Josephine Shaw Lowell, or Sometimes it’s Hard to Find Good Guys

I’ve been researching Josephine Shaw Lowell, who served on the New York State Board of Charities and was involved in charity and correction reform in the 19th century. But like everyone else I’ve been looking into, she comes off heartless at times, and that is an understatement. Other times, and especially later, it’s clear she wasn’t.

I’m told I should look at people in the context of their times, and I do. But some things are so wrong, and so horrible, that even in times when they are acceptable there were people who could still see it’s wrong. All throughout America’s slavery period for instance, there were those who were crying out WTF?? This is evil.

Josephine Shaw Lowell, she seems to be more in the middle. I can at least see what she was thinking when she was being harsh, and that will help me write about her. And her thinking evolved as time went on. Amazing, and sad, how rare that is.

This is the fountain in Bryant Park, behind the main branch of the New York Public Library, that’s dedicated to her. “Sincere Candid Courageous and Tender,” it reads, among other things. There were not a lot of things being dedicated to women in those days, and this one is so effusive. She must have been quite a woman.

This Fountain Commemorates
The Strong and Beautiful Character Of
Josephine Shaw Lowell
Wife For One Year of a Patriot Soldier
Widow at Twenty One
Servant of New York State and City
In Their Public Charities
Sincere Candid Courageous and Tender
Bringing Help and Hope to the Fainting
And Inspiring Others to Consecrated Labors

This is the fountain.

Josephine Shaw Lowell

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

4 thoughts on “Josephine Shaw Lowell, or Sometimes it’s Hard to Find Good Guys

  1. I pass that fountain almost every day and never realized it was dedicated to her. Her brother was Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick in “Glory”)who died young, as did her husband, fighting for the Union and anti-slavery cause. Hard losses/sacrifices at a young age.

  2. Really. Her whole family, or at least the ones I’m reading about, where so thoroughly decent people. I’m probably going to mention her brother, I think that will help get a sense of who she was and what she came from.

    Do you work nearby the library?

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