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Alice Hamilton always asked “what particular good can I do?” (Photo courtesy of Eric Lehman )
Ebenezer Bassett was able to be the calm in the storm. (Photo courtesy of Eric Lehman )
Oliver Ellsworth was passionate about the rule of law. (Photo courtesy of Eric Lehman )
Charles Ives, in a photo ca. 1889 taken by E. Starr Sanford, Photography in Danbury. Photo from the The Charles Ives Papers in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University )
Charles Goodyear sacrificed his family, his wealth, and his health to his obsession. (Photo courtesy of New York Public Library )
Eric Lehman (Photo courtesy of Eric Lehman )
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When you ask author Eric D. Lehman about the people he profiled in his new book, Connecticut Vanguards: Historic Trailblazers & Their Legacies, it’s a little like asking a parent about his children.
He doesn’t really have a favorite.
He loves them all.
Noah Webster. P.T. Barnum. Katharine Hepburn. Eli Whitney. Henry C. Lee. Prudence Crandall. Helen Keller. Sol LeWitt.
But when he talks about the people in the book who are, perhaps, a bit less well known—Alice Hamilton, Ebenezer Bassett, Oliver Ellsworth, Charles Ives, or Charles Goodyear—there is a particular kind of excitement in his voice.
And that’s because he has this idea that, in telling you about these people, he may well be telling you something you should know about yourself.
“We live in an increasingly nomadic world. You might live five or six places in your lifetime. We live a huge part of our life in cyberspace,” he says. “We need to have a connection to these places where we live, or we’ll let them go to heck.”
This author of numerous books focused on Connecticut—from the state’s ubiquitous town greens to one of its most celebrated citizens, Tom Thumb—Lehman is positively impassioned about the power of loving your localness.
“Because we are so mobile, we tend to sometimes think of our loyalties as being to some abstract large thing rather than to where we live, our towns...These are our neighbors,” he says of the people he has profiled. “I always hope that knowing the story of Ebenezer Bassett or Alice Hamilton will help people really connect with this place, this place where they lived. There is something about this place that made these people reach for the stars. Maybe it will have the same effect on you.”
If that seems improbable, Lehman says otherwise.
“I think we often tend to look at these people as though they’re some kind of genius. We use that word, ‘genius,’ but that puts people above us,” he says.
That’s not the story he’s telling in this book, which will be subject of a talk at R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison on Wednesday, May 23 at 7 p.m.
“These are ordinary people who just happened to live extraordinary lives through luck and, yes, effort, and the ability to deal with failure and a hundred other things,” he says. “These are ordinary people who managed to do extraordinary things.”
The Calm in the Storm
Before Ebenezer Bassett was appointed as United States ambassador to Haiti in 1869, making him the country’s first African-American diplomat, he was a young man growing up in Derby.
His parents knew that a good education would be key to his success.
“He was a very smart kid and, you know, he went to State Normal School in New Britain,” now known as Central Connecticut State University, Lehman says..
In New Haven, Bassett befriended the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglas. Basset later became a teacher and himself a voice for abolition and emancipation.
“He was kind of like Frederick Douglas’s number two guy,” Lehman says.
Right before the battle of Gettysburg, for which he and others had helped recruit soldiers, Bassett gave an impassioned speech, right before Douglas, where he told the soldiers a new era was ahead.
“Right after the war, President Ulysses S. Grant nominated him to minister resident of Haiti, making him the highest-ranking black man in the country...Being minister to Haiti was a much bigger position then than it is today,” Lehman says. “It was like being ambassador to China today. It was a free black republic and our relationship with Haiti after the war was hugely important.”
Bassett’s job was a big deal, Lehman says, if also fraught with difficulties.
“African Americans cheered him when he left for New York and he goes to Haiti and they’re like, ‘The Americans are sending us someone who looks like us, this is crazy,’” Lehman says. “So that alone was heroic. And it was actually a really difficult job. Haiti was full of political intrigue and it was a big mess and Bassett had to make sure that not only all the parties in Haiti were happy, he had to deal with people on his staff who were not, shall we say, used to taking orders from a black man. And he had to deal with people in the American government above him who also were not happy to have to be dealing with a black man. It was a really difficult political needle to thread and he did and he did it well.”
Lehman attributes Bassett’s success in part to his ability to keep his head “while everyone around him was losing theirs.”
“He was able to be the calm in the storm and make intelligent decisions while there was chaos,” Lehman says. “That was definitely one of his most important skills.”
Never Resting on Her Laurels
In the late 1800s, it was a big deal for a woman to become a doctor. It would have been understandable if Alice Hamilton, who used to live in Hadlyme, would have been satisfied with just that.
Instead, Lehman says, she always asked herself, “What particular good can I do?”
At the turn of the century—when factories and industry were transforming cities and work itself—she became fascinated with newly emerging industrial diseases.
