Elleanor Eldridge: Folk Hero of African American Feminism
“The whole affair…was a web of iniquity…But the subject of this wrong…was a woman, and therefore weak—a colored woman —and therefore contemptible.”
Frances Whipple, later Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, was born in 1805 to a star-studded, quintessentially American family which included local Rhode Island heroes like Abraham Whipple (1733-1809), who led the burning of the Gaspee in 1772, and some of Roger Williams’ earliest and closest associates. As a single, fiercely independent young woman, Frances supported herself through odd jobs, educated herself by reading widely in literature and philosophy, and built a place for herself within a swiftly changing American economy, culture, and society until her death in 1878.
The nineteenth century was the first great era of reform movements, and Frances Whipple remained a constant participant in a wide variety of “isms,” from Spiritualism and Dorrism to Abolitionism and Republicanism. Whipple championed each of these causes and more throughout her long life of teaching, writing, speaking, and even spirit mediumship. Frances carried her radical ideas with her wherever she went, New York to California, and her body of work pushed American life in radical directions as Americans like Frances discovered who they were and where they fit into the ever-transforming world around them.
Frances Whipple’s most significant early contributions to what she saw as a “New Age of Reform,” were in the fields of feminism and abolitionism, both of which were often indistinguishable movements. After attaining some stature as a local writer of short pieces for the literary magazine Original, a Rhode Island women’s benevolent society charged her with writing a fundraiser book for the relief of Elleanor Eldridge. Elleanor was a free African American resident of Providence recently embroiled in a legal battle for her home and property, virtually bankrupted by the legal fees incurred. To offset these costs, Whipple authored The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge and Elleanor’s Second Book, both of which sold tens of thousands of copies and which publishers reprinted sixteen times into the 1970s. The books were astonishing successes and helped make Elleanor Eldridge a folk hero of African-American feminism. Frances Whipple became a Rhode Island literary legend, which positioned her well to agitate the related issues of suffrage and slavery.
In the selections below, Whipple describes the history of Elleanor’s struggles in the Rhode Island land courts and lays ultimate blame at the intersection between unvirtuous public opinion (in this case, northern racism and sexism) and institutions enabling the exploitation of powerless minorities. Racism, sexism, and government—ideas and institutitions—working in tandem, created and fostered Elleanor’s long train of hardships.
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge, Excerpts. Providence: B. T. Albro. 1841.
By Frances Whipple
About sixteen years ago, Elleanor, having six hundred dollars on hand, bought a lot, for which she paid one hundred dollars, “all in silver money,” as she has herself assured me. She then commenced building a house, which cost seventeen hundred dollars. This house was all paid for, with no encumbrance whatever. After it had been built three or four years; she built an addition on the east side, to live in herself; and subsequently one on the west side, to accommodate an additional tenant.— This house rented for one hundred and fifty dollars per anum. About this time there were two lots of land for sale, of which Elleanor wished to become the purchaser. Not having money enough she hired a gentleman of Warwick, two hundred and forty dollars.— For this she was to pay interest at the rate of ten per cent: and, by agreement, so long as she could do so, she might be entitled to keep the money; i. e. she was to pay the interest, and renew the note annually.
Elleanor had completed her house, which with its two wings, and its four chimneys, wore quite an imposing aspect; and in the honest pride and joy of her heart, she looked upon it with delight; as well she might do, since it was all earned by her own honest labors, and afforded the prospect of a happy home, and a comfortable income in her old age. Attached to this house, and belonging to a Mrs.— was a gangway which Elleanor wished very much to obtain possession of, as she was entirely cut off from out door privileges, without it. She had hired it for five years; and … she finally determined to do so; although, by doing so, she was obliged to involve herself considerably. This house had been built by Mr. C, who, being unable to pay for it, had given a mortgage of the premises. At this time Elleanor had five hundred dollars in her possession, which she had been wishing to dispose of to the best advantage. She finally came to a bargain with Mr. C, agreeing to give two thousand dollars for the house. She paid the five hundred dollars down; and then gave a mortgage on the house to Mr. Greenold, for fifteen hundred dollars. This was to be paid in four years; which, if she had received the least indulgence, she might easily have done; or rather if she had not, in her own honesty of heart, been led to confide in the promise of one, who had more regard for his purse, than for his honor, or his christian character, as we shall soon see.
