The Witch of Medbury Grove

 The course of world history itself depended on the outcome of the Dorr War and the actions of early libertarian women like Ann Parlin.

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Little is known about the personal life of Ann Parlin, the woman who came up with the idea for clam bakes to raise relief money for the families of imprisoned suffragists. She married Dr. Louis Parlin on July 7th, 1839, in Maine before moving to Providence. In 1841, they appear in the city’s business records through Dr. Parlin’s homeopathy clinic. He’s considered the founder of homeopathy in Rhode Island, and he practiced there for two to three years while participating in the city’s bubbling radical politics. The Parlins were fairly well off and Louis was a landholder or a freeman allowed to vote, but both of them believed fully in the people’s sovereign power to reform their governments at will.

A Woman of Spunk: Ann Parlin’s Vision for Revolution

Russell DeSimone, “Lewis and Ann Parlin” in Rhode Island’s Rebellion: A Look at Some Aspects of the Dorr War, Bartlett Press. 2009.

Comegna, “The Dupes of Hope Forever: The Locofoco of Equal Rights Movement, 1820s-1870s,” (PhD Diss.) University of Pittsburgh. 2016.

Zagarri, Rosemarie. Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Earl American Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2007.

Zboray, Ronald & Mary. Voices Without Votes: Women and Politics in Antebellum New England. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press. 2010.

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00:08 Anthony Comegna: In many ways, the Dorr War was the high-water mark of early 19th century libertarianism. In 1842 Rhode Islanders and radicals from around New England and New York City decided to test the right of revolution. No major contingent of Americans had seriously done so since 1776, but under the influences of America’s first libertarian movement and the cultural movement called Young America, Rhode Islanders believed their state was on the leading edge of human destiny. Their state’s charter had not changed since 1663 and excluded even most white males from voting. Arguing that their state was no longer a republic, these Dorrites, named for their leader, Thomas Wilson Dorr, called their own Constitutional Convention, set it before the voters, claimed a large majority of support and nearly set New England ablaze in civil war when the old government refused to give way. The military and political efforts failed miserably, and it seemed to many, that by the summer of 1842, republicanism was finally dead. At the darkest hour, when suffragists languished either in prison or exile, a massive core of activist women stepped forward. We turn to the woman who, more than anyone else, even Dorr himself, turned Dorrism from a confined, local political affair, into a full social movement.

01:43 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

02:05 Anthony Comegna: Little is known about the personal life of Ann Parlin, the woman who came up with the idea for clam bakes to raise relief money for the families of imprisoned suffragists. She married Dr. Louis Parlin on July 7th, 1839, in Maine before moving to Providence. In 1841, they appear in the city’s business records through Dr. Parlin’s homeopathy clinic. He’s considered the founder of homeopathy in Rhode Island, and he practiced there for two to three years while participating in the city’s bubbling radical politics. The Parlins were fairly well off and Louis was a landholder or a freeman allowed to vote, but both of them believed fully in the people’s sovereign power to reform their governments at will.

02:47 Anthony Comegna: In the People’s Constitution’s first elections, Louis Parlin was elected the Fourth Ward’s Justice of the Peace on April 18th, 1842. As an officer in the illegal government, the Landholder regime marked him a traitor. The Landholder Government declared martial law later that month and Dorr marshaled his forces for a stand-off at the Providence Arsenal. The attack failed and Dorr’s army crumbled. Most of the leadership fled to exile or stayed behind to face arrest and imprisonment. Louis Parlin stayed in Massachusetts, until after the second military failure at Chepachet in June. He returned to Rhode Island and was arrested on June 30th, and held for two weeks in the state prison. His account of the prisoners’ treatment is the most complete we have, and he survived the ordeal reasonably intact, thanks to his radical wife.

03:38 Anthony Comegna: We know very little about Ann Parlin, and most of her life outside the Dorr War years is a mystery, but we do know that she was an active suffragist before the Dorr War actually broke out. She was secretary of the Providence Ladies Suffrage Society, and was well positioned to become de facto leader of the clam bakes, once they were up and running; it was her idea, after all. And with most high level men in the movement either in chains or in other states, Parlin gave voice to the militant embers still burning across the countryside. Her activities, her speeches, her brashness and resolve, all caught the unfriendly attentions of the conservative press, which slandered Ann and her husband at every opportunity. Those who favored the Landholders regime, saw Ann as proof that Rhode Island suffragist men lacked either numbers or courage, sending their women to fight for them. Whig party presses basically called the Dorrites a bunch of cucks, being dominated by crazy feminists; if only they had the terminology, their articles would read like some anti-SJW rant from Breitbart.

