Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Personality Spotlight: Mattie Griffith

In my ongoing research about how Kentuckians reacted to John Brown and his raid, I had hoped to find a number of different perspectives, and fortunately I have. I am still searching for African American points of view, but one woman I have found has turned out to be a particularly interesting personality.

I had never heard of Mattie Griffith (later Browne) until I recently read a biography of John Brown. In the book the author gives at least partial credit to Griffith for changing the way Northerners came to view Brown after his hanging. Author David S. Reynolds credits much of the change in the North's perception to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he explains that it was probably Griffith that inspired Emerson's claim that Brown was a Christ-like martyr. Apparently, as Emerson was penning his speech on Brown he had also written that, "Mattie Griffith says if Brown is hung, the gallows will be sacred as the cross." The claim is supported by another reference where Griffith wrote friend Lydia Maria Child, "But what a splendid martyrdom it is. That scaffold will be as glorious as the Cross of Calvary."

The exact date of Mattie Griffith's birth is not known, but was probably sometime between 1825 and 1829. She was born in Owensboro, Kentucky where her father Thomas was a tavern keeper and farmer. Griffith and her sister Catherine were orphaned at a young age when their mother and father both died in 1830. She was taken in by relatives and apparently received her education in Louisville. Griffith's writing first appeared in the Louisville Courier, to which she made a number of contributions. Griffith had been left six slaves when her parents died, but she had apparently never held an appreciation for the institution according to her friend Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. In 1852 she published a book of poetry, and may have been the author of book of antislavery poetry published in 1853 in Cincinnati under the pseudonym "A Daughter of Kentucky."

In the mid-1850s Griffith moved to Philadelphia to live with her sister Catherine and her children. In October of 1856 Griffith published a novel, Autobiography of a Female Slave, in attempt to raise money to free her slaves and settle them in the North. This pseudo-story was revealed by Griffith several weeks after its publication, but she claimed that the incidents of the book were ones she had witnessed herself. While the book received praise from fellow antislavery advocates, her former employer, the Louisville Courier claimed it was "filled with the foulest abolitionism that was ever uttered..." The book did not provide the financial boon that she had hoped for, but in 1858 the American Antislavery Society (AAS) provided her with funds and helped her free and move her former slaves to Ohio.

Griffith produced another antislavery novel, Madge Vertner, which was set in Kentucky, and was published in serial form in 1859 and 1860 by the AAS. She spent much of her time from 1857 to 1860 in Boston and New York working for the AAS and rubbing elbows with noted abolitionists Lydia Maria Child, Charlotte Forten, Maria Weston Chapman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among a number of others. After traveling to England to visit transatlantic abolitionist friends she returned to New York City and became involved in the Women's National Loyal League, which supported the Union war effort and antislavery work.

In the aftermath of the Civil War Griffith worked to afford women the right to vote and married Albert Gallatin Browne in 1866. Browne had been an officer in the Union army and had been arrested back in 1854 for attempting to help rescue the famous slave Anthony Burns from being returned to Virginia and slavery. In 1869 Mattie Griffith Browne was elected the vice-president of the National Woman's Suffrage Association. The Brownes moved between New York and Boston several times before finally settling down in Boston where Mattie worked in reform societies until she passed away in 1906.

At the time of John Brown's capture, Griffith had written of her sympathy of the old man to her friend Maria Weston Chapman: "Poor John Brown - the thought of him never leaves me. For the first week after his capture I did not close my eyes - and though the weather was quite cool - I had to put out my fire and keep my window open, - felt as if I should stifle with great effort to keep quiet. I can't think they will dare hang him. But what an argument he furnishes the Anti Slavery cause - and his death (if indeed it must come) will surely advance the movement half a century."

Hang him they did. But, Griffith proved to be quite prophetic in that his hanging did bring a quicker end to slavery.

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