Caroline May, 19th Century Poet, Author, Editor, and Instructor at the Pelham Priory School for Girls
Home Page of the Historic Pelham Blog.
Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak."
Recently I received an email inquiry regarding Caroline May, a 19th century poet, author, editor, and instructor at the Priory School for Girls in Pelham Manor. Specifically, the inquiry noted that Caroline May was the author of a book of poems published shortly before the close of the Civil War with a preface written in November, 1864 from "Chestnut Cottage" in Pelham. The email asked where Chestnut Cottage was located. Another Pelham history mystery was born.
Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog provides biographical information about Caroline May and proposes a likely location of "Chestnut Cottage," laying out the evidence in support of the hypothesis. If the hypothesis is correct, the home still stands.
Although it is well known that Caroline May was a poet, author, and faculty member at the Priory School for Girls, I did not recall that Ms. May was associated with a residence known as "Chestnut Cottage" in Pelham. A review of period maps listing home owners fails to shed any light on the matter.
Margaret Highland, Historian of the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum recently wrote an important article that included significant information about Caroline May. See Highland, Margaret, "In the Pelham Woods: The Poets of Pelham Priory" in Mansion Musings: Musings on the Preservation, Restoration, and Interpretation of this Historic House and its Gardens (visited Jun. 27, 2016).
Caroline May was born in Croydon, England about 1820. She was a daughter of the Reverend Edward Harrison May who brought her and the remainder of his family to New York in 1834. Reverend May accepted a position as pastor of a Dutch Reformed church in New York City. He later became Secretary of the American Seamen's Friend Society.
As a young woman in her twenties, Caroline May began to publish Victorian poems using the pseudonym "Caromaia." For a few examples, see Caromaia, "Take, Therefore, No Thought for the Morrow -- Matt. 6:34" in Martin, S. T., ed., The Ladies' Wreath: an Illustrated Annual for MMDCCCxLVIII-IX, Vol. 2, p. 250 (NY, NY: Martyn & Ely, 1848-49); Caromaia, "To Nature" in Martin, S. T., ed., The Ladies' Wreath: an Illustrated Annual for MMDCCCxLVIII-IX, Vol. 2, p. 206 (NY, NY: Martyn & Ely, 1848-49); Caromaia, "True Friendship" in Martin, S. T., ed., The Ladies' Wreath: an Illustrated Annual for MMDCCCxLVIII-IX, Vol. 2, p. 132 (NY, NY: Martyn & Ely, 1848-49).
In 1848, May edited the volume "American Female Poets With Biographical and Critical Notices." The book was republished on several occasions in a number of editions. See, e.g., May, Caroline, ed., American Female Poets With Biographical and Critical Notices (Philadelphia, PA: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1854). The book was republished as late as 1869 as May, Caroline, ed., Pearls From the American Female Poets (NY, NY: Allen Bros., 1869). Historian Margaret Highland has written of the significance of this Anthology edited by Caroline May in her earlier years, saying:
"In 1848, in her late twenties, Caroline May published The American Female Poets, one of three similar anthologies that appeared in 1848–49, when there was a plethora of women poets, a rapidly developing American poetic tradition, and an enthusiastic market for verse. The other anthologies — both edited by men and entitled The Female Poets of America —were by Rufus W. Griswold and Thomas Buchanan Read. Editors often excluded women from general poetry collections because their work was considered too sentimental and less serious than men’s writing. Subsequently, Miss May published several volumes of her own poems, exploring themes like nature, religion, personal relationships, and women’s experiences."
Source: Highland, Margaret, "In the Pelham Woods: The Poets of Pelham Priory" in Mansion Musings: Musings on the Preservation, Restoration, and Interpretation of this Historic House and its Gardens (visited Jun. 27, 2016).
According to one brief biography of Caroline May, after her father's death in 1853 in Philadelphia, she moved to Pelham, New York, "where she taught school." See "Caroline May" in Wikipedia - Thre Free Encyclopedia (visited Jun. 27, 2016).
The school at which Caroline May taught was the Priory School for Girls in Pelham Manor. Indeed, in a collection of poems May published in 1888, she included a poem she once wrote for a group of girls who were graduating from the Priory School for Girls. The poem was entitled "LINES (WRITTEN BY REQUEST FOR SOME PUPILS LEAVING SCHOOL AT THE PRIORY.)" The poem is quoted in its entirety at the end of today's article, in addition to a number of other Pelham-related poems by Caroline May.
