Friday, October 9, 2009
Who was Who in Carlisle: Elizabeth Robbins Berry, writer and collector with ties to Lincoln memorabilia and Clara Barton
Deep in the records of the Carlisle Historical Society, in a file labeled “Ephemera,” is a small, plain card with a swatch of black broadcloth glued to it. On the card, written in the hand of Carlisle native Elizabeth Robbins Berry, is the information that the small piece of black cloth is a fragment of the pall from slain President Abraham Lincoln’s coffin, given to Mrs. Berry by her friend, Millie Loud. The card does not explain how Millie Loud came by this particular artifact, but evidently Mrs. Berry thought it was important enough to donate to the Historical Society’s collection.
Certainly it is not only a literal cutting of history, and as Mrs. Berry thought, important enough at least to elicit a gasp from anyone who finds it, but it is also a poignant comment on the mid-19th century. Lincoln quickly became a martyr, as we know, but that did not stop souvenir hunters from snipping away anything they could from the trappings of his funeral, and later even from attempting to rob his grave. Thanks to Elizabeth Robbins Berry, Carlisle owns a piece of that rather shocking history.
Included as well in the Society’s collection is another piece of Lincoln memorabilia: Berry’s facsimile of the handbill for the performance of the comedy Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre for the night of Lincoln’s assassination. Berry is one of the Society’s most generous donors. Her part of the collection includes a photograph of a Union flag made during the Civil War at the notorious Libby Prison. The flag was a subject on which Berry was a fervent expert, and also in the collection is a copy of her booklet, “Our Flag and Its Use,” which outlines theprotocol for displaying and using the U.S. flag.
The collection contains a number of Berry’s prolific and ardent patriotic writings. Born in Carlisle in 1854 to John E. and Sarah (Morgan) Robbins, she is described in the Society’s publication, Images of America: Carlisle, as a “patriotic activist.” She was a member of the Women’s Relief Corps, founded in 1886 as “an auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic,” and Daughters of the Revolution (Daughters of the American Revolution) chapters in Boston and Dorchester Heights.
As an educator in and secretary of the National Association of Patriotic Instructors, Berry wrote about people significant to U.S. history. Her subjects include: Colonel Louis F. Beecher, who fought in the Mexican War in 1846 and later in the Civil War; President Ulysses S. Grant, and with this article she added a picture of “Dr. Rogers, who attended at Grant’s birth;” Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, “who attended Lincoln on the night he was shot,” and who gives, in the article, his own version of the events of that night; Ann Cunningham, who organized the preservation of Mount Vernon; and finally, William Howard Taft, because Berry had once shaken his hand.
Berry wrote poems as well. Most notable is her “Unknown Dead,” read on Memorial Day to honor the unidentified Union soldiers of the Civil War and published in The Boston Transcript newspaper in June of 1920. Several copies are housed in the Society’s collection. She also wrote a humorous poem about turning 30 for the Boston Proofreaders’ Association, organized in 1895, of which she was a member.
Writer, editor, proofreader
Berry’s curriculum vitae in the 1914-1915 edition of Women’s Who’s Who of America lists her membership in the New England Women’s Press Association and the League of American Pen Women and her “recreations” as “travel, motoring, music and theatre.” She was living in North Cambridge at the time of her Who’s Who citation and working as a writer, editor and proofreader who “favor[ed] woman suffrage.” Berry wrote for a number of 19th- and early 20th-century publications, as well as publishing materials herself. The Republic Magazine, which she also edited, featured her articles, “The New England Fireside,” and, with photographs, “The Running of the Shad.” Also from her pen came a short and sylvan history of Carlisle entitled, “The Home of the Carlisle Pines,” written in 1905. All of these articles are now part of the Society’s collection.
Collector and donor
Berry gave to the Society a number of personal items she thought representative of a historical progression in her own family. She donated a fragment of a dress from 1653, owned by her ancestor, Elizabeth Willard Blood” and a gold locket containing cuttings of her grandparents’ hair. Her grandparents lived in Carlisle from 1842 to 1855. In addition, she gave a green silk purse and a nightcap, both items dating from the mid-19th century, and a number of personal letters and post cards, including one from her friend, Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross.
Friendship with Clara Barton
Berry’s connection to Clara Barton led to her involvement with the Clara Barton Guild at the First Religious Society. The Guild was a national organization established in Unitarian Universalist churches to promote community service. On Memorial Day in 1923, sponsored by the Clara Barton Tree Planting Committee of that guild, Carlisle schoolchildren attending the Highland School planted a two-year-old cut-leaf maple tree on the Town Common.
In 1930, when she was 76, Berry wrote a history of Clara Barton’s life for the Women’s National Missionary Association of the Universalist Church entitled, Clara Barton, the ‘Angel of the Battlefield’ by One Who Knew Her. She described Barton in the most glowing terms: “…she was a gentlewoman. Her contact with the battlefield and its horrors had never in any degree impaired the fineness of her character. She was refined, dainty in her dress, a tactful hostess of wonderful charm, a remarkable conversationalist, with a command of our mother tongue such as few possess. Yet her outstanding characteristic was simplicity… Her life was a wonderful instance of the development of a sensitive, self-conscious girl into a glorious womanhood, which will always be an inspiration to her sex.”
Elizabeth Robbins Berry, who died in 1934 and is buried in Green Cemetery, was indefatigable in her enthusiasm for American history and causes. Straddling two centuries, she provided us and future generations with a look into the past through the eyes of a woman who was, as she said about Clara Barton, “one of us.” ∆
More about Berry
Those interested in seeing the artifacts described in the article can visit the Carlisle Historical Society during their Open House on Sunday, October 18 from 2 to 4 p.m. Or, contact the Society’s President, Charlie Forsberg, email@example.com, to arrange a visit.
Also, previous articles on Elizabeth Berry are available in the Mosquito archives at www.carlislemosquito.org. An August 12, 2005 article provides her detailed description of Carlisle 100 years ago; an April 5, 2002 article focuses on her booklet about the flag; and a May 27, 2005 article provides excerpts from her Memorial Day speech in Carlisle in 1904.
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito