A Warm Welcome: Harriet Beecher Stowe Burned in Effigy by U.Va. Students, 1855
    by Ben Hitchcock

“Mrs. Stowe Burnt in Effigy and her Sister Insulted — A Specimen of the Manliness of Virginia Collegians,” reads the first line of a dispatch in the June 1, 1855 issue of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. The “Mrs. Stowe” referenced is Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most important anti-slavery texts of the nineteenth century. The “Virginia Collegians” are students at the University of Virginia. Catharine Beecher, Stowe’s sister and an educator and author in her own right, had visited the Charlottesville, and the students of the University had responded with vitriol. 

The newspapers leave the most colorful information about the incident to the reader’s imagination, but an article published by The Liberator on June 8 provides flavor enough about the night in question: “The evening I arrived,” writes an unnamed exchange correspondent, “Mrs. Stowe was burned in effigy in front of the college, none daring to interfere, which was made also the occasion of a general spree.” 

Two days before the burning of the effigy, students had interrupted Catharine Beecher’s dinner with raucous singing and general mayhem. Beecher wrote a satirical letter published by multiple papers in which she sarcastically denies that the incident ever occurred. (Beecher’s letter was so dry in its satire that it caused an Iowa paper to question whether the incident took place at all.) “These young gentlemen… are members of a literary institution, unrivaled not only at the South, but throughout the nation… so that Yale and Cambridge are entirely outdone,” she writes, mocking the haughty attitudes of the Virginian students. Beecher then delivers a scintillating put-down of the serenade she received: “I am no connoisseur in music, but I understand that the highest style of composition always involves many discords. From this I inferred that the musical developments of the young gentlemen were of as high an order as their literary…” The effigy-burning, insulting singing, and ensuing fallout have much to say about the culture of both the University and the country in the years just before the war. 

In 1855 the University was still a rough and rowdy place. The school’s worst disciplinary years were behind it — Professor Davis was killed on the Lawn in 1840, marking a nadir from which the school slowly improved in the ensuing decades — but in 1855 the students still for the most part ran amok. The unnamed correspondent in The Liberator writes “[The University] has always been noted for being an immoral place, having as blots on its escutcheon some of the most reckless crimes amongst the students, (one being the murder of a professor) and scenes differing far from the usual excesses of college life… I never saw a third as much dissipation among young men at any other college.” 

U.Va. records further corroborate the commonplace nature of such conduct. The burning of Stowe’s effigy does not appear in the 1855 Chairman’s Journal, a running document where the University’s chairman would record the punishments meted out for various infractions committed by the students. Nor does the incident appear in any of the minutes kept during faculty meetings that spring. The effigy-burning likely went either unnoticed or unpunished. The Faculty Minutes from April 20, 1855 do however feature a three-hundred-word discussion of when to deliver ice to the students and faculty during the summer, which perhaps indicates where the administration’s priorities lay. 

Looking beyond the internal operations of the University, the burning of the effigy symbolizes the rising sectional tensions taking hold in the United States. It’s no surprise that the University’s students were not fans of Beecher Stowe. In 1855, 98% of the study body hailed from south of the Mason-Dixon line. Generally speaking they were wealthy aristocrats, many of whom owned slaves. Stowe’s antislavery novel had incurred the wrath of slaveholders for its heart-wrenching depictions of the domestic slave trade and the separation of slave families; Stowe was accused by her Southern critics of having left the confines of “woman’s sphere” and meddled in the manly realm of politics. The U.Va. students’ display reveals how Stowe had escalated a cultural war over slavery. The students could sense that the status quo was in trouble. They wouldn’t have bothered with the demonstration if they didn’t consider Beecher Stowe and the ideology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin a legitimate threat to their way of life.  

Additionally, it’s worth emphasizing that Harriet Beecher Stowe herself never travelled to Charlottesville, or indeed to the South at all. The spark for this incident was the arrival of her sister. Six years before the fighting began it was already clear to these students that conflict was coming. 

The incident made national news. Papers as far away as Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin ran dispatches about the rowdy Virginians. Many papers framed the incident as proof of the degradation of southern society. “Within the past few days the University of Virginia has been the scene of incidents hardly creditable to the chivalry of the Old Dominion,” wrote a correspondent for the Pennsylvanian Inquirer in a dispatch reprinted in multiple papers, including the Newport Daily News. The dispatch compares the students to George Washington. The famous Virginian “raised his hat to a negro man to whom he would not yield the palm of politeness.” The current south has none of the same grace, implies the unnamed corresponded, proclaiming “How the mighty have fallen!” The University held significance around the country as a symbol of the genteel South. It had long been the premier academic institution in the South and in 1855 it was the largest University in the entire country. To see the students there so flagrantly disregarding the supposedly dignified traditions of the wealthy elite was further proof to many northerners that the southern way of life was not worth preserving. 

 

 

 

Sources:

Burlington Weekly Iowa State Gazette, May 30, 1855

The Liberator (NY), June 1, 1855

The Liberator (NY), June 8, 1855

Madison Wisconsin Daily State Journal, May 18, 1855

Newport Daily News (Va), May 16, 1855

Sandusky Daily Commercial Register (OH), May 18, 1855

University of Virginia. Board of Visitors Minutes. (17 October 1849, 28 June 1850)

University of Virginia. University Catalogues. (1855)

University of Virginia. Journals of the Chairman of the Faculty. Vol. 31 (1855)

University of Virginia. Faculty Minutes. (1855)