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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Woman's Place Is at the Top

A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers

Hannah Kimberley

St. Martin's Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

1

Providence


The sky leaked a steady drizzle on the city of Providence in April of 1865 while Annie began her second effort at stitching horizontal woolen thread over the hole in her sock at her mother’s request. At age fourteen, Annie’s thin lips pressed tightly together in a set line and the shallow creases traversing her forehead belied the fact that she was used to her mother’s insistence on exactness. This time, she was extra careful to make sure every stitch covered an extra half inch on each side of the hole lest her mother insist on a third attempt. Annie felt that she had more important work to do than darning socks, but her mother would not understand. Ann Power Smith Peck was persistent in the perfection of her children. As a result, Annie spent much of her time after school with her mother’s sister, Aunt Amanda, who offered a place of solace for Annie, free of instructions and demands. She would go to Amanda’s after school to practice piano and end up staying for kindhearted chats. Amanda was always sure to have tea for Annie, which sometimes came with oysters, one of Annie’s favorite foods, and a sympathetic ear. Annie finally gave up her sewing effort when she was called downstairs to breakfast.

As she watched two of her brothers, William and John, drink large tumblers of milk from the family cow, Annie felt a pang of fear for her oldest brother, George, who was notably absent from the table. Was he safe from the enemy, or would he be destined to join the thousands of other young men she had heard about, already dead, yet still carrying diaries, Bibles, pipes, and locks of hair in their pocketbooks, whose bloated bodies sometimes outnumbered the residents of the towns where they lay? She said a quick, silent prayer for George, finished her breakfast of rye cake and potatoes (besides precision, their mother also advocated a plain diet), and rushed upstairs to get ready for the day. Annie dressed as she tried to shake the image of George likely being sick or hungry from her mind. She knew it would be hard walking from her home on Main Street to church, and she prepared for her passage through the pools of water that would overwhelm the sidewalks.

Annie admired her mother’s sewing skill as she ran her fingers over the scrolling black braids from the high-cut neckline of her dress, which curved away at her waist, to the hem. The plain dress and coat adorned like a military jacket was popular through the Civil War years, and Annie was thankful that her mother helped her to stay fashionable, if only by altering her old thibet dress’s indistinct twill.

Annie parted her hair in the middle, which displayed her hairline set far back on her forehead, making her seem both practical and diligent. She then tied her tresses neatly in a chignon at the back of her head, and tamed her curls with a hairnet made of such fine thread that it was hardly noticeable. She studied her own image: her face had almost grown into her prominent nose and her deep-set blue eyes were full of ideas, never failing to show her intent.

Annie tied up her wool boots, hoping that the leather toe foxing and lace reinforcements might shield her from the weather. She added a black cassock for further protection and walked down her street, past the North Burial Ground and through the College Hill neighborhood to the First Baptist Church at the corner of North Main and Waterman Streets. Annie, like all of the Pecks, felt a sense of belonging when she was at her family church, although she would often criticize the grammar or lackluster sermons of some preachers. For her, church was an extension of school as well as a place to socialize with friends and neighbors. Annie was religious in that she attended the Baptist church for most of her life; however, she noted, “my religion is more intellectual than spiritual.”

Annie proudly recalled that her church was aptly named for the oldest Baptist church in America and was founded by Roger Williams, Annie’s ancestor by two lines of descent on her mother’s side. As legend had it, Williams traveled to Rhode Island, where he encountered the Narragansett Indians, who greeted him with a phrase in mixed English and native, “What cheer, netop?” or “What cheery news do you bring, friend?” A British exile who was also banished from Massachusetts for his “diverse, new, and dangerous opinions against the magistrate,” Williams eventually founded the state of Rhode Island.

The church’s wooden building boasted a 196-foot spire, under which Annie and her friends made comfort bags filled with sewing materials, cakes of soap, combs, and personal letters to anonymous soldiers. This was her small way of doing her part to help the Union troops, which included her absent brother, George.

Beginning when Annie was eleven years old, the Civil War changed the face of Providence more than it did other Union territories. In four years, there were eight calls for troops, and Rhode Island exceeded the Union requests in seven of them. When the war began, Annie’s brother George was not old enough to fight, so he joined a ward company of Home Guards. In September 1861, while at Brown University, he enrolled in the University Cadets, where he remained for two years. In 1863, George enrolled as a private in the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery and was promoted to major. By now, at the end of the war in 1865, George was a second lieutenant in the Union Army and assigned to the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers.

