Mary Tyler Peabody Mann: a tribute to a teacher

Mary Tyler Peabody Mann (November. 16, 1806- February 11, 1887) By: Michelle Valletta, May 31, 2015

Many people reMary Mann 1member Horace Mann, father of public education in the US, but fewer recall his second wife Mary Tyler Peabody Mann; teacher, published author, reformer, and co-founder of the first kindergarten in America. Many nineteenth century parents expected their sons achieve great success. However, the Peabody trio of sisters (Mary, Elizabeth, and Sophia) became the trailblazers of the family. This commentary focuses on Mary.  While she never lived in Rhode Island, she is interned in the North Burial Ground, Providence, RI.


Mary Tyler Peabody was born to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody “Eliza” and Dr. Nathaniel Peabody on November. 16, 1806 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Mary and her four siblings Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (May 16, 1804-January 3, 1894), Sophia Amelia Peabody (September 21, 1809-February 26, 1871), George Francis Peabody (1813 – 1839), and Wellington Peabody (1815 – 1837), spent their formative years “in an atmosphere of education.” Mrs. Peabody, a teacher and women’s rights poetess, ensured that her daughters received a broad education studying the classics, multiple languages, and of course, the domestic and spiritual necessities of a proper Unitarian woman. Elizabeth excelled at rhetoric, languages, geometry, and philosophy, Sophia thrived in the arts, and Mary preferred to study botany and health.

As a young lady, Mary often lived in the shadow of her older sister. Mary obtained her first formal teaching situation in Hallowell, Maine because Elizabeth left the position. The following year, Mary moved back to Boston to help run Elizabeth’s school. In 1832, lawyer and politician Horace Mann (May 4, 1796 – August 2, 1859) arrived at a Beacon Hill boarding house where the sisters lodged. A few months earlier, he suffered the loss of his first wife Charlotte Messer and welcomed the sisters’ companionship. Some scholars suggest that a love triangle developed between Mary, Horace, and Elizabeth. Mary infatuated with Horace, felt jealous of his friendship with Elizabeth. Sensing she could not compete with her sister’s superior intellect and ambitious conversation, Mary diverted her attention to Sophia’s ailing health. In 1833, leaving Horace and Elizabeth behind, Mary secured a governess position in Cuba and brought Sophia along to convalesce.

Living on a Cuban slaveholder’s coffee and sugar plantation transformed Mary. While she cared for her sister and the children under her charge, she also learned the horrors of slavery first hand. Fifty two years later, this experience inspired Mary’s final accomplishment. By 1835, Sophia regained her strength and the sisters returned to the U.S. The move proved fruitful for both women. Sophia married up-and-coming author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mary, displaying more confidence, established schools in Boston and Salem.

In 1840, Elizabeth’s book shop at 13-15 West Street, Boston became a popular meeting spot for ‘freethinkers.’ There, Mary and her two sisters hosted gatherings for prominent Transcendentalists such as Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Besides mingling with Boston intellectuals and teaching, Mary completed her first two educational publications; Primer of Reading and Drawing (1841) and The Flower People: Being an Account of the Flowers by Themselves (1842), a child’s guide to seasonal plants.

At same time, Mary reconnected with Horace. Mary, wrote lessons for Horace’s Common School Journal and their personal relationship grew as well. In March 1943, Horace proposed to Mary and the couple married May 1, 1843. The immediate departure to Europe perhaps fell short of Mary’s vision of a romantic honeymoon. The Mann’s six month excursion consisted of visiting schools, prisons, and asylums.

During the first five years of the marriage, Mary gave birth to three sons; Horace Mann Jr. (1844-1869), George Combe Mann (1845-1921), and Benjamin Pickman Mann (April 30, 1848). While Horace served in the US Congress, Mary home-schooled their sons. In 1853, the Mann family moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio where Horace served as president of Antioch College. Mary assumed the role of the unofficial dean for women and began to write again. In 1858, Mary wrote Christianity in the Kitchen, an instructional nutrition guide and cookbook. On June 30, 1959, Horace Mann suddenly became ill and died three days later.

Overcome with grief, Mary and her three sons returned to Massachusetts. She resumed her life as an educator and in short order achieved her life’s greatest professional accomplishments. In 1860, Mary and her sister Elizabeth established the first American kindergarten on Pinckney Street, Boston, Massachusetts. In 1863 she co-authored Moral Culture of Kindergarten and Kindergarten Guide. Mary argued that the purpose of education involved drawing out a child’s abilities rather than just embedding facts. In 1865, she wrote her most well know book Life of Horace Mann, a six hundred page tome detailing her late husband’s work. Sadly in 1868, Mary suffered another great loss when her oldest son Horace Mann Jr. succumb to tuberculosis and died at the age of 24.

Over the next two decaMary Mann 2des, Mary wrote numerous articles on the benefits of college education for women and helped Sarah Winnemucca, a Native American advocate organize her lectures into a book titled Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims. Mary’s visit to Cuban more than fifty years earlier, inspired her final publication; a historical romance novel titled Juanita: A Romance of Real Life in Cuba Fifty Years Ago.  Mary did not live to see its publication, she died on February 11, 1887 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Shortly after she was interned at the North Burial Ground Providence, Rhode Island.

As a child, Mary lived in the shadow of her sister Elizabeth. While married to Horace, Mary devoted her life to her children and supporting her husband’s work. After his death, she proved to be a force in her own right. She carved out her own identity as an education reformer, women’s rights advocate, and author.

Further Reading:

Marshall, Megan. The Peabody sisters: three women who ignited American Romanticism. Wilmington, MA: Mariner Books, 2006.

Tharp, Louise Hall. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Boston: Little, Brown, 1988.

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