Was ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ written in Brunswick house? Family uses claim to justify $3 million asking price

Arline Pennell Lay stands in the room where she says Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “&quotUncle Tom'’s Cabin,"” by a window on which she said Stowe etched the phrase "“angels home.”" The claim is disputed by Bowdoin College.
John Swinconeck | The Times Record
Arline Pennell Lay stands in the room where she says Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “"Uncle Tom'’s Cabin,"” by a window on which she said Stowe etched the phrase "“angels home.”" The claim is disputed by Bowdoin College.
Posted Feb. 21, 2014, at 2:12 p.m.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — Are words etched in a window pane and a story handed down through generations enough to justify a home’s $3 million asking price?

Arline Pennell Lay and her family hope so. They are convinced it was their house on 28 College St. — previously located on Park Row — where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the famous abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the 1850s.

The claim is disputed by Bowdoin College, which owns the house at 63 Federal St. that Stowe lived in at the time.

Lay’s family has taken umbrage at the college’s assertion that her claim is a ploy to inflate the home’s price.

“Harriet Beecher Stowe had six children [at the time]. It was too noisy, so she went to Mrs. Lamb on Park Row, and rented a room on the second floor” of the house now on College Street, Lay said.

It was in that rented room that Lay said Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The house has been in Lay’s family since 1905, when Lay’s grandfather, James W. Coffin, purchased the home from the Lamb family. Shortly thereafter, the house was moved to its current location, Lay said, in order to “save its historic value.”

Lay said she remembered, as a child, being led by her mother to the second-story room and being shown the window on which the phrase “angels home” had been scratched in the glass.

Lay said she is convinced the etching is Stowe’s, scrawled while she was renting the room. She said the phrase is derived from a song sung by Uncle Tom in the novel: “O, had I the wings of the morning, / I’d fly away to Canaan’s shore; / Bright angels should convey me home, / To the new Jerusalem.”

The writing on the glass is still visible, but there is no definitive proof Stowe wrote it.

A Feb. 7 article in The Wall Street Journal “Private Properties” section stated, “The family said receipts were found in the house showing rent that Ms. Stowe paid for her room.” However, in an interview with The Times Record, no one in the family said there were written records of Stowe, and no receipts were produced.

“People are wondering why we are coming up with this story when we want to sell,” Lay said.

Lay’s son-in-law, Brunswick writer Timothy Hladky, produced a copy of what appears to be a notarized affidavit signed by Pejepscot Genealogy Society Director Brian M. Bouchard, stating, in part, “I recall having heard in the past that Harriet Beecher Stowe rented and wrote ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in a room on Park Row in Brunswick, ME — not the house she was living in on Federal Street at the time.”

The town of Brunswick values the house and land at $154,300.

The family said the $3 million price is worth it for the house’s historic value, and one of the stipulations of the sale is that the buyer must preserve the house.

“There are people in Hollywood with money to burn,” Hladky said. “I think a lot of people appreciate history, and there are people out there who would spend a lot of money.”

A representative of Bowdoin College referred inquiries to a statement issued late last week asserting “there is no factual basis that any part of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was written in Lay’s house.”

“In our view, this counterclaim about the location of Stowe’s work is merely an attempt to sell a once-moved historic Brunswick house at an inflated price,” wrote Scott Hood, Bowdoin spokesman.

“Over the 109-plus years our family has owned the property, we have never made this historical note a public matter as to not rain on Bowdoin’s parade or claims of notoriety with regard to Harriet Beecher Stowe, as it is clear to us that Harriet attempted to write parts of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ at her home on Federal Street, then Appleton Hall on the Bowdoin campus as well,” wrote family member James Pennell Lay, who said he is grandson of James W. Coffin and son of the late Bowdoin professor and poet Robert Coffin. “Our family is low-key and not looking for the notoriety; however, we feel that Bowdoin could have treated our bringing forth the new history and [information] regarding Stowe writing in our house with more respect.”

Meanwhile, they stand by their belief that Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at 28 College St.

“Just because our facts are not what everyone else has doesn’t mean we’re not right,” said Hladky.

BDN writer Tony Reaves contributed to this report.

 

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