One of the spunkiest historical figures with local roots who throughout her hard life took “the bull by the horns” was Louisa May Alcott, the famed author of the groundbreaking novel “Little Women.”
Born in Germantown on Nov. 29, 1832 – the same day that her progressive educator dad, Amos Bronson Alcott, came to the world in 1799 – Louisa was primarily home-schooled by him, a pioneering transcendentalist, with help from powerhouse friends such as writers and philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne after the family returned to New England two years later.
When Louisa was born in a house on what today is Germantown Ave. “where the Masonic Hall now stands, between Coulter and Mill Streets,” reminisced Mary B. Houston Williams in an address to the Site and Relic Society of Germantown on April 18, 1902, her father Amos was ecstatic about his daughter’s birth in a letter to a “Colonel May”:
“She was born at half-past 12 this morning, on my birthday (33), and is a very fine healthful child, and has a fine foundation for health and energy of character,” Amos wrote, according to Williams, adding that his wife “Abbainclines to have her called Louisa May, a name to her full of every association connected with amiable benevolence and exalted worth.”
The Alcotts had traveled to Philly from New England so that Amos could set-up a liberal school without the rigid rules of the period. “The school he taught at in Germantown was the third school he had started, this time with aid from a wealthy benefactor [Reuben Haines] who paid the tuition of many of the students,” notes historynet.com, but soon died, prompting the Alcotts to return to Boston in 1834.
Although destined to become the family’s primary breadwinner due to her father’s financial ineptitude – despite his obvious genius in book learning and philosophy – Louisa very early became quite supportive of women’s rights because of the immense pressures that her mother Abby May Alcott experienced regarding her dad’s lackadaisical employment attitude, impoverishing the family of several girls: Anna Bronson Alcott (b. 1831), Elizabeth Sewell (b. 1835) and Abigail May (b. 1840).
Louisa, the second of the four daughters, also became an ardent anti-slavery abolitionist who greatly respected such local women as the Quaker minister Lucretia Mott of Cheltenham, at one point with her family helping escaped slaves via the Underground Railroad.
And even though father Amos seemed incapable of providing financial stability, he gave his girls and other students an extraordinary liberal education, avoiding punishment while emphasizing conversational techniques – making him an impressive educational reformist.
Establishing in 1834 a so-called “model community” called Fruitlands in “Harvard Massachusetts,” Amos “[made] use of no animal products or labor, except, as [wife] Abigail Alcott observed, for that of women,” according to the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail’s online article, “Louisa May Alcott (1832-88).”
By age 15, Alcott worked as a governess, seamstress and teacher while pursuing writing to help support her family then living in Concord, Mass. “In Boston, Louisa also encountered some of the greatest reformers of the nineteenth century,” including Theodore Parker, Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison, says the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail.
Meanwhile, “Louisa’s stories were finally beginning to sell,” including for such publications as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newsletter, earning her $100 in 1863 for “Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” as the Civil War raged. She also began writing novels.
Alcott’s “brief service as a Civil War nurse inspired her to write ‘Hospital Sketches’ which appeared in the Boston Commonwealth as a series and as a book in 1863,” that became “enormously popular” based on the often graphic, but poignant stories, of the war’s wounded. Sadly, Alcott during the war contracted typhoid and pneumonia, so was treated with a mercury compound, causing periodic hallucinations, disorientation and other illnesses.
After touring in Europe and returning to Boston, “she accepted the editorship of Merry’s Museum, a children’s magazine. She became its major contributor. In 1867,” following the war, “the magazine’s editor, Thomas Niles, asked her to write a book especially for girls. The result was part one of ‘Little Women,’” partially based on the struggles she had encountered, as well as her sisters, mother and other women, becoming “a best seller” and propelling her to worldwide fame. The book was translated into a variety of languages.
By the time she died at age 55 on March 6, 1888 in Boston after never marrying, just two days following her father’s death, Louisa May Alcott had written hundreds of articles, numerous books and lifted her family out of poverty.
Upon returning to Germantown before her passing, she gave a presentation at Germantown Academy to a bunch of ingratiating, wide-eyed students, followed up by a few groups of them visiting the famous author staying at a nearby residence along or near School House Lane.
After all, “we realize that she is one of our very own people,” confessed Mary Williams to the Germantown Relic Society in 1902, “and not to Boston, nor to Concord, but to Germantown belongs the honor of being her birth-place.”