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Lowell Stories: Women's History

Lydia Sears Hall (1816-1890)


Image 1. Washington, D.C., August 1865. Patients in Ward K, Armory Square Hospital Library of Congress 


Lydia Sears Hall (1816-1890) born in New Sharon, Maine, daughter of Hezekiah Hall and Mary Hawes. About 1838, Hall arrived in Lowell to work in Lowell’s textile mills. Although working 11-12 hour days, she loved to write and contributed stories and poems (under the name Adelaide) to The Operative's Magazine (1841), a small journal of writings by young working women. In the early 1840s, The Operative's Magazine merged with The Lowell Offering.
The Lowell Offering (1840-1845) was written and published by working women in Lowell. This monthly literary magazine was originally organized by the Rev. Abel Charles Thomas (1807-1880) pastor of the First Universalist Church. From October 1840 to March 1841, it consisted of articles that emerged from many of the improvement circles or literary societies. Later, it broadened in scope and received more spontaneous contributions. From October 1842 until December 1845, it was edited by Harriot F. Curtis (1813-1889), and Harriet Farley (1817-1907).
One of the contributors, Harriet Hanson (m: Robinson) commented in her autobiography “Loom and Spindle” (1898.) about her colleague Lydia S. Hall:
“‘The Tomb of Washington,’ first printed in No. 1 of the first series of The Offering, was thought to be a wonderful production, and was widely copied. She also wrote for that publication ‘Old Ironsides,’ a poem widely read and quoted…”
“In ‘border-ruffian’ days Miss Hall lived in Kansas, and was an owner of considerable real estate. She lived on the line of emigration, was hostess of a sort of ‘Wayside Inn,’ and was sometimes obliged to keep the peace among the lawless men who infested that part of the country. She would have no quarrelling, drinking, or gambling on her premises. She was well able to enforce these regulations, being a woman of great courage and most commanding presence.”
In 1845, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, supported by John Street Congregational Church, Lowell, sent Lydia Hall and Harriet N. Keyes to teach in a Choctaw School, Kansas. After a few years, Hall became disillusioned and sick over the experience for the Choctaw’s owned slaves. She returned to Lowell and taught in the Lowell School System.
When the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854, residents of each territory would vote to determine if the newly created states would allow or prohibit slavery within its boundaries. It was assumed that Nebraska would not allow slavery and the Kansas would allow slavery. Abolitionists in the northeast became determined to keep Kansas from becoming a slave state. They organized the New England Emigrant Aid Company to encourage antislavery supporters to move to Kansas. John Nesmith of Lowell was a major investor. Hall moved to Lawrence, Kansas in 1855, where she kept a boardinghouse with Mrs. Clarissa Hurd, also from Lowell. In 1856, a proslavery mob attacked Lawrence and destroyed the company's Free State Hotel, as well as the Hall and Hurd Boardinghouse. This event, plus news of escalating violence in the territory, aroused northern sympathy and led to the formation of other aid societies providing assistance to the territory. In January 1861, Kansas was admitted into the Union as a Free State.

About this time, Hall returned to New England and when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, went to Washington, DC and served as a nurse in the Washington Military Hospital. After the Civil War, Hall continued to reside in Washington, where she developed several inventions approved by the US Patent Office.

Image 2: "Lady clerks leaving the Treasury Department at Washington," A. R. Waud (1828-1891). Harper's Weekly February 13, 1865.


In “Revolution Newspaper” by Susan B. Anthony, December 16, 1871:
“Miss Lydia S. Hall, who is now acting U.S. Treasurer in the absence of the male chief (Francis Elias Spinner) was once a Lowell factory-girl, and was a contributor to “The Lowell Offering” … Meeting with some misfortune with regard to titles of property, she went to Washington, and has a clerkship in the Treasury Department since, being also engaged in studying law in order to enable her to secure her property rights in Kansas … She is a lady of great versatility of talent, and would fill a higher position than the one she now occupies with credit.” 
In 1871, the new National University Law School (now Georgetown University) opened its doors to men and women. Lydia S. Hall and Belva Ann Lockwood graduated from the National University Law School – the school’s first female graduates.
"On April 20, 1871, a number of women headed out to their Washington, DC precincts, hoping to join local men in voting for the District’s delegate to Congress and member of D.C.’s governing council. Belva Lockwood went to her polling place in the 12th District. The presiding official would not take her ballot but she stayed long enough to deliver a speech in support of women’s rights.
"As agreed among the women at their earlier meeting, she departed after saying, 'I have done my duty.' She then accompanied her friend Lydia S. Hall to the 15th District, where her ballot was also refused. The following day the “National Republican Newspaper” praised the citizens of Washington for the chivalry that they showed in the face of “the unwomanly conduct of the applicants,” whose action, wrote the editor, had been premeditated, 'with the avowed object of testing in a court of law, the right to vote.'”
After graduation, Lydia Hall married Isaiah Graffam in April 1872, Washington, DC and they then moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There Isaiah Graffam became ill and was hospitalized, where he died in November 1888. Lydia Hall Graffam moved to Newton in 1880, where she died in February 1890.
Author, Editor, Teacher, Businesswoman, Nurse, Inventor, US Treasurer, Lawyer, and early Suffragette - Lydia Sears Hall’s passions and determination pushed the envelope, broke barriers, and cracked the glass ceiling.

Related Resources

Norgren, Jill. Belva Lockwood : The Woman Who Would Be President. New York University Press, 2007. (Forward by US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg)