MAGGIE HIGGINS: DAUGHTER OF CORNING
I hate all these biographies that go back and forth over your childhood, dragging out this and that, that has nothing to do with your recent life.
—Margaret Sanger to Mildred Gilman, February 11, 1953
In the fall of 1879, when Anne Purcell Higgins’s time came, she called for neither midwife nor nurse. There was no hospital in Corning, New York, where the Higgins family lived in a tiny ramshackle cottage on the western edge of town. Instead, it was her husband, Michael Hennessy Higgins, who eased her labor pains with his inimitable charm and a little whiskey from his flask. To save money and because he believed himself to be as knowledgeable about medicine as any expert, Michael often doctored his family. By this time both parents were experienced in matters of childbirth and took great pride in the size and health of their blemish-free, ten-pound babies. “They had a eugenic pride of race,” wrote their famous daughter Margaret Sanger, who later held her own views on that subject.1
These Catholic-born parents never considered the number of their offspring, for they believed it was the purpose of marriage and the nature of sex for women to bear children. According to the injunction from the family Bible where the names and birth dates of all the Higgins offspring were conscientiously recorded, “Lo, children are the heritage of the Lord.” This new blessing—promptly named (but not baptized) Margaret Elizabeth after a Purcell relative and a Catholic saint—was the couple’s sixth child in eleven years of marriage, and she remained their youngest for an unusual four years of special attention before another daughter replaced her.
Usually, the Higgins babies arrived every two years and sometimes more frequently, in lockstep fashion after their mother stopped nursing, and thereby lost a natural means of preventing ovulation. After one of the longest hiatuses from childbirth in her married life (though the period included one nearly deathly miscarriage), Anne Higgins delivered another five children in eleven years. Eventually, the ravages of disease and the deliverance of menopause ended her childbearing years, but not before she had given birth to eleven children in twenty-two years and suffered seven miscarriages. She had been pregnant eighteen times in thirty years of marriage. Six years after her last child was born in 1892, Anne Higgins succumbed to the tuberculosis that had made her last years an agony of fitful coughing, bloody expectoration, and persistent enervation. “My mother died at 48,” wrote Margaret Sanger in sentences that needed no further explanation to make her point. “My father lived to be 80.”2
Born in 1845 in Cork County with an archetypal Irish name, personality, and, eventually, drinking habits, Sanger’s father had come to Canada as a six-year-old with his mother and his younger brother, part of a massive exodus that began in the 1840s. Throughout Ireland, a strange fungus had shriveled dependable potatoes into inedible roots, and the pressures of English landlords with their demands for rent had become intolerable. With uncertain prospects for a better existence across the seas, but nothing to gain from staying, over a million and a half Irish immigrated to the United States from 1846 to 1852. Many left from Cork, the seaport on the Irish coast in the county where Michael and Anne Higgins were both born.
The Irish mostly settled in the coastal cities of the United States, but some, as much because of the shipping routes as for any other reason, came to Canada, where Toronto, with its access to the Atlantic through the St. Lawrence River, emerged as the favored port of entry. But the Higgins family had another reason to choose Canada: they were following relatives, including Michael’s older brother, who tended sheep, cattle, and horses on a stock ranch, probably in the southern part of Quebec province. Here Michael Higgins grew up.
By 1861 the American Civil War offered exciting prospects for a bored and restless teenager. In 1863 Michael Higgins crossed the border and came to New York City. There, offering his experience with animals to eager recruiting officers who needed to fill President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 300,000 additional Union troops, he volunteered for service in the elite Twelfth Regiment of the New York Cavalry, lying about his age and his name (he is listed as Michael Hennessy in the rosters) in order to join as an underage drummer. As many as 150,000 Irish fought in the American Civil War, some drafted, others bought for three hundred dollars as substitutes for draftees, and still more, especially in the famous Irish Brigade, served as volunteers.
Unlike the soldiers in that brigade, Michael Higgins saw little of either the glory or the gore of battle that his daughter later claimed he had. In fact, he was sick with tonsillitis for his unit’s first muster, and eventually ended up in Union-controlled North Carolina, where he undertook an exciting reconnaissance mission behind enemy lines at Bachelor Creek. An inspiring storyteller, Higgins spun this incident and others into heroic and often mythical tales of military adventures that delighted his children: the time he captured a Confederate soldier on a mule, his unlikely journey across Georgia with Sherman’s Union army, and the episode when someone tried to steal the gold coins that were his paternal inheritance.3
The Civil War made Michael Hennessy Higgins into an American, though a persistently critical one. He never returned to Canada, a colonial possession despised by many Irish for its devotion to the detested English monarchy. He lost all contact with his mother and brothers. Instead, with great expectations, Higgins settled first in New York City, and then on Long Island, where he was apprenticed to a stone cutter. Perhaps he hoped for a career as a sculptor, for he could craft the most exquisite roses out of obdurate stone with his tools.
