Contributed by Rich Wilhelm, Laurel Hill Cemetery Tour Guide.
If you were to take a poll of the tour guides at Laurel Hill Cemetery, chances are that Sarah Josepha Hale would emerge as a favorite “permanent resident” at the cemetery. Once you learn a bit about her, you’ll love her as well.
Sarah Hale was born in Newport, New Hampshire in 1788. Sarah married David Hale in 1813. They had five children together, but David died in 1822.
After publishing a book of poetry sponsored by her late husband’s Freemason lodge, Hale wrote a novel, Northwood: Life North and South, that was published in 1827. One of the earliest novels to describe slavery in the United States, Northwood attracted a considerable amount of attention and launched Hale’s literary career.
While Northwood’s anti-slavery sentiment makes the novel historically significant, the book also includes a depiction of a traditional New England Thanksgiving. While Hale doesn’t describe football games or Black Friday sales, details in her description will still resonate with modern readers:
“The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become it’s lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savoury stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting. At the foot of the board a surloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and joint of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and a pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table, the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is whole formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving: the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast.”
The success of Northwood ultimately led to Hale becoming the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was one of the most important journals in 19th century America. Hale kept this position the rest of her life. She used her influence wisely, raising money for a monument to be placed at the battle of Bunker Hill, and publicizing the efforts of women’s group to save George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, from falling into disrepair (the same group still runs Mount Vernon).
Perhaps most significantly, Hale reached back to her Thanksgiving description in Northwood and wrote to five U.S. presidents in a row, requesting that each of them declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Abraham Lincoln was the president who finally listened, proclaiming the national holiday in 1863.
We owe our Thanksgiving holiday to Sarah Hale, but that’s not all! Sarah Hale also wrote light verse poetry, including a poem whose first lines all of us recognize:
“Mary had a little lamb/Her fleece was white as snow.”
Thank you, Sarah Hale!
Sarah Josepha Hale is buried in Section X, Lot 61.