Though the records of the Priory School for Girls no longer exist, it seems that Caroline May taught there for quite some time -- perhaps from the 1850s until the school closed in 1881. That cannot now be known with certainty. There are, however, intriguing clues suggesting that May became close with both Nanette Bolton and Adele Bolton of the Priory School for Girls. Indeed, it is possible that all three of the women worked on David's Island to minister to the needs of sick and wounded soldiers in the hospital facilities there during the Civil War. See Highland, Margaret, "In the Pelham Woods: The Poets of Pelham Priory" in Mansion Musings: Musings on the Preservation, Restoration, and Interpretation of this Historic House and its Gardens (visited Jun. 27, 2016). Indeed, Caroline May wrote a poignant poem about David's Island published in 1865. The poem is quoted in its entirety with a citation and link below.
The poem "David's Island" appeared in a book of May's poetry published in 1865 entitled, simply, "Poems." See May, Caroline, Poems (NY, NY: Carleton, Publisher, 1865). She signed a dedication of the book to her younger brother, Edward Harrison May, Jr., as written from "CHESTNUT COTTAGE, PELHAM, November, 1864. See id. at p. v. Similarly, in 1872 May published a book of Hymn lyrics based on Collects found in the Book of Common Prayer. See May, Caroline, Hymns on the Collects For Every Sunday in the Year (NY, NY: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1872). Once again, she signed an "Introductory Note" as written from "CHESTNUT COTTAGE, PELHAM, November 13th, 1872," suggesting (but not establishing) that May lived in a residence known as Chestnut Cottage in Pelham at least during the period from November, 1864 until November 13, 1872. See id. at p. iv.
The references to Chestnut Cottage are, of course, intriguing. Where was that cottage? Does it still exist?
Placing Chestnut Cottage has been difficult. A couple of very brief published references provide vague clues, however. It appears that for a portion of the time Caroline May taught at the Priory School for Girls, she lived in Pelham Manor on the grounds of the Priory Estate. For example, there are references to Caroline May as "of Pelham Manor, N.Y." published in 1891 and her obituary notes she died in 1895 in Pelham Manor. See, e.g., "Art Notes" in The Critic, Mar. 21, 1891, No. 377, p. 160 (NY, NY: The Critic Co., 1891) ("Two paintings by the late Edward May, an English artist long resident in Paris, have been presented to the Century Club by Miss Caroline May, of Pelham Manor, N.Y., a sister of the painter."). See the obituary quoted in its entirety below as well.
Two other references shed even more light on the possible location of Chestnut Cottage. A brief biography of Caroline May published in 1875 and 1881 editions of a popular encyclopedia stated that she resided "at Pelham, Westchester co., N.Y., on the grounds of Miss Bolton's 'Priory.'" The biography published in 1875 read in full as follows:
"MAY, Caroline, an American authoress, born in England. She is the daughter of the Rev. Edward Harrison May, for many years pastor of one of the Dutch Reformed churches of New York. She has edited 'American Female Poets' (1848), with numerous biographical and critical notes; 'Treasured Thoughts from Favorite Authors" (12mo, 1851); 'The Woodbine'' (1852), an annual; and has published 'Poems' (1864), and 'Hymns on the Collects' (1872). Miss May is also a painter and musician. She resides at Pelham, Westchester co., N.Y., on the grounds of Miss Bolton's 'Priory.' -- Her brother, EDWARD H. MAY, is a painter of some celebrity in Paris."
Source: "MAY, Caroline" in Ripley, George & Dana, Charles A., eds., The American Cyclopedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, Vol. XI, p. 298 (NY, NY: Appleton & Co., 1875). See also "MAY, Caroline" in Ripley, George & Dana, Charles A., eds., The American Cyclopedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, Vol. XI, p. 298 (NY,NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1881) (similar text).
This would seem to limit the potential structures that might have been Chestnut Cottage quite substantially. Indeed, perhaps the only residential structure that stood on the Priory estate -- besides the Priory, of course -- in those years was the lovely cottage known today as the "Rose Cottage." That structure still stands at 11 Priory Lane in the Village of Pelham Manor. I have written about its mysterious history before. See Wed., Jul. 13, 2005: 11 Priory Lane: The Rose Cottage.
