Willis, Frederick Llewellyn Hovey (1830-1914)
Personal and Family Papers of Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis, Unitarian minister, Medical Doctor, Author and Lecturer, resident for many years in the home of the Alcotts, and model for the character “Laurie” in Little Women, friend of Louisa May Alcott and the Transcendentalists – Amos Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, et al, and his wife Love Whitcomb Willis, materials dated 1806-1959

Large archive, housed in six cartons, pertaining to Frederick L. H. Willis, his wife and family, including an extensive collection of Correspondence (256 letters, 889 pp); with 16 Diaries, Journals, and Notebooks, (over 1200 pp); including an 1854-1855 Journal recording a trip from Boston to Brazil, with a stop in Virginia, in which Willis records his impressions of Slavery and interactions with African American slaves; plus over 5,000 manuscript pages of lectures, sermons, and other writings; and over 300 Photographs (mostly in albums); manuscript and typescript accounts of Willis’ life with the Alcotts, and recollections of Louisa and Bronson Alcott, also included are 4 Scrapbooks; 30 Books and Pamphlets; plus other manuscript and printed Ephemera, all of which pertains to either Dr. Frederick Lewellyn Hovey Willis, his wife author Love Marie Whitcomb Willis, their daughter author and poet Edith L. Willis Linn, his in-laws Henry Whitcomb and Love Foster Whitcomb, other family and friends; including associates such as Harrison Gray Otis Blake and Theophilus Brown, both friends, correspondents, and promoters of Henry David Thoreau; as well as relatives and friends of Louisa May Alcott: Alcott’s nephew and adopted son John Sewell Pratt Alcott, and her girlhood friend and early biographer Clara Gowing; plus Clara Endicott Sears purchaser and preservationist of “Fruitlands” the Alcott’s failed Utopian community; and others, all dated from 1806 to 1959, with the bulk dating from the 1840s to the 1910s.

$ 25,000.00 | Contact Us >

The archive comprises the surviving papers of Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis, Unitarian minister, medical doctor, lecturer and writer, who as a young man boarded and lived with the Alcott family, from 1844-1854, and who, according to none other than Bronson Alcott1, Louisa’s father, was the model for the character “Laurie” in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Willis was an orphan, and as he later discovered, was also a distant cousin of the Alcott’s. Willis wrote, in his posthumously published Alcott Memoirs, 1915, describing a tragic loss for American literary history: “From my matriculative year at Harvard, until shortly before my marriage, I maintained a correspondence with Louisa. It is a matter of deep regret to me that, together with many papers of value, her letters, which were among my most valued treasures were stolen…” Willis played an important role in Louisa May Alcott’s literary development, he was the one who secured publication for Alcott’s first poem, by privately submitting the manuscript of “Sunlight” written under the pseudonym Flora Fairfield, to Peterson’s Magazine. The magazine paid Louisa $ 5 and published the poem in September 1851. It was the first money Louisa May Alcott earned as a writer. The character Laurie in Little Women fills a similar role. The Alcotts likewise were an important influence upon Willis’ life as well.

      Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis (1830-1914)


Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis was born on 29 January 1830, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Throughout his life he appears not to have used the name Frederick, preferring Llewellyn. Llewellyn was the only child of prosperous Massachusetts merchant Lorenzo Dow Willis (1805-?) and his wife Eleanor Hovey (1807-1830). Lorenzo was the cousin of Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), an American author, poet and editor who worked with several notable American writers including Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Nathaniel became the highest-paid magazine writer of his day.


Llewellyn’s parents married on 11 June 1829, at Cambridge. Since Mrs. Willis had her first baby in January 1830, it’s likely she may have already been pregnant when she married Lorenzo. While Lorenzo was a successful merchant, but his business partner was unscrupulous and absconded with the funds of their enterprise, leaving Lorenzo to be thrown into debtor’s prison. While Lorenzo’s wife Eleanor had several wealthy brothers, who could have easily helped her husband to get out of debtor’s prison, they refused. The Hovey family were not supportive of Lorenzo’s marriage to Eleanor, as Lorenzo was rather liberal in his religion and the Hovey’s were strict Baptists. However, even without the Hovey family help, Lorenzo was able to get out of prison in time to see the birth of his son Llewellyn.


Llewellyn’s mother Eleanor Hovey was born in 1807 in Cambridge and died on 2 February 1830, several days after giving birth to him. She was the daughter of Ebenezer Hovey (1769-1831) of Lunenburg, Massachusetts and his wife Sarah Greenwood (1771- ), of Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She was one of at least twelve children born to her parents.


After the death of his mother, Llewellyn was brought up by his grandmother, Sarah Greenwood Hovey, originally of Salem, Massachusetts, but then living in Cambridge. Her father was Colonel Darby of Salem, a famous trader in his day. The Hovey household was said to be one of extreme bigotry. Sarah’s husband Ebenezer was one of the founders of the Baptist Church of Cambridge.  At an early point Llewellyn was given to a mother of twins by his grandparents, who acted as a wet nurse when he was an infant. When he was old enough to be weaned, he lived with his maternal grandparents, as his father Lorenzo had also died, leaving Llewellyn an orphan. The grandparents sent him to an old woman in the country, where Llewellyn first became aware of his love of nature.


At a young age Llewellyn was brought back to Cambridge to live with his maternal grandparents, where he was to be prepared for school in a very strict religious household. Boxes of his father’s books were stowed in the attic of the home and Llewellyn would sneak away to read, as works of literature and politics were forbidden in the house.


Llewellyn began his education in the public schools of Cambridge and was later apprenticed to an apothecary. When he was seven years old, he “got religion” in the old-fashioned sense. He tried his best to be a devout Baptist and please his grandparents but was not successful. At the age of twelve, because of his disbelief in foreordination, he was expelled from church as a heretic. His grandfather, being a founder of the church, felt compelled to expel Llewellyn from their home, however they did help him to seek lodging elsewhere.


Two years later, in 1844, a chance meeting with Mrs. Abigail "Abba" Alcott (1800-1877), changed Llewellyn’s life; Abba was the mother of American writer Louisa Alcott (1832-1888), and the wife of Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), an American teacher, writer, philosopher, and reformer. As an educator, he pioneered new ways of interacting with young students, focusing on a conversational style, and avoided traditional punishment. He hoped to perfect the human spirit and, to that end, advocated a vegan diet before the term was coined. He was also an abolitionist and an advocate for women's rights.


In early June of 1844, at the age of fourteen, Llewellyn was on a stagecoach ride from Boston to Still River Village in the town of Harvard. During the trip one of his fingers got caught in the door as it was closing causing such intense pain that he passed out. When he awoke, Mrs. Abba Alcott, was attending to him. A friendship was struck up and she took him to her home and introduced him to her four young daughters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May (later immortalized as Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in Louisa Alcott’s “Little Women.”).


The very next day Llewellyn visited the Alcott family again, and within a week he convinced his grandmother to allow him to change his boarding to the Alcott home, where from the age of fourteen until he was twenty-four years old, he became an intimate member of the Alcott family, as a friend, boarder and guest in their home. It is said that he was loved as a son by Amos Bronson Alcott and his wife, and was for a number of years the only boy playmate of Louisa Alcott and her sisters, with the single exception of William, son of Charles Lane (1800–1870), an English-American transcendentalist, abolitionist, and early voluntarist, who along with Amos Bronson Alcott, was one of the main founders of Fruitlands and, like Alcott, a vegan. Through the Alcotts Willis met Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Hawthorne, Lydia Maria Child, all of the principal Abolitionists, Phillips, Pillsbury, Parker, Grimke, Weld, Horace Mann, Abbie Kelley Foster, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone, he also met  Thomas Starr King, whom he served as an amanuensis for a time. Willis fell under the influence of Bronson Alcott’s philosophy and became a disciple, and which later found expression in his sermons.

      Willis lived in the Alcott home at Still River Village in the latter half of 1844, and was with them again when they moved to “Hillside” at Concord from 1845 to 1848 (called “Wayside” by Nathaniel Hawthorne), and still later when they moved to Boston in 1848 into the 1850s when they lived at the Pinckney and High Street houses. He continued to live with them as he prepared for Harvard College. It was during his time of preparation that Willis acted as amanuensis for Thomas Starr King (1824-1864), an American Universalist and Unitarian minister, influential in California politics during the American Civil War. King spoke zealously in favor of the Union and was credited by Abraham Lincoln with preventing California from becoming a separate republic.

Willis’ description of the Alcott home in his own book, Alcott Memoirs, mirrors the way Louisa immersed her character Laurie into the life of the March family in Little Women. Laurie, the March family’s neighbor, it will be remembered, had also lost his mother.

Amos Bronson Alcott was at this time (March 1853) invited to teach a group of fifteen students at Harvard’s Divinity School in an extracurricular, non-credit course. Willis may have attended or audited the course. Llewellyn also appears to have begun his studies at Harvard Divinity School at about this time. Willis undertook a sea voyage from Boston to Brazil from September 1854 to April 1855, so the chronology of his entrance to Harvard is unclear. However, Willis was later suspended from Harvard in 1857 for mediumistic activities (conducting seances). The case of his suspension is narrated by Emma Hardinge Britten in her book “Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years’ Record of the Communion between Earth and the World of Spirits” (New York: 1870). Prof. Eustis, an openly avowed sceptic of Spiritualism, sat in on one of the seances of Willis and afterwards accused Willis of “deception and imposture”. Harvard wanted Willis to resign from his studies until the matter was investigated further, and a decision was considered that would not have an official record of the incident. However, Willis objected, demanding to be allowed to continue his studies, which led to Harvard suspending him.


Soon after his suspension from Harvard, Willis was invited to Coldwater, Michigan, by Henry C. Gilbert who had recently established a Spiritualist church in Coldwater, and personally invited Willis to be the new minister.  Willis, in his Alcott Memoirs, described himself as a “settled clergyman for a period of six years in Coldwater, Michigan,” and his daughter described her father as a Universalist minister. However, it appears that Willis had continued practicing Spiritualism.


Willis married Love Maria Whitcomb on 8 October 1858. The couple were married at Hancock, New Hampshire, by the Rev. Asahel Bigelow. At the time of his marriage Willis was living in Coldwater, Michigan and was listed as a preacher.


Love Maria Whitcomb was born 9 June 1824, in Hancock, New Hampshire. When she married in 1858, she was living at home in Hancock and was six years older than her husband. She was the daughter of Henry Whitcomb (1787-1831) and Love Foster (1789-1873) his wife, both originally from Littleton, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Willis’ wife Love was an early member of “Sorosis” (est. March 1868 at New York City), the first professional women's club in the United States, being a member of the club by at least the year 1872, when she is found listed in the 4th Anniversary Program of the organization.


At some point after his marriage in the early 1860s, Willis appears to have stopped being a preacher, and to have attended medical school in New York City at the New York Homeopathic Medical College. At an event advertised in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY) on 22 May 1912, it stated Willis was a member of the Alumni Association of the school. A memoir of the Alcott family written by Willis states he started medical school in New York City at the outbreak of the Civil War (1861). An advertisement (New York Daily Herald) of 12 March 1864, shows that Willis spoke at the Clinton Hall, Astor Place in New York City, every Sunday morning and evening. That week’s subject was “What and Where is God?” and “The Significance of Life.” The meetings were free to all, thus while attending medical school, he was still giving lectures, or preaching.


For five years Willis was a Professor of Materia-Medica at the New York Homoeopathic Medical College for Women. He later practiced medicine in New York, Boston, and at his summer home in Glenora, New York, on Seneca Lake. The Willis family is found on the 1875 NY State Census and the 1880 Federal Census, Llewellyn is listed as a physician in Starkey, Yates County, New York and enumerated with his wife Love, and daughter Edith. The 1900 Federal Census shows that Willis and his wife were still living in Starkey, Yates County, New York; and that his daughter Edith, now married had moved out. Willis at 70 years of age, was listed without an occupation, although he was said to have practiced medicine until he was eighty-three years old. The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, NY) advertised on 16 January 1900, that “Dr. Frederick L.H. Willis of Rochester, formerly of Boston, has arranged to give a course of parlor lectures on ‘Metaphysics or the Science of the Human Soul.’  When the 1905 New York State Census was taken the couple was still in Starkey and Willis was listed as a physician.


