Bangor suffragette jailed in London

Posted Aug. 23, 2010, at 6:21 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Charles A. Boutelle was one of Bangor’s great men. He was a Civil War naval hero and later an editor and owner of the distinguished Bangor Whig and Courier. He became a popular Republican congressman for 18 years. One of the many powerful Mainers who represented the state in Washington back then, Boutelle was instrumental in modernizing the American Navy.

A man of principle and a forceful speaker, he “could get into more controversies in shorter time than any man I ever knew,” U.S. House Speaker Joseph Cannon once said of him. So it is not surprising that one of his three children emerged briefly a century ago as a dauntless fighter for human rights, willing to go to jail for her beliefs.

Grace Hodsdon Boutelle was the oldest of Charles and Sarah Hodsdon Boutelle’s three daughters. Born in 1869, she was definitely her father’s daughter. She served as his hostess at Washington social functions after her mother died. She nursed him on his deathbed in 1901. Shortly before he died, she appeared in an official capacity to christen the monitor USS Connecticut (renamed Nevada) when it was launched at Bath Iron Works.

Perhaps her father’s greatest admirer, she once wrote, “In the House of Representatives he could always command attention. No one ever dozed or attended to their correspondence when he was speaking.”

On a warm June morning in 1910, Grace Boutelle commanded the attention of the ladies of the Athene Club, who were meeting at Assembly Hall at old Bangor High School in Abbott Square. Qualified to travel in the highest circles of Bangor society, Boutelle probably knew several of the club women, and these models of femininity doubtlessly hung on her every word. It was rumored she had spent a month in a London prison after participating in a suffrage demonstration, a most unladylike thing to do. Here she was in person to confirm the story. In fact, she took the podium dressed in prison garb!

First, some background from the Lewiston Evening Journal of a year before — July 24, 1909, the only source I have been able to find about Grace Boutelle’s life up until this event. She attended Bangor public schools and contributed stories to her father’s newspaper occasionally. Then in 1902, when he was dead and buried and she was 33 years old, she struck out on her own, hired as a writer by the Boston Transcript. It was “the first intimation Bangor people had of her intent to earn a living with her pen.”

A year later she moved to England, where she stayed for several years writing for American and British papers as well as the theater. She also joined the suffrage movement. One (male) historian whose history of England happens to be in my bookcase describes the activities of the most radical suffragettes at this time as “a hysterical campaign of dubious outrages. … They cut telephone wires, broke porcelain in the British Museum, threw stones and wielded knives and hatchets, put jam and tar in mailboxes … set fires and planted bombs” and so on. Women with similar goals in Maine acted well within the “womanly” constraints of the day, receiving little publicity and making little progress.

The Lewiston newspaper quoted an undated paragraph from the Boston Transcript as evidence of Boutelle’s zealotry: “Miss Grace [Hodsdon] Boutelle … is considered one of the boldest and most uncompromising suffragettes of London. She proudly boasts of having been in prison for a month as a result of her violent devotion to the cause.” Exactly what she did to land in jail is never specified here or anywhere else that I have been able to discover.

In an effort to confirm this report from the Boston Transcript, the Lewiston paper called Boutelle’s sister, Mrs. W. W. Palmer, who was said to be out of town. Her husband’s response to the reporter: “My sister had a letter from Grace last Friday and she said nothing about such a thing having occurred. I can hardly believe it is true.”

The reporter, who filed the report as a “special” from Bangor, had little doubt the story was true, however. “Among those who knew her best as a child and young lady, it will not be astonishing that, believing in the cause, she was among its boldest leaders and would willingly suffer whatever punishment the espousal of it might bring,” the reporter wrote. “From childhood say those who know her, she was like her father, prone to stand up for what she believed was right and to accept the consequences.”

Grace Boutelle appeared before the ladies of the Athene Club on that warm June morning nearly a year later wearing “the costume of the prison where the suffragettes were confined.” A dark green, short skirted gown of thick wool, it was “spotted with white arrows which once were a symbol of royalty, but had degenerated into a prison badge,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on June 23. She also wore a blue gingham apron, a large bordered handkerchief, a small cap and a disc on which was inscribed a prison number. “You are not a person, but a number,” said Miss Boutelle.

Much of the newspaper story was taken up with arguments for women’s suffrage and British politics in regard to the question. But Boutelle also described some of her own experiences, “which to say the least were not alluring.” She dwelt upon “the hunger strike in all its horror … and impressed duly the listeners.” Unfortunately, whatever vivid details may have been imparted were omitted along with the exact circumstances surrounding Boutelle’s incarceration in Holway Jail. The reporter may have feared offending Bangor’s anti-suffrage readers who formed a stubborn majority and included many women.

As for Grace Boutelle, she apparently lived an uneventful life after this, if her obituary in the Bangor Daily News on Aug. 26, 1957, is an indication. She eventually made her home in Minneapolis where she was a music teacher. She remained a talented writer, her work appearing in national publications. She spent the last 10 years of her life back in Bangor where she was a member of the First Church of Christ Scientist. No mention is made of the time she spent in jail for the cause of women’s suffrage.

Thanks to Dick Shaw for background information concerning this column. Comments can be sent to Wayne E. Reilly at wreilly.bdn@gmail.com.

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