[On a trip to Warwick, Eleanor becomes violently ill and confined to the bed at a roadside inn.]
Her brother went to the land-lady, and requested permission to remain through the day, as his sister was too ill to proceed. From this circumstance— this trifling fact—sprang all the subsequent troubles of Elleanor. It so happened that there were two persons from Providence, within the hearing of George Eldridge… and as thev had some knowledge of his sister, they made their report, when they returned to Providence. This, her being very sick, like a gathering snow-ball, grew as it went the rounds of gossip, into exceedingly dangerous illness—the point of death; and finally, by the simple process of accumulation, it was resolved into death itself. Who could have foreseen results, so disastrous as those which followed, could have been occasioned by such a trifle? The reader will subsequently find, how all Elleanor’s troubles sprang from the wanton carelessness of those, who so busily circulated the story of her death. “What mighty oaks from little acorns grow;” and, what a lesson of caution should be drawn from this simple fact, and its consequences. How careful ought we to be to speak nothing but the truth, even in regard to the most trifling circumstances ; and not only so, but to be well assured that what we suppose to be true, is truth, before we receive it as such…
As soon as the news of their arrival had gone about, the gentleman who had laid an attachment on Ellen’s property, in order to procure the liquidation of the two hundred and forty dollar note before alluded to, came directly to see her; and that too altogether of his own accord. This gentleman was not the original creditor; who had deceased, leaving his brother as his sole heir.
The gentleman told Ellen what he had done; at the same time saying, that he should never have done it, had he not been told that she was dead. “But” said he, “I am glad you have returned, safe and well; and though I want the money, I will never distress you for it.”
Ellen had the simplicity to believe this, because the man—perhaps I ought to say gentleman—was a member of a church; and was called a christian. Poor, simple-hearted, honest Ellen: she did not know then that she had met “the wolf in sheep’s clothing…”
Elleanor had given Mr.— a conditional promise that she would raise a hundred dollars for him in April; but it so happened that she could not procure the money; and, relying on his promise of indulgence, which his honor as a gentleman, and his christian character, alike conspired to strengthen; while, at the same time, his great wealth, or entire independence, placed him altogether above any temptation to uncharitableness.
In about a week she returned to Providence, satisfied that in the withdrawal of his suit, Mr.— had fairly “buried the hatchet,” she commenced her summer’s work with renewed vigor…
In order to make all secure before leaving town, Ellen paid up all that was due on the mortgage: but she did not pay Mr.— because she could not do so without great loss, and difficulty; and concerning this she felt no uneasiness, because there had been an express understanding between herself and the deceased Mr.—, that she should have the money so long as she could pay the interest of ten percent on the note: and besides her well-known character for integrity and industry, seemed to secure the promise of indulgence, which had been voluntarily given.
Ellen’s last step was to go round among her families, and request them to be careful and prudent in all things, making no disturbance, and committing no trespass; and she assured them that if she heard any complaint from her neighbor, she should turn out the offenders, as soon as she returned.
Intent only upon her new duties, Elleanor then entered zealously into the service of Mrs. T.; and with that lady, and her family, left town for Pomfret, a distance of only thirty miles. The sickness of Mrs. T. and that of her family, rendered our heroine’s activity and skill of peculiar value.
In about two months, the family of Mrs. T. having recovered, and the cholera panic having somewhat subsided, that lady determined to return to Providence. On arriving in the city, she stopped at the Franklin House, still retaining Ellen in attendance. The next morning after their arrival, a lady came in and told Mrs. T.—that the property of Elleanor was all attached, and sold; and to the latter, the sad intelligence was speedily announced; but she found it very difficult to believe a story, at once, so entirely opposed to all her convictions of right, and so fraught with distress and anguish to herself; yet, upon enquiry, she found that one half the truth had not been told.
