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Persecuted for Wearing the Beard


When you think of men and the 19th century, you probably think of beards. Large, ridiculous beards unseen again in American life until the early 21st century. Moreover, the beards of those days were ubiquitous. They were a sign of respectability and manliness. Ads abounded for beard-growing aids for those (like me) who really couldn’t do it naturally.

But it wasn’t always such. In fact, beards were strongly disdained in the clean-shaven first half of the 19th century. And when they did start showing up, they were tied into the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution in the North, what with its Mormons and Shakers and canals and trains and free love communities and abolitionism and women’s suffrage movement and transcendentalism and then its beards. These social movements faced a lot of resistance. Some is more well-known–the violence against Mormons for instance. But the Finneyite revivals in western New York disgusted many as well, especially in the working class. And so when reformer and intentional community member Joseph Palmer grew out his beard, the response from his town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts was much more severe than you’d expect:

He was described as a kind and tolerant man, but life was not easy for Joseph Palmer after he moved to Fitchburg, Massachusetts in 1830. People would openly insult him, throw rocks at him, regularly break the windows of his home, and even cross the street so as not to be near him when he passed by. Even though he was deeply religious man who regularly attended church services, Palmer was publicly denounced during sermons by his pastor, Rev. George Trask, and even refused communion.

What awful thing had this small town butcher done to warrant such persecution? Joseph Palmer’s crime was that he was the only citizen in Fitchburg, Massachusetts who chose to wear a full beard, which (contrary to my vision of the 1800′s being a beard grower’s paradise) had been out of fashion in the United States since the time of the Pilgrims.

In fact, Palmer was so reviled that in 1830, while walking out of the Old Fitchburg Hotel, he was attacked by four men who attempted to forcefully shave his beard on the grounds that his beard was immoral. Palmer was thrown on the stone stairs, and even though he was a muscular, 200 pound farmer, he was unable to repel the four men and resorted to stabbing two of his assailants in the legs with his jackknife. His attackers were only hurt badly enough to curtail their efforts, but Palmer was arrested and fined for committing an unprovoked assault. Even though he had the resources, he refused to pay the fine on principle, and was jailed as a debtor in the Worcester city jail. He spent over a year in prison, during which time he repelled two more attempts by jailers and prisoners who sought to shave his beard against his will.

Palmer would be quietly released thanks to the large amount of bad press that was generated by his story as it wound its way through the national newspapers, but he would refuse to leave until he could secure a proclamation that it was perfectly acceptable to wear a beard. He was never given that assurance, and he was eventually tied to a chair and carried out of the jail against his will.

Of course, times and fashions changed and Palmer was vindicated by the time of his death to say the least. More information on the bearded one here.

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  • BoredJD

    In other words, the prequel to Rambo?

    • rea

      I don’t remember Rambo hanging out with Louisa May Alcott . . .

      • Ahuitzotl

        Little Brains, the prequel to Little Women, was obviously inspired by him

    • Pat

      Do you think this history factoid will bring out the racists?

      • KmCO

        It doesn’t seem to take much on this blog to do just that.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    Barbarians among us! Be afraid, be very afraid!

  • Gwen

    Meanwhile, in the annals of modern oppression…


    • Oh dear. I read the comments.

      (curls up in fetal position)

      Never read the comments.
      Never read the comments.
      Never read the comments.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        kinda makes ya think the roomful of monkeys is never gonna come up with Shakespeare, doesn’t it

      • Was his name really Poe?

      • KmCO

        That’s a good general truism when it comes to the average Joe’s take on any number of topics and events. I may be young, but I’ve learned that lesson the hard way already. “Idiocracy” springs to mind, and I’ve heard it wasn’t even a real documentary.

  • Rob in CT

    And in 2012, one of our major political parties nominated a man for President who, in his youth, thought it was cool to forcibly cut some other kid’s hair, ’cause it was too long.

    History does seem to echo.

    • djw

      Also intriguing that Mormonism and beards were once linked as products of the same socio-economic upheaval, given their rather strained relationship today.

      • Jordan

        BYU students and faculty can get a “beard waiver” if they cannot shave for medical reasons or if they are involved in a dramatic production.)

