Emma Abbott Gage was a newspaper writer and editor, a teacher and a civic leader when women couldn’t vote.
She traveled by train to see the West as the 19th century closed, visiting Chicago, Denver, Omaha, Kansas City, and Milwaukee – much of the trip on her own. All the while, she wrote a weekly column for avid readers back home. Then, she turned it into a book today considered an important chronicle of the time.
Gage was a leading suffragist in Maryland, earning a standing ovation from scores of women gathered in the Maryland State House after the passage of the 19th amendment.
And she was a racist.
She and her father used the front page of The Evening Capital to encourage a lynch mob that murdered a black man in 1906, and 11 years later, she called for a “home guard” to protect white women from Black men as America entered World War I.
“Our women are not properly protected, especially in these days when the draft is taking so many white men away to war. The population is 43 percent colored, and some of the colored are not law-abiding. There are rumors of ugly remarks made about whites by the lower-class negroes….”
Today, Annapolis has forgotten Emma Abbott Gage. There’s no monument to her, no mural. It is easy to focus on the one obvious thing that is reprehensible. I’ve done it.
But it would be a miracle if Gage weren’t a racist. She was a privileged white woman in a time that held a different vision of right and wrong than we do today.
“It’s not just Emma Abbott. This is the way it was…” said historian Jane McWilliams, author of “Annapolis, City on the Severn” and other works. “It’s very difficult to look back now at the way people thought and what they did. It’s only now that we can look at it and see that it was truly terrible.”
You can’t ignore the racism but how do balance it with the rest of her life? Do you only consider the horrible things Gage said and did? Or do you add it all up and judge the whole?
Is the story of Emma Abbott Gage redeemable?
Emma Abbott was born in 1861 at her parents’ home on the Eastern Shore. Her father, William Abbott, worked in Baltimore as a typesetter for The Sun.
By 1880, the Abbott family was in Annapolis, where William worked at the Maryland Republican weekly. That was the year Emma got married at the First Presbyterian Church on Duke of Gloucester Street, the same church where her father would one day be a deacon.
The union with Dr. Amos L. Gage of Baltimore wasn’t happy. Two children were born and died, she would later write in a biographical sketch, and his medical practice struggled as he dealt with health issues.
She turned from creating a family to attending Western Maryland College, a rare achievement when she graduated in 1882. Her father started The Evening Capital two years later, the first daily newspaper in the sleepy state capital of Maryland.
By 1885, Emma and Amos knew their marriage was over. They both filed for divorce in Anne Arundel County court. She moved home to Annapolis to live with her parents, and both sides started legal proceedings.
Emma claimed cruelty and moved to keep him from taking her money. Amos said his bride turned into a shrew after a few weeks of marriage.
Amos’ life went quickly downhill. He sold off the fashionable home where he practiced to pay off creditors. It wasn’t enough, so he borrowed $10,000 more. In a public notice announcing the loan, he cited his divorce as the reason he needed the money.
One year later, the divorce was granted. Two years later and Amos was dead. The obituary in The Sun said he died at his brother’s house, succumbing to illnesses he’d been suffering.
During those unhappy years, Emma started working as a teacher, first at private schools around the county and then Annapolis Grammar school in 1895. Whatever she was like as a teacher and later principal, she had a fondness for popular literature, dedicating a schoolyard tree to her literary idol, Rudyard Kipling.
Then, in 1899 she gave it up. She left school behind and decided to travel.
“Having grown up with the desire to follow Horace Greely’s injunction, which paraphrased is, “Go West, young woman, Go West, it had been the desire of our years since early womanhood to peer into the great western country about which so much has been said and written,” she wrote on the opening page of her only book, “Western Wanderings and Summer Saunterings through Picturesque Colorado.”
“To this end, on the early morning of July 31, 1899, in company with Mr. George A. Culver, cashier of the Farmers’ National Bank of Annapolis, and his wife, Mrs. George A. Culver, we boarded the Baltimore and Annapolis Short Line train for Chicago, via Washington over the Baltimore and Ohio River.”