Annie awaited the mail each day for his letters, as he wrote home to tell of his life in Virginia in the last year of the war. In April, Annie learned that George had been shipped with his command to Virginia the month before, wherein he found himself at the Siege of Petersburg, a Virginia railroad depot that supplied the Confederate capital with resources. Annie learned about the siege when George later wrote details of the news:

I [saw] Petersburg on fire. About four o’clock an explosion occurred, followed by a marked diminution of the crimson cloud. We had nearly reached the center of the city when loud cheers were heard from the right of the column and rapidly nearing. I looked up, and lo, President Lincoln accompanied by Generals Grant and Meade, with full staff and escort of cavalry. With hat in hand he graciously acknowledged the greetings of the soldiers, who enthusiastically swung their caps high in air, and made the city ring with their loud hurrahs. His careworn countenance was illumed with a benignant smile; it was the hour of triumph; he was receiving the reward of four years of unparalleled toil, anxiety and care.

He was unrecognized by the late slaves who lined the streets in considerable numbers, but upon learning his identity they too joined heartily in the welcome. The white residents were for the most part invisible; some could occasionally be discerned peeping through the half-turned blinds of the upper windows. As he passed I turned for one last lingering look, impressed that it was my only opportunity. Those brief moments will be sacredly cherished to the latest moment of life.

Little did George imagine that Lincoln’s presidency would quickly end in such a horrific manner.

Like many young soldiers who enter into war, George was not prepared for its horrors. In fact, all three of Annie’s siblings were bookworms. George knew Latin and Greek and mulled over philosophy and ancient history, and he wrote to Annie in swirly language with a keen depth of description. Just having graduated from Brown University the year before with a degree in civil engineering, George was a better fit for distributing equipment, instructing the men in the manual of arms, and turnpiking roads—“the easiest duty in that neighborhood” at the Union Army works of Fort Fisher—than he was for a shootout. And he knew it. But when staff officers rode up to his brigade to tell of the Union occupation of Richmond, Virginia, and after hats, caps, and knapsacks were tossed in the air and national anthems were sung, George was ordered to march supplies near Farmville, Virginia, in order to help close the war.

Later in the month, Annie learned from one of his letters home that on April 6, George chanced to find himself in the last major engagement between Union and Confederate troops—the Battle of Sailor’s Creek (part of the Appomattox campaign)—in the final days of the war. In early evening, the 2nd Rhode Island attacked a part of the Confederate Naval Brigade and went headlong to their front lines, when it met relentless fire from the side. The fighting men came so close together that they stabbed their enemies with bayonets and cracked their heads with musket butts. Even so, the Rhode Island soldiers eventually regained their lost ground.

George reached the foot of the hill and was about thirty feet from the edge of the creek when he felt a dull blow in his left hip. The gash in his hip was four inches long, but a fold in the wet cloth of George’s pants leg showed three bullet holes that narrowly missed him and would have ensured the amputation of his foot had they hit. He was sent off the battlefield to recover three days before Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

When he recovered, George rejoined his regiment as soon as he could walk without crutches. However, his doctor declared George unfit for duty. George resigned from the army and was honorably discharged in July. He would arrive home just one week before the rest of his unit.

* * *

JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT on Sunday, April 9, Annie woke to the sound of bells ringing and cannons firing throughout her neighborhood, announcing that Lee and the Confederate Army had surrendered. While she wasn’t allowed to venture out so late at night, Annie could hear people rushing southward from their houses on Main Street to Market Square. Nearby, citizens set the war recruitment houses on fire in celebration, since they would no longer be used to enlist the young men of Providence. Shouts, cheers, and songs clanged loudly through the air—enough to rouse even the drowsiest citizens.

The whole Brown University campus was deserted as the young men joined the crowd in the square to sing celebratory songs. The students eventually arrived back to the hill, rolling empty barrels along with them—material for their own bonfires on campus. In acts sanctioned by the university president and professors alike, the barrels and other wood scraps were quickly turned into a blazing pile in the center of campus.

The following day, Annie joined her classmates at school, where they listened to speeches by Rev. Leonard Swain of the Central Baptist Church and Union general Ambrose Burnside, who would go on to serve as the governor of Rhode Island the following year and then serve in the U.S. Senate. Burnside made an impression on Annie when she shook his hand after his speech. If it wasn’t his remarkable facial hair—two strips of whiskers growing from his ears down his cheeks and into a bushy mustache, which rested above a cleanly shaven chin that would inspire the style of “sideburns”—it was his words about duty and freedom.

Later in the week, Annie attended Brown University’s official celebration of the end of the war. The campus was illuminated with colored lanterns suspended from windows and elm trees, swaying to the music of an American brass band and the university glee club. There were more bonfires and speeches—each orator pointing to their nation as a powerful, united, and irresistible entity. Annie listened to lectures on economics, race, and citizens’ rights. But the Union win sparked more than just talk; it also set a flame within Annie. Along with discussion on the rights of man, the women’s rights movement had been drawing a following before the war—and it resumed after the war’s conclusion, just in time for young Annie to join in on the discussion.

