“A Rhode Island Original” is a description used by Sarah O’Dowd to title her biography of Frances Whipple. It aptly describes one of Rhode Island’s most significant mid-nineteenth-century writers and reformers.
Frances was born in Smithfield in September 1805, but the exact date is unknown. She was the eldest of the four children of George Washington Whipple and Ann Scott, who were members of old and extended Rhode Island families. The Whipple clan was prominent in Smithfield, but according to sketchy accounts, George “was reduced to poverty” around 1817, when Frances was twelve, and “the little blue-eyed Fanny was left to support herself by her own industry, and to depend on such means of improvement as the common school.”
By the time she was twenty-three, Frances had moved to Providence to attend a private school taught by Dr. Peter W. Ferris, with whom she interacted intellectually for the remainder of her time in Rhode Island. In May 1829, the year after enrolling at the Ferris school, she began to edit and publish her first periodical, named the Original. It expired in 1830 after two issues despite her ambitious plans. This pioneering periodical was notable for its historical sketch of Central Falls, then known as “Chocolate Mills,” because a chocolate factory was located there, and for “Peggy O’Morven,” an empathetic story of the hardships endured by Irish immigrants coming to Rhode Island. The second and final issue gave evidence of Frances Whipple’s emerging antislavery sympathies by containing the poem “Autumn Thoughts,” contributed by twenty-two-year-old abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier, “the bard of freedom.”
By the late 1830s, the reformist spirit of America’s “Age of Equalitarianism” turned Whipple’s interest increasingly toward some of the causes of that period, especially temperance, abolition, and workers’ rights. In 1838, she published The Memoirs of Elleanor Eldridge, a defense of a local free Black and Indian woman who successfully sought to recover her seized property. Then Whipple wrote a novel entitled The Mechanic (1841), urging respect for workers, and during 1842, she edited the Wampanoag and Operatives’ Journal, a periodical designed to improve the condition of female factory hands in Fall River (which then was partly in Rhode Island).
In these years, she was the most prolific antislavery writer in Providence, contributing to William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator and other periodicals and editing two collections of antislavery essays, The Envoy (1840) and Liberty Chimes (1845). According to O’Dowd, Whipple’s interests intersected with those of her Smithfield neighbors, Arnold Buffum, who owned a Fall River mill, and his daughter, Elizabeth Buffum Chace. The Buffums were also militant opponents of slavery and contributed writings on that subject and spiritualism to Whipple’s publications.
Whipple also held Rhode Island’s Native Americans in high regard. In 1840, she wrote her longest and best poem concerning the March 26, 1676, battle at Central Falls between Narragansett sachem Canonchet (Nanuntenoo) and Captain Michael Pierce of the Plymouth Colony, which resulted in a decisive victory for Canonchet in revenge for the Great Swamp Massacre of Narragansetts in December 1675.
From a Rhode Island perspective, Whipple’s Might and Right is her most important work. In this book, written with assistance from Catharine Williams, she persuasively defended the Dorr Rebellion with logic and enthusiasm. Her support of Dorr’s efforts contrasted markedly with the position of her first cousin John Whipple, the attorney who teamed with Daniel Webster before the U.S. Supreme Court to repudiate Dorr’s movement for constitutional change.
Published in 1844, shortly after her first marriage, Might and Right contained a sketch of Dorr’s life, and it was defiantly dedicated “to Thomas Wilson Dorr, the true and tried patriot, the Fearless Defender of Human Rights,” as Dorr sat in prison under a life sentence for treason against the state. According to the recollections of historian Sidney Rider, she was “a very violent partisan of Mr. Dorr. Unfortunately for her personal comfort, she was ever on the unpopular side of every question in Rhode Island.”
Perhaps her “unpopular” views influenced her decision to leave the repressive political atmosphere of Rhode Island for more progressive locations. Also, disruptive and discouraging was her brief marriage in Springfield, Massachusetts, to artist Charles C. Green. Like her colleague Catharine Williams, she soon filed for divorce, which was granted on September 20, 1847, for the familiar grounds of desertion and abandonment, as well as for the more unusual claim of “extreme cruelty and gross misbehavior.” After this breakup, she went to her sister Mary Congdon’s home in Pomfret, Connecticut. Then, she boarded for a time in Bridgeport with the family of the Reverend Samuel Brittan, a noted author, medium, and spiritualist.
Her contacts with Rhode Island now severed, Frances Green moved on to New York City and other parts unknown, turning her attention to the writing of works on slavery and spiritualism and a botany textbook. Then, in 1861, this talented and restless woman ventured to California, where she met and married her second husband, William C. McDougall, a miner, a former California assemblyman, and the brother of the state’s second governor, John McDougall. In her new home, Frances McDougall lent her pen to the cause of women’s rights and assumed the role of a medium, speaking and writing messages dictated to her from the spirit world. She died in Oakland, California, on June 10, 1878.
Frances McDougall was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2004.
For additional reading:
A Rhode Island Original: Frances Harriet Whipple Green McDougall, by Susan C. O’Dowd, University Press of New England, 2004.
The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, The History Press, Charleston, SC, 2012.