Ellen Birdseye Wheaton
Ellen Birdseye Wheaton came from a prominent Syracuse family. She was a
committed abolitionist and supported the women's suffrage movement. She
married at the age of 18 and had 12 children.
Ellen's father, Victory Birdseye, was the district attorney for Onondaga County
and served two terms in the U.S. Congress. Her husband's brother Horace
also served in Congress and became the 4th mayor of Syracuse. Still, near
the end of Ellen's life, bad investments and an economic depression drove the
Wheaton family into poverty.
Ellen Wheaton kept a diary from 1850 until her death in 1858. The diary
was published from the original by the Wheaton family in 1923. The
location of the original is unknown. City directories, old newspapers,
maps, scholarly works and histories of Syracuse provided contextual information
for these stories, offering a rare glimpse into the day-to-day life of a woman
in 19th century Syracuse.
This series of seven stories
was published in the Post-Standard the week of March 31st, 2002 for
Women's History Month.
Readers can view a copy of
the diary at the Onondaga Historical Association or the Onondaga County
light on her life, times
March 31, 2002
By Sara Errington
Ellen Birdseye Wheaton would be a footnote in Syracuse's history had
she not taken up a pen in 1850 and begun writing.
The diary she kept until her death in 1858, at age 42, illuminates her
own life and opens a window onto the lives of women in 19th century
Wheaton was not ordinary, but many of her cares were common to women in
all walks of life.
She was richer and better educated than most, but still worried about
paying bills and doubted the quality of her mind.
Her family was prominent - several men were politicians, lawyers and
businessmen - but bad investments and an economic depression sent the
Wheatons tumbling into poverty.
Her liberal religious views, her support of women's right to vote and
her radical opposition to slavery were unusual.
Her worries about keeping 12 children clothed, fed and healthy are
concerns any mother would have understood.
Much of the diary's interest lies in Wheaton's accounts of daily life:
Picking currants in Orville (which is now DeWitt) and making jam, riding
the "Omnibus" (a horse-drawn buggy) past flower-filled yards to Onondaga
Hill, watching St. Patrick's Day processions, visiting shops, chatting
with friends, checking her children's schoolwork and mending piles of
socks, shirts and dresses.
Little escaped her observant gaze. Wheaton was both proud of and
embarrassed over her writing.
On a quiet evening in August 1853, her eldest daughter persuaded her to
read the diary aloud. Ellen later wrote with undisguised pleasure that
Cornelia seemed "much gratified" by the reading.
Another night, Wheaton was mortified when her husband praised her
writing to a business partner.
The man, William Jackson, called at 10 p.m., surprising Ellen as she
wrote in her diary. Curious to see a woman writing, he asked if she was
taking notes on a sermon - a common practice among the descendants of New
England's Puritan settlers.
"I was so abashed that I could not say a word," Wheaton wrote. "Then
Charles went on with quite a speech about my writing, till I was really
out of patience with him."
One day in 1852, embarrassed to imagine future generations laughing at
her pretensions, Wheaton gathered her papers and prepared to throw them on
the fire. Fortunately, she changed her mind.
© 2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.
children kept 1850s Syracuse mother busy
April 01, 2002
By Sara Errington
When she wrote the first lines in her journal on Sunday, Dec. 1, 1850,
Ellen Wheaton was 34 years old and pregnant with the tenth of her 12
She loved her children but resented their demands on her time and
"I have little opportunity to record thought or feeling, for want of
opportunity to think. - I am always surrounded with a flock of noisy
children, and my head resounds with their noise like an empty barrel," she
Like other middle- and upper-class wives, Ellen did not work outside
the home. Her job was to manage the household and keep her brood of
children properly dressed, fed, educated and entertained.
Feb. 25, 1851, was a typical day:
"Looked over & put away the week's ironing - mended & sewed on buttons
for two or three hours, and then went into the kitchen and made cake for
some time longer," she wrote.
