Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp was one of the Village’s more fascinating individuals. Born in England in 1825, the daughter of William Millet Beauchamp (1799-1867) and Mary (Jay) Beauchamp, she came to America with her family in 1829, and to Skaneateles in 1832. Her father was a printer and a publisher, and as a young girl she had the run of his thousand-volume lending library.
With her younger brother, William Martin Beauchamp (1830-1925), she developed a lifelong interest in the Onondaga tribe (whose members she first saw in her father’s store), botany, religion and literature. And with her brother she saw the “menagerie” come to Skaneateles in June of 1837. William described the scene in his Notes of Other Days:
“The ring performances were of a simple kind. A gayly dressed monkey rode a Shetland pony with much trembling and apparent fear; the elephant carried a band of girls around, my sister among them; then his keeper sprang upon his tusks and was swayed up and down around the ring, and having seen nothing more wonderful we were greatly pleased.”
At home, Mary Elizabeth wrote rhyming verse for her friends, and wrote down favorite poems in her scrapbook in a very clear and precise hand. And friends added their favorite verses to her scrapbook, also in a very clear and precise hand, such as was taught in the nineteenth century. Her scrapbook was also a place for pictures, etchings that had come her way, showing her interest in architecture, botany, Indian maidens and women of fashion.
She became a regular contributor to children’s magazines; at the age of 14, she wrote a serial that ran for six months. Still in her teens, she placed an illustrated tale in Peterson’s Magazine. In her twenties, living at home, she was challenged by ill health, and her writing shifted to religious verse, published often under the pen name “Filia Ecclesiae.”
At the age of 28, accompanied by a younger brother, she returned to England, where she stayed for nearly two years. An uncle, a vicar in Wells, asked her to write a guidebook for Wells Cathedral; it was published in 1856, after she had returned to Skaneateles.
Having worshipped in England for two years, she found herself holding up the American version of the Anglican church for comparison. She wrote a series of papers entitled The Emigrant’s Quest, or Is It Our Own Church? which were collected and published “in a small, neatly bound volume of only ninety-two pages, which one could put into his vest pocket.” Edward Isidore Sears, in The National Quarterly Review, commented:
“This is an unpretending tiny volume; but the author, of whom we have no personal knowledge, could have rendered a much larger work interesting and attractive.”
Mary Elizabeth’s mother died in 1859, and her father in 1867, loosening her ties to Skaneateles. In 1868, she moved to Buffalo and became a teacher in the orphan ward of the Church Charity Foundation, where she had 55 students; she taught there for 12 years, eventually becoming the principal.
In 1880, she went to Europe for a year with a friend from church work, and then returned to Skaneateles. She joined the Protestant Episcopal Church to the Onondaga Indians as a teacher, and bought a home in the village, where she conducted a school for the children of summer residents, organized a literary society for young ladies, and took adult pupils in French and drawing. And she wrote for publications such as The Gospel Messenger and The Churchman.
In March, 1890, she suffered a stroke, and moved in with her married sister, Maria Humphryes. But she was by no means finished with writing. In 1891, three of the religious poems she had written as a young woman were collected and published in Lyrics of the Living Church. In 1896, she prepared and delivered a speech, “Early Quakers of Skaneateles,” for the Onondaga Historical Society. And at some point along the way, she wrote “Recollections of St. James’ Church,” a history that has since gone missing.
In 1903, at the age of 79, she died at the home of her niece, Miss Margaret Humphryes. Her funeral was held on a Friday afternoon at St. James’, and she was buried in Lake View Cemetery. Her obituary noted:
“Of a devout temperament, much of her writings had a religious tone, and nothing but weakness or ill health ever kept her from church. In later days she found much pleasure in the Leisure Hour Club, but no less in the charms of nature, which an observant eye fitted her fully to enjoy.”
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My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society, where Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp’s scrapbook resides today, and to William Beauchamp for his Notes of Other Days.