04:41 Anthony Comegna: They heard Ann Parlance vow to lead a Dorrite Army to victory or death, and chuckled to themselves at the ridiculous prospect. This “witch of Medbury Grove,” this “enchanted lady of the clam bake,” as the Whig papers called her, showed the real reason Dorrite men were up in arms; they had allowed themselves to be seduced and entranced by a handful of unnatural, rowdy, ruffian women throughout the state. One Whig paper outright suggested that Ann give the Dorrites what they really want already, suffragists with benefits, let’s say. Parlin and her compatriots did not ignore the attacks, they cited them as proof of the aristocracy’s contempt for normal people.

05:25 Anthony Comegna: As winter set in throughout New England in November 1842, the clam baking stopped for the season. Awakened revolutionaries like Ann Parlin, though, continued their work in groundbreaking new ways. That month, Levi Slamm’s Daily Plebeian reported about a meeting in New York City’s Shakespeare Hotel, where Ann Parlin delivered the first speech by a woman ever witnessed at that venue. The Plebeian described an entirely respectable scene. After a brief introduction to their speaker, Ann took her place on the stage. She began by imploring her audience to take her seriously. She admitted she was not so well read in history as others, but what she had consumed, showed clearly that women have often been able to exercise tremendous amounts of power. They were, when willing, able to change the course of history and even make revolutions happen. From Ancient Greece and Rome to Joan of Arc, the agency of women turned events. Parlin encouraged her audience to make the present another such moment in history.

06:35 Speaker 2: Great meeting in relation to Rhode Island. New York Daily Plebeian, the 5th of November, 1842. A speech by Ann Parlin. She was not learned either in ancient or in modern annals. But she had read in elementary books of history, that the wrongs of a Roman matron changed the Roman government from a monarchy into a republic. That the indignant aspirations of a plebeian wife was the cause of elevating to the consulate Roman citizens of plebeian birth. That the high daring of a virgin shepherdess turned in favor of France the tide of war, which for half a had rolled adverse to her arms. That in Greece, when she awakened from the death-like sleep of centuries of bondage, fierce amazons led her fleet to glorious battles. Once more, presenting to an astonished world, the spectacle of women fighting like men and men flying from the contest like women. In Spain, young, retiring and timid maids were seen standing undaunted on the gory beach, inspiring the enthusiasm of their own heroic valor in the warriors of Aragon and Castile. It had not yet been her fortune to emulate those heroines whose names will forever live in the annals of fame. But she felt here a spirit, which convinced her that it required no greater exertion of physical courage to meet the swords of soldiers, than she had exercised to assume enough of moral courage to sustain her in asserting the cause of popular freedom, retiring as she had ever been before.

08:00 Anthony Comegna: Ann Parlin interwove past and present throughout her speech, constantly calling on the lessons and models of the past for guidance in the present crisis. She recounted the series of events from the origins of the People’s Government, to the clam baking autumn of 1842. She spoke to them of the vast numbers of suffragist prisoners, comparing them to Revolutionary era captives, held by the British. And she would know, she visited her husband daily to supplement the poor diet provided by the charter regime. Deciding that someone must assume leadership of the movement, she began planning public protest events with a circle of female friends and activists. They called for the great clam bakes in every public forum open to them and bore the great burdens of a hostile press. Nevertheless, the clam bakes were fantastic successes.

08:51 Speaker 2: After untoward events had destroyed their hopes of immediate emancipation from aristocratic thralldom, the patriots who had not fled were thrown into prison and there dealt with as felons. A band of ruthless aristocrats strode over their state, spreading terror throughout the land. Informers, spies, denunciators crowded the streets, the hamlets and the isolated abodes of husbandmen, violating everywhere the sanctities of private life. Vengeance and all the resentments of individual hatred mingling all the while their vile worship to the despotic measures of the victorious party. The press too, faithless in its high mission of enlightenment and freedom, had passed to the side of fortune and, to add to their calamities, the President of the United States, yielding to the perfidious arts of some of his advisors, had given to their adversaries the sanction of his name. No one dared to act but few ventured to speak.

