New Bedford Whaling Museum
Educator, author, and entomologist Ida Mitchell Eliot (1839-1923) taught throughout the United States, co-edited the much-celebrated Poetry for Home and School in 1877, and co-authored one of the first books on caterpillars and moths in 1902. She and her domestic partner, American philosopher Anna Brackett, opened the Brackett School for Girls in New York City in the early 1870s; the couple adopted two daughters soon after.
Ida Mitchell Eliot (9 October 1839 – 2 July 1923), the eldest of eight children, exemplified the characteristics of eldest child: achievement oriented, competitive, and responsible. She forged her own unique, unconventional path through life.
Her parents, Congressman Thomas D. and Frances Brock Eliot, enrolled Ida in Friends Academy in New Bedford, Massachusetts. After graduation she was accepted in the teacher-training course at the State Normal School in Salem and, after graduating, moved to St. Louis to teach. In 1864, Ida was granted a Missouri Teacher’s Certificate. She and Anna Lee Wall, also a New Bedford woman, “took charge of the school for contrabands” in 1865. Their students were fugitives from slavery who became Civil War refugees receiving classes as assistance under relief societies such as the Contraband Society of St. Louis. Ida and Anna’s teaching provided them hope, self-esteem, and new skills in reading, and writing. Their positions were funded from the contributions of Massachusetts friends and through William Eliot’s organization, the Western Sanitary Commission.
Ida boarded in the home of math professor Calvin M. Woodward. She and Anna Brackett, also a teacher, shared a room. Both women had grown up in Massachusetts but had never met. Anna gained administrative experience as a high school principal in South Carolina, then secured her position as the first woman principal of the St. Louis Normal School. She hired Ida to be her assistant principal. Both women attended the Helgian St. Louis Philosophical Movement Lectures. They shared mutual religious, educational and feminist beliefs “in higher education and liberal arts for young women,” as Philosophy Scholar Dorothy Rogers wrote.
Ida and Anna left Missouri in 1872 to open the Brackett School for Girls in New York. They began a domestic partnership that lasted for a great part of their lives. The women each adopted a female child: Anna adopted Hope Davison from Scotland in 1873; in 1875, Ida adopted one-year-old Bertha Lincoln from Boston. The children kept their birth-families’ names.
Together Ida and Anna collected poems and edited Poetry for Home and School, a much-celebrated book published in 1877. They maintained their allegiance to philosophy and attended the Harris 1893 lectures of the St. Louis Philosophical Society in Boston.
In 1894 the couple retired from teaching. Anna lived in New York but spent most of each year at her farm at Seven Springs in Vermont. Ida moved to New Bedford where she lived with her widowed mother Frances Eliot. Hope Davison graduated from college and became a teacher in Boston. Bertha Lincoln married Harry Homer Stone in Boston in 1899.
Besides being a feminist and teacher, Ida was an entomologist. She and Caroline Soule, writer, editor, and Universalist minister, wrote Caterpillars and Their Moths, published in 1902. The book included facts, useful information for beginners in moth rearing, and life-histories of 43 species, with photographs of larva and moth for each species.
When Bertha separated from her husband, she moved into Ida’s home in New Bedford. Ida’s family owned a parcel of land in Nonquitt, Massachusetts and they enjoyed summers by the Dartmouth seaside. In 1904 Ida was elected to a three-year term as director of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, today, the governing body of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Sadly, her sister Edith reported Ida’s fatal fall at their home. Ida suffered the fracture of her spine in two places, which led to her death the next day, on July 2, 1923, at St. Luke’s Hospital. Ida is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery, New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Ivy S. MacMahon
- Eliot, Ida Mitchell, and Caroline Gray Soule. Caterpillars and Their Moths. The Century Co., 1902. Google Books, https://www.google.com/books/edition/Caterpillars_and_Theirs_Moths/tiNDAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=caterpillars+and+their+moths+ida+eliot&printsec=frontcover.
- Massachusetts Teachers Association. The Massachusetts Teacher: A Journal of School and Home Education, vol. 17, 1864. HathiTrust Digital Library, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000532461. Accessed 12 Dec. 2020.
- Rogers, Dorothy G. America’s First Women Philosophers: Continuum Studies in American Philosophy. Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.
- Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Saint Louis City and County; From the Earliest Periods to the Present Day: Including Biographical Sketches of Representative Men. Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1858.