Mr.—, of Warwick, had attached and sold property, which a few months before had been valued at four thousand dollars, for the pitiful sum of two hundred and forty dollars. Why he wished to attach so large a property, for so small a debt, is surprising enough; since Elleanor had then in her possession two house lots, and the little house and lot at Warwick; either of which would have been sufficient to liquidate the debt. There seems to be a spirit of wilful malignity, in this wanton destruction of property, which it is difficult to conceive of as existing in the bosom of civilized man.
One after another, all the aggravating particulars came to the knowledge and notice of Ellen. In the first place, the attachment, as we have before said, was entirely disproportioned to the debt; which the general good character, integrity, and property of the debtor, rendered perfectly secure. In the second place, the sheriff never legally advertised the sale, or advertised it at all, as can be learned. In the third place, the auctioneer, having, doubtless, ascertained the comfortable fact, that the owner was a laboring colored [wo]man, who was then away, leaving no friend to protect her rights, struck it off, almost at the first bid; and at little more than one third its value; it being sold for only fifteen hundred dollars, which was the exact amount of the mortgage. In the fourth place, the purchaser, after seeing the wrongfulness of the whole affair, and after giving his word three successive times, that he would settle and restore the property for a given sum, twice meanly flew from his bargain, successively making larger demands…
Thus, as we have seen, was Ellen, in a single moment, by a single stroke of the hammer, deprived of the fruits of all her honest and severe labors—the labors of years; and, not only so, but actually thrown in debt for many small bills, for repairs and alterations on her houses, which she had the honor and honesty to discharge, even against the advices of some of her friends, after the property by which they had been incurred had been so cruelly taken away. Elleanor has traits of character, which, if she were a white woman, would be called Noble. And must color so modify character, that they are not still so?
On visiting the premises, sad, indeed was the sight which the late owner witnessed.— The two wings of her first house, which she had herself built, with their chimneys, had been pulled down: and it seemed as if the spirit of Ruin had been walking abroad. All her families had been compelled to leave, at a single week’s notice; and many of them, being unable to procure tenements, were compelled to find shelter in barns and out-houses, or even in the woods. But they were colored people— So thought he, who so unceremoniously ejected them from their comfortable homes; and he is not only a professed friend to their race, but an “honorable man…”
Mark his excuse. How noble—how manly it was! He told Ellen he was very sorry for what he had done; but that he never should have done it, if the lawyer had not advised him to. He must have been a man of stern principle—of sterling independence, to perpetrate such an act, because his lawyer advised him to. I pity the man whose invention is so poor—so miserable, that he could not fabricate a better falsehood…
After a time, a ray of hope dawned on the dark path of Ellen. She consulted Mr. Greene, the State’s attorney, and found that she might bring forward a case of “Trespass and Ejectment,” against the purchaser of her property. She had hope to repudiate the whole sale and purchase, on the ground of the illegal or non-advertisement of the sale. This case was brought before the Court of Common Pleas, in January, 1837.
Of course, the whole success of it turned on the point of the sheriff’s oath, in regard to the advertisement. When the oath was administered, the sheriff appeared strangely agitated, and many, then present in court, even the judge, thought it was the perturbation of guilt. Nevertheless he attested upon oath, that he had put up the notification in three public places;—viz. at Manchester’s tavern bar-room, on the Court House done in time of Court, and on Market Square. There were three men who came prepared to take their oath, that the notice was never put up at Manchester’s; thus invalidating that part of his testimony; but it was found that the oaths of common men could not be taken against that of the High Sheriff. So the case was decided against the plaintiff.
