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Extracted from “A History of the Marblehead Female Humane Society, Inc.”

written by Martha Bessom Gorman

The Society with the antiquated name has been in existence since 1816 and it is Marblehead’s oldest charitable organization. When Pastor John Bartlett suggested that some kind of group to help the poor was urgently needed, 125 women of Marblehead rallied to his call. On November 19, 1816 at the Academy Hall on Pleasant Street the Marblehead Female Humane Society was formally organized.


Who was the Rev. John Bartlett?

02_john_bartlettJohn Bartlett, a graduate of Harvard College, A.B. 1805, A.M. 1808, was called to be pastor of the 2nd Congregational Church, Marblehead, in the spring of 1811. Ordained on May 22, (his 27th birthday) married on May 26 to Rebecca de Blois, he was already well known in Boston as a civic-minded leader. As Chaplain of the Almshouse of Boston, 1807-1810, he initiated the movement which resulted in the founding of the McLean Hospital and the Massachusetts General Hospital. From his father, Register of Deeds for Middlesex County, he acquired considerable knowledge of legal transactions. Later, a brother minister summed up Mr. Bartlett’s functions:

“If one of his parishioners were very ill, he would first prescribe for him, then pray for him. If the case was likely to prove fatal, he wrote the sick man’s will, watched with him the last night of his life, comforted the mourners, made the post-mortem examination, officiated at the funeral, then presented the will for probate, gave bonds as executor, and was appointed guardian of the children.”

Famous for its Revolutionary heroes, Marblehead in 1811, when Rev. Bartlett arrived, was still one of the most important places in New England. Elbridge Gerry was Governor of Massachusetts, and soon to be Vice-President of the United States; Judge Joseph Story was an Associate Judge of the U.S. Supreme Court; Samuel Sewall was a justice in the Massachusetts Supreme Court. With the town full of public-spirited citizens, Pastor Bartlett proved himself to be an equally influential leader.

Elected to the school committee in 1812, he served for many years. In 1816 he founded the Marblehead Female Humane Society. A few years later he started the Dorcas Society for the special care of needy members of his own communion. In 1817 he was active in the forming of the Moral Union Society for the advancement of temperance and public morals. Having been greatly influenced by the liberal preaching and writing of William Ellery Channing, who gave the opening prayer of his ordination in 1811, Pastor Bartlett changed his church from the 2nd Congregational to Unitarian in 1820. In 1821 he revived the Philanthropic Lodge of Freemasons, and was elected Master. The Braid and Straw Society was founded by him in 1826 to supply materials to enable women to work at home. In 1830 he began the Marblehead Lyceum for the dissemination of useful knowledge; it was an immediate success, and he was its first president. In 1831 he undertook to build a new church which was dedicated January 2, 1833. Unfortunately, when this building burned down in 1910, many specific records of his accomplishments were destroyed.

Why was such an organization so necessary?

There was an unusual amount of poverty in the seacoast towns of New England due to the devastating effects of the War of 1812. Marblehead’s most important industry – fishing – was once again in ruins. Patriotic as always, the majority of the fishermen and merchants had upheld Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807 keeping their ships anchored in the Harbor rather than engaging in international trade. Two years later, the unsuccessful embargo having been lifted, they set sail again only to have the British continue seizing their ships and impressing their seamen into the British Navy.

The song “Marblehead Forever” could well have included “First in the War of 1812.” Out of a population of about 6,000, ONE THOUSAND Marblehead men became involved in the war for “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights;” either as privateers engaged in preying on British ships, or in the Navy or as members of Marblehead’s Light Infantry Company. Though the Revolution and the Civil War were more significant in history, some of the War of 1812 was fought within sight of the shores, and was brought home more closely. Cannon shot reverberated over Marblehead waters. Hundreds lined the shores to see the “Chesapeak” captured, and later watched the “Constitution” seek shelter from British guns.

When the war ended three years later with the ratification of the peace treaty in February 1815, over 700 Marbleheaders were still imprisoned either on filthy prison ships or in English prisons. More than 500 were held in high-walled Dartmoor Prison in a desolate part of England.

The courageous women of Marblehead were used to long months of anxious waiting for their men to come home from either fishing off the Grand Banks or trading the dried salt cod for the treasures of Europe. It must have been especially agonizing and humiliating to wonder if their freedom-loving men were being held captive suffering from cold or heat, hunger and torture.

Many months passed before they were allowed to return home. Of course, some did not return from the war at all. Those who came home found poverty and suffering in almost every household.