What Michael Higgins found in America was a lifetime as a graveyard stone and marble cutter, usually of monuments for children’s graves, fashioning lifelike angels and saints and meticulously wrought flowers. For adults, he adorned handsome slabs of marble and granite, with the resurrectionist hopes of the survivors (which he considered absurd) chiseled below family names into epigraphs such as “May you rest in Heaven” and “Dwell with Christ in paradise.” When it came time to decorate the graves of his own wife and child in Corning’s St. Mary’s Cemetery, he used no churchly sentiments, only their names and dates under the surname Higgins, on polished granite topped with a rough, unfinished rock. Perhaps the latter was a testament to the challenges of his own life as Corning’s best-known iconoclast.
In Flemington, New Jersey, where he had gone to stay with friends from his regiment, Michael Higgins met and in 1869 married Anne Purcell, the Irish-born daughter of an ambitious day laborer. The Purcells, like Michael Higgins, had emigrated from Cork County during the Great Famine. After working for a time as potters in New Jersey, Anne’s brothers had been apprenticed to a lawyer in Flemington and been admitted to the bar; they then headed west for successful careers in North Dakota. In time both were wealthy ranchers who remembered their more impecunious Higgins nieces and nephews in their wills. After amassing a fortune, William Purcell ran for the state legislature and subsequently filled a vacancy in the United States Senate, where he lobbied successfully for an increase in his brother-in-law Michael Higgins’s veteran’s disability pension, claimed on the basis of failing eyesight. The pension, awarded first in 1896 as an annuity of six dollars a month, was raised in 1911 to thirty dollars a month.4
The first four children of the notably fecund Anne and Michael were born in four different towns in New Jersey, Ohio, and New York, before the fifth child, Thomas, arrived in 1877 in Corning, New York. There, in a town that had prospects of becoming the largest inland city in the United States, Anne and Michael Higgins settled in a community of nearly six thousand, over a thousand of whom were foreign-born, mostly from Ireland and, in fewer numbers, Italy.
The specific reasons for their final destination are unclear. But surely an itinerant life with four children and a perpetually pregnant wife had become impossible, and there may have been Purcell cousins in the community. So many emigrants from Michael Higgins’s native county in Ireland had gathered in Corning that one small section of shanties was nicknamed “Corktown.” Besides, in a practical test often undertaken by artisans like Michael Higgins, the smoke, soot, and noise of this small industrial city meant jobs and prosperity. Soon, because there were twelve other families with the surname Higgins, Michael became known as “Marble” Higgins.
* * *
Corning took its name from its founder, the merchant capitalist and land speculator Erastus Corning. Impressed with the village’s location as a port on the Chemung River and anxious to incorporate southeastern New York, with its resources of coal and lumber, into a commercial nexus that he controlled, Corning had bought more than a thousand acres in Steuben County along the river in the 1830s and 1840s. By the time of America’s market revolution and capitalist expansion, the land was profitable investment property, eventually returning Erastus Corning’s speculative capital many times over. The business blocks on Market Street and the clock tower in Corning’s center were located on his land, as were the new railroad tracks that crisscrossed each other along the river flats.
At first, feeder canals to Lake Seneca and then to the Erie Canal transformed the village of Corning into a significant transportation center, as tobacco from the farms in Steuben County, marble and granite from nearby quarries, and coal from the mines near Blossburg in Pennsylvania’s Tioga County were transshipped east and south. But even before the Civil War, faster, more dependable railroads had begun replacing river commerce. Again, Erastus Corning, intent on creating a central New York railroad system connecting the west (he had already bought land in Michigan) to New York City, emerged as a financial leader, consolidating the lines in the Gilded Age, a time when, as in Marxist prediction, one capitalist’s mergers often killed off many others’ businesses. But in time this centralization—and particularly Erastus Corning’s giant industrial creation, the New York Central Railroad—condemned the town that bore his name to second-rate status.5 No longer even a large inland city or hub station on any main railroad line, as town fathers had hoped, instead Corning would forever be associated with another industry—glassmaking. By the 1890s Corning had earned its permanent nickname, Crystal City.