After making cake, she "finished sewing Clara's drawers."
Two servants assisted Ellen in her domestic duties. When Ellen started
her diary, a kitchen maid and an African-American servant named George
Johnson lived with the family on East Genesee Street, near where it now
intersects with South Crouse Avenue. In 1852, when the family moved into a
larger, grander home in Fayette Park, a driver to care for the horses and
a nurse to help with the children were added to the household.
Seamstresses came often to sew the seemingly endless supply of clothing
needed for a dozen growing children. Usually Ellen worked beside them, to
save money and to make sure the women worked hard.
"It is an irksome task for me, this dress-making, for so many
children," she wrote March 17, 1851.
On winter days, when all but the toddlers were in school, Ellen napped
in the late morning and sometimes stole an hour to write letters to
relatives. Her toddlers, hyperactive Henry and inquisitive Lucia,
interrupted frequently as she wrote to her sister Charlotte in 1849.
"My letters must all bear the marks of carelessness and haste," Ellen
wrote apologetically, "as I generally write them, with at least one or two
around or hanging on to me - Lucia has been ransacking my writing desk
while I have been trying to make out a letter to you."
When the rest of her children came home from school, she helped them
On March 25, 1851, she wrote of helping Lucia learn the alphabet,
revising Cornelia's composition, quizzing Ellen in history and working on
other topics with Emma and Florence.
Syracuse at the time was an unhealthy place. The city was built on the
swamp that surrounded Onondaga Lake. Railroad and canal traffic brought
diseases from east and west. In 1832, cholera killed hundreds of
In March 1835, Ellen noted that many young girls had died that month of
tuberculosis and that scarlet fever "caused a good many deaths, many of
them being only children."
"But during it all, we were mercifully preserved," she wrote.
Wheaton's children were vaccinated against smallpox, but nothing could
guard against chicken pox and the endless rounds of colds and flu that
plagued the family.
Sick children required Ellen's constant attention. When chicken pox
appeared on her youngest child, Ellen sighed, knowing that three of her
other children would surely get it.
"I staid at home all day, to nurse the sick children, and a most
wearisome day it has been, as I had little opportunity for reading, or
thinking," Ellen wrote one evening. "I get so little sleep, that I am
drowsy all the time."
Ellen complained to her diary to relieve her frustrations, but she also
recorded her affection toward the children.
She fretted when Edward, who attended Hobart College, failed to write,
and rejoiced to get letters from Cornelia, who attended a Quaker School in
New York City, and later worked in South Carolina as a governess.
"Oh! how lonely it seems without her," Ellen wrote a few days after
Cornelia left for New York.
When her last child was born in 1854, Ellen expressed the mixture of
joy and regret that permeates her diary.
"It was great trial to me, to have another child, so that at times, I
was very much unreconciled to it, but I don't doubt we shall love her, as
much as we have any of the others," she wrote.
© 2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.
role bored mother in 1850s Syracuse
April 02, 2002
By Sara Errington
Ellen Douglas Birdseye and Charles Augustus Wheaton grew up together in
Pompey Hill, and it was probably no surprise to anyone that they married.
Few in the 19th century married outside their social class or circle of
acquaintances. Fewer married outside their race or religion.
Charles wrote on Feb. 15, 1833, asking Ellen's parents for their
"The facts are these," he wrote. "Your daughter Ellen and myself are, I
believe, disposed to estimate the 'Value of a Union' by matrimonial
He observed that perhaps the Birdseyes noticed he'd been attentive to
their daughter, "tho' not too much so perhaps - provided, I was actuated
by proper motives - and if in accordance with your feelings."
He vowed, if they objected to the match, "to yield without a murmur to
Wheaton did well to marry into the wealthy and powerful Birdseye
family. Ellen's father, Victory Birdseye, was one of Onondaga County's
most prominent politicians.