To make matters worse, the year 1816 was known as the year of “no summer.” There was a frost in every single month of the year, and the crops and gardens failed. There was definitely a great need for an organization to help the poor.

At a meeting of the subscribers to the Humane Society at the Academy Hall on November 19, 1816, The Marblehead Female Humane Society was formally organized with a membership of 125 women. To help the indigent, sick and infirm at home was their objective, and their quaintly worded “raison d’etre” indicates that they felt enough money was being raised and sent off to foreign lands…enough religious and benevolent institutions had been endowed; now it was time to help Marbleheaders.


What did The Marblehead Female Humane Society do?

A Standing Committee was first to identify and assess the needs, and then give whatever assistance was necessary and possible to the “beneficiaries.” In the first year 48 persons were assisted; some for two or three months, some for a longer period. The relief given was mostly wine, clothing, sugar, tea and bed linens.

In one year, 2, 809 loaves of bread were given out. Some people were given 25 cents a week, some 50 cents. By 1896 it was 50 cents a week for all the people receiving money. In 1910 it was voted to give the beneficiaries $3.00 per month in the winter instead of $2.00; $4.00 per month in 1918; $5.00 every month by 1922. It was not only women who were helped but also men.


What was The Mary E. Harris House?

The ladies of the Society began to wish that they could find a home for some of the “beneficiaries.” The Secretary’s Report of 1916 said, “It is hoped that this fund may be increased sufficiently to make possible the establishment of a home for aged people. We do not plan for a large house, but we do want some place where gentlewomen who have no relatives to care for them can be relieved of the cares of housekeeping. Carrying coal, making fires, cooking and laundry work are too hard work for ladies of seventy, eighty and even ninety years.”

In 1924, almost miraculously, their dream became a reality. Mary E. Harris left her home on the corner of Mugford and Harris Streets to her advisor, Everett Paine, who was one of the town’s leading citizens and President of the National Grand Bank. As soon as her will was probated, Mr. Paine offered the house to the Marblehead Female Humane Society, Inc. to be used as a home for aged persons.

A campaign to raise the necessary money to finance this institution began immediately. On April 11, 1924 a letter was mailed to 500 townspeople asking for pledges of $5, $2, or $1 a month. $3,000 was raised. A huge summer street fair in August in Washington Square raised a total of $2,000 by this gala event.


What other charitable work did the Marblehead Female Humane Society do?

In the 1970s, the Society turned to “other related charitable activities.” The Society gave $5,000 to start up the Meals-on-Wheels Program, and many Directors helped deliver the meals. Another $1,000 was given towards the cost of the minibus for Senior Citizens and the organization began to help the Visiting Nurse Association.


When and why was the Mary E. Harris Home closed after 60 years?

In the 1980s, better pensions and higher social security payments and longevity all gave the elderly the independence to decide whether to stay in their own homes, retire to a warmer climate, or take advantage of plentiful elderly housing in Marblehead. For years there had been a waiting list of applicants anxious to enter the Mary E. Harris House. The list began to shrink and after two years of having no eligible applicants…the Society began to rethink the advisability of maintaining the home.

On June 5, 1984, the Officers and the Board of Directors of the Marblehead Female Humane Society, Inc., voted reluctantly to close the Mary E. Harris Home on September 30, 1984.In a letter dated July 1984, Mrs. Harold L. Willard, Directress, wrote, “We are returning to the original purpose of Rev. John Barlett and the loyal women of Marblehead who founded the Society to use our income to provide aid to those in need and services for the elderly of Marblehead as the Society has done since 1816.”

The house was sold in November 1984. And, an outreach program was initiated to assist Marbleheaders in their homes. This program was staffed and coordinated by a registered nurse and continued until mid-2013.


What does the Society do now?

The Society’s by-laws now state, “The object of the Corporation shall be to establish and support programs dedicated to the maintenance and care of people of all ages, and to engage in activities having a general charitable and benevolent purpose in Marblehead.”

Dues are still $1.20 per year. There are currently over 300 members. Monthly meetings are now held at the YMCA in Marblehead.

In order for an individual or organization to receive financial assistance a referral must be made. Most referrals come through the Marblehead Council on Aging and the Marblehead Counseling Center. School counselors, principals, houses of worship, and heads of various organizations can also write letters of referral asking for financial assistance. At the meetings, the Directress reads the requests, anonymously, and the Board votes whether or not to fund the request and the amount to be given.  The Society supports Marblehead residents exclusively.