I’ve worn facial hair of some sort for the past twenty years and am used to seeing many people with beards. I might even end up with a big white beard like Uncle Walt Whitman, as seen above, when I finally accept that the white hair I have is a true indicator of my age. So a guy wearing a beard seems like no big deal, right?
Well, it wasn’t always that way.
There was an interesting entry on the Anonymous Works (a great site and blog featuring unique Folk art and other neat stuff– check it out!) Facebook page yesterday about a fellow named Joseph Palmer who lived in Worcester County, an area just west of Boston , Massachusetts from 1789 until his death in 1873.
Looking at his photo here on the right, his beard raises no offense to our modern sensibilities and he looks like an alright fellow. In fact we might even think that with his big beard he looks like a typical man of his times.
That was not the case. Palmer’s beard was a source of great conflict throughout his life, to the point that when he died, it was the central theme of his wonderful gravestone in Worcester County, shown here on the left, that bears the words: Persecuted for wearing the beard.
Below are two entries that were on his listing on the Find A Grave website, another wonderful source of information, that tell his story. The first is from a person listed as New York Historian.
Despite the conception that the past was a hairy wonderland of bearded outdoorsmen, bushy facial hair was long considered the mark of lunatics or worse, heretics. Today there is a Massachusetts gravestone that still remembers one man’s heroic fight against the forces of anti-hirsute vigilantes and a whole town’s persecution against his epic mane.
A veteran of the War of 1812, Joseph Palmer began wearing a beard in the 1820s. Beards had gone out of style in the 1720s, and Palmer was considered by most all in his small town to be slovenly and ungodly. He was even criticized by his local preacher for communing with the devil, famously responding to the accusation, “…if I remember correctly, Jesus wore a beard not unlike mine.”
In May of 1830, Palmer was attacked by four men outside of a hotel in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Armed with razors and scissors, the men attempted to forcibly shave Palmer’s face, but the bewhiskered man stabbed two of his attackers with a pocketknife, and was subsequently arrested for assault. He could have avoided jail by paying a fine and court fees, but Palmer refused, maintaining his innocence, and more importantly his right to a glorious beard. He was subsequently jailed for 15 months, including time in solitary confinement.
Upon leaving prison, Palmer joined the Fruitlands utopian community in nearby Harvard, Massachusetts after being influenced by his friendship with fellow Fruitlander, Louisa May Alcott. The character Moses White from Alcott’s “Transcendental Wild Oats” is later based on Palmer. Palmer died in 1865 and his tombstone displays a portrait of him with a long beard, and as a final act of rebellion, the inscription, “Persecuted for Wearing the Beard.
The other entry:
Joseph Palmer was a veteran of the War of 1812 who later joined the Fruitlands commune in Harvard, Mass. started by Amos Bronson Alcott, Charles Lane and other Transcendentalists in the 1840s.
Palmer wore a full beard, which was very much out of fashion since Colonial times. He was the only man in Fitchburg, Mass. with a full beard when he moved there in 1830. He was so reviled for doing so that people would throw stones at him and break the windows of his house. His pastor refused him Communion. In 1830 he was jumped by four men who threw down and attempted to forcibly shave him. In the process of defending himself, Palmer stabbed two of the men. Palmer was charged for committing an unprovoked assault and was fined, which he refused to pay on principle. He was jailed in the Worcester city jail for non-payment and the prison guards and other prisoners also attempted to shave off his beard by force. After much bad publicity in the press he was to be released, but Palmer refused to leave the prison unless he could receive a proclamation that it was perfectly acceptable to wear a beard. No such proclamation was forthcoming and Palmer was forcibly removed from the prison by being tied to a chair and carried out. Palmer became a celebrity and worked for the Temperance and Abolitionist movements. He appears as the character Moses White in Louisa May Alcott’s story “Transcendental Wild Oats.”
His grave in Evergreen Cemetery has a likeness of his bearded face with the inscription “Persecuted for wearing the beard.”
The intolerance we see today seems ridiculous but it seems that although we pride ourselves as a nation of freedom and crow constantly about our personal rights and liberties, we have always been pretty quick to tell others how they should look, act and live their lives. Hats off to Joseph Palmer for holding fast to his wearing of the beard.