The Fortitude of Mary Elizabeth Harding Jackson
Author: Mary Jane McClarty, Historic Interpreter
Adaptability is the beauty of the female. She takes on so many roles, often seamlessly throughout the days, weeks, months, and years. When we look at the women of Belle Meade during the 19th century, each generation boasts such female strength. Through their letters, the Belle Meade women show us the strengths and vulnerabilities of their personalities. In particular, the lifelong fortitude of Mary Elizabeth Harding Jackson is worth exploring.
Mary Elizabeth Harding was born on February 5, 1850 to Elizabeth Irwin McGavock Harding and William Giles Harding. Harding’s younger daughter, she was considered by some to be less attractive than her sister, though her husband’s letters credit her continuously as his “darling” and “precious” wife. Mary grew up as a privileged youth and was given French and music lessons along with her sister, Selene. She attended St. Cecilia Academy which was formerly located on 8th Avenue and Clay Street in downtown Nashville. In a letter from her mother, Mary is told, “come out on the cars tomorrow eve, as I can’t go in for you.” Obviously, as a young adult, Mary, was not cloistered, but comfortable getting about the growing city of Nashville.
On April 30,1874, Mary and Howell Jackson became husband and wife, at her beautiful family home, Belle Meade. They were a blessing to each other. Mary was 24 years old and Howell was 42 years of age. Incidentally, Howell was the older brother of Mary’s brother-in-law, William Hicks Jackson. Howell had lost his first wife, Sophie Malloy, during the 1873 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, leaving him with 5 young children, who ranged in age from 4-14 years old. Howell had made arrangements for his children to stay with their Malloy grandparents in Memphis after his wedding to Mary. But Mary, in full possession of herself and what she had committed herself to undertake, demonstrates, with her writing, in the same boldness we see in suffragettes and other outspoken women of the time: “After weighing most thoughtfully, carefully and conscientiously this very troublesome question, my heart and judgement force the conviction in my mind that it is best for you, Mrs. Malloy, Jennie and far best for me that I should take charge of all the children immediately upon our marriage in Jackson.”
Mary did not reserve such boldness only for her future husband, however. On March 12, 1874, just about a month before the wedding, Mary wrote Howell and shared that she ran into a friend who could not believe her plan to marry him. “Why not I asked? Because I thought you had too much sense to take the responsibilities of 5 children. I remarked, well you see I have not, don’t you?” With a very “tongue in cheek” attitude, she comments to her husband, “I think I satisfied her thirsty cravings.” Even as a young woman Mary had self-confidence and her own independent thought, along with a sense of humor.
When reading Mary’s letters to her husband, we get even more glimpses of her honesty and thoughtfulness, determination and courage. On March 2, 1874, Mary, in writing her soon to be husband, says “I sympathize most tenderly with you in your very embarrassing position just at this time. Yet perfect candor, which should, and I hope and trust, will ever mark our relations towards each other.” In the closing of this letter, as with all her letters, Mary demonstrated she was a woman who not only believed, but practiced her deep faith in God with honest and direct communication. “Good night, may God’s choicest blessings attend us and enable us, through this love, to bear our crosses through life is my prayer united with yours.” In June of 1874, she closed another letter “with humble and thankful heart for all of God’s blessings, may we always be guarded and guided by His protecting power.”
At the time of their marriage, Howell was working for the Court of Arbitration of West Tennessee. He was not as prosperous financially, as we might think of attorneys today. Howell eventually became a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1880-1881. His next position as a civil servant was as a U.S. Senator for the state of Tennessee from 1881-1886. Mr. and Mrs. Jackson’s West Meade home was completed during his second year as Senator. While Howell was serving, the couple along with their children, moved back and forth from D.C. to their Nashville home. Mary so preferred to be in Tennessee that she had a special set of Haviland Limoges dinnerware made to remind her of what she missed, with pictures of the birds, flowers and butterflies she would see among the nature surrounding her country home, west of downtown Nashville. From 1886-1893 Howell became a Justice for the U.S. Circuit Courts 6th District, working and residing in Cincinnati, Ohio. The last years of his life, Howell was appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice from 1893-1895. Again he went back to live in Washington, D.C. with his wife there to care for him. Unfortunately, due to tuberculosis, his time on the Supreme Court was brief. Returning to West Meade, he passed away on August 8,1895 surrounded by family and his beloved Mary Elizabeth. Throughout their marriage, Mary proved herself to be unflappable in all circumstances, a character trait we see in her many letters during those years.