The precise date that the little cottage was built is unknown. Nor is it known who built it. It reportedly was standing in 1838 when Rev. Robert Bolton bought the grounds that became the Priory Estate. He and his family reportedly lived in the cottage as they built the Priory beginning in 1838. Portions of the cottage suggest that it may have been built as early as 1810.
Local historians long have theorized that the cottage may have begun as an outbuilding of one of the Pell family members who lived in the area during the 18th and early 19th centuries. If that is the case, then it is at least possible that the structure was associated with the Pell-Bayley-Kemble House located at 145 Shore Road. Portions of that home that still stands were built by a member of the Pell family in about 1760.
There is a fascinating story told about the Rose Cottage at 11 Priory Lane. Experts generally believe that the stained glass window in Christ Church depicting the "Adoration of the Magi" was the first "figured stained glass window" created anywhere in America. One of Rev. Bolton's sons, William Jay Bolton, executed that window. According to several authorities, "William Jay Bolton created a figured stained glass window of 'Abraham Sacrificing Isaac on the Altar' which he placed in the front door of the cottage. This window may pre-date the 'Adoration of the Magi' window in Christ Church.'" If true, of course, this little cottage would be the site of the first figured stained glass window executed in the United States.
To read more about the little Rose Cottage at 11 Priory Lane, see Village of Pelham Manor, Pelham Manor: A Tour Through Time -- A Self-Guided Tour in Honor of Pelham Manor's Centennial, p. 2 (1991). See also The Junior League of Pelham, Inc., A Glance at the Past: Pelham's Growth From 1775-1975, pp. 8, 9, 11 (The Junior League of Pelham, Inc., Sep. 1976) (Pamphlet associated with accompanying map; 32 pp. including Map Bibliography, Manuscript Bibliography and illustrations by Hedy Klein).
It cannot be stated with certainty that the home known today as the Rose Cottage once was known as the "Chestnut Cottage" in which Caroline May lived and wrote. Absent other more compelling evidence, however, there would seem to be a possibility that Caroline May lived and worked there. Indeed, except for the carriage house associated with the Priory, the little cottage was the only other major outbuilding and certainly the only other residential building known to exist on the Priory Estate between about 1864 and 1872. The evidence seems to support 11 Priory Lane as "Chestnut Cottage."
Caroline May had a younger brother named Edward Harrison May, Jr. who became a notable expatriate artist who lived and worked in Paris. He was born in England in 1824 and died in Paris on May 17, 1887. Although he studied civil engineering in the United States, he abandoned those studies for art and, according to one biography, he became:
"a pupil of Daniel Huntington, and later, in 1851, of Couture, in Paris, whose style is suggested in his later works. During the Franco-Prussian war he was a captain of the American ambulance, aided the surgeons in attending the wounded, and received a medal for his services. He was elected an associate of the National academy in 1876, and received a medal of the third class at Paris in 1855." (See below for quote of entire biography.) See also "Edward Harrison May" in Wikipedia - The Free Encyclopedia (visited Jun. 27, 2016).
In addition to her work as a writer and a teacher, Caroline May was also an artist and musician. She had some of her brother's paintings and donated several to various institutions. She donated "Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre" to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. She also donated at least two of her brother's paintings to the Century Club in New York City.
Many of Caroline May's poems were about Pelham. Some are easy to spot. For example, she published "Pelham Woods" in 1888. That year she also published "From Alpine Heights To Heavenly" that deals with the death of Nanette Bolton, former headmistress of the Priory School for Girls, who closed the school in 1881 and moved to Switzerland. Nanette Bolton died on August 6, 1884 at Sepey, Switzerland. Caroline May also wrote Hymn lyrics for the dedication of the Christ Church Rectory in Pelham Manor which were included in a book she published in 1872. Additionally, she wrote a poem about the pain, suffering, and fear of those sick and wounded soldiers treated in the hospital facilitiies of David's Island off the shores of Pelham where she, Nanette Bolton, and Adele Bolton worked during the Civil War. Clearly Pelham inspired Caroline May.
Caroline May died in Pelham Manor on Tuesday, March 5, 1895. Her funeral services were held on Thursday, March 7 at 3:30 p.m. at Christ Church, next to the Priory where she once had worked.
* * * * *
Below is the text of a few published items regarding Caroline May. Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.
