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Saturday, February 11, 2017

The "Lancaster's Quiet Champion of Woman's Rights" Story

The tombstone of Lydia Hamilton Smith in the
St. Mary's Catholic Church cemetery.  The inscription
reads: LYDIA HAMILTON SMITH, Relict of Jacob
Smith, For many years the trusted housekeeper of HON.
THADDEUS STEVENS. Born at Gettysburg Penna.
on St. Valentine's day, 1813. Died at Washington DC
on St. Valentine's day, 1884. One of her sons is buried
next to her, but I couldn't read the inscription.
It was an ordinary day.  Trying to find the tombstone of one Lydia Hamilton Smith who was buried in the Saint Mary's Catholic Church cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  She died in 1884 and since that time many people have been buried in the cemetery on the northeast side of town which makes it even harder to find the tombstone.  Luckily I knew the shape of the tombstone so I eventually found it.  Almost impossible to read since time has eroded the edges of the limestone letters.  Didn't matter since I already knew the story I would find on the tombstone.  Lydia was born on Valentine's Day in 1813 in Russell Tavern, near Gettysburg, PA to an African American mother and an Irish father.  
Lydia Hamilton Smith
She married a "free" black man named Jacob Smith and mothered two sons.  Her husband died in 1852, shortly after they had separated, and she raised the boys by herself.  While living in Gettysburg, Lydia and her mother got to know attorney and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens.  Stevens, who had moved his law practice to Lancaster in 1842, offered her a position as his housekeeper in 1847, which she accepted.  Stevens help her buy a modest home around the corner from his house on East Vine Street.  A year later Stevens was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he advocated ending slavery.  Lydia accompanied Stevens on trips to Washington, D.C. and went with him to social gatherings and was addressed as "Madam" or Mrs. Smith.  It was said they were not romantically involved, as she always said, but it was often questioned.
Early drawing of Stevens' home on South Queen Street.
In recent years archaeolo- gists, called in due to construction of a new convention center in downtown Lancaster, directly adjacent to Stevens' house on South Queen Street, discovered evidence that the cistern at his Lancaster home was used as a hiding place for freedom seekers and suspected that Stevens and Smith participated in the Underground Railroad.  
The same houses today.
The year 1860 saw the start of the Civil War as well as the death of her oldest son, William.  Her other son, Isaac, was a noted banjo player and barber and enlisted in the 6th U.S. Colored Troops in 1863.  In July of that year, the Battle of Gettysburg took place with tens of thousands of dead and wounded troops.  The compassionate Lydia Smith drove a borrowed horse and wagon to Adams County where she collected donations of food and clothing and distributed them among the wounded men, both Union and Confederate alike at the many troop hospitals.  It was said she was able to see past their role as soldiers fighting to perpetuate slavery and view them only as wounded, suffering humans.  
The house on the left was Smith's house on East Vine Street.
Smith and Stevens' friendship lasted until his death in 1868.  Thaddeus left Smith $5,000 in his will which she used to purchase his home in Lancaster as well as a large boarding house in Washington, D.C.  She spent most of her time in Washington, D.C., but still returned often to Lancaster where she died on Valentine's Day in 1884.  She was buried in the cemetery where I finally discovered her grave. To me she was one of our nation's, and certainly Lancaster, PAs, quiet champions of woman's rights.  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy. 

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