In early nineteenth-century Rhode Island, a woman’s role was sharply circumscribed by tradition. A woman—even one of high social station—was thought of mainly as a wife and a mother. Those who ventured beyond the home (religious nuns excepted) might find work from the 1830s onward as a teacher in a primary school, as a school committee member (after 1843), or as a midwife—all child-related duties. Those who were bolder could express themselves by writing or as social reformers. The latter became involved in the excitement and challenge of the first great age of American reform, a variegated movement that swept the country in the three decades prior to the Civil War.
Catharine R. (Arnold) Williams chose both writing and reform as the outlets for her creative and social impulses. She was born in Providence on December 31, 1787, the daughter of Amy Read and sea captain Alfred Arnold, who was descended from an old-line Rhode Island family. Her mother died when Catharine was very young, so her father entrusted her upbringing to two of her maiden aunts, “ladies of the old school,” who gave her, said Catharine, a comfortable and very religious upbringing. She did not leave the shelter of their home until she was twenty-three, after the death of one aunt and the marriage of the other, and later commented on her difficulty in coping with “the real world.”
Shortly after leaving her aunts’ home, she found herself in a troubled marriage. In 1824, she became the bride of Rhode Islander Horatio N. Williams and moved to western New York State, where she had his daughter, then returned to Providence in 1826 and divorced him. She later remarked that the cleric who performed the wedding service had just presided at a funeral and did not remove his mourning vestments, an omen, she stated, that foreshadowed the result of her marriage. Henceforth, she carried his surname and bad memories of this experience. She never remarried, but once established in her writing career, she adopted a son.
Catharine Williams’s first publication, Original Poems, on Various Subjects, some of whose verses were composed in her teens, met with a favorable local reception. It was followed in 1829 by Religion at Home, a story undoubtedly based on her own upbringing. Her first important work was her fifth book, Fall River: An Authentic Record (1833), an exposé that dealt, in the manner of an investigative reporter, with the sensational murder trial of the Reverend Ephraim K. Avery, Bristol’s newly installed Methodist minister, for the brutal December 1832 murder of promiscuous, pregnant millworker Sarah Cornell in the Fall River section of the town of Tiverton. Avery was acquitted in a trial that Williams and most others considered to be a miscarriage of justice, one that showed partiality for males over females and the influence of social standing over those who lacked it.
In 1839, she produced a still useful volume on Rhode Island history entitled Biography of Revolutionary Heroes. It contained interesting sketches of the lives of General William Barton (captor of British general Richard Prescott) and Captain Stephen Olney (who rendered distinguished service throughout the war, especially at Yorktown).
According to Williams, her best book was a historical novel entitled The Neutral French; or the Exiles of Nova Scotia (1841), a subject that she spent time in Canada researching. It told with great sympathy the tragic story of the British displacement of the Acadian French in the 1750s during the final phase of the Great War for Empire. With some justification, she believed that her novel served as the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic work Evangeline: A Tale of Arcadia, published in 1847.
Williams did not confine herself to writing. She publicly advocated for improvements in the status of women and in the condition of workers. As a sea captain’s daughter, she opposed the naval practice of flogging, and she also decried the use of capital punishment in the aftermath of John Gordon’s execution. She was a staunch supporter of the reform wing of the Democratic Party, and in her popular two-volume work Annals of the Aristocracy…of Rhode Island (1843–45), she criticized the elitism and conservatism of Rhode Island’s upper class.
During the Dorr Rebellion and its aftermath, Williams became an ally and confidante of Dorr and corresponded with him. As historian Ronald Formisano has shown, this constitutional controversy and Dorr’s imprisonment led to the active involvement of women in Rhode Island politics for the first time. The Dorr Rebellion served as their political coming-out party. Both Williams and Frances (Whipple) Green McDougall vigorously and successfully campaigned for Dorr’s liberation from prison. Williams organized a women’s group for that goal, and she assisted McDougall in writing Might and Right, a cogent defense of Dorr and the People’s Constitution.
In 1845, the year of Dorr’s release from prison, she concluded her publishing career, which had included twelve works of history, fiction, verse and social criticism. In 1849, she traveled to Brooklyn to take care of the ailing aunt who raised her. When her aunt died three years later, she returned to Rhode Island and took up residence with her daughter, Amy, in Johnston. Thereafter, she worked on her autobiography, traveled occasionally, returned to her former home in Providence at the corner of Olney and North Main Streets and led a relatively uneventful life until her death in Providence on October 11, 1872, at the age of eighty-four.
During her retirement, Williams enjoyed the distinction of being elected an honorary member of several local learned societies, a recognition not conferred, she once remarked on females in Rhode Island. She furnished her unpublished autobiography to prolific historian Sidney S. Rider, who later used it in writing his Biographical Memoirs of Three Rhode Island Authors (1880). In a note appended to her autobiography, Rider described this “remarkable person” as follows:
“Rather short in stature and quite stout, very slovenly in dress, her bonnet always on one side of her head—wears no hoops—and most always a dirty dress—her small eyes twinkle between two brown curls on either side of her head—and with her squeaking voice you have a complete picture of Mrs. Williams—she is an inveterate Talker and is always ready to talk to any one as long as they will listen—she is deeply interested in politics.”
Despite her financially comfortable well-to-do status, gained by inheritance and publishing, Catharine Williams believed that the female writer’s task was not only to uplift and enlighten but also to “relieve social distress, comfort the afflicted, succor the persecuted, strengthen the weak, and raise up those who are fallen.” She performed her task well.
Catherine R. Williams was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2002.
For additional reading:
The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, SC.