In 1868 the Houghton family had accepted a subsidy of fifty thousand dollars from the ambitious town fathers to move their glassworks from Brooklyn to Corning, where there were promises of excellent transportation, abundant coal and water, appropriate sand, and cheap Irish workers, the latter the human detritus left over from canal and railroad building. After the firm created a means of mass producing the tubes for Thomas Edison’s new electric lightbulbs, its factories employed half the workers in town. Smoke belched from the local marvel of hundred-foot brick smokestacks.
Children as young as twelve labored in the glassworks, where the eldest Higgins sons—Joseph, John, and Thomas—at various times supplemented the family income with their wages. In a system widely accepted in the community, the Higgins boys went to school for a few hours and then spent the rest of the day and part of the evening in the glassworks. There they worked as laborers sweeping up and, more dangerously, carrying on long poles the molten globs, the result of silicates fused with sand, soda, lime, and wood ash, from furnaces heated to fifteen hundred degrees, to be fashioned into glassware by the more skilled and higher-paid gaffers.
As in other communities in the United States, the distribution of wealth in Corning’s version of the Gilded Age became more skewed: education, wealth, family size, even clothing and leisure activities separated the residents. The local newspaper the Corning Daily Democrat under the heading “Town Talk” featured news and gossip of the smart set—trips to Florida and New Orleans during the cold months by the Houghtons of the glassworks and the Drakes of the banking family, social events organized by “the Club,” weddings, railroad outings to nearby Elmira, and presentations by the girls studying in the privately funded Corning Academy.
Among the latter was Katharine Houghton, daughter of Amory Houghton, who had founded the Corning Glass Works. A year older than Maggie Higgins, these two never knew each other as girls growing up in stratified Corning. But later, as a fervent supporter of suffrage, the now married Katharine Houghton Hepburn served as a lieutenant in Sanger’s birth control movement, though she was best known as the mother of the movie star Katharine Hepburn.
Corning’s striking geographical feature, its steep southside hill rising from the river valley, symbolized these differences. The wealthy few who had lived in substantial houses on First Street now moved up the hill on the south side of town, building grand stone and brick homes with turrets, music rooms, and libraries. Young Maggie Higgins did not need any instruction from her father to recognize the contrasts between an existence she later characterized as “strange, hard, and barren, materially speaking” and the softer, gentler life of the wealthy.6 As she later described the town that along with her father had taught her lessons in America’s class structure:
The people who lived on the hilltops owned their homes, had few children, dressed them well, and kept their homes and yard clean and tidy. Mothers of the hills played croquet and tennis with their husbands in the evening. They walked hand in hand with their children through the streets to shop for suitable clothing. They were young looking mothers, with pretty, clean dresses and they smelled of perfume. I often watched them at play as I looked through the gates in passing.7
Meanwhile, the workers lived at the bottom of the hill, in shacks on the fringe of the town or squeezed into the congested area between the river and the railroads. Corning had its share of the late-nineteenth-century version of today’s homeless in the itinerant tramps who had no permanent homes and who occasionally slept in the Higgins home. There seemed to be no middle class, though as a skilled worker Michael Higgins might have joined the cobblers, clerks, and grocers who resided along First Street.
Despite this stratification, Corning’s opinion makers held to democratic ideals. The Corning Daily Democrat’s masthead proclaimed, “We go where Democratic principles point their way; when they cease may we cease to follow.” Its proprietors also asserted that “part of the village may be built on the hill, but her citizens do not look down upon those living on flats at their feet. Corning is a homely looking village and in some parts decidedly sloppy but she is attractive to those who know her best and [is] full of business.”8
In the early 1880s Michael Higgins endured some devastating bad luck: within months a partner ran off with profits from his business and his shop burned down. Still, there was opportunity. Rural country graveyards in garden settings with substantial plots had created a growth industry for sculptors in the late nineteenth century, and every year nearly one hundred residents of Corning died. But Higgins’s commissions became increasingly sporadic, and his large family was consigned to the category of poor—never even lace curtain—Irish. Consequently, Maggie spent her childhood as an outsider, classified as a redheaded southside Irish girl. Of course, looking back, she knew why: “Very early in my childhood I associated poverty, toil, unemployment, drunkenness, cruelty, quarreling, fighting, debts, and jails with large families.”9
* * *
