Anarchy in JP: Greene was early local radical

August 10, 2007
By

John Ruch

William Batchelder Greene was one of Jamaica Plain’s classic ’60s radicals.

The 1860s, that is.

Long before there were punk shows at the Milky Way, Greene was likely JP’s first anarchist.

He argued fervently in favor of women’s rights at a state Constitutional Convention. He defied the governor in a high-profile defense of free speech and free love. He attempted to start a non-profit banking system.

He knew—and criticized—famous Transcendentalists. He was offered—and declined—command of a kind of Dirty Dozen squad of ex-Confederate troops.

He was a minister, a colonel, a mathematician and a mystic.

In short, Greene was JP before JP was cool.

Despite (or because of) being a significant influence on American anarchism, especially the “mutualism” idea of cooperative societies, Greene is little-known today. He has never been the focus of a biography. The main researcher collecting information about Greene is Shawn Wilbur, an instructor at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University and the source for much of the following information.

Greene was born in Haverhill in 1819, the son of Boston postmaster and journalist Nathaniel Greene. His uncle, Charles Gordon Greene, was a journalist at the Boston Morning Post, and author of the first known use of the word “OK” in print.

Greene’s early life gave few hints of his radical future. He attended West Point and served in the Second Seminole War, a prolonged battle against Native Americans in Florida who resisted forced relocation. During that time, by his own account, Greene was nearly shot by a traitorous soldier “who had been a pirate, and had been convicted as such and pardoned.”

Greene’s first known published work, dating from this time, was “Song of Espousal,” a bizarre militarist poem about his love affair with his weapon. “Then hail to my SWORD! to my own fair bride!” says the refrain.

But Greene was also a Baptist Christian and grew increasingly disillusioned with the military. He attended Harvard Divinity School and converted to liberal Unitarian Universalism. In 1845, he became a minister in the Brookfield/West Brookfield area.

Greene had already developed wide-ranging interests that would later lead him to publish essays on literature, calculus and Masonic ideas. Perhaps the most consuming interest was religious mysticism—which put the burgeoning New England Transcendentalist movement in his sights.

Greene published his own idiosyncratic views on the philosophy and was published in the pioneering Transcendentalist journal “The Dial.” He arranged and apparently carried out a private meeting with Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1842. Other acquaintances included Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

What Emerson thought of Greene is not clear. Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, in a letter to Emerson, jokingly referred to Greene as “the military-spiritual-heroic-vivacious phoenix of the day.”

Greene was apparently a memorable character, tall with bushy eyebrows and a full beard. His friend and disciple, the influential anarchist Benjamin Tucker, described Greene as “strikingly handsome” with a “presence [that] would have made him notable in any company.”

“Col. Greene’s courtly manner and polite banter always carried the day,” Tucker wrote. “Of the art of decision without offence [sic] he was a master. His light irony disarmed. One forgot the firmness of his chin under the charm of the twinkle in his eye.”

Among Greene’s supporters was “Dial” publisher Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who later lived out her last years in JP’s Woolsey Square (today’s Green Street T Station area).

Greene also became interested in mutualism, particularly as advocated by the French theorist Pierre Joseph Proudhon. Mutualism is a type of anarchism that advocates voluntary associations. It is especially an economic philosophy. It accepts the market economy and private property, but sees labor as the only measure of value and discredits the profit motive. Practices such as charging rent or interest are considered criminal.

Greene was especially interested in the idea of mutualist banking, which involves free banking/credit rather than a profit-based commercial bank charging interest and fees on customer deposits.

During his time in Brookfield, Greene started a movement that attempted, and failed, to get a mutualist banking system chartered by the state. He may also have operated a cooperative store.

By the 1850s, Greene was firmly a political radical. In 1853, he was a member of a Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. In a fervent speech, he demanded that women be allowed to vote—a practice considered radical at the time—based on their “natural, divine rights.”

The famed British historian Lord Acton met Greene at the convention. He later recalled Greene as “a doctrinaire, a horrid-looking fellow…He advocates women voting and such like.”

With the country on the verge of civil war, Greene and his wife, Anna Shaw Greene, were among the radical abolitionists. It appears they moved to the JP area around 1857—the year that Anna was listed as a contributor from JP in the abolitionist journal “The Liberator.” That same year, Greene was publicizing his book on mutualism, hoping it would catch on due to a national economic crisis.

