in the Bristol Ferry area.  Their father was a cotton merchant in Florida before the Civil War and the Mitchel family had to literally escape the South once the fighting began.  They came to Bristol Ferry because it was an ancestral and summer home for them.

Did you know that the Bristol Ferry area was a hotbed of the Women’s Suffrage movement.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her History of Woman Suffrage 1900-1920 wrote: “Among the nerve centers of suffrage activity in Rhode Island the Newport County Woman Suffrage League had a definite place from its founding in 1908, by Miss Cora Mitchell, its first president. The League’s work was at first largely carried on by an active group of philanthropic women of Bristol Ferry, Miss Mitchell’s friends and neighbors, among whom were Miss Sarah J. Eddy, Mrs. John Eldredge and Mrs. Barton Ballou. Gradually the suffrage agitation spread over the entire island, which includes the three townships of Portsmouth, Middletown and Newport.”  Cora remained active in demonstrations and organizing activities for many years.

Sophie was a talented artist and was among those in the Bristol Ferry artist community that had gathered around Sarah Eddy.  Sophie had studios in both Brooklyn and Portsmouth.  In 1908 Sophie built a house and studio on Bristol Ferry.  She traveled around the United States and Europe.  Subjects for her landscapes were Newport, Nantucket, Germany, Mexico, Long Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Cape Cod, etc.  She often led young socialite ladies on sketching tours.  She liked painting portraits, but she was more known for her landscapes and flower themes.  She exhibited in her own studios and also in more prestigious Boston art shows.

Floride Mitchel May was a mother and grandmother. Floride was the older sister of the Mitchel girls and she married around the time the Civil War began.  She and her husband moved from Florida to Georgia and Cora was sent to live with her and go to school.   Their mother, Sophia Brownell Mitchel, did not want to move north without Cora, so she undertook a very dangerous trip to get Cora before she managed to shepherd her family to Bristol Ferry.  Floride came to Bristol Ferry, probably after her husband died.

Bristol Ferry Map edit

Note Mitchel family land on 1907 Portsmouth map.

Floride’s daughter,  Clara, married famous artist Oscar Miller.  Clara took part in many of the activities that her aunts pursued.  She was among those doing suffrage work.  She was active in the arts exhibits in the County Fair.  Once the women got the vote, Clara was active in Republican politics.  In 1920 she was one of the organizers of the Newport County Women’s Republican Club.  She was a delegate to the state Republican convention.  Even after her husband’s death she continued as a patron of the arts for a Swanhurst Concert.

Portsmouth benefited from the work of all the Mitchel/May women.  Their activities in suffrage, the arts and politics made them women ahead of their time.



Portsmouth Women: Sarah Eddy, Susan B. Anthony and Women’s Suffrage

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Vintage photo of Sarah Eddy Home.

Susan B. Anthony has secured her place in history as an important figure in gaining the vote for women.  Her full length portrait hangs in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. We have forgotten, however, the artist and friend of Susan B. Anthony who painted that grand full-length oil painting. The artist, Sarah James Eddy, was a long time resident of Portsmouth and Susan actually came to stay with her in Portsmouth for three weeks as she “sat” for the portrait.

Why did Susan take the time to come to little Portsmouth for a long portrait sitting? You have to learn a little about the artist to understand why Miss Anthony would indulge the artist. Sarah James Eddy was an accomplished artist. She was a skilled painter, photographer and sculptor. Sarah was also a close friend to some of the most notable leaders in the great causes of the day – abolition and women’s suffrage. Sarah had experience in painting important portraits. In the 1880s she persuaded Abolitionist Frederick Douglass to come to Rhode Island (she was living in Providence at the time) to sit for a full-length portrait. Now hanging at the Frederick Douglass National Park near Washington, this painting might be the only painting where Douglass actually “sat” for the artist.

Sarah’s family supported the anti-slavery cause and Douglass became a friend of Sarah. The friendship and family connections Sarah had with these great figures provided her with an opportunity other artists would not have had.  Although Susan B. Anthony had long promised a visit, the opportunity didn’t arrive until the fall of 1902. Susan visited family members in Massachusetts as she made her way to Sarah’s large home in the part of Portsmouth known as Bristol Ferry. The letters Susan wrote show how she relished her time at Bristol Ferry. She stayed over three weeks and the artist and subject would spend their mornings on the portraits and would enjoy the afternoon traveling around Aquidneck Island.

Miss Anthony wrote: “We have delightful drives over the old stone bridge that connects us with the mainland to Tiverton and along the shore of the Sconset (Sakonnet) River, which is really an arm of the ocean and here we can see the whole length of the island with Newport in its beauty on the coast. It is ten miles away and we went by train one day, took the famous ocean drive and passed the palaces of the nabobs.”

Susan enjoyed just being at Sarah’s home. She wrote of waking up from afternoon naps to “the slanting rays of the sun” shining on Narragansett Bay. She must have slept in a turret room because she wrote that “from all five windows of my big room is the most glorious view imaginable.”

Bristol Ferry was the “hotbed” of the Rhode Island Women’s Suffrage movements, so Susan was among friends and supporters in Portsmouth. She would take a carriage ride down West Main Road to Oak Glen, the home of Julia Ward Howe. She found Julia “charming” and “had an interesting time.”

Sarah Eddy was a woman of many causes and she entertained so many at her home. While Susan was there one of the guests had just come from a Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Convention and another was from the Anti-Vivisection Society. Sarah was a strict vegetarian and one of her neighbors teased that Susan should come for a meal at their house because a “slice of good roast beef” would do her good. Susan declined the offer, but the neighbor sent over some of the roast beef “for Miss Eddy’s cannibal friends.”