Frederick’s wife, Love Willis, died 26 November 1908, in Elmira, Chemung County, New York and was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York.


In a newspaper story published in the Boston Globe of 16 November 1912, Willis wrote a letter to the Buffalo Express, claiming to have documentary evidence in the form of letters written by Louisa Alcott to him to prove his claim that he was the model for Laurie, the character in “Little Women.” The same article goes on to state that Willis took the first manuscript of Alcott’s to get published; it was titled “The Prince and the Fairy.” He took it to the Boston Olive Branch, a publication of a Methodist denomination, and was paid $5.00. However, other accounts state that the first manuscript published was Alcott’s poem “Sunlight”.  At some point between 1912 and the publication of Willis’ Alcott Memoirs in 1915, Willis’ “correspondence and other important papers” were stolen. These papers have not surfaced since that time. From The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott we learn that Louisa May Alcott began corresponding with Willis as early as 1845 (see p. 3). This fact offers a hint at the extent of the correspondence, as well as the loss. It is possible that the publication of this story may have led to the theft of the Alcott-Willis correspondence.


Dr. Willis died at his home in Rochester on 12 April 1914. His obituary states that through his relationship with the Alcott family, he became intimate friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Charles A. Dana, George William Curtis, Frank B. Sandborn, and other literary lights of New England. Willis’ memoirs of the Alcotts et al, were published after his death by his daughter Edith as “Alcott Memoirs: Posthumously Compiled from Papers Journals and Memoranda of the Late Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis,” by E.W.L. & H.B. The book was published by Richard G. Badger of Boston in 1915.


Willis and his wife Love had a daughter named Edith L. Willis. Edith was born about 1865, in New York; and died 1 October 1945, in Starkey, Yates County, New York. She was supposedly cremated, the location of ashes unknown, possibly at Mt. Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York with her first husband, or in Riverside Cemetery, Rochester, where her second husband is apparently buried. She was a prolific authoress; poet; artist; and musician, co-edited her father's memoirs of his acquaintance with the family of Bronson Alcott his daughter Louisa May, authoress of "Little Women".


Edith was married twice; her first marriage was to Samuel H. Linn. He was born on 26 September 1843, at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and died 26 February 1916, at Rochester, New York. He was buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester. He was the son of Hugh William Linn (1818-1900) and his wife Mary Chadwick (1818-1907). Samuel served in the Civil War and was one of the squads acting as guards of honor for President Lincoln's funeral. Linn enrolled in dentistry school after the war and after a few years transferred practice to Europe, along with younger brother Benjamin, where he eventually settled in Leningrad, Russia, where after successfully performing a chin lift on a member of the Imperial family, he was asked by Tsar Alexander III to serve as personal dentist of the Romanoffs. After eight years of service he went to study medicine in Vienna; London; Paris; and the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his degree. Returning to Russia, he spent another eight years as court physician. He returned to the United States around 1886, married Edith Willis and settled in Rochester, but remained close to the Russian royal family, (Grand Duke Alexis was a close friend), which gave him numerous gifts: including a Russian carriage and driver which he kept in Rochester.

Edith and Samuel Linn had a son by the name of Benjamin F. Linn. He was born 29 April 1889 and died 1923. He was buried with this father at Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester.

As her second husband, Edith Willis married George Mathes Forbes.


        High Lights from the Collection:

              The Willis collection includes manuscript drafts for chapters of his Alcott Memoirs, (Alcott as Abolitionist, Fruitlands, Alcott the Philosopher, etc.) as well as manuscript reminiscences on Bronson Alcott and the Alcott family, including the Alcott sisters. Willis also wrote favorably in support of Women’s Rights and Women’s Suffrage, there are also manuscript accounts of notable people he met through the Alcotts. The collection includes a manuscript entitled “Mr. Alcott as a Prophet”, which was not included in his Alcott Memoirs. This manuscript was likely intended as a chapter in his book but was not used. The work contains further recollections of Bronson Alcott and of his lasting influence upon Willis.

                The sections that we quote from are either not in his published work or contains text that differs from the posthumously published work, edited by his daughter.

                 The following manuscript, entitled: “The Four Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, offers a reminiscent account by Willis of the Alcott sisters, and differs substantially from the chapter Louisa and Her Sisters, in his Alcott Memoirs. In the account he uses the names of the sisters that Louisa gave them in her book:

             “Anna Bronson – Meg – was the eldest of the four. She had the clear, beautiful complexion of her father – pink     and white as an infant’s, with large, lovely blue eyes and golden brown hair. I sued to call her our “ox eyed Juno”. She had a charming smile that revealed teeth like pearls of the orient. She possessed a quiet, even temperament and a remarkably amiable disposition, with a keen sense of humor, and a quiet enjoyment of fun and frolic.

              Both of the older sisters had a good degree of dramatic talent. Meg would have made a fine tragic actress, and Jo an equally fine comedienne. They were never happier than when getting up private theatricals.

             While yet quite young, Meg manifested a great deal of her father’s quiet dignity of manner, blended with much of her mother’s vivacity, practicality, and hopefulness of spirit. Mr. Alcott was stately and dignified in his bearing, and manners and in all his movements. I cannot remember ever seeing him make a quick or hasty movement. This was so apparent in him – so very marked, that it attracted the attention of a young Englishman, who bore the euphonious name of Cholmondeley. He was the descendant of an aristocratic old family – the nephew of a lord. He became so interested in Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau, whose fame had reached England, that he visited this country, especially to make a study of their characters.

              While engaged in this interesting pursuit, he boarded in Concord for some time with Thoreau’s mother, and became greatly attached to Thoreau, and greatly interested in Alcott. He had learned of his humble parentage, that he was the son of a plain Connecticut farmer, that he was not liberally educated, and that he began public life as a travelling pedlar.

               These facts he could not reconcile with the marked dignity, repose and even elegance of manner, and bearing of this gentle philosopher he exclaimed: “How is it possible! He has the manner and bearing of a grand peer!” This was the highest compliment that a scion of the British nobility could pay to a plain American citizen.

               As regards temperament, no contrast could be greater than that which existed between Meg and Jo. Meg was serene, self-poised equable. Jo was impulsive, impetuous, subject to moods. In almost every respect she was just the opposite of Meg. And yet the affection that existed between the two sisters was never ruffled even by Jo’s most irritable moods. It was truly the harmony of opposites, and was beautiful to behold.

               Meg was all that Louisa represents her to have been in “Little Women”, ever pursuing the even tenor of her way with all the regularity of the pendulum of a clock, ever  most unselfishly devoting herself to the efforts for the comfort and happiness of those around her, and doing it all in so quiet and unostentatious a manner one would hardly suspect she was making any effort at all in that direction. The chief charm of it all was its spontaneity.

                 She had a keen sense of the proprieties of life – the conventionalities. Jo did not care a snap of her fingers for them. She had as sovereign a contempt for them as had Thoreau. (Willis then gives a lengthy quote from Little Women, Vol. 1 page 9, illustrating his point, that he expresses in another section that “Louisa always lamented that she was not a boy…”) 

                As Jo and I sympathized most heartily in this direction, we became excellently good comrades, and were constantly daring each other with stunts that were decidedly “boyish” in their characteristics, such as climbing the tallest trees, running foot races and hoop races, climbing fences, jumping, leaping, etc. Jo entered into these bouts with a zeal, and a vim that was truly inspiring and which put me to my trumps most decidedly. As a rule, the honors were pretty equally divided. I can recall but one feat in which I decidedly had the advantage for a time, and that was in leaping a fence or a horizontal bar, in which she was sadly hampered by her skirts, but she soon triumphed over that obstacle by improvising a pre-historical Bloomer costume. These exploits often called forth a little lecture from the dignified Meg. – “preachments”, Louisa called them, but they were delivered in such a quaint, sweet, motherly sort of a way it was rather a pleasure, than otherwise to be rebuked by her.

            Meg married John Pratt, who was the son of Minot Pratt, who was one of the most esteemed members of the famous Brook Farm Phalanx, one of the earliest pioneers of the communist movement in this country. By profession he was a printer, and for several years held a position as foreman in the office of the Christian Register in Boston. Early in the forties he and his wife became deeply interested in the communistic ideas of Fourier and Robert Owen. …” (Willis then relates the involvement of the Pratts with Brook Farm and the Communistic movement, labor reforms, etc).

        Willis provides another recollection of Louisa:     

               “Louisa always lamented that she was not a boy, and she endeavored to be one to the utmost extent that the physiological laws of being would admit. She dearly loved boy’s games. She could leap a fence and climb a tree as well as I could, and we found our way into the topmost branches of the tall trees at Hillside. She was the most beautiful girl runner I ever saw. We were fond of contests in rope skipping to see which could hold out the longest in that vigorous exercise. We had many races, too, with our hoops, which we especially enjoyed.

              In the berry season, our expeditions to the berry pasture were about twice a week and a great source of delight. In those days the commercial spirit had not attained the tremendous grip which it holds today on all branches of industry, and the meadows and pastures, with their rich fruitage of huckleberries, blue berries and black berries, were free to all for the picking, no toll ever being demanded by the owners of the ground.

              We took special pains to take along pails and baskets as nearly equal in their holdings as possible, for we had most exciting contests as to which could fill the pail quicker.

              I remember one day we were close by Louisa. We had been pressing each other very closely in the contest as to which pail would be filled first, when my foot stumbled over some impediment and I measured my length upon the ground in such a manner that my clothing was richly ornamented with berry stains. Louisa, who always saw the ludicrous side of everything, said, “You look like a huckleberry rollypolly.”

              I remember as I went down, in my despair over my defeat in getting ahead of Louisa, I allowed a vulgar word to escape my lips. From my earliest recollection of myself I had never before permitted such a misdemeanor. Any approach toward vulgarity or profanity repelled me at once, and I had no future use for the boys who did use it. As the word escaped my lips, I looked into Louisa’s face and saw thereon an expression I have never forgotten. She said nothing, but there was a lesson in that look which lasted me for a long time.

            The entire party generously joined in filling my pail, and despite my mishap, we wended our way home, a merry, joyful party, soon to revel in dear “Marmee’s” delicious berry pies, puddings and cakes.”

               The following manuscript by Willis recollects one of Bronson Alcott’s Sunday ‘Table Talks’, which had a lasting influence on Willis and which contains a distillation of Alcott’s philosophy and Transcendentalism:

         “One of the earliest of Mr. Alcotts Table Talks made so profound an impression upon my mind that I have retained a vivid memory of it ever since. It was strikingly unlike anything to which I had ever listened. It began thus: -

              Nothing can be more self-evident than the fact that we who dwell upon this planet Earth are dependent upon its laws for our existence.

              The plant that grows in our garden is not more dependent upon the soil than are we upon our union with matter. The physical requirements that ally us to humanity making us at one with all mankind are the necessities of our earthly origin. Could we imagine a being not dependent on food or air for existence we could not recognize him as kindred with ourselves.

             Many of us sigh for an Elixir of Life that we may feel no more the pressure of toil and anxiety that precedes harvest and vintage; but the burden is upon us all. Cruel and irksome as the chain may seem at times that binds our necessities to matter, yet it holds us all and compels our servitude. The fact that we are mortal is a lesson that is daily repeated to our consciousness. If we choose to forget it in our exalted moods Nature forces our conclusions and compels us to remember that in one department of our being we are but dust.

