Harriet Whitcomb: A Grande Dame and Raconteur

Photograph courtesy of Barb Vellturo, The Town of Stockbridge, Vermont

Photograph courtesy of Barb Vellturo, The Town of Stockbridge, Vermont

Anyone interested in our local history soon comes upon Harriet Manning Whitcomb’s Annals and Reminiscences of Jamaica Plain, published in 61 pages at Cambridge in 1897. Its original form was a lecture given to the Tuesday Club in its clubhouse, the Loring-Greenough House at the monument. With the help of a photograph of Mrs. Whitcomb in the Bicentennial Room of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library and a letter in its files this erudite Yankee lady, looking much like Queen Victoria in her Widow of Windsor phase, can be seen more clearly.

Born Harriet Avis Manning on Joy St. on Beacon Hill in 1839, she was descended from the old Jamaica Plain May family, whose name graced this column last April in conjunction with the cleanup of the First Church Burial Ground by the Monument. The family soon moved back to the rural environs of its ancestry, and Whitcomb lived here in Jamaica Plain for 90 years. She was the first known person to be baptized in Jamaica Pond by the Rev. Dr. H. Lincoln of the First Baptist Church at Centre and Myrtle Sts. and was a member there for many years.

She later married Austin Fuller Whitcomb of Vermont, and the couple lived in a lovely house on Faulkner (or Green) Hill, lending their name to the street there when it was laid down in the early part of this century. Upon her death in 1941 at the age of 102 from pneumonia the house went to the Faulkner Hospital, which demolished it to erect an extension to their nearby Nurses’ Home which later yielded to Center House. Two magnificent trees on the corner yet remain from the Whitcomb era on the property still marked by its stone wall. The Whitcombs had three daughters, one of  whom lived with her mother, widowed in 1892.

Being well situated, Mrs. Whitcomb was able and very willing to give herself to local affairs. She was a charter member of the Tuesday Club in 1892, and, having been on the Boston scene all her life and one of the oldest residents of the City at her death, was well prepared to share her memories and opinions in interviews or booklets.

She recalled meeting the famed singer, Jenny Lind, also known as “the Swedish Nightingale,” and shaking hands with the famed pre-Civil War Massachusetts senator, the legendary Daniel Webster, a friend of her father. She well remembered the Great Boston Fire of 1872.

Her pictorial association with the Widow of Windsor is very fitting, for when Mrs. Whitcomb received news of the death of her brother Charles on the day he was to have returned from Civil War action she suffered a stroke that left her lame for life.

Her house is still remembered as preserving the aura of the Civil War period for 80 years in tribute to the lost brother. Like that of her neighbor, Francis Parkman, the house abounded in flowers from a garden designed at the time of the war and never varied after that.

In a letter to the old Boston Transcript after Mrs. Whitcomb’s death, the writer noted her ever-alert mind, her indomitable religious faith, her readiness to help others, and her ability to have rapport with people of all ages. Once asked while overlooking the Arboretum if summer was the best season, Mrs. Whitcomb immediately answered, “I find beauties in all the changing seasons.” The writer felt her to be a truly remarkable personality and a model of perfection.

By Walter Marx