14 Facts About Clara Barton

Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain
Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

To call Clara Barton just a nurse insults her legacy, despite what your history teacher may have taught you. She was a woman of numerous accomplishments, and in some ways, she was all too human. Here are 14 facts you probably didn’t know about this great American icon, who was born on this day 197 years ago.

1. SHE ALMOST DIED WHEN SHE WAS 5.

Barton, the youngest of five siblings, was born Clarissa Harlowe Barton to Stephen and Sarah Stone Barton on Christmas Day in 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. (Her name came from the novel Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson.) Her father was a militia captain and natural storyteller; her mother was well-known for her eccentricities: For example, she would bake pies for the family that she did not intend to share, preferring that they instead grow moldy.

But the pie situation wasn’t the most traumatic part of Barton’s youth. In her memoir The Story of My Childhood, she recounts being stricken with bloody dysentery and convulsions at the age of 5. Her family assumed she would not survive, and a report went out that she had died. Thankfully, she went on to make a full recovery, and later, as a nurse, she’d help soldiers suffering from the same illness.

2. ONE OF HER FIRST JOBS WAS AS A PAINTER’S ASSISTANT.

When her family moved to a new home in the 1830s, Barton became fascinated with the house painter’s technique and talked her way into being his helper. “I was taught how to hold my brushes, to take care of them, allowed to help grind my paints, shown how to mix and blend them, how to make putty and use it, to prepare oils and dryings … So interested was I, that I never wearied of my work for a day, and at the end of a month looked on sadly as the utensils, brushes, buckets, and great marble slab were taken away,” she wrote. The experience may have sparked her lifelong love of the arts. She also liked to play the piano, dance, draw, go to the theater, dress up in high Victorian fashion and jewelry, and collect books for her extensive library. Her favorite color was red.

3. A FAMOUS PHRENOLOGIST THOUGHT SHE SHOULD BECOME A TEACHER.

In 1836, a phrenologist named L.N. Fowler examined Barton and suggested to her parents that she should pursue a career in teaching. After six years teaching in Oxford, Massachusetts schools, Barton opened her own school in 1845 to serve the children of workers in her brother’s mill. She went on to create a free public school in New Jersey; however, it grew so large that local leaders refused to let her run it and brought in a male principal. So Barton left.

4. SHE MADE A SALARY EQUAL TO A MAN’S—BUT HAD A SEXIST BOSS.

Perhaps disillusioned by the experience at the school she founded, Barton temporarily left teaching in 1854 and went on to become a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., where her salary—$1400 a year—was the same as her male co-workers’. Unfortunately, Secretary Robert McClelland of the Interior Department—which had jurisdiction over the patent office at the time—didn’t want women as federal employees, and demoted her to copyist making 10 cents per 100 words copied. In 1857, President James “Ten-Cent Jimmy” Buchanan did away with her position, but the next administration—Abraham Lincoln’s—reinstated it.

5. THE CIVIL WAR GAVE BARTON HER FAMOUS NICKNAME.

In 1833, her brother David had fallen off the roof of a barn, and for two years Barton had dedicated herself to his care during his recovery. Her early experience in nursing found an outlet in the Civil War and, at age 39, Clara found her calling—even though nursing was then seen as a man’s profession.

A week after war broke out, Barton discovered injured soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts Infantry housed in the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol. She used supplies from her home for their care, and eventually founded her own supply distribution agency. Her ministrations earned her the sobriquet “Angel of the Battlefield.” The first battle where she is known to have assisted was the 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County, Virginia. More than 3000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in the two-day fight.

6. SHE HAD A BRUSH WITH DEATH IN THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM.

Just one month after her first battlefield triage, Barton almost lost her life in the gruesome Battle of Antietam. As she lifted a wounded man’s head to give him some water, a bullet ripped through the sleeve of her dress. She survived, but her patient didn’t: "A ball has passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest,” Barton wrote. “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve.”

Another time, she encountered a soldier who had been her former student at her school in New Jersey. “This is the second time you saved my life,” he told her.

7. SHE SUFFERED FROM DEPRESSION.

Away from the intense action of Civil War battles, Barton suffered from depression. In early 1864, the lack of activity, combined with an inability to secure a supply warehouse, got the better of her. “All the world appears selfish and treacherous. I can get no hold on a good noble sentiment any where. I have scanned over and over the whole moral horizon and it is all dark,” she wrote. She thought about killing herself, and it wasn’t the first time. What brought her out of it was having purpose again, notes Barton biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor in Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Pryor suggests that Barton thrived in scenarios that others would run from.

8. SOME THOUGHT SHE WAS HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH A SENATOR.

In 1861, Barton met Senator Henry Wilson, a Massachusetts Republican, abolitionist, and future U.S. vice president under Ulysses S. Grant. He became a close confidant, someone she felt comfortable talking about her innermost feelings with. He turned out to be a good person to know professionally, too: He procured a railroad pass for her, which allowed her to travel to battlefields free of charge, and she asked him to furnish supplies for soldiers, including “whiskey, brandy, wine, condensed milk, [and] prepared meats.” They shared a strong work ethic and a love of the Republican party. Their closeness prompted some to whisper of romance between them while Wilson was married and after his wife died, but there was no concrete proof. Still, some of Barton’s family members thought that marriage was imminent soon before he died in 1875. (Barton never married or had children.)