        I was pretty sure for a long time I wouldn’t be going to BYU, but when I first heard about that policy I was quite sure.

        • DAS

          Beard waver? The jokes write themselves, don’t they?

        • Does it have to be a dramatic production in stage, or does household drama count?

          • Pooh-Bah led a quite dramatic life.

      • Stag Party Palin

        You do know that eating soup through a beard is a great strain, don’t you?

  • DrS

    We sure have wasted a lot of time persecuting people for stupid shit

    • Pat

      The real greatest American pastime.

      • LeeEsq

        You mean human past time?

        • KmCO

          Yeah, but when you combine the relative comfort of American society (which often leads to boredom and focus on irrelevant minutiae) with our background of uniquely Protestant zeal, you see it emerge in some very curious ways.

          • LeeEsq

            There are lots of societies with very high levels of poverty that managed to persecute for trivial issues. India when the caste system was in full force for example.

  • Jerry Vinokurov

    A true hero to Bearded-Americans everywhere!

  • wjts

    My bushy, luxuriant beard and I salute the courage and principle of Mr. Palmer and his bushy, luxuriant beard.

    • I just hope you don’t get any of that beard unfortunately wrapped around your important organs.

      • wjts

        (Un?)fortunately, it’s not long enough for that.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Well, you’ll just have to settle for it getting wrapped around somebody else’s important organs, then!

          • wjts

            The number of people who want my beard anywhere near any of their organs – important or otherwise – is vanishingly small. This is presumably because although I believe my beard makes me look like a distinguished Victorian naturalist, everyone else believes it makes me look like a disgruntled axe murderer who has fallen on hard times.

            • herr doktor bimler

              Our artist’s reconstruction of wjts.

              • Hogan

                I really thought you were going here.

              • wjts

                This is maybe a little closer to the mark, particularly if you replace the natty suit with a grubby flannel shirt or a hoodie.

  • Bruce Vail

    Violence against Mormons in the 1850s is totally understandable to anybody who reads Fawn Brodie’s great biography of Joseph Smith. I’m not a supporter of mob violence as a general rule, but in Smith’s case he seemed to asking for it.

    • Pat

      I didn’t read that one, but I did read Bancroft’s History of Utah: 1540-1886. Bancroft argued that as long as Smith was willing to sell the votes of the Mormons to the highest bidder, the Gov. of Illinois had no problems buying them. But when Smith decided it would be cool to go into politics himself, the Gov. sent the National Guard to execute him on the steps of the Temple, and then drive the Mormons to Utah. A lot of women had to leave with their families in October in poorly provisioned wagons.

      Bancroft was not pro-Mormon, either.

      • LeeEsq

        Before Mormons were heavily associated with the GOP, the practice was to divide members equally between the Democratic and Republican parties.

      • Bruce Vail

        The Brodie biography says that Smith was shot to death by a mob of locals who attacked the jail where he was being held. The killers were never definitively identified, so I suppose its possible they were off duty National Guard members.

    • witless chum

      This seems wrong.

    • wengler

      He was raising his own army. Which is problematic even if done for self-defense.

    • I read that Brodie too (it’s actually one of my favorite books), and I have to say I read it as a lot more sympathetic to the Mormons and even Joe Smith than you do. He was definitely playing with fire, though, by carelessly involving his people in local politics and playing militia-general.

  • rm

    I take it back; I was not aware of all historical atrocities.

  • Brian

    Large, ridiculous beards unseen again in American life until the early 21st century.

    No such thing.

    • LeeEsq

      As the 21st century? So your saying the past thirteen years were nothing more than a shared, mass delusion.

      • rm

        One can wish.

      • JMP

        But there were similarly large ridiculous beards commonplace in the late 1960s / early 70s, so they weren’t really unseen until the current hipster beard phenomenon.

      • delurking

        A conspiracy of histographers, then?

  • LeeEsq

    You didn’t quite have this level of persecution but sometime between 1900 to the mid to late 1960s, beards were basically considered unfit for any man to have. Part of it seemed to be an association between beards and communism. The other part was that the safety razor was supposed to make shaving so convenient, compared to when you basically had to go the barber everyday or so with a shave, that no man had a good reason to grow a beard.

