According to Massachusetts Town & Vital Records 1620-1988, Anna Clapp Harris Smith’s given name was Ann Sarah Harris. She was born on July 23, 1843, and was known as Anna all her life. Her brother Samuel was 3 years older than she. The family lived at 65 Pleasant Street in Dorchester MA, the house which her mother, Anna Larkin Clapp, had inherited from her father, Samuel Clapp. Anna’s father was the printer William Harris, who moved into his wife’s parents’ house with her to start their family.
Barbara Burg of Harvard’s Widener Library tells us this about her childhood:
“While few details are known about her childhood, Anna Harris Smith once revealed that when she was seven, she had exclaimed, ‘When I’m grown-up… I’m going to turn my daddy’s big barn into a nice, warm home for all the kitties and the doggies in the world.’ Educated primarily in the public schools, Anna Harris Smith studied French and music with private teachers and became a music teacher as a young woman.”
Anthony Sammarco paints us a picture of her childhood in his article in the Dorchester Community News:
“As a child, she was intelligent and developed both a flair for music and a deep abiding feeling for animals and nature. It was said that her father was a strict and religious man and that these values, instilled in his daughter, gave a deep spiritual devotion to her great cause of later years…
“Anna Harris completed her education in Boston, after attending Miss Popes School on Meeting house Hill. She became an accomplished musician, and taught music, giving informal recitals with her brother Samuel who was a talented violinist. She also composed music for several songs. The Harris family, comfortable and well-established, were among the leaders of local society.”
This photo was taken sometime after 1867, when the last of the rear additions was built on the house. The 1870 US Census lists the following people as residents of the household at that time: Anna L. Harris (64), William Harris’ sister Susan Harris (48), Anna S. Harris (27), and Samuel C. Harris (30). Anna’s father William had died in the previous few years. We can make some guesses then about who the adults in this photo might be, although there is nothing to identify the children – none were listed as part of the household in 1870.
Anna Harris didn’t marry until relatively late in life, at the age of 41. She had been a young woman at the time of the US Civil War, and it could be that there was a shortage of marriageable men at that time. Like her mother, she inherited the house from her parents, and after their marriage her husband, Huntington Smith, came to live with her there, as her father had done. They married in 1884, and seem to have been very involved in each others’ working lives. Huntington Smith was an 1878 graduate of the Chandler School at Dartmouth College, and was listed in the 1906 alumni directory as engaging in “literary pursuits”. He was the editor of a newspaper called The Beacon, and among his literary credits are: A Century of American Literature and An Emerson Calendar, as editor; and My Religion by Tolstoy, as translator.
Burg reports that Anna worked at The Beacon with her husband. She is also credited for a few different literary calendars: Longfellow Day by Day; A Tennyson Calendar; and Golden Words for Daily Counsel. I have a copy of this last one, and it’s a nice little book with a bit of literature, poetry, and a bible verse for every day of the year, each day having its own lesson or theme. The title page says it was “Selected and Arranged” by Anna Harris Smith, and “Edited” by Huntington Smith. It was published in 1888 by T. Y. Crowell & Co., New York.
In addition to her literary pursuits, Anna was active in an organization called the International Sunshine Society, serving as the president of the Massachusetts Chapter. Burg says, “The members of this organization would visit homebound people, offering assistance to those who could not leave their homes due to illness, or other difficult circumstances.” According to Sammarco, she was also a member of the First Parish Church Benevolent Society.
Anna Harris Smith is mostly known as the founder of the Animal Rescue League of Boston.
“Distressed at seeing the many stray and abandoned cats and dogs suffering cruelty and starvation in the streets of Boston, Mrs. Smith wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Evening Transcript in January, 1899, vividly describing acts of cruelty toward animals and the need for a centrally located shelter for the rescue and care of homeless cats and dogs. Her fervent appeal for support received over 60 enthusiastic responses, and on February 9, 1899, 110 people attended the first meeting of the newly formed Animal Rescue League of Boston.
“As President of the Animal Rescue League of Boston from 1901 to 1929, Anna Harris Smith acted upon a wide-range of animal welfare and humane issues of the time, such as abandonment of pets, work horse abuses, inhumane livestock transport methods, and the humane education of children. The League flourished under her leadership and gained a national reputation for excellence in large and small animal rescue and health services, animal welfare advocacy, and humane education programs. ” (Burg)
At some point, Huntington Smith left his profession as a publisher and also went to work with Anna at the ARL.