He and his wife almost named their eldest daughter after President
James Madison's wife, Dolley, but instead chose Sir Walter Scott's
literary heroine, Ellen Douglas.
Birdseye practiced law, but also served two terms in Congress. He was
postmaster of Pompey Hill for 22 years, district attorney of Onondaga
County for 14 years, and held numerous other political offices.
Ellen was no great beauty, her own relatives admitted, but she was
smart and well educated. The Birdseyes sent Ellen to a seminary in
Cortland and then to music school in Albany. She is reported to have owned
the first piano in Pompey.
Charles' family was respectable, but not as influential as Ellen's. His
father was a farmer and a drover. Charles clerked in the general store
owned by his brother-in-law, Moses Seymour Marsh, but he had higher
He and Ellen married June 24, 1834, when he was 25 and she was 18.
Almost a year later, Ellen bore a daughter.
Four months after Cornelia was born, the family moved to Syracuse,
where Wheaton went into the hardware business. Their first home was at the
intersection of Railroad and Clinton streets. In 20 years, they lived in
seven houses, moving to larger homes as family and fortune grew. /su/110Prosperous
business Charles Wheaton was a busy man. He and a variety of partners,
including his brother, Horace, built a prosperous hardware businesses.
Horace later became Syracuse's mayor.
By 1852, C.A. Wheaton & Co. was housed in the city's grandest
mercantile block, a four-story building overlooking the Erie Canal and
He had other business ventures that kept him from home: the Oneida
Foundry, which made printing presses; and the Blue Ridge Railroad, a
proposed railroad from South Carolina to Tennessee.
When he wasn't working, Wheaton attended frequent religious and
anti-slavery meetings. He was a founder of the First Congregational Church
in 1838, which included many of city's most radical abolitionists.
When the anti-slavery and pro-temperance Free Democracy Party chose
candidates in 1852, it nominated Wheaton to run for canal commissioner. He
also ran unsuccessfully for mayor on the Temperance Party ticket in 1852.
/su/110'Late as usual' Ellen supported her husband's activities, but
grumbled about his absences. "Here I sit writing & waiting for Charles,
who is late as usual," she wrote.
Another night, she stopped waiting. "Shall not wait for my husband any
longer, but go to bed," she wrote March 14, 1851.
Charles had little time and, Ellen feared, little inclination for
"Oh that I might be so blessed, as to have a Husband at liberty to
spend a little time with his Family, now & then, without thinking it
irksome," she wrote March 6, 1854.
In wealthy urban households, the division of labor was sharp. Wives
managed the day-to-day affairs of the household. Husbands worked outside
the home, making money to support the family.
Twenty years after they wed, Ellen wrote that she sometimes felt a
stranger to her husband, "as if our old friendship was broken off - and a
feeling of loneliness comes over me that is very oppressive."
Despite her complaints about Charles' absences, it is clear that Ellen
loved him. "My Husband is still, far away from home, and my heart grows
weary in longing for him," she wrote when he was in South Carolina for
three months. Active abolitionists. She wrote with pride of his
success in business and the abolition movement. She also wrote with
girlish delight about the times he came home early or took her out. "After
ten, Charles and & I went to the Ice Cream saloon. ... It was nearly
twelve when we got to bed," she wrote in July 1855.
She enjoyed making him comfortable.
"In the evening Charles' new slippers came home, and I had the pleasure
of presenting them to him," she wrote Christmas Eve 1853. "They fit pretty
well, and I think he was pleased, tho' he did not say much."
Another time, Charles read to Ellen a letter he was writing,
criticizing a sermon supporting slavery. Abolition was a topic that bound
them together. Ellen wrote in her diary that she and Charles "had quite a
pleasant chat together."
Such days were rare, especially after Charles began spending three days
a week in Oneida at the printing press foundry. 'I get no credit'
Sometimes Ellen felt unappreciated.
"Work! Work, all day, and all the next, and yet I get no credit for
doing any thing," she complained. "Those whom I am most interested to
please & satisfy seem to think I pass my time in idleness and folly."
