- Historic Sites
Abby, Julia, And The Cows
In two dead-game spinsters who wouldn’t be unfairly taxed, the men of Glastonbury met their match and the cause of feminism found a bovine cause célèbre
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
Remembering the contrary cows, the tax collector thought best to make an oblique attack upon them. The sisters anticipated the removal of their furniture and were righteously ignoring their friends’ advice to remove to safety Laurilla’s paintings which adorned every wall. Instead, an inconspicuous advertisement in the Hartford Courant announced the sale at public auction of fifteen acres of Smith pasture land on June 20, a date contrived to fall just before the grass would be cut. Though the sisters set out on that day with ample funds, the collector adroitly shifted the meeting place, and when the two women caught up with the auction, the gavel had just gone down transferring for $78.35 land worth nearly $2,000 to none other than a covetous neighbor who had tried for years to get possession of it.
Abby and Julia were daughters of a lawyer. They brought suit against tax collector George C. Andrews on the grounds that he had violated a law which plainly stated that movable property must first be sold for unpaid taxes before real estate could be seized. The case was tried in the home of Judge Hollister of Glastonbury, who gave a verdict in favor of the sisters and fined Andrews damages of $10. Threatening terrible consequences, Andrews appealed the case.
The new trial, which lasted three days in the Hartford Court of Common Pleas, had a farcical aspect. There were misplaced records; there was distorted evidence. The judge, in absentia, reversed the Glastonbury decision and decided in favor of collector Andrews. At this point the Smiths’ lawyer backed out. Abby and Julia, both now in their eighties, began the study of law with the intention of conducting their own case. Happily a capable lawyer finally agreed to place a second appeal befor the Court of Equity.
For two years a wide and sympathetic public followed this devious litigation. Across the nation, even in England and France, editors and columnists lauded the Glastonbury cows in prose and poetry. Reporters visited the town, drank tea in the elm-shaded farmhouse, admired the cows, polled public opinion in Glastonbury, and returned with highly flavored and often inaccurate stories. With whatever condescension these reporters arrived, they seem, one and all, to have found the Smith sisters irresistible. The hospitality, wit, and charm of the two elderly spinsters captivated the world beyond Glastonbury.
At about this time press accounts of the Alderney cows began to be embellished with holy scripture. Years before Julia had made a translation of the Bible. Purely for her own satisfaction, suspecting that the King James version which was read in her weekly Bible study club was not altogether accurate, she had pursued the truth through the Latin and Greek Testaments. Finding that the exact meaning still eluded her, she had secured textbooks and, when well past middle age, had taught herself the Hebrew language. In 1847 she had begun, word by word, a translation of the original sources. In the next nine years she had made not one but five complete translations of both Old and New Testaments, two from the Greek, one from the Latin, and two from the Hebrew. In the final copy she was satisfied that she had recorded, as faithfully as is humanly possible, the literal meaning of every word from Genesis to Revelation.
This incredible manuscript had lain on her library shelf for twenty years. Julia had never intended to make it public, but she now reasoned that it might be of value to the suffrage cause as proof of what a mere woman had accomplished. In 1876 she arranged with a Hartford firm for its publication. To warnings that she was throwing her money away she replied that she did not care if she never sold a copy; she thought it “more sensible to spend $1,000 on printing a Bible than to buy a shawl.”
Julia’s Bible made an impressive witness. But much of the nation’s interest in the Glastonbury case was the work of Abby, who willingly took pen in hand to keep her public informed. Though she once reminded a Toledo editor that she could not give quite so much time to answering such distant requests, she seems to have welcomed every opportunity to recount, in her pungent style, a tale which lost nothing in constant retelling. There is no sentimentality in Abby’s letters. In fact the humor and zest which animate her accounts of hardship and persecution leave more than a suspicion that it was with the utmost enjoyment that the two frail victims awaited the next move. As Abby remarked to one young reporter, “It is some comfort that the collector and his abettors are as much puzzled as we are to know what is to be done with us next.”
Twice more in the year of 1876 the cows paraded to auction. But the collector had underestimated his adversaries. Abby and Julia were convinced that they fought on the side of the angels. Even when events went against them, their dignity and spunk seemed to turn every defeat into a moral victory. When the final verdict was made in their favor, in November of 1876, women the country over rejoiced. To be sure, Julia and Abby did not vote in Glastonbury, but from that time on their property was undisturbed.