Abby, Julia, And The Cows

In the early morning of January 8, 1874, a momentous procession moved along the quiet Main Street of the small New England town of Glastonbury, Connecticut. Led by an implacable town official, who doubled as constable and tax collector, seven Alderney cows plodded toward the auction block, their reluctant progress urged by four men, a dog, and a drum. Behind followed some forty-odd local citizens with teams of horses, and in the rear, black-bonneted heads high, their resolute spines never touching the backs of the wagon seats, rode two frail little elderly ladies. The scene was, in the words of a Hartford correspondent, “a fit centennial celebration of the Boston Tea Party.” Justice was at stake, and the seven cows, like the chests of tea, were destined to become a national symbol.

The embattled owners of the cows were Julia Smith and her sister Abby. Though these two were quietly living out the closing years of a long and uneventful life-Julia was 82 and Abby 77—they were not wholly unacquainted with notoriety. They were the last remaining members of a family of nonconformists who for half a century had nonplused the small community of Glastonbury.

Zephaniah Hollister Smith, father of the sisters, was a native of Glastonbury, born in 1786. A graduate of Yale, a scholar, linguist, and mechanical genius, he began, as an ordained minister in western Connecticut, a career which he soon found irreconcilable to his conviction that the gospel should not be preached for money. Legend has it that in the resultant dispute with his parishioners he sweepingly excommunicated the entire parish and was in turn excommunicated by them. Leaving the ministry, he undertook the study of law and presently set up a practice in his native Glastonbury.

Zephaniah married Hannah Hadassah Hickock, herself a linguist, mathematician, astronomer, and poet. On their five daughters these two seem to have bestowed an incredible legacy of talent, as well as an impressive collection of names: Hancy Zephina, Cyrinthia Sacretia, Laurilla Aleroyla, Julia Evelina, and Abby Hadassah.

The five sisters never married, perhaps, as rumor implies, because of a pact made in early youth, perhaps because few suitors in that small town could have measured up to their formidable requirements. Legend tells of one persistent young man who was so unresponsive to hints that the sisters were forced to deal with him plainly. “Now,” one of them said at last, “we are all busy. But if you will tell us which one of us you prefer, she will remain and the rest of us will continue our work and not waste our time.” The caller took one startled look around the circle. “Damned if I know,” he stammered, and, seizing his hat, departed, never to return.

For 32 years Julia Smith kept a diary in French and Latin, in which are recorded the minutiae of quiet days filled with good works. The Smith sisters read and studied, tended their farm, wove and spun, drank tea with their friends, nursed the sick, and took food to the destitute.

Under the spirited guidance of their mother, however, their imaginations ranged wide. The antislavery movement in particular fired their ardent sympathies. When William Lloyd Garrison was denied Hartford pulpits, the sisters invited him to give his abolitionist speeches from a convenient stump on the Smith front lawn, and they were zealous distributors of the Charter Oak, an antislavery paper. One of the earliest anti-slavery petitions, presented before Congress by John Quincy Adams, was drawn up by Hannah Hickock Smith and bore the names of forty women of Glastonbury.

In the year 1873, when woman suffrage had become a fiery issue, only Julia and Abby remained in the spacious white homestead. Less and less frequently now did they appear in public. Probably they would have been content to cheer their suffragist sisters from their own fireside, had it not been for an affair which involved not only freedom, justice, and equality, but objects even nearer to the sisters’ hearts: their pet Alderney cows.

In November of 1873 the town tax collector called at the Smith homestead with a notice that the property had been reassessed and $100 added to its value. The property of two widows of the town had likewise risen in value, while not one acre owned by the voting-males of Glastonbury had been reappraised. Such high-handed treatment could not fail to arouse the Smith sense of justice. “To be sure,” Abby wrote later, “it increased our tax but little, but what is unjust in least is unjust in much.” In a furor of moral indignation, Abby, always the more practical and energetic of the two, composed a speech which so surprised the scholarly and retiring Julia that she agreed to appear with her sister at a Glastonbury town meeting.

Disconcerting as their presence must have been in that masculine sanctum, the Glastonbury gentlemen received the two elderly women indulgently and granted Abby permission to speak. No wonder Julia had been awed. “The motto of our government,” Abby declared, “is ‘proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land,’ and here, where liberty is so highly extolled and glorified by every man in it, one half of the inhabitants are not put under the law, but are ruled over by the other half, who can … take all they possess. How is liberty pleased with such worship?”

“All we ask of the town,” she concluded her lengthy and spirited plea, “is not to rule over them as they rule over us, but to be on an equality with them.”