Read MARY A. LIVERMORE. of Lives of Girls Who Became Famous, free online book, by Sarah Knowles Bolton, on

When a nation passes through a great struggle like our Civil War, great leaders are developed. Had it not been for this, probably Mrs. Livermore, like many other noble women, would be to-day living quietly in some pleasant home, doing the common duties of every-day life. She would not be the famous lecturer, the gifted writer, the leader of the Sanitary Commission in the West; a brilliant illustration of the work a woman may do in the world, and still retain the truest womanliness.

She was born in Boston, descended from ancestors who for six generations had been Welsh preachers, and reared by parents of the strictest Calvinistic faith. Mr. Rice, her father, was a man of honesty and integrity, while the mother was a woman of remarkable judgment and common sense.

Mary was an eager scholar, and a great favorite in school, because she took the part of all the poor children. If a little boy or girl was a cripple, or wore shabby clothes, or had scanty dinners, or was ridiculed, he or she found an earnest friend and defender in the courageous girl.

So fond was she of the five children in the home, younger than herself, and so much did she take upon herself the responsibility of their conversion, that when but ten years old, unable to sleep, she would rise from her bed and waken her father and mother that they might pray for the sisters. “It’s no matter about me,” she would say; “if they are saved, I can bear anything.”

Mature in thought and care-taking beyond her years, she was still fond of out-door sports and merry times. Sliding on the ice was her especial delight. One day, after a full hour’s fun in the bracing air, she rushed into the house, the blood tingling in every vein, exclaiming, “It’s splendid sliding!” “Yes,” replied the father, “it’s good fun, but wretched for shoes.”

All at once the young girl saw how hard it was for her parents to buy shoes, with their limited means; and from that day to this she never slid upon the ice.

There were few playthings in the simple home, but her chief pastime was in holding meetings in her father’s woodshed, with the other children. Great logs were laid out for benches, and split sticks were set upon them for people. Mary was always the leader, both in praying and preaching, and the others were good listeners. Mrs. Rice would be so much amused at the queer scene, that a smile would creep over her face; but Mr. Rice would look on reverently, and say, “I wish you had been a boy; you could have been trained for the ministry.”

When she was twelve years old she began to be eager to earn something. She could not bear to see her father work so hard for her. Alas! how often young women, twice twelve, allow their father’s hair to grow white from overwork, because they think society will look down upon them if they labor. Is work more a disgrace to a girl than a boy? Not at all. Unfortunate is the young man who marries a girl who is either afraid or ashamed to work.

Though not fond of sewing, Mary decided to learn dressmaking, because this would give her self-support. For three months she worked in a shop, that she might learn the trade, and then she stayed three months longer and earned thirty-seven cents a day. As this seemed meagre, she looked about her for more work. Going to a clothing establishment, she asked for a dozen red flannel shirts to make. The proprietor might have wondered who the child was, but he trusted her honest face, and gave her the bundle. She was to receive six and a quarter cents apiece, and to return them on a certain day. Working night after night, sometimes till the early morning hours, she was able to finish only half at the time specified.

On that day a man came to the door and asked, “Does Mary Rice live here?”

The mother had gone to the door, and answered in the affirmative.

“Well, she took a dozen red flannel shirts from my shop to make, and she hain’t returned ’em!”

“It can’t be my daughter,” said Mrs. Rice.

The man was sure he had the right number, but he looked perplexed. Just then Mary, who was in the sitting-room, appeared on the scene.

“Yes, mother, I got these shirts of the man.”

“You promised to get ’em done, Miss,” he said, “and we are in a great hurry.”

“You shall have the shirts to-morrow night,” said Mrs. Rice.

After the man left the house, the mother burst into tears, saying, “We are not so poor as that. My dear child, what is to become of you if you take all the cares of the world upon your shoulders?”

When the work was done, and the seventy-five cents received, Mary would take only half of it, because she had earned but half.