09:43 Speaker 2: In that period of gloom, she looked round her for a leader to step forward to the rescue of American freedom. None appeared. In conversing with her female friends, she ascertained that they were animated with sentiments kindred with those feelings that made her heart to pant with emotions of alternate grief and indignation. She took in her own name and careless of the consequences, spurning the abuse of the Algerine press, the initiative of calling these great gatherings in which the spirit of resistance to oppression suddenly revived in every breast. These meetings had reanimated the desponding, infused life and daring into hearts before infirm of purpose. Their tyrants had marked these symptoms of returning energy. They were well aware that there still rankled in every soul a deep, undying hatred of their acts, in every generous mind an inflexible resolution to throw off their ignoble sway.

10:37 Speaker 2: That she had been, citizens of New York, one of the humble instruments in the hands of God to rekindle, from under the ashes where they slumbered, the noble passions in the hearts of their patriots might well make her proud, did she not recollect that between these symptoms of future success and a full accomplishment of their designs, a wide field still spread before them. She asked them to listen to the testimony of one who daily visited the captives in their dungeons. The horrors of the British prison ships of which she had heard in the history of their first war, could bear no comparison with what she witnessed in the jails of Rhode Island. Aggravated too as they were by the reflection that the executors of cruelties, which no nation, save England, was supposed capable of inflicting on prisoners of war, were Americans!

11:26 Speaker 2: It was the indignation inspired within her by scenes like those, which drove her from her quiet home, and urged her before the public, to breathe into the hearts of matrons and maidens the energy of her own feelings. She believed, when she began this pilgrimage in behalf of human rights, and she still believed, that the cause which enlisted the sympathies of women would triumph at last by the action of men. Let such as might be tempted to send to her for appearing before the people in her own state and presenting herself to that auspicious gathering of democracy. “Let them,” she said, “Remember the patriotism of American women during the Revolutionary War, their urging their husbands, brothers and sons, like Spartan matrons to enlist under the banners of freedom, their memorable resolution to forgo as long as the war continued the use of all those luxuries imported in British ships, or manufactured in England which she lavishly spread over the land to enervate men and corrupt women.

12:23 Anthony Comegna: Ann Parlin finished her speech with a powerful call for generational activism. Women, literally, create the future through childbirth. They shape it while raising kids and so long as Locofoco Dorrite women instilled in their children the truths of universal republicanism, the charter regime and its feudal principles could never last. Given the proper conditions for germination in youthful minds, republicanism was guaranteed a special place in the human future. With this speech. Ann Parlin cemented herself within the growing culture of young America, the nationalist literary movement, well underway in New York City and spreading around the country. She had clearly been affected by it, her speeches throughout the Dorr War suggest as much. She had clearly been affected by it, her speeches throughout the Dorr War suggest as much, but she also clearly contributed to it in ways historians have overlooked. Like painter Thomas Cole, she saw history as the circular process, by which some people sought power and others sought liberty. Like poet and journalist Walt Whitman, she had almost celestial hopes for the future.

13:42 Speaker 2: It was, Mrs. P continued, Only the adolescence of the coming generation which was confided to the tuition of men; their earlier childhood was entrusted to them. It was from women they received the precepts which their tender minds, then more easily impressed, imbibed as principles, opinions and rules of action never after to be effaced. So far, it might truly be asserted that the future of a nation was always prepared and molded by women. The present, which in Rhode Island belonged to the oligarchy, was, like the leaves of this protracted autumn, still hanging on the trees, but sere, withered and ready to fall before the first blast, never again to resume life and verdure.

14:22 Speaker 2: The aristocracy had lived one season, but they had no harvest to expect from coming years. Every spring, together with the renovated life it breathes into matter, sends forth on the stage of political action thousands of suffrage youths. It was out of their hands they should receive from the grave where it now rested embalmed in a nation’s tears the true, the real, the only Constitution Rhode Island ever had or ever would accept. When the majority of the present Congress already morally dead shall have come to its dissolution; when the Senate should have received as new blood infused into their bodies another and a better life in the accession of new members fresh from the people instinct with their opinions and obeying their dictates; when John Tyler, the glorious affixer of five vetoes on five unconstitutional bills, restored by the cheerings of a grateful nation to the full vigor of his native energies, shall have brushed away both the spiders and the webs which those obscene insects had spun in his cabinet, then would come the auspicious time for a mightier effort to enfranchise Rhode Island.

15:30 Speaker 2: Then the voice of the first magistrate will not be heard, as it was before, condemning her right to obtain equal justice. Then she will have a fair field; reason and right her only weapons, public opinion, the umpire between her and her oppressors and the prayers of the good and the enlightened for the success of her holy cause. But while those events foretold by all the signs that ever mark the coming triumph of the people are yet unaccomplished, the victims of their love of freedom, of their faith in the principles proclaimed by the venerable fathers of democracy, languish in fetid dungeons, they are fed with loathsome aliments which the famished serfs of English aristocracy would spurn. They were even deprived of sleep, that balmy solace of the wretched sufferer is driven up from their very lids by vermin which prey on their living bodies as if they were already given up to the noxious insects of the tomb. It is in order to alleviate these sufferings of their fellow citizens that she now addressed them. Mrs. Parlin then concluded, to them she offered an acknowledgment the grateful thanks of the victims, to such as would give if they had it to give. She offered the same thanks for their kind sympathies. Allow her to say that it was only after she had exhausted her own means that she applied to others to relieve her unfortunate fellow citizens.

16:54 Speaker 2: And now she bade them farewell. “Defend me when I am gone against the slanders of those who would say that vanity, a desire of notoriety, brought me here.” She could read in the kindness of their looks a better appreciation, a more righteous judgment on her motives and purpose. It was their good opinion she wished to have and to preserve. As regarded the Algerines, what had she to hope from them? From men who brutally assailed and bruised a woman in the street and as an apology for the brutal act declared that they had mistaken her for Ann Parlin and this too, because she maintained the heaven-born sentiment that government should be a shield and buckler for the protection, not a chain and manacle for the enslavement of the people. Mrs. P sat down amid tremendous and enthusiastic cheering.

17:46 Anthony Comegna: The Parlins paid a dear price for their political radicalism. After Ann’s speech, the Parlins returned to Rhode Island to a slew of vile attacks. The press and the entire bloc of Providence polite society relentlessly slandered them both and drove them from the state. They took refuge back in New York City, the very heart of early libertarianism, called Locofocoism. Louis set up a homeopathy clinic in the 10th Ward, which he regularly advertised in the pages of The Daily Plebeian and offered free treatment for the poor. Ann Parlin was remembered as a heroine; an inspiration. The Providence Express foreshadowed the lingering important influence of Parlin, her clam bakes and the power of her perseverance. “They may succeed in killing 23,000 women in this state who are engaged heart and hand in this holy cause and the Algerines will find them like dragons teeth. For every one trampled in the dust, there will come up a thousand.” And true enough, that’s more or less exactly what happened. Though things never go quite as anyone expects, the Parlins’ marriage did not outlast the winter.

18:56 Anthony Comegna: After returning to Providence from her speech at the Shakespeare Hotel, Ann was apparently a bit too much of a changed woman for Louis. He believed her stay with Levi Slamm was indecent, and her new public position was perhaps more than he could handle. The Providence Daily Evening Chronicle reported that he and Ann exchanged harsh words, followed by a little rough handling from the doctor, but of this we are not positive. This was a sadly common story among Dorrite women and Ann Parlin is not our last example of a radical victim of domestic violence. She applied for a divorce in December 1842, citing abuse and adultery. Meanwhile, Locofoco young Americans nationwide believed they had rediscovered a secret from the ancient world, which allowed man to transcend his wickedness, escape the clutches of soul-crushing tyranny in Europe and enjoy liberty on the frontier. Locofocos and allied radicals battled to move the wheels of history, fighting the British in Canada, the monopoly bankers at home, the remnants of British monopoly corporatism in Rhode Island, with a new foreign policy of manifest destiny to match. The course of world history itself depended on the outcome of the Dorr War and the actions of early libertarian women like Ann Parlin.

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20:25 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org, it is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on liberty chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.

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