Ruth and Mary Anne Hastings devoted their lives to each other and to the education of young women. Proud graduates of Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary, the sisters struggled throughout their lives with ill health and limited finances, but never surrendered the ideal of providing a challenging, intellectually stimulating curriculum for young women.
Mary, the elder of the two, was born August 1, 1822, in Cambridgeport, Mass., the first child of John Hastings, Jr. (d. 1862) and Ruth Washburn Newcomb (d. 1861). While still in her infancy, Mary and her family moved to South Shaftesbury, Vt., and four years later to West Troy, N.Y., where she was enrolled at the Troy Female Seminary in the autumn of 1843. A superior student, Mary graduated with the class of 1845, and although she immediately found employment at Miss Shaw's select school in Hudson, N.Y., she was soon recalled to Troy to teach mathematics and science. Industrious and an innovator, Hastings became one of the first women in America to offer laboratory lectures with experiments, and in 1852, she assumed responsibilities in teaching English literature. For 13 years, Mary was a stalwart of the faculty at the Seminary, and was one of its more popular instructors.
In 1859, Mary left Troy to become head of the Female Seminary in Hamilton, N.Y. (1859-1862), and she later served as instructor at the Ripley Female College in Poultney, Vt. (1864-1870), at Smith College (1875), and at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., (1876-1880). Chronically poor health occasioned the gaps between these professional appointments. After 1880, Mary entered semi-retirement in New York city, though she was occasionally called upon to deliver lectures. From the mid-1890s, she taught art in Hartford, where she resided with her younger sister, Ruth, and brother-in-law, Horace K. Jones.
Ruth Newcomb Hastings (b. December 12, 1831) is first recorded as a student at Troy in February, 1848, but from the age of 15, her education was marked by frequent, often lengthy interruptions. The causes of these hiatuses were varied: some to gain money to continue her education, some to gain experience, and still others to regain her health. Ruth was a tiny, frail woman who weighed as little as 91 pounds and took almost daily doses of salacine or other medications to ease her chronic headaches, eye strain, and other ailments. Worse still, she struggled with a chronic sense of her own inferiority.
Ruth's first professional appointment appears to have been as instructor of music at Mrs. Smith's School in Orwell, Vt., during the first of her hiatuses from Troy. Soon after re-enrolling as a student, her father failed financially, losing both his job and the family home, and resulting in another sojourn away from school. With Emma Willard's support, and with the advice of her physicians to move to a warmer climate to improve her health, Ruth secured a one year appointment as teacher and governess for the daughters of Col. John N. Williams (1797-1861) of Society Hill, S.C., an 1816 graduate of South Carolina College, a friend of John Randolph of Roanoke, and one of his state's educational, political, and financial elite. The only child to reach maturity of former congressman and governor, Brig. Gen. David R. Williams (1776-1830), Col. Williams cemented his social position through marriages to Serena Chestnut (d. 1822) in 1820 and Sarah Canty Witherspoon in 1831.
In May 1852, Ruth left Troy consumed with doubts about her fragile health, about her intellectual and teaching capabilities, and about being separated at such a distance from her family. Although her salary was set at a meager $300 per year, she told her parents "I know I can do you more real good here than there [in Troy], because I can earn money to help to get us a home of our own " (1853 January 3).
Upon her arrival at the Williams' plantation, "The Factory," in May, she took an immediate liking to Col. Williams, an immense man at over 350 pounds. Col. Williams, she said, was "one of the unpretending men I ever knew... so modest for himself, as to dislike all titles of distinction, in that he is a true democrat" (1852 November 6). Although Williams was considered somewhat inferior to his father in intellectual ability, he proved more than his father's equal at making money. Throughout his short life, David R. Williams had displayed a talent for innovation and for profit, introducing the first cotton mill to South Carolina in 1814, and pioneering the manufacture of cottonseed oil. But following his father's accidental death in 1830, the Colonel more than doubled the size of the estate, and by 1852, he owned at least five cotton plantations with between 450 and 500 slaves, making him one of the largest slave holders in the state. His wealth sponsored a generous streak: he gave $50,000 to each of his nine children upon their marriage.
Col. Williams also inherited his father's political views, including a personal antipathy to John C. Calhoun and a strident unionism. Entering the state legislature upon his father's death, Col. Williams led the opposition to nullification, at one point stating that if Federal soldiers were sent to South Carolina "I will feed them a week." In 1851, he purchased between 20 and 30 subscriptions to the Southern Patriot, a Unionist newspaper to distribute among the most prominent secessionists in the Pedee country, and in truly consistent fashion, he opposed secession ten years later. While his wealth protected him, such high visibility and flamboyance earned him few friends in South Carolina. To a degree, the Williams were socially isolated, maintaining friendly relations primarily with family and other Unionists, including his brother-in-law and state legislator, John Witherspoon. From Ruth's vantage, Williams "was almost alone in the state..., and threatened by the press, as a marked man, whom nothing but his 'broad acres' shielded from summary punishment" (1852 November 6).
