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Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Susan B. Anthony Window In The Home Of Matilda Joslyn Gage

Copyright © 2012 Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
please visit The Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation

For seventeen years I visited, learned from and organized the papers of Matilda Jewell Gage, the granddaughter and namesake of Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose home at 520 South Kline Street in my hometown of Aberdeen, South Dakota contained a treasure trove of her grandmother’s history. Matilda Jewell Gage’s father, Thomas Clarkson (named for the famous English abolitionist) was the elder Matilda’s only son and her confidante. An only child, Matilda Jewell inherited her grandmother’s furniture, paintings, photographs, scrapbooks, manuscripts – published and unpublished, family documents and the wealth of letters her grandmother wrote to her father over the years – all of which he kept. When Matilda’s cousin Leslie, an only child who never married, passed on, Matilda received all of Leslie’s papers and family items as well. Beyond the family memorabilia, Matilda Jewell Gage inherited a deep and pressing family responsibility, to save these pieces of history that proved her grandmother’s historic importance, and her unjust removal from the memory of the woman’s rights movement.

Signature in the library window 
of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Home.
Although she received no formal training in historiography during her Northwestern University years, Matilda intuitively gravitated toward the highest standards of social science integrity. Michael Patrick Hearn, the biographer of L. Frank Baum who also visited Matilda over the years and I often marveled that she was what would be described as a perfect informant – one whose integrity of reporting is so high that you don’t require the needed minimum of three verifications of a fact. Matilda Jewell always refused to answer a question unless she was certain of the answer. Having not caught her in a factual error in the 17 years we worked together, I came to trust her implicitly, as did Michael.

When I received a research grant in 1976 from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I was working on my doctoral dissertation on Gage, to visit research libraries around the country that housed suffrage collections, the Onondaga Historical Society in Syracuse was on my agenda. “Be sure to visit the Gage Home and see the Susan B. Anthony window,” Matilda instructed me.

Author Sally Roesch Wagner and Matilda 
Jewell Gage on steps of Matilda Gage's 
Aberdeen, South Dakota home. Circa
1975. Photo from personal collection of
Matilda mentioned the window several times, including in this portion of one of my many taped interviews with her, when she said:

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage were working on the History of Woman Suffrage, they often came to the Gage home to work on this immense project.

As my father has mentioned, Grandmother’s library was on the second floor. Probably here some of the writing and organizing of the material to be put in the first two volumes of the History was accomplished.

The windows in this room faced west and the setting sun surveyed from here probably prompted Grandmother to name the home Sunset View. Perhaps Susan B. Anthony was contemplating this scene when she used her diamond ring to scratch her name on the upper pane of one of the windows. I have seen this signature at various times when I have been privileged to make a tour of the Gage home.

In that time of autograph hounds, getting the signature of an historic personage was a highly-coveted prize.  Famous people sometimes even scratched their names in window glass. The Edmond Wilson home in Talcottville is one example of the window-scratchings of historically significant people, preserved for posterity at the request of the home owner.

Matilda Jewell Gage, granddaughter 
and namesake of suffragist Matilda 
Joslyn Gage.  Circa 1970. Photo from 
personal collection of author.
When Matilda Joslyn Gage died in 1898, all of her children had moved West to Dakota; her youngest daughter Maud with her husband L. Frank Baum (who would author the Wonderful Wizard of Oz two years later) had moved on to  Chicago, where Matilda died. The family rented the Gage Home briefly, then sold it, sending all the contents to be divided among the children. The succession of owners carried on the tradition of the Susan B. Anthony window. When Michael Patrick Hearn visited the Gage Home in the 1960’s, the owner invited him to view the Susan B. Anthony window. Various newspaper stories about the Gage Home over the years refer to the Anthony window.

Matilda Joslyn Gage’s grandson, Frank Joslyn, who lived in the house during the summer of 1887 when he was a child, wrote in To Please a Child, the biography of his father he co-authored with Russell P. McFall, which was published by Reilly and Lee in 1961:

Miss Anthony was such a frequent visitor that one of the bedrooms was reserved for her use. In the course of her visit, she scratched her signature, with a diamond ring, in one window of the room. This is still preserved. (p. 45).

Frank Joslyn visited Fayetteville and Syracuse and brought some family items to be preserved at the Onondaga Historical Society. This is presumably when he visited the Gage Home and saw the Susan B. Anthony window still intact.

Three granddaughters of Matilda Joslyn 
Gage: (from left:) Magdalena Carpenter; 
Leslie Gage and Matilda Jewell Gage. Photo 
from Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. 
I dutifully visited the home during my research trip in the summer of 1976 (on my desk in the Gage Center today I have a photo of a young graduate student standing on the steps taken by Fayetteville/Manlius historian Barbara Rivette) and viewed the window. Etching your name in glass certainly cannot be an easy process, Barbara tried it, she said, and it’s very difficult to tell what you’ve written.  Nevertheless, I recognized Anthony’s distinctive “S” and “A” from the dozens of her letters that I had studied and transcribed in the course of writing my dissertation.