As a wife, Mary was often alone due to her husband’s work. The resulting letters between Howell and Mary show us a couple devoted to each other, despite the distance between them. Some of the candor that Mary and Howell shared in their communication was their honesty with one another about their “blues”, one of the terms which they used when missing one another and their separation tried their patience. She wrote to him on March 24, 1875, not quite a year into their marriage. Mary had not been well, and Howell struggled with pneumonia; moreover, she was in Jackson with the children and he was in Memphis working. She wrote: “This may be my last letter to you before your return and unless I can write more cheerfully, I won’t write at all. I am well darling, but just gloomy. I miss your dear comforting care… and hope you will continue to be prudent, for pneumonia is so fatal.”
Together, Mary and Howell had three children: Elizabeth Jackson Buckner, born in 1876, Louise Jackson McAlister, born in 1879, and Harding Alexander Jackson, born in 1881. Mary also raised the four remaining children of Sophie Malloy… a total of 7 children, demonstrating Mary’s confidence and incredible work ethic as a mother. (Howell and Sophie’s 4-year-old daughter, tragically died just a month before his wedding to Mary.)
When Mary was pregnant with their first child, Howell was working in Memphis. At this time, she was living in Howell’s hometown, Jackson, Tennessee. Howell’s stepmother, Eunice B. Jackson, called “Grandma”, helped with the four children. On one occasion, when Mary traveled back to Belle Meade to visit with her family, she wrote to Howell explaining that Selene, and their cousin, Lizzie Hoover, were both sick. Mary wrote, “A fortunate thing that I am here. It makes me drop around a good deal, attending to housekeeping and the family. I feel tired by the time I get through.”
Mary was a devoted mother with concerns to which all parents can relate. In a letter dated July 1, 1877, Mary writes to Howell about the feeding of their new infant. (One may wonder if well-to-do women of the Victorian Era breastfed their babies. By the late 1800s, wealthy white women were encouraged to breastfeed their own children, provided they were healthy enough. While not all wealthy women did, Mary did indeed nurse her own children.) A slightly distressed-sounding Mary wrote: “The boys well and so am I. A thought keeps after me to wean the baby, at night anyway, but I can’t do it. I tried and let her cry almost a half-hour but I could not stand it.”
Mary’s love for all her children shows in letters that predate her own pregnancies. We see through her letters, the values she wanted to pass down to the children she was raising as her own. In a letter, dated March 21,1875, she asks Howell to bring his son Henry’s guitar home, presumably to practice. As a mother who had spent her youth practicing piano, she knew that practice developed self-discipline, which is so important to human character. On the 24th of the same month she wrote again suggesting it was best to buy Henry’s clothes there in Jackson rather than in Memphis because it may be “cheaper,” and otherwise, Howell would have had to take the child’s measurements back to the city with him. While two of Howell’s sons, Billy and Howell Jr. were staying in Memphis with their Malloy grandparents, Mary was in Jackson with Howell’s parents and his two other children, Henry and Mamie. She wrote: “altering of Mamie’s dresses and skirts I have kept right busy… I thought I would write this letter to the children but I will write to them soon. I am gratified to hear that they are doing so well and the family is pleased with their behavior; nothing delights me more. Has Howell had any cold?”
According to her letters, Mary’s interests expanded beyond the walls of her home. She exhibited knowledge and understanding of the thoroughbreds and her father’s farm and livestock business affairs, as well. On Tuesday, May 18,1875, she wrote, “Father is very anxious to hear the results of the races yesterday. Carmago was to run in the Derby. Purse worth about $3000 if it wins, he would sell for about $5000.” On Sunday, May 23,1875, she wrote, “Voltigeur won yesterday’s two mile dash, so the [Belle Meade] maroon colors are ahead again and Tennessee forced Kentucky to take a back seat.” Here is another telltale comment in the same letter, “As I keep you better posted by letter and you have so little time to read the papers that I will have all I can to talk to you about.” This was written early in their marriage, when they were separated by Howell’s work in Memphis, and Mary was his connection and counsel on family business matters. On Sunday, July 1,1877, she wrote, “Brother Will made some sales of the cattle and sheep.” Mary’s letter served as a carrier for additional business details, as her brother-in-law William Hicks Jackson added a postscript: “Have sold 50 head of cattle at 4 ¼ cts. per pound – the purchaser to have the privilege of taking them anytime in the month of July—also 150 sheep at 3 ½ cts. per pound, to be removed right away.”
