Rumors and Truth: Finding MJC

Linda Hixon
Issue Date: 
October, 2019
Article Body: 

Mary Jackman Colburn has been claimed by Minnesota as the first woman to give a woman’s rights address in the state, and rightfully so. Mary was a trailblazer – a teacher, a poet, a writer, an abolitionist and a feminist, she was everything a woman shouldn’t be in the 1840s and 50s. But was she also a doctor?
Women of Mary’s era get lost in history. They took their husbands’ names and left little personal or professional information. MJC left a legacy, but also a mystery.
Mary B. Jackman was born on October 8, 1811 in Newbury, Massachusetts, to parents Joseph and Mary. Little is known about how Mary ended up in Hopedale, but by 1844 she working as a teacher in the town’s school.
More is known about Mary’s husband, Samuel Coburn. Samuel was an early Adin Ballou follower. He signed the Constitution of Fraternal Communion in 1840, before Hopedale was founded. Ballou married Samuel and his first wife, Barbara B. Mowry in 1841, noting that the couple “were among the original members of the community of Hopedale.” In 1842, Samuel was taking care of the town’s cattle, an odd “division of labor” for a baker. When Barbara died suddenly in 1843, Samuel was left a widower. He and Mary married on June 23, 1844. She was 32 and he was 25.
Ballou performed the marriage “at the chapel in an interesting manner,” and Abby Hills Price wrote two hymns for the occasion. By mid-September, “MJC” began publishing her poetry in Ballou’s newspaper, The Practical Christian, joining several other Hopedale women in expressing opinions publically. Mary obviously had no plans to be an ordinary wife. Within a month, her second poem was printed to celebrate the wedding of Joseph Bancroft and Sylvia Thwing, and within six months she discussed abolition in a piece of prose entitled “What Can I Do For The Slave?” She signed her front page article prominently: “Mary J. Colburn.”
Mary published over a dozen poems in the five years she and Samuel spent in Hopedale. After the couple moved west, Mary wrote about their home in Minnesota. In 1854, she told Hopedale residents not to avoid emigrating out of “fear of some terrible epidemic.” Illness, Mary said, had ravaged some populations in Iowa and Illinois, and in this era before germ theory she blamed “Miasmas arising from the rich soil which induce various forms of intermittent fever.” But Minnesota was heathier, and she urged people to come to the territory, where “climate, soil and scenery are well adapted to the constitutions of New Englanders.”
Mary obviously loved her new home. She settled in Anoka, where her sister Abbie and husband Asaph Spalding also moved. Mary’s woman’s right speech was given in 1858 when Minnesota became a state. Entitled “The Rights and Wrongs of Women,” the speech was only the beginning of Mary’s fight for equality. She won a writing contest about the state’s positive aspects for immigrants in 1864, and was assumed to be a man when she signed her entry “M.J. Colburn.” This confusion led to a chance to speak before the state legislature in 1868 to attempt to get “male” removed from the state’s constitution as a voting requirement.
But was Mary a practicing physician? A chapter in a 1999 book on Minnesota’s suffrage fight claimed she earned a medical degree before her marriage to Samuel in 1844. But since Elizabeth Blackwell is credited with being the first woman in the United State to earn a medical degree in 1847 this “fact” must be discounted. Unfortunately, once history is skewed it is difficult to iron out – a website twisted this information further, stating Mary earned her degree from Harvard decades before women were allowed to enroll there.
Mary’s writing is no help. In her letters to Hopedale, she mentions illnesses like consumption but does not give a professional opinion. Unlike Hopedale residents Emily Gay, who became a homeopathic physician by apprenticing with local doctors, or Phila Wilmarth, who graduated from the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, Mary’s profession cannot be verified. But she was a hero of the suffrage movement and remembered by Adin Ballou, who noted she “has won somewhat of celebrity by her literary genius in poetry, and public addresses on reformatory themes.” If she was also a healer in her new western community, then she lived an exceptional life.