A Rhode Island Original: Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall
Frances Harriet Whipple (1805-1878) was born in Smithfield, Rhode Island. Although she was the descendant of two of the state's first families, her father's sudden impoverishment (in 1817) forced her to support herself from a young age. She gained early recognition for her poems that appeared in local papers, and in 1829 published "The Original," establishing herself as one of America's first female editors. Almost a decade later she wrote one of the few published narratives about a free black woman, The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge. Whipple also wrote extensively for the temperance and abolition movements and for workers' rights.
In her middle years, Whipple turned to Spiritualism, leaving Providence to write for numerous spiritualist publications in New York City. By this time she had married and divorced Charles Green--an unusual step for a woman in the mid-nineteenth century. Whipple's new devotion to Spiritualism seemed to provide some answers to her midlife crisis, and it did not hinder her crusade against slavery. Sarah C. O'Dowd devotes one chapter to Whipple's longest antislavery work, a satirical epistolary novel called Shahmah in Pursuit of Freedom, or, the Branded Hand.
Before she moved from the East Coast to California in 1861, Whipple wrote several other works including a botany textbook and the biography of a clairvoyant healer, Semantha Mettler. In California, Whipple herself assumed the role of a medium, speaking and writing antislavery messages that she said were dictated to her from the spirit world. She served briefly on the board of the first female typographical union in San Francisco and at the age of fifty-seven married her second husband, a gold miner who had been a California assemblyman and brother of the state's second governor.
O'Dowd, deftly contextualizing her analysis of Whipple's key works in nineteenth century politics and culture, has created a fascinating portrait of a woman well ahead of her time.
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