Not a Tango, nothing to see here

May 13, 2011

The Beard of Joseph Palmer

Filed under: The Beard — antitango @ 6:53 pm

I’m a beardo.  I love my beard regardless of those that do not.  Not everybody can grow one, so since I can I’ve got to make up for that rest of the population.  And you know what they say….  “Without a beard you’re the same as all of the other women and children.”  A big thank you to the American Scholar for allowing me to reproduce this in full even though they own the copyright on it!

The Beard of Joseph Palmer
by: Stewart Holbrook


One of the unsung but really great individualists who helped to make the United States a better and safer place to live was Joseph Palmer of Fitchburg and Harvard, Massachusetts, a man to be reckoned with in any discussion of the Bill of Rights.  He is forgotten now, and this is bad forgetting, for Palmer was a race of men that is now all but extinct.  And his story, I think, is as heartwarming as it is improbable.

Palmer came to national attention because he was the victim of one of the strangest persecutions in history.  Neither race nor religion played a part in Palmer’s case, which with some reason might otherwise be termed l’affaire Dreyfus of Fitchburg.  It was brought about by the fact that Joe Palmer liked to wear a beard, one of the most magnificent growths ever seen in New England or, for that matter, in the United States; and what made his beard particularly heinous was that it almost if not quite the only beard east of the Rocky Mountains, and possibly beyond.

One lone set of whiskers amid millions of smooth-shaven faces is something to contemplate, and Palmer paid dearly for his eccentricity.  Indeed, one might say, with but little stretch of the imagination and metaphor, that it was Joe Palmer who carried the Knowledge of Whiskers through the dark ages of beardless America.  He was born almost a century too late and seventy-five years too soon to wear whiskers with impunity.  He was forty-two years old in 1830 when he moved from his nearby farm into the bustling village of Fitchburg.  He came of sturdy old Yankee stock.  His father had served in the Revolution, and Joe himself had carried a musket in 1812.  He was married and had one son, Thomas.

When the beard first made its appearance isn’t of record, but Joe was wearing it when he came to Fitchburg, and here, because of it, he immediately became the butt of cruel jokes and derision and, in time, the victim of downright persecution.  But before relating the violence caused by Palmer’s famous beard, it is imperitive – if one is to comprehend the proceedings at all – to trace briefly the history of whiskers in America up to the time of the Palmer beard.

The continent was explored by men of many nationalities, almost all of them wearing whiskers.  About Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci we are uncertain, since there are no authenticated contemporary portraits of them.  But after them came a host of beards.  Cortes, Ponce de Leon, Cartier, Champlain, Drake, Raleigh, Captain John Smith, De Soto – all sported whiskers of varying length and style.  Little wonder the Indians thought them gods.

Then came the Pilgrims and Puritans, bearded almost to a man when they arrived at The Rock and elsewhere.  But the beards of the first settlers didn’t last.  American whiskers were reduced gradually in size until they were scarcely more than mild goatees, and soon disappeared entirely.  By 1720 at the latest, American colonists were wholly free of facial hair.  Try to find a Copley portrait, or a Ralph Earle, with a whisker in it.  And the fighting men of the Revolution were Beardless.  Not a moustache or a suspicion of a mutton-chop appeared on the faces of Washington, Gates, Greene, Knox.  Even old John Stark and Israel Putnam were smooth-shaven, and so was the backwoods general, Ethan Allen.  It was the same with the other Patriots, and with the British also – Cornwallis, the Howes, Burgoyne.  No signer of the Declaration had either beard or moustache.

And so it continued down the years.  No president before Lincoln had any hair on on his face.  Until 1858 the cartoonists’ conception of their own creature, Uncle Sam – otherwise much as he is today – was a tall and lanky but smooth-shaven man.  America did not really go hairy until the Civil War was well under way.

Thus when Joe Palmer came to town wearing a beard in 1830, whiskers had been virtually nonexistent for at least a hundred years.  In spite of his hirsute oddity, Palmer was an honest, kindly man and a good citizen, deeply religious but tolerant, and a man of many intellectual interests.  He was also quite immovable when it came to principles, which in his case included the right to wear a full flowing beard.