Left with only servants and young children for company, Ellen was
"It is well for me, and all my family, that such moods are not very
lasting," she wrote. "I am at times, tempted to rebel against, what seems
to be my destiny, and do something desperate."
© 2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.
LIFE IN THE CITY:
featured a thriving downtown
April 03, 2002
By Sara Errington
In 1839, Charles Wheaton built a home on South Salina Street near East
Jefferson Street. At that time, it was on the outskirts of town.
From his neat brick house, Charles could walk to his store, near the
Erie Canal, and his wife, Ellen, could walk to shops, churches and the
homes of her many friends. Syracuse was booming, although it was small by
A resident who published a census of Syracuse in 1844 counted 8,266
residents, 2,000 more than lived there in 1840. Thousands more lived in
the surrounding villages.
When the Wheatons moved to Syracuse, only 11 percent of Americans lived
in urban centers with more than 2,500 residents.
Bevy of commercial activity
Syracuse hummed with commerce. Wheaton's hardware store, which went by
a variety of names during its 18-year existence, was one of several
hardware stores that stood near the canal.
Other businesses clustered in the commercial district: 13 dry goods
stores, 40 grocery and provisions stores, eight shoe stores, eight hat
stores and three stores dealing in tobacco, snuff and cigars. There also
were two confectioneries, where workers turned 2,000 pounds of sugar each
week into candy, and three bakeries.
Near the canal and the railroad line that ran down the middle of
Washington Street were factories that turned out plows, locks and other
goods that could be shipped east and west by barge or train.
The sounds of the community comforted Ellen, who wrote of hearing "the
distant rush of a solitary train or cars over the broken ground, then a
shrill whistle and now the coffee mill begins its nightly song."
Thirteen churches - including First Congregational Church, where the
Wheatons worshipped - were the tallest buildings in town.
More than 100 acres of salt evaporation vats stretched from the city,
mostly on the south and east sides of Onondaga Lake.
Sometimes Ellen stopped at her husband's office to pick up money. From
there, she called at the homes of her seamstresses and laundresses, then
continued on to the stores to pay bills.
One day, she scoured Syracuse's dry goods stores for the perfect
trimmings for her daughter Ellen's dress. She found just the right buttons
and ribbon at McCarthy's.
Fascinated with fashion
Each spring and fall, Ellen visited the milliners' shops, all run by
women, to see showings of the next season's hats. The town's wealthy women
were preoccupied with fashion.
In 1852, bloomers were all the rage. The loose-waisted dress over
"Turkish" pants was a departure from the hoop skirts, corsets and heavy
woolen shawls, called mantuas, fashionable in the 1850s.
Reformers argued that corsets caused tuberculosis and crushed women's
internal organs, and that full, heavy skirts made women walk with an
unnatural stride. Bloomers improved health by allowing women to breathe
and walk freely.
Despite their advantages, the garments never really caught on. The
sight of women's pantaloon-clad legs and the strange flowing waist
"excites much severe remark and censure from some good people," Ellen
She laughed, watching her more conservative friends rave against the
new fashion. Those most scandalized by the garb, she noted, "are just as
much interested in following every new fashion as fast as it appears, as
if their very lives depended on it."
Ellen approved of bloomers, although she didn't mention buying any.
Syracuse had few paved roads, and since dresses were worn many times
between launderings, women were forever brushing mud and dust out of the
bottoms of their skirts.
"Now, I don't see why it is any more ridiculous or shameful to adopt a
turkish costume, than a parisian, if it is more convenient, or more
rational," Ellen wrote.
Wheaton's only censure fell on the wife of her minister, one of the
first in Syracuse to wear bloomers. "Mrs. S(now) is going into quite a
reform in dress - but I am not sure that I like it, - at any rate for the
minister's wife to set the fashion," she wrote.
