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Finding and sharing the inspiring stories of the women who helped build today's Salem

Sophia Amelia Peabody (1809-71), the youngest of the three Peabody sisters, was born into an old New England family of modest means. Her well educated mother, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, taught school from their various homes and published poems on women's rights in a local newspaper. Her father, although Harvard educated, a teacher, physician and dentist, was never able to adequately provide for his family. The women did, including Sophia's more famous sisters Elizabeth and Mary; their three brothers struggled.

As a teenager, Sophia suffered from debilitating headaches. Historians disagree as to their source and meaning, but Sophia was always treated by her family as the "delicate one." It is possible they did not expect her to live. Recent scholarship documents that her illnesses were due more to family stress than to physical limitation.

Despite her troubles, however, Sophia learned languages, literature, and writing from her mother and oldest sister Elizabeth (five years her senior), who, like their mother, was a forceful educator.

Sophia Peabody displayed artistic talent as well, becoming a highly regarded professional "copyist" of paintings and a sculptor. Eventually, she attracted the admiration of male Boston artists and teachers, including Washington Allston, who encouraged her to create original works of art. Sophia could not have known that she was helping to pave the way for the first wave of Boston women professional artists who attended the new Boston Museum School starting in 1870.

Marriage and family
Sophia met the emerging author Nathaniel Hawthorne at her family home on Charter Street in Salem in 1838, thanks to her sister Elizabeth's interest in publishing his work. Sophia and Nathaniel soon fell deeply in love, exchanging secret passionate letters for several years before they were wed in the Peabody family's new home in Boston in 1842. After Sophia's marriage to Nathaniel, her headaches disappeared.   

During their two decades together, the couple had three children and Sophia nurtured her husband's writing career serving as his chief literary critic and inspiration. Her own literary prowess is displayed in the travel journals she kept during an early journey to Cuba, and, later, in the journal Nathaniel and Sophia wrote together in England and Italy. Sophia contributed drawings to some of her husband's publications, and was able to sell more important works of art to support them during lean times.

Sophia and Nathaniel lived at various times in Salem, Concord, The Berkshires, and Europe as they followed his career. After Nathaniel's death in New Hampshire in 1864, Sophia edited and organized his journals. In 1868, Sophia and her children moved to Germany where she edited and published her earlier journal from England and Italy. Soon after Sophia moved her family to England, she died, in 1871, and was buried in London.

The Hawthornes' daughter Rose went on to found an order of Dominican nuns dedicated to caring for terminally ill cancer patients who were unable to afford care; this order still flourishes in upstate New York. Una suffered from various health problems, eventually married, but died in her thirties. Julian studied engineering in Germany and published his father's letters to his mother and a biography of him.

In 2006, Sophia's body was returned to America; she is buried next to her husband at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.

Examples of Sophia's artwork may be seen at the Peabody Essex Museum, in the first floor Putnam Gallery whose theme is "The World of Women." Hanging directly across from her works, in the gallery titled "The World of Men," hangs the handsome portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood.

The Peabody Sisters of Salem by Megan Marshall (Houghton Mifflin, 2005)
Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, A Life, Volume I, 1809-1847 by Patricia Valenti (University of Missouri Press, 2004)

Sophia Amelia Peabody Hawthorne

Born: 1809, Salem

Church membership in Salem:
   North Church (Unitarian)

Salem homes:

• Brown Building, corner of Union
  and Essex Streets
• 53 Charter Street

• 18 Chestnut Street
Died: 1871, London
Buried: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery,  
  Concord, Mass.