Bits of Anna’s own words can be found from this time period. One piece of her writing I found especially relevant is her essay “Why We Need Cats“. The essay begins,
“IN THE many articles I have read in the papers on getting rid of rats, I have failed to see anything about the help that cats have been in city and country, in houses, stores, factories, barns, chicken yards, in lessening the number of rats as well as mice. This seems to me to savor of ingratitude.”
As someone who has cleaned piles upon piles of rat and mouse nests out of Anna’s old house, I really must agree. The last resident of 65 Pleasant Street, before I renovated the house, was a Mr. Sheehan, who stopped by one day while we were working to introduce himself. Among the many things we talked about, I asked him whether he was bothered by rodents while he lived there, and he said no, that he had never noticed a rat or a mouse. I have to attribute this miracle to Mr. Sheehan’s cat who, according to the neighbors who remember him, was a large and formidable beast.
Anna was also the author of a collection of stories for children, called Four-Footed Friends, written to teach them lessons about being kind to animals. From the forward to this book:
“If we can teach the young the duty of thoughtful kindness, we are benefiting not only the family but the neighborhood, the city, the state, and the country. Kindness uplifts the world, and only through kindness shall we ever reach true civilization and Christianity.”
That quote, “Kindness uplifts the world”, became the motto of the Animal Rescue League, which still uses this phrase in all their materials.
Anna was apparently a big fan of horses, as well as dogs and cats. As this article from Yankee Magazine describes, the ARL organized an annual event called “Christmas for the Horses”, where members went around serving “meals of oats, carrots, and apples to the working horses of Boston.”
The ARL also installed drinking fountains for working horses, and a rest home for them once they retired. In an address to the National Humane Association, Anna told the story of one such horse:
“A bay mare, Nellie, was brought to our Home of Rest by her owner, an expressman. He had let her out to a man who had nearly killed her with starvation and ill-treatment. She was very thin, very lame, and had raw sores on her legs and shoulders. Her temper had been so injured that even her owner was afraid of her. In a month’s time she was a changed horse. The sores were healed, she had taken on many pounds of flesh, her lameness was better, and her disposition affectionate and kind. Her owner gave her a vacation of over two months, visiting her from time to time, and then came after her, but promised to bring her back if her lameness increased again, as our veterinary doctor told him it was bound to do on pavements. In about three weeks she came back. The caretaker of the Home of Rest heard a loud whinnying and neighing at the gate one day, and hurried down from the barn to see what had happened. The gates are kept closed. Outside the gate was Nellie, her owner hardly able to hold her, as she whinnied loudly and struggled to push her way through the gates before they were opened. In spite of her lameness, she fairly flew up the hill to the stable. Her owner was so much surprised and touched by her joy in getting back that he said, ‘I guess I’ll leave her for good—‘ and he apparently has. It can be readily understood that it will not be easy to part with her again as long as she seems to enjoy the Home so greatly.”
Apparently such devotion earned Anna the dubious pseudo-diagnosis of ‘zoophilic psychosis’, as described by Dr. Gary Patronek, ARL’s Vice President for Animal Welfare, in this article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association:
“Animal Rescue League of Boston founder Anna Harris Smith and like-minded women of the late 1800s were derided as suffering from zoophilic psychosis by prominent medical professionals, according to Dr. Patronek. Today, however, it isn’t unusual for pets to be doted on like children and animal abusers counted among society’s chief villains. ‘Over 100 years later, zoophilic psychosis is in the scientific trash heap,’ he said. ‘Animal welfare has proven its staying power.'”
Undeterred, Anna also advocated the establishment of Cemeteries for Animals, writing a booklet by this name for the ARL. Anna practiced what she preached, purchasing land in Dedham, MA for this purpose. The pet cemetery is still going strong, and its caretaker insists there are no ghosts. As a strange and interesting side note, a copy of Anna’s book Four-Footed Friends was discovered in the belongings of Lizzie Borden, signed by Anna with a note to Lizzie herself. There is an interesting discussion online speculating about how well Anna and Lizzie may have known each other, but it seems most likely to me that they met only briefly, when Lizzie had her dog buried at the pet cemetery in Dedham.
In other random tidbits, a letter written by Anna to Mark Twain is included in a book of letters received by the author from his readers. In it, Anna asks him if he would please stop by the ARL headquarters while he was in Boston. His story “A Dog’s Tale” had been published in Harper’s Magazine, and helped to strengthen the anti-vivisection movement of the time. It seems he didn’t accept her invitation, but might have donated some autographed books to the cause instead.
Finally, and most randomly, Anna and the Animal Rescue League make an appearance in the fictional Sherlock Holmes tale, “The Adventure of the Boston Dromio“, written by Matthew Pearl of Cambridge MA. The story appears in a modern collection called Sherlock Holmes in America (2009), written in the style of the original novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. In the story, a savvy Anna Harris Smith helps Sherlock Holmes solve a suspicious murder involving a stray kitten – and manages to get the kitten adopted in the process.
The town of Dorchester was annexed into the City of Boston in 1870, transforming a once rural community into a densely populated streetcar suburb practically overnight. Between then and 1908 when Anna and Huntington sold 65 Pleasant Street, Dorchester witnessed an extraordinary period of growth and development. Most of Dorchester’s three deckers were built during this time, including the ones on what had been the Clapp family farm surrounding Anna’s house. I imagine she must have made a pile of money dividing up and selling the property and, having no children, that the proceeds of this divestment funded the Animal Rescue League and the cemetery for animals. And I can only wonder what she thought of the change she witnessed in her home town over the course of her life. I haven’t found any commentary from her on the subject, although maybe the sale of the homestead her family had occupied since 1755 could be interpreted as commentary enough.
After leaving Dorchester, it’s said that the Smiths lived in Dedham, which maybe they did, although by 1928 they were living in Jamaica Plain. I found a 1928 directory of the town of Dedham that listed Huntington Smith as “Superintendent” of the Animal Rescue League, with a residence in Jamaica Plain.
When I first started learning about Anna, I assumed that she must have been just a well-meaning benefactor and volunteer for the causes she supported. Instead, I now understand her to have been a force to be reckoned with: a real career woman, an organizer and a leader in her field. Barbara Burg writes:
“Anna Harris Smith wrote and lectured extensively on humane topics, and, was one of the most influential and respected humane leaders in her day. While President of the Animal Rescue League of Boston for nearly 30 years, the League gained a reputation nationwide for excellence, and as a result, Mrs. Smith was in great demand as a mentor to groups around the country who wished to start their own animal rescue organizations. By 1915, she had helped to organize seven Animal Rescue Leagues in Massachusetts, and at least ten in other states, including Washington, D.C. In the League’s Annual Report of 1907, Anna reported:
“’The influence of the Animal Rescue League has been felt in all parts of this country. Our correspondence is very large and many letters are received from other states asking advice or help, or praising the work we are doing. The name Animal Rescue League, which originated with us and was thought out carefully, has been taken up and adopted by six or more organizations that were evidently inspired by our work.’ (Animal Rescue League of Boston, 1907)
“When Anna Harris Smith died in 1929, the Animal Rescue League received an outpouring of sympathetic letters from around the country attesting to her importance. The following was sent to the League by the American Humane Association.
“’The passing of Mrs. Huntington Smith removes the outstanding woman in the history of animal protection in America. She was the greatest because, first, she built up the finest and biggest single organization of its kind in the country; second, because her influence and the influence of that organization extended beyond the creation of any other woman since the day when Henry Bergh initiated the movement in New York City. …So long as humane history is preserved there will stand out among its records the name and fame of Mrs. Huntington Smith.” (Our Fourfooted Friends, 1929).'”
Anna passed away January 4th, 1929. I found this obituary in the New York Times:
I have to say, when I first learned that I would become the owner of an antique house named for a minor historical figure called Anna Clapp Harris Smith, my primary interest was in the house, not the woman herself. But after researching her story, I do feel a real fondness for and connection with her. Not only can I identify with some of her convictions, experiences, and qualities, it turns out she may even have been a very distant relation of mine. I was going to explain in this post, but I think I will leave that story for another day.
In any case, I plan to honor her legacy by creating a house that is full of music, respectful of nature, meditative on the qualities that make us better people, and of course a home to cats – lots of cats.