The Pecks received a letter from George on April 14 that told of his “flesh wound.” He downplayed his injuries so that his mother, whose face was one of the last that he “tenderly envisioned” before he entered into his first and last battle, would not be too worried.

However, by the following morning, just five days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, the city’s exultation turned to sorrow. At 10:15 p.m. on Good Friday, a darkly handsome, popular twenty-six-year-old actor named John Wilkes Booth sneaked into the balcony of Ford’s Theater with a five-inch Derringer pocket pistol fashioned from engraved walnut and brass, and shot the president in the back of the head as he sat in a rocking chair, looking on to the stage from his theater box. Lincoln’s wife was with him. While many audience members believed the ruckus to have been part of the play, Mary Todd Lincoln saw what the whole nation would soon learn and cried out, “They have shot the president!” The president’s eyes were closed as he lay next to his signature top hat that still bore the mourning band for his young son Willie’s death from typhoid fever a few years before. The bullet was small, less than an ounce of lead, and left very little blood, but it was a fatal shot. The president would die the following day. At the same time, another member of Booth’s clan, Lewis Powell, went to assassinate the secretary of state, William Seward. Powell, a tall, well-dressed twenty-year-old, whose face, which slanted to the left, bore a crooked smile when he wasn’t scowling, rushed into the Seward household. He attacked Seward’s servant, children, and bodyguard, and stabbed Seward in the neck and chest with a dagger. On the morning of April 15, the Peck family read the telegraphed announcement published in the morning paper:

Appalling National Calamity—MURDER IN THE CAPITAL—PRESIDENT LINCOLN ASSASSINATED IN A THEATRE —Secretary Seward Stabbed in his Bed—The Assistant Secretary of State also Seriously Hurt—THE PRESIDENT JUST ALIVE AT HALF-PAST TWO O’CLOCK THIS MORNING—His Case Absolutely Hopeless—SECRETARY SEWARD’S INJURIES PROBABLY FATAL

Fortunately for Seward, the papers were wrong, and he and the rest of his household survived the attack. What the press did not know at the time was that Booth’s gang of assassins included a third man, George Atzerodt, who had signed on to murder Vice President Johnson. Atzerodt, a Prussian-born Confederate with a pinched face, booked a room in Johnson’s hotel. Fifteen minutes before he was to assassinate the man second in command of the nation, at 10:00, he changed his mind. After drinking at the hotel bar, he lost his nerve and then wandered off into the night.

The Peck family, along with the rest of the nation, was in shock. On the same day that they received word from the Depot Field Hospital in Petersburg that George was better and his wound was healing, Booth—the angry young Confederate who had performed in Providence’s Pine Street Theater the previous year—had murdered the president in an unprecedented conspiracy the likes of which the country had never before seen.

The United States was as vulnerable as ever, and Providence felt her own fragility at the news of Lincoln’s passing. Annie’s uncle Nathan arrived at the house and took her for a ride in his horse carriage through Providence, which she noted, “was all in mourn.” A shadow of sorrow had been cast over each building and individual on the streets of Providence. No other conversation could be heard except that concerning the death of Lincoln, and those voices were tuned in a minor key. As Annie and Uncle Nathan rode through their familiar streets, the whole town seemed to be cloaked in black bunting and crepe—the 1860s cloth of woe. Even the most modest of homes were dressed with solemn decorations, expressing the sorrowful feeling of their residents more powerfully than words could. Portraits of the late president, decked in mourning, were displayed in store windows. Many people created altarlike displays at their homes and places of business. Flags were at half-staff and heavily creped. Annie noticed that most citizens wore mourning badges, attesting to the sincerity of the city’s collective grief.

It is possible that the people of Providence were sharing in something more. The city contained 29 percent of Rhode Island’s population in 1860, but it had supplied nearly half its fighting men. It wasn’t just Providence that felt the blow of Lincoln’s death. By the time his funeral train rolled into Springfield, Illinois, millions of people had gathered at more than 440 stops to see the president’s remains during his procession and one-third of the nation participated in memorializing him in some way in what constituted the largest public event at that point in U.S. history. Annie would share in the loss. The front side of her high school was trimmed in black and white drapery, and Annie and her friends pinned their clothing with black and white ribbons to match.

On April 16, Easter Sunday, Annie went to the First Baptist Church, also handsomely decorated in mourning cloth, like so many other churches draped in black from floor to rafter. There were no Easter sermons in Providence that Sunday. Instead, every church pastor and minister preached on the lamentation of Lincoln’s death.

