A Christmas Tale

The Rochester Anthonys were not in the habit of celebrating Christmas until the end of the 19th century. “We Quakers don’t make much of Christmas,” Susan said as late as 1899.

It should come as no surprise, then, that on Christmas Day in 1860 Susan became embroiled in one of the most unpopular causes of her life. To make matters even worse, the situation was filled with cruel irony.

Ever since 1850, Susan had worked tirelessly with a group of abolitionists to free African-Americans from slavery. Along with her family and friends, she had personally assisted runaways on the Underground Railroad. For this reason, she probably assumed that her associates would spring to her aid when she tried to help a white woman and daughter who were fleeing an abusive husband—a situation with many parallels to a life of slavery.

Here’s an excerpt from my book *Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All:

“Phoebe Phelps was the wealthy mother of three children, married to a member of the Massachusetts Senate. She suspected him of loving another woman, and one day she told him so. He became so angry that he threw her down the stairs. Fearing that people would hear about his affair and his terrible temper, Senator Phelps had his wife locked up in an asylum. For a year and a half, she lived like a prisoner, away from the children she loved.”

Finally, she was released into her brother’s custody and allowed to have her children visit one at a time. On one of these occasions, she fled with her 13 year-old daughter Delia to Quaker friends, who introduced them both to Susan in Syracuse, NY.

Thus Susan marked that Christmas by boarding a train headed for New York City with the two fugitives. But as in the original Christmas story, there was no room at the inn.

“Because it was late at night when they arrived, Susan tried to get a hotel room for the night. However, the clerk refused to rent them a room [because they were not accompanied by a man]. After Susan threatened to sleep in the lobby, he gave in. The whole next day Susan took Mrs. Phelps and Delia from one friend’s home to another, but none would help them for fear of breaking the law.”

At that time, Massachusetts law viewed children and married women as property of the man of the house. Among others, Susan’s abolitionist hero William Lloyd Garrison demanded that she return the women to Senator Phelps rather than sully the antislavery movement with law-breaking on behalf of the Phelpses. Susan retorted, “Trust me that as I ignore all law to help the slave, so will I ignore it all to protect an enslaved woman.”

Susan’s father affirmed that she had made the right moral choice. Most likely, she also had the support of her brother D.R. in Kansas, who two years later as a Civil War colonel would face a court martial rather than return fugitive slaves to their masters. He frequently supported Susan’s travels on behalf of women’s rights.

Senator Phelps eventually kidnapped Delia, who was never re-united with Phoebe. In 1876, the Phelps failure probably returned to haunt Susan: when D.R.’s wife Anna needed assistance on a female issue, she turned to someone other than her famous sister-in-law.

(*Verbal Images Press, 1994)