A brighter day was dawning for Mary Rice. A little later, longing for an education, Dr. Neale, their good minister, encouraged and assisted her to go to the Charlestown Female Seminary. Before the term closed one of the teachers died, and the bright, earnest pupil was asked to fill the vacancy. She accepted, reciting out of school to fit herself for her classes, earning enough by her teaching to pay her way, and taking the four years’ course in two years. Before she was twenty she taught two years on a Virginia plantation as a governess, and came North with six hundred dollars and a good supply of clothes. Probably she has never felt so rich since that day.

She was now asked to take charge of the Duxbury High School, where she became an inspiration to her scholars. Even the dullest learned under her enthusiasm. She took long walks to keep up her health and spirits, thus making her body as vigorous as her heart was sympathetic.

It was not to be wondered at that the bright young teacher had many admirers. Who ever knew an educated, genial girl who was not a favorite with young men? It is a libel on the sex to think that they prefer ignorant or idle girls.

Among those who saw the beauty of character and the mental power of Miss Rice was a young minister, whose church was near her schoolhouse. The first time she attended his services, he preached from the text, “And thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins.” Her sister had died, and the family were in sorrow; but this gospel of love, which he preached with no allusion to eternal punishment, was full of comfort. What was the minister’s surprise to have the young lady ask to take home the sermon and read it, and afterwards, some of his theological books. What was the teacher’s surprise, a little later, to find that while she was interested in his sermons and books, he had become interested in her. The sequel can be guessed easily; she became the wife of Rev. D.P. Livermore at twenty-three.

He had idolized his mother; very naturally, with deep reverence for woman, he would make a devoted husband. For fifteen years the intelligent wife aided him in editing The New Covenant, a religious paper published in Chicago, in which city they had made their home. Her writings were always clear, strong, and helpful. Three children had been born into their home, and life, with its cares and its work, was a very happy one.

But the time came for the quiet life to be entirely changed. In 1861 the nation found itself plunged into war. The slave question was to be settled once for all at the point of the bayonet. Like every other true-hearted woman, Mrs. Livermore had been deeply stirred by passing events. When Abraham Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand men was eagerly responded to, she was in Boston, and saw the troops, all unused to hardships, start for the battle-fields. The streets were crowded with tens of thousands. Bells rung, bands played, and women smiled and said good-bye, when their hearts were breaking. After the train moved out of the station, four women fainted; nature could no longer bear the terrible strain. Mrs. Livermore helped restore the women to consciousness. She had no sons to send; but when such partings were seen, and such sorrows were in the future, she could not rest.

What could women do to help in the dreadful struggle? A meeting of New York ladies was called, which resulted in the formation of an Aid Society, pledging loyalty to the Government, and promising assistance to soldiers and their families. Two gentlemen were sent to Washington to ask what work could be done, but word came back that there was no place for women at the front, nor no need for them in the hospitals. Such words were worse than wasted on American women. Since the day when men and women together breasted the storms of New England in the Mayflower, and together planted a new civilization, together they have worked side by side in all great matters. They were untiring in the Revolutionary War; they worked faithfully in the dark days of anti-slavery agitation, taking their very lives in their hands. And now their husbands and sons and brothers had gone from their homes. They would die on battle-fields, and in lonely camps untended, and the women simply said, “Some of us must follow our best-beloved.”

The United States Sanitary Commission was soon organized, for working in hospitals, looking after camps, and providing comforts for the soldiers. Branch associations were formed in ten large cities. The great Northwestern Branch was put under the leadership of Mrs. Livermore and Mrs. A.H. Hoge. Useful things began to pour in from all over the country, fruits, clothing, bedding, and all needed comforts for the army. Then Mrs. Livermore, now a woman of forty, with great executive ability, warm heart, courage, and perseverance, with a few others, went to Washington to talk with President Lincoln.

“Can no women go to the front?” they asked.

“No civilian, either man or woman, is permitted by law,” said Mr. Lincoln. But the great heart of the greatest man in America was superior to the law, and he placed not a straw in their way. He was in favor of anything which helped the men who fought and bled for their country.

Mrs. Livermore’s first broad experience in the war was after the battle of Fort Donelson. There were no hospitals for the men, and the wounded were hauled down the hillside in rough-board Tennessee wagons, most of them dying before they reached St. Louis. Some poor fellows lay with the frozen earth around them, chopped out after lying in the mud from Saturday morning until Sunday evening.