After the Civil War, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church—located on Corning Hill, midway between the rich and the poor—replaced its former wooden structure with a stone building, complete with an organ and stained glass windows, to accommodate the city’s Catholic population of two thousand, most of whom were Irish. By 1880, the church, with the financial help of poor but generous parishioners, had added a brick schoolhouse. In an unusual, surely unconstitutional, and soon challenged arrangement, St. Mary’s School received public funds from the state of New York and Steuben County, serving for a time as both a parochial and a public “free” school. Here Maggie Higgins and her seven brothers and three sisters attended school for varying lengths of time with differing amounts of attention, sitting obediently in long, crowded rows along a wooden planked bench, careful to avoid the wrath of the Sisters of Mercy and Father Colgan, who was known to use the strap on unruly pupils.10
In the shadow of St. Mary’s, in a city where the phrase “the bottom of the hill” replaced “the wrong side of the tracks” as a designation of social and economic standing, the Higgins family lived at the foot of Corning Hill, first in a home that Michael had rented after selling one of his finest sculptures, then above his business on Main Street. Later, Margaret Sanger romanticized the shack into a house in the pines, with fresh air that might improve her mother’s tuberculosis. In fact, the first of many Higgins residences was dangerously close to the Fall Brook Railway line. In part because of the growing number of Higgins children, and in part because of their father’s uncertain support, the family moved as often as every two years, never owning a home but always boarding in various locations on the flats or along First Street. The Corning directories track the family’s movements, and by 1890 they lived in a rented home on Second Street.11
By the mid-1880s, with her elder sisters gone from home, eight-year-old Maggie had taken up the routinized, inside-the-house female chores. She tended to her younger sister, Ethel, and then to four younger brothers born in quick succession. She stirred the big pot of soup that simmered on the wood stove and sustained the Higgins children; she helped her mother with the extra laundry taken in to supplement the family income; and she even cleaned up the afterbirth when her youngest brother was born. Meanwhile, her older sister Mary took a permanent position as a live-in, lifetime domestic servant in the wealthy Abbott family’s home up the hill, and Nan fled to New York City and then Buffalo to become a secretary and later a translator. With lives familiar to many firstborn daughters of immigrant Irish families, neither married.
Plying his trade as a stone cutter, “Marble” Higgins alienated his conservative neighbors with his views on labor unions during a time of violent antagonism between labor and management. The Higgins family had arrived in 1877, a year in which railroad workers staged a nationwide walkout following a reduction in wages. In the United States that year, more than a hundred workers died in pitched battles with security forces hired by companies before federal troops moved in to quiet the fears among the propertied classes of a forthcoming revolution. During the years between 1881 and 1905, 6 million American workers left their jobs for better wages, and 36,757 strikes erupted in the United States. The prosperous classes in Corning believed glassworkers, given their higher wages, would remain well behaved and impervious to what many Americans considered the illegal action of leaving work in order to protect wages. But in 1891 strikers closed down the glassworks, and two years later the nineteenth century’s worst depression devastated Corning.
Michael Higgins applauded the strikers and joined the Knights of Labor, a popular labor organization that supported an end to private ownership of the means of production. Yet he never became an officer or even a member of the mainstream organizations that glued the community together, such as the Grand Army of the Republic and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Still, Michael Higgins was never invisible like his wife. (Years later, when Margaret Sanger was famous, a dentist who had lived in Corning during her childhood wrote that he remembered her father well, but he did not believe that he had ever seen her mother.)12
With his wiry, electric red hair worn longer than customary and his lack of the facial hair favored by this generation of bewhiskered and bearded gentry, Michael Higgins fashioned himself into an outsider—an Irishman who hated the Catholic Church in a religious community of believers, a supporter of the nation’s most prominent social dissidents, a union man in a company town, and an unreliable breadwinner with a large family to support. Michael saw himself as an intellectual but, in one resident’s memory, “many thought him a lazy, drunken, loud-mouth who would sit around and drink rather than work.”13
He talked socialism and agnosticism in the town pubs and even invited his hero, the popular orator and freethinker Robert Ingersoll, to speak in Corning, probably in 1885, when Ingersoll was delivering his blasphemous views across the Northeast. Ingersoll was well-known as a critic of both capitalists and priests. And sometimes he even delved into matters of sex and the importance of physical love. Ingersoll talked about sexual desire—“the tender flame”—at a time when few Americans welcomed any discussion of an off-limits topic. Most found it more threatening than even Ingersoll’s frequent jokes about the obscenity he found in the Bible.
