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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Unfair Rap for Mary Greenleaf Clement Leavitt's X?

Sometimes bread crumbs lead to unexpected places



While researching a railroad promotional pamphlet I became a bit obsessed with learning about a RR land seller named T.H. Leavitt.  He was one of a pair of sellers cited on the pamphlet and since I'd assembled a blurb about the other fellow I felt obliged to do the same for T.H.  It took some searching but I was finally able to confirm that T.H. was Thomas H. Leavitt who helped bring 100,000 or so settlers to the west and became a valuable citizen of Lincoln, Nebraska.  Mystery solved. 

Well maybe not.

In the process I also learned that Thomas was once married to a famous temperance figure and an outspoken suffragist, Mary Greenleaf Clement LeavittTheir marriage ended in separation around 1865 and was finalized by divorce in 1878.   For the next 40 years while Mary traveled the world lecturing and writing about the sins of alcohol and other societal ills, she left the impression with her supporters that her former husband was a bad sort. 


Nothing new about someone ragging on their former spouse except that in this case that extra dollop of martyrdom made for such a nice touch that the story has lingered for 79 years after Mary's death, popping up all over the web and in a 1991 book, Woman's World/Woman's Empire: the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880-1930, where author Ian R. Tyrrell states, "Her marriage in 1857 to a wealthy Boston land broker had quickly gone sour in scandal and personal unhappiness.  Thomas H. Leavitt was, by all accounts, 'a spendthrift,' and it is likely that this was not the greatest of his sins."  

If read yesterday, I'd have gone merrily on, thinking about the poor temperance lady with the jerk husband.  Instead I read it just after reading a number of nice things about T.H.  So I now ask if this describes a bad guy?
  • Thomas was active in the Lincoln, Nebraska historical society, was in fact elected by the Lincoln City Council to serve on the organization's first board of directors.
  • He was a trustee in the Congregational church.  
  • In 1893 he helped organize a Chautauqua program at the Lincoln Penitentiary. 
  • He founded the 20-acre Riverside Stock Farm in Lincoln where he raised 250 head of cattle, 200 hogs and annually produced 20,000 lbs of cheese. 
  • In 1886 he was involved with an organization formed to control alcohol abuse in Lincoln.
  • For 3 years his second wife was the president of the Lincoln chapter of the American Missionary Association, an abolitionist organization.
Certainly a history-loving/church-going/prisoner-helping/farmer/cheese-making/alcohol-reformer/spouse-of-an-abolitionist can be a cad, and Thomas may have undergone a positive transformation after moving to Lincoln.  Or...maybe he was married to the human Mary, not the demagogue, no better or worse than he, and they just didn't get along.

As to the criticism that Thomas was a spendthrift, it has to be noted the characterization comes from a woman who set off on a world tour with $35 in her pocket, then built a reputation for traveling with minimal money while her fans picked up the tab.  IMO anyone who has such a weird relationship with money isn't qualified to judge how others spend theirs.

So maybe, a century after his death, poor Thomas H. Leavitt deserves to catch a break.

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