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Coded letters reveal an illicit affair and a woman of substance

When an old friend told me he had saved the former Edward Everett Hale house in Matunuck, Rhode Island from demolition and gifted it to a local historical society with an endowment fund for its restoration, I remembered there was a significant collection of E. E. Hale letters at the Library of Congress that might throw light on the house. How could I have guessed this would lead me to uncovering the revered minister’s decades-long love affair with a forgotten, much younger and truly remarkable woman named Harriet E. Freeman?

First I had to unlock the code the writers used in passages throughout some 3,000 surviving letters. As I transcribed the letters, I recognized the “code” as a defunct shorthand, which I traced to its inventor, Thomas Towndrow. Hale taught himself this shorthand while a student at Harvard, and Towndrow’s 1832 textbook became my “Rosetta Stone” to unlocking an intimate, sometimes passionate, and mutually supportive relationship — the nature of which was concealed by the two of them, their families, and generations of Hale biographers.

Hale to Freeman, September 29, 1884. Hale-Freeman Special Correspondence, Hale Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
Hale to Freeman, September 29, 1884. Hale-Freeman Special Correspondence, Hale Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
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Edward Everett Hale in about 1884. Harriet E. Freeman Papers, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.
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Fifteen-year-old Hattie Freeman and her cousin Helen Atkins, 1862. Courtesy of Phoebe Bushway.

Hale’s public life and career are well documented, but who was this Harriet Freeman? As I discovered from reminiscences in the letters, Hale’s special relationship with Freeman had its origins in his close friendship with the wealthy Freeman family, his parishioners since her teenage years. In her early twenties, Freeman began working as a volunteer in Hale’s church, the South Congregational Church in Boston’s South End, just a block away from the Freeman’s town house. Soon, she became his favorite literary amanuensis, to whom he dictated more than half of his sermons and a significant number of his fifty books and countless articles. Their coded expressions of devotion to each other in the letters that begin in 1884, when Hale, married with six surviving children, was 62 and Freeman 37, often seem “over-the-top” in typical Victorian fashion, but the longhand portions of the letters are rich in evidence of their shared intellectual and activist interests and love of the outdoors. Quite simply, they were soul mates.

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Freeman and Hale were photographed in adjoining canoes on Wash Pond behind the Hales’ summer house during her late summer 1887 stay at Matunuck. Copy print in Harriet E. Freeman Papers, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.

Far from being just an adjunct to an older man’s life, Freeman fashioned a full and useful life of her own. She had a passion for botany and geology, which she studied at the Teacher’s School of Science (a venture of the Boston Society of Natural History and Boston Tech, later MIT) and then as a special student at Boston Tech, when she participated in multiple field trips in North America. Active in leadership roles in a number of the women’s clubs and organizations that pursued philanthropy and reform in women’s higher education and human rights, she also became a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club once women were allowed to join in 1879. Spending her summers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where Hale joined her for the month of August and other shorter visits, she was an activist for preserving the severely threatened forests of the region, persuading Hale to lend his authority to the cause when he became chaplain to the US Senate in 1904.

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Freeman, at second left, greets a cousin and is accompanied by her naturalist traveling companion and friend Emma Cummings and nephew Fred Freeman at the start of a week-long hike in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in July 1902. From an album of photographs documenting the hike, courtesy of Alan Lowe.

The story of Harriet Freeman and Edward Hale is valuable for two reasons: it sheds new light on the already celebrated E. E. Hale and it comprehensively documents the life of a truly remarkable woman. I began by thinking that “Hattie” could only be overshadowed by the overpowering legend and charismatic personality of Edward Everett Hale. Instead, I found multiple reasons why he felt she transformed his life. At last, and 84 years after her death, the formerly obscure Harriet Freeman is recognized with a profile in American National Biography Online.

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Sara Day at Harriet Freeman’s grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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