Emily Marshall, Mrs. William Foster Otis

Emily Marshall
Emily Marshall
(Mrs. William Foster Otis).
From portrait painted by Chester Harding in 1830

Boston claims as her own the greatest American man of the nineteenth century, and even with more justice, the most beautiful woman born in America within the same period. “Emily Marshall as completely filled the ideal of the lovely and feminine, as did Webster the ideal of the intellectual and the masculine,” Quincy, a native of the same State, has written of her, adding that though superlatives were intended only for the use of the very young, not even the cooling influences of half a century enabled him to avoid them in speaking of her.

He never forgot the first time he saw her walking on .Dover Street Bridge, Boston’s fashionable promenade in those days. “Centuries are likely to come and go,” he continued, ” before society will again gaze spellbound upon a woman so richly endowed with beauty as was Miss Emily Marshall. She stood before us, a reversion to that faultless type of structure which artists have imagined in the past, and to that ideal loveliness of feminine disposition which poets have placed in the mythical golden age.”

Daniel Webster upon one occasion, during his residence in Boston, entered the old Federal Street Theatre, and was hailed with cheers. A few minutes later Emily Marshall appeared in her box, when the entire audience rose as one man and offered her the same homage it had bestowed upon Webster. To us who look back upon her, through nearly three-quarters of a century, she stands forth in such exquisite relief from her environment that we are conscious of it only where the light of her beguiling presence touches it.

She was the daughter of Josiah Marshall, a Boston merchant in the China trade, a man of sagacity and enterprise in business affairs, and possessed of those traits that made him a most lovable father, wisdom, benevolence, and gentleness, with a quaint humor and readiness in repartee that enhanced the bond of comradeship between himself and his children.

The people of his own State, as well as the inhabitants of the far-away Sandwich Islands, are indebted to him for many benefactions. To the latter his ships carried the first missionaries, the materials for the first houses erected there, and the carpenters to build them. Upon being charged duty on some salmon which he had imported from the Columbia River, he pointed out to Louis Cass the desirability of establishing the claim of the United States to the region of Oregon.

In the improvements which added so much to the prosperity of Boston in 1826 he was Mayor Quincy’s constant adviser and abettor.

He was a handsome man, with firm mouth and kindling eyes, and his quick step was well known in the business world, where to many a young man he gave the opportunity which was the opening of a successful mercantile career.

He was a son of Lieutenant Isaac Marshall of the Revolutionary army, and a great-grandson of John Marshall, one of the founders of Billerica, Massachusetts, in which town he was born. In the year 1800 he married Priscilla Waterman, a daughter of Freeman Waterman, who represented the town of Halifax in the Cambridge Convention which ratified for Massachusetts the Constitution of the United States.

Waterman had a sister who was distinguished for her charm, and who married a Mr. Josselyn. Traditions of the Josselyn beauty lingered in Plymouth until Emily Marshall’s time. Mrs. Marshall was a woman of much beauty, grace, and dignity.

Emily was born in the year 1807 on an estate at Cambridge, which had been laid out a century before by Thomas Brattle. Shortly after her birth her parents moved into a house in Brattle Square, Boston, known as the White House. It was built upon a terrace, with steps running down to the square. A large, old-fashioned garden in the rear was one of its attractions. The house had already had two distinguished tenants, Lieutenant-Governor Bolin and John Adams, the latter having lived there when he was a young lawyer.

When Emily was fourteen years old her family once more transplanted their household gods, going this time into the house on Franklin Place, to which her beauty brought such fame. It had already begun to manifest itself, and when she was but nine or ten years of age she was frequently stopped on the street by strangers, who asked whose child she was and involuntarily told her of her budding loveliness. Yet so unconscious did she ever appear of its possession, so wholly lacking in personal vanity that one of her sisters, gazing upon her one night arrayed in a ball gown, and unable to restrain her admiration, asked her if she realized how beautiful she was. “Yes,” she replied, “I know that I am beautiful, but I do not understand why people act so unwisely about it.”

Her education was begun at Madame English’s school, where Russell Sturgis, afterwards a partner of the Barings, said he first made her acquaintance. Like everyone else who ever saw her, he never forgot her. More than forty years after her death, writing to thank her daughter for the photograph of a portrait she had sent him, he said, “I remember perfectly the portrait and the time when it was painted. No painter could ever give the brilliant expression which always lighted her beautiful face; the portrait is as good, therefore, as anyone could make it.”

At Dr. Park’s school on Mount Vernon Street, then one of the best girls’ schools in Boston, Margaret Fuller was one of her schoolmates, and confessed later to a sister of Emily’s that she would willingly have changed her mental gifts for those of the beauty and magnetism with which Emily was endowed.

From Dr. Park’s Emily went to Madame Canda’s French school on Chestnut Street. Her musical education, which continued till the time of her marriage, was conducted by Mr. Matthew, Mademoiselle Berthien, and Mr. Ostinelli.