Three days later, Annie went to the Mathewson St. Methodist Church to hear Sidney Dean, a retired congressman and popular minister in town. By the time she got there, the church was so full of parishioners that she couldn’t get in the door. Rather than wait for another glimpse of Dean, Annie went home to decorate the front side of their house in black bunting.

* * *

EVENTUALLY, ANNIE’S STRICT bedtime hours changed from seven or eight to nine and occasionally ten, and opened up a new world for her. At age seventeen, Annie frequently attended lectures at the Franklin Lyceum, an institution in Providence that provided entertainment for the residents. The first public lecture at the lyceum was by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1839. By the time Annie was in high school, it had burgeoned beyond a series of yearly lectures to a library holding more than 7,000 volumes and had a regularly published journal. As a major source of news and amusement, the lyceum gave residents hungry for knowledge and entertainment a chance to hear debates and lectures on current events—from travel and music to politics and literature.

As Annie walked with her father up Weybosset to Mathewson Street, and down Westminster Street toward the lyceum building, she thought of the previous lectures that she had attended there. She had especially enjoyed the abolitionists Wendell Phillips, George William Curtis, and William Lloyd Garrison. These speakers ignited a spark in Annie—her young mind reeling from new knowledge gained from their discussions on the Republican values of freedom of speech and of abolition as well as women’s rights. (Ironically, the Franklin Lyceum did not allow women as members until 1871.) But this evening, Annie was about to hear another great star on the lecture circuit, a young suffragist who had already made big news around the country as someone who could command any audience.

Her name was Anna E. Dickinson, and she was just eight years older than Annie was now at seventeen. She was well-known for her intelligence and spunk—traits that Annie not only admired but aspired to develop. Dickinson began her career as a radical Republican writer and speaker when she was in her teens. William Lloyd Garrison, the journalist and abolitionist campaigner, was Dickinson’s mentor. By the time she was nineteen, Dickinson was sponsored by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and began speaking for audiences of five thousand people. When she was twenty-two, the New Hampshire Republican Committee hired Dickinson as a paid campaigner. However, what really sealed her popularity was an invitation to Washington, D.C., from Vice President Hamlin, twenty-three senators, and seventy-eight congressmen to speak in the hall of the House of Representatives before nearly every Republican officeholder. In her speech, “The Nation’s Peril,” Dickinson cited a list of radical Republican criticisms of the president as he sat in her audience, including his proclamation of amnesty for Southern states and lack of protection for African Americans outside of emancipation. She ended her speech by recognizing that, even with her grievances, Lincoln was still “the man to complete the grand and glorious work,” to which the audience responded with volleys of cheers.

Annie stood with her father in line on Westminster Street, just below a life-size statue of Benjamin Franklin over the main entrance of the building. She took into account that “lecturers like Dickinson were so popular that people would stand all night in order to get the best seats following morning.” They walked to the third story, past the long reading room, and entered the hall, a room thirty-seven feet square and twenty-one feet high, surrounded on three sides by balconies. In her free time, she had already studied some of the leading suffragists of the day, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. Yet when it came to rock-star rhetoric, Anna E. Dickinson topped the charts for Annie.

From the time she took her place on the lecture platform, Dickinson was a five-foot-tall “magnet,” attracting the attention of everyone in the room with her graceful movements and dramatic gray-eyed gaze. Dickinson’s first words sprung from a powerful voice, sharp rather than loud, “as clear as the tone of metal, and yet with a reed-like softness”:

Idiots and women! They might say that is not complimentary to my own sex, but it is the law. It prescribes that people twenty-one years of age can vote if they are not criminals, paupers, idiots, or women. It is, however, as to the latter class that the law is strictly enforced. What are the poor whites in the South but paupers? Yet they vote. Who are the criminals if not the men in the South who fought against their country, and the men, who in the North aided them? Yet they vote. Who, too, are idiots, if not the people of the East and West who supported Andrew Johnson? Yet they vote. Why should a government professing freedom for all, deny it to about one half of the citizens? Why should it be stated that taxation and representation go always together, and then have women’s property taxed, while she was denied representation?

Dickinson used no notes. She spoke quickly and clearly. With a slender and small physique and waves of “short brown hair that she tossed like a man when she spoke,” Dickinson was perfectly confident. She was energetic and determined, and each of her words carried with them a sense of remarkable earnestness.

Dickinson continued:

They said woman is incapable of making laws. But they take it for granted that she understands them, and punish her if she violates them. It is said that if women vote, they will also hold offices. Well, what then?