Everywhere he went small boys threw stones and shouted “Old Jew Palmer,” and made life miserable for his son Tom.  Women sniffed and crossed o the other side of the street when they saw him coming.  Often the windows of his modest home were broken by unknown rowdies.  Grown men jeered at him openly.  The Reverend George Trask, local pastor, took him to task for his eccentricity, but Joe replied with the exact Scriptural reasons – nay, commands – for beard-wearing.  Old Doctor Williams told Joe to his face that he should “be prosecuted for wearing such a monstrosity.” And, when Joe went to Boston to attend literary and reform meetings, huge crowds “followed him the length of Tremont Street, jeering.”  He was present at the celebrated Chardon Street Convention in 1840, and one has no difficulty locating him in Emerson’s comment on that gathering:

If the assembly was disorderly, it was picturesque.  Madmen, madwomen, men with beards, Dunkers, Muggletonians, Comeouters, Groaners, Agrarians, Seventh-Day Baptists, Quakers, Abolitionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and Philosophers – all came usccessively to the top, seized their moment, if not their hour, wherein to chide, or pray, or preach, or protest. (Works, X:352)

By the time of this Convention, Joe Palmer was a national character, made so by two events that had happened in quick succession in his home town of Fitchburg.  In spite of the snubs of the congregation, Joe never missed a church service, but one Sunday he quite justifiably lost his usually serene temper.  It was a Communion Sunday in 1830.  Joe knelt with the rest, only to be publicly humiliated when the officiating clergyman ignored him, “passed him by with the communion bread and wine.”  Joe was cut to the quick.  He rose up and strode to the communion table.  He lifted the cup to his lips and took a mighty swig.  Then: “I love my Jesus,” he shouted in a voice loud with hurt and anger, “as well, and better, than any of you!” Then he went home.

A few days later, as he was coming out of the Fitchburg Hotel, he was seized by four men armed with shears, brush, soap, and razor.  They told him that the sentiment of the town was that his beard should come off and they were going to do the job there and then.  When Joe started to struggle, the four men threw him violently to the ground, seriously injuring his back and head.  But Joe had just begun to fight.  When they were about to apply the shears, he managed ot get an old jackknife out of his pocket.  He laid about him wildly, cutting two of his assailants in their legs, not seriously but sufficiently to discourage any barber work.  When Joe stood up, hurt and bleeding, his gorgeous beard was intact.

Presently he was arrested, charged with “an unprovoked assault.”  Fined by Justice Brigham, he refused to pay.  Matter of principle, he said.  He was put in the city jail by Worcester and there he remained for more than a year, part of the time in solitary confinement.  Even here he had to fight for his whiskers, for once Jailor Bellows came with several men with the idea of removing the now famous beard.  Joe threw himself at them and fought so furiously that the mob retreated without a hair.  He also successfully repulsed at least two attempts by prisoners to shave him.

In the jail Joe wrote letters which he smuggled out a window to his son, who took them to the Worcester Spy.  They were published and soon were eing widely copied by other newspapers.  In his letters the bearded prisoner stated that he was in jail not for assault but because he chose to wear whiskers – which was unquestionably the case.  He complained of the food, of the quarters, and of the lack of any religious life behind the bars.  People all over Massachusetts read these letters.  They began to talk and even to reflect.  It wasn’t long before the sheriff came to realize that he had a Tartar and possibly a martyr on his hands.  He went to Joe and told him to run along home and forget it – the fine and everything.  No, said Joe.  The jailor urged him to leave.  His aged mother wrote him to come home.  All in vain.  Nothing could move the man who was now known as The Bearded Prisoner of Worcester.

Day after day he sat in his limbo, keeping an elaborate and pathetic journal of his persecutions.  And time after time he told officers and worried magistrates that they put him there, they would have to take him out.  “I won’t walk one single step toward freedom!” he roared through the bars.  Nor did he.  He sat there in a chair like a whiskered Buddha until the desperate sheriff and jailors picked him up in his chair and carried him to the street.


Never again was violence attempted on Joe Palmer’s head, which by the time of his release, or rather his eviction, from jail, was a beard famous as far away as New York and Philadelpha.  Free now, he soon became a minor figure in New England’s intellectual ferment.  A hater of slavery, he went to Boston often for the meetings of Parker and Garrison, contributing both time and money to the movement for Abolition.  He met Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Channing, and these men found him an odd, but staunch character, the possessor of much good sense.  He loathed liquor as much as he did slavery and was active at Temperance meetings.  He visited the communities at Brook Farm and Hopedale.

