Who was Alice Lincoln?

November 25, 2018

By Volunteer Docent Robin Hazard Ray

On one of the more out-of-the-way paths at Mount Auburn, under a stone that is barely readable, lie the remains of a woman who changed Boston history. Being childless, and having been followed to the grave by her husband within a month of her death, her story remained unwritten. Had it not been for the research of Mount Auburn volunteer Bill McEvoy, we would still be ignorant of the remarkable Alice North Lincoln (1852–1926, Lot 817 Snowdrop Path), who started good institutions in Boston and closed bad ones.

McEvoy was researching deaths on Rainsford Island—one of the Boston Harbor Islands—which served variously as a quarantine station, a pauper hospital, and a boys’ reformatory. He discovered that in 1894, complaints by one Alice Lincoln led to 54 days of hearings before the Boston City Council on the appalling conditions at Rainsford, which was then a women’s pauper hospital. Acting as her attorney in eliciting witness testimony was Louis Brandeis (1856–1941), later associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The testimony was hair-raising. Lincoln and other visitors had discovered on Rainsford Island dozens of ailing women, some with infants, many elderly, packed into an old hospital building. The food was revolting, and there was never enough milk for the infants, though the superintendent’s dogs got a quart a day. The attic was drafty and distant from any lavatory, yet beds were crammed under rafters with just inches of headroom. A fire in such a place would have meant death to almost all so housed. The women had no place to sit during the day and were confined to their beds at night.

The superintending physician, Dr. Jenks, did not take well to being questioned about conditions on the island; he testily asked one of the City Council members, “Have you any more damned old women cranks to bring before me? If you have, you can trot them in now.” In the end, the testimony forced the closure of the Rainsford Island Hospital and the removal of its patients to places more easily visited and supervised.

Who was this Alice Lincoln? The Rainsford Island research led McEvoy down a long trail of discovery.

She was born Alice North Towne to a prosperous Philadelphia family with Boston connections. Her aunt Sophia Towne Darrah (1819–1881, Lot 4701 Kalmia Path) was a talented painter of New England landscapes. Alice moved to Boston as a young adult to attend the School of Social Work and married Roland Lincoln, a Harvard graduate, at the age of 27. She quickly moved into activism on behalf of the urban poor.

One of her efforts, done in partnership with a friend, was to rent an entire 27-unit tenement building in Boston’s North End for $1,000 a month. The building was notorious for its filth and its unruly immigrant inhabitants. Keeping careful track of expenditures and rental income, the partners demonstrated that a vigilant landlord could still make a profit while improving sanitation, fixing peeling paint and plumbing, and treating tenants like sentient human beings. “We did not attempt too much at once,” she later wrote. “We expected to improve the character of the inmates as we did that of the house, gradually. It has been my experience that tenants of this class often need only the stimulus which interest and sympathy give to enable them to do better.”[1]

In addition to her success in closing Rainsford Island and providing decent housing for the poor, Alice Lincoln funded a medal given by the Animal Rescue League for valor in saving animals and was an early and vocal advocate of cremation. In 1894, she addressed the New England Cremation Society, describing a cremation she had witnessed:

“We stood in silence, watching the rosy glow which played over the white surface of the retort, a feeling came over us of awe, certainly, but also of peace and rest. There was something so spiritual, so elevating, in the absolute purity of the intense heat that it seems to all of us who stood there far less appalling than the blackness of the open grave.”

Her cremated remains lie in her husband’s family plot, alongside her husband’s coffin.

[1] Marcus T. Reynolds, “The Housing of the Poor in American Cities,” Publications of the American Economic Association, Vol. 8, nos. 2–3 (1893), pp 65–66.



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