Ellen’s next step was to hire two men, whom she fee’d liberally, to make enquiries throughout the city, in regard to those notifications. They went about, two days, making all possible search for light in regard to the contested notifications, calling upon all those who frequented public places. But no person could be found, who had either seen them, or heard of their being seen. A fine advertisement, truly! And here, let me ask, why was not this sale advertised in the public papers ?— The same answer that has been given before, will suffice now. The owner of the property was a laboring colored woman. Is not this reply, truth as it is, a libel on the character of those who wrought the work of evil?
Elleanor then brought an action against the sheriff, tending to destroy his testimony in the late case; and on the very day when it was to be laid before the court, Mr.—, the purchaser, came forward and told Ellen’s attorney, that he would restore the property for twenty-one hundred dollars, and two years’ rent. Ellen then withdrew her case, and set herself about procuring the money. This she raised; and it was duly tendered to Mr.—. But mark his regard for his word.— He then said that Ellen had been so long in procuring the money, that he must have twenty-three hundred dollars.
The additional two hundred dollars were then raised, but the gentleman, in consequence of repairs and alterations, which he could have had no right to make, and require pay for, as the case stood, next demanded twenty-five hundred dollars, with six months’ rent.
The suspended action had, in the mean time, been again brought forward; and was to have been tried before the Circuit Court. But so anxious was Ellen again to possess the property, that she once more withdrew her action, and came to the exhorbitant terms of Mr.—. She again hired the additional two hundred dollars; and finally effected a settlement. This conduct, on the part of the purchaser, requires no comment; for its meanness, not to say dishonesty, is self-evident in the simplest statement of the facts themselves. But this is not all. The sheriff had informed Mr.—, that he could sue Elleanor for house rent, as her goods had never been removed from the tenement she had occupied. This he actually did, and laid an attachment on her furniture, which was advertised to be sold at public auction: and it would have been, had not a gentleman who had the management of her business, gone forward and settled with Mr.—.
The whole affair, from beginning to end, in all its connections and bearings, was a web of iniquity. It was a wanton outrage upon the simplest and most evident principles of justice. But the subject of this wrong, or rather of this accumulation of wrongs, was a woman, and therefore weak—a colored woman —and therefore contemptible. No man ever would have been treated so; and if a white woman had been the subject of such wrongs, the whole city—nay, the whole country, would have been indignant: and the actors would have been held up to the contempt they deserve! The story would have flown upon the wings of the wind to the most remote borders of our land. Newspaper editors would have copied, and commented on it, till every spirit of honor, of justice, and of chivalry, would have been roused. At home, benevolent societies would have met, and taken efficient means to relieve the sufferer; while every heart would have melted in kindness, and every bosom have poured out its sympathy. Is this wrong the less a wrong, because the subject of it is weak and defenceless? By the common laws of honor, it is cowardice to strike the unarmed and the weak. By the same rule, he who injures the defenceless, adds meanness to crime…
Are there none to feel for her? Are there none to sustain, and encourage her? Thank God!—there are already a few…Then will not every reader of this little book, recommend it to the notice of the humane, and endeavor to promote its sale; not for its own sake, but for the sake of her, who depends upon its success, for deliverance from the difficulties in which she is involved. Ellen has yet a large debt to liquidate, before her estate is freed from its incumbrance. With a little timely help, together with her earnings, she may be able to do this.
Sarah O’Dowd, A Rhode Island Original: Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, Hanover: University Press of New England, 2004.
Joycelyn Moody, ed. Frances Harriet Whipple, Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge, Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2014
Frances Whipple, Eleanor’s Second Book, Providence: B. T. Albro, 1842
The Mechanic, Providence: Burnett & King, 1842
The Housekeeper’s Book, Philadelphia: William Marshall & Co., 1837
“Bibliographical Memoir of Frances H. McDougall, Born Whipple,” in Sidney Rider, Bibliographical Memoirs of Three Rhode Island Authors: Joseph K. Angell, Frances A. (Whipple) McDougall, Catharine R. Williams, (Providence: Sidney S. Rider, 1880)