Martha R. May

Author: G. R. Peterson


Mrs. May and her husband, F.W.G. May, played critical roles in the establishment of the Industrial School for Girls. While Mrs. F.W.G. May’s service was relatively brief in the lengthy history of the Industrial School for Girls (ISFG), the six to seven years she did serve were the school’s first.

Mrs. F.W.G. May was born Martha Rand Morse on September 21, 1827 in Massachusetts. Martha first served on the school’s board of managers in  1858, just as it was transitioning from a few short years in Winchester, Massachusetts, to its new site on Centre Street in Dorchester. These early years of the school were also a busy time in Martha’s personal life. On January 12, 1859, Martha married Frederick Warren Goddard May. The Mays settled on Adams Street in Dorchester, a thirty-minute walk away from the ISFG. They lived on Adams Street for the rest of their lives.

The proximity of the May home to the ISFG made Mrs. May somewhat unique among the managers at the school. Martha took an active role in the school building’s maintenance. She addressed problems ranging from an overflowing cistern to a leaky cupola. Mr. May’s name and knowledge was frequently invoked for the benefit of the ISFG, an occurrence that was probably linked to his profession–he appears in various records as a merchant, a hardware dealer, and a manufacturing agent. Additionally, Mr. May contributed to the school by cultivating and overseeing a kitchen garden between 1861 and 1864, the Civil War years. The garden gave the girls the opportunity to work outdoors, although the garden’s primary caretaker was Mr. May.

The proximity of the May home to the ISFG made it possible for the girls to visit, although it is not clear how often. The Mays lived at 69 Adams Street on Meeting House Hill, a stone’s throw away from First Parish Church in Dorchester where Martha and F.W.G. exchanged their wedding vows in 1859. Today, 24 three-decker houses crowd around the May home, which is still standing. The Mays would be astounded to see such a sight! In the first decades of their marriage the May’s estate was in a suburban—even rural—part of Dorchester, undoubtedly making the May’s estate a pleasant place for the girls to visit.

Nineteenth century photograph of May home in Dorchester, MA. The May Home. 69 Adams Street in Dorchester was the May home for nearly 50 years. They called it “Underhill” because it sat below an even larger estate, Mount Ida, which perched on what is now Ronan Park. This photo, taken in the nineteenth century, gives a sense of the wealth the Mays enjoyed and the more suburban character of the neighborhood at this time with its grass, its trees, and its white picket fence. (Source: Dorchester Historical Society)

The May Home. 69 Adams Street in Dorchester was the May home for nearly 50 years. They called it “Underhill” because it sat below an even larger estate, Mount Ida, which perched on what is now Ronan Park. This photo, taken in the nineteenth century, gives a sense of the wealth the Mays enjoyed and the more suburban character of the neighborhood at this time with its grass, its trees, and its white picket fence.
(Dorchester Historical Society)

Proximity may have enabled Mrs. May’s frequent presence at the School. She reported on staff members’ interactions with the girls.  In August 1863, for example, Mrs. May reported satisfaction with a Miss Guardenier as regarded the housekeeping; however, Mrs. May was concerned that Miss Guardenier “acted from impulse rather than principle, her manner and degree of punishment being affected by the state of her health.” Moreover, Mrs. May “had doubts as to her entire truthfulness of character” but “liked her much better the second month she visited than the first.”

Similar to the other managers, Martha acted as a guardian to girls when they were placed as domestic servants, sent to other schools, or even returned to their families. While many check-ins Martha conducted were routine, a few required real tenacity. In 1864, Mrs. May, another manager, and two policemen, confronted the custodian of one of the girls, a woman who had acted aggressively toward another guardian. In the end the girl was removed from the woman’s custody and returned to the school.

Mrs. May resigned her role as a manager at the ISFG in January of 1865 “to the great regret of the Board.” Martha was 37 years old, a mother of three, with another child on the way. By 1870 she was raising five children under ten years old–Mary, Frederick G, Martha, Anna, and Sarah. Martha’s increasing responsibilities as mother and mistress of her own household probably caused her to relinquish her duties as manager. She continued to support the school financially until 1883.

Late nineteenth century portrait photograph of Abby W. May. She is middle-aged and wears her hair tied back and pinze-nes glasses. Sister-in-law to Martha R. May. Abby’s time at the school predates Martha’s--which begs the question of whether Abby got Martha there in the first place! Were they friends? Did Abby introduce Martha to her future husband?

Abby W. May. Sister-in-law to Martha R. May. Abby’s time at the school predates Martha’s–which begs the question of whether Abby got Martha there in the first place! Were they friends? Did Abby introduce Martha to her future husband?
(Bill McKern. Find A Grave)

Mrs. May’s contributions to a “child-saving” organization, as such efforts were called in the nineteenth century, are a part of the city’s history of reform efforts organized and influenced by Boston’s wealthy families. Martha married into just such a family. Like many wealthy Bostonians in the nineteenth century, the May family was well-represented in a variety of social and reform causes in Boston and beyond. Mr. May’s oldest brother, Samuel, was a minister and an agent with the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society from 1847-1865. Mr. May’s youngest sister, Abby Williams May, served the Industrial School a year prior to Martha’s appearance there, as well as during Martha’s first year on the rolls. Abby was the trailblazer of the family, serving in everything from freedmen’s societies, Civil War sanitary commissions, and even the Boston School committee.  Though she never married her legacy lives on as a well-known social reformer in Massachusetts.

Reformers in the Unitarian Church may have influenced the Mays as well. They were married by the Rev. Nathaniel Hall at First Parish Church in Dorchester.  Hall was active in Boston reform circles; William Lloyd Garrison, the arch-abolitionist, allegedly attended his funeral in 1875. If the Mays continued attending the First Parish Church, which was less than a five-minute walk from their home, they undoubtedly mixed often with reform-minded company.

Black and white illustration of idealized landscape. One third of the image is landscape, the rest is sky. To the left, a very large tree in full leaf. To the right are two buildings--a church with a three-tiered spire. Directly to its right is a Greek temple-style building with pediment and columns. Probably depicts summertime. This idyllic view reminds us how different the Mays’ Dorchester was from today’s. Dirt roads resonate with the sound of hoofbeats trailing carriages behind them. At the peak of the hill is First Parish Church, which has had three different iterations as a result of old age and fire. The one depicted here is contemporary to the Mays. The building currently standing on Meeting House Hill was completed in 1897..

Meeting House Hill, 1847. This idyllic view reminds us how different the Mays’ Dorchester was from today’s. Dirt roads resonate with the sound of hoof beats trailing carriages behind them. At the peak of the hill is First Parish Church, which has had three different iterations as a result of old age and fire. The one depicted here is contemporary to the Mays. The building currently standing on Meeting House Hill was completed in 1897.
(Lemuel Black and W. Sharp. Courtesy of Dorchester Historical Society)

Mrs. May died at home on April 23, 1894 from cancer. She was 69 years old. She preceded her husband in death by ten years. They are both buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

Sources Consulted (Click Here)

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