Opinion Forum

Columbus 'Martyr'

Her Linwood Cemetery headstone reads:

Helen Augusta Howard

May 11, 1865

June 10, 1934

Altruist, artist, philosopher,


The most intriguing word is the last: "MARTYRED!"

The mystery behind that word hooked me when I first read it 30 years ago. The enigmatic monument hides another mystery. It gives no clue that Augusta Howard led a revolution a century ago: the woman suffrage movement in Georgia. She was a remarkable woman whose life we should ponder as we commemorate her 150th birthday. She paved the way for other women to gain power, yet her own life was tragically constrained.

In 1890, Augusta Howard founded the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association (GWSA). One of the mysteries is why she became involved in what was then a radical and unfeminine cause. Her family was one of Columbus's finest. Her grandfather John Howard built the first dam across the Chattahoochee, opened the first textile mill, and constructed the first railroad in Columbus. Her great-uncle Seaborn Jones built the beautiful mansion St. Elmo. Her cousin was Augusta Evans, author of the popular novel of the same name.

The youngest of 15 children, Augusta grew up at Sherwood Hall, near today's Jordan High School. Though her family was elite in lineage, hard times befell them. Her father died when Augusta was a small child and the family wealth declined dramatically.

This reversal in fortune led to her interest in feminism. Her sister explained: "Urgent need of serious minded women in world affairs was forced upon Miss Howard's attention through no woman suffrage paper or literature, whatsoever. She had seen none. Her mother's yearly inescapable taxes without representation compelled her realization of gross injustices done hundreds of thousands of women assisting in supporting a government, politically classing them with MINORS, LUNATICS, TRAITORS, and FELONS."

Augusta decided in 1890 to form a society for women's political voice. The first members were Augusta, her mother, and four of her sisters. The Howards affiliated their society with the National American Woman Suffrage Association led by Susan B. Anthony.

Though the GWSA grew slowly in its first four years, claiming only 20 members by 1894, Columbus's most prominent businessman G. Gunby Jordan supported the cause. He wrote: "It has always seemed to me to follow as a sequence that woman as a taxpayer should have her full share in the selection of the gatherer of these funds, and in saying what disposition should be made of them. If the women of this country desire suffrage, it is simple justice to accord it to them."

Columbus did not welcome this suffrage association. Most men and women considered suffragists "unnatural." Men ridiculed the notion of equal rights for women, and women maintained they had all the rights they wanted. Cartoons depicted suffragists as masculine and emasculating. Augusta wrote in 1893 that the "opposition at Columbus . . . [was] of the most malignant and underhand sort, scrupling not at insult, lying, and slander, in hope of intimidating the few advocates of equal rights." Her harshest critics were family members. Her older sisters and two brothers strongly opposed suffrage and her involvement in the movement. A suffrage leader later characterized her brothers as "monomaniacs in manifesting opposition and dislike for woman suffrage." Augusta found herself the object of ridicule in Columbus. The woman suffrage issue would have been enough, but she also experimented with wearing trousers and shorter skirts early in the century, she was a vegetarian and an atheist, she dabbled in spiritualism, she never married -- all considered eccentricities by her neighbors.

Augusta's greatest accomplishment as president of the GWSA was bringing the annual convention of the NAWSA to Atlanta in 1895. Augusta and her sisters extended the invitation at the 1894 convention in Washington. Anthony wanted to keep the convention there to put pressure on Congress, but Augusta won the day by arguing that the publicity would be invaluable for the organization: "While a great many of them would come to laugh, many of them would go away with NAWSA membership tickets in their pockets." She shrewdly observed, "I believe that an effort would be made by Atlanta and the prominent business men to make the convention a successful one. While Atlanta is not in sympathy with the movement, she is always ready to help Atlanta." The convention voted to go South.

Augusta and her sisters made most of the arrangements and bore the entire expense of the convention, a cost of $600. The convention provoked quite a bit of press coverage, mostly opposing and ridiculing the idea of women voting. The big state papers covered the convention, but none editorially supported the right of women to vote. The Columbus Ledger became more and more supportive over the years, eventually allowing a regular pro-suffrage column called "Equal Franchise." The Columbus Enquirer never supported suffrage.

After the convention, NAWSA officers visited the Howard sisters at Sherwood Hall. Anthony, a former abolitionist, nearly froze in the "old slaveholder's mansion," finding the fireplaces "hardly touched the frigid air of the rooms." But her reception was warm: "the hearts of the Howards are great and gave us a cordial welcome." Still, she sensed tragedy lurking. She realized the older siblings opposed women's rights. She wrote in her diary, "Over this dear conscientious family hangs a heavy cloud, a sadness reigns over the house "

Augusta's brothers were probably scandalized that the sisters invited a Yankee advocate of gender and racial equality into their home. They likely were also furious that the sisters paid for the convention. The money came out of the brothers' pockets since the women had no incomes, and the men controlled the family purse. After the convention, Augusta resigned from the GWSA and never again played much of a role in the suffrage movement. Perhaps her brothers forced Augusta to stop her activities.

Augusta did not abandon her feminist principles, however. In 1897 she scored the highest on the civil service exam and became the first female public employee in Columbus, hired as the money order clerk at the post office. The job was short-lived. She left the post office amid controversy in 1900. It's not clear how it happened, but Augusta seemed to have been forced out, possibly through her brothers' influence.

By 1920, Augusta was living alone at decrepit Sherwood Hall, its grounds wildly overgrown. Mill workers from adjacent Jordan City trespassed on the mansion's grounds, infuriating Augusta. On May 20, 1920, she heard male voices in the big magnolia tree near the house. She grabbed her pistol, went outside, and ordered them to come down. No answer. Augusta fired up into the tree (as a warning, she later said). A young boy screamed, hit in the abdomen. Augusta helped him down, apparently lectured him about her private property rights, and sent him away. A passerby found him crawling in the road, trying to get home, and took him to the hospital where he hovered between life and death for three weeks.

The sheriff arrested Augusta and held her in the city jail. When it was clear the child would live, Augusta was tried for intent to murder. In her defense, she rambled through a three-hour paranoid speech evoking class principles, often mentioning her lofty lineage. She also referred to "my practical outlawry," claiming to have been persecuted during the past twenty-five years for her radical activities, forced into becoming a "hermit." Her defense in shooting the boy was "one's house is one's castle." She asserted, "I ethically am the plaintiff in the case, only technically the defendant the boy's blood is not on my hands but on the hands of his parents who failed to train him properly." The jury of white men was unsympathetic. They convicted her; the judge sentenced her to one to two years in prison. Horrified at the scandal, her brother appealed to the governor for clemency on the grounds that Augusta was mentally unbalanced. Augusta vigorously fought this effort, but her brother submitted letters of support from many prominent Columbus citizens. Letters from Augusta's personal acquaintances stressed her culture and family background, her intelligence and humanity. The trial judge was more impressed by the important men allied with her brother. He recommended a pardon, writing, "I was convinced that she did not possess a normal mind."

On December 2, 1921, Gov. Thomas Hardwick pardoned Augusta. Soon after, Augusta moved to New York, possibly exiled there by her brother. The 1930 census found her living as "Helen" in a boarding house on the upper west side. She died in 1934, her body returned to Columbus for burial.

We should commemorate Augusta's tragedy and sacrifice. Her advocacy of woman suffrage bore fruit in 1920 when the 19th Amendment granted women the vote. But Augusta's personal life must have been nearly unbearable. That final word on her grave marker, "Martyred!" encapsulates this cautionary tale, the fate of an independent woman in early twentieth century Columbus.