Mar 18, 2014
Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker
Staunch abolitionist. Passionate suffragette. Tenacious women’s rights advocate. Ardent spiritualist.
Isabella Beecher Hooker was all of these as well as a loving wife, a dedicated mother and a sometimes vexing force in her own right. In the newly released biography Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker, award-winning author Susan Campbell chronicles the life and times of this complicated and tempestuous woman, the youngest daughter of Hartford’s “Fabulous Beecher” family, which included brother Henry Ward Beecher (one of 19th-century America’s best-known ministers) and half-sisters Catharine Beecher (whose writings influenced women’s rights and education) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (renowned author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
“She’s just one of those people that history has pushed off the page, for a variety of reasons, not all of them valid,” says Campbell, who on March 25 will be discussing Isabella Beecher Hooker’s impact and the status of women’s rights today at the Old State House in Hartford with CT-N’s Diane Smith, Shannon Burke, Director of Education of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and Teresa Younger, Executive Director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women. The event is part of the Old State House’s “Conversation at Noon” series.
“Isabella Beecher Hooker was like the early modern-day woman,” says Campbell. “She tried to have it all, and struggled with ‘How much time should I give over to being a good wife and a good mother? But I also want a public life . . .’ She was incredibly talented. She was a wonderful public speaker, but she was riddled with doubt because she wasn’t Harriet, and she wasn’t one of her brothers like Henry Ward Beecher, who was like Billy Graham times four of his day.”
For a good portion of the late 19th century, the Beechers were one of the leading families of Connecticut. Family patriarch Lyman Beecher, a fiery, influential minister who strongly believed in the need for women’s education, was married twice and in addition to Isabella (born in Litchfield in 1822) fathered 12 other children, many of whom went on to distinguish themselves either at the pulpit or on the page. “The Beechers were just crazy letter writers,” says Campbell, who credits the Stowe Center in Hartford as a terrific resource for her research, which included poring through the family’s correspondence. “Harriet would write Isabella, who would then add her two cents and send it on to Thomas, who would send it to Catharine, so you had a transcript of this brilliant salon of these incredibly smart people verbally poking at one another, discussing issues of the day.” Campbell says it gave her great insight to the Beechers and Isabella, and helped her really connect with her subject.
“There were a couple things while researching that I found where I thought, ‘Oh, I like her,’” says Campbell, who initially discovered Isabella as potential biography subject while a reporter for The Hartford Courant. “When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was shooting through the stratosphere in a way that no one anticipated, including the Beechers, Isabella wrote her husband, John, saying she was so happy for her sister, but her sister’s success shows to her her own smallness—she feels just so small compared to what Harriet has done with her life. I come from a family where sibling rivalry was ‘I will get up at 5 o’clock so I can eat all the Cap’n Crunch and then rub it in your face that I ate all the sweet cereal and now you’re stuck with Cheerios.’ So that spoke to me.”
In addition to sharing her more famous half-sister’s views on slavery, Isabella vigorously paved the way for women’s rights in the United States. She helped to organize the National Woman Suffrage Association and in 1877, was involved in the passage of a Connecticut law that extended the same property rights to married women as were held by husbands. She was at the forefront of the suffragette movement with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both close friends whom would regularly send speeches to Isabella for editing, and testified before Congress for the cause.
Isabella’s contributions, however, were unfortunately overshadowed during her life and over the subsequent decades, partially because of her sometimes difficult personality but also in part because of her overly enthusiastic embrace of Spiritualism. A movement that arose early in the 19th century, Spiritualism was centered on the belief that the dead live on in a spirit world and are inclined to communicate regularly with the living through psychic-led endeavors such as séances. Although it reached its peak in the United States during the latter half of the 1800s, when it was alleged to have 8 million followers, it never reached the acceptability of traditional religions, and was further riddled with skepticism when a large number of mediums were exposed as frauds.
“It’s similar today where I can run for office as a Christian as long as I don’t fly that flag really high,” says Campbell. “If I’m a generic Christian, that’s okay, but if I’m a fundamentalist Christian trying to save your soul from hell, we have a problem. And in the same way, you could dabble in Spiritualism as many people did, such as Abraham Lincoln did, but Isabella never dabbled. She couldn’t just do it quietly. She had to do it loudly, she had to let people know that the veil separating the dead and the living is just not there, it’s a construct.”
Not everyone shared Isabella’s depth of devotion to Spiritualism. “Isabella’s house in Hartford was like a salon and Mark Twain was there, Harriet Beecher Stowe was there, anyone who had any level of notoriety who passed through Hartford passed through the Hooker house,” says Campbell. “She had a New Year’s Eve party one year, I think in the 1870s, and while her guests were downstairs, she was upstairs having séance. At one point she came flying down the stairs with a tomahawk! She believed she was the embodiment of an Indian chief—she was never a warrior, she was a chief—and at that point, Mark Twain turned to [his wife] Livvy and said, ‘Okay, that’s it—we’re going. Too weird.’ Because they dabbled in Spiritualism as well, and Livvy had been healed by a Spiritualist healer when she had been in her teens, so they didn’t discount it entirely. It was more like ‘Do you have to fly the freak flag so high? Can’t you just be a closet Spiritualist?’”
During her research, Campbell decided to connect with a psychic medium for an actual séance—over the phone. “Why the hell not?” she laughs, noting that at one point during the event she “corresponded” with a spirit who may or may not have been Isabella. “I also thought I caught a glimpse of my dad, and it’s not something that I would tell someone to write down because then I’d look weird.”
But she understands why Spiritualism might be appealing. “I can give Isabella some leeway to say that I understand that she did not want to say goodbye to her mother. There was one time, in particular, she thought she corresponded with her mother, and I think, ‘Sure, why not? It’s cool.’”
Isabella’s continued contributions to women’s rights in the face of the aspersions cast by those who questioned her connections to the spirit world, however, are her true legacy.
“She reinforced to me that it really doesn’t matter what people think of you,” says Campbell. “She barreled on through regardless of public censor, regardless of whether the family supported what she was doing or was really against what she was doing. She had that moral compass where ‘This needs to happen and I will do what I need to do to make it happen.’ It’s not what initially drew me to her, but hell yeah! You don’t make social change by not stepping on toes, and you don’t bring the world to the place where you want it to be by being everyone’s friend.”
Ultimately, says Campbell: “I just felt like people should know this woman.”
Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker