Monday, March 14, 2022

Elmira and the Widow Bedott

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


In 1849, Frances Miriam Berry Whitcher cost her husband his job as pastor of Elmira’s Trinity Episcopal Church. It was a funny story. Actually, it was several funny stories. That was the problem.

Born Frances Miriam Berry (Miriam to her friends), Whitcher (1811-1852) is known as the first female American satirists. Growing up in Whitesboro, New York as the eleventh of fifteen children, she was shy and bookish with wicked sense of humor. After years of writing humorous stories for her friends in the Whitesboro literary society, she submitted several satirical sketches to Neal’s Saturday Gazette of Philadelphia under the pseudonym “Frank” in 1846. They were an instant success.


Frances Miriam Whitcher, 1849

The main character of the tales was the Prissilla “Silly” Bedott, widow of Deacon Hezkiah Bedott and active pursuer of every eligible widower in the fictitious Wiggletown, New York. The sketches focused on the foibles of small town life with particular attention paid to the travails of courtship and women’s social circles. In some ways, Bedott’s life mirrored Miriam’s. Both women ended up marrying preachers and moving with them to a new setting.  

Widow Bedott & Rev. Sniffles

 On January 6, 1847, Miriam married Episcopalian minster Benjamin William Whitcher, just about the same time as her fictional counterpart married Sharack Sniffles of Scrabble Hill. Soon after, Reverend Whitcher was hired as rector of Elmira’s Trinity Church. The couple’s income was meager, just $500 a year, so Miriam continued to supplement it with her writing. Not long after their move, Louis Godey of Godey’s Lady’s Book, America’s first women’s magazine, contacted her and asked her to write a new series for his magazine. Miriam created a new character, Aunt Maguire, the Widow Bedott’s sister in Scrabble Hill. While Bedott was cynical and ambitious, Maguire was a compassionate voice of reason. Her stories were no less funny or popular though.

 The first of the pieces written in Elmira was about a disastrous donation party put on for a new local minister. At the time, it was common to hold a yearly pot-luck fundraiser at the minister’s home to supplement the meager annual income with gifts of household items. The story was inspired by the Whitchers’ own welcome donation party, although theirs involved considerably way less humiliation and property damage. Over the next few years, Miriam wrote a number of Aunt Maguire stories, some of which were re-printed in the local paper.

Aunt Maguire scolds her sister
The trouble came with a story about a sewing circle which was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book in January 1849. It included a fairly incisive take down of “Mrs. Samson Savage.”

“She’s one o’ the big bugs here—that is, she’s got more money than a’most anybody else in town. She was a tailoress when she was a gal, and they say she used to make a dretful sight o’ mischief among the folks where she sewed. But that was when she lived in Vermont. When Mr. Savage married her, he was one o’ these ere specilators…So she sot up for a lady. She was always a coarse, boisterous, high-tempered critter, and when her husband grow’d rich, she grow’d pompous and over-bearin’. She made up her mind she’d rule the roast, no matter what it cost—she’d be the first in Scrabble Hill.”

 All across New York, people were convinced that their local bully was the inspiration for Mrs. Savage. Nearly all of them were wrong, as it turned out she was based on Elmira’s Mrs. John Arnot Sr. The local speculation about Savage’s true identity might have died down if Reverend Whitcher hadn’t confirmed that his wife was the author. The reverend was called before the church vestry in February 1849 in order to justify his continued employment. Miriam, meanwhile, found herself hounded and insulted by Mrs. Arnot and her clique. By June, the couple couldn’t take it anymore. Unable find a new position elsewhere, Reverend Whitcher resigned and the couple moved back to Whitesboro to live with the Berrys.

Over the next few years, Miriam’s writing slowed as her health declined until her death from tuberculosis in January 1852. Not long after, in 1855, her collected writings were gathered together and published in book form as The Widow Bedott Papers. The stories were later turned into a play. While few have heard of her today, she was wildly popular in her heyday. Even the famous Mark Twain was a huge fan.

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