During the four-month trip – there would be no returning for school this year – Gage wrote a running travelogue and telegraphed it in the form of letters to Annapolis. Her father published every missive to community acclaim.
Early on, reading Western Wanderings is an exercise in learning about the view from the train. Gage writes about her Pullman Sleeper car, the food, the quality of her sleep, and the passing countryside.
Even when she gets to the cities, she goes on at length to chronicle the dimensions, costs, and materials used in the skyscrapers of Chicago or the public buildings of Denver and the streets of Kansas City.
But the accomplishment is real. She traveled to the top of Pike’s Peak and along the six miles of Royal Gorge, sometimes by special train and sometimes on foot up trails built for increasing numbers of tourists from the East and Europe.
Then, just occasionally, her personality emerges. Teachers in the West are better paid – one teacher who moved from Maryland was full of criticism for the miserly salaries back home. Women journalists are common in Western newspapers while rare in the East. And women in Colorado have the vote in state elections.
People noticed. By October, Gage has been in Kansas City for three weeks, and the Kansas City Journal printed an Oct. 19 front-page story about her journey.
“I find politics does not enter into the schools here in the West as it does in the East,” she told the unnamed reporter. “The public school buildings in Denver are grand. I thought they must be art museums when I first saw them. And this Manual Training High School,... is certainly a model school of which not only Kansas City but all other states may well be proud of. We have a polytechnic school in Baltimore, but it doesn’t admit girls. I am studying your work here to the end of introducing such a school in Annapolis, but the trouble with us there is that politics enters into everything. The president of the board of education is a thorough politician in every respect.”
You hear not just the traveler, but the reformer, the suffragist, and a woman restless for change.
Back in Annapolis, the world must have seen smaller. It was a city of 8,000 confined to just today’s downtown area.
Gage became an activist, leading the drive to create what is today Anne Arundel Medical Center. She was a founder of the suffragist movement in Annapolis and started the American Red Cross chapter just a decade after Clara Barton created the national organization. She helped run the county poor house.
Within a year of her book's publication, she went to work with her father at The Evening Capital building on State Circle.
Newspapers of the day offered tidbits about social visits from relatives and friends, sickness and recovery, and little things that don’t seem like news today. William’s name began to appear in small reports about his health, tied to the reality of who was keeping the daily newspaper of Annapolis going.
“Editor William M. Abbott of the Annapolis Evening Capital has been confined to the house by illness,” The Sun reported in June 1900. “In his absence, his daughter, Mrs. Emma Abbott Gage, looks after the interest of the newspaper.”
Emma’s name was added to the masthead, sometimes as assistant editor, local editor, or managing editor. But from this point on, the newspaper was at the center of her life. It wasn’t always pretty.
The Abbotts threw their support behind moves to limit votes by the Black residents of Annapolis, blatantly admitting they wanted Democrats in power and not the Republicans supported by Black voters. The Maryland General Assembly obliged, passing the grandfather clause in 1908 – disenfranchising the descendants of enslaved people until three generations had passed.
Black Annapolis residents sued, and the Supreme Court overturned the grandfather law in 1915. Long before then, the Abbotts found other ways to make their thinking clear on equal treatment under the law.
On Dec. 15, 1906, the newspaper explained on its front page that it might be best if a mob could find the Black man suspected of assaulting a white woman before sheriff’s deputies could.
“Talk of lynching is prevalent in Annapolis today, and even conservative citizens express the hope that the negro may be disposed of before he gets under the protection of the law, provided that he may be identified beyond any doubt.”
A mob broke Henry Davis out of jail after he was charged, then dragged him to a tree by College Creek, hanged, and shot him to death.
Did Emma write that wish for a lynching, or did William? It doesn’t matter. It was what a lot of white Annapolis residents thought at the time. The mob came from Annapolis.