9. HER WAR-RELATED EFFORTS DIDN’T END WITH THE WAR.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and that May, Barton resumed her career in education. This time, she taught skills to freed slaves.

Near the conclusion of the Civil War, many soldiers remained missing. Barton created the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army in 1865. Operating out of the Washington, D.C. boarding house where Barton lived, the office received more than 63,000 pieces of correspondence inquiring about missing family members—all of which were answered by the office’s 12 clerks. Barton’s organization was able to locate 22,000 missing soldiers, 13,000 of whom had perished in the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison. As a result, the government established a national cemetery at Andersonville. (Congress also reimbursed her for the $15,000 it cost to establish the office.)

10. THE OFFICE’S HEADQUARTERS WAS DISCOVERED BY ACCIDENT.

In 1996, a General Services Administration inspector discovered Barton’s long-forgotten headquarters at the D.C. boarding house as he was preparing the building for demolition. Barton’s effects had been lying there for over a century. Construction was halted, and almost 20 years later, the building was re-opened as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum at 437 7th Street NW.

11. SHE SPOKE OUT FOR WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE.

In 1866 Barton embarked on a nationwide lecture tour after the war and shared the stage with Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other thinkers. She also met two leading lights of the women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who supported her interest in women’s suffrage. “I did not purchase my freedom with a price; I was born free; and when, as a younger woman I heard the subject discussed, it seemed simply ridiculous that any sensible, sane person should question it,” Barton wrote in a speech supporting women’s right to vote. “And when, later, the phase of woman’s right to suffrage came up it was to me only a part of the whole, just as natural, just as right, and just as certain to take place.” She encouraged veterans to support a woman’s right to vote, not-too-subtly suggesting that they should help women win that right as she had helped them survive the wounds of war.

12. SHE CO-FOUNDED THE AMERICAN RED CROSS.

After the Office of Correspondence closed down, she went to Europe to relax and recuperate. In Switzerland, she learned about the International Red Cross, which had been founded in 1863 to help victims of humanitarian crises. She soon launched an effort to establish a similar organization in the United States, even trying to enlist then-President Rutherford B. Hayes in its creation. On May 21, 1881, she and Adolphus Solomons, a community leader active in numerous charities, co-founded the American Red Cross. She was appointed its president the following month and served for the next 23 years, and never received a salary.

In addition to helping those affected by war, the American Red Cross stepped in to assist survivors of natural disasters. Its first test was a massive forest fire in Michigan in 1881, which burned more than a million acres in 24 hours and left thousands homeless. In its first couple of decades, the Red Cross provided supplies and relief to victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889 and the 1900 Galveston hurricane.

13. SHE WAS CAT-CRAZY.

Barton grew up on a farm and loved animals. Really loved animals. She could ride a horse by age 5 thanks to her brother David’s instruction. Her first pet, a dog she named Button, was “a sprightly, medium-sized, very white dog, with silky ears, sparkling black eyes and a very short tail,” she recalled in The Story of My Childhood. She was also given animals as gifts: Rep. Schuyler Colfax of Indiana sent her a kitten to thank her for her work at Antietam, and a family friend presented her with two-and-a-half-dozen ducks.

Like another famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, Barton had a soft spot for cats. Her favorite was Tommy, her faithful black-and-white companion for almost two decades. Her friend and fellow nurse Antoinette Margot painted a portrait of Tommy in 1885, which is still on display at the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland.

14. SHE SHARED A HAIRSTYLE WITH PRINCESS LEIA.

There are some eerie similarities between Barton and Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars films: Barton and Fisher suffered from mental illness; had movies that drew from their lives (Postcards from the Edge in Fisher’s case, Angel of Mercy in Barton’s); were authors; were feminists; and were parts of large, talented families. And as Jake Wynn and Amelia Grabowski point out in a blog post for the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum, they also share the same braided and bun hairstyles.

Wynn wrote that that their power isn’t hurt by the fact that they were vain: Though Barton was brave, she was also worried about how the war would affect her hair. “They are both people who are unapologetically in the middle of the action," Grabowski added. "They are risking their lives and making a difference. The guys would be lost without them."

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16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright, who was born (and died!) on April 23.

1. Shakespeare's writing was likely influenced by his father's legal troubles.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argued that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. Shakespeare got married because of an unexpected pregnancy.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. Nobody knows what Shakespeare did between 1585 and 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory (and there are many) suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, an actor.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. Shakespeare may have participated in organized crime.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. Shakespeare was a matchmaker (and a marital peace-maker).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. The first printed reference to Shakespeare as a playwright was an insult.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. Shakespeare likely helped steal a theater, piece by piece.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. Only one handwritten script of Shakespeare's exists.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. Shakespeare might have experimented with drugs.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. Shakespeare may have been a tax cheat.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. Shakespeare was a grain hoarder.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. The Globe Theatre burned down during a performance of one of Shakespeare's plays.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. Shakespeare laid a curse upon his own grave.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. Shakespeare's legacy has killed a lot of trees.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. Shakespeare's legacy lived on thanks to two fellow actors.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

This story was first published in 2018.

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