In addition to stores and factories, Syracuse was home to an army of
peddlers who traveled from door to door, calling on the wealthy.
In March 1854, a lace maker knocked at the Wheatons' door, then spent
the day showing the children how she crafted lace using thread and pins
stuck in a pillow. The next week, an old woman who traded china for old
clothes knocked at the door.
She "coaxed me to deal with her, and I could not get rid of her till I
had made quite a trade," Ellen wrote.
Influx of immigrants
Syracuse swelled with immigrants in the 1840s and '50s.
Census workers in 1850 counted 17,224 foreign-born people among
Onondaga County's 85,891 residents. Most were from Ireland, England and
Germany. Italians had not yet begun to arrive in great numbers.
Most immigrants took the jobs no one else wanted and lived harder lives
than the pampered Wheatons. Ellen was struck with pity when an immigrant
woman came to her door with a sad tale.
"I was busy in the kitchen on Friday when a poor woman came in, and
asked assistance," she wrote. The woman said her husband was killed by a
train soon after they arrived in Syracuse, leaving her with four children
and no money.
Wheaton, who was on the board of Syracuse's Orphan Asylum, understood
the precarious situation of such families.
"I did what I could for her, but my heart ached for her," Ellen wrote.
"Do we not err in not cultivating more cordiality and friendliness of
feeling, toward these often sad & lonely wanderers?"
© 2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.
Syracuse offered prime location for cultural tours
April 04, 2002
By Sara Errington
When Hiram Power's statue "The Greek Slave" traveled through Syracuse
in 1851, Ellen Wheaton paid to see it even though she thought the marble
nude a bit risque.
Hundreds of thousands of people saw the sculpture as it toured the
United States. Syracuse's location along canal and railroad lines had made
the city a convenient stop for touring intellectuals and entertainers.
Sometimes Ellen went to City Hall to hear poetry readings or concerts
by the Musical Institute. Other times, she went to lectures by, among
others, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Horace Mann and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Skilled speakers were prized in the 19th century, and well-spoken
ministers were celebrities.
When the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher visited Syracuse, Wheaton wrote about
hearing him preach "a sermon I shall remember, as long as I remember
anything." /su/110Escaping church's shackles Her own church, First
Congregational, disbanded in the 1850s over personal and theological
disputes. Many members founded Plymouth Congregational Church, but Ellen
decided she didn't need to join a church to be a good Christian.
"I feel the shackles of dogmatism gradually loosening," she wrote in
1854, after a long spiritual struggle. Sometimes, Ellen went to three
different churches on Sunday, but her tolerance stretched only so far.
She objected to the Episcopal Church, and "any other sect" that claimed
to "be the sole depository of saving truth, and all the world who do not
join its communion and subscribe to its doctrines must be utterly lost."
Ellen sat happily through many long lectures.
"I anticipate a rich treat in attending the course," she wrote of the
Franklin Institute's winter lecture series. Speakers' topics ranged from
the condition of the English working classes to the impact of 18th century
Wheaton was unsparing when lectures flopped. "He seemed to have made
writing and delivery a labour, rather than a mere recreation, and went at
it in good earnest, as if he were not to be diverted from his purpose,"
she wrote about William Tracy of Utica.
Wheaton was also critical of the taste of Syracuse's elite. After
taking her daughters to a concert, she lamented that "our Syracuse
audiences don't seem to appreciate the more lofty style of choruses, but
prefer songs & ballads."
The dangers of drink
Ellen avoided alcohol, but many Syracusans entertained themselves by
drinking. About 80 taverns and seven breweries served the village in 1845.
One scholar estimates that until the 1840s, Americans over age 15 drank
about 7 gallons of pure alcohol per year.
The temperance movement, near and dear to Ellen's heart, helped lower
alcohol consumption by 1850 to 1.8 gallons per person, mostly by making
hard liquor and cider less popular.
