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Abby, Julia, And The Cows

July 2024
11min read

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

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.”

The town voters received the speech in complete silence, and at its end resumed the business of the meeting as though the interruption had never occurred. Julia and Abby returned home with hardened resolution. Taxation without representation had been out of fashion for a hundred years; they would pay no further taxes to the town of Glastonbury until they could have some say in the town spending. When the collector called again they informed him that “it really does not belong to us to assist in any way, having no voice in the matter.”

It was customary at that time for property-holding women to be represented “constructively” at town meetings by their male relatives. The Smith sisters had no means of representation. Furthermore, it was allowable for any citizen to withhold taxes upon payment of twelve per cent interest, and the sisters were aware that thousands of dollars in taxes were at that time outstanding. No such privilege was extended to the old ladies. Instead, the collector attached seven of the Smith cows for taxes amounting to $101.39. Despite the sisters’ pleading, the cows were led, with considerable difficulty, out of their familiar stable and lodged for seven days in the small tobacco shed of a neighbor.

The officials soon discovered that they had no ordinary cows on their hands. These creatures had been delicately and lovingly reared. They responded at a gallop to the names of Jessie, Daisy, Proxy, Minnie, Bessie, Whitey, and Lily. They were so emotionally dependent that every day of their captivity they refused to be milked until Julia came and stood reassuringly in sight. Their plaintive lowing rent the sisters’ hearts and distracted the neighbors.

On the morning when the cows marched to the auction block, the Glastonbury citizens who had come expecting to buy some fine Alderney cows for a song were chagrined to find that the Smith sisters, while refusing to pay a tax of $101.39, were prepared to outbid all comers to redeem their pets. The Smiths’ agent bought back four of the cows but was obliged to sacrifice the others.

It was the editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican who first recognized in an amusing local incident implications of national importance. He reprinted Abby’s entire speech and ran a flag-waving account of her first skirmish with the tax collector, adding that “Abby Smith and her sister as truly stand for the American principle as did the citizens who ripped open the tea chests in Boston Harbor, or the farmers who leveled their muskets at Concord…. It will not be creditable if Abby Smith and her sister are left to stand alone … to fight the battle of principle unaided.” Without the sisters’ knowledge the editor proposed an Abby Smith defense fund and solicited contributions.

As money and encouragement began to pour in, editors across the country sensed that a good fight was just beginning. A writer in Harper’s Weekly referred to Abby Smith as “Sam Adams redivivus.” Overnight the seven cows of Glastonbury became so famous that flowers made from hairs of their tails, tied with ribbons bearing the slogan “Taxation without Representation,” were featured at a bazaar in Chicago.

National leaders of woman suffrage respectfully welcomed the sisters to a place of honor in their ranks. Lucy Stone traveled to Glastonbury to meet them and wrote back to the Woman’s Journal: “Here some day, as to Bunker Hill now, will come men and women who are reverent of the great principle of the consent of the governed, who respect courage and fidelity to principle, and who will hold at its true value the part which these sisters have taken in solving the meaning of a representative government.”

Abby’s first taste of public speaking had apparently been exhilarating. In February, 1874, the two sisters accepted an invitation to appear at a convention on woman suffrage at Worcester, Massachusetts, where Abby made another spirited appeal, ending on the defiant note: “I fear we shall receive no mercy at their hands, and must rest content that they can’t shut us up as they did our cows, and what is worse still they cannot shut our mouths.”

Glastonbury males could refuse to listen, however. When in April the sisters appeared for a second time at the town meeting, Abby’s petition to speak was denied. Undaunted, Abby mounted an old wagon which stood outside the town hall, pulled from her pocket the speech she had prepared, and directed her vigorous logic toward a handful of curious spectators. Julia circulated among the audience, emphasizing her sister’s arguments by the vehement little jerks of her head that were forever sending her black bonnet down over one ear.

Unimpressed, the tax collector called once more with the suggestion that the ladies might now be ready to pay. “We cannot think it right to do so,” they replied, “and you will have to do as you think best in the matter.”

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.

Abby Smith lived to enjoy the victory for two years, and to see her letters and speeches collected in a paper-bound volume entitled Abby Smith and Her Cows, published by Julia in 1877. The two sisters shared honors as speakers at a number of suffrage conventions, got an ovation in Washington, and even appeared at a hearing before the United States Senate. The only impression made on the home town by these triumphs seems to have been raised eyebrows that the sisters had gone to see the President without even taking a suitcase, but had worn all their clothes at once, simply putting on top, day or night, whatever costume the occasion required.

Romance is not entirely missing from the story of the Smith sisters. At the age of 87, living alone in the Smith homestead, Julia received a proposal of marriage. One of her pamphlets reached the hands of Amos A. Parker of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, a retired judge of 86, whose sole claim to distinction was that he had once written a book of recollections boasting a youthful acquaintance with General Lafayette. Intrigued by a notice of Julia’s Bible, he ordered a copy and after some correspondence traveled to Glastonbury to meet the author. Presently Julia announced to a friend that she was thinking of marrying the judge. “I shall be the laughingstock of the nation,” she confided. But the Smith sisters had never been intimidated by laughter, Julia and the judge were married in the living room of the homestead and stood side by side watching their friends dance the polka and quadrille to the accompaniment of an ancient piano.

To add that the couple lived happily ever after is a temptation several chroniclers have been unable to resist. But rumor persists in Glastonbury that Julia came to realize that in her marriage she had made the one serious mistake of her life. What pathetic loneliness must have lured her to abandon the homestead, with its treasure of memories, for a “small box of a house” in alien Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire! For seven years she made the best of her bargain. At her death there at the age of 94, a note was found in her Bible requesting that she be buried in the family plot between Laurilla and Abby, and that her maiden name only be inscribed on the stone with that of her sisters.

The debt the woman suffrage movement owed to the seven cows of Glastonbury would be hard to reckon. Among the grimly purposeful suffrage tracts this little episode must have sparkled like a jewel, and Abby’s pithy letters, heartening of course to the vast voteless sisterhood, must also have reached many a masculine ear ordinarily deaf to feminine harangues.

“Abby Smith and her cows are marching on like John Brown’s soul,” wrote Isabella Beecher Hooker. “I am not sure that ‘kine couchant’ on the grassy slope of the beautiful Connecticut should not be adopted as the emblem of our peaceful suffrage banner.”

“The cows are again complacently chewing their cuds in Abby Smith’s comfortable barn,” reported the Boston Herald in 1874, “but the case has given a tough cud to the country to chew upon until the New Declaration of Independence is achieved and Abby Smith votes.”


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