For more than a month after her arrival in Society Hill, Ruth was "frozen" by infirmities, including exhaustion, headaches, and eye strain, yet she refrained from informing the daunting Mrs. Williams. Her reasons for keeping her health concerns private are complex, but she was already concerned that her northern mannerisms and individual quirks were viewed by the Williamses as being "outré," and she labored under the impression that her actions were always closely monitored. Only in late June, with her weight cresting at 100 pounds and her health restored, did she finally launch herself into teaching.
Ruth's "scholars" were Constance (Conny), Sally (b. ca.1843), and, for a while in August, the youngest child, Alice. The Williams' eldest daughter, Serena (b. July, 1832) was a good match for Ruth in age and personality -- "not so pretty, as she is interesting" -- and became an immediate source of comfort and companionship. "I like Serena very well," she wrote, "she is the most quiet person I ever knew -- never talks much, and she says she always makes an effort to entertain anyone -- and some people make her feel frozen as I do -- I am glad some one knows how I feel" (1852 June 16). The last Williams daughter, Mary, lived near by with her husband, and was a frequent visitor.
Conny and Sally presented a strong contrast with the quiet and serious Serena, and Ruth struggled to gain their respect and attention. Willful and impossible to discipline, Sally presented the greatest challenge. Ruth concluded that she "reads so many stories and every description of reading, that she feels no interest in anything about school, and is so unused to habits of attention that she gives me a great deal of trouble." Most upsetting to a Troy Seminarian, Sally seemed to possess "no ambition, says she has no talent." Yet Mrs. Williams retained a high opinion of Sally's abilities, causing Ruth to retort, "I wish her mother wouldn't decide quite so readily upon her talent for arithmetic and music" (1852 June 16).
Dealing with the high spirited daughters of a wealthy slave holder might have kept the hands of any new northern teacher full, but Ruth's greatest struggle was with her own self-confidence and her feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. She complained of "not being fresh in the studies I teach" (1852 July 21) and fretted that if she remained too long at teaching, her plans for continuing her education would be lost: "My education is only commenced, and I fear the foundations will be lost if the walls are not soon built" (1852 September 17). In this frame of mind, she readily concluded that Conny and Sally rejected her, personally:
I think the children have no confidence in me, or they don't like me in school and what can I do? Perhaps -- possibly -- I am wrong -- but I can't think of any other reason for their actions, & I can't tell what they are, only that when I tell them to do anything they don't mind, till I speak so many times I am out of patience and when they do they do it with so bad a grace, frowning as though I had done some terribly ugly thing to them, and scarcely ever doing, as I always had scholars do before, what I wished them to do, without being scolded. I won't scold, and I can't be always complaining to their mother... you have no idea how much more difficult it is to manage children who are with you all the time, to having them only in school hours (1852 July 27)
Of even greater concern, an impenetrable wall of reserve seemed to separate Ruth and Mrs. Williams, and the two developed a quiet, subversive rivalry for the children's minds. Typically, Ruth blamed only herself for the situation, but she bridled under the feeling that she was constantly being watched and judged. Even after being informed that Mrs. Williams was pleased with her teaching, she professed uncertainty over Mrs. Williams' true feelings. "I can't talk freely with Mrs. W.," she complained, "I don't know why -- I don't believe she likes me. I am so queer and have so little tact, I have lost all I had I believe" (1852 July 10). This failure of communication led her to question whether she was being treated fairly by the Williamses: "I suppose I have had many favors, but feeling a little as though I had been defrauded of some of my rights, I have not I fear acknowledged them very graciously, but in future, if I can find out what are my rights and duties too , I mean to do better" (1852 August 20). On this score, she planned to consult Emma Willard herself.
During the fall and winter, Ruth's situation began gradually to improve. As she inured herself to living in a new household and grew more familiar with southern culture, she turned to a more positive, though still fragile, cast of mind. Shocked by her first exposure to the brutality of slavery -- a large scale "Negro hunt" for fugitive slaves in June 1852 -- she informed her sister that she would never like slavery and thought it "truly a curse to the masters as well as the slaves -- here as well as hereafter." Yet she insisted that in Society Hill slavery exists "in its mildest form" (1852 August 12), leaving some room for its reclamation. By the fall, she had warmed enough to the "peculiar institution" that after reading Uncle Tom's Cabin and discussing it with Mrs. Williams, she concluded that she disliked the book and wished that it had never been written for all the hard feelings it had produced.