One blue-eyed lad of nineteen, with both legs and both arms shattered, when asked, “How did it happen that you were left so long?” said, “Why, you see, they couldn’t stop to bother with us, because they had to take the fort. When they took it, we forgot our sufferings, and all over the battle-field cheers went up from the wounded, and even from the dying.”

At the rear of the battle-fields the Sanitary Commission now began to keep its wagons with hot soup and hot coffee, women, fitly chosen, always joining in this work, in the midst of danger. After the first repulse at Vicksburg, there was great sickness and suffering. The Commission sent Mrs. Hoge, two gentlemen accompanying her, with a boat-load of supplies for the sick. One emaciated soldier, to whom she gave a little package of white sugar, with a lemon, some green tea, two herrings, two onions, and some pepper, said, “Is that all for me?” She bowed assent. She says: “He covered his pinched face with his thin hands and burst into a low, sobbing cry. I laid my hand upon his shoulder, and said, ‘Why do you weep?’ ‘God bless the women!’ he sobbed out. ’What should we do but for them? I came from father’s farm, where all knew plenty; I’ve lain sick these three months; I’ve seen no woman’s face, nor heard her voice, nor felt her warm hand till to-day, and it unmans me; but don’t think I rue my bargain, for I don’t. I’ve suffered much and long, but don’t let them know at home. Maybe I’ll never have a chance to tell them how much; but I’d go through it all for the old flag.’”

Shortly after, accompanied by an officer, she went into the rifle-pits. The heat was stifling, and the minie-balls were whizzing. “Why, madam, where did you come from? Did you drop from heaven into these rifle-pits? You are the first lady we have seen here;” and then the voice was choked with tears.

“I have come from your friends at home, and bring messages of love and honor. I have come to bring you the comforts we owe you, and love to give. I’ve come to see if you receive what they send you,” she replied.

“Do they think as much of as as that? Why, boys, we can fight another year on that, can’t we?”

“Yes, yes!” they cried, and almost every hand was raised to brush away the tears.

She made them a kindly talk, shook the hard, honest hands, and said good-bye. “Madame,” said the officer, “promise me that you’ll visit my regiment to-morrow; ’twould be worth a victory to them. You don’t know what good a lady’s visit to the army does. These men whom you have seen to-day will talk of your visit for six months to come. Around the fires, in the rifle-pits, in the dark night, or on the march, they will repeat your words, describe your looks, voice, size, and dress; and all agree in one respect, that you look like an angel, and exactly like each man’s wife or mother. Ah! was there no work for women to do?

The Sanitary and Christian Commissions expended about fifty million dollars during the war, and of this, the women raised a generous portion. Each battle cost the Sanitary Commission about seventy-five thousand dollars, and the battle of Gettysburg, a half million dollars. Mrs. Livermore was one of the most efficient helpers in raising this money. She went among the people, and solicited funds and supplies of every kind.

One night it was arranged that she should speak in Dubuque, Iowa, that the people of that State might hear directly from their soldiers at the front. When she arrived, instead of finding a few women as she had expected, a large church was packed with both men and women, eager to listen. The governor of the State and other officials were present. She had never spoken in a mixed assembly. Her conservative training made her shrink from it, and, unfortunately, made her feel incapable of doing it.

“I cannot speak!” she said to the women who had asked her to come.

Disappointed and disheartened, they finally arranged with a prominent statesman to jot down the facts from her lips; and then, as best he could, tell to the audience the experiences of the woman who had been on battle-fields, amid the wounded and dying. Just as they were about to go upon the platform, the gentleman said, “Mrs. Livermore, I have heard you say at the front, that you would give your all for the soldiers, a foot, a hand, or a voice. Now is the time to give your voice, if you wish to do good.”

She meditated a moment, and then she said, “I will try.”