A nervous man in the audience asked her a question that would echo far into the future: “Would it be fine to see a woman President, and to see her at a Cabinet meeting with a little baby in her arms?”

Dickinson replied to him:

If such a thing should happen, and a pure-minded, bright-eyed, clear-brained woman was in the Presidential Chair, with a little child in her arms, she would command at least as much respect from the nation as the drunken, bad, traitorous person now occupying that position.

Dickinson was referring to President Andrew Johnson, a Southern Democrat, who was plagued by radical Republicans who sought control of the South through Reconstruction policies. Johnson would be impeached a few months later in February of 1868. Her answer settled the man, and the rest of the audience burst into more applause.

After Dickinson further defined the problem and again illustrated her position with allusions to history and clearly drawn comparisons, she ended by answering her own question:

The war could not have been fought to its successful close but for the devotion and ardor of the women of the country. Who could show more right to interfere in the settlement of our difficulties than those wives, sisters, and mothers who had given their nearest and dearest to save their country? And the ballot should surely be there; it could not be otherwise.

The audience punctuated her final point with a deafening and long-continued applause. Annie may have clapped the loudest. Besides the obvious argument for suffrage, one other point that she made, which Annie would recall many years later, was that Dickinson “had been considered a very nice lady when she earned $300 a year, but she was regarded as out of her popular sphere and strongly disapproved of by men as a lecturer who could command $300 a night” ($300 in 1867 would be worth nearly $5,000 today). The idea that a single woman could earn a living (Dickinson was still unmarried at twenty-five) and make her own way in the world as an independent lecturer gave Annie new notions for her own, fast-approaching adulthood.

“I agreed with everything she said,” Annie told her father after the lecture.

“Yes, it was very good,” he noted. “I cannot refute any of her arguments and I acknowledge the soundness in each of them; nevertheless, it will take more than Miss Dickinson to convince me that women should have the vote.”

Annie later recalled the conversation with her father in a letter to her brother John, saying: “You may know I was provoked enough at that!”

Annie’s weekends continued to involve curling her hair and ice-skating, but based on her new influences at the lyceum, she also added “staying at home all day [to] write a composition on women’s rights” to her list of pastimes.

Dickinson’s fame as a lecturer would eventually decline, but her memory will live on in the form of two mountain peaks. She was an avid hiker who enjoyed traipsing through the mountains—so much so that she claimed to have gazed at the “tossing clouds” from the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington twenty-eight times. After a particularly hard and exhausting time on the lecture circuit in 1873, Dickinson set out with her brother to Colorado, where she climbed and rode mules to the summits of Grays Peak, Mount Elbert, Mount Lincoln, and Pikes Peak in the Rocky Mountains. On their trek up Longs Peak, the Dickinsons joined a geologist, Ferdinand V. Hayden, who was surveying the altitude of the mountain. During their hike, they spied another peak just north of Longs and named it Mount Lady Washington in honor of Dickinson’s affinity for Mount Washington. At the same time, a Boulder County News reporter was scandalized by the fact that Dickinson rode her horse like a man (instead of the ladylike sidesaddle style) and wore trousers to climb the peak. To top off these two faux pas, Dickinson split her trousers while sliding down the mountain in the snow! The Boulder County News reported this incident a week after Dickinson’s climb.

Years later, mistakenly thinking that Dickinson was the first woman to climb Longs Peak, Enos A. Mills, the naturalist behind the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park, named a mountain in the Mummy Range “Mount Dickinson” in her honor.

At seventeen, Annie could not have known that her life would mirror Dickinson’s in so many ways, but when she wrote to John about the details of “Idiots and Women,” she ended her letter by remarking, “I wish I were smart enough to lecture. Think it would be splendid.”

* * *

IT WAS SNOWING on a January morning in 1867 as Annie awoke, and would continue still to snow throughout the day. She went to school as usual, but because of the storm, there were only about twenty-five girls in the building and two teachers, so classes were canceled at noon. Annie went down the street to take a horsecar home, but there were none to be found. She waited more than an hour to catch the next sleigh omnibus, which would be the last vehicle of any kind that would pass her house that day. By the time she got home, the snow went up above her knees as she walked to the front door.

Annie sat down to reread a book that her brother John had sent from Annapolis—on the “Beauties” of Ruskin, a leading Victorian author and Oxford professor of art. Annie had twice already read the first chapter on Ruskin and his works. She had now also read his essay on Beauty twice and understood most of it, but did not yet feel competent to give a synopsis of the chapter. She decided that she would have to read it twice more before she could write a detailed summation to John as he requested. While Ruskin wasn’t exactly casual reading for a girl of Annie’s age, she read his work to keep in step with her brothers, who might otherwise leave her out of their literary discussions.

