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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

Rev. and Mrs. Wheeler

Part II. 'I'll have no newspapers in this house!'

The artist's father, a minister, banished newspapers from the house.
Her father forbade newspapers in the house.

Early in their marriage and certainly as their family grew, Robert Wheeler positioned himself as keeper of his wife’s delicate sensibility and the protector of his children from worldly influences. This viewpoint was demonstrated somewhat extremely when, in October 1890, he banned all newspapers from the Wheeler household – a particularly peculiar mandate, given Mary C.’s considerable intellectual curiosity.

The ban was initiated by a tragic event involving a parishioner of Talcott Street Church who was hit by a freight train and his leg severed at the thigh. A neighbor met Laura’s sister, Kit, only seven at the time, on the street and gave her all of the gory particulars, imploring her to run tell her father to meet the victim at the hospital. The young girl was visibly shaken at the news, a reaction not lost upon her father as he heard her account. Robert, in turn, was shocked and angered that such grisly facts had been relayed to his daughter. The unpleasant story was reported in detail in the Hartford Courant, noting that the victim had bled to death.

19th century woman with blindfold and newspaper collage by Valerie Harris
"No newspapers in this house"

From then on, the children were admonished to play indoors or in the yard and thereby avoid further involvement with any neighborhood incidents, scandals, or gossip. And there would be no more reading of newspapers in the house—this last presumably directed at his wife. In hindsight, that command appeared odd even to the children. His oldest daughter would later write, “How did a college-bred woman and a congregational minister get along without the newspapers? Well, they didn’t.” At least, he didn’t. A solemn, scholarly man, Robert spent several hours each week in the reading room of the Hartford Theological Seminary.

As for Mary C., her daughter noted, “Her feminine curiosity about fashions, home hints, and the few advertisements in the stores thus went unsatisfied. The Ladies Home Journal helped her there.”

As much confined to the home as were the children, Mary C., in the summer of 1892 found herself pregnant again. The baby boy lived only three days. A grieving Mary C. did not leave her bed for weeks but by the following spring, she was again with child, giving birth to another boy. This time the baby was healthy, but Mary C. was not. Her postpartum depression overcame her, affecting the atmosphere of the home and the dynamic within the family for months thereafter.

Typical of women undergoing the "rest cure," Mary C began an enduring habit of lying in bed until late in the day. While Kit and Laura had been sisterly playmates before, Kit now became a surrogate mother to all of the children— preparing meals as best she could, making sure they were bathed and properly dressed, and admonishing them as she deemed necessary.

Laura Wheeler: "a liberated woman at an early age," determined to become an artist.
Young stubborn Laura

It was during these early adolescent years that a stubborn, if not rebellious, streak became apparent in Laura. Her sister noted that Laura became “a liberated woman at an early age,” and described her as “making rash decisions sometimes." Perhaps her determination to be an artist was one such decision, especially as her father declined to pay her tuition to art school. Later, as a self-supporting adult, Laura Wheeler, who would marry late and never have children, would insist on managing her professional and personal life, her artistic career as well as her money, on her own terms.

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris.


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