When Bronson Alcott and family, with Charles Lane and a few others, bought a farm in Harvard, near Fitchburg, named it Fruitlands and attempted to found the Con-Sociate Family, Joe Palmer was vastly interested.  He donated a lot of fine old furniture and up-to-date farm implements to the colony.  When he saw that Alcott’s idiotic ideas about farming were going to bring famine to the group, he brought his own team and plow and turned up the soil.  He was, in fact, the only sensible male in that wondrous experiment.  (Joe Palmer appears in Louisa May Alcott’s Transcendental Wild Oats as Moses White.)

Fruitlands had the distinction of being the worst-managed and shortest-lived of all American colonies.  When the half-starved Alcotts and the others had moved away, Joe Palmer bought the farm and moved there with his iwfe and family.  Here for more than twenty years he carried on a strange sort of community life of his own devising.  He was widely known now and never lacked for company.  Emerson and Thoreau visited him, and so did every reformer who passed through or operated in New England.  The merely curious came to see the famous beard.  The Palmers always had a pot of beans on the stove, plenty of bread in the butt’ry.  All were welcome to come and to stay, so long as they had no trace of liquor about them.

In place of persecution, Joe now found himself something of a hero.  The years crept on and with them his great beard grew even more famously, spreading like a willow.  A photograph taken at about this time shows a growth that makes Walt Whitman seem a beardless youth in comparison.  And at last, many years before he died, the whiskers of all America came into their fullest glory.  This Second Coming of the beard was sudden, an almost instantaneous wilderness of hair that covered the face of male America.

One cannot know with certainty the reason for this sudden era of Whiskers; it can only be recorded.  Lincoln, when elected, was smooth-shaven, but when inaugurated wore a beard.  Grant, the lieutenant, had worn a tiny mustache; Grant, the general, had a full beard.  Robert E. Lee went smooth of face to war, and was presently full-bearded.  In 1860 Jeff davis was clean of chin.  He was soon wearing whiskers longer than Lincoln’s.  Nearly all of the generals of the Civil War, on both sides, were peering out of whiskers by 1862, and so were their men.  Stonewall Jackson grew a mighty beard.  Custer grew a unique combination of beard and moustache, but it was General Ambrose E Burnside who gave his name to a special type of whiskers.

The baseball players of the [Eighteen-] Sixties and Seventies, as depicted by the careful Currier & Ives, had whiskers.  Bankers grew a style all their own.  Razors went into the discard and vendors of quack beard-growers swarmed into the new market.  The proper gift to a male was an elegant moustache cup.  Manufacturers of soap, patent medicines, and cough drops – notably cough drops – came out with one or more bearded faces on their labels. Whiskers, through some odd turn of the folkways, now were a sign of solid worth, a badge of integrity in every line of endeavor.  If the poor barbers thought the end of things had arrived, it is easy to understand why.

As for old Joe Palmer, he was immensely happy, a true prophet who had lived to see his justification.  Few prophets have been so fortunate.  All over America, Joe Palmer knew, were now full beards, Van Dykes, goatees, galways, dundrearys, muttoncops, burnsides, fringe beards, and millions of stupendous moustaches of the over-Niagara type.  Aye, the prophet had come into his own.  Yet Joe was no gloater.  He seems to have remarked only once on the greatly changed styles of what men wore on their faces.  That was when he met the same Reverend Trask who had so churlishly upbraded him many years before for waring his beard.  Trask himself was now wearing a luxuriant growth.  Meeting him on a Fitchburg street one day, Joe stroked his own beard and remarked: “Knowest thou that thy redeemer liveth?”


Joe Palmer died in 1875 when beards were at their fullest, and was thus spared the dreadful sight of their withering and final disappearance.  What happened during the thirty-five years following Joe’s death would certainly have saddened him.

