Recently, I made a special trip up to Evergreen Cemetery in Leominster, Massachusetts to see the grave of Joseph Palmer, a veteran of the War of 1812 and a member of the short-lived Utopian community “the Fruitlands”. I’m not much of a history buff, so why would I drive halfway across the state to seek out the grave of a man who died a century before I was born? It was too interesting of a story not to investigate.
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.
The Assault On Beard Mountain
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.
Joseph Palmer achieved national celebrity status at the time, and used his position to contribute time and money to the Temperance and Abolitionist movements. He would go on to circulate in New England intellectual circles with Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, and even appears as the character, Moses White in the Louisa May Alcott’s Transcendental Wild Oats.
Palmer died in 1873 at the age of 84, and on his grave in Leominster, Massachusetts is a picture of a man with long, flowing beard and the words, “Persecuted for wearing the beard”. He was one of the most ridiculed and persecuted men of his time simply because he chose to stand up against the herd in support of his right to wear a beard. Not ten years before Palmer’s death, Abraham Lincoln would be the first president of the United States to wear a beard in office.
The next time you’re feeling like a freak and thinking about giving up your individuality for a spot in the herd, remember: resistance is not futile, and sometimes freaks are only freaks because they’re ahead of their time.