Archivist as Detective, Part II: The Mysterious Woman in John Albee’s Life
I hadn’t expected to have the opportunity to indulge in another “investigation” so soon after my last one, but I caught a lucky break. Just a few weeks ago, the MHS acquired a diary of John Albee (1833-1915) that contained an intriguing mystery—the identity of the young woman with whom he shared a passionate, but ultimately unsuccessful, romance. He wrote about her often in his diary, but used her initials: L.A.
I was particularly motivated to solve this mystery because I knew from my research that John Albee—first a Unitarian minister and later a Transcendentalist author—counted among his friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcott family. I wondered if L.A. might be, in fact, Louisa May Alcott. Though she never married, Alcott did have suitors, and she was just about John’s age.
As I looked through John’s diary, kept mostly in Cambridge, Mass. between 1853 and 1861, I found a few clues that seemed to support my initial guess. He referred to some verses written by L.A.—was she an aspiring author? He also slipped up a few times and called her “Lou” and “Louise,” but this was such a common name at the time, I still couldn’t be sure. He didn’t divulge many specific details about her, even the first names of family members.
He did, however, write quite passionately about her. This is one of my favorite passages: “While she listened I could talk, but when she left the room I became silent. The best thoughts of my life came to me to say to her.” His entry of 7 October 1857 recounts a dramatic event. When L.A. declined his invitation to a concert, apparently under pressure from her mother, he went dejected to the hall and tried to enjoy himself, without much success. Then… (cue the music!) looking into the crowd, he saw her there. His “little elf” had raced through the streets to catch up with him.
The diary contains many scenes like this. There’s the couple’s accidental (and symbolic) meeting on West Boston Bridge at a turning point in their relationship. There’s the embarrassing gossip of friends. And of course, there’s a rival for L.A.’s affections. John transcribed into the diary his letter to the other man, J.B.K., which reads in part: “I do not know your sentiments towards L.A. I do not know hers towards you, nor towards myself, and we are all mixed up, and it is a maze.”
The break in my “case” came when I found an entry pairing the names of L.A. and Mrs. Appleton. The context seemed to indicate that L.A. was a member of that family. John also mentioned the related Haven family, as well as Portsmouth, N.H., the home of the Havens and Appletons.
Voila! Sophia Louisa Appleton, who went by her middle name Louisa, was born in 1836. She worked at the Harvard College library in the late 1850s, while John was a student in the Divinity School. She was also an aspiring author and wrote an opera in 1865. And John occasionally mentioned L.A.’s mother in his diary, but not her father. (Charles J. Appleton had died years before, while the other Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was still very much alive.)
I searched other Appleton family papers at the MHS and saw nothing to confirm my identification beyond a reasonable doubt, but I feel fairly confident I’ve found L.A. The MHS holds a few photographs of the woman in question, including this lovely carte de visite from the Haven-Appleton-Cutter family photographs.
December 1859 was full of emotional encounters, romantic angst, and introspection for John, as he and Louisa had split but couldn’t seem to stay apart. He described quarrels, saying to her: “I love you. […] But I can hate too.” However, he concluded the whole affair philosophically: “Life is too much, one must soon see, for any man to undertake seriously. Keep a jester in your house if you would prevent matters from coming to extremities.”
Louisa Appleton married Charles William Bradbury in 1864 and lived into her nineties. John Albee married twice, first in 1864 to Harriet Ryan (1829-1873), then again in 1895 to Helen Rickey (or Ricky). He had four children, but survived them all, dying in 1915. Can you guess his youngest daughter’s name? Louisa.
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