Have You Met My Sister?
The Lost Loves of Elizabeth Peabody
O BY ALIDA ORZECHOWSKI
On a rainy morning in early May, in the small back parlor of 13 West Street, Boston, a wedding was about to take place. It would be the second wedding for the Peabody family in less than a year, and while 38-year-old Elizabeth could certainly claim an intimate relationship with each of the handsome grooms, she would be bride to neither. Five weeks before, in March of 1843, tall, silver-haired Horace Mann had proposed to Elizabeth’s younger sister Mary, who immediately accepted. She had, after all, been patiently awaiting Horace for ten years - since the day they met. Upon seeing his smile for the very first time in 1832, Mary wrote that she was “riveted” by Mann and, “I felt the glow permeate every fibre & vein. I knew nothing more till I was seated by the window in my own apartment…. Here was 40
| Winter 2019
life and something to do…. to make that smile perpetual.” At the same time, Mary correctly sensed that she should probably keep these rather astonishing feelings to herself at the moment, for Horace was in absolutely no state to return Mary’s instant ardor. He had only recently lost his young wife, Charlotte, who had died of consumption less than two years into the marriage (and was likely pregnant with their first child). She was nursed by her tender husband right up to the end. The loss staggered and broke Mann so completely that friends describe watching his dark hair turn completely white in a matter of weeks. While both sisters were inexorably drawn to the intense sadness that was Horace Mann, Elizabeth, perhaps, had more in common with him, and Mary was nervously
aware of this. The elder sister’s fiery intellect and ability to converse endlessly on nearly any subject meant she often commanded Mann’s full attention, even in larger social settings with other women present. Mary worried to herself at having to watch the two “hold metaphysical arguments long enough to exhaust all common minds” and at their “talk, talk, talk, ad infinitum”. Nor would it have soothed Mary’s nerves while she was unavoidably far away in Cuba, to receive a letter from Elizabeth in which she describes a private visit from Horace and how he “took both my hands—and drew me for one moment absolutely in his arms.” Two years later it was still unclear to everyone involved if Horace Mann’s heart would ever mend, or whether it would ultimately lean towards Mary or Elizabeth.