Drinking water was chancy for Syracusans. People drew water from
Onondaga Creek, nearby streams and from wells, which often were
contaminated by leaking privies. Teetotalers like the Wheatons and their
12 children could drink tea at the town's two temperance hotels.
Ellen worried her oldest son, Edward, was "susceptible of temptation, -
and I fear very easily led."
When he dropped out of Hobart College, Wheaton approved. "I fear the
morals of the students are bad & then the professors, as near as I can
learn, all drink wine habitually," she wrote.
Wheaton's views led her to be judgmental.
When funeral sermons praised Philo Rust, the owner of local hotel
Syracuse House, she objected. "Why will the world praise and admire the
character of a man after death, whose life has been one unbroken tissue of
profligacy?" she wrote.
The Fourth of July, a big drinking holiday, was almost intolerable to
Ellen. "Tomorrow will be a day of noisy confusion,
intemperance & disorder, and the patriotism of the people will mostly
be expended in powder and noise," she wrote.
Making social calls
Much of Ellen's social life revolved around paying calls on and
receiving calls from the city's elite families. In 1854, she helped
daughter Cornelia, 18, learn the social ritual of receiving New Year's Day
"They began to come about 11 o'clock and kept it up till about dark. We
had some 29 or thirty calls, some of them very pleasant," she wrote.
When the Wheatons lost their money, the absence of visitors was a cruel
blow to Ellen. She enjoyed company, but also quiet nights at home with her
family. The Wheatons were great readers, and books, pamphlets and
periodicals filled their home.
In 1852, her husband, Charles, brought home "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the
literary sensation of the 1850s. "The children are devouring it," she
One evening, Ellen read a copy of Amelia Bloomer's newspaper, The Lily,
"a small, but spicy affair, devoted principally, I should think, to
In good weather, Ellen took her family outdoors. She traveled to Pompey
or Onondaga Hill to visit relatives, or went berry picking with friends.
One hot August day, she visited Island House, a resort at South Bay. Two
years later, she traveled to Niagara Falls, Montreal, Quebec City and
On bright snowy winter days, the family went for sleigh rides. But
mostly, winter was something to be endured.
"Another of those dreary, dark, dismal days," Ellen wrote on a dull
March day. "It rains, and rains, and rains, and is never weary, but we
thankless mortals do get weary, and wish, & wish, Oh! how vainly that it
would stop. The streets are great channels of mud, liquid brown mud, and
the few who move about, go slowly, and heavily along."
© 2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.
played active role in turbulent times
April 05, 2002
By Sara Errington
On Feb. 29, 1856, Cornelia Wheaton left home to work as a teacher at
Cluella, a slave plantation in North Carolina.
It was an unusual choice for the 20-year-old daughter of radical
abolitionists, but by then the Wheatons were broke and Charles had strong
business ties in the South.
"Be steadfast, unmovable in the right, don't intrude your opinions,"
Ellen advised Cornelia when asked how she should respond to questions
about slavery. "If persons become too personal in their remarks, leave
their presence, but when you are required to express your opinions, do it
without flinching, and if you cannot be allowed to do that without abuse,
bear it for truth's sake."
The Wheatons were more outspoken in Syracuse, where they were at the
center of a large network of radical abolitionists. Their anti-slavery
activities began as early as 1838, when Charles helped found First
Congregational Church on abolitionist principles.
When the Wheatons' seamstress, Mrs. MacManus told census workers
Charles was "president of the Underground Railroad," she wasn't too far
off base. /su/110Working to rescue slaves Many members of the congregation
were involved in helping escaped slaves travel to Canada, beyond the
clutches of slave catchers. In 1839, abolitionists helped a slave named
Harriet Powell escape from her masters, Mississippians who were staying at
local hotel Syracuse House.