Whatever Emma’s views on race in 1906, five years later she was running the newspaper in her own name. William died in 1912, but she continued to list him as editor and publisher out of loyalty.
When someone murdered Lottie May Brandon in August 1917, Gage jumped on the story with daily updates and frequent speculation about the killer. She wasn’t alone. Newspapers around the country printed stories and photos, even a sketch of the bedroom where Brandon’s body was found.
Gage made clear she thought the killer was a black man. She explained what that meant to The Washington Times in an Aug. 10 story on its front page.
“With the elimination by the detectives of the husband, it seems this crime becomes one which makes the women of Annapolis fear for their safety when they are left alone. It was a horrible, brutal crime, committed in broad daylight and evidently by a negro.
Gage repeated her call for a white home guard to protect women from Black men.
“The case seems to have narrowed down to a negro assailant, and our women’s safety is in jeopardy. White men should think of a ‘home guard’ with such an object lesson before them.”
That was on a Friday. By Monday, police had arrested a local Black ice hauler, John Snowden, and charged him with the killing. Did Gage have police sources telling her what was going on? Did she get ahead of herself? It’s not clear.
Annapolis was divided. Letters to the editor picked apart the investigation, questioning whether police looked closely at Brandon’s husband. Mindful of what happened to Davis, police took Snowden to Baltimore – where he went through days of violent questioning.
Gage covered the investigation and the start of the trial, but those were her final acts as editor. The Abbott family sold The Evening Capital to a syndicate of local business owners.
In a signed piece marking the end of the era, Gage published a bitter farewell on Saturday, Jan. 26, 1918.
“We would not be true to ourselves if we failed to say, a woman has little chance, up to the present time, in editing a paper, daily or weekly. Political advertising and patronage did not come her way, she had no vote and practically did not count when the potpourri was passed around. It will be different soon. When the Women’s Suffrage Bill passes (which it is sure to) a woman will be on equal footing with a man. She will be a citizen, something she has been in the past. She will be “one of the people” by the consent of whom the people are governed.
She complained a woman couldn’t be a newspaper editor in Annapolis, despite her years in the role. “Maybe in New York” or some other city, but not in Annapolis.
With no paper published on Sundays, the new owners waited until Monday to respond. They thanked her for her “valedictory” and said she would be kept on the staff in a new role, with “competent men” running the paper.
Did they remove her because changes were due? Or did the new owners remove her because of those weeks after the murder of Lottie May Brandon?
They didn't say.
Gage's new byline appeared soon, one of the few in the paper almost every day. She was relegated to coverage of weddings and parties and social events – a job later dubbed editor of “the women’s page.”
John Snowden was convicted four days after the new owners shoved Gage aside, and executed in 1919. More than eight decades would pass before he was pardoned posthumously, his conviction and execution denounced as a legal lynching.
Gage found other things to do.
In 1921, she became the first woman city clerk in Annapolis. She worked as an occasional correspondent for other newspapers. She must have gotten The Evening Capital delivered at her home on Duke of Gloucester Street the day it reported the 19th amendment was ratified, with Colorado tipping the balance.
Gage and other women had the right to vote.
Two years after Gage lost her job, she walked into the Maryland State House to address a class of women learning about citizenship.
“It was her first public appearance since confirmation of her nomination for the clerkship by the Annapolis City Council Monday, and she was given a standing ovation by the women voters,” The Sun reported.
On Nov. 8, 1925, Emma Abbott Gage died. Obituaries hailed her as the “dean of Maryland newspaper women.”
“Almost her entire life was spent in Annapolis and she was lending herself constantly to the improvement of the city,” The Sun reported.
It’s a shame that more people don’t know about Emma. I held something like her job a century later, and I know it was hard work.
I think that I was a better journalist, but the standards are different today. I didn’t face the challenges she did or live within the confines of her time.
Whatever the final judgment on her life is, you can’t read about Gage without marveling at her story.