It seems that every member of the Peck household expected the youngest child to stand out in various fields. Her brothers gave Annie books to read and quizzed her on the contents. Annie’s mother arranged for her to take piano lessons. The teacher, Mr. Carter, taught Annie for $3 less than his regular price, telling her mother that Annie was “full of music” and that he would make a first-class player of her. She would practice playing music from Verdi’s eighteenth opera, Il Trovatore, so much that her father scolded her for spending too much time at the piano.

Annie’s father had more important tasks for his youngest child. He had her read Religion and Chemistry; or, Proofs of God’s Plan in the Atmosphere and Its Elements by Harvard scientist Josiah Parsons Cooke. From it, Annie learned about the atmosphere and its elements in natural theology—a subject that meant to “arrest and reward the attention of all thinking men.” Annie was proud to have nearly finished the large, eight-volume set when she decided to put it to good use for some extra credit at school. Basing her work on Cooke’s lectures on carbonic acid and oxygen, she and a friend, Annie Allin, wrote a play she called a “discussion” between Oxygen (played by Annie Allin) and Carbon (played by Annie) and acted out the dialogue together in class. After their performance, they each received a grade of 8, of which Annie was especially proud. She noted that the highest grade ever received by anyone before was 8¼ out of 10.

Annie Allin was one of the young ladies in Annie’s friendship circle who shared the name or nickname of Annie. The group also included Anna E. Whipple, Annie Allen, and another young lady named Phebe S. Gladding. The three Annies and Phebe attended Providence High School, which included three focuses of study for its students: a classical department for boys, an English and scientific department for boys, and a girls’ department. The young women studied a mixture of the boys’ departments’ curricula, including rhetoric, French, astronomy, art, and composition. Unlike many young women in high school at the time, Annie and her classmates were lucky enough to be instructed by Sarah Elizabeth “Eliza” Doyle, a suffragist who would become a mobilizer for women’s rights in education.

Eliza Doyle, whose long skirts and high-collared shirts complemented her hair, pulled back tightly in a bun, looked the perfect part of a nineteenth-century schoolmarm. She was also, as Annie described her, “one of the most prominent women in Rhode Island and a feminist.” The sister of Providence’s longtime mayor, Thomas Doyle, Eliza taught in the girls’ department, and eventually became the principal of Providence High School. When her students weren’t studying French or algebra, Doyle had them reading authors such as Margaret Fuller, whose writings espoused equality for women. She was respected by her students, who eagerly awaited those moments when she would hand out sparse praise, for, as Annie noted, Doyle “never said anything but what she thought.” A decade after Annie graduated from high school, Doyle would help found the Rhode Island School of Design and then work to force the doors of Brown University open to women in the form of Pembroke Hall.

* * *

WHEN NOT STUDYING the likes of Fuller and Dickinson, Annie and her friends organized class socials in which they would perform dramatic proverbs and sing. After Annie was elected vice president of the Class Social Union, she and her friends proposed that the boys from school walk them home, as young women should not walk home alone at night for fear of looking “cheap.” It was from this chivalrous ceremony that Annie met a young man in her class named William Vail Kellen, who asked to walk her a mile and a half from the high school socials in the center of town to her house every chance he got.

Kellen’s family followed his father, a minister, to whichever town the Methodist Episcopal Church assigned him—from Truro, Edgartown, and New Bedford in Massachusetts to Willimantic in Connecticut and Concord in New Hampshire. In 1867, his father landed in Providence, and Kellen enrolled in the classics department in the same graduating class as Annie. She made their courtship official via a short note in the winter of 1868 when she allowed Will (as she liked to call him) to escort her to socials (a different ritual from just walking a young lady home to help keep her reputation intact).

In an envelope addressed to Mr. Will V. Kellen, Classical Dept., Prov. High School, marked “To be preserved. Carefully,” Annie sent a note:

Miss Annie Peck presents her compliments to Mr. Will V. Kellen and accepts with pleasure his company to the social tomorrow evening. She will be greatly obliged if he will call for her at No. 10 Market Square at quarter past six P.M.

Up until that point, Will had not been her only suitor. There were other boys who offered to walk her home and share in her company at socials, but for Annie, Will stood out from the rest of the young men at school. Like her brothers, Will was very thin, with dark hair combed down smoothly into not quite a side part. Rather, he sectioned the hair on his forehead in a small triangular space, which consistently rested far above his right eyebrow and would continue to creep farther toward the back of his head as he aged. He was also tall, which Annie liked, since, at five feet seven inches, she was noticeably taller than the average woman. They would continue to date exclusively throughout their senior year in high school. Annie’s mother didn’t necessarily approve of Will as the best choice for a beau. Still, she allowed her daughter to date him, and the young couple spent much of their spare time together.

By the spring of 1869, Annie and Will Kellen were still a pair. On May 26, Annie’s brother William handed her a note from Will inviting her to the Peace Jubilee Concert in Pawtucket. She wrote her answer of acceptance and hurried to substitute for one of Miss Doyle’s classes at the high school, returning back home just in time to get soaked by an awful, hard thundershower.

Shortly after, as Will sat downstairs waiting for her to get ready, Annie appeared in the parlor wearing a waterproof cape over her light dress and sack coat, although by now the sky was only sprinkling. They took a horsecar to Pawtucket and arrived at the Congregational church in time to find a seat in the gallery, where “the choruses were sung very finely and all was very good.”

Annie and Will caught a ride back to Providence with some friends in a newfangled steam-car, a harbinger of the Stanley Steamer of the turn of the twentieth century. Will walked with Annie from Thomas Street to President Street, where the moonlight was nice but the road was muddy. As they waited for the next horsecar to arrive, Annie gave him half of a candy heart and told Will it was hers.

Will promptly ate it, telling Annie, “I would like your heart to become part of my being.” Their parting must have been very interesting to anyone who might have been watching, as Will then showed Annie “how Europeans embrace,” a practice that Annie did not detail any further in her diary later that evening. Instead, she noted that Will asked her to be his “loving friend till death shall part us.”

“Wheee!” was all Annie wrote about the exchange. She met the horsecar crammed full and got home by eleven, just in time for a scolding by her mother for arriving so late.

Annie continued to date Will after they graduated from high school. He began college at Brown University. However, Annie had no such goal, and quickly came to the realization that she lacked a plan for the future. While Annie helped Will with his classes at Brown and assigned him to read the same works she was reading at home, including Macaulay, Milton, Dryden, and Bunyan’s ever-popular Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Will followed suit, and would hand his essays over to Annie for critique before he turned them in at college. Annie persuaded Will to join Delta Upsilon, the fraternity to which all of her brothers belonged. He also played left field for Brown, which had just begun to take baseball seriously as a college sport.

Annie requested that Will wear a hat instead of a cap, refrain from growing any whiskers beyond his mustache, and spend more time on school than sports. Will followed her instructions, telling her he felt “rich” in having a friend who “would point out my faults and who does not shrink to tell me of them.” Will wanted to improve in his learning as well as in his networking at Brown. Although he sometimes felt out of place, he began to make connections with his classmates and blossomed at Brown. Will recognized that without Annie’s coaching, he would have never joined Delta Upsilon and “never have come among such fellows as belong to it.” He also assured Annie, “Without your advice and encouragement I should not have done as well as I have.”

In many ways, Will did not fit the part of the young man whom Annie should be dating. He sat firmly outside the educated business elite that Annie and her family usually kept company with. Tracing their family history back to England in the seventeenth century, the Pecks were not connected to any new immigrants or sons of immigrants. They were strictly Baptist in breeding, background, and education. By the time they were in their thirties and forties, Annie’s father and brothers reached prominent positions in Providence as well as throughout the state of Rhode Island. They were connected in business and politics, and held both appointed and elected positions throughout the state. They belonged to church groups, social clubs, and volunteer organizations, and were dynamic leaders in their community.

Will’s father hailed from Armagh, Ireland. He made a living as a minister, but in 1861 became ill and was obliged to leave the church, suddenly finding himself “thrown upon the tender mercies of the hard world without property.” Bouncing from town to town, Will had no strong social ties, much less business or political ones. But he craved an education and wanted a place in society. Annie viewed him as a handsome escort and a worthy conversationalist. She became willing to help him pattern himself into a well-regarded Northeastern gentleman who might just manage to thread his way through the thick seam of Providence’s urban elite. While Will was certainly a flattering admirer, he also saw in Annie what her family (or even Annie herself) had yet to see—that she was destined to be more than a wife or a schoolmarm. In his many letters of encouragement to Annie, one line from 1869 stands out from the rest: “I think that at a future time in some book of distinguished women your name will appear.”

Possibly because he was not like them, or perhaps because they wanted more for Annie than an immigrant’s son, Annie’s family did not approve of her relationship with Will. However, they felt there was no real harm in her dating him, and so did nothing to forbid it either. Annie’s brother John especially thought that Annie could do better when it came to socializing, and explained that he viewed Annie as “superior to Kellen in every respect,” but she couldn’t see their relationship that way. Besides, Annie knew that the Pecks were considered a conceited family, especially her brother John. If anything, Will was the most encouraging of anyone to Annie. While her father and brothers supported her classical studies at home, they never once entertained the idea of her attending college like they did. Only Will suggested that Annie might do something with her future besides marriage and giving piano lessons. The problem was that Annie could not figure out how to make that happen without the support of her family.

In the meantime, Annie continued to attend lectures at the lyceum. She also began to model her own fashion after Anna E. Dickinson, who she saw lecture once more in Providence in 1869. This time, Dickinson wore a black velvet jacket and silk dress and spoke on the topic of Mormonism, contrasting “the fairest of nature’s surroundings” in the state of Utah with the women followers of Brigham Young, who were “so degraded as not to realize their condition.” Dickinson ended her lecture with her favorite topic—women’s suffrage, which she “regarded as the cure for all evils, Mormonism included.” After the lecture, Annie had a new silk dress made, trimmed with decorative scallops and black velvet.

* * *

BY THE FOLLOWING SUMMER, Annie continued to study on her own outside of school with her friend Phebe in Danielsonville, Connecticut, where they would sit for hours under the shadow of an umbrageous tree discussing the huge volume of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s History of England. Annie, with her natural vehemence, defended Macaulay with all her might and main, and Phebe’s large brown eyes snapped with rage as she disclaimed all of Macaulay’s arguments, saying that the writings of “England’s greatest historian” were “all bosh.” The rest of their days were taken up with playing croquet and learning to dance the polka with local male contemporaries, even though dancing was a pastime absolutely forbidden by the Peck family.

When Annie’s father wrote to her and asked Annie to come home, she ignored his letter. The following week, Annie’s father wrote to say that her mother insisted that Annie return to Providence. But Annie again refused. After a third letter from home, Annie replied to her father:

The chief object of my writing, as you may suppose, is to get permission to stay a little longer. Phebe wants me to stay very much indeed and says it will be a great accommodation to her. Three or four days can’t make any difference to you whereas to people who are enjoying themselves as well as we are, it makes a very great difference. There are three or four places they want to take me to ride and we haven’t been out in the woods at all. I am growing fat, too, so it would be a pity to stop that. Then you know I shall be so much more amiable if I stay as long as I want, that that is an object worth considering. I think I have made out a pretty strong case, now haven’t I? Now please reconsider your position and you will give us all very great pleasure.

Annie found Danielsonville, with its love of croquet and acceptance of dancing, more exciting than Providence, which was “duller than the back of an axe.” One more reason she did not want to return Providence was that the face of Annie’s hometown and her connections to it were changing. Her brothers were moving out and on. George was headed to the medical department of Yale University. John was now an assistant engineer in the U.S. Navy. William was about to graduate from Brown and land a job as the principal at Warren High School, about fifteen miles away from Providence.

Annie’s friend Anna Whipple had moved to a cousin’s home in Bloomington, Illinois, to begin teaching, where she “realized most surely the dust of western life.” She noted in a letter to Annie, “I never saw anything equal to the black and dirty smoke from the coal which is used here; you scarcely get your face washed, when it needs it as much again, and I declare I sometimes get terribly out of patience scrubbing.”

Anna wanted to move to California, where she heard that teachers could earn $75 in gold per month, but was interested in going only if Annie would promise to go with her with a male chaperone such as Annie’s brother John. However, she conceded that Annie would probably “stick in Rhode Island” and not “venture a rod from Providence lest you should lose your identity.”

While Annie wasn’t yet sure of the possibilities of what her adult identity might be, Anna envisioned her as different from the rest of their friendship circle. She declared that Annie would “never get over her love for excelling,” even though their high school days were done. And while the idea of becoming a lecturer like Anna E. Dickinson was but a glimmer of a dream for Annie, her friends thought differently. Anna remarked at the end of her letter, “That must have been an immense crowd when Anna Dickinson lectured. I presume your ladyship was perfectly satisfied. Pray how long before we shall be honored with another Anna appearing before the public to elevate her sex? Hope it will be verified in this instance.”

Anna’s ideas for Annie seemed like an impossibility at the time.

So far, Annie’s only plans were to help Will study for his college courses and to attend the Delta Upsilon socials at Brown University. She would continue to give piano lessons and sporadically teach as a substitute at the high school. But this would not be sustainable for a lifetime. The notion of Annie—or of any woman, for that matter—attending college was nonexistent in her family. If her mother and John saw Will as inferior to Annie, it was still obvious that he was going places that she was not allowed to go. It seemed as if everyone she knew had their futures mapped out, except her. Nonetheless, she would have to leave the festivities of summer in Connecticut and return home, even without a plan. But under her current circumstances, what cheer could Providence possibly bring?


Copyright © 2017 by Hannah Kimberley