Harold Hurst - September 2007

Famous Women of the Eastern Shore



Harold Hurst

   Despite its provincial character, conservative ambiance and relative isolation from the leading metropolitan centers of the region, the Eastern Shore of Maryland has furnished the state and nation with a surprising number of accomplished women. Some became celebrated local figures while others achieved national renown. Their number included activists, politicians, writers, actresses and socialites.
    Kitty Knight (1775-1855), a heroine of the War of 1812, was one of the earliest women to gain fame on the Eastern Shore. Born into a prominent family in Georgetown in northern Kent County, Miss Knight has been described as a beautiful and accomplished woman who once danced with George Washington at a ball in Philadelphia during a meeting of the Continental Congress.
    Considerable myth surrounds the tale of Kitty Knight’s heroism. The story has it that when the British forces invaded the Georgetown area, pillaging and burning the neighborhood, Kitty confronted Admiral Cockburn, pleading with him to put out the flames of a house occupied by an elderly invalid woman. According to one version, she herself stamped out the flames, prompting the soldiers to leave the house standing. She is also alleged to have saved a neighboring house from the inferno.
    Later in life Miss Knight purchased one of the houses, which still bears her name. An obituary in an 1855 newspaper referred to her heroism, noting that she saved several families from being made homeless and that several houses stood as “monuments to her memory for this noble and hazardous act....”
    Kitty Knight was buried in the graveyard of St. Francis Xavier Church in Cecil County.
    One of the most famous women in the history of Dorchester County was Harriet Tubman, who gained a world-wide reputation for her activities in the “underground railroad,” which guided more than 300 slaves from the Eastern Shore to Canada.
    Born a slave about 1820 in Bucktown in Dorchester County, she ran away from her master and decided to help her fellow bondsmen escape from their cruel captivity. According to one source, she made nineteen trips in ten years using boats, wagons and trains. She never failed in her arduous missions.
    Little can be added here to the Tubman story since it has been the subject of many articles and books, some of them published within the last few years. Less may be known, however, of her efforts for women’s rights and her friendship with Susan B. Anthony, or her toil on behalf of destitute children, the poor and the aged.
    Like many other African Americans, she was active in church work and helped fund and support congregations of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, especially in western New York where she lived for many years.
    A monument was erected in Auburn, New York, in her memory after she died in 1913. A bronze tablet has been placed near her former home in Bucktown, a latter-day recognition by the citizens of a former slave-holding community.
    The Civil War era witnessed the emergence of one of the most brilliant and renowned women ever to come from the state of Maryland. Born at Kensington Hall in Dorchester County, Anna Ella Carroll (1815-1894) stemmed from one of Maryland’s most illustrious family trees. The daughter of Thomas King Carroll, she was raised in a 22-room plantation house where she read many of the books in her father’s library, including the works of Shakespeare, Scott, Coke and Blackstone.
    Uninterested in domestic duties, she rejected several proposals of marriage. Indeed, this daughter of the Eastern Shore spent most of her life in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Politics became her main interest in an era when women could not vote or hold any office. But behind the scenes, she exerted enormous influence as she befriended such statesmen and generals as Jefferson Davis, John Breckinridge, Robert Walker, President Millard Fillmore, and later President Lincoln and General U.S. Grant.
    Opposed to secession, she played an important role in keeping Maryland in the Union. During the ensuing conflict, Anna Ella Carroll revealed herself as an adept military strategist as she advised Lincoln and his cabinet members concerning plans to capture the fortress of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River.
    The city fell to Union forces only after Grant followed Miss Carroll’s advice and attacked the city from the rear rather than continuing the failed Naval onslaught of the city from the Mississippi River.
    After the Civil War she was given a position in the Interior Department and was employed as a writer by the National Intelligencer. In 1868 President Grant sent her on official business in Texas and about this time she started a history of the Civil War based on her own personal knowledge.
     Despite her efforts to keep Maryland in the Union and her behind-the-scenes advice given to Lincoln and his cabinet, a bill to grant her a pension “for the important military service rendered the country by her during the Civil War” failed to materialize.
    Later it was learned that both Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton opposed any revelation that military plans used by Federal troops were made by one who was not only a civilian but a woman.
    During her later years Miss Carroll lived with her sister in Washington, D.C. She died an embittered woman and was buried in Old Trinity Churchyard in her native Dorchester County.
    Ironically, one of the most famous women to come from the Eastern Shore spent most of her life away from her native habitat, laboring in the national political arena rendering tasks for which she gained little recognition and no compensation.