               We find however, that the plants that grow in our garden are allied to something besides the soil. From whence come the wondrous colors that reflect the golden glory of the morning, or the exquisite tints of the sunset hour? The light through its electric and magnetic power feeds the tissues with its combined essences, and they vibrate in unison with the vibrations of light and there is bloom and beauty, as well as form and substance.

              The rose attracts by its own individual life, just such sustenance as shall develop its own individual beauty; it will have no other. It presents to us its Auroral blush because it retains in its cup all the other rays giving forth the red-tinted ones only. Tell me why one rose is red, another close by it is white, still another pink or by what power each give forth from its delicate petals its own individual rays, and you can go far toward telling me what God is.

              We can not fail to see that even our garden is full of individual life. Everything in it – even the minutest weed – has its own individual life. By no possible effort can we make a maple tree grow from the seed of an elm, and thus we find that life is something more than more than matter, and even its most insignificant form can reveal to us divine order, grace and beauty.

             And yet, although the material realm of Nature, holds each one of us in bondage to her inexorable laws, something whispers to our consciousness that we are outside of it all, that there is something within us that is above mere matter. We are conscious of desires, of longings and cravings that are beyond our appetites. Even in the commonest acts of life we know that we are seeking something besides that which is purely sensuous. Closely as the chain of our earthly necessities holds us and compels our servitude, yet we feel a higher power claiming also its service.

             The food we eat today becomes our power of thought tomorrow, and we feel the compulsion of a sphere that closely touches our sensuous sphere of thought and feeling.

              Science, of late years, has been performing many most beautiful and most interesting experiments, has elaborated many poetic theories showing how thought rises out of matter, how brain-force is evolved from crude, coarse material. How the food we eat becomes blood and muscle, and electric nerve-force and magnetic life culminating in thought.

              How few of us realise the grandeur of the simple, common place act of eating. How few sit down to a meal as if it were a solemn sacrament through which we are daily enacting within ourselves the beautiful miracle of Divine Humanity. Our spiritual life is continually being drawn out of – evolved from – the material life by the one law of motion, which is attraction. Our forces are being continually used to outwork the divine.

               The simple process of thought is the god-like power in man. Hence is it not immensely important that we should select our food from a higher stand-point than that of mere gratification of the palate?

              Let no one think that that the above is a verbatim report of this talk of Mr. Alcotts it is an embodiment in my own language of some of its cardinal points that made a profound impression upon my young mind because of their utter dissimilarity to anything I had ever before heard. I had never dreamed that one of the most commonplace events of our daily life – the eating of three meals a day – had any relevancy whatever to high spiritual truths or any other object than satisfying the demands of hunger.

             So late as 1894 I was delivering a course of parlor lectures in St. Louis, Mo. On the Relation of Spiritual Laws to Every Day Life. In the midst of one of my lectures there came floating into my mind several of the points made by Mr. Alcott in the above talk, and I made use of them crediting them to him. This brought out the – to me – very interesting fact that in my audience were several persons who listened to Mr. Alcott’s talks on his first experimental trip to the West more than half a century before. When they learned that I had been so intimately associated with the family in my youth, they insisted upon my giving them an evening especially devoted to recollections of them, and some of their distinguished Concord friends.”


               The manuscript “Mr. Alcott as a Prophet” contains recollections of the Alcott’s not included in Willis’ published memoir. Willis also relates the extent to which his association with Bronson Alcott influenced the course of his own thought and later life.

              “The germ of the gift of prophecy lies in every human soul. It is one of those spiritual gifts that the great Apostle of Christianity commanded his disciples, and followers to covet earnestly…

                Spirituality, Patriotism, Liberty can make no high revelations of themselves to a selfish soul. It is only when a man realizes that divine sense of the destiny of the world that comes from a profound conviction that it is God’s world, and feels the unselfish love of his soul going out to all mankind, that he can be called in the highest sense a Reformer, a Patriot, or a true lover of Liberty. Soul-liberty means freedom from the slavery of selfishness, of personal aggrandizement, and of wrong in all its forms, and such a man pre-eminently was Amos Bronson Alcott. …

             As children we had many proofs of Mr. Alcott’s possession of the gifts of seership that filled us with wonder, and surprise. I remember on one occasion I went up to Concord to pass Christmas with them. It was a bitter cold season and they were rather short of wood – had barely enough to carry them over Sunday. I think this was on Friday. A bitter cold storm was raging. There came a rap at the door, and an opening it, there stood a poor child illy clad to beg a little wood, for the baby was sick, and the father was on a drunken spree. I will give the story in Louisa’s words written to a mutual friend “My mother hesitated at first as we also had a baby. Very cold weather was upon us, and a Sunday to be gotten through before more wood could be had. My father said, “Give half our stock, and trust in Providence; the weather will moderate, or wood will come”. Mother laughed, and answered in her cheery way, “Well, their need is greater than ours, and if our half gives out we can go to bed and tell stories”. So a generous half went to the poor neighbor, and a little later while the storm still raged and we were about to cover our fire to keep it, a knock came, and a farmer who usually supplied us with wood appeared, saying anxiously, “I started for Boston with a load of wood, but it drifts so I want to go home. Wouldn’t you like to have me drop the wood here? It would accommodate me, and you needn’t hurry about paying for it.” “Yes.” Said Father, and as the man went off, he turned to Mother with a look that much impressed us children with his gifts as a seer, “Didn’t I tell you wood would come if the weather did not moderate?”

               After the tragical termination of the Anthony Burns affair he wrote in his journal the following prophecy. “In the evening I read the New York ‘Tribune’. Alas for poor Hungary! But the Demon has sway some quarter century longer, - then to lay himself fairly, and give Liberty full scope and prevailing.” This was in 1849, and within ten years commenced a series of events that startled the world and widely extended the sphere of liberty.

              Let us briefly review some of the events that so strikingly fulfilled this prophetic declaration of Mr. Alcott’s … Before the close of the first decade of Mr. Alcott’s prescient quarter of a century had passed, John Brown had rendered valiant service in helping to free Kansas from the grasp of the slave oligarchy, and had struck the blow in Virginia that sent consternation into the heart of the South, and hastened the coming of that terrible baptism of fire and of blood that led to the issuance of Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation. Nearly all of these wonderful events to which we so briefly referred occurred within the interim of time between 1849 – the date of the prophecy – and 1874. …Mr. Alcott believed that the world of spirit and the world of matter are simultaneously progressing toward a higher condition of divine harmony, and steadily, through this concerted action, are bringing nearer the day when justice and righteousness shall rule triumphantly in church and state, and the nations of the earth shall dwell together as one great Brotherhood in the bonds of Peace and Love. …”

             The manuscript continues with an examination of Alcott’s philosophy follows in form and substance the published version of the chapter ‘Alcott the Philosopher’ in Willis’ memoir, with the exception of an extensive section describing Alcott’s Sunday “Table Talks” and explanations given by Alcott himself to Willis on various aspects of his philosophy:

            “… But I got at the heart of Mr. Alcott’s philosophy far more fully from his pure, beautiful life than from anything that ever issued from his pen, for he lived his philosophy, and also from the little talks he gave us children from time to time – mostly on Sunday afternoons. On such occasions he laid aside his grandiloquent diction, and in plain, but elegant English, he discoursed in such a manner that we older children had no difficulty whatever in comprehending him. I recall the general tenor, and much of the phraseology of some of these delightful talks. On one occasion he made this assertion: “There are no limitations to ideas, but there are certain axiomatic principles from which must spring all true ideas, and on the basis of which all principles rest. A departure from these is an emergence at once into difficulties and doubts; into uncertainties and mischances that leave the soul no rest or security”.

            “But,” I said “how can one know these axiomatic principles?” He replied, - “They are the light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. They appeal to every consciousness. It is not because men mistake them that they build upon them errors of philosophy or religion, but because they seek to warp or bend these truths so simple that none need mistake them, to suit conditions that do not accord with them. That is, they endeavor to take these foundation stones out of the Temple of Truth and fit them into a structure of their own.”

                  “I will give you two or three axiomatic principles that will be sufficient for your guidance through life, but will be of no avail to you unless you strive to exemplify them in your lives – to make them basic principles on which to build your character …”

                Upon these principles so generally admitted by the religious world, Mr. Alcott claimed had been raised innumerable false structures, and innumerable false theological conceptions; among them – Total Depravity, an Endless Hell of Physical Torture. Immediate Sanctification making it possible for a soul steeped in crime to go, even from a scaffold, directly into the supernal joys of the highest heaven, and all those so-called schemes- as he designated them – for making the future seem an unnatural condition, a dead thing far removed from the living present.

                 As he talked of that transcendent spiritual nature within the human body called the soul, his language became wonderfully eloquent, and his face grew radiant. He defined it as a spiritual entity that lives on after the body is dead in higher spheres, subject to the same laws of moral, social and intellectual being that governed it before the chemical process of dissolution that we call death, had released it from the mortal body.

               “Beautiful glimpses have been given to the world of the power of this immortal entity in man when it attains ascendancy over the lower departments of his being, and becomes fully exemplified in his life. Heroes and saints have testified of its beauty but a soul grand enough to exemplify it fully – where has it been found? …

                Mr. Alcott manifested ever a tender regard a loving admiration that amounted almost to worship towards Jesus. I asked him one day if he thought Jesus held any vital relation to the living present. I can recall but little of his reply, but the note of it was that he believed that he held just as real and just as vital a relationship to humanity to day as he did the day he died a martyr to his principles. He said that unfaltering faith in the eternity of the spirit of man, with the eternity of the spirit of man, with all its attributes, all its faculties and powers, compelled him to believe in the inter-penetration of the two spheres of being – the spiritual and the natural – and through the great law of sympathy it was possible for us to come under the special individual influence and guidance of Jesus himself.

              This was to me an intensely interesting conversation. But he startled me by declaring that any heroic soul may assert what Jesus asserted of himself – that he is Lord and Creator of the world; because every hero-soul is inspired with the fact that all life, and all thought are resident in the infinite because found within himself who is a part of the infinite. Truly may a man say, “I am the cause and producer of all things,” for you can place no man outside of infinity.  …”


              The collection contains a manuscript draft of chapter on Fruitlands, Bronson Alcott’s failed Utopian experiment, from Willis’ memoir. The manuscript draft is lengthier than the published version and includes an account of Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s visit to Brook Farm, not published in Alcott Memoirs:

                 “About this time Alcott and Lane made a trip to Boston, partly on business, but I think mainly to visit the Brook Farm Community at West Roxbury. Mr. Lane by no means took the same view of it that many of its most distinguished members did. His criticisms upon it are quite caustic. He said: - “We went out one evening to Roxbury where we found eighty or ninety persons playing away their youth and daytime in a miserable, joyous, frivolous manner. There are not above four or five who could be selected as really and truly progressive beings. Most of the adults are there to pass a good time, the children are taught languages, etc. The animals occupy a prominent position, there being no less than sixteen cows besides four oxen, a herd of swine a horse or two, etc. The milk is sold in Boston, and they buy butter to the extent of five hundred dollars a year. We had a pleasant summer evening conversation with many of them, but it is only in a few individuals that anything deeper than ordinary is found. The Northampton community is one of industry; the one at Hopedale aims at practical theology; this of Roxbury is one of taste; yet it is the best which exists here and perhaps we shall have to say it is the best which can exist.” … Just after their trip to Brook Farm Alcott and Lane went to New York and in connection with the visit we have the following delicious bit of gossip taken from a letter by Mrs. Lydia Maria Child. “A day or two after Theodore Parker left Alcott and Lane called to see me. I asked what brings you to New York? ‘I don’t know’ said Mr. Alcott, ‘it seems a miracle that we are here'. Mr. Child and John Hopper went to hear a discussion between them, and W. H. Channing. I asked Mr. Child what they talked about. ‘Lane divided man into three states – the disconscious, the conscious and the unconscious.  The disconscious is the state of a pig; the conscious the baptism by water; and the unconscious is the baptism by fire. I laughed, and said, “Well, how did the whole discussion affect your mind? ‘Well after I heard them talk a few minutes, I’ll be cursed if I knew I had any mind at all’…

              Distressed by the burden that pressed so heavily upon his devoted wife in having to prepare three meals a day for sixteen hungry mouths, besides all the other household duties, Mr. Alcott took upon himself the office of bread-maker. The bread was made of a mixture of barley and graham-meal, and to make it pleasant to the eye , if not to the palate, he fashioned the loaves into the shape of animals and divers other forms as his fancy dictated. In baking nothing kept its shape, and they came out of the oven totally unlike anything ever seen before in the heavens above or the earth beneath. I suggested that this must have been pure transcendental bread, for certainly it was something “outside the range of the human intellect or human experience”, which I believe is one of the dictionary definitions of that term. I asked my friend how the bread tasted. He laughingly replied, “Your question baffles my descriptive powers.”