The whisker debacle of the last quarter of the nineteenth century has engrossed only a few of us minor social historians, but Mr. Lewis Gannett has charted the decline so graphically that little more research needs to be done.  He used his alma mater, Harvard University, to demonstrate the mysterious rises and falls of male American hair; and his studies show that graduating classes of the 1860s were hairy as goats.  The Class of 1870 had four beards.  Two years later a good majority were wearing not beards, but moustaches and burnsides.  By 1880 beards and bursides (sideburns are the same thing, only there isn’t quite so much to them) were distinctly obsolete, and the moustache was at or nearing its peak.

Decline now followed with tragic speedl.  The Class of 1900 was without one beard, the first such crowd of sissies since the Mexican War.  The last Harvard football moustache appeard in 1901, Mr. Ganett’s chart shows, and the last Harvard baseball moustache in 1905.  Since then Harvard men – except for a few professors – have been mostly smooth of chin and lip.

The White House witnessed a similar decline of hair.  From Lincoln to Wilson only one man without at least a moustache was elected to the Presidency.  Grant had a beard, Hayes was positively hairy.  Garfield fairly burgeoned with whiskers.  Cleveland had a sizable moustache, Harrison a flowing beard, and both Theodore Roosevelt and Taft had moustaches.  The lone smooth-shaven president during this entire period was McKinley.

Beginning with Wilson in 1912 and continuing to the present, no President has worn hair on his face.  Many thought it was his beard that defeated Hughes, and his was for years the only honest beard to wag on the once heavily whiskered Supreme Court.

Old Joe Palmer, then, died at exactly the right time, and he took some pains to make certain, no matter what styles of frivolous men might adopt, that he was not wholly forgotten.  In the old cemetery in North Leominster, not far from Fitchburg, is his monument, a rugged square stone as tall as a man; and on its front is an excellent medallion carving of Joe’s head, with its noble beard flowing and rippling in white marble.  Below the head appears a simple legend: “Persecuted for Wearing the Beard.”

Joe Palmer’s last home, the celebrated Fruitlands in nearby Harvard, has been restored with loving care as an historical showplace by Clara Endicott Sears – not so much in memory of Palmer as of the Alcotts.  In this charming house, however, one may see old Joe’s beautiful furniture, and a good photograph of the kindly yet determined old gentleman who wished to be remembered only as the Redeemer of The Beard.

From The American Scholar, Volume 13, No. 4, Autumn 1944. Copyright c 1944 by The Phi Beta Kappa Society.

As Big Poppa E says: “The biggest fans of men with beards…  ARE MEN WITH BEARDS!”  Have you hugged your beardo today?  Yeah, slightly NSFW language in the video link.  Eventually that link will deserve a post all its own.


  1. […] Pastor George Trask of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, preaches against the “vain” (and rare) beard of congregant Joseph Palmer, and demands that he shave it off. When Trask denies Palmer Communion, Palmer grabs the chalice and drinks it anyway, shouting, “I love my Jesus as well, and better than any of you!” After he was jailed for fighting off attackers who tried to cut off his beard, Palmer (and his beard) became a New England cause célèbre. […]

    Pingback by Legalize Jesus | Spread The Gospel | End Christophobia | Rise Up – CHRISTIAN BEARD WARS??? — September 2, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

  2. […] Pastor George Trask of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, preaches against the “vain” (and rare) beard of congregant Joseph Palmer, and demands that he shave it off. When Trask denies Palmer Communion, Palmer grabs the chalice and drinks it anyway, shouting, “I love my Jesus as well, and better than any of you!” After he was jailed for fighting off attackers who tried to cut off his beard, Palmer (and his beard) became a New England cause célèbre. […]

    Pingback by NO SHAVE PASTORS NOVEMBER | LIVE LOVE — November 2, 2013 @ 10:05 am

  3. […] After he was jailed for fighting off attackers who tried to cut off his beard, Palmer (and his beard) became a New England cause célèbre. […]

    Pingback by The War Over Christian Beards — Fr. John Peck — November 15, 2013 @ 12:01 am

  4. […] Fact: In 1830, a pastor in Fitchburg, Mass. preached against the luscious beard of parishioner Joseph Palmer and denied him Communion until he shaved. Palmer grabbed the goblet of Communion wine and drank it […]

    Pingback by The ‘Splainer: Beards, belief and baseball | The ‘Splainer: Beards, belief and baseball | Social Dashboard — October 6, 2014 @ 11:41 pm

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