The long acquaintance existing for generations among the families and individuals, who made up the Boston society of Emily Marshall’s day, had instilled into it a spirit of delightful simplicity. A traveler from Great Britain who visited the United States early in the century declared that all the people of the Bay State called one another by their Christian names.

Dinner parties were daylight affairs, beginning usually not later than four o’clock. The dinner was served in courses, beginning with soup, which was followed frequently by a corn-meal pudding designed for the avowed purpose of mitigating the appetite before the introduction of the roast, which was carved upon the table by the host, and served with Madeira, port, or sherry.

One of Harrison Gray Otis’s favorite after dinner stories, which he told in his own matchless way, was of the first appearance of champagne in Boston. It was introduced by the French consul, the unsophisticated Bostonians partaking of the palatable beverage with all the confidence which they were wont to bestow upon cider, of which they thought it to be only a mild form and of foreign extraction.

From eight until twelve were the hours for balls, at which girls out for the first time wore white book-muslin frocks, the belles of a season or more appearing in Tarleton, and dancing out a pair of slippers in an evening, slippers then being made with paper soles and no heels. Light refreshments, such as nuts, raisins, or oysters, were served at these evening affairs, and were passed on trays, there being no elaborately set supper-tables.

The five-o’clock tea, now so prevalent throughout the country, made its way first into Boston and New York, where it appeared in all its native English simplicity.

From England also came actors bringing us our first conception of Shakespearean characters. Cooper interpreting Hamlet to a Boston audience in 1807, the year Emily Marshall was born, followed by Wallack, Edmund Kean, Charles Matthews, the comedian, and Phillips, with his infectious songs, the echoes of such refrains as “Though love is warm awhile” floating long after from drawing room, nursery, and kitchen.

From the mother country came our literature of the early century, Scott, the new writer, being much read, also Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth, and Shakespeare always.

Boston early achieved her reputation as a patroness of letters. At her noted seat of learning not only the youth of America, but a number of foreigners were even then educated. Many an American boy who claimed Harvard as his Alma Mater had journeyed to her sacred precincts, when the country was in its teens, all the way from the wilds of Kentucky on horseback.

Commencement day was a State holiday, when the flower of Massachusetts womanhood united to do honor to the occasion. Many a man went thence on his way with a face enshrined in his memory that he had not found in his Virgil or his Homer, though nothing more perfect graced those classic pages than the face of Emily Marshall.

Though Willis’s sonnet speaks of her eyes as hazel, they have been described elsewhere as black. It is probable that their color varied and intensified with every thought or emotion. Her hair was of that golden brown that flashes like bronze in the sunlight. In height she was five feet and five inches. “Her personal grace,” said one of her admirers, a judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, “was not acquired; a creature of such absolute natural perfection was physically unable to make an ungraceful movement.”

One who knew her in daily life writes: ” The unspeakable grace, the light of the eye, the expression of the face, they come back to me as I think of her, but I cannot convey them to others. It was the light in a porcelain vase. You could draw the outlines of the vase, but when the light was quenched it could be known no more.”

Enshrined in this form of almost unearthly loveliness was a spirit of even rarer beauty, a character that would have made even an ugly woman a force. In every relationship she wielded an exquisite influence. With a nature profoundly and silently religious were combined a high sense of duty, a ready sympathy, an absolute frankness and simplicity, a clear, practical judgment, and a rapid insight into character.

In conversation she drew out the best thoughts of others intuitively and without vanity, reserving her own brilliant intellect and ready wit for those who really enjoyed it.

To her children, her self-abnegation, her gentleness, her faultless judgment, the intense womanliness of her nature, made her an ideal mother. She was as tenderly loved by women as she was chivalrously worshipped by man. Her twenty-nine years of life were all too short for those who prized and lost her.

“Say that no envious thought could have been possible in her presence,” is another woman’s tribute to her; ” that her sunny ways were fascinating to all alike; that she was as kind and attentive to the stupid and tedious as if they were talented and of social prominence.” Of the effect everywhere produced by so exquisite a personality there are countless evidences. It was not restricted to any age, sex, or social class. Mr. William Amory claims to have been in his youth the most distinguished man in Boston, because he was not in love with Emily Marshall.

A carpenter, whose shop was near the house in which she lived after her marriage, failed to go home to his dinner one day, and being asked the reason, replied that he had seen Mrs. Otis go out earlier in the day and he hoped that she might come back that way, adding that he would rather see her any day than eat his dinner.

Franklin Place became the favorite walk with the young men of Boston, many of whom never failed once or twice daily to pass her house, with the hope of catching a glimpse of her at one of its windows. Dr. Malcolm’s church, of which she was a member, also added many devotees to its congregation, William Lloyd Garrison being among the number, who confessed that he occasionally went there with the hope of seeing the lovely face of Emily Marshall.