In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison, prior to leaving the White House after losing the election to Grover Cleveland, nominated Mary’s husband to the Supreme Court and he assumed office in March of 1893. Before leaving town to head once again to live and work in D.C., a banquet was held in honor of Howell’s appointment to the Court at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville. As the guest of honor, Howell said he hoped to be a judge who has, “a Godly fear of doing wrong and entertains a just regard for the rights of every fellow being, without distinction of persons, whether rich or poor, high or low, humble or exalted.” Mary moved again to D.C. with Howell when he served on the Supreme Court. She knew her husband to be a man who gave his all, even at the jeopardy of his own health. During their stay in D.C. they dined at the White House with President Cleveland and his young wife, Frances Folsom Cleveland.
During her life, we perhaps see Mary’s fortitude the best when she was faced with the illness and death of many beloved family members in a relatively short period of time. Mary’s sister, Selene, who had suffered from breathing difficulties throughout her adult life, was residing at West Meade, when she passed away on December 13, 1892. When her niece, Eunice, who also suffered from cardiopulmonary problems, couldn’t leave the house, Mary brought her granddaughter to Belle Meade for visits to brighten her niece’s spirits. Once again, it was Mary making sure any family difficulties were handled with care. Following the death of her brother-in-law, William Hicks Jackson and his own son, William Harding Jackson, the fate of Mary’s childhood home was threatened. Between 1903 and 1906, Mary was so devoted to her family and Belle Meade, the estate her father had built, that she considered buying the home and property. However, her son-in-law, Hill McAlister, persuaded her not to take on such a financial burden at that pivotal time.
Mary’s support of her family was not hindered by social status and protocol. Her niece, Selene Elliston, was an unwed mother at a time when single motherhood made her a social outcast. When Selene (who had always struggled with her mental health) was losing her psychological hold on life and was prescribed Laudanum for depression, it was her Aunt Mary who stepped in and took her to the sanitarium for help. In 1913, when Selene Elliston passed away at the age of 36, it was in her Aunt Mary’s West Meade home that the funeral was held.
Despite her many personal losses, Mary never succumbed to grief or despair. By 1908, Mary was actively caring for her grandchildren, while her daughter was away convalescing because of severe headaches. She wrote to her daughter, in a letter dated July 19,1908, She was, remembering the anniversary of her nephew’s death five years earlier: “All day I have been thinking of dear William and wondering where D is today.” (D was her nephew’s widow.) But, in the same letter, she also informed her daughter of the two gallons of peach pickles she made the day before, not to mention the blackberry cordial and jelly.
Mary, until her last year of life, was very vital in her family’s affairs. She made wise financial decisions that enabled her to pay off her portion of the family debt to the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and retain her West Meade property. Over the years, Mary shared this home with many family members as they needed. And one of those needs included using her property to host her niece Eunice’s Sunday School, which was later carried on by Mary’s own daughter, Elizabeth Buckner. This charitable organization was started by Eunice as a young girl in the 1880s to teach children of formerly enslaved workers how to read and write through the stories of the Bible. In addition to the Sunday School, Mary was a benevolent member of the Nashville community. She founded the Mission Home on 10th Avenue, and served as the President of the Vine Street Christian Church Ladies Aid Society for seventeen years. She also served on the board of the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers, for which she held the annual picnics on the lawn at West Meade for over ten years.
Mary Elizabeth Harding Jackson passed away in 1913 at the age of 63. Although she did not live to see the suffrage movement succeed, and we do not have any documentation of her feelings about the issue, we do see in her letters her perseverance, independence of thought, humor, and compassion in times of adversity. These are the same traits which brought success to the Suffrage Movement. Mary, a woman who seemed content in the ‘domestic sphere,’ understood how valuable and integral her role was to everyday life. Mary knew her power and strength was important. Her opinions and her work mattered. She made a difference not just for those close to her, but also for future generations.
- Wills, Ridley II. The History of Belle Meade: Mansion, Plantation, and Stud Vanderbilt University, 1991, p.296
- Harding, Elizabeth. Letter to daughter Mary Harding Jackson, n.d. Thursday Night. Possibly 1870, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection.
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, 2 March 1874, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection.
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, 12 March 1874, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection.
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, 2 March 1874, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, June 1874, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, 24 March 1875, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, n.d. Possibly 1875-1876, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, n.d. Possibly 1875-1876, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, 2 April 1875, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, 18 May 1875, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, 23 May 1875, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Howell Edmunds Jackson, 1 July 1877, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Wills, Ridley II. The History of Belle Meade: Mansion, Plantation, and Stud. Vanderbilt University, 1991, p. 270
- Ibid, p. 280
- Jackson, Mary Harding. Letter to Elizabeth Jackson Butler, 19 July 1908, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Collection
- Wills, Ridley II. Elizabeth and Matt – A Love Story-. Lightning Sources, Inc. 2007, p. 32
- Ibid, p. 46