As retold in Margaret Sanger’s My Fight for Birth Control, the following episode illustrated the importance of free speech and commitment to principles—even those despised by others—that anticipated events in her own life: The pastor of St. Mary’s had interceded to prevent any lecture by the infidel Ingersoll. Reluctant to permit such apostasies, Father Colgan had persuaded officials to padlock the doors of Corning’s only public hall in order to prevent such a meeting. As her father so often did in Maggie’s memories, Michael Higgins triumphed in the end. Taking Maggie by the hand, he led the audience full of cheering supporters and jeering objectors to a clearing in the woods. There, standing on a tree stump, he introduced his friend “Colonel Bob.” In a lecture titled “Why I Am an Agnostic,” Ingersoll inveighed against the superstitious practices of all churches. He left his audience with the heretical question “Does God create us or we God?”14
Similarly intolerable to most of Corning was Michael Higgins’s support of Henry George’s radical solution to the inequitable distribution of wealth in America. George proposed a single tax for landowners on the unimproved value of land. In a home with few books, George’s exposition of this idea in Progress and Poverty—published in 1879, the year of Maggie Higgins’s birth—held an important place in a small family library that included the Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Gulliver’s Travels, Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, and Michael’s medical books on physiology. But in a city where the Catholic Church held extensive and untaxed property as well as community respect, George’s positions were anathema. Articulated loudly by Michael Higgins, such convictions and his invitation to George to speak in Corning ended any commissions from the church, though in his early days in the town Michael had sculpted the church’s altar and many of its gravestones. No longer would he decorate the graves of St. Mary’s faithful; instead, he would have to look to faraway places for his business.
At home his agnosticism created troubled waters with his devout Catholic wife. All the Higgins children acknowledged the loving relationship between their parents; still, disagreements erupted when Michael Higgins prevented his children from becoming members, through the rituals necessary for a proper Christian life. Maggie, born in 1879, was not baptized until 1893, and according to the priest who officiated, her entrance into the church was accomplished without her father’s knowledge. The next year she was confirmed, after parental negotiation.15 Years later, she remembered her father’s challenges to the givens of the church and his ridicule of her nightly repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer. When she intoned the traditional “Give us our daily bread,” her father interrupted, asking to whom she was speaking. When she replied the obvious, her father then asked whether God was a baker who could feed the Higginses. Retrospectively, Margaret admired her father’s lifelong efforts to teach her to think for herself and to challenge conventional wisdom. Such a legacy—her father’s way of sanctifying and underwriting the defiance that characterized her life’s work—became her inheritance, for there would be no monetary one. Still, as a child she could never “pray in the same way,” and soon would not pray at all.16
Certainly the Higgins family presented a challenge for the fathers of St. Mary’s Church. Vividly, Maggie recalled standing in line in the Parish Hall for a gift at Christmastime. When she approached, the priest called her “a child of the Devil” with a disgraced father and promptly sent her home empty-handed. When the priests came to encourage Anne Higgins to come to church, sometimes bringing baskets of food to the family, Michael turned them away. After Anne became too enervated from tuberculosis to walk up the hill for services, Michael objected to any priest delivering the sacrament of communion in his home. Only on his wife’s deathbed did he relent. According to Sister Mechtilde, a nun who was an eyewitness, a priest gave the last rites on Good Friday to Anne Higgins, who murmured, “My Heaven begins this morning.” In Corning lore that forever stigmatized the infamous Margaret Sanger, young Maggie had refused to kneel in prayer as her mother died, though in her own remembrance, she was not in the house.17 Michael did bury his wife in St. Mary’s Cemetery, where as a contumacious, insubordinate nonbeliever, he could never join her in consecrated ground.
While Maggie’s younger sister, Ethel, prettier than she, claimed her mother’s special attention as the youngest of four daughters, Maggie was her father’s favorite. When her younger, unbaptized brother Henry George McGlynn Higgins died—this son bore the name not just of Henry George but of an excommunicated Catholic priest who supported Henry George—her father picked Maggie to help on a secret project. Intent on consoling his wife with a death mask (for the family had no picture of the boy), Michael Higgins walked with Maggie, carrying a wheelbarrow, shovel, and pick, two miles to the graveyard at midnight. Maggie was to swing the lantern as a warning if anyone approached: exhuming a body was a crime.
Meanwhile her father dug up the coffin, opened it, and made a mask of the boy’s head and shoulders. “For two nights I worked with Father while he modeled that head. I remember the queer feeling I had when I discovered some of the hair which had stuck in the plaster.”18 The conspirators—father and daughter—then proudly presented a realistic plaster bust of a dead son to a grieving mother consoled by the remembrance.
So close was Maggie to her father that it was he who awoke her earliest erotic feelings. “Sex knowledge” might be “a natural part of life,” as she once wrote, but specific aspects of sexual physiology and behavior remained mysterious. Neither Michael nor Anne Higgins discussed sex with their children, though their crowded living quarters assured some understanding. In the more spontaneous first version of her life published in 1931 as My Fight for Birth Control, Margaret Sanger recounted the story of her sexual awakening. The incident did not reappear in the sanitized, polished version of her youth published seven years later as Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography.