              The collection includes numerous manuscript notes and drafts on the Alcott’s evidently gathered by Willis for inclusion in his book, some of which are of considerable interest.

              The Pathetic Family was the title Louisa first thought of giving to the history of the family she was contemplating writing. She afterwards changed it to Little Women.”

              “The story of the Tramp has been widely circulated and I think denied but I [was] in Concord at the time of its occurrence and I introduce it here as it is so strikingly illustrative of Mr. Alcott’s child like simplicity of character his benevolent impulses and his trusting faith in human nature.

               One day when the family were all out save Mr. Alcott a typical tramp called at the door and rehearsing a pitiful story of a sick wife and several starving children asked Mr. Alcott to give him a dollar to purchase food and medicine with.

               Mr. Alcott replied that he hadn’t a dollar in his possession but he had a gold piece and he gave the man his gold piece. I am not sure as to its denomination but I think it was a ten dollar piece.

               The next day his gold piece came back to him. I think through the mail.

                Evidently the Tramp in thinking the matter over was so impressed by the manner of the donor that his conscience smote him and he returned the gift so ignominiously obtained.

               The incident made a strong impression upon my mind because I had so frequently heard Mr. Alcott affirm that there was no human being however low and vile that had not within him a latent spark of divinity that was surely destined sooner or later to burst into a redemptive flame …”


              Willis corresponded late in his life with Clara Gowing, one of Louisa May Alcott’s Concord schoolmates and friends. Gowing published her own memoir of the Alcotts entitled: “The Alcotts as I knew them”. The collection contains retained typescript copies of his letters to her, in one of which he reminisces with her on their time amongst the Alcott’s and the character “Laurie” and Willis’ claims as its inspiration:

      “Dec. 9, 1913

       Dear Miss Gowing,

                … Indeed I do remember you though I had to think back for a few minutes, for I had forgotten your name; but it came to me so vividly after a little that I recalled even your looks… I remember those scenes of our childhood very clearly. On memory’s tablet they are indelibly recorded. The article you saw in the paper was written without my knowledge or consent and contains many misstatements. I could never have consented to the appearance of so sensational an article about myself. It was written by a young newspaper reporter here with whom I have had but a slight acquaintance. I was drawn to him by sympathy because he is in wretched health and limited financial resources. Just before the drama of Little Women came here the last time he saw his opportunity to make money out of the theatre co. that was to produce the play and without consulting me at all wrote that article. My surprise and vexation when I saw it was very great. My first impulse was to write to the paper that published it an indignant protest; but I was too ill to bear the excitement of the thing, and then too I reflected that it might be the means of the poor fellows losing his position so I have silently ignored it. I had talked with him about the Alcotts and my book, that was all.

               Yes, I am the Lewellyn Hovey who was in close relations of intimacy with the Alcotts for ten or twelve years, first in Still River Village, Harvard, then in Concord and later in Boston. I was the only boy that was in the family during all those years with the single exception of Billy Lane, the son of the Englishman who furnished the money for that disastrous experiment at Fruitlands. He was in Concord on a visit to the children one summer that I was there but only for ten days or a fortnight. I was a participant in nearly all the scenes that are described in the book up to the time of Lizzie’s death. I went to Europe about that time and that broke up my close relations with family. The first summer that I met them, I gave the name of Hovey. This was my mother’s maiden name. She died in giving me birth. I was her first child and my father died before I was two years old. I was brought up by my grandmother Hovey and as a child I was fond of calling my self by her name rather than by my fathers, but I was christened Willis, and of course as I grew older I had to take my legal name. But soon after I first knew them I told them that my last name was Willis and that I belonged to an old Boston family by that name, and it was found that the rich banker of Boston, whose father married Mrs. Alcott’s sister was of the same family and that I was really a distant relative, and the girls who were always ready to celebrate everything made a celebration of this and we had a lot of fun over it.

             Now as to my being Laurie as I told you further back I never claimed to be because I knew that Louisa had indignantly denied it and claimed that it was a Polish boy she met in New York or abroad. I know of two other parties that she wrote to and told them they were Laurie. Neither of them did she ever see until long after all the real events narrated in Little Women had transpired. A few years ago there appeared in the Ladies Home Journal a lengthy article sent them by a man out west who claimed that he was the Laurie of the book, and in support of his claim he published several facsimiles of letters she had written him addressing him as Laurie and telling him he was the Laurie. They were evidently facsimiles of her writing which was peculiar and marked by a striking individuality of its own.

              When I heard of the death of Louisa and her father I was confined to my bed crippled by a very severe accident I met with. As I read the sad tidings in my evening paper I thought to myself that from my recollections of the family I might write a very interesting paper to be given in public the proceeds of which would enable me to do more for worthy charities than my own resources admitted of my doing. On my bed I wrote a lecture that I have delivered before thousands of people. It was always been most enthusiastically received. I consecrated it to the above purpose and have faithfully kept to it, often paying my own incidental expenses in getting from place to place, and thus I have been instrumental in putting a great deal of money into the treasury of the Lord. … Two distinguished educators here urged me to have it published as a text book for schools, saying there was a dearth of books giving such vital descriptions of distinguished individuals and such indisputable proofs of close personal relationship with them. I have been urged on all sides to write a book giving my reminiscences of distinguished people I have known. It seems to have been in my destiny ever since I was ten years old to have come into close personal relationship with distinguished people both at home and abroad. I decided after this lecture that I would do so and I went right to work on it taking my Alcott paper as the nucleus of it, and extending that to take in many of their noted friends whose acquaintance I made through them, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and others. I had gotten it about half laid out when the infirmities of my 84 years began to press so heavily upon me. I was compelled to give up my work and I have not been able to resume it since. It is about half done and I much fear I shall not live to complete it for I am losing ground steadily.

               And now I have bit of surprise for you. The newspaper article to which you referred met the eye of John Pratt Alcott in Boston. He immediately wrote me a very brief but curt letter demanding that I send him the proofs that I was the Laurie of the book. I wrote him simply that I had never made any such claim; that I had been exploited by a sensational newspaper reporter. Then I told him that I had written a paper that I had delivered before many people and that these people had insisted upon it that I was Laurie and that I had replied that Louisa denied it. Then I told him of my close intimacy with the family and gave him many incidents he had never known of. Last Saturday morning to my astonishment who should walk in upon me but John Pratt Alcott. My letter so interested him that he came on to see me. I had a three hours talk with him in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. I read him extracts from my paper in which he was intensely interested. He apologized for writing me so curt a letter, said he had been greatly annoyed by claimants, especially by the one who wrote the Philadelphia article. He proposed to collaborate with me in my books should I get well enough to resume work upon it, by supplying extracts from his grandfather’s journal. He even went so far when he bade me goodbye as to say “I am inclined to think I have found the real Laurie”.

        I alone understand the secret of Louisa’s strange versatility regarding Laurie.

        And now I want to ask you if you took part in the Tableauxs that we got up the first summer I was with them in Concord, or was that before your intimacy with the girls began? I also want to know if you were present at the play the night the cot bed that formed the dress circle of the audience collapsed and the tower fell.

         Dec. 11. I have had to have three sittings at tis letter with long rests between, it tires me to write. I shall hope to hear from you again. If you were present at those first tableauxs please give me your recollections of them. There were twelve groups and I can only recall six of them. I want to make an article about them. We got them up entirely ourselves and they were given before an audience composing the elite of Concord. I wish I could see your book. I presume it is out of print. If so I wish you would send e your copy by mail. I will take the best of care of it and return it paying the postage both ways. I never heard of it nor of the one by Miss Moses. I am sending you in this two pictures of myself. See if you can find in the photograph taken recently at 84 any traces of the boy of 14 …”


        “Dec. 23, 1913

         Dear Miss Gowing,

                It was lovely in you to send me your two books as a gift. … You must have wondered at my delay in acknowledging them until this late day. They found me quite prostrated. That Saturday with John Alcott was too much for me. I was deeply moved by it emotionally and since my last severe illness I have to avoid anything that appeals strongly to my emotional nature. The fact that I was so unexpectedly brought face to face with a living bona fide member of that dear family whom I have held so long in my heart of hearts was in itself quite exciting … I enjoyed “The Alcotts as I knew them” very much. It refreshed my memories of many incidents related and revived others…”

         “Dear Miss Gowing,

             … Your letter recalled the funny incident of Louisa’s delay in greeting me that time, and her rushing in in her impetuous way and prostrating herself in Oriental fashion. It was a shock to hear that you were almost as old in years as I am, for strange to say I had not once thought of the long lapse of years since those early days in connection with you, and had only thought of you as the girl you were at that early period. I am getting better they all tell me but it seems dreadfully slow. “Little Women” is running in Boston to good houses I see by the Boston paper. There are four companies out giving the play and John Alcott must have a gold mine in it…”

             The collection includes several letters to Willis written by John Sewell Pratt Alcott, Louisa May Alcott’s nephew and adopted son. These were written 1913-1914, and they reference their meeting which Willis related to Miss Gowing in the correspondence quoted above, as well as a proposed jointly authored book on Willis’ life with the Alcotts and his friendship with Louisa. The book never advanced belonged to the planning stages due to Willis’ illness and subsequent death.

       “Brookline, November 30, 1913

        My Dear Mr. Willis,

              Allow me to thank you for your letter which reached me safely and which I shall prize most highly. I assure you it was a great treat to hear from one who was such a friend of the family in the old days and I am very anxious to meet and have a good talk with you, and would therefore ask if it would be agreeable to have me call upon you on next Saturday December the sixth, I find that I can  probably get away on Friday and reach Rochester Saturday morning, this would give us a chance for a long talk about old times and I could return on the night train on Saturday… it is so seldom that I have an opportunity to meet an old friend of the family who knew them when Mother and Aunt Louisa were girls that I feel I [must] meet you and know you better.

                Your letter was a great relief to me also for we have had a few very unpleasant experiences with men who have really claimed to be the original of Laurie and your letter disclaiming all thought of such an idea was so different that I almost feel that you are more entitled to that privilege than the others. …                                                                                                                                        John Alcott”

        [Feb. 3, 1914]

         “My Dear Doctor Willis,

                 I hope you will pardon my delay in answering your very kind letter but I have been terribly busy since my return and have had hardly a minute to myself, I certainly meant to have written before this to thank you for the most interesting and beautiful day I have spent in many years. I can assure you it was a great pleasure a d an honor to know you and meet one who knew my Mother and Aunt so well, so many years ago.

             I am afraid that we cannot use material taken bodily from the little book as that will probably be published by itself, we can however use some of the extracts from diaries and there is I think plenty of Alcott material to select from and as soon as we get over the Christmas rush and the excitement of the opening of the Little Women Play in Boston I will set to work getting material together and shall try to run on to Rochester sometime in January for another treat of a day with you.

