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CONNECTIONS: The mysterious Mr. B

Students struggled up Yale Hill on foot, lined up and formally entered the school to the tinkling sound of a music box playing a march-like tune. They bowed to the Brewer sisters before they took their seats.

If you study a specific area over a number of centuries, you become familiar with the well-known inhabitants and the lesser known. For example, the Fabulous Fields of Stockbridge were famous. Stephen was named Supreme Court justice by President Lincoln. Cyrus laid the transatlantic cable; and Henry was the hero of the novel “All This and Heaven Too,” based on the life of his wife. David Dudley Jr. was a successful New York City lawyer who codified New York state penal code. All laudable; all remembered. But who was the lesser-known brother, Jonathan Edwards Field?

One could say that Jonathan was the father of Stephen, electrical engineer and inventor of the trolley car, and leave it at that. However, that dismisses Jonathan, just as he is dismissed in biographies as the brother of Cyrus or David or Stephen.

Home of Jonathan Field. Photo: Carole Owens

Jonathan was the fourth son of the Rev. David Dudley and Submit Dickinson Field. Born in 1813, Jonathan came with his family to Stockbridge when he was 6.

At 15, he attended Williams College, graduated second in his class, and joined the law office of his brother David Dudley II. One year later, like other young men, he went west. For the next seven years (1834-41), Jonathan practiced law, ran for and won the seat as county clerk.

In 1835 he married Mary Stuart. In 1841, suffering poor health, he returned to Stockbridge. Jonathan continued to practice law. In 1854, he ran for Massachusetts Senate and eventually served as president of that body. Mary Ann died in 1849, and the following year, Jonathan married Huldah L. Hopkins.

Office of Jonathan Field. Photo: Carole Owens

There was a Field sister. If Jonathan was dismissed, Emilia was absolutely forgotten. Emilia Field married Josiah Brewer, minister and missionary. Together they traveled the world and raised three children. One child became U.S. Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer. Brewer sat on the bench with his Uncle Stephen Johnson Field as well as their Stockbridge neighbor Henry Billings Brown.

The Brewer sisters, Adele and Emilia, are well remembered. To this day, the words “the Brewer sisters” are accompanied with a knowing chuckle and a soupcon of awe.

The sisters rode down Main Street, Stockbridge, bowing left and right, tilting their huge bonnets to the exact angle that acknowledged but did not condescend. With a third spinster, Alice Byington, the sisters ran a school.

Students struggled up Yale Hill on foot, lined up and formally entered the school to the tinkling sound of a music box playing a march-like tune. They bowed to the Brewer sisters before they took their seats. The spinsters had no doubt what to teach and how to teach it. The first lesson was proper decorum.

The three spinsters knew their three Rs. In the 1880s, the telegraph company asked Brewer for permission to dig the holes on her property to set their telephone poles. In a clear and firm voice, Emilia said, “No.”

The telegraph company began to dig anyway. Brewer waited until the workers were gone and their machines were idle. She carried her bed outside and placed it over the hole where the telegraph pole was to be placed and slept there. In the morning, she remained in bed and told the returning workmen she would lie there as long as necessary. The workmen left. The telegraph company rerouted the poles around the Brewer property.

Sedgwick House, Stockbridge. Photo: Carole Owens

Catharine Sedgwick was certainly well-known. She was an internationally applauded author. The lesser-known person in this story, the unknown person, was her fiancé.

In 1819, Sedgwick wrote her brother, “It is strange, but it is impossible for me to create a sentiment of tenderness by any process of reasoning or any effort of gratitude.” She was explaining her inability to love the man she had promised to marry. Today the choice is clear: If you don’t love him, don’t marry him — not so in 1819.

Catharine was refusing the proposal of a gentleman. Catharine had to convince her brother that she was acting in an acceptable ladylike manner, that she had proper grounds for her refusal. First, Catharine was contrite and self-effacing.

She assured her sister and brother that he was worthy of all their sympathy, and she was to blame. “He deserves … all the tenderness of your friendship. I beg you to persuade him that the object of his pursuit was not worth the regret of such a noble mind as his.”

Then she found refuge in assuring her family she acted in the gentleman’s best interests. “I was convinced that Mr. B was made more unhappy by our last summer’s engagement for it kept him in a state of emotional agitation.”

Finally, she assured her brother that she broke the engagement with her fiancé’s consent: “He has been so generous as to relinquish the promise I then gave him and all is now ended forever.”

The only identification of Sedgwick’s fiancé is “Mr. B.” Historians and biographers identified the betrothed of the well-known author as another well-known author: William Cullen Bryant — understandable but probably inaccurate. The fiancé was probably the lesser-known relative of the schoolmarm.

Cyrus Byington. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

In 1819 William Cullen Bryant was in pursuit of a lady, but not Sedgwick. On March 17, 1819, a week before Catharine wrote her brother, Bryant wrote a chatty, happy and flirty letter to the woman he would marry: Frances Fairchild.

A better guess for Mr. B. is Stockbridge resident, neighbor and Sedgwick family friend Cyrus Byington. He was born in a house built by Catharine’s father. From humble beginnings, he was taken in and educated by the wealthy and influential Joseph Woodbridge. He became a lawyer. All of a sudden, in 1819, he professed his heart was set on missionary work. He would put aside the law and serve “the higher law.” His friend Orville Dewey feared the abrupt change in career and the abrupt exit from Stockbridge was due to a broken heart. Byington left Stockbridge to become a missionary to the Choctaw Indians. He never returned. He did marry eight years later in 1827. It fits so neatly, and better than Bryant does, except the ages are wrong. The two were almost 10 years apart. So Mr. B, who might have been well-known, and appeared to be lesser known, remains unknown.

Catharine remained a spinster and became an internationally acclaimed author. Her female characters fought against the advances of men they could not love and frequently broke the boundaries of ladylike behavior. Catharine lived out her days in her brother’s household in Lenox.

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