Feverish with a case of typhoid fever, Maggie Higgins lay in her mother’s bed. At some point during the night she became aware of her father’s heavy breathing beside her. He intended to nurse her through the night, but instead he lay down on the bed with his clothes on and soon was asleep beside her:
It was Father. I was terrified. I wanted to scream out to Mother to beg her to come and take him away. I could not move, I dared not move, fearing he might move toward me. I lived through agonies of fear in a few minutes. Then Father’s breathing changed—he was about to awaken. I was petrified. But he only turned over on his other side with his back toward me, taking all the bed clothing with him. I was cold; I began to shiver; blackness and lights flickered in my brain; then I was falling, falling and knew no more.19
Hardly an example of familial incest, the episode nonetheless remained an enigmatic tale of an acknowledged sexual coming-of-age that has been interpreted, in Freudian terms, as a classic female dream of defilement and in another view as her initial association through her father of the masculine “aggressive, threatening … sexual instinct.” In fact it was probably no more than an uninformed recognition of her father’s erection and nightly dreams.20
* * *
Other early memories involved battles to wage and win, whether against illness or the poverty that separated the Higgins children from their contemporaries whom Maggie envied—“the children of the well-to-do … free to romp and play wherever they chose … secure in their right to live and be just what they were.”21 Still, she respected her own familial legacy of a “rich, colorful [childhood] abundant in things of the spirit.” In fact, all the Higginses hated Corning and, save for Joe, left as soon as they could. But the family held great affection for one another and a belief in their mutual exceptionalism. Throughout her life, Maggie remained a loyal Higgins, helping her sisters financially when she could as they had helped her, buying a cottage on Cape Cod in Truro, Massachusetts, for her aging father, visiting and entertaining her younger brothers. She did numerous favors for her nieces and nephews, taking one to Europe and paying for another’s college tuition. But during her childhood in Corning she lived, as did her father, as an outsider. “We … knew not where we belonged. Everything we desired most was forbidden. Our childhood was one of longing for things that were always denied.”22
Post–Civil War Corning offered an expanding range of consumer goods. But the Higgins children always dressed in hand-me-downs; a younger brother once wore a dress to school. At Christmastime the Corning Daily Democrat advertised the elegant new goods that had arrived just in time for the holidays, but unlike her classmates, Maggie could expect no gifts. Instead, she used her younger siblings as doll babies. Nor did the Higgins children have time or quiet or even a place to study their lessons. Yet ever optimistic, young Maggie Higgins held no crippling sense of bitterness nor guilt about these circumstances, only a comprehension of reality and a desire to triumph over obstacles and press forward. Conflict inspired; it rarely intimidated.
Once lacking the necessary ten cents to pay for a ticket to the popular traveling performance of a musical version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Maggie nearly stole ten cents from an open purse and, in the end, snuck into the Corning theater without paying. That night she contemplated the “remembrance of the power which had seized me, the escape and the victory. I began to think of the stories of the devil and his temptations.”23 Such childhood recollections became inspirational triumphs.
Fifty years later she recounted at length the story of her crossing the narrow Erie Railroad Bridge that spanned the Chemung River. Forbidden to cross the bridge alone, previously she had been lifted by her brothers over the gaps in the tracks. Now she created a risky challenge for herself: “I had to cross the bridge unaccompanied. I had to take that walk alone. I trembled as I drew near. The more I feared it; the more I determined I had to do it.”24 But when she was midway across, a train approached. She stumbled, fell through the tracks, and dangled dangerously over the river as the train passed over her until she was rescued by a fisherman. As her future life became a journey of challenges and adversity overcome, such memories of girlhood, the stories she chose to include in her autobiography, offered a melodramatic prelude to adulthood and a reinforcement of triumphs discovered in her early life.
In September 1895, sixteen-year-old Maggie Higgins went away to boarding school. In one of those extraordinary contingent happenings that accompany every human existence, what she later termed her “mutiny” began when her teacher had ridiculed a new pair of gloves, a gift from her sister Mary. The gloves were too pretentious for the daughter of a poor stone cutter, the teacher implied, as the class tittered. Although her classmates remembered Maggie as polite and quiet, giving, as one said, “no indication of the bizarre career she would follow,” this day she angrily left her seat, ran home, and promised herself that she would never return.25 Only two weeks remained until she would complete eight grades of school—as only about a third of all the daughters of Corning accomplished. And there was no schooling for girls available in town after the eighth grade. Nearby Elmira College for women required completing ten grades in order to qualify for its newly established secretarial program.