             I am sending you under separate cover a little calendar in memory of our beautiful day together,   and hope you will enjoy it. …                                                                                    John Alcott”


        [Dec. 23, 1914]

        “My Dear Dr. Willis,

                   … ‘Little Women’ has been and gone and while the Play received beautiful notices from all the papers and everyone who saw it was very enthusiastic over it, still the engagement here was a disappointment, the matinees were very successful but the evening performances were not very well attended, and instead of staying for the full seven weeks as originally planned the engagement was cut to five. I had hope and rather expected that when the company came to Boston, Miss Alcott’s home, that the Play would have a long run to crowded houses, but I am afraid that Boston people are not as loyal to her memory as the people of most any other city in the Country…

                 I have had no time to start gathering material for our book, as yet but shall hope to talk it all over with you when we meet again. …                                                                                         John Alcott”


                The collection also has manuscripts by Willis on the subject of Women’s Rights and the Suffrage cause. These include retained copies of letters to newspaper editors and lengthier manuscripts on the “Woman Question”, and recollections of women he met through his association with the Alcotts, including Lucy Stone, Margaret Fuller. Willis had been a lifelong proponent of Women’s Rights, including the right to equal suffrage. These views were shared by his friends the Alcotts.


             Willis took a sea voyage from Boston to Brazil in 1854-1855 and recorded the trip in a manuscript journal. His destination was Rio Grande, in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. Willis’ journal contains an excellent account of travel to Richmond, Virginia and on the James River, visiting plantations and towns, while on the southbound voyage. Willis records his impressions of enslaved African Americans he encountered and his interactions with them.

      Willis entitles his journal as follows: “The Journal of A Voyage in the Barque May Queen Capt. Edward M. King Esq. From Boston to Rio Grande South America via Richmond, Virginia. 1854. Kept by Frederic L. Willis, for the benefit of his friend Frank G. Russell & by his particular request.”  Willis’ journal is written dos-a-dos fashion, the voyage south in front, and when the volume is flipped over the return voyage can be read.

      Willis departed from Boston aboard the May Queen on Monday September 11, 1854.

      “… was accompanied down by several friends. Mrs Dr Adams and daughter – Mr. & Mrs. Mann and children, C.D. Bradlee & Frank G. Russell. We had a fine ride but all too short. Managed to keep up a stout heart till it came time to say “good bye” when my fortitude gave way … After all had gone a feeling of desolation came over me… 5 p.m. Capt K came aboard sunshine beams from every feature of his round jolly face. Mates wife & child left in the boat wh brought the Capt down. The mate is said to be as savage as a meat axe. He certainly is a loving husband & tender father… After tea walked the deck with Capt K for two hours in social converse. … Turned out at 2 in the morning to see the harbor & shipping by moonlight a most romantically beautiful scene. The city over wh rested a solemn stillness, the church spires pointing like white fingers upward to the great one who created all this loveliness… so much for my first day & night on ship board.”

       Willis describes the events of shipboard life as he struggles to adapt to life on the sea, complete with the usual descriptions of sea sickness and monotony endured by the novice sea traveler.

       Friday 15th … we were fast approaching Cape Henry … the Capt seemed anxious for a pilot, but none were near, although our signal light had been out all the evening… and in a few minutes they were alongside; ropes were thrown over the side of our ship & the pilot with one spring stood on deck. He immediately took the helm & we went flying in past Cape Henry like the very wind. … Rose at 6 o’clock, dressed & went on deck. What a vision of beauty met my gaze on either side of me were the beautiful shores of the James River covered with verdure. … At 8 o’clock we took a steamer up the river enroute to Richmond. … On either shore, large farms met the eye, their broad acres counted not as in Massachusetts by hundreds, but by thousands… Here and there at wide intervals stand the mansion houses of the wealthy proprietors, and twenty or thirty paces off the cabins of the slaves, forming a most picturesque group, neatly white washed & some painted. … Our pilot … points out to me the different places of interest of interest we pass. He tells me that the general face of the country wears the same aspect it did a century ago. And how can it be otherwise? Is it not an indisputable fact that slavery throws a benumbing influence over everything like improvement? Set a few northern capitalists settle down along the shores of this splendid water power & we should be Lowells & Manchesters springing up here almost in a night. Passed the ancient settlement of Jamestown, a dilapidated, ruinous looking place but full of natural beauty and deeply interesting as the scene of the romantic adventure of Capt Smith … our pilot pointed out a farm wh he said one must travel seven miles to get around; owned by a Mr. Selden, whose house & grounds as we passed them looked like a very Eden of beauty & quiet loveliness…”

      “Sunday 17 … we are anchored off an anomalous looking place bearing the cognomen of City Point, though what there is about it to merit the name of City is more than I can discover. I should call it Rum & Dirt Point. There is at this place one low dirty looking tavern three or four little groggeries & groceries combined & a large group of wretched looking slave huts. This settlement is at the foot of a large sand hill, close to the water’s edge. Up on the hill is the house of the principal man of the place. His name is Coner & he is very wealthy owning among other goods & chattels, some hundred or more human beings with souls fashioned by the same Almighty hand that formed his own. The Petersburgh Railroad passes through this place and I forgot when enumerating the edifices in the city at the foot of the hill a large, dilapidated wooden building called a Depot. There are also some wharf’s & steamboat piers but no care is taken of them and so they are in a ruinous state. Wright says ‘that is characteristic of the Virginians they build wharfs & piers & take no care of them letting them rot down & then go to work & build new ones.’ This in my humble estimation is a very shiftless way of doing business. At an early hour we were besieged with washerwomen clamorous for clothes. They were blacks & singular looking creatures some of them were poorly dressed but … gay as though they had not a care. They came alongside in boats & the way they straddled on deck over the sides of the ship was to say the least anything but feminine. There were also a number of men about with birds called Soras. These are curious birds, and very nice eating, though small. The negroes kill them in great quantities. Their mode is to take a strong light & go of a dark night to the places they frequent, the light dazzles or blinds them & they are knocked down with clubs. The Capt bought a dozen of them & with dinner we had the luxury of broiled birds … City Point is the common anchorage ground for ships to & from Richmond & there are at the present time a great many at anchor here … went on shore with the Capt … & motley state of affairs presented itself to view. All along the shore & up under the trees & about the doors of the grog shops were groups of slaves in most unique dresses laughing & joking at the top of their voices. Pigs, ducks, geese & little darkeys were running about in all directions. Capt K & the Pilot called on Mrs Penny, an old woman who deals out mint juleps, while I glad to escape from such a scene of babel like confusion wandered away into the woods… after spending an hour in the woods I retraced my steps to the establishment of Madam Penny before wh the Capt & Pilot were standing in conversation with several others of their fraternity …”

       “Monday 18 … The Capt of the tow boat left us Saturday night in a very mean way to tow some other ship down to the roads & did not return till 4 o’clock this afternoon. There are three or four tow boats on this river all belonging to one company & they impose on ships as they please. A good smart competition would bring them to their senses & make them a little more honorable in the fulfillment of their bargains…”

       “Tues 19 Arrived at Richmond… We stopped way down at the shipping end of R not recognized at all as Richmond although under the same municipal government but known by the somewhat euphonious name of Rockett. Had I not been able to get a fine view of the city ahead my first impressions of R would have been very unfavorable ones for such another dirty, dusty hole as this same Rockett it was never my fortune to be in. The soil, if soil it could be called seemed to consist of a fine yellow dust wh the slightest wind sent whirling about filling eyes, nostrils & lungs added to wh was a strong smell of guano, almost the only manure used in Virginia & wh is landed at this place in immense quantities. I walked up on to the lower end of the principal st Of Richmond – Main St wh runs clear through the city & is the main business artery. Passed a large bakery & any quantity of small grocery’s & old clothes shops kept chiefly by Jews of whom there are a great many in R… After breakfast took the letters I had written home & trotted off to the P.O. way up to the other end of the city. Found a great improvement in the appearance of Main st as I went on – fine stores & here & there a Hotel attracted my attention, though neither came up with our Boston stores & Hotels. Mailed my letters & received with delight three from Boston, two from F. G. R. & one from M. G. A. …”

       “Wed 20 … took a walk up & down Main looking at the stores &c. My attention however was principally taken up by the comical looking teams dodging about in all directions. Old rickety, tumble to pieces wagons with four, five & six mules attached with a most uncouth & oftentimes grotesque looking darkey astride one of them yelling out at the top of his lungs “hi Hi – go long dar” holding on with one hand to the bridle the other employed in conveying a huge piece of bread to his mouth wh he munches between his yells, while with his feet he vigorously kicks the sides of the poor beast on which he is seated … The whole equipage, cart, mules & rider look as though they were turned out in the days of Pocahontas. Hundreds of these teams are seen all over the city. The whole teaming is done by mules I see no horses save in private carriages. Groups of darkies everywhere meet my eye, little nigs with scarcely any clothing on rolling about in the dirt, the wool on their heads looking as though it had been scorched by fire & turned a yellowish brown – whether it was the yellowish dust that had obtained a lodging there or what gave it this funny look I know not. After traveling till I was tired I took an omnibus & rode down to Rockett and such an omnibus! Ye shade of the inventor of ye omnibus! What would ye have said could ye have risen up & took a ride in that vehicle every window door & I verily believe board in it had the fever & ague & the horses for I believe they were horses & not mules, crawled along at a dog trot. And then the landscape paintings over the windows !!! I can only describe two of them & to those I cannot hope to do justice. One presented to view a man in bright scarlet pants sitting on a blue green bank with a long fishing pole extended over a yellow river, beside him a nondescript looking beast in form & color meant for a dog, but resembling a log of wood with one end pointed for the nasal protuberance & a little stunted branch left upon the other for a tail. The clouds were of a most unearthly, indescribable blue, suggesting to one the idea that the sun being sick with the black jaundice or some other dismal disease had imparted to them this doleful color. The other was a moonlight scene: a pale consumptive moon in a bilious sky reflected the wrong way, in whitey brown water, were the striking points of this picture, there was no lack of tree foliage, & upon the bank of the river, in a peculiarly wooden attitude, stood a romantic looking cow… spent my afternoon in reading & writing letters, my evening ditto.”

       “Thurs 21 …. Visited the Capitol grounds – they occupy a fine elevated situation & are very pretty. The State House is quite an unimposing looking building of stone with Corinthian pillars at either end. In the rotunda is a statue of Washington but entirely unlike any I’ve before seen – indeed I should not have recognized it had it not been for the inscription… On the N.E. side of the grounds stands a very pretty monument to Washington just completed built of finished granite. The design is very pretty indeed … The trees about here are perfectly alive with locusts, they keep up one incessant singing from morn till night, their note is more musical than our northern locusts & therefore not as tiresome. In the rear of the capitol is the Court House, a large massive looking stone building undergoing extensive repairs, the interior seemed to be entirely torn out. The public buildings of Richmond are very far inferior to those of Boston; her citizens don’t seem to take much pride in them & there is a certain air of neglect about them wh one never sees in Boston… When Capt K came he brought me letters from home wh as usual I seized with delight … Our cargo of flour is being got in as fast as darkies & mules can do it. I never tire watching these droll people they are comical in word & act. The stower of our ship is a shrewd active fellow with some dozen men in his employ & yet he is a slave, owned by an old woman to whom he has to pay a certain sum for his time & all he earns over this amount he has for his family – can anything be more humiliating? His name is Jordan; the darkies all call him “Jerd’n”. Capt K asked him how much he was going to ask for stowing the ship – he set his price when the Capt the Capt told him he would give him so much “Ah no Mas’r Cap’n no come it over dis nigger dat way, Jerd’n is a hard road to trouble”. His teeth are very white & when he talks he shows everyone in his head, he speaks with the rapidity of lightning & stutters with all so that it is no small task to keep up with & comprehend his flow of ideas. We are surrounded with Uncle Bens, & Petes & Jims & Sams – Uncle ben is as good natured old fellow as ever the sun shone on, always with a smile upon his black phiz, every now & then I can hear him sing out “Roll long dat flour, my belubbed” Uncle Pete on the contrary is always scolding right & left. I heard him say to one of his black ‘brudders’ this morning ‘You are a lazy good for nuff’n scamp, what good it do you go meetin be praying & prayed over all the time. You never be nuff’n scamp” One of them being asked what made niggers so lazy, said in reply, scratching his head “Do no Mas’r spose its as he do know norf’n don’t let niggers larn nuffin keep white man so he cant larn nuffin, spose he be lazy too” I thot the fellow replied with a good deal of philosophy for igno. Is indeed the mother, not only of superstition but almost every other vice. Now & then an Aunt Emeline or Dinah or Polly comes aboard with a basket in pursuit of washing. They seem to own but one name & have no idea half of them of their ages. I asked an old crone how old she was, showing her nearly toothless grin she replied with a grin “Do no Mars’r spose I’se bout 200”. …”