When she arose to speak, the sea of faces before her seemed blurred. She was talking into blank darkness. She could not even hear her own voice. But as she went on, and the needs of the soldiers crowded upon her mind, she forgot all fear, and for two hours held the audience spell-bound. Men and women wept, and patriotism filled every heart. At eleven o’clock eight thousand dollars were pledged, and then, at the suggestion of the presiding officer, they remained until one o’clock to perfect plans for a fair, from which they cleared sixty thousand dollars. After this, Mrs. Livermore spoke in hundreds of towns, helping to organize many of the more than twelve thousand five hundred aid societies formed during eighteen months.

As money became more and more needed, Mrs. Livermore decided to try a sanitary commission fair in Chicago. The women said, “We will raise twenty-five thousand dollars,” but the men laughed at such an impossibility. The farmers were visited, and solicited to give vegetables and grain, while the cities were not forgotten. Fourteen of Chicago’s largest halls were hired. The women had gone into debt ten thousand dollars, and the men of the city began to think they were crazy. The Board of Trade called upon them and advised that the fair be given up; the debts should be paid, and the men would give the twenty-five thousand, when, in their judgment, it was needed! The women thanked them courteously, but pushed forward in the work.

It had been arranged that the farmers should come on the opening day, in a procession, with their gifts of vegetables. Of this plan the newspapers made great sport, calling it the “potato procession.” The day came. The school children had a holiday, the bells were rung, one hundred guns were fired, and the whole city gathered to see the “potato procession.” Finally it arrived, great loads of cabbages, onions, and over four thousand bushels of potatoes. The wagons each bore a motto, draped in black, with the words, “We buried a son at Donelson,” “Our father lies at Stone River,” and other similar ones. The flags on the horses’ heads were bound with black; the women who rode beside a husband or son, were dressed in deep mourning. When the procession stopped before Mrs. Livermore’s house, the jeers were over, and the dense crowd wept like children.

Six of the public halls were filled with beautiful things for sale, while eight were closed so that no other attractions might compete with the fair. Instead of twenty-five thousand, the women cleared one hundred thousand dollars.

Then Cincinnati followed with a fair, making two hundred and twenty-five thousand; Boston, three hundred and eighty thousand; New York, one million; and Philadelphia, two hundred thousand more than New York. The women had found that there was work enough for them to do.

Mrs. Livermore was finally ordered to make a tour of the hospitals and military posts on the Mississippi River, and here her aid was invaluable. It required a remarkable woman to undertake such a work. At one point she found twenty-three men, sick and wounded, whose regiments had left them, and who could not be discharged because they had no descriptive lists. She went at once to General Grant, and said, “General, if you will give me authority to do so, I will agree to take these twenty-three wounded men home.”

The officials respected the noble woman, and the red tape of army life was broken for her sake.

When the desolate company arrived in Chicago, on Saturday, the last train had left which could have taken a Wisconsin soldier home. She took him to the hotel, had a fire made for him, and called a doctor.

“Pull him through till Monday, Doctor,” she said, “and I’ll get him home.” Then, to the lad, “You shall have a nurse, and Monday morning I will go with you to your mother.”

“Oh! don’t go away,” he pleaded; “I never shall see you again.”

“Well, then, I’ll go home and see my family, and come back in two hours. The door shall be left open, and I’ll put this bell beside you, so that the chambermaid will come when you ring.”

He consented, and Mrs. Livermore came back in two hours. The soldier’s face was turned toward the door, as though waiting for her, but he was dead. He had gone home, but not to Wisconsin.

After the close of the war, so eager were the people to hear her, that she entered the lecture field and has for years held the foremost place among women as a public speaker. She lectures five nights a week, for five months, travelling twenty-five thousand miles annually. Her fine voice, womanly, dignified manner, and able thought have brought crowded houses before her, year after year. She has earned money, and spent it generously for others. The energy and conscientiousness of little Mary Rice have borne their legitimate fruit.

Every year touching incidents came up concerning the war days. Once, after she had spoken at Fabyan’s American Institute of Instruction, a military man, six feet tall, came up to her and said, “Do you remember at Memphis coming over to the officers’ hospital?”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Livermore.

While the officers were paid salaries, very often the paymasters could not find them when ill, and for months they would not have a penny, not even receiving army rations. Mrs. Livermore found many in great need, and carried them from the Sanitary Commission blankets, medicine, and food. Milk was greatly desired, and almost impossible to be obtained. One day she came into the wards, and said that a certain portion of the sick “could have two goblets of milk for every meal.”

