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Persecuted for Wearing the Beard

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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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