Suspicion immediately fell upon Charles Wheaton. Law enforcement
officers searched the Wheatons' home on South Salina Street, but Powell
was not there. She had been spirited away to Marcellus, and from there to
It is unclear if Wheaton had been at all involved in the escape.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required that all
escaped slaves be detained and returned to their masters, brought the
anti-slavery movement in Syracuse to a fevered pitch.
"I fear for my husband," Wheaton wrote, "whose ardent & fearless temper
I so well know - and that he will be in the midst of danger when it
Danger came quickly indeed. On Oct. 1, 1851, an escaped slave named
William "Jerry" Henry was apprehended in Syracuse. "There was a good deal
of excitement among the people outside, particularly after getting a view
of the slave in his manacles," Wheaton wrote.
Jerry tried to escape in the afternoon, but was overtaken. That
evening, a stone-throwing mob freed Jerry for good. Ellen estimated that
perhaps half of Syracuse residents supported the rescue.
Ellen was silent about her husband's involvement in the rescue, but
wrote, "Charles confidently expected to be arrested."
While the rescue occurred, Wheaton was in fellow abolitionist Judge
Charles Sedgwick's office preparing a kidnapping complaint against the
agent sent to catch Jerry and return him to his master.
Someone in the Wheaton household reportedly slipped a file to the mob
that was used to cut Jerry's fetters. Jerry later showed his gratitude by
sending the family a hand-carved cane. Wheaton was indicted in Jerry's
escape, but was never arrested. /su/110Aiding women's rights Abolition and
temperance were Ellen's favorite causes, but she also supported women's
right to vote. She met Susan B. Anthony and Amelia Bloomer when they were
delegates to a temperance convention in 1852.
"Began to have my stated allowance of guests for the convention; Miss
Anthony & Mrs. Bloomer came to dinner," she wrote.
When Anthony tried to speak during the proceedings, the delegates voted
62-59 that women would not be permitted to speak at the convention.
Anthony and others held their own meeting at Wesleyan Methodist Church.
Wheaton went "to hear the ladies present the claims of their society."
"Miss Anthony read a very good address, written by herself - to a
houseful," she wrote.
Ellen believed that women had a role to play in the public sphere,
especially in encouraging moral reform. In addition to her temperance
activities, Wheaton served on the board of Syracuse's Orphan Asylum. The
25 women on the board were charged with overseeing the facility and
raising money to support it.
Yet Wheaton did not believe that women should be politicians. She
feared that entering the rough-and-tumble world of politics would make
women unfit to be mothers.
"First and always, every woman should learn to be a good housekeeper,"
she wrote. "It is next to the art of statesmanship, for a well ordered
household, is like a well governed state, and it has an almost equal
Both required "tact, judgment, skill, prudence, energy, a knowledge of
Natural & Moral Philosophy, Chemistry, arithmetic, and in short all the
rounds of knowledge." /su/110Conflict of interests Wheaton agreed with
Horace Mann, a well-known educator, that woman was "the equal of man, but
in a different range of duties. That the sphere of each is a hemisphere,
and that united they make a beautiful and glorious whole."
Still, Wheaton sometimes envied women who escaped the burdens of their
sphere. She chastised herself for harboring impulses to abandon her
"Oh for patience," she wrote. "If I could acquire, something of that
blessed virtue, I think I would, must be content, & not long for other and
more dazzling treasures."
© 2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.
The ebb and flow
of financial fortunes
In 1852, the Wheatons were at the
peak of their wealth. Four years later, they would be broke.
When Charles Wheaton's hardware store
burned in 1851, he built a four-story brick mercantile block at the
southwest corner of South Salina and Water Streets. His wife, Ellen,
watched with pride, writing in her diary that her husband's building
"will be the finest block in the city."
Charles was not content with his
In 1853, eh sold his share of the
hardware business. He also sold the Wheaton Block for $112,000, the
largest sale to that date in Syracuse. He invested heavily in a
printing press foundry and a project to build a railroad from South
Carolina to Tennessee. For a short time, the future looked bright.
As their fortunes rose, the Wheatons
moved into grander homes and hired more servants.
