Sunday, November 29, 2015

Enter Josephine Walcott

Josephine Walcott, 1860s

Both native New Englanders, they might have met in New Hampshire or Vermont. But John Walcott went out to Magnolia, Illinois, in 1848 to build houses and a full ten years passed before Josephine Butterfield joined him and they married.

John enlisted in the 77th Illinois Regiment and fought for the Union in Tennessee and Mississippi. Josephine made her way to Chicago to sit for a photograph. Three children were born during the war years: Earle, Mabel, and Maude.

The children were smart but Earle turned out to be sickly, so his mother taught him at home. The family moved to Santa Barbara in 1868, hoping the climate would improve Earle’s health. A precocious child, he founded and edited the Santa Barbara Weekly Tribune which he published for a few years. Josephine began to write poetry.

In 1871, a new magazine called Overland Monthly published her poem, “Almost.” Encouraged, she wrote more and also published under the name Cordelia Havens. Several anthologies included her work and critics considered her a California poetess. A review of her collection, World of Song, cited “clear thought, delicate imagination, good command of emotional sentiment and a felicitous Tersifloation.”

Tersifloation seems to relate to phrasing but that’s all I can figure out. A beautiful word, though!

It’s clear that Josephine pushed her children toward higher education. They enrolled at Santa Barbara College to prepare for the University of California, Berkeley, from which all three would graduate. Around that time, Josephine may have had an affair with William Hollister, owner of a grocery where John Walcott worked as a manager. Hollister or someone else may have been the father of Marion Queenie, Josephine’s fourth child who came along in 1882 in San Francisco. 

Several years after Queenie’s birth, John and Josephine filed for divorce but the relationship must have been very bitter because the court assigned a judge to referee. By then, she and her husband occupied entirely different worlds.

Josephine fit perfectly into her time or perhaps the time suited her especially well. How fortuitous that she arrived in California just as it came into its own art, literature, and politics: the emergence of a distinctive California ethos. For she was a seeker and it came naturally to embrace new ideas.

As an advocate of woman’s suffrage, Josephine wanted to shake off male domination. And, like many suffragists, Josephine was a late Victorian spiritualist. The two may seem incongruous. Yet one of the major ways to escape patriarchy was to step away from conventional religion. Historians have long explored how women spiritualists, while communicating with the dead, developed a commitment to social justice including the 19th century women’s rights movement. It is thought that public performance boosted their confidence, honed their speaking skills, and exposed them to issues involving women and children.

In 1874, Josephine co-founded the Freethought Committee of California. Freethought went hand in hand with spiritualism; its appeal to logic and reason excluded religious dogma. The same year, Josephine helped organize the Santa Barbara Spiritualist Association and became its vice president, bringing famous mediums to speak while the group was denounced for promoting fornication, suicide, desertion, adultery, divorce, dementia, prostitution, abortion, and insanity.

I guess it hit a nerve.

Josephine delivered a lecture, “The Truth Shall Make You Free,” before the Santa Barbara Spiritualist Association in 1876. An observer commented:

Of Mrs. Walcott, it was said that her enunciation was clear and pleasant, though a little too rapid for slow thinkers, for her grand ideas were clothed in so few words, and followed so rapidly, like booming waves, one after another, upon a storm-beaten shore, that there were some who could not gather, arrange, and enjoy the beautiful pearls as they fell from her lips.

Even at this distance, the lecture holds up. Citing Galileo, Luther, Franklin, Morse, Darwin, and Huxley, Josephine championed empiricism and declared: “Women are but dimly conscious of their power, so circumscribed are their limits. . . Woman must be free, independent, self-reliant and individualized.”

See also: November 4 + 11 + December 2, 2015 posts; January 12 + 16 posts.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting how in the 19th century an educated person could spin out a paragraph like the "observer's" and yet not him or herself necessarily be recognized as writer.
    Do share one of her poems in the follow up.


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