Episode 9: Dear Diary

Surrounding the peace and quiet of Maurice and Maggie Leyden’s everyday lives are the outlying events that helped win women the right to vote.

Maurice Leyden wrote in his diary almost every day. Summing up the day’s events in one or two sentences, no longer than a tweet by today’s standards. The character of each sketched out in cursive pencil, spread out between the allotted seven lines.

Most days he slid his hand over the year 187-something year embossed on its front to crack the hard cover only to comment about the weather. Days of these reports bleed together as the only highlight of the passing time. However, in one series of humorous summer entries in 1872 all he wrote about one day was “hot” the next day “hotter” and the following “hottest.” It gave way to a human moment that broke up the farmer’s almanac effect his diaries can sometimes have.

But it makes for a quick read. And these dull moments make the outliers all the more exciting, as with our own lives.

Reading a diary is an interesting experience. You’re dropping into someone’s life. Characters begin to emerge. Names like “Maggie” begin to take priority within some of his days. And her feelings of worry when Maurice comes home late from working at the store begins to show a life beyond water cooler chatter.

Days when Maggie and Maurice would take rides in the carriage when the weather was fair. And when the wheels couldn’t make it through the freshly laid snow, they’d take the sleigh. He always noted their time together after years torn apart before they were married and settled.

Their courtship had survived the Civil War. Maurice had survived the years of battle, and their affections had endured the long pauses between letters and a future filled with uncertainty. Maurice would scrape together pen and ink and parchment somewhere out in the battlefield, and find a flat surface to begin to writing, “To my dear friend.”

I’ll say no more of their correspondences, I don’t think he’d want me to. In one letter he writes to Maggie how someone in his regiment had found a package of love letters in the tent of an enemy soldier. And commended the gentleman for burning them to prevent other from reading something so private and personal. His fear of such intimate affections being exchanged is understandable. This particular letter was unfortunately the last of a series of his that I read.

More miraculous perhaps was that Maurice had survived at all. He had soldiered through the battles on the field, and endured the starvation, cold, and rampant disease while held in one of the most notorious POW camps in the South, Libby Prison.

And when it had ended and the soldiers came home, Maurice came with them and came home for Maggie. More importantly their affections for one another had endured. So, they got married in 1865 and settled into days that were more peaceful, more predictable. But not entirely without conflict.

Maurice and Maggie were different from most couples of the late 1800s. They’d go to lectures led by women. To hear people like Anna Dickinson talk about “Things Hoped For”—they followed women who made equal voting rights their jobs and their lives. They believed women should have the right to vote, and Maggie aimed to be a soldier of the movement.

She was one of 14 that went to cast her ballot with Susan B. Anthony in November of 1872. A notation Maurice made in his diary, remarking that they are right and as citizens can vote beyond a doubt.

Maggie, Susan, and the 12 other women went to cast their ballots together in Rochester, NY that day. They were challenged at the polls, and required to take an oath stating that they were qualified to do so, which they did. They had all registered to be there under a more liberal authority. Which put the election officials in a bit of a legal grey area—the officials did not have the authority to refuse anyone who had taken the oath. But New York State had explicitly banned women from voting in its code of laws since 1777. Just a year after we declared independence.

Those determined not to see women casting ballots saw that all 14 were arrested for their success, as were the officials who allowed it.

Maggie posted bail and came home to Maurice. And for a little while they went back to quieter days.

They kept going to speeches, kept meeting with Susan, kept up with the movement. Maurice sat with Maggie through Susan’s trial. And he continued to write about his wife who stood in the crowd with banners and whose name was written in the arrest warrants for civil disobedience. Whose name was etched in his diary between notes on the fair weather and long sleigh rides together in the winter, visits with family, and little marital spats.

The only thing he wasn’t able to record was the day Maggie was able to finally cast her ballot without fear of repression, as he died in 1906 before he could bear witness to her victory in her fight for women’s rights.


New York Heritage

Maurice Leyden Collection

Maurice Letters

This episode of Artifacts was written, researched, and hosted by Natalie Shoemaker.

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