Songstress, composer, poetess and “Spartan Woman” : Helen A. Harris

It happens to all family historians at some point during their research: you come across a collateral relative (i.e. not a direct ancestor) whose life captures your imagination. You find that you just MUST tell this person’s story! And when there are no descendants of this person, all the more reason to memorialize them.

Helen Amanda Harris Deming, my paternal 2nd great grand-aunt, is a woman who deserves to be remembered.

“Mrs. D’s portrait to be seen at Brainard’s is a fine specimen of art, and is said to be a correct likeness.” – The Daily Cleveland Herald (October 2, 1855)

Helen was born on September 10, 1829, in Rochester, Monroe County, New York. She was the second child of Sluman W. Harris (b. 1800 in Otsego County, NY – d. 1874 in Cleveland, OH) and Mary W. “Polly” Histed (b. 1804 in Cayuga County, NY – d. 1860 in Rochester, NY).

Sluman Harris moved from Otsego County to the western New York frontier with his father, Daniel Harris, in 1816. The Harris family was among a handful of pioneer settlers in what was originally known as Rochesterville. His wife, Polly, was the daughter of Capt. John A. Histed, a veteran of the War of 1812. The Harris family inhabited a log cabin and farmed in the area that is now the Mount Hope Cemetery. (Read here an interesting article about Nancy Harris Quackenbush, Sluman’s sister.)

Sluman and Polly had a small family: just one son and two daughters. Helen was the middle child, 3 years younger than her brother, Wilna, and 2 years older than her sister, Marion (“Mary”). The family lived in a large brick home located at #2 Broadway, near Union Street, and not far from the Canal. Four years before Helen was born, the Erie Canal, which would figure large in her family, had opened up. The population and economy of Rochester were greatly impacted with the opening of the canal. About the time Helen was born there were over 9,000 citizens. But, by the time Helen was a young lady the population swelled to about 34,000.

Erie Canal in Rochester - view of the first aqueduct from the west, 1835.

Erie Canal in Rochester – view of the first aqueduct from the west, 1835.

Sluman capitalized on the opening of the Erie Canal, becoming a boat contractor and agent. He prospered in his profession and took a role in community affairs. When the city of Rochester was incorporated in 1834, Sluman and 4 others were named the first constables of the growing town. In those days, constables weren’t policemen; they were hired to collect taxes from homeowners within the city ward assigned them. The taxes collected were used to pay the cost of keeping streets lit at night to prevent crime.

1835 – Rochester Old Center Market and Police Headquarters

While in Rochester, Sluman provided a comfortable living for his family. When his only son, WIlna, reached the age of 12, Sluman commissioned an oil portrait be done of him. The children were often carried to school via horse-drawn carriage. Presumably, this same affluence financed a musical education for Helen, for she was to become a noted songstress in her time.

In the spring of 1846, Sluman moved his family to Buffalo, New York. Helen was age 17 at the time and we don’t know whether she went with the family to Buffalo. The next recorded event in Helen’s life is her marriage on October 25, 1849. As yet, I have not found how Helen came to meet her husband, Lafayette Lancaster Deming (aka L. L. Deming) or where they married. At the time of their marriage, Helen was 20 years old and Lafayette (“L. L.”) was 22. The groom had been born and raised in Great Barrington, MA, the son of Elizur & Electa Deming.

The early marriage of L. L. and Helen Deming is somewhat puzzling. Apparently they resided in Boston, but in the fall of 1850/51, Helen relocated to Hudson, NY, which is but 27 miles from Great Barrington. It isn’t clear whether L. L. was with her.

The Hudson Daily Star,  September 12, 1851

The Hudson Daily Star, September 12, 1851

The Badgley Hotel was a rather posh establishment, described in this snippet from a publication from the same period.

From The Rural Repository Volumes 26-27, June 1850.

From The Rural Repository Volumes 26-27, June 1850.

A few years later, she moved from the hotel to what appears a boarding house.

The Hudson Daily Star, November 4, 1853

The Hudson Daily Star, November 4, 1853

It is curious that she appears to be living alone and supporting herself. The whereabouts of her husband is unknown. It may be that during this period, Helen was still undergoing music and voice instruction, for in the spring of 1854 she made her stage debut at the Niblo’s Garden, then one of New York City’s popular theaters. The Spanish Concert was headlined by prima donna, Madame Catterina de Ferrari, with Helen and others offering supporting performances. A review of the concert states of Helen’s performance that she “agreeably seconded Mad. Ferrari and reaped a harvest of bouquets and applause.”

The following year, L. L. and Helen relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. L. L. Deming’s parents and siblings had moved from Great Barrington to Cleveland by 1850. (The Deming family identified living in Cleveland, 1850 U. S. Census.) Cleveland became Helen’s home for the remainder of her life.

