Open main menu

Woman of the Century/Catherine Esther Beecher

BEECHER, Miss Catherine Esther, author and educator, born in East Hampton, L. I., 6th September, 1800, died in Elmira, N. Y., 12th May, 1878. Catherine was the oldest child of Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote Beecher, and the first nine years of her life were spent in the place of her nativity, where she enjoyed the teaching of a loving mother and a devoted: aunt, the latter of whom was a woman of great beauty, elegance and refinement, and to whose early instructions Miss Beecher often recurred as having a strong and lasting influence upon her life. In her ninth year Catherine removed with her parents to Litchfield, Conn., a mountain town, celebrated alike for the beauty of its scenery and the exceptional cultivation and refinement of its inhabitants. There, in the female seminary, under the care of Miss Sarah Pearse, Miss Beecher began her career as a school-girl. At an early age she showed talent for versification, and her poetical effusions, mostly in a humorous vein, were handed about among her school-mates and friends, to be admired by all. In her sixteenth year her mother died, and Miss Beecher's later writings carried an undercurrent of sadness in place of the happy, frolicsome poems of earlier days. As the oldest of the family, her mother's death brought upon her the cares and responsibilities of a large family. After a suitable period of mourning had elapsed, her father was married again to a woman of culture and piety, under whose organization the parsonage became the center of a cultivated circle of society, where music, painting and poetry combined to lend a charm to existence. Parties were formed for reading, and it was that fact which led Miss Beecher again to take up her pen, in order to lend variety to the meetings by presenting original articles occasionally. One of her poems, "Vala," written at that time, possessed no mean poetic merit as the com position of a girl of seventeen, and was extensively circulated among literary circles, especially in New Haven. At that time her father, who had risen into the front ranks of influence in Connecticut, in conjunction with literary men connected with Yale College, projected the idea of a monthly magazine of literature and theology, to be called the "Christian Spectator." To that magazine Miss Beecher was a frequent contributor under the initials "C. D. D." Those poems attracted the attention of a young professor of mathematics in Yale College, Alexander M. Fisher, who, after making the acquaintance of Miss Beecher, in due time became her betrothed husband. The wedding was arranged to take place immediately upon the return from Europe of Professor Fisher, who had gone abroad in pursuance of his educational ideas. Again was Miss Beecher to feel the hand of fate. The young lover never returned to claim his promised bride, having perished in a storm which struck the vessel off the coast of Ireland. For a time Miss Beecher could see no light through the clouds which over-shadowed her, and it was feared that even her religious faith would forsake her. She was sent to Yale, in the hope that the companionship of Professor Fisher's relatives might have a beneficial effect upon the stricken mind. Shortly after her arrival there, she was induced to begin the study of mathematics under the guidance of Willard Fisher, a brother of her late lover. After a time she went back to Litchfield, united with her father's church, and resolved to let insoluble problems alone and to follow Christ. Shortly after that, Miss Beecher, in conjunction with her sister, opened a select school in Hartford, Conn. Such was the success of that school, that in four years' time there was not room for the scholars who applied for admittance. She had always enjoyed the friendship of the leading women of Hartford, and when she began to agitate the subject of a female seminary in that town, it was through their influence that the prominent men of Hartford became interested in the project and subscribed the money to purchase the land and erect the buildings, which afterward became known as the Hartford Female Seminary. With Miss Beecher as principal and a band of eight teachers of her selection, the school grew rapidly in influence and popularity. She published "Suggestions on Education," which was widely read and drew attention to the Hartford Seminary from all parts of the United States. With all the cares of a school of between one and two hundred pupils, her influence was felt, even to the minutest particular. She planned the course of study, guided the teachers, overlooked the boarding-houses and corresponded with parents and guardians. With all those cares on her mind, she yet found time to prepare an arithmetic, which was printed and used as a text-book in her school and those emanating from it. About that time the teacher in mental philosophy left the institution, and Miss Beecher not only took charge of that department, but wrote a text-book of some four or five-hundred pages, entitled "Mental and Moral Philosophy, Founded on Reason, Observation and the Bible." She kept up her piano practice, and now and then furnished a poem to the weekly "Connecticut Observer." After seven years of incessant activity her health gave out, and she was obliged to relinquish the school into other hands. Shortly after that the family removed to Cincinnati, Ohio, and, in connection with a younger sister, Miss Beecher commenced a school in that city. Although she did not personally labor in that institution, the teaching was all done by instructors of her own training. In connection with other women she formed a league for supplying the West with educated teachers, and, as the result, many teachers were sent West and many schools founded. During the latter years of her life, she devoted her time to authorship. Her first work, a treatise on "Domestic Economy" (1845), was designed as a text-book for schools. That was followed by "Duty of American Women to Their Country" (1845), "Domestic Receipt Book" (1846, "Miss Beecher's Address" (1846), "Letters to the People" (1855), "Physiology and Calisthenics" (1856), "Common Sense Applied to Religion" (1857), "An Appeal to the People" (1860), "The Religious Training of Children" (1864), "The House-keeper and Healthkeeper " (1873). In her sixty-first year she united with the Episcopal Church by confirmation, in company with three of her young nieces. She lived to be seventy-eight years of age, and although crippled by sciatica for the last ten years of her life, the activity of her mind and her zeal in education continued to the last.