“Do you remember,” said the tall man, who was then a major, “that one man cried bitterly and said, ‘I want two glasses of milk,’ and that you patted him on the head, as he lay on his cot? And that the man said, as he thought of the dear ones at home, whom he might not see again, ‘Could you kiss me?’ and the noble woman bent down and kissed him? I am that man, and God bless you for your kindness.”

Mrs. Livermore wears on her third finger a plain gold ring which has a touching history.

After lecturing recently at Albion, Mich., a woman came up, who had driven eight miles, to thank her for a letter written for John, her son, as he was dying in the hospital. The first four lines were dictated by the dying soldier; then death came, and Mrs. Livermore finished the message. The faded letter had been kept for twenty years, and copies made of it. “Annie, my son’s wife,” said the mother, “never got over John’s death. She kept about and worked, but the life had gone out of her. Eight years ago she died. One day she said, ’Mother, if you ever find Mrs. Livermore, or hear of her, I wish you would give her my wedding ring, which has never been off my finger since John put it there. Ask her to wear it for John’s sake and mine, and tell her this was my dying request.’”

With tears in the eyes of both giver and receiver, Mrs. Livermore held out her hand, and the mother placed on the finger this memento of two precious lives.

Mrs. Livermore has spent ten years in the temperance reform. While she has shown the dreadful results of the liquor traffic, she has been kind both in word and deed. Some time ago, passing along a Boston street, she saw a man in the ditch, and a poor woman bending over him.

“Who is he?” she asked of the woman.

“He’s my husband, ma’am. He’s a good man when he is sober, and earns four dollars a day in the foundry. I keep a saloon.”

Mrs. Livermore called a hack. “Will you carry this man to number ?”

“No, madam, he’s too dirty. I won’t soil my carriage.”

“Oh!” pleaded the wife, “I’ll clean it all up for ye, if ye’ll take him,” and pulling off her dress-skirt, she tried to wrap it around her husband. Stepping to a saloon near by, Mrs. Livermore asked the men to come out and help lift him. At first they laughed, but were soon made ashamed, when they saw that a lady was assisting. The drunken man was gotten upon his feet, wrapped in his wife’s clothing, put into the hack, and then Mrs. Livermore and the wife got in beside him, and he was taken home. The next day the good Samaritan called, and brought the priest, from whom the man took the pledge. A changed family was the result.

Her life is filled with thousands of acts of kindness, on the cars, in poor homes, and in various charitable institutions. She is the author of two or more books, What shall we do with Our Daughters? and Reminiscences of the War; but her especial power has been her eloquent words, spoken all over the country, in pulpits, before colleges, in city and country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coast. Like Abraham Lincoln, who said, “I go for all sharing the privileges of the government, who assist in bearing its burdens, by no means excluding women,” she has advocated the enfranchisement of her sex, along with her other work.

Now, past sixty, her active, earnest life, in contact with the people, has kept her young in heart and in looks.

“A great authority on what constitutes beauty complains that the majority of women acquire a dull, vacant expression towards middle life, which makes them positively plain. He attributes it to their neglect of all mental culture, their lives having settled down to a monotonous routine of house-keeping, visiting, gossip, and shopping. Their thoughts become monotonous, too, for, though these things are all good enough in their way, they are powerless to keep up any mental life or any activity of thought.”

Mrs. Livermore has been an inspiration to girls to make the most of themselves and their opportunities. She has been an ideal of womanhood, not only to “the boys” on the battle-fields, but to tens of thousands who are fighting the scarcely less heroic battles of every-day life. May it be many years before she shall go out forever from her restful, happy home, at Melrose, Mass.

Mrs. Livermore died at her home, May 23, 1905, at 8 A.M., of bronchitis. She was in her eighty-fourth year, and had survived her husband six years. When her funeral services were held, the schools of Melrose closed, business was suspended, bells were tolled, and flags floated at half-mast. She was an active member of thirty-seven clubs. The degree of Doctor of Laws was conferred upon her, in 1896, by Tufts College.