      “Friday morn 22 Clear & beautiful above – dusty & dirty beneath … I shall be glad when we are away from this land of musquitoes & dust, there is now however a prospect of being here two days or more longer than we thot for… took a long walk today. Saw many of the private residences, some of them are very beautiful. Those into wh I was fortunate enough to obtain a peep had what I admire in a house a large square front hall or entry, these were hung with elegant pictures & upon a table under a mirror or in the centre of the hall stood boquets of the most beautiful flowers. … Saw about these mansions some most beautiful female slaves, tending children &c many of them no doubt more beautiful than the acknowledged daughters of their masters & nearly as white. One boy of 13 I should judge, who sat at a back door cleaning knives, was very handsome the most glorious eyes I ever saw in a child’s head, pearly white teeth & a fine form, but alas he is a slave to his own father. On my way home I filled my pocket with sugar plums & cakes at a confectioners to give to some of the little nigs on my way. This has been a favorite pastime with me since I have been in this place. I admire to see the delighted grin wh spreads over their tiny black faces … to hear their “tank you mars’r” & see the profound curtsey the little girls will drop as they take the cake or sugar plums offered them… I asked a bright looking boy who owned him he replied “Mrs. Pritchard” Even as I asked the question, my whole soul revolted at it & I could not help asking myself at the time, who gave Mrs. Pritchard her bill of rights in the body & soul of that poor boy to have & to hold as her possession, as her chattel. My northern blood often boils in my veins as I see the marks of slavery about me, in the deplorable ignorance of these creatures who are used like cattle in every sense I long to get away from Richmond. I don’t like the air of slavery it is oppressive to my lungs wh have never inhaled aught but the pure air of freedom.”

       “Sat 23d …. Took a walk this morning & did a little shopping in the line of stationery. On my return passed a little shanty in wh at the open door sat such a comical looking negroe woman that I could not help stopping to look at her. She wore a gaudy looking handkerchief wound turban fashion upon her head. Her gown, when new must have been a perfect rainbow in brilliancy & variety of color, but presented rather a faded aspect. Her face was the most comical part of her I cannot describe it I could only think of a little wizened faced baboon. I observed she had something for sale upon a table at one side of the room. So I made bold to enter. She seemed very much frustrated, dropped a profound curtsey saying pushing towards me a broken chair, “Wont you have a seat mars’r? I isn’t used to hav’n fine gen’mn in my old cab’n” I begged her to give herself no uneasiness & asked what she had to sell “Oh” hobbling towards an old rickety table & removing the newspapers with wh it was covered, “ise got birds Mars’r & sweet taters”. I stepped towards the table & sure enough there were broiled birds of different sorts & some find looking sweet potatoes wh she informed me were steamed. I thought I must buy something, so I selected an enormous sweet potatoe, a foot in length & proportionately large round. I asked her to do it up in paper & I gave her a 5 cent piece wh she took with a curtsey & grin… You may rest assured I did not eat the “tater” I had not gone far before I met a little wooly headed urchin whom I addressed thus “Sonny do you want a sweet tater” Yes Mars’r” well there is a nice one all biled” he took it with a grin of ecstasy, a bow & scrape of the foot with the never forgotten “tank you Mars’r” & ran off in high glee to display his prize to a group of less favored sables upon the other side of the way…”

      “Sunday 24 … started off to visit the church wh stands on the site formerly occupied by the Richmond Theatre destroyed by fire 18—It is a large six sided stone church belonging to the Episcopal denomination. In the porch stands a white marble monument surmounted with an urn. The monument is square & bears inscribed on its four sides terrible flames. I looked in vain for the name of my Grandmothers twin brother who was one of the victims of that awful tragedy – it was not there…. From this place I proceeded to the African church a neat brick building, quite spacious. It was the hour of their morning prayer meeting & I remained a deeply interested spectator more than a half an hour. I could not but recognize the true spirit of devotion among these sable sons of Africa – some of their prayers were very touching in their simplicity … I was deeply moved by the closing words of one man’s prayer & the evident sincerity with wh they were uttered, the large tears rolling down his dusky face – “Now oh Farder when thou hast done all bress dis poor unprofitable soul – Oh Lor make me to rule thee wid all my heart & my neighbor as myself – Oh Farder forgive my sins & make me pure for de dear Lor Jesus sake Amen” Could anything be more simply comprehensive? Who shall say that these words breathed forth by that poor slave were not as acceptable in the ear of Almighty God as the most finished prayer ever uttered by the most eloquent divine. Their singing was very peculiar, wild & somewhat monotonous in its measure, accompanied by a rolling motion of the body & by some risible strange contortions of features. As the most of them cannot read, the hymns were deaconed off in the ancient style, two lines at a time by a chorister. From there I went in pursuit of the Unitarian Church but to my disappointment found it closed, the society being just at this time without a pastor. … Attended morning service at the Presbyterian Ch near the capitol A splendid ch in the Gothic style beautifully arched roof supported by pillars of bronze. The sing was very fine – no instrumental music. A begging sermon for some colporteur movement- did not think much of it – bad rhetoric long drawn out. In the course of it the preacher exclaimed with emphasis “We are a free people in the glorious Old Dominion; Yes, free in heart & free in hand”. I could not help casting my eye up to the gallery where sat a triple row of men & women who because their creator saw fit to give them black skins are regarded as goods & chattels & I inwardly exclaimed “Yes & there is a powerful illustration of your boasted freedom”. …”

       “Mond 25 … We made our Exodus from Richmond at 5 ½ p.m. I bade adieu to the city without one emotion of regret, indeed for two days past I’ve longed to get away from the dust & musquitoes… Just as we were about starting a horseman came rushing on to the pier with letters & papers for Frederic L Willis Esq…. They proved to be from Mrs. Dr A & Daughter …”

       “Tues 26 Still on our winding way down the stream passing new beauties at every turn. Pilot pointed out to me the house where Gen Harrison was born. This was to me an object of deep interest & how could it be otherwise? For I hold the memory of that man in sacred remembrance for I believe he was great & good, noble & true. The house is a plain unassuming farm house two stories high… At 2 p.m. the steamer left us & we anchored in Hampton Roads about three miles from Old Point… here we must lie till the Capt can get his men from Norfolk…”

       The May Queen lay in Hampton Roads for several days, on October 1st Willis and several crew members witness a small boat capsize about a mile from where they were anchored, and the two men aboard were successfully rescued.

      “Mond Oct 2 Our shipwrecked mariners left us this morning in the Norfolk Steamer & right glad was I to witness their departure, for two more reckless profane fellows I never saw. Their oaths were terrible to hear. One of them had 56 dollars in his vest pocket wh went to the bottom with their coats & boots wh they had thrown off previous to upsetting on account of the sun’s heat. Their boat was worth more than 100 dolls … At 4 p.m. the Capt returned from N bring me a letter one that I most earnestly longed for. He brought with him but one man, consequently we must sail with a short crew & the worst one at that the Capt says that he ever sailed with… Tomorrow wind & weather favorable, we bid adieu to Hampton Roads bound on a six weeks voyage perhaps eight…”

       Once at sea Willis terribly from sea sickness again and for many days his entries consist of recitations of his physical misery interspersed with reflections on matters spiritual and philosophical. The weather, and lack of wind, cause the ship’s passage to take much longer than usual, once Willis is over the seasickness, the monotony of the voyage wears on him even more.

       “Thurs 2 It does seem certainly as if all the fates were against us & had commissioned the wind & weather to resist our progress, there has been scarcely a breath of air today. This morning to add to my misery I discovered that all my best clothes were moulding in my trunk. For a moment my fortitude gave way & I was wretched. I regretted that I ever saw the May Queen, but these feelings I am very happy to record lasted but for a moment. Dryden’s words came into my mind – “Since every man who lives is born to die, And none can boast sincere felicity With Equal mind what happens let us bear.” Peace returned. I got my clothes on deck & let them hang all day in the … sun wh to my joy, together with a good brushing removed the spots of mould & I put them carefully away again …”

       “Thurs 16 … I will go on with my description of the crew – Next in order comes the Steward who figures quite largely in the domestic economy of our petit monde. He is a tall, stout African – A perfect behemoth in size, & of cyclopean stature. He usually wears a pair of pants that approach as near the nondescript order as any I ever saw. Like Mrs. Bagnets umbrella they are “of no known living color.” Were I to attempt to describe it I should say it was a ghastly defunct green, that had died of seasickness. To add to their picturesqueness & heighten their beauty they are set off by & adorned with sundry huge patches of black… On his head he usually wears a sort of bright woolen nightcap of various colors, red & yellow being predominant. He has his eldest jewel with him who is the miniature semblance of his dad – wherever the father is seen, there is the son seen also tagging close at his heels. Smith, says he can think of nothing when he sees them but a black sheep with a young one tagging after. Steward’s cooking is quite as unique as his appearance, his pie crust might certainly be thrown over the main mast without breaking it, his puddings comprise a variety of four wh I will attempt briefly to describe, though I despair of being able to do them justice. Certainly if he could have sent specimens of each to the world’s fair he would have been awarded the highest premium … No 1 is a heterogenous compound of tapioca or sago, sugar butter, egg, & spice it comes on to the table in color like black mud & of about the same consistency. No. 2 bears the euphonious name of Roley-Poley – it is made of crust shortened with lard, rolled out & apple sauce, made of dried apples spread over it, then rolled up again & boiled in a rag – this is most delightful food for a dyspeptic about as easy of digestion as so much sole leather would be spread in the same way and boiled… No. 3 rejoices in the cognomen of Duff, this is a batter pudding made of flour & chopped raisins. I should have said a steamed batter this when light is very good. No. 4 the best of the game, is a baked rice pudding & really tastes like the rice puddings of my scholarly days. Steward’s yeast bread is one day very good & the next of the color & consistency of lead. By dint of many showings I have at last got him so he can make very nice cream of tartar biscuits. He roasts ducks very nicely indeed wh is about the only thing he does well. I forgot to mention that Saturday is Salt fish & pancake day & such pancakes !!!  I could not describe them If I would & so I refrain. But before dismissing the Old Steward from the docket I must in gratitude say that in his rude way he has been very kind to me & done much towards alleviating the hardships of this terrible voyage…”

      Mon [Nov] 27th At 5 o’clock this morning I was awakened from my morning dreams by the cry land ho! This was a cheering sound & I stumbled out of my berth quicker than I ever clambered in … There it was looking rugged & black in the dim twilight of the early dawn but nevertheless it was bona fide land … To the leeward of us lay the island of Cape Frio & the Cape itself with its summit towering far into the sky crowned with a light house wh shows a revolving light… I am not at all used to sketching with a pen & if I was the motion of the ship would render the attempt to take a decent sketch useless, but the above gives a fair idea of the appearance of cape Frio at a distance [Willis sketches the island in pen and ink across the top of two pages of his journal] … In time of war communications are held with Rio Janeiro by means of a telegraph. The chief occupation of the inhabitants of a small village here is fishing. The continental coast between the Isle of Frio & Cape Busias some 14 miles forms a bay called Papagayas or Parrot’s Bay – it is full of small islands wh are said to be stocked with parrots… This country of Brazil is the very hot bed of Catholicism all along the coast are convents – the most of them built on high elevations … Almost every village cape island or shore has a St attached to its name.”