The bleak alternatives for an undereducated girl were domestic service or early marriage to a factory worker. In fact, her younger sister, Ethel, was already courting and at seventeen would marry a glassworker. Prudence demanded that Maggie abandon such headstrong behavior and at least complete eight grades, especially since her dreams included going to nearby Cornell in Ithaca, which had started admitting women in 1870. Her purpose was to become a doctor. In the private mantra that sustained her life: “When once I believed in doing a thing, nothing could prevent it.”26
And little did. She never returned to St. Mary’s School after the family debated her future during the summer. In the fall, sisters Nan and Mary somehow came up with $50 to pay part of the annual $225 tuition (approximately $2,250 in today’s dollars), and Maggie Higgins, who had never been farther away than Lake Tioga outside of Corning, enrolled at the Claverack College and Hudson River Institute, a coeducational boarding school near Hudson, New York. As a middle child, she had benefited from her family placement. Her elder sisters, whose own ambitions had shriveled, saved her. Now they projected their dreams of the future, stifled by what she called their “cruel immolation at the shrine of family duties,” onto their capable younger sister.27
By the time Maggie Higgins arrived, Claverack College and Hudson River Institute had a long history as a respected institution—first as a girls’ school, then as that rarity in the nineteenth century, a coeducational college preparatory boarding school, with males making up more than two-thirds of its pupils.28 Predating the elite northeastern single-sex boarding school, it attracted, along with mostly New Yorkers, students from Panama and Venezuela. It offered, as its Methodist mission, to give “a thorough and systematic education to young men and women and at the same time furnish them a comfortable, cultured Christian home.” Unlike many schools in this age of harsh corporal punishment, Claverack promised a gentler discipline whereby “government is actually secured more by fixing a high standard of morality, honor, and politeness than by resort to painful discipline.”29
In Maggie’s time Claverack enrolled more than three hundred students in a huge, four-story Greek Revival structure with two wings of rooms for girls and boys, separated by faculty apartments. The campus, which included an armory, drill house, and gymnasium, sprawled across twenty acres a few miles from the Hudson River. Ambitiously, Claverack divided its curriculum into eleven departments, offering traditional subjects along with a strong conservatory and art program, as well as chemistry and biology, military training, and commercial and agricultural training. One could study everything at Claverack, and Maggie Higgins first enrolled in the mostly female commercial department, where she studied penmanship and bookkeeping, and attended lectures on accounting. Later, forgoing any practical considerations, she moved into the literary program.
The expense of such an elaborate facility, as well as declining enrollments because of improving high schools and the impracticality for boys of its transfer college program—its students had to transfer as junior-year students to institutions such as Yale—soon caused its demise: only four years after Maggie left, Claverack closed down permanently. But as schools aspire to do, it had transformed Maggie Higgins of Corning into a more sophisticated, better-educated young woman whose vision of her future life had broadened. Later, in a graphic depiction of this process, she informed a biographer that in her second year she had scratched the name “Maggie” from the register and written over it “Margaret.” But like many of the stories created in her selective memory—like her father, she would become an adroit fabulist—this was fiction. What was not false was the college’s effect on her rising expectations.
At Claverack College, Maggie entered the world that she had only glimpsed through the fences enclosing the homes of Corning’s wealthy. As a work-study scholarship student who paid part of her tuition, she waited on tables and washed dishes, but there was far less such domestic work than there had been in the Higgins home. Unlike life in Corning, in Claverack there was running water, electricity, elegant furniture, and books in the library. Maggie felt less discrimination as a scholarship student than she had in her hometown as a poor Irish child-of-the-devil, and she had more time.
She read, studied arithmetic, painted, and watched the military drill of the handsome cadets, a group of male students who a few years before had included the novelist Stephen Crane. She debated, appeared in plays as the female lead, and gave speeches about Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and women’s rights, while the boys guffawed and drew pictures of her in men’s clothing, smoking a cigar. But she did not mind such foolish ridicule. She wrote papers approving of Robert Ingersoll’s agnosticism and women’s suffrage, though the latter cause remained in the doldrums. On June 11, 1897, in Claverack’s chapel, she gave a dramatic reading of the curse scene from Leah, the Forsaken, in which Leah believes incorrectly that her lover, Rudolf, has forsaken her and utters a curse on him. Proudly, Maggie sent her essays and speeches home to her father, whom she still acknowledged as “the spring from which I drank.”30 And of course she took up the regnant political issue of the day—the silver question, throwing her support to William Jennings Bryan’s inflationary notions of monetizing silver, though few of her classmates agreed.