Nor was the repute of her beauty confined to her native city. Wherever she went her unusual presence was instantly felt; she needed no society correspondent to herald her, no princely admirer to create prestige for her. Her claim to the world’s homage was self-evident. She was a queen in her own right.

When she visited Philadelphia, so great was the desire to see her that the young girls were let out of school before the usual closing hour, that they might have an opportunity to see her as she passed along the street.

While she was at Saratoga, ” gay, amusing, and con-fusing,” reached in those days from Boston by a tedious stagecoach ride across the country, she never left the hotel nor returned to it without attracting a throng of people, eager even for a passing glimpse of her.

Nathaniel Parker Willis, who once had made a jour-ney in the same coach in which Emily Marshall and her mother were travelling, related afterwards that wherever the coach stopped for dinner the news of the marvelous beauty of one of the passengers was spread abroad so rapidly that by the time Miss Marshall returned to her seat in the coach a great crowd of people would be assembled to see her.

The following is Willis’s very pretty acrostic on Emily Marshall, which is included in his published verses in the form of a sonnet:

Elegance floats about thee like a dress.
Melting the airy motion of thy form
Into one swaying grace, and loveliness.
Like a rich tint that makes a picture warm.
Is lurking in the chestnut of thy tress.
Enriching it as moonlight after storm
Mingles dark shadows into gentleness.
A beauty that bewilders like a spell
Reigns in thine eyes’ dear hazel, and thy brow.
So pure in veined transparency, doth tell
How spiritually beautiful art thou,
A temple where angelic love might dwell.
Life in thy presence were a thing to keep.
Like a gay dreamer clinging to his sleep.

Percivals sonnet, published in the Literary Gazette of Philadelphia, August, 1825, is perhaps the best known of the poetical outpourings which her loveliness inspired. It also is an acrostic.

Earth holds no fairer, lovelier than thou.
Maid of the laughing lip and frolic eye;
Innocence sits upon thy open brow
Like a pure spirit in its native sky.
If ever beauty stole the heart” away.
Enchantress, it would fly to meet thy smile;
Moments would seem by thee a summer’s day
And all around thee an Elysian isle.
Roses are nothing to thy maiden blush
Sent o’er thy cheek’s soft ivory; and night
Has naught so dazzling in its world of light
As the dark rays that from thy lashes gush.
Love lurks among thy silken curls and lies.
Like a keen archer, in thy kindling eyes.”

William Foster Otis, to whom she was married in May, 1831, first saw her when she was fourteen years old, on her way home from school. He loved her from the moment his eyes fell upon her, and honored her with the loyalty of a lifetime, though death robbed him of her five years after their marriage.

Of the wedding there is extant a very good description in the form of a letter written by the bridegroom’s sister, under date of May 20, 1831.

” There were fifty guests at the wedding, an enormous crowd at the visit [reception] which kept us until half-past ten from supper. The bride looked very lovely, and was modest and unaffected. Her dress was a white crepe lisse, with a rich vine of silver embroidery at the top of the deep hem. The neck and sleeves were trimmed with three rows of elegant blond lace very wide. Gloves embroidered with silver, stockings ditto. Her dark-brown hair dressed plain in front, high bows with a few orange-blossoms and a rich blond lace scarf, tastefully arranged on her head, one end hanging front over her left shoulder, the other hanging behind over her right. No ornaments of any kind, either on her neck or ears, not even a buckle. I never saw her look so beautiful. Everyone was remarking on her beauty as they passed in and out of the room. Mrs. Marshall [the bride's mother] looked extremely handsome. William [the bride-groom] looked quite as handsome as the bride, and seemed highly delighted. The bride and groom went to their house alone [70 Beacon Street] about one o’clock [in the morning]. The groomsmen serenaded them until the birds sang as loud as their instruments.”

James Freeman Clarke, who was present at her wedding, said afterwards that he “had often been perplexed at the accounts he had read of the great personal power of Mary Queen of Scots. He had never been able to comprehend how the mere beauty of a woman could so control the destinies of individuals and nations, causing men gladly to accept death as the price of a glance of the eyes or a touch of the hand.” After he had beheld Emily Marshall, however, he realized the possibilities of such a power that is not created once in a century.

She died in 1826, leaving two daughters and an infant son.

She had no autumn, not a storm
Darkened her youthful happiness;
No winter came to bend that form.
Or silver o’er a silken tress.
We miss her when we gaze on beauty’s throng.
We miss her, aye, and we shall mourn her long.
Yet mourn her not, she had the best of life;
A tender mother and a happy wife.’

The above lines were written by her friend Fanny Inglis, afterwards Madame Calderon de la Barca.

The chivalrous devotion which her daughters call forth, after more than threescore years, from the men who knew her is in itself sufficient to place her among the classics of American womanhood.



MLA Source Citation:

Peacock, Virginia Tatnal. Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century. K. B. Lippincott Company. 1901. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 1 October 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/massachusetts/emily-marshall-mrs-william-foster-otis.htm - Last updated on Aug 26th, 2013


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