Women You Should Know: Isabella Graham & Joanna Bethune

Women You Should Know: Isabella Graham & Joanna Bethune
[Meredith Sell]

If you’re familiar with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, you probably know that Eliza Schuyler Hamilton “established the first private orphanage in New York City.”

After Alexander Hamilton’s — *spoiler alert* — death in the musical, the song “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” tells of Eliza’s next 50 years as a widow laboring to restore her husband’s reputation, preserve his legacy, and lend a hand to others — particularly children who were orphans like her husband. In the musical’s final song, she sings:

“I help to raise hundreds of children / I get to see them growing up.”

Some digging reveals that while Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton played a part in establishing New York City’s first private orphanage, she did not start it singlehandedly — in fact, the idea and the philanthropic momentum for the project came from two other women: Mrs. Isabella Graham and her daughter Joanna Graham Bethune.

Mrs. Isabella Graham, often referred to as just Mrs. Graham, was a Scottish widow and devout Christian. Her husband, Dr. John Graham, had been an army surgeon in Britain’s Royal Americans regiment and was stationed (with wife and children in tow) in Canada from 1767 to 1772. After failing to get permission to stay and settle in New York, he was restationed with the regiment in Antigua. There, November 1773, he took ill and died.

Mrs. Graham was left in Antigua with 200 sterling pounds, three daughters under the age of 5, and another child on the way. “[T]he widow and the fatherless were in a foreign land,” her daughter Joanna later wrote in Life of Mrs. Isabella Graham.

After her son was born, Mrs. Graham obtained passage for herself and her children back to Scotland, where they returned to her father’s home, a thatched cottage with three rooms. This was no return to a life of comfort: her father had lost his estate through a friend’s bad business and now his health was failing and his annual salary of 20 sterling pounds for work he did on another gentleman’s estate wasn’t coming in because he couldn’t fulfill his duties.

It was up to Mrs. Graham to provide for both her children and her father.

Thanks to an inheritance she’d received as a child when her grandfather died, she had an education to draw from, so she supported her family, first, by opening a small school in the nearby town of Paisley and, later, by opening a boarding school for girls in Edinburgh. In Edinburgh, she also made her first serious forays into charity work through a so-called penny society, later called the Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick, which essentially allowed the poor to pool their funds — one penny per person per week — in anticipation of future sickness.

These first efforts to support her family and help others were a mere shadow of what Mrs. Graham would go on to accomplish. According to her daughter, Mrs. Graham continued to dress as a widow and had dedicated herself to God as such with no mind to remarry. Her focus in life was singular, and her faith was the driving motivator behind everything she did.

Several years after her father died in 1783, Mrs. Graham received another small inheritance — this time from a wealthy widow she had befriended in Edinburgh. With this money, and at the invitation of her childhood pastor (who by that time had become president of Princeton College in New Jersey), Mrs. Graham decided to take her three grown daughters and move back to America, this time to New York City.

She landed in New York on September 8, 1789, and not even a month later, on October 5, she opened her school in the city. By the end of the first month of operation, her school had grown from five students to fifty. Soon, prominent church leaders and politicians — George Washington among them — began supporting her school.

When her daughter Joanna married Divie Bethune, a wealthy merchant who had built his business from the ground up, Mrs. Graham no longer needed to make her own living so she left her school and dedicated herself to charity work.

At this time, New York City was experiencing rapid population growth and quickly changing from a colonial port city to an industrial metropolis. From 1790 to 1800, the population grew from approximately 33,000 to more than 96,000 — and there wasn’t any sign it would slow down.

“New York was becoming a city of contrasts, one of mansions and hovels,” Dorothy G. Becker wrote in the Social Service Review. “At the same time that large profits were being made by members of the shipbuilding and merchant elite, a growing number of people in the city were suffering extreme poverty and appeared to be permanently mired in it.”

Men had set up all sorts of organized charities to try to meet needs, but the men’s charities typically stipulated that assistance be granted to a male head of the family. “If a woman in New York City was without the protection of a husband or family — whether widowed, deserted, or single — her only recourse was domestic work, cleaning, sewing, or laundry,” wrote Becker. “If she fell ill or was unable to find work, her alternatives were street begging, prostitution, or the tax-supported almshouse.”

Joanna’s husband, Mr. Bethune, was the distributing manager for the St. Andrew’s Society. Joanna, wanting to help widows who didn’t qualify for the Society’s aid, began collecting funds on her own to do so. Soon, she and her mother formed a group of women interested in helping widows. November 1797, they met at Mrs. Graham’s house and formed the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children. Mrs. Graham was made First Directress (i.e. president).

The society’s initial aim was to provide relief and support to poor widows with young children, but it soon expanded into establishing schools for widows’ children and finding work for the widows. The women at the helm of the society were well-established individuals, wives and widows of prominent merchants, clergy, politicians, etc. “By 1822 the society’s relief expenses of $3,500 were greater than the amount spent by either the Humane Society or the Assistance Society, which were the leading voluntary agencies headed by men,” Becker wrote.