    The most prominent female writer to come from the Eastern Shore of Maryland was Sophie Kerr (1880-1965), a native of Denton in Caroline County. A graduate of Hood College, she began writing short stories in 1898 for such magazines as Ladies World and Country Gentlemen. Later she did graduate work at the University of Vermont.
    During the early 1900s she moved to New York, where, according to her, “the writing fever hit me.” In 1904 she married John D. Underwood but was divorced in 1908. She remained in New York the rest of her life, however, although she maintained a residence in Denton.
    Sophie Kerr entertained a wide variety of interests including collecting silver and cooking recipes. Her culinary activities led her to co-author a book with June Platt called The Best I Ever Ate. She once claimed, “I can make better gingerbread and better spoon bread and better strawberry preserves than anyone in the world – this is not arrogance but a beautiful, exceptional truth.”
    But writing and literature were her first loves. Her busy pen produced over 20 novels published between 1917 and 1950, several collections of short stories, a play and a cookbook.
    Her fiction is “light” by her own admission, for she once said her desire was “...only to entertain. I certainly have no message in spreading ideas. It is just light fiction.” She was, in brief, the Danielle Steele of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.
    Miss Kerr was a true daughter of the Eastern Shore. Her childhood days are revealed in the novels Painted Meadows, One Thing is Certain and Maria-Mareea. These works depict the small-town life of the region. They also lovingly portray the Methodist camp meeting, the knights tournaments, the local dialects and the rise of the crab industry. Above all, she lavishes praise on the culinary delights of the Eastern Shore.
    In the short story Cupboard Lovers, found in The Sound of Petticoats, she lists the fare at a local church supper that featured oyster pies, fried chicken, pink and white slices of baked ham, crab-meat salad with green mayonnaise, scalloped potatoes, hot raised rolls, hot beaten biscuits, sweet pickled peaches, green grape and crab apple jelly and an array of cakes “to marvel at” including black cake, pound cake, angel food cake, chocolate layer, watermelon cake, orange, coconut, raisin and a large cake covered with icing.
    Miss Kerr died in New York City in 1965. Her legacy of $573,000 to Washington College in Chestertown is part of an endowment to fund the annual Sophie Kerr Prize, awarded to a graduating senior who demonstrates “the best ability and promise for the future fulfillment in the field of literary development.” In 2007 the prize was worth $60,027.
    Two women from the lower Eastern Shore have public buildings bearing their names. The library in Crisfield in Somerset County is named for Lilyan Stratton Corbin. Woodrow T. Wilson’s History of Crisfield (1974) has described Mrs. Corbin as an “actress, investment banker, authoress, philanthropist, socialite and world traveler.”
    Born into a poverty-stricken family living near Crisfield, she had little schooling until she met a Wall Street banker by the name of Mayall, who tutored her and taught her the social graces.
    Mayall died about 1904 and she later married Frank Campeau, an actor who introduced her to the theatrical world. Lilyan became an accomplished actress and adopted the stage name Lilyan Stratton, which she used the rest of her life. She also wrote several novels during this period.
    Divorced in 1917, she later married an immigrant who changed his unpronounceable surname to Corbin. Alfred Corbin, a wealthy investment banker, acquainted Lilyan with the ways of Wall Street and introduced her to New York society. He and Lilyan traveled all over the world.
    Lilyan Stratton Corbin’s checkered and colorful career came to an abrupt halt on November 1, 1928 when she was killed in an automobile accident in Parsippany, New Jersey. Her husband placed her ashes in an elaborate mausoleum and later erected the Lilyan Stratton Corbin Library in Crisfield in memory of his beloved wife.
    The mausoleum was continually vandalized and desecrated, forcing Corbin to abandon the building. In 1934 Lilyan Stratton Corbin’s ashes were finally transferred to the library bearing her name.
    Julia LeCompte Purnell of Snow Hill in Worcester County was born in 1843, the daughter of a prestigious planter family. In 1869 she married William H. Purnell, who also stemmed from an illustrious family in the region.
    Mrs. Purnell, during her long lifetime, collected a wide variety of antiques that eventually found their way into the local historical society. In 1935 William Zedock Purnell, Julia’s son, built a museum for the articles, naming the place the Julia Purnell Museum.
    Julia Purnell excelled in community and church work and was also known for her artistic needlework, much of which is now on display in the museum. When 97 years old, she was awarded the Snow Hill mayor’s Citizen Award and a year later was elected to the American Hobby Hall of Fame.
    Although her career is not as widely celebrated as some of the other women noted in this article, Julia Purnell was a beloved and well-known figure in Snow Hill and the surrounding area.
    The first women to vote in Maryland lived in Kent County. An act of 1908 to incorporate the town of Still Pond provided that all persons, regardless of gender, could vote for commissioners if they were over 21 and had paid their taxes. Three local women took advantage of this unusual privilege; Mrs. Mary Jane Howard, Mrs. W. S. Maxwell and Mrs. J. H. Kelley.
    On the first Saturday in May of 1908, these three women cast their first votes over a decade before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. In future years other women on the Eastern Shore would become involved in the political process.
    One of the first Eastern Shore women to enter the political field was Mary Layfield Nock, a native of Wicomico County. Stemming from a local family interested in politics and government, she took a job in 1939 as an assistant to David J. Ward, a Democrat who represented the district in Congress.
    Her stay in Washington whetted her appetite for future ventures into politics on her own. In 1946 she competed in the Democratic primary with 12 other candidates for a seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. She won the election, taking one of the county’s four seats, making her the first Wicomico County woman to be elected to the Maryland General Assembly.
    Later Mrs. Nock was elected to the State Senate as the only woman member. She immediately became involved in legislative activities concerning education, agriculture and the preservation of the Chesapeake Bay.
    In 1958 she was the recipient of the Eleanor Roosevelt Achievement Award presented by the United Democratic Women’s Clubs of Maryland. In 1960 she was elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
    During her terms in the State Senate her accomplishments included a successful effort to obtain funds for a regional center for the mentally retarded, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the Holly Center.
    Ever interested in the state’s educational system, she was instrumental in retaining both Salisbury State (now called Salisbury University) and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore as four-year institutions in opposition to a plan to merge the institutions.
    Defeated in the 1974 election, she retired after serving in the State Senate for over a decade and a half. Mrs. Nock, no radical feminist, claimed that men in the legislature accepted her because of her willingness “to carry her load.” Of her 28 years in the Maryland legislature she exclaimed, “I enjoyed every bit of it!”
    The first Eastern Shore woman to play a role on the national political stage was Bertha Sheppard Adkins, a native of Salisbury and a member of a family whose wealth stemmed from the local lumber business.
    After graduation from Wellesley College in 1928, she entered the teaching field. But politics soon captured her interest. Although she never held public office, she became heavily involved in Maryland Republican politics in a state long dominated by the Democrats.
    In 1948 she was made Maryland’s Republican National Committee Woman and in 1950 she became executive director of the Republican National Women’s Division. She became Assistant Charwoman of the Women’s Division in 1953. Five years later, in 1958, Bertha Adkins reached the pinnacle of her political career when President Eisenhower appointed her as Under Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, the first woman to hold the post of Under Secretary in any department of the Federal Government. Largely concerned with the recognition of women in politics, she represented the United States at the United Nations Seminar on the Participation of Women in Public Life in Bogota, Columbia.
    Mrs. Adkins returned to the field of education in 1961, when she became the headmistress of the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia. During the 1970s she returned to politics as an advocate of the aging in America.
    Bertha Sheppard Adkins was an educator, civic activist and political leader who not only bolstered the role of the GOP in Maryland but fought for the recognition of women in politics and the rights of the aged.
    Gloria Richardson, a black native of Dorchester County, will go down in history as a leader of the civil rights movement on the Eastern Shore.
A crisis erupted in the early 1960s in Cambridge, a town plagued by unemployment and racial tension. In 1963 Gloria Richardson, head of the Cambridge Non-Violent Action Committee, presented the city council with a demand for the desegregation of the public schools and public places.
Following disturbances after the arrest of several black students, Ms. Richardson appealed directly to Federal Attorney General Robert Kennedy, asking for an investigation into the violation of the civil rights of the African American population of the city.
    In June rioting broke out and Governor J. Millard Tawes ordered the National Guard into the city and imposed martial law. The rioting was finally suppressed under the firm leadership of General George M. Gelson of the National Guard.
    Peace returned to the city after a five-point “Treaty of Cambridge” was enacted under the guidance of Attorney General Kennedy, Ms. Richardson, Cambridge officials and local black leaders. Schools, buses, the library and hospital were desegregated, black policeman were promoted and an urban renewal development was initiated.
Following her fight for social justice in Cambridge, Gloria Richardson moved to New York City and married Frank Dandridge, a photographer she met during the demonstrations.
The careers and lives of the above women form a part of the rich and varied saga of the Eastern Shore’s “herstory.”