Four Childless Women From Savannah Built Legacies To Last
I made yet another trip to Savannah, Georgia in the last days of winter in March 2018. Once again I was impressed by the women's history of this city of the Old South. I believe here are few places in the New World that can be compared to Savannah. In honor of Women's History Month 2018, I decided to re-post what I wrote here about Savannah in 2017.
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve visited Savannah, Georgia. When Matt and I lived in Atlanta, it was a short drive to the historic city on the coast, and we traveled there often. I have been on haunted pub crawls, historic trolley tours, and stumbled along River Street with a drink in my hand. When we were deciding where to move after Atlanta, Savannah and Asheville made that list.
So, when my friend said she wanted to go to Savannah for her 30th birthday, it didn’t take long for me to say “I’m there!”
I knew from my previous visits that Savannah’s history featured a lot of amazing women. What I didn’t realize until this particular trip was how many of those women were NotMoms. Here are a just a few.
Juliette Gordon Low
This Savannah belle was the founder of the Girl Scouts. Born in Savannah on Halloween 1860, her early life was marred by the Civil War. She was also an accident-prone child who was frequently sick.
Juliette married William Mackay Low in December of 1886. And their relationship wasn’t without its struggle. Their marriage became troubled and there was a lengthy divorce battle, which was nearly unheard of for a gentile southern family at the time.
William Low had also struggled with infertility and was unable to father a child, and so, Juliette was a NotMom by Chance. William died in 1905. It was in 1912 that Gordon Low founded the Girl Guides, later named the Girl Scouts, in Savannah. Juliette died in 1927 and she is remembered today by Girl Scouts worldwide.
In contrast, Savannah also offers the story of Mary Telfair. If you visit the city, you’ll notice that there are a lot of places named for the Telfair family, but Mary stands out among her brother and sisters. She lived from 1791 to 1875 and, due to her family’s great wealth, it was never necessary for her to get married. She never had children.
A girl’s education was considered an essential part of southern culture at the time, but that level of openness did not generally extend to politics. That prohibition did not extend to the singular Mary Telfair, who once debated with U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Moore Wayne.
The city of Savannah is filled to the brim with Mary Telfair’s legacies, including Telfair Square, the Telfair Museums, and the Telfair Hospital for Females. The hospital, which is now owned by St. Joseph’s/Candler, was opened for women only. Not just for female patients, but also the caregivers. The story goes that if a man was born in the hospital, he had 3 days to get out.
Savannah was also the birthplace of author Flannery O’Connor. She was born in the southern city in 1925 and her family eventually moved to another, more land-locked town in Georgia where her father died of complications from lupus. Flannery herself would also be diagnosed with the same disease, and she died from it in 1964 at age 39.
Her stories live on today as part of what is considered the Southern Gothic genre. Her novels and short stories feature grotesque themes and violence all within stylized settings in the American South. Flannery never married and never had children. Instead, she wrote memorable stories and raised peacocks on her family farm until she died. Flannery was honored with a US postage stamp in 2015.
Mother Matilda Beasley
There is a lot of hidden history in Savannah as well. Though the colony of Georgia was originally founded with a prohibition on slavery, when the state’s founder James Oglethorpe left Savannah, the colonists overturned that ban. This single act changed the course of the state’s history. Standing out among the ashes of the civil war was Mother Matilda Beasley.
There is still a great deal of mystery about Matilda Beasley, but here’s what we do know. She was born into slavery in 1830’s New Orleans. By the 1850s, she had obtained her freedom and found her way to Savannah in a time when educating slaves was still considered a crime. Nevertheless, Mother Beasley spent her time running a secret school.
She did marry a wealthy free man, but she had no children. And when her husband died, she gave his fortune to the Catholic Church and started the St. Francis Home for Colored Orphans. Matilda eventually became a Catholic sister and founded the Third Order of St. Francis, Savannah’s first community of black nuns.
Mother Beasley, a woman who never gave birth, dedicated her life to care for Savannah’s forgotten orphans and died in 1903. Sacred Heart Church established the Mother Mathilda Beasley Society in her honor and today the organization promotes charitable programs and raises awareness of African-American contributions to the Roman Catholic Church. The city of Savannah dedicated a park in memory of Mother Mathilda in 1982.
Honorable Mention: Mary Marshall
My 2017 visit to Savannah was to mark the birthday of my friend Sarah who writes a horror blog and loves all things macabre. She convinced us to stay at a haunted hotel in the city’s historic district, the Marshall House. It is one of city’s oldest hotels, opened in 1851 by businesswoman Mary Marshall as part of her vast holdings empire.
Mary Marshall never had a biological child. She and her husband remained childless until their late 50s when they adopted a baby from a poor Irish family. Margaret, their adopted daughter, died at age 25, long before her elderly mother.
(We’ve heard from stepmoms and foster moms who still consider themselves to be NotMoms because they never gave birth. And so, I am including Mary’s story here, with Honorable Mention.)
The Marshall House itself underwent many transitions over the years, and served as a makeshift hospital during outbreaks of yellow fever and later, during the Civil War when General Sherman made it to Savannah, and the hotel was confiscated by the Union Army. Mary died in 1877, but she and other ghosts have been known to roam the hallways even now. This painting of her hangs in the hotel lobby.
Side Note: Matt and I thought Marshall House was pretty creepy. And we had some weird things happen to us there. But, this post is not about that. I just thought you should know.