The Society divided the city into districts and assigned a manager to each district, but Mrs. Graham wasn’t the type of leader who pointed people toward work and then sat back to watch. As First Directress, she claimed responsibility for the entire city and went beyond administrative work and delegation, frequently teaching, preparing sewing and other work projects for widows, and visiting those who were sick and in prison.

“During the prevalence of the yellow fever in 1798, it was with much difficulty Mrs. Graham was dissuaded from going into the city to attend on the sick,” Joanna wrote, and this was primarily for fear of spreading the sickness to her own family or causing their grief by falling ill herself.

Mrs. Graham saw every effort to help the poor, sick, widows, and orphans as the work of God. In a prayer found among her writings, she observed that God worked even through those who did not know Him: “[T]hou puttest into their heart the good thing which thou workest, and girdest them for the purpose: though not the children of thy covenant, they are the instruments of thy providence.”

The Orphan Asylum Society of New York City, the society which “established the first private orphanage in New York City,” grew naturally out of the work of the previous society. As the first society continued and grew its work, the women involved saw widows die and leave their children with no one to care for them. Many of these children were turned out onto the streets with little choice but to join forces with other orphans and street children, begging and stealing to survive.

At first, the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children would take their fallen widows’ orphans and place them in homes, but finding homes became increasingly difficult.

“Distressed that the society could not care for the children of widows who died, Mrs. Bethune, after reading a life of August Hermann Francke, founder of the Orphan House at Halle, Germany, took the lead in organizing, in 1806, the Orphan Asylum Society in the City of New York,” according to Notable American Woman: A Biographical Dictionary.

Joanna Bethune took the position of treasurer, Mrs. Sarah Ogden Hoffman (a friend of Mrs. Graham) was made first directress, and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was made second directress, or vice president.

The society rented a two-story frame house in Greenwich Village and hired a married couple to serve as superintendent and matron of the asylum. A year later, the women purchased four lots of ground on Bank Street near Joanna’s home and laid the cornerstone of their own building. Designed to accommodate more than 100 children, this building housed orphans for several decades until the growth of the City spurred the society to build again, further north.

“Mrs. Graham continued in the office of first Directress of the Widows’ Society, but took a deep interest in the success of the Orphan Asylum also;” Joanna wrote, “she, or one of her family, taught the orphans daily, until the funds of the Institution were sufficient to provide a teacher and superintendent. She was a trustee at the time of her decease.” She was also instrumental in establishing the Society for the Promotion of Industry among the Poor, which sought to help poor people obtain work.

In a sermon preached by Dr. John M. Mason after Mrs. Graham’s death, he spoke of Mrs. Graham as an example of how to live faithfully. His words honoring her life could apply to any other widow of that era who pressed past her grief and mobilized others to do good:

“Surely if any one [sic] has a clear title of immunity from the obligation to carry her cares beyond the domestic circle, it is this widow — it is this stranger. Yet within a few years this stranger, this widow, with no means but her excellent sense, her benevolent heart and her persevering will to do good, awakens the charities of a populous city, and gives to them an impulse, a direction and an efficacy unknown before.”

The Orphan Asylum continued caring for children. In the late 1800s, it was reorganized as a cottage school for orphans in Hastings-on-Hudson, up the river from New York City. It eventually took on a new name, The Graham Home for Children, after Mrs. Graham, and in 1977, it merged with Windham Child Care to become Graham Windham, which is still active today.

As for Elizabeth Hamilton, her involvement with the Asylum was remembered by her son, James Alexander Hamilton, as “incessant”. In his autobiography, James recalled a certain “McKavit” whom his mother found “in the arms of a fireman.” The little boy’s parents had been lost to the fire. She paid the fireman to take a carriage and bring the boy to the Asylum, sending her card to serve as an introduction. The fireman did so and the boy stayed at the Asylum until, when he was 16, she arranged for him to enter the Military Academy. When he graduated, she got him a commission as the Second Lieutenant of Infantry and he was eventually promoted to captain. He later fought in the Mexican War and died in the Battle of Monterrey.

There’s a certain familiarity about McKavit’s story that sheds light on the Hamilton lyrics.

“I help to raise hundreds of children / I get to see them growing up,” Eliza sings.

And then:

“In their eyes I see you, Alexander.”

Maybe McKavit was such an orphan, one who reminded Elizabeth of her late husband and that’s why she took him especially under her wing and pulled strings to give him a position of responsibility. For certain, there was heart behind her involvement, just as there was for Mrs. Graham and Joanna Bethune.

From the Orphan Asylum Society’s Constitution:

“God himself has marked the fatherless as the peculiar subjects of his divine compassion. ‘A Father of the fatherless is God in his holy habitation.’ ‘When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.’ To be the blessed instrument of divine Providence in making good the promise of God, is a privilege equally desirable and honorable to the benevolent heart.’”

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