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Our Rich History: Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Cincinnati, was member of the Semi-Colon Club

By Andrew Young
Special to NKyTribune

In 1832 Harriet Beecher, 21 years old, moved with her family into a “spacious” house in the Walnut Hills area of Cincinnati. By the 1830’s, Cincinnati had become the 9th largest city in the country and the largest in the Midwest.

Considered the first city built by Americans born in the US, some called Cincinnati the “truly” American City. It strived for the respect of the greatest cities on the Eastern shore and even the great cities of Europe. Cincinnati planners hoped to shape the city into a marvelous jewel, but in 1830 it still had the signs of an industrial city.

Riverboats lined the muddy banks, and herds of pigs were sometimes led down muddy streets to butchers and packing houses. Tanneries opened every morning and produced some of the foulest air anyone could imagine. Still, Cincinnati had big plans.

Harriett Beecher Stowe. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Harriet Beecher’s uncle, Samuel Foote, was part of a literary club formed by old friends that had come from New England to the great city on the river. They called themselves the Semi-Colon Club.

When Harriet and her sister Catherine came to the city, Foote invited both of them to join the club. This was, according to Victorian ideas, completely offensive. The opposite sexes were not to join the same clubs, and women were never supposed to share their writings publicly with men.

The Semi-Colon Club met weekly to exchange ideas and writings. It was especially enlivening to young Harriet Beecher. Her first writings shared with others—and among her first writings ever—were letters written in a jokingly pompous style, as well as a satire on the modern use of language. The second was so popular with the club that the editor of the Western Monthly Magazine asked permission to publish it.

This attention and praise must have excited Harriet for she then devised a devious plan. She wrote a series of letters that were purported to be some aged letters from country people who were refined intellectuals.

The letters were mailed together as a group, in the same way Harriet and her widespread family wrote to each other. One sister would write her news and mail it to another, who would then write her own letter, enclose it, and send it on to a third sister. They yellowed the letters with smoke, to make them appear old, and tore at the edges to make them seem as though they had been read many times over. They would seal a letter, then break the seal, and imitate the postage.

These fake letters, which showed either Harriet’s tenacity in creating practical jokes or large amounts of free time, or both, ended up fooling even the wise Uncle Samuel and were considered a well-played literary joke.

At this time Western Monthly Magazine held a competition for the best short story, and Harriet won with a work called “A New England Sketch,” but later changed its title to “Uncle Tim.”

While the Semi-Colon club existed, it was composed of many great men and women. Chief among these (saving Harriet herself) was Salmon P. Chase, a lawyer and abolitionist. He later became Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln and probably helped in the famous meeting between Lincoln and Harriet, when President Lincoln said Harriet was the little woman who caused the war, or something to that extent, although it appears to be a fictional quotation.

The Semi-Colon Club also included the philanthropist Sarah Worthington King Peter, the poet C.P. Cranch, the artist Worthington Whittredge, Judge James Hall (the editor of Western Monthly Magazine), and Harriet’s sister, Catherine, who would create a school and promote female education throughout her life.

Finally there was Professor Calvin Ellis Stowe and his wife, who would die in 1834. Calvin Stowe would then marry Harriet Beecher in 1836, giving her the name she is known by and also helping to act as her literary agent.

Though speculation is discouraged, it is hard to imagine what would have become of Harriet Beecher if she had not come to Cincinnati and had never been invited to join the Semi-Colon Club.

You can go back in time and imagine these bright minds brought together in the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, which can be visited online at:


Or in person at:
2950 Gilbert Avenue
Cincinnati, OH 45206

Andrew  Young  is a historian and writer living with his wife and two children in Northern Kentucky. He is the author of Unwanted: A Murder Mystery of the Gilded Age, which is a historic true crime book about the Pearl Bryan murder in 1896.

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