One town, two worlds

On November 1, 1848, twenty-two-year-old Mary Ann Lucas arrived the Morgan County Poor Farm, blind and destitute. Her widowed mother, Elizabeth, had fallen on hard times. It was up to her younger sister, nineteen-year-old Amanda Lucas, to support her mother, sister, and twelve-year-old brother, John.

By the end of November, Amanda accumulated a debt of $16.50. She purchased shoes, eight yards of calico, and 2 yards of domestic cloth from the merchant T.D. Eams. She also purchased eight yards print and 1/5 yards of domestic cloth from from James Dunlap. David W. Ayers gave her 25 cents to attend a concert, someone named McAllister simply gave her a $1 cash loan, and she hired someone else to do mending. To pay her debt, Morgan County ordered her to work for $1 per week at the county poor farm from December 1, 1848 until February 25, 1849, a total of 16 weeks and 3 days. Mary Ann was discharged on Christmas Eve, but Amanda stayed on two more months. Even as a native-born white female, Amanda would have struggled to find an adequate job to cover all of these expenses and the poor farm was likely her best bet. But you’ve read about this before. Here’s the twist…

What’s fascinating about this story is that James Dunlap, who sold Amanda some of the cloth, and David Ayers, who gave Amanda money to see a concert, were on the Board of Trustees of the Jacksonville Female Academy. In fact, Ayres also oversaw the administration of the poor farm. On December 1, when Amanda began her work, Ayres recorded the minutes of a JFA Board meeting at which they hired a new teacher, Miss Esther Thayer, decided on tuition payment schedules, and worried about the condition of Academy Hall.

As research continues, I’ve come to understand even more deeply how this project breaks new ground in the history of women and education. Most studies explore only women’s experiences as students and alumni. There’s very little out there about how men within a community influenced the development of women’s education and leadership capacities. With American Athena, we can see how community leaders managed a variety of institutions and exercised patriarchy in different ways.

For example, even though these men poured time and resources into educating women to become teachers and community leaders, they continually asserted that women are more delicate and less capable of learning complicated material as men (see the previous post on the Ladies’ Association for the Education of Females). They enforced strict rules about behavior and propriety within the school, yet they had no qualms about forcing Amanda to work on a poor farm – surrounded by men with varied addictions and mental illnesses. Curious. Amanda’s purchases were not extravagant. The amount of fabric she purchased would have made two dresses and undergarments. She wanted to wear suitable, appropriate clothing – but for the privilege of looking like a respectable female, she had to pay.

These men could have offered Amanda the opportunity for an education and the chance at a professional career. According to the 1900 census (granted it is 50 years later), both Amanda and John were listed as literate, with the ability to read and write. The Illinois School for the Blind was just getting off the ground. Why did they not offer a spot to Mary Ann? My suspicion is that Amanda, her disabled sister, and single mother were deemed unworthy. Additionally, the poor farm paid dividends to the community. Businesses, like that of James Dunlap, could reclaim debts, while also selling goods to the poor farm (like food, fabric, and tools), at the county’s expense. Ayres did quite well, earning $1,383.80 between June 1848 and March 1852 for his oversight of the facility. At this point, I want to say that what the county asked of Amanda was exploitation. But then there’s that concert ticket. It makes me wonder if Ayres sought to help her enjoy a bit of culture. Then again, there’s no record of him purchasing concert tickets for anyone else.

The community connections are what make this project so exciting to me, as I work on piecing together individual lives and social networks.

As for Amanda, she didn’t stay in Jacksonville for long. A decade later, in 1860, the family had moved on the Nashville, Illinois (Washington County). John, 23, listed his occupation as “wagon maker.” The family’s fortunes had improved, as Elizabeth listed the value of her real estate as $650 and the value of her personal property as $200. Interestingly, they lived next door to another single woman, Elizabeth Bush, housing seven children (only two of whom share her last name). Among them is 16-year-old Caroline Martin, who was also blind. A few doors down on either side were men making their living as wagon makers, and one wonders if John worked for one of them. Later, John is listed as a veteran, so I assume he served in the Civil War. A quick search on the National Park Service’s Search for Soldiers included twenty-three different men by the name of John Lucas from Illinois who served. So that will take some more research.

The family kept together but moved frequently throughout central Illinois. In 1870, John supported the family as a constable in Marion County. By 1880, Elizabeth was not listed. I assume she died (though one possibility is an Elizabeth Lucas, born in Pennsylvania and aged 76 – which would have been exactly right, living as a Great Aunt with John and Eliza Coe, and their three children, in Peoria). Nonetheless, Elizabeth’s children remained together. Amanda continued keeping house for John, who returned to his profession as a carriage maker. He later took work as a watchman and Mary Ann, beginning in 1877 (at least this is the earliest I can find in the Belleville City Directory) listed her occupation as a clairvoyant. According to the 1891 city directory (pg. 164), Mary Ann’s studio was at 226 W. Main Street, just two blocks from the square in the business district. Its quite possible this was more than a sideline.  In 1900, at the ages of 71, 69, and 60, the siblings were still together in a home they owned in Belleville, Illinois. Mary Ann was the only one still listed as having an occupation and she continued practicing as a clairvoyant. That, in and of itself, must be a fascinating story. Amanda never seemed to catch her break, as her life was defined entirely by work, supporting her family, and caring for her siblings.


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