"MAY, Caroline, author, b. in England about 1820. Her father, Rev. Edward Harrison May, came to this country from England in 1834, and was for many years pastor of one of the Dutch Reformed churches of New York city. She first wrote poems under the pen-name of 'Caromaia,' and has published 'American Female Poets, with Biographical and Critical Noties' (Philadelphia, 1848); 'Treasured Thoughts from Favorite Authors' (1850); 'The Woodbine, a Holiday Gift' (1852); 'Poems' (New York, 1864); and 'Hymns on the Collects' (1872). She is also a painter and a musician, and now (1888) has a collection of poems ready for publication. -- Her brother, Edward Harrison, artist, b. in England in 1824; d. in Paris, France, 17 May, 1887, was brought to this country in childhood and studied civil engineering, which he abandoned for art, becoming a pupil of Daniel Huntington, and later, in 1851, of Couture, in Paris, whose style is suggested in his later works. During the Franco-Prussian war he was a captain of the American ambulance, aided the surgeons in attending the wounded, and received a medal for his services. He was elected an associate of the National academy in 1876, and received a medal of the third class at Paris in 1855. His works include 'The Dying Brigand' (in the Philadelphia academy of fine arts); 'Christopher Columbus signing his Will in Prison'; 'Lady Jane Grey presenting her Tablets to the Goverrnor of the Tower'; 'Franklin playing at Chess with Lady Howe'; 'Moliere Reading'; 'Francis I lamenting the Death of his Son'; 'Ophelia'; 'L'Alsacienne'; 'Milton dictating to his Daughters'; 'Lady Eliza Pelham-Clinton as Marguerite'; 'Le Chanson'; 'By the \/4*Rivers of Babylon, or the Captive Jews' (in the Century club, New York); portraits of Laboulaye and Count Gasparin (in Union club, New York); 'Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre' (presented by Caroline May to the Metropolitan museum, New York); 'Pursued'; 'Pandora'; 'Le lever de Mademoiselle'; and many other tableaux de genre and portraits."
Source: "MAY, Caroline" in Wilson, James Grant & Fiske, John, eds., Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. IV: Lodge-Pickens Revised Edition, p. 272 (NY, NY: D. Appleton and Co., 1898).
"A BROKEN ARM.
Miss Caroline May, the poetess, met with a serious accident Thursday, in walking near the Priory, she slipped, and falling upon the ice, broke one of her arms. The Rev. Mr. Higbee, residing near by, took Miss May in his carriage and drove to the office of Dr. Wells on Prospect street, where the broken limb was properly cared for."
Source: A BROKEN ARM, New Rochelle Pioneer, Dec. 23, 1882, Vol. XXIII, No. 37, p. 2, col. 2.
"LOCAL INTELLIGENCE. . .
--In the next issue of the PIONEER will appear a poem entitled, 'My Chestnut Trees,' written by the well and favorably known poetess, Miss Caroline May, who for many years has made the Pelham Priory her home. The subject of the poem, doubtless, was prompted by the romantic wild wood that surrounds the old Priory."
Source: LOCAL INTELLIGENCE, New Rochelle Pioneer, Aug. 18, 1883, Vol. XXIV, No. 21, p. 3, col. 1 (NOTE: The poem did not appear in any of the next several issues of the newspaper; it did, however, appear in "Lays of Memory and Affection" published in 1888, p. 139).
"DIED. . . . MAY. -- On Tuesday, March 5, at Pelham Manor, N.Y., Caroline May.
Funeral services at Christ Church, Pelham, on Thursday, March 7, at 3:30 o'clock. Carriages will meet train leaving 129th St. and 3d Ave. at 2:45 P.M."
Source: DIED. MAY, N.Y. Times, Mar. 6, 1895, p. 5, col. 7 (NOTE: Paid subscription required to access via this link).
* * * * *
Much of Caroline May's poetry -- particularly those poems touching on nature -- was inspired by the beauty of Pelham Manor where she lived. Below is a collection of poems by Caroline May that relate directly to Pelham.
Source: May, Caroline, "DAVID'S ISLAND" in Poems, pp. 211-14 (NY, NY: Carleton, Publisher, 1865).
Source: May, Caroline, "Pelham Woods" in Lays of Memory and Affection The Seasons and the Sea The Beatitudes Etc., pp. 159-61 (NY, NY: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1888).
Source: May, Caroline, "FROM ALPINE HEIGHTS TO HEAVENLY," in Lays of Memory and Affection The Seasons and the Sea The Beatitudes Etc., pp. 75-77 (NY, NY: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1888).
Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak."