Coded Letters, Concealed Love

The Larger Lives of Harriet Freeman and Edward Everett Hale


How did Edward Everett Hale, the celebrated Unitarian minister, social reformer, prolific author, peace activist, and chaplain to the U.S. Senate, manage to conceal a twenty-five-year illicit relationship so that his reputation remained intact during his lifetime, and for a century following his death in 1909? The answer lay hidden in plain sight. Sara Day, dogged researcher and sleuth, and former Library of Congress writer and editor, became convinced of the potential historical significance of more than 3,000 previously unexamined letters—largely written in code and archived at the Library—between Hale and his far younger parishioner and assistant, Harriet E. Freeman. Day found the Rosetta Stone in one of the letters, allowing her to break the code, actually a forgotten shorthand, and decipher the contents of all the letters.


Edward Everett Hale in about 1856 when he became minister to the South Congregational Church in Boston’s South End.

Freeman and her family became Hale’s parishioners at the South Congregational Church in Boston’s South End in 1861. Two years later, when Hattie was sixteen, Hale called on the family at their house near the church. In 1884, when the couple had been working together for many years and had fallen in love, Hale wrote Freeman about his first visit to her family, “How little I knew that the one daughter would be mine own.” As Hale taught Freeman the obscure shorthand that year, he mentioned that he and his brothers had learned it to take notes at Harvard and as reporters for their father’s newspaper in the 1830s. Since his brothers were both dead, he felt that this would make a secure code with which to express their most intimate communications. Hale had every reason to be cautious, not least because public memory still reverberated from the scandalous adultery trial of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, his wife’s uncle, ten years earlier.

Harriet Freeman, an unmarried Boston bluestocking of considerable means, juggled her complicated relationship with her minister with her passions for science, natural history, outdoor life, and travel. Hattie studied biology and geology at Boston Tech (MIT) in the early 1890s and created an independent, productive, and adventurous life. She and Hale both traveled extensively and, in her case, for extended periods, which accounts for the vast volume of their letters. The last of three Hale biographies, published eight years after the letters had been donated to the Library of Congress in 1969, perpetuated the myth—begun by Hale’s own son and namesake in his Life and Letters of Edward Everett Hale (1917)—that Hale’s long marriage to Emily Perkins, who was a devoted mother to their many children but was unwell and shared few of her husband’s interests, was “cloudless.” But Day’s reading of the letters tells a different and far more complex story.

Hale was often described as a man who knew everyone and Freeman herself had many naturalist and scientist friends. The issues that engaged these two tireless thinkers and activists—Darwinian evolution vs. creationism, American Indian rights, forest conservation, education, immigration, religious tolerance, and world peace—remain equally vital today. Day’s narrative places the chronology of a private relationship squarely in the context of the public discourse of the day; she offers a wider historical view of the world these two lovers inhabited and the public figures their paths crossed. Among the well-known men and women that appear more than passingly in this book are young Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan; suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull; feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman; inventors Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson; astronomer and inventor Samuel P. Langley, scientist Louis Agassiz, and botanist Asa Gray; naturalist C. Hart Merriam and geologist Amadeus Grabau; landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and forest conservationist Gifford Pinchot; neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell; Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft; politicians James G. Blaine and George S. Hoar; writers William Dean Howells and Mary Antin (Amadeus Grabau’s wife); and poets James Russell Lowell and E. E.Cummings.