During the years leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, Helen gave many concerts in the east and the midwest, mostly in Ohio and New York State. Below is a typical concert review:

Sandusky Daily Commercial Register, December 27, 1856

Sandusky Daily Commercial Register, December 27, 1856

During this same time, Helen was writing and publishing both music and poetry. Some of her music is preserved at The Library of Congress and in various university music collections. Her poetry was published widely in newspapers, but apparently never collected in a single volume. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Cleveland Plain Dealer Mazourka, 1857

Cleveland Plain Dealer Mazourka, 1857

"Sonnet to ___ " Published in the Sandusky Daily Commercial Register,  July 8, 1858

“Sonnet to ___ ” Published in the Sandusky Daily Commercial Register, July 8, 1858

The War Between the States broke out in April of 1861. In February and March, Helen was on concert tour in Wisconsin (Madison and Kenosha) and Illinois (Chicago and surrounds). In September, L. L. Deming was in Jackson County, Michigan, as the 10th Regiment Michigan Infantry Volunteers was forming and got himself commissioned captain of Company G. The regiment organized in Flint, MI, in February 1862 and left the state in April. A leaving ceremony was held with many of the citizens of Flint in attendance. Col. Charles M. Lum was presented with a flag, the soldiers drilled on parade, speeches were made, national and patriotic songs were song. For the event, Helen composed and sung the following poignant song for those gathered:

The Farewell Song

The Farewell Song. History of the formation, movements, camps, scouts and battles of the Tenth Regiment Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Internet Archive.

The regiment was ordered to Corinth, and was first in action at Farmington. Helen followed her husband on the campaign, offering her services as a “daughter of the regiment.” A brilliant tribute to her war time service to the troops was published in a St. Louis newspaper and picked up by other papers far and wide, including the New York newspapers.

St Louis Democrat, September 12, 1862

St Louis Democrat, September 12, 1862

After the evacuation of Corinth, Capt. Deming resigned his commission. He was given an honorable discharge on Sep. 3, 1862. Sources differ as to why; one source states he departed due to failing health, while another source claims he left due to illness in his family. It is true that Helen had a broken arm on the occasion of performing a Cleveland concert on early October, 1862.

After his discharge, Capt. Deming sent off a letter to President Lincoln requesting a position as assistant quartermaster. Failing to gain that post, he assumed the role of war correspondent. His reports got him into some trouble, though, for criticizing the war effort.

The Louisville Daily Journal, Jan. 29, 1863

The Louisville Daily Journal, Jan. 29, 1863

Throughout the war, Helen continued to give concerts, mostly with a patriotic theme. The following photo of Helen, published in a family history, appears from the style of dress to date during the war years.

After the war, L. L. returned to his wife in Cleveland. He seems to have struggled to settle on a career, for Cleveland city directories list his occupation from 1865 through 1869 as clerk, agent and salesman. Meanwhile, Helen appeared less on stage and focused on her poetry.

In 1867, Helen performed with other artists at a concert in support of the Irish Cause.

The Daily Cleveland Herald,  Mar. 30, 1867

The Daily Cleveland Herald, Mar. 30, 1867

In late January, 1871, Helen was invited by the St. Andrews Society in New Orleans to participate in a Robert Burns birthday celebration. Of her performance is was said: “A highly appreciated feature of the entertainment were some of Burns’ sweet songs, sweetly sung by Mrs. L. L. Deming.” (The Times Picayune, New Orleans, 26 January, 1871).

A short time later, Helen’s health began to fail. Following a two-year illness, she died on Aug. 12, 1874,  at the home of her in-laws, Lieut. Albert Gray Jones and his wife Mary Elizabeth Deming Jones. She was only 44 years old. She was laid to rest at the East Cleveland Cemetery.

Headstone for Helen Amanda Deming (1829-1874), East Cleveland Cemetery

Headstone for Helen Amanda Deming (1829-1874), East Cleveland Cemetery

An obituary for Helen provides a beautiful tribute to this amazing woman:

Helen was among the most companionable of her sex. Her suffering was protracted, amidst which her solicitude was unceasing for those who watched with her for the end of earthly sorrow and the beginning of immortal joy. (The Daily Independence, Aug. 20, 1874)

There is so much more of Helen’s life, and the rather sketchy life of her husband, yet to be shared. I have gathered many of her published poems and will publish them on this blog in the future.

In tribute, may the angels above sing back to Helen the song she composed for a friend in 1854, Mary in Heaven:

There lived on the banks of a smooth flowing river,
A maiden whose soul was a fountain of love.
As gushing and pure as ever sprang from its giver,
To mirror on Earth His own brightness above.

As sweet as the gleaming of starlight that’s streaming,
From orbs all unclouded in Heaven’s deep blue,
Was the light of her eye in its innocence beaming,
When friends were around her whose fondness she knew.

Twas thus in an hour of joy that I met her,
And fondly I hoped it was never to part.
For well did I know I could never forget her,
And deeply her name was engraved on my heart.

As a young vine that clingeth, a sweet bird that singeth,
Were the trust and the gladness her fondness betrayed.
Oh, the love from a bosom so guileless that springeth,
Is dear unto hearts where an anguish has preyed.

We parted, I deemed not parted forever.
Ah! no, to that cherished one would I return.
But ties that are strongest on earth may dissever,
And hearts that are fondest be soonest to mourn.

Again by the water all hoping I sought her,
Alas, it was only to weep o’er her grave.
To the dust had returned earth’s most beautiful daughter,
And her spirit was gone to the Spirit that gave.

Mary in Heaven

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2 Responses to Songstress, composer, poetess and “Spartan Woman” : Helen A. Harris

  1. Jessica (indytricoter on ravelry) says:

    This is a splendid tribute! I will certainly never forget her! What a story! and what I life! I look forward to reading more about her as you get through all you have found…

  2. pen4hire says:

    I can certainly see why you got intrigued by Helen. Sounds like a very spirited woman!

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