      “Friday Dec. 1st … we made Rio Grande light much to my joy at ½ past 6 this evening… Tomorrow night if nothing happens I shall sleep in Rio Grande…”

       “Sat Dec 2 I did not think this morning when the sun rose that ere it set the beautiful May Queen would be in the most imminent danger of being wrecked – yet it so proved for one hour this afternoon we were in a most terrible situation. We set signals in the morning for a steamer but on account of the roughness of the water on the bar no steamer came for us. Consequently we had to beat about off & on till afternoon About 3 o’clock when signals were raised for us to come in, we started but struck on the bar & there remained with a terrible sea knocking us about & threatening every moment to stove our noble ship in pieces… This is one of the most dangerous places in the world for a ship. A large brig (English) was lost a few days ago & we were very near her & had no idea but that the same fate awaited us. … The poor Capt was calm but every feature of his face betrayed the agony within – I shall never forget the tone of his voice as he turned to me & said, “Willis this is the last of the May Queen”  - I replied, “Oh Capt. Don’t tell me there is no hope & that we must leave her” he said “I fear she will never get out of this & I shall send my crew ashore at the last moment & if she must perish I’ll die with her, for I can never go back without the May Queen” … Pretty soon I spied a steamer coming towards us & I joyfully cried out “the steamer, the steamer!” But she could not get near enough to us on account of the shallowness of the water on the bar to render us any assistance… the Capt succeeding in persuading a pilot to come on board with him & attempt to get her off the bar… But Providence kindly permitted us to escape the peril & pass over this terrible place … At 12 we arrived at Rio G as soon as we got there the Commander of the Port was sent for & came on board in great style with a slave carrying his gold headed cane &c … so he gave permission to set about removing the cargoe immediately without waiting for Custom House ceremonials. My first impression of Rio Grande was a very favorable one. I saw it by moonlight at the still hour of midnight. The houses are mostly built with turrets or square towers wh gives them a fine appearance by moonlight, but in the day time they are rather ordinary in appearance …”   

      “Sunday Dec 3 At 6 o’clock this morning I went to the market with Capt King and there I saw the strangest sight, the most picturesque & motliest scene, that ever my eyes looked upon. A high stone wall with 4 entrances encloses an area of ground containing about an acre. Around on the the sides … are built the neat stalls wh are roofed. The arena is paved with square bricks & here sit the vegetable & fruit women. Some of them are the strangest looking beings… these women are all blacks & slaves – their cheeks arms & breasts are covered with tattoos – some have one large scar or gash on each cheek extending from the bridge of the nose in a semi-circular direction to the jaw near the chin. Others have 3 lines cut down on each cheek & four across under them, these marks vary according to the tribe … each tribe having its own particular tattoo. They are most of them loaded with beads, coral & brass trinkets. Their clothing is generally very good although there are a great many miserable looking creatures around with scarcely sufficient clothing on to cover their nakedness… many of them wear turbans & shawls of the most brilliant hues. They sit upon little stools or upon the pavement & spread their vegetables out upon the ground about them. A great many of them have their babies with them … some take them under one arm, head or heels up just as it happens, but the most of them have their babies strapped or bound on to their backs & a more ludicrous sight I never saw, the child is placed astride on the back with the legs around the mothers waist & tightly bound on with a shawl so that it can only move its head & get its fingers to its mouth. … & often walk about the streets with a huge tray on the head & a baby on the back. As I was passing along through this strange group one of the women shouted out something in a horrible voice at the same time pointing down to my feet – I looked & there was a little bit of a black baby lying on an old shawl just as naked as it came into the world, it laid there laughing & crowing & kicking up its heels – one moment more & I should have stepped on it. The food of these negroes consists almost wholly of farina – they carry an iron pot & a little furnace to the market & cook their farina there often trading with a bowl in one hand & eating between the questions. Most of them have splendid teeth & I observed that they chewed constantly a yellowish sort of stick, not only chew it but rub their teeth with it. There I saw every variety of vegetable – potatoes, beans, onions, carrots, beets, squashes, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers &c, also the most beautiful flowers I ever beheld, roses, geraniums & such carnations pinks I never saw before many of them quite as large round as a tea cup. Oranges the most delicious I ever tasted & the largest I ever saw, strawberries, bannanas, plums, peaches &c all most astonishingly cheap. Cpt King paid only 20 cents for two bunches of onions & cucumbers 2 cabbages, 2 heads of lettuce & 2 quarts of string beans. Meat is only 4 cents a pound, for any part of the animal. The fish market is very fine indeed it is outside the enclosure & the fish are spread about on the grass. …”

      Wen’s 6th … The Brazilian ladies are seldom seen in the street they are in fact almost too lazy to move. They have no education at all & do nothing but thrum the piano from morning to night. Every family no matter how poor has a piano. At about 5 p.m. the ladies may be seen standing on their balconies. Some of them are very beautiful, with a rich Spanish complexion, jetty hair, eyes as black as night with long lashes, beautiful teeth etc, etc. The young ladies are kept very strict indeed they are not allowed to go out without a duenna close at their heels, these duennas, are some of them as ugly, cross looking specimens of womanhood as I ever beheld, they wear black dresses with a large black shawl wh is worn over the head instead of a bonnet. The young ladies have no choice of a husband -their parents select for them & they must not say one word be the selection ever so disagreeable to them – the result of this iniquitous system is that after marriage they become oftentimes unfaithful to their husbands choosing lovers more to their taste. Oftentimes exposure, ignominy & disgrace follow whereas if they had been allowed to choose a husband to their taste they would have lived virtuous & respectable women. Their lot is a sad one & much are they to be pitied.”

       “Thurs 7th … I received an invitation today to a ball, wh comes off to night. This Card was addressed to the illustrious signor F. L. Willis. I think I’ll go, as it will give me a fine chance to see the female beauty of R. G. also to hear some fine music… One o’clock I’ve just returned from the Ball where I enjoyed myself very much. Such a collection of magnificent black eyes & jetty locks … Some of the Senoras were very pretty indeed, but Rio Grande is not noted for its pretty females rather vice versa. One young lady whose beauty attracted my attention belongs in Pelota, a city some leagues from this place, noted for its lovely ladies. I am going there next week to spend a few days. … The ladies were not much dressed as it is one of the bye laws of the associations by whom these parties are given that no silks or satins are to be worn- most of the ladies were dressed in muslin, white, pink & blue, some of them elegantly embroidered. Their hair wh is very beautiful, abundant & black as the raven’s wing was elegantly dressed with natural and artificial flowers. Each lady carried in her hand an elegant bouquet & the room was verdant with the perfume of these splendid tropical flowers. One lady carried a large white cactus, the only one I ever saw; she graciously permitted me to examine it I cannot describe it as I am unfortunately ignorant in the noble & beautiful science of botany, but it was one of the finest things I ever saw. Their dancing is very much like ours, but rather more frenchified. Quadrilles &c they waltz & it is quite distressing to behold the airs & graces bows curtseys etc. There were among the company some very fine waltzers. The music was good & I enjoyed the evening very much. At 11 o’clock sandwiches, sweetmeats & tea was handed around on waiters. Also an abundance of choice wine in great variety – porter ale, cordials &c. All free gratis. The expenses of the parties are paid by the Association of Gentlemen who give them. Gambling is very prevalent in Rio Grande. I saw tonight some vey high playing in one of the drawing rooms at ecarte – quite a serious dispute arose between two of the players… but they were soon separated & the matter hushed up. Pernicious business this gambling, yet it is just as common in this country as to eat. Some of the most noted gamblers in this country are the priests … The beauty of the females in this country is of a material nature entirely. I’ve not seen one classic head , not one intellectual countenance. They have but little cultivation the sons occupy all their parents care & attention, it is considered quite enough for the daughters to thrum the piano & dance. So what can be expected of them…”

       “Friday 8th I was awakened early this morning by the firing of rockets & the chiming of bells. This is a Saint day called Conception day… We went to see the Hospital, or rather the beginning of a Hospital, wh will probably be finished sometime in the course of the next generation. The Brazilians are terribly slow in all their movements of this kind, it is now a great many years since this Hospital was begun & there is only one story erected It is built of rough brick intended to be stuccoed. If ever completed it will be a fine large building magnificent indeed for Rio Grande where the public buildings are mean looking things… The rules of etiquette here are very strict indeed – for instance if I am walking with my friend in the street I am expected to recognize & lift my hat to all whom he does. This to me is a most intolerable bore & keeps my hat bobbing up & down incessantly. …”

      Sunday Dec 10 Again has the sacred day come & gone but in this country it seems anything but Sunday. Business goes on much as usual although there is a pretence of closing the shops & offices… The Theatre & Circus is open, the market also & all the street pedlars are about as usual with their stock in trade upon their heads & their babies on their backs. The ladies go to mass every morning at ½ past 7 … The churches are full of gaudily dressed images, daubs of pictures, bones & relics of saints or pretended to be such preserved in alcohol like so many snakes & spiders in the collection of a naturalist. On Saint days … the attendance at the churches is very numerous, but on ordinary Sundays the Rio Grandensians are not noted for their church going. The beaus of the place go not to church, for very few gentlemen go to church but to the door around wh they cluster in order to see the fair senoritas as they come from their devotions. It is customary in this country to look upon a young lady or stare at her just as long as you can. For instance, you go out to take an evening walk & you see the balconies loaded with young ladies Senoritas & middle aged senoras who step out to get the air & to be looked at & if you wish to appear civil & not be set down as an ill bred fellow in the minds of the fair dark ladies you must politely & gracefully doff your hat & gaze respectfully & admiringly on the senoritas till you have passed the house…”

      “Monday 11th I went down this morning to look at our poor May Queen. She lies on one side in the mud & does not look much like the beautiful bark that lately sat the waves so proudly. The survey came off today & I am delighted to learn that she is not injured nearly so much as we thought. It will take but a few days to render her perfectly sea worthy again … The houses have a very penurious aspect owing to the entire absence of carpets, curtains, stuffed furniture &c – The reason for this is simply climate…”

      “Mond 18 … This noon as I was sitting at my window , I heard a bell ringing, upon looking out I saw a black passing with a common dinner bell of loud tone wh he kept constantly ringing I did not at first pay much attention to it, supposing it to be the city crier, but afterward on mentioning it to a friend, he told me that it was a death bell & that some one in the family to whom the slave belonged lie at the point of death & that this bell was to ask the prayers of the devout for the passing soul. Every good Catholic on hearing that bell whatever he may be doing sends a prayer to Heaven. This impresses me as being a very beautiful custom, one that touches the heart…”

      Willis and the May Queen depart Rio Grande February 3, 1855.