    • rm

      Bomb-throwing anarchists had beards.

      • Hogan

        The word ‘beard’ shook a lot of people up. BEARD! It’s not American sounding. BEARD! Lenin had a BEARD! Gabby Hayes had ‘whiskers’. Monty Woolley had whiskers.

    • wjts

      “This was the dawn of great changes in style. Until the beginning of the sixties, beards were fascist, and you had to trim them, and shave your cheeks, in the style of Italo Balbo; but by ’68 beards meant protest, and now they were becoming neutral, universal, a matter of personal preference. Beards have always been masks (you wear a fake beard to keep from becoming recognized)< but in those years, the early seventies, a real beard was also a disguise. You could lie while telling the truth – or, rather, by making the truth elusive and enigmatic. A man's politics could no longer be guessed from his beard. That evening, beards seemed to hover on clean-shaven faces whose very lack of hair suggested defiance."

      -Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

    • DocAmazing

      When Ronald Reagan was attacking the students of Berkeley over the occupation of People’s Park, there were many well-documented incidents of cops beating the shit out of men with beards regardless of their other affiliations. A friend’s father had a beard simply because he liked the look, and it was well-trimmed; he was walking down the street in suit and tie, with a beard, when the police grabbed him and roughed him up.

      That was Berkeley. I imagine other places might well have been worse.

  • LeeEsq

    Beards seemed to have become common again in Europe or at least the UK around the time of the Crimean War. Apparently a lot of soldiers in the Crimean War grew beards during the campaign because shaving wasn’t that convenient and kept them afterwards. The fashion than spread to the general populace only to disappear by the turn of the 20th century. George V was a bit of an outlier for not shaving his beard. I wonder if the Civil War had anything to do with the increasing popularity of beards in the United States around the same time.

    • DocAmazing

      I have read that the popularity of beards in the British Army came about during the Raj, when officers serving in India had a hard time getting Indian soldiers to take a clean-shaven commander seriously–who’s going to follow a boy into battle? The beards began to grow, then specialize: mustaches for cavalry, muttonchop sideburns for artillery, and so on.

      • herr doktor bimler

        Some fine facial hair in the Austrian Navy, 1866.

      • LeeEsq

        There is a bit of truth in that, especially for mustaches. The rise and fall of the British Empire in India roughly correlates with the rise and fall of facial hair during the 19th and 20th century. Allegedly something similar happened in 19th century Pennsylvania. Once Eastern European immigrants became common in the coal-mining regions, police were ordered to grow mustaches because the immigrants couldn’t take a clean-shaving police officer seriously as an authority figure. Similarly, the Amish forego the mustache because they associate with military men.

  • AnotherAnon

    Civil War officers of both sides seem to have worn a lot of facial hair – beards, mustaches, and side-whiskers.

    You could write an article on the facial hair of Civil War generals. Lee for example apparently did not grow a beard until late middle age. This book quotes a contemporary who recalls Lee wearing only a mustache “with a few gray threads” – and then seeing him years later, gone completely gray and with a full beard. And it has a picture of him with mustache only on the cover.


    Stonewall Jackson had a beard of biblical proportions. But as a young officer he was clean-shaven and at the time of the Mexican War he apparently wore only muttonchops.

    US Grant was also beardless as a young officer.


    And Lincoln grew his beard between his election and his inauguration.

    • herr doktor bimler

      a beard of biblical proportions

      About 1 inch thick, 7 inches wide and 9 inches high?

      • wjts

        300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits.

  • wengler

    This man is Beard Jesus.

  • herr doktor bimler

    Beard size and happiness were strongly correlated in our sample.

  • Morbo

    Beard tolerance may have grown, but moustache harassment continues well into the modern day.

  • Brad Efron

    He would have experienced less bias if instead of the jackknife, he’d used the bootstrap.

    • John Tukey


      • Gregor Sansa

        LGM never disappoints; somebody always gets the joke. (Except Poe. When he’s involved, the joke works approximately never, more or less. At least, that’s what I find when sampling with replacement from my experience.)

  • Gregor Sansa

    That joke was probably too specialized.

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