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The Magnet and the Iron: John Brown and George L. Stearns The Stories Behind the Busts

Lydia Maria Child

Lydia Maria Child was a native of Medford, Massachusetts. Born Lydia Maria Francis, she was the daughter of David Francis, who produced the famous Medford crackers at his bakery in Medford Square. She married David Lee Child in 1828. Lydia Maria Child was the aunt of Mary E. Preston, who married George L. Stearns. Both Mary and George cultivated a lifelong relationship with her.

Child was one of the nation’s most popular novelists in the first half of the 19th century. She wrote dozens of novels and poems. She is best remembered for the poem “Over the River and Through the Wood” (originally published as “New England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day”). The house mentioned in the poem is said to be her grandparents’ house, the Paul Curtis House, located at 114 South Street in Medford. This house was owned by Tufts University from 1976 to 2013.

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"New England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day"
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
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Untitled (College Hill from Medford)
Image courtesy of Tufts University Permanent Collection, AI 07400
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Lydia Maria Child's Pocketwatch
Pocketwatch belonging to Lydia Maria Child. The inscription reads, "From a few of the Ladies of Salem and Lynn, Massachusetts, to their friend Mrs. Child the true and noble, the irreproachable who made the first Appeal in behalf of the American Slave. Aug. 8, 1835."

Child was also an active abolitionist and feminist. In 1833, she published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans that decried slavery and racism. This publication was one of the earliest major antislavery works. As a result of her outspoken and critical writing on slavery, Child received attention as well as ostracism in the Boston community and throughout the nation. While she was also an active supporter of women’s rights, she believed progress could not be made until slavery had been eradicated. It was her ardent hatred for slavery’s injustices that led to her involvement and leadership in organized groups whose aim sought to put an end to slavery and to provide support until then. She was a member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and served on the executive committee of the American Anti-Slavery Society. She and her husband founded and served as editors and contributors for the National Anti-Slavery Standard and she was one of the signers of the Emancipation League Declaration released in December 1860. She continued to write abolitionist texts, especially those geared towards the general public.

However, Child wasn’t exempt from a patronizing attitude toward people of color: She supported black sculptor Edmonia Lewis, who trained under Edward Augustus Brackett, but she nonetheless refused to lend her a photo of Robert Gould Shaw (first commander of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment) for Lewis to create a bust, claiming Lewis was not talented enough to adequately portray Shaw. When she saw the final bust, she remarked that Lewis “had succeeded so well that those familiar with the photographs of the young hero could not fail to recognize the bust. It has some imperfections as the work of beginners must necessarily have, but it was quite remarkable.”

After the arrest of John Brown at Harpers Ferry in 1859, Child wrote, “I honor Brown’s motives, but he made a great mistake. The effects may be favorable to freedom in the long run; but it is impossible to foresee the consequences.” She wrote a letter to Brown in prison, saying,

"Believing in peace principles, I cannot sympathize with the method you chose to advance the cause of freedom. But I honor your generous intentions—I admire your courage, moral and physical. I reverence you for the humanity which tempered your zeal. I sympathize with you in your cruel bereavement, your sufferings, and your wrongs. In brief, I love you and bless you."

In 1860, she wrote an article for the New York Tribune about Edward Augustus Brackett’s bust of John Brown that had been commissioned by George and Mary Stearns of Medford. She later wrote the poem “John Brown and the Colored Child,” continuing the tradition that John Brown kissed a young black child on his way to the gallows.