Friday, November 13, 2015

Tireless champion for poor women & children Isabella Marshall Graham 1742-1814

Isabella Marshall Graham, (1742-1814), teacher & early charitable worker, the daughter of John & Janet (Hamilton) Marshall, was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, & grew up on an estate at Eldersley near Paisley. Her father, a landowner, raised Isabella & her brother in comfort, & a legacy from her grandfather, spent at her own request on a “finished education.”   At 17, she became a communicant of the Church of Scotland under the ministry of Dr. John Witherspoon, later president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).

Isabella Marshal Graham from the Library of Congress

She was married in 1765 to Dr. John Graham of Paisley, a widower & a “gentleman of liberal education, & of respectable standing.” Planning to settle in America, they sailed 2 years later to Canada, where Graham was physician to a British army regiment, the Royal Montreal, & Fort Niagara. They left behind in Scotland an infant son who died within the year; in North America their other 4 children were born. Mrs. Graham enjoyed life at Fort Niagara raising her babies, although she found the soldiers’ lack of religion appalling. Her own faith enabled her to accept with devout resignation the death of both her infant son & of her husband in Antigua, where they had recently been transferred in 1773, just before the birth of their 5th child.

Left almost penniless, Mrs. Graham sailed with her large family back to the security of her father in Scotland, only to find that he, too, was in need. He was not prepared to support himself, much less his daughter & her 5 young children. 

For 3 years she lived in a thatched cottage at Cartside, in such poverty, that she & her children sometimes had only porridge & potatoes to eat. Unable to support her father & children on her meager military widow’s pension, she opened a small school in Paisley. Around 1780, on the invitation of some “friends of religion,” she founded a boarding school for young ladies in Edinburgh. As her situation improved, she was able to indulge in charity, becoming “ingenious in contrivances to do good.” She used some of her income from tuitions to help people in small businesses, taking payment in their manufactured articles, & she also organized a mutual-benefit Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick.

Her desire to return to North America, which she thought “the country where the Church of Christ would eventually flourish,” was encouraged by Dr. Witherspoon of New York. In 1789, she came to New York City with her daughters & established a girls’ school that soon had more than 50 students plus a distinguished list of patrons. 

Uniting with the Cedar Street Scotch Presbyterian Church, Mrs. Graham found herself in a congenial religious & social climate. Her daughters all married New York merchants. Once they were comfortably settled, she retired from teaching, lived with one or another of them, & devoting herself to philanthropy.

In 1797, Mrs. Graham joined with her daughter Joanna & her friends Sarah (Ogden) Hoffman (1742-1821) & Elizabeth Bayley Seton, who later became a Saint in the Catholic church, in organizing the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children - one of the earliest charitable associations in the United States & one of the first instances of women taking organized action on their own. 

David F. Bloom, ed. Memoirs of Eminently Pious Women of Britain and America (Hartford, 1833), detail

Under her frugal management, the society aided 98 widows with 223 children during the winter of 1797-98, & the number increased during the years following. In 1802, the society was given a New York State charter. With money from legislative grants, they purchased food & distributed it to needy widows. The society also sought employment for the widows. Buying a house for the purpose, Mrs. Graham & her associates took orders for needlework. During the winter of 1807-08, when work was scarce, they gave out flax & spinning wheels, & paid for the products. They employed widows to teach schools in different parts of the city. Some of Mrs. Graham’s former pupils, under her supervision, conducted a school for the widows’ children. The society also opened two Sunday schools for the instruction of adults, one of which Mrs. Graham herself taught.

When her daughter Joanna Bethune organized the Orphan Asylum Society in 1806, Mrs. Graham became a trustee. With her daughter, she gave regular religious instruction at the school as well as to children in the public almshouse. 

She called on female inmates of the Lunatic Asylum & sick women prisoners. In her final year, at 71, she established an adult school for young people working in factories, which met on Sundays, & presided over the organization of her daughter’s society for establishing a female House of Industry to provide employment for needy women.

No longer strong enough for extensive visiting, Mrs. Graham spent much of her last 2 years in prayer & meditation. She died in New York City, in 1814.

This posting based, in part, on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971

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