       “Tuesday [March] 6th We have been becalmed nearly all day – floating lazily along in sight of the shore wh looks beautifully romantic; a long low line of woodland with a chain of mountains stretching away in the background – At short intervals rises the smoke from the sugar making establishment; & the waters long shore & far out to sea are dotted with the picturesque looking catamarans. I had the pleasure of examining their structure quite minutely today as two of them passed quite near us. They are made of logs lashed together & a plank floor laid over them they each contained three men, in the center was what seemed to be a compound of a hammock bed & table – their sails were of the rudest description fastened to a pliable pole, taken altogether they closely resembled the raft I used to assist my schoolmates in making on wh to paddle about Wednesday & Saturday afternoons in some of the creeks of Charles River…”

       “Thursday 9th Here we are at last, anchored off Pernambuco & Olinda. These are the principal places of trade on the Brazilian coast next to Rio Janeiro & Bahia. The land in the vicinity of Pernambuco is fertile & well cultivated producing principally sugar & cotton & what makes the prospect delightfully pleasing are the numerous beau[tiful] villas belonging to the opulent merchants & planters wh are to be seen scattered in every direction peeping through the rich dark foliage. Yesterday afternoon we were sailing along past Cape St. Augustine. This is a high rugged projecting promontory with singular looking cliffs of a dark red hue – it has on its eastern extremity a battery mounting 5 guns it has also an old church on its summit apparently disused. After clearing this point we obtain a fine view of the cities Olinda & Pernambuco. The former is most beautifully situated on the side of a hill. One cannot imagine a more romantic situation, or one commanding a more lovely prospect. On the summit of the hill is an old monastery & cathedral wh may be seen at a great distance on a clear day & halfway down the hill is a convent forming the most beautifully romantic cluster of buildings I ever saw. Most of the wealthy merchants of Pernambuco have villas here, these are beautiful white stone buildings surrounded by delightful gardens; rising as they do one above another on the slope of the hill they are seen a great distance by approaching vessels. Between this city & Pernambuco are large groves of cocoa nut trees with here & there a pretty little cottage, half hidden in the foliage. The country a few miles in the interior is said to be covered with thick impenetrable woods, dreadfully infested with wild beasts & the most venomous snakes. The most beautiful birds abound in the neighborhood of Olinday & Pernambuco & are exposed to sale in cages in the streets & at the shop doors – some of them sing delightfully. The waters abound in fish where we are & this morning I counted over fifty catamarans with blacks on them all engaged in fishing. In this way the fish markets of the cities are supplied. The harbor of Pernambuco is wonderfully convenient it is formed by a natural pier extending five miles in a direct line. This is a coral reef so straight & even that one would almost fancy it the work of art. Pernambuco is visited mostly I believe for its cotton wh is the finest in Brazil. The city is built on two islands connected by bridges. One of wh is a most beautiful structure built by the Dutch when they took this place from the Portuguese in 1670; it consists of fifteen arches under wh runs a rapid current that comes many hundred miles down the country from the interior. … We shall probably be compelled to stop here two or three days for supplies. People in this country take their own time – At any American Port we could get all we want in six hours.”

      Willis’ journal comes to an end on March 28th somewhere short of Boston. But there are four pages written by Willis at a much later date.

      Sample quotes from correspondence with associates of Thoreau, Theophilus Brown and Harrison Gray Otis Blake, etc.

“Worcester, Jan’y 20th /56

Sunday Morning


My dear friend Love,


I believe I promised a prompt reply to your last note and it is certainly pleasant to me to set about making it though I hardly know how I am going to do so for I feel very poor this morning – in these days, I might say in good things. I have just read again your very pleasant note but hardly think that will help me much for you seem so rich in the best things that it only makes my poverty seem more abject.


Did Harry [Harrison Gray Otis Blake] read a letter of Thoreau’s to you in which he speaks of himself as a scarecrow on which bits of tin and other bright things are hung and sparkle in the sun; your praise of me reminds me of that, ‘Such a bundle of straw in a man’s clothing as I am, with a few bits of tine to sparkle in the air dangling about me; as if I were hard at work there in the field.  However, if this bird of life saves any man’s corn why he is the gainer’ And Thoreau says that of himself. If such as he are I [cancely] saved, where in it…rather where in or how may such as I hope to find [;ace/ Am duet as shabby as Thoreau feels himself to be and as doubly shabby as I  know I am, I yet presume that I have some bright spots in me and that you and the like of you happen to stared at the right angle of vision and so get the sparkle. But it may turn out that these ornaments you admire in me may be your own. Perhaps they are not yours. Perhaps they belong to our great common soul. As the dust which floats in air is illumined by the sun and sometimes makes the atmosphere all golden and so wonderfully beautiful, so may not our souls, or, our particular selves, illumined by the light eternal, make a universe which might otherwise be dark, light and beautiful. This is a poor statement of a half-fledged idea. So, you may give just as little thought to it as you please…


How are you getting on with your work with your piece I mean? You and Powers you know are in the same line. His Greek Slave is thought a complete success. I hope your American free woman will be a complete success too and I doubt not it will if it is not already. Perhaps you fancied that work completed when you said to me that you felt the want of an object in life. If so you though I paid a poor compliment to your work. Your friend The Brown”



“Worcester, Monday, Feb 11th



Dear friend,


When you said at Sterling that I should hear from you, I feared it might not be by any written communication. Directed to myself at least & this fear was rather confirmed by your delay. So, I was the more delighted on receiving your note. A new person to whom I can speak with freedom & pleasure, & whom I can with pleasure hear speak, the topics that most deeply interest me, is a great acquisition to my wealth. I believe with you in the riches of solitude, but with you too, I thirst for a true intercourse with others. I cannot look, just as you seem to do, upon books & persons, for it feels that my inner most life has, to a considerable extent, been brought out into consciousness by their influence. In my life I have had some glimpses of a very sweet & pure society. I can never forget them. I can never cease to long for the renewal and enlargement of them. It is a truer hope given to dream of & long for such intercourse. Then to content ourselves with anything lower. In general, I stand for solitude against all comers, & I love that side so well, that perhaps I am glad to see any one going as you do, further then I can. I do not like well to hear society defended, unless in some very amoral way, & hope I shall not by my position, make myself disagreeable to you. In reply to you, I bring forward some joint, but beautiful experiences, rather than argument, experiences with who you must sympathize. There is a society who approaches very near to solitude, nay, can you not conceive that the presence of a person should make you more solitary then you had been alone. My leading you to greater depths in your nature? A beautiful or sublime scene in nature helps to enrich & deepen our solitude; may not a person be more beautiful or sublime then a landscape? I met, by agreement, two persons upon a mountain top; the words of one of them as we sat by the fireside in the evening near the foot of the mountain, seemed grander than the mountain. You may say the grandeur is in ourselves; but we are helped by those reflections. Thoreau’s solitude & society are about the same thing. His Friend seems to be only an embodiment of the compassion of his solitude. He wrote to me as follows, When I suffer, I had been poorly complaining of missing my Worcester friends. “How can he be said to miss his friends, whom the fruits still nourish & the elements sustain? A man who missed his friends at a turn, went on buoyantly, dividing the friendliness & humming a tune to himself, ever & anon kneeling with delight to study each little lichen in his path, & scarcely made three miles a day for friendship.’ But whatever I may say in behalf of society, I have to fortify myself on the side of solitude more. I feel with you, that I am too much of a beggar, having been at times delighted with reflections. We continue to run after them, deluded with the fancy that they are substances, forgetting to cultivate the society of that private companion, who is the only real substance to be reflected, who gives the charm to solitude & to persons alike. The thirst for society is after all, a thirst for that, at the bottom. When this companion is with us, we are satisfied with solitude or society, & are then alone fit for either. I am glad to know that I did not repel you. That you could speak to me, that I could speak to you. I hope it will prove that we can write to each other as freely, that we can be to each other our best. If we could live only in the sun shine of such persons, now should we be helped to throw off our worthiness…Very truly yours, H.G.O. Blake”



“Worcester, Thursday March 13th



My dear friend,


It is a great blessing to feel moved by another to speak from the highest ground we can obtain to, & so I feel moved by you to speak. Amid the multitude of those who are absorbed in ceremony, in gossip, & commonplace, who address us on this ground & tend to call out the same element in us, to one who is impatient of all this, who is eager to have us speak from the very light of our lives, & is ready to pour out before us, of her best life, that I account an incalculable good. It is one wh. I shall not readily relinquish. Surrounded by this flood of appearances & trivialities, we need, in every way, to strengthen our faith in Reality, in the best & most beautiful. Hence, I would lay hold upon the help of those who bear witness to the Reality. That there is a heavenly element in all persons I believe intellectually (as I believe the earth moves round the sun not the contrary, tho, the contrary appears), but in so far as I do not simply believe this fact intellectually, but know it practically & really by beholding it more fully in others, by experiencing it more deeply in myself (wh. two things naturally go together) in so far I am fulfilling my destiny, passing into heaven. Such should be the grounds of my writing to you, however, they may fall short of his in fact, & not that distrusting the ‘reality of giving,’ I would impart ‘a terrible gift,’ I would indeed give as much as possible, both because, as you know, what we give is more surely our own, & because I shall thus most effectually stir you up to a fuller exhibition of your own wealth. Let us approach each other as both possessing in exhaustible riches, if we can only be simple & true enough to find them, & by working with honest fidelity at the mine within, we may help each the other to a fuller use of this wealth.


What you said of work was good, & I assent to it. But I went to feel that I am growing, really growing & not simply vegetating physically & perhaps withering spiritually. In guessing at my work, you place not in a loftier position by far than I am conscious of occupying, tho, I do hope that for better influences go forth from me then I am aware of. If one felt that his whole nature was growing ripe & richer, I suppose he would not feel the need of anything men call work, No, his work would be most gloriously done, without his knowing it. In so far as I do feel this need, I suppose the ripening process is not prospering in me…


On Friday, too, after a long interval, I received a letter from Thoreau. Let me give you a sentence from it wh. attracted me most, tho, other passages in the letter may, I feel, be more to me hereafter. ‘I confess that I am considerably alarmed even when I hear that an individual wishes to meet me, for my experience teaches me that we shall thus only be made certain of a mutual strangeness, wh. otherwise we might never have been aware of.’ It seems as tho Thoreau were the truest Doctor of Solitude who had ever lived, as tho, he had explored its truth & beauty in the soul of a friend, be satisfied with that, do not seek to be related to him, on other grounds. He writes ‘How will this do for a symbol of sympathy? Wh. agrees with what he has written to me before as tho we should seek to meet in the region of our aspirations & nowhere else. All other friendship then that wh. comes to us in the direction of the solitary element, proves a share or commonplace in the end, wh. is but another way of saying that the love of man, to be anything, must be one with the love of God…Thoreau is not so indulgent as you are apparently with regard to work, tho, perhaps truly interpreted, you would be as exacting as he, for does not spiritual growth (or, rather complete growth wh. could least of all leave out what we call spiritual) imply work in the deepest sense. T. refers me to the sugar maple & trusts I ‘hope prepared a store of sap – tubs,’ ‘the sap will not run in summer.’ In other words, you may appear sterner & would not have the sap ‘all go to leaves & wood.’ Write when you are moved…. H.G.O. Blake”



“Salem Oct 24th 1856


My dear friend,


I avail myself of the return of my nephew Stanley Waters to give him an introduction to you, which he eagerly covets, and to inform you of the great void, which your absence has created in our circle.


The sweet Ottowa child has ascended to her happy hunting ground, and the benevolent Dr. Mason has returned to his mission of kindness among the afflicted, but their beautiful influence has remained among us to cheer and develop our spirits.


Yesterday, while seated at our dinner, the table exhibited extraordinary manifestations in rappings and tippings effected by a spirit, purporting to be that of Mrs. M. Choate, who had died the day previous, and was buried this morning.

No one but our own family was present, and yet the table was much more affected than by our whole circle on Sunday evening.

It will please you to learn that this effect was attributed by the spirits to the influence of your visit to the house. You will thus see the importance of your presence here, and I trust, that you will gratify us, as soon as possible with another interview, for we shall regard it as essential to our further spiritual development.


Mrs. Waters and the boys join with me in wishing for yourself, all the happiness which you are so instrumental in giving to others.

With sincere affection, yours, Joseph Waters”



1.     Willis, Frederick L. H., Alcott Memoirs (Boston:1915) p. 40




American National Biography, volume 1, pp.  229-234

Bedell, Madelon, The Alcotts Biography of a Family

Cheever, Susan, Louisa May Alcott A Personal Biography

Myerson, Joel; Shealy, Daniel; and Stern, Madeleine B., eds., The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott

Reisen, Harriet, Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women

Saxton, Martha, Louisa May Alcott A Modern Biography

Wills, Frederick L. H., Alcott Memoirs.