Confusing to me was a word that looked something like “Quincy” in the middle of the name. For years I have investigated whether Anthony may have had a pet name or nickname, known only to her intimates like Gage, but I have found nothing. This does not mean she didn’t have one; it simply means it’s unlikely, if there is no record of it. Brownell was her middle name, which she did not use in her signature or autographs. I have never figured it out.  Others have speculated over the years that it might be the signature of S. Quincy Wilkinson, who might have been related to Samuel J. May, or S. Quincy Williams, who worked in a tavern in Syracuse at one point. Certainly there were a number of folks with “Quincy” in their name living in the region during the 1854-1898 period that Gage lived in the home.  How likely is it that any of them would have been upstairs in the intimacy of her library and been asked to scratch their name in the window, starting a rumor that someone who we know spent time in the home, and worked with Matilda in the library, came to be credited with the window scratching?

Do we know absolutely that it is the signature of Susan B. Anthony? No. It is a theory, like gravity and evolution. The preponderance of evidence points toward it, but we cannot definitively prove it. We have the word of Gage’s son, passed down to his daughter and on to the biographers of Baum and Gage. Matilda Jewell Gage never questioned the Anthony window story of her father, who grew up in the house and never exhibited a penchant for fabricating truth any more than did his daughter.  We have the writing of Gage’s grandson, who lived in the home as a child and knew to look for the Susan B. Anthony window when he visited the house as an adult. And we have the circumstantial evidence, which is:

1. The first and most obvious criteria in determining the signature is establishing that the person was actually in the Gage Home.  Anthony was in the Gage Home – not once but repeatedly, as evidenced in her diary and the correspondence of both Anthony and Gage. Matilda Jewell Gage was correct; both Anthony and Stanton stayed in the Gage Home at various times during the time (1876-1886) that the three of them were working on the first three volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage. Anthony, a single woman, visited more often than Stanton as she traveled between the homes of the two married mothers who had family responsibilities, to work with Gage and Stanton on their co-edited History.

2. There is no documented evidence that either S. Quincy Wilkinson or S. Quincy Williams or any other Quincies were ever in the Gage Home. There is an abundance of evidence of other people visiting the home: friends, family, neighbors in the over 500 family letters and notes I’ve transcribed. If someone was a frequent visitor to the home, it is highly likely that there would be documented evidence of it.

3. We need to place the person in the library. The library was Gage’s personal domain. In a family with four children this writer, my research indicates, kept her library as a sanctuary where she could concentrate on her work. One day, for example, Thomas Clarkson stood at the door of the library, hesitating to disturb his mother as she was working, Matilda Jewell Gage told me. He had come to receive a punishment or reprimand for something he had done. Busy at work, she sent him away. Her solitude to write was more important than reminding her son of his wrong-doing. Further, the library was on the second floor of the home, where the bedrooms were. Gage would not have entertained guests in the library; that would have been done in the front parlor.  Work with acquaintances would have been done in the back parlor. The library was intimate space and presence there would have been limited only to intimates with whom she was working, like Stanton and Anthony. The only documented evidence that we have of a person actually being in the library working with Gage is Susan B. Anthony.

4. The person would almost certainly have been a woman. For a woman to entertain a gentleman in the upper chambers, the intimate, private space of the house, even someone with whom she was close and familiar and had business to conduct, like her attorney Nathan Chapman, would have crossed a social boundary so deep and unconscious, that even a political iconoclast like Gage, would not have been likely to cross it.

5. She would have needed to have been involved in some joint project or work with this intimate female friend, some reason for the person to be in the library.

6. There would need to be a motive for asking the person to place their name as a permanent document in the window. If this person did not have historic importance, it is unlikely that Gage would have asked them to etch their name permanently in her private, intimate space. If visitors to the home were generally invited to scratch their names, there would be windows full of names, which there aren’t. This was a one-time, unique occurrence. For a purposeful woman like Gage, there would have had to be a reason for it.

Using these standards, the preponderance of evidence points to the accuracy of the family story of the Susan B. Anthony window.

Earlier this year I unsuccessfully requested that History Detectives investigate the window and establish its authenticity. Someday, perhaps, we could bring in a handwriting analyst to give us an opinion. Until then, the historic Matilda Joslyn Gage Home in Fayetteville, New York, boasts the only window in existence where Susan B. Anthony scratched her name. The Gage Home, owned and restored by the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, is now a museum and center for dialogue on the work toward which Gage dedicated her life:  social justice for women, African and Native Americans and all. Gage’s library, where Anthony scratched her name, is being created as the Matilda Joslyn Gage research library.

Sally Roesch Wagner is the Executive Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation ( and Adjunct Faculty in the Honors Program at Syracuse University.  One of the first women to receive a doctorate for work in women’s studies, she is a founder of the third program established in the country.

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Sally! Thanks for writing this--we love hearing not only Matilda Joslyn Gage history, but also the story of how her memory was preserved and brought back through your work. It's important to have it documented so that we know how close women came to losing a vital part of their heritage.

    If we apply the Wellman Scale to the Anthony window,* I think it would rate a Level 4 out of 5, Story Almost Certainly True--Considerable Evidence. To achieve a Level 5, Conclusive Evidence, someone would have to uncover a reference to the actual scratching of the window or a strong link between Susan B. Anthony and the name "Quincy". This may happen someday, but in the meantime, if a Level 4 in Underground Railroad evidence was enough for the National Park Service and the State of New York to declare the Gage Home an official underground railroad site, then to me a Level 4 is enough to declare this signature almost certainly that of Susan B. Anthony.

    Sue Boland
    Matilda Joslyn Gage Center
    Fayetteville, New York

    *The Wellman Scale, developed by Dr. Judy Wellman, is used to evaluate the authenticity of underground railroad sites. See