by Margo Taft Stever
Many poems in my chapbook, The Lunatic Ball (Kattywompus Press, 2015) and my following full-length collection, Cracked Piano (CavanKerry Press, 2019) delve into the definition of sanity, and both collections include several found poems created from letters written by my great grandfather Peter Rawson Taft when he was institutionalized at the Cincinnati Sanitarian, Private Hospital for the Insane, and from the hospital superintendent, W.S. Chipley. I had stumbled on the hidden details of Peter’s tragic life while researching photographs that my other great grandfather, Harry Fowler Woods, had taken of the 1905 U.S. diplomatic mission to Asia. When searching for a cover for The Lunatic Ball, I got the idea of using one of the grotesquely strange phrenology heads that one finds on-line from that era.
Phrenology, a pseudoscientific endeavor popular during the mid-1800s, involved the study of the shape and size of the cranium in an attempt to predict character and intelligence. After undertaking a phrenology head hunt on the internet, I sent several illustrative examples to Sammy Greenspan, Kattywompus editor and publisher, and she choose one for The Lunatic Ball chapbook cover. This decision inadvertently connected me to a fascinating element of my family’s history through five generations and six degrees of separation. Alphonso Taft, my great great grandfather and Peter’s father, was known to many as an abolitionist, and I have searched for written proof of his beliefs.
To find out more about Alphonso, I visited West Townshend, Vermont, where he first lived with his extended family. Robert DuGrenier, a famous glass blower, who was head of the Historical Society of West Townshend, Vermont, and who lives in Alphonso’s childhood home, gave us an historical tour and lecture on the town’s history and invited us to his house. At the time of Alphonso’s childhood, during the period of slave-owning in the South before the Civil War, West Townshend had become a hotbed of abolitionism. Clarina Howard, Alphonso’s first cousin close to his age who grew up next door, became an early feminist, abolitionist, and temperance worker under her married name, Clarina Howard Nichols.
Alphonso would become a co-founder of the Skull and Bones Society at Yale and would later settle in Cincinnati. Each year during college, he would walk from West Townshend to Yale to undertake his studies. He decided to settle in Cincinnati, Ohio because he thought that New York was too corrupt. As a state court judge in Ohio, he authored a seminal legal opinion that helped define the separation of church and state in the United States. This position was so unpopular at the time that he was never able to successfully run for political office. In 1854, Alphonso and his second wife, Louise Torrey Taft, attended an antislavery convention held in Cincinnati, and they witnessed the oratorical genius of Frederick Douglas and Lucy Stone (An American Family: The Tafts 1678-1964, by Isabel Ross, The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1964, p. 23).
As Ross states it, “His own sympathies had always been strongly antislavery, and from the start he was opposed to any compromise” (Ross, An American Family, p. 36). Alphonso was one of the founders of the Republican Party and played a part in helping to get Abraham Lincoln’s elected. He served as Secretary of War and Attorney General, hired to help clean up the Grant Administration. He also served as ambassador to the Courts of Vienna, Austria, and to St. Petersburg, Russia.
From Robert DuGrenier, I learned of two books that were recently written about Clarina Howard Nichols. In one of them, Revolutionary Heart: The Life of Clarina Nichols and the Pioneering Crusade for Women’s Rights, by Diane Eickhoff (Quintaro Press, Kansas City, Kansas, 2006), I was dumbstruck to find a copy of the very phrenology head that Sammy Greenspan had chosen for the cover of The Lunatic Ball. This weird depiction of a human head had first appeared as a diagram on the cover of an 1859 phrenology handbook written by O.S. and L.N. Fowler, the two foremost phrenologists of the then incipient pseudoscientific movement.
From my readings about Clarina, I discovered that she was a colleague of Lydia Fowler, wife of L.N. Fowler. Lydia was also one of the first female medical doctors in America. Interestingly, at its beginning, phrenology was a progressive movement, but later became ossified and racist. In the early days, among those who had phrenology head examinations were Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Mann, Samuel Morse, and Clara Barton (Revolutionary Heart, p.85).
“At the core of phrenology was a belief that all people were created equal. Individuals who were found to have deficiencies could improve themselves with a series of simple physical exercises assigned by the phrenologist.” (Revolutionary Heart, p. 85).
When Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune and political activist, asked Clarina to canvass Wisconsin to help gain passage of a new temperance law, she and Lydia Foster decided to travel together. In their speeches during October and November of 1853, in forty-three towns, to more than 30,000 people, Foster would outline the medical reasons for temperance and Clarina would give examples from real life stories of the devastating effects of alcohol abuse that had become so pervasive. They would travel 900 miles and sometimes give two speeches a day (Frontier Feminist: Clarina Howard Nichols and the Politics of Motherhood, Marilyn S. Blackwell and Kristen T. Oertel, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2010, p. 133).
Clarina had firsthand knowledge of alcohol abuse since her first husband, Justin Carpenter, had been an abusive alcoholic. In order to get a divorce from him, she had to obtain an act of the Vermont Legislature. Since Justin died not long after their divorce, she was able to sidestep its insurmountable stigma by avoiding its mention and by simply telling people that her first husband had died. Except from the large U.S. cities, women had very rarely spoken in public. Without stopping, Nichols and Fowler traveled from town to town. Largely as a result of their efforts, Wisconsin adopted legislation giving women control of property and their own children when their husbands were shown to be uncontrolled alcoholics.
“In most places, standing-room-only crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of them. It was as good a show as the circus. People came in wagons from five to twenty miles to see the unusual sight—two women lecturing to what was then called a ‘promiscuous’ audience, one made up of men and women.” (Revolutionary Heart, p. 88).
By discovering the etiology of the cover of my chapbook The Lunatic Ball, I enlarged my small known world. Going back over 150 years, I experienced six degrees of separation through five generations by learning that the Fowlers, friends and colleagues of my first cousin five times removed, had first published on the cover of their popular phrenology handbook the very same head that Sammy Greenspan chose for my poetry chapbook, The Lunatic Ball. What began as an exploration of photographs of the 1905 U.S. diplomatic mission to Asia, morphed into the discovery of the previously hidden life of my great grandfather, Peter Rawson Taft, and that transported me to Clarnia Howard Nichols and the abolitionist interests of the townspeople in West Townshend, Vermont, where she and Alphonso Taft grew up. I was able to shed light on the background that laid the foundation for Alphonso Taft’s abolitionism in Cincinnati during his lifetime.
In 2019, CavanKerry Press published Margo Stever’s book, Cracked Piano, and Kattywompus Press published her chapbook, Ghost Moose. Her four other poetry collections are The Lunatic Ball, 2015; The Hudson Line, 2012; Frozen Spring, 2002; and Reading the Night Sky, 1996. Her poems have appeared widely in journals such as Verse Daily, upstreet; Plume, Blackbird; Salamander;” “poem-a-day” on poets.org; Cincinnati Review; Salamander; Prairie Schooner; New England Review; Poet Lore; West Branch; Seattle Review; and in numerous anthologies. She co-authored Looking East: William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Asia (Zhejiang University Press, 2012 and Orange Frazier Press, 2015) and created a traveling exhibition of “Looking East” photographs. She is the founder of the Hudson Valley Writers Center and the founding editor of Slapering Hol Press (www.margotaftstever.com).