“She becomes, essentially, a medical investigator and interviews all these hundreds and hundreds of people and does testing,” Lehman says, “and she finds lead in all of these factories, and learns how people are getting lead poisoning and dying.”
She then became involved in government, including being appointed to the United States Bureau of Labor, and later to the Harvard Medical School Department of Industrial Medicine, then just established.
“She gets this job at Harvard in industrial medicine because she’s the only real expert on it in all of America,” says Lehman, laughing, as if at her ingenuity. “She basically created her own field, and it made her the first female professor of any kind at Harvard.”
Her reaction, Lehman says, was wry.
“‘I’m not the first woman who ought to have been called to Harvard,’” he quotes her as saying. “And that’s when she moves to Hadlyme.”
Lehman says her continual search for a way to make a unique contribution drove her.
“She didn’t want to be just another doctor. She was always looking for ways to contribute to society in a way that no one else had,” he says. “She also wrote books about industrial toxicology, and was one of the main people who created the idea of workplace safety as we understand it today.”
Hamilton died just months before the United States Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 was passed, legislation that created the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“It was authorized right after her death,” Lehman says. “She lived to be 101 and she never rested on her laurels. She was always looking for one more way she could help people.”
He Struggles, He Dies
Charles Goodyear, born in New Haven, sacrificed everything—his family, his wealth, and his own health—to feed his obsession with rubber. In the early 1800s, rubber was considered to be something of a miracle material, the kind of thing that could unlock a fortune for someone who figured it out, but it was wholly imperfect, cracking and hardening at times, and softening to a sticky goop at others.
Goodyear was absolutely determined to find a way to make rubber work.
“He was a fascinating character,” says Lehman. “You might call him a crazy person. He was so devoted that his family falls apart around him, and he just keeps working with this substance.”
Goodyear’s work was “similar to an alchemist in the Middle Ages who was trying to create gold.”
Goodyear kept on, despite his lack of formal education in chemistry.
“He kept working on it and kept working on it. He had no formal training. He was an American Yankee tinkerer. And he kept working on it,” Lehman says. “Finally he gets it to work once, but he has to repeat it, and it takes him forever. And he’s poisoning himself—his liver is destroyed; his kidney is destroyed.”
Then he makes the big breakthrough. And someone steals it.
A lawsuit is filed and the famed Noah Webster represents Goodyear in a “hugely famous court case, a crazy famous court case.”
He won in court, but...
“He never gets rich,” Lehman says. “He struggles and then he dies.”
It was a hugely tragic life and, Lehman says, “he’s a fascinating character.”
“His work, in many ways, triggers the plastics revolution that we are still living with today. Once he proves that we can manipulate nature, then everybody else tries because they know it can be done.”
A Passion for the Rule of Law
Unless you’ve traveled through Windsor and happened upon the Oliver Ellsworth Homestead on Palisado Avenue, you may never have heard of Oliver Ellsworth.
“Nobody pays much attention to him, but he was super important as one of the early founders of our country. We tend to ignore early historical figures if they were not presidents or Alexander Hamilton.”
Ellsworth was a lawyer, a diplomat, a judge, a drafter of the American Constitution, and a chief justice of the United States.
In addition to those considerable accomplishments, he was passionate about the rule of law.
The chief author of the Judiciary Act of 1789, he helped create the country’s justice system.
“Like many of these true patriots, he really believed in the American experiment and he wanted it to work. He was passionately committed to making this new democracy work. He committed his life to that,” Lehman says. “He could have made a lot of money being a lawyer in Connecticut. Instead, he did what he believed in. His mission was to make the new system of government actually work for the people. That is what drove him.”
A Composer’s Composer
“If you’re a composer, you know who he is,” says Lehman. “He was never hugely popular with the American public. He died thinking he had been forgotten, but he created music that was decades, maybe a century, ahead of its time. He really pushed the boundaries of music. He got that from his father.”
Lehman recounts Ives’s fascination with something he saw his bandleader father do when Ives was a child.
“His father did this experiment,” Lehman says. “There were two marching bands marching in Danbury. They were marching in opposite directions, toward each other. When they marched past each other, the music clashed. It was a fascinating experiment in music.”
Lehman says Ives not only loved music, he was enthralled with the possibility of sound itself.
As for conventional accomplishments, they left him much less inspired.
“He went to Yale, but barely passed because he was playing music all the time as an organist in the New Haven Center Church,” Lehman says.
After graduation, Ives went to work in the actuarial department of an insurance company, dedicating himself to his music in his spare time. While accorded some recognition in his lifetime, he died thinking his music would be ignored.
“It was increasingly depressing for him to try to get his music played. People did not know what to make of it,” Lehman says. “It was not really until the 1960s that people really realized how amazing his music was. It was one of those classic artists’ tropes—being too far ahead of your time.”