Yet a northerner to the core, Ruth could never accept the propriety of slavery. In seeing Mrs. Williams' high-handed treatment of a slave, Nat, whom Ruth found admirable in "his tact and skill in doing things the right way -- and... very honest too," Ruth was willing to consider Uncle Tom and the system of domination it depicted:
Mrs. W. seems to think that Nat should regard her convenience above all, which is the motto of slavery... has not a black man, or some black men as warm hearts as white? I see that Mrs. W does a little differently, or speaks differently of the slaves on my account , and I can't help thinking "Uncle Tom" has made her think more how things look to Northern People (1852 November 6)
Paradoxically, slavery contributed to Ruth's lack of confidence as a teacher. In her mind, women in the South were freed by slavery from household duties and other distractions, and could therefore study in greater detail than people in the north. In such a circumstance, how was she, an inexperienced northerner, to cope?
While this growing understanding of the Williams provided Ruth with a greater sense of belonging, she was never fully at ease. When invited to attend Episcopal services with the Williams, for instance, she could not help but long for the Unitarianism on which she had been raised, and when the Spiritualist excitement appeared in their neighborhood -- a religion with strong New York roots -- Ruth reacted with an open mind, even though Mrs. Williams was aghast. As Ruth and Serena attended a series of neighborhood seances held by Dr. Bacot, Mrs. Williams stayed away, forbidding her younger daughters from participating. Ruth remained unconvinced of the phenomena, but announced that she was strongly attracted to the millennial overtones of Spiritualism.
What improved most dramatically during the fall was Ruth's relations with Sally, Conny, and Serena, and her inclusion in a semblance of a social life. During the holiday season, Serena attended eight parties and gatherings in nine days, to many of which Ruth was also invited. "I must say I thought it too bad that I must be buried alive in this way," she wrote, referring to her previous isolation on the plantation, "I don't believe young people are intended to be shut up so... I never realized before how I do love company" (1853 January 3). Even when her social life was blooming, she never missed an opportunity for self-deprecation. When speaking of charming the village beaux with her new friends, she wrote: "Miss Grant charms them by her playing and her sprightly conversation and pretty face. Serena by her sweetness and grace and I, poor I, I don't know what my attraction is I'm sure" (1853 March 7). If anything, Ruth's emergence from social slumber might have reinvigorated the ambivalence she felt at committing her life solely to education. "To be a good teacher is worthy of high ambition," she wrote, "but to give up all idea of being useful to, or making no one happy except your scholars, to be as I feel a cipher when all are giving their share of information for the general amusement and profit is dreadful" (1852 December 18).
What seemed at first a turning point to the good, turned abruptly to ill. The feeling that Ruth she could not discuss things with Mrs. Williams lest she "expose to her my lacks [and] lose the good opinion," persisted, and even the news that Mary Witherspoon, Col. Williams' niece, had bubbled over Ruth's "brilliancy" was not unalloyed: "it never came out till that time and that now they knew I was smart, if I did get frightened. I don't like such comfort as that, for it only makes me think of what I want to forget, myself , and seems like making fun of me too" (1853 January 20). As Ruth began in her optimism to weigh the possibility of extending her appointment in South Carolina, entertaining even the notion that her family might move south to join her, the issue of Mrs. Williams' true opinions began to loom.
The disaster struck in March, 1853. Serena, always Ruth's closest sympathizer, confessed that Mrs. Williams was not pleased with Ruth's teaching "and has talked to the children, finding fault... and that is unjust, and wrong" (1853 March 15). This revelation piqued Ruth's indignation, who soon insisted "nothing should induce me to expose my self longer than till May to such disagreeable and annoying things." In response, according to Ruth, the Williams turned to petulance, degenerating into an exhausting contest of wills, each trying to make the other miserable. With her health and poor self-image, Ruth suffered most. "[O]ne cannot stay all day pouring water on hissing steel," she wrote, "without losing in the vapor much strength of nerve and muscle -- and so my nerves and mind feels when school is done, and I cannot think of what I would, or use my time & strength to advantage" (1853 March 27). In June, 1853, Ruth headed north with the Williamses as they went on vacation in Newport, R.I., and returned home.
At Troy Seminary, Ruth taught music for one year, and was later employed as a music teacher in the school of the Misses Jackson, Lexington, Ky. (1855-1856), and at Mrs. Atwater's School, New Haven, to teach music and art (1858-1859). Her career came to an abrupt end upon her marriage to Horace Kimball Jones, of Arlington, Vt., in 1860. The couple had three children and settled in Hartford, Conn., in 1876. She, her husband, and sister lived at 35 Spring Street, Hartford, in 1898.