In the classic manner of learning, Maggie also absorbed a full curriculum in gentrification from her classmates—how to dress, how to fix her lovely auburn hair in something other than pigtails, how to dance (which she enjoyed for the rest of her life), how to take tea, and how to fall in love with boys and girls, employing the appropriate rituals of courtship. Her first crush entangled her with the most popular girl in school, who came from a blue-blooded New York family. A platonic relationship, as Maggie described it in her Autobiography after she had become a recognized expert on sexual matters, such an affair of the heart was necessary for all adolescent girls and—sadly, in her view—was profoundly misunderstood by the advice experts. “The depths of its chastity, the simplicity of its fulfillment are part of the girl’s growth. Seldom does sex expression enter into the relation … I have lived with girls for years and only after I was well along in maturity did I come into contact with homosexual problems,” concluded this self-taught informant who rarely used the word “homosexual.”31
With her delicate oval face, even features, gray eyes, and abundant red hair, Maggie attracted fellow students of both sexes. Many years later friends from Claverack were still writing their news to her and complimenting her on her great work for humanity. Intrigued by another female soul mate who went into the theater and encouraged impressionable Maggie to do the same, she had a boyfriend as well—handsome Corey Albertson from Long Island. With a stilted air and in their best clothes, the two posed one spring day for a photograph, his hat on her lap. All Claverack College knew a secret she both subscribed to and denied: Maggie Higgins and Corey Albertson were engaged to be married. Years later, to her English lover the novelist Hugh de Selincourt, Margaret Sanger acknowledged that she had gone on several vacations alone with Corey and in fact had enjoyed “a real marriage” with him.32
In the closed community of a boarding school, Maggie Higgins emerged as a fun-loving leader, organizing activities and, on more than one occasion, illegal escapades off campus. In an episode recounted in her Autobiography, she encouraged her friends to sneak off campus and attend a dance in nearby Hudson. Near midnight amid the hilarity, Claverack’s principal, Arthur Flack, walked in and marched the sheepish students back to the school. The next day he summoned Miss Higgins to his office. There he accused her of being the ringleader who had led classmates into trouble. Presciently, to her mind, he had noted her influence over others. “You must make your choice—whether to get yourself into difficulty or else guide yourself and others into constructive activities which will do you and them credit.”33
Maggie Higgins did not graduate from Claverack. Her sister Nan, now living in Buffalo, had paid part of her tuition for three years, which Maggie acknowledged by listing her hardworking sister, not her father, as her guardian in the student register. But by 1898 neither Nan nor Mary could afford the money, and their parents, still feeding four younger Higginses, had no funds to spend on one child’s education. Family duty now required that Maggie help support the family, as all Higgins children must. And so after three years, she left Claverack, abandoning her far-fetched plans for medical school at Cornell. Soon she was teaching at a New Jersey school in a classroom of eighty-four pupils, many of whom were non-English-speaking Hungarians, Poles, and Italians. They tested her patience. She was not “suited” for teaching, and so one of the natural, acceptable occupations for women disappeared.34 Then, in the winter of 1899, she returned to Corning to nurse her dying mother and run a household with four children under fourteen.
Conflict with her father over her boyfriends immediately erupted. After his wife’s death, the progressive views of Michael Higgins disappeared into the paternalistic monitoring of “an aggravating, irritating tyrant.” Now nineteen, Maggie chafed at her father’s discipline, despising his constant monitoring of her social activities and critical evaluations of her suitors. One night, Maggie missed her curfew, and Michael Higgins locked his favorite daughter out of the house. In her dramatic telling of the episode:
I was left on the verandah in the dark. It was a chilly night in October. I was stunned by such a surprise. I did not know this monster father. I was less than sixteen years old [she was nineteen] and was left out in the streets at night for being three minutes late! Hurt beyond words, I sat down on the steps, concerned over the children at home with this new kind of father … I walked away from the house, trying to decide where I should go and what I should do. At first there seemed no one to turn to.35
Taken in by a friend and later reconciled with her father, Maggie Higgins nevertheless knew that she must leave Corning and never go back. Returning home became the symbolic expression of defeat. Yet as birthplaces inevitably do, Corning had taught her about class divisions and the arrogance of the Catholic Church. Her conflicts with the church, begun when she was the loyal daughter of a nonbeliever, would forever spur her endeavors. Corning had also instructed her in the ways that convention limited the ambitions of women. After her marriage she would return only three more times during her long life—once to bury her father, a notable occasion when no one came to his wake except family, once for her brother Joe’s funeral, and in 1932, when she was mocked by some as that “wicked Sanger woman,” to deliver a speech on birth control. “I can never look back on my childhood with joy … Even when I am passing through Corning at night by train, my body knows I am there and I become sick at my stomach. I could endure all hardships—anything but remain at home. I wanted a world of action.”36
Copyright © 2011 by Jean H. Baker