It is unclear where in JP they lived at that time. Greene was on the move frequently in any case, including long-term trips to Europe, where he met Proudhon and other activists. During at least some of the couples’ time in America, they stayed at the Parker House Hotel downtown.

Further disruption came with the outbreak of the Civil War. Greene’s abolitionism overcame his dislike of war, and he took command of the 14th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (and later the 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery). He rose to the rank of colonel—a title by which he was known in later life—and defended Washington, D.C. and joined in an assault on Virginia.

However, he resigned his commission in 1862, citing some unclear political dispute with his commanders.

After his war service, Greene became an established local resident through about 1876.

The Greenes’ home, dubbed Wildwood House, was at the base of Hellenic Hill on Goddard Avenue, near the intersection with Perkins and Cottage streets and not far from Jamaica Pond. That made Greene technically a Brookline resident. (He is listed as such in the 1870 census, where he gave his profession as “literature.”)

However, the area at the time was a rural hinterland consisting of farmland and country estates. The Greenes were unable to get Brookline city services such as mail delivery. Instead, they used the JP post office and appear to have frequented the small JP town center. (At the time, JP was a neighborhood of West Roxbury, which was still a separate town not yet annexed by Boston.)

Also, their property at least sat on, and possibly crossed over, the JP-Brookline border. In that rustic environment, neighborhood definitions seem to have been blurry. The Greenes generally datelined their letters “Jamaica Plain,” and Greene’s closest friends considered him a JP resident. (Tucker recalled the family living in “a fine house at Jamaica Plain.”)

It appears that Wildwood House no longer exists. The property is now either part of the Hellenic College/Holy Cross School of Theology campus, established in 1968, or an adjacent area with a house that dates to 1880, according to Brookline city records.

Greene was familiar with some famous JP neighbors. In Paris, he associated with JP resident Francis Parkman, the famous historian and horticulturalist. In an 1859 letter, Parkman called Greene “a capital fellow [no pun intended, apparently], and nothing of a parson.”

Greene also knew Dr. Susan Dimock, the namesake of today’s Dimock Community Health Center in Egleston/Jackson squares. Dimock was a close friend of Greene’s daughter Elizabeth; they died together in an 1875 shipwreck.

Shortly after settling into Wildwood House, Greene received a bizarre offer from a military friend, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler, to command a regiment of turncoat Confederate soldiers. In a remarkable 1864 letter to Butler datelined “Jamaica Plain,” Greene noted sardonically that the ex-Confederates’ loyalty was attested by the fact that some of their fellows “received certificates of sincerity and good intention from the rebel prisoners themselves by being murdered in the prisoners’ camp.”

Noting that the “men are to fight with ropes around their necks,” Greene asked with dark humor that they be given the chance to die in combat “of wounds made by projectiles and cutting implements mentioned in the ordinance Manual, and not by the rope…”

Butler apparently withdrew the offer. (See sidebar for Greene’s remarkable statement of principle in the letter.)

In 1869, Greene founded the New England Labor Reform League, a wide-ranging workers’ rights organization that sought to end all forms of “chattel slavery,” including wage slavery and oppression of women. The league’s officers often met at Wildwood House.

In 1871, the league went national as the American Labor Reform League, based in New York City, though Greene remained president.

In 1873, radical feminist and free-love activist Victoria Woodhull was scheduled to speak in Boston. The governor, the mayor and the City Council attempted to ban her. Proclaiming the importance of free speech, Greene and ally Ezra Heywood immediately offered Woodhull a spot at the league’s annual convention—though Greene privately wasn’t thrilled by Woodhull’s attempts to merge the issues of free love and labor reform.

Despite being kicked out of one hall and facing threats, Greene and Heywood persevered, and Woodhull was able to give four public speeches. “Free speech was vindicated by the actions of the League!” Woodhull later exclaimed.

In his last years, Greene published a book of poetry, “Cloudrifts at Twilight,” and again relocated to Europe. He died in England in 1878, never knowing how mainstream some of his radical politics would become—and never guessing that, a century later, JP would be known for another generation of political revolutionaries.

Sources: Shawn Wilbur, researcher; Libertarian-Labyrinth.org; Brookline Public Library reference department; “Free Love and Anarchism: The Biography of Ezra Heywood” by Martin Henry Blatt; “Jamaica Plain Women Who Made History” by Susan Meyers, Jamaica Plain Historical Society web site (www.jphs.org); Spartacus Educational web site (www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk); JP/West Roxbury city directories; Gazette archives.