In 1852, Charles decided the family
should move from East Genesee Street, near where it now intersects Crouse
Avenue, to Fayette Park, one of the city's most fashionable neighborhoods.
Ellen was surprised by the move.
"I sat up late, last evening, talking over business matters with
Charles 'till near midnight," she wrote. "I was led to look forward
to some change in our arrangements, hitherto unexpected to me."
Ellen was reluctant to leave her
spacious orchard and gardens and feared her children would grow restless
in the small Fayette Park yard. When Charles showed her the house,
though, she was charmed by the gas furnace and lighting.
"I like many things about the
house very much and have no doubt it will e easier living there than here,
as far as mere work is concerned," she wrote.
Ellen was proud of the family's
success, yet she worried that Charles' ambition took a toll on his health.
"He looks very much jaded and careworn this week, and I cannot help
feeling anxious about him," she wrote.
Charles traveled to Oneida three days
a week to the printing press foundry and also made trips to New York City
and South Carolina to deal with the railroad business.
In 1854, a banking crisis in New York
City and an economic depression struck New York. Ellen tried to be
cheerful, but she could tell from Charles' behavior that something was
"I have been really distressed
about him for several days; he has been much depressed and worried about
business matters," she wrote.
There is a pause of several months in
the diary, as if what happened next was too unbearable to record.
Sometime in 1854, the Wheatons lost
the money that was tied up in the railroad. They could no longer pay
bills on the mortgages on the handful of properties they owned, including
their new house. The county sheriff seized their furniture and several of
Ellen lamented that her family lived
"pretty literally from hand to mouth." The most painful
feeling, however, was that "others have lost by our misfortunes, and
that they were bitter," Ellen wrote.
Charles' brother, Horace, who had
invested in the railroad, hardly spoke to the family. "I cannot
endure to hear my Husband called a deceiver, a dishonest man and every
opprobrious epithet, just because he has been unsuccessful," Ellen
Yet, she confessed to her diary that
she'd had doubts about Charles' business schemes. "I can see
wherein he has been rash and imprudent, and mourn over it -- as I did all
along -- and sometimes remonstrated, but it was of no use."
'Heartsick and weary'
As a wife, Ellen had little say in
her husband's business dealings, even though Charles' drive to make money
seemed almost an addiction.
"It seemed as if the excitement of
business, spurred him on from one great thing to another, confident all
the time, of his power to conquer every obstacle, and make all right at
last," she wrote. "But it was more than human nature could
do. --He had to stop, as most men would have done long before."
Charles traveled often during the
next few years, trying desperately to save the railroad.
In 1856, while in South Carolina, he
sent Ellen a railroad bond for $1,000 "to be used in releasing my
furniture from Sheriff's sale," Ellen wrote.
Ellen went to get her furniture but
"came home heartsick & weary...I feel sad and fearful, in view of the
future, and dread to look forward," she wrote.
Mortgage notices from newspapers in
the late 1850's suggest that the Wheatons did not recover their finances.
A marriage, then death
Ellen recovered many of her friends,
and her last diary entries chat pleasantly of visiting family, neighbors
Dec. 16, 1858, was one of the
happiest days in Ellen's life. Her oldest daughter, Cornelia,
married the business partner of the town's most prominent dry-goods
The next day was Ellen's last.
On Dec. 17, 1858, Charles woke during the night to discoverer is wife
having a seizure. She never regained consciousness.
Doctors called to the house said
Ellen suffered "a rush of blood upon the heart, and consequent Venus
congestion of the brain." She was 42 when she died.
In 1860, Charles Wheaton gave up on
Syracuse. He took many of his children and moved to Northfield,
Minn., where other Syracuse families had migrated earlier.
There, he became a miller, edited a
newspaper and in 1867 was elected to the Minnesota legislature. He
also married a widow and had five more children.
© 2001 The Syracuse Newspapers.