A Different Booth: William Henry Seward corresponds with Mary L. Booth

William Henry Seward (1801-1872). PR 52, Portrait File

This post was written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for General Collections.

Where we start is not necessarily where we end. This statement is quite true of my research into William Henry Seward, prominent political figure and Secretary of State for Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. What started as an inquiry into his public life, including speeches and correspondence, morphed into an investigation of a 19th century female intellectual. While flipping through the manuscript card catalog last week, I happened upon an entry for a letter from Seward to a Miss Mary L. Booth. Dated a little over a year after the April 14, 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and attempted assassination of Seward the same evening, the immediate assumption was that the letter and recipient were related to the John Wilkes Booth. The truth was much more interesting to uncover.

Seward to Mary L. Booth, September 25, 1866. AHMC, Seward.

Turning to the letter itself, it is dated September 25, 1866, addressed to Miss Mary L. Booth, 79 Madison Avenue, New York, and written in elegant penmanship on official Department of State letterhead. The letter appears to relate to a request by Miss Booth for “executive official patronage”, which Seward explains he must refuse for the power to bestow such patronage belongs to the President and not the Secretary of State.  Seward intimates that even his response and explanation to her in this letter is beyond official protocol, but that he makes such a departure “because ladies are in one sense to be regarded as eccentric forces in our political system.” Seward concludes his letter by acknowledging and praising Booth’s service, loyalty, and patriotism during the Civil War. So, who exactly was Mary L. Booth, and why was she seeking executive official patronage?

“The departure is made because ladies are in one sense to be regarded as eccentric forces in our political system.” Seward to Booth, September 25, 1866. AHMC, Seward.


Delving into Miss Booth’s life revealed a highly educated and renowned woman who came to prominence in the mid-19th century as a historian, translator, and founding editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Born in 1831, Booth taught at her father’s school in Williamsburg, New York before focusing on writing and translating. Throughout the 1850s, she contributed sketches and stories to various publications and translated numerous contemporary and classic French works into English. During the Civil War she continued her translation work, primarily of contemporary French works about the American conflict, most notably Agenor Gasparin’s Uprising of a Great People in 1861.

Title page of Booth’s History of the City of New York, 1859 edition.

Perhaps Booth’s greatest achievement was her 1859 History of the City of New York, the first comprehensive study of the city in the 19th century. A response to “New Englanders’ denigration of New Yorkers as crassly commercial,” one of Booth’s arguments throughout the history was that pluralistic New York embodied the nation’s history, better than provincial New England. [1]  Extensively researched, Booth eventually enlarged and revised the work in 2 subsequent editions in 1867 and 1880. The New-York Historical Society Library holds copies of all these editions, which interested researchers are welcome to peruse.

Just what patronage Miss Booth was requesting of Mr. Seward and the United States government, and why, still remains unclear. Perhaps it had something to do with her revision the following year of History of the City of New York. Or, maybe she required assistance for a new translation project. Regardless, further digging is needed to uncover this piece of the puzzle. But, oh what a lot you can learn from one piece of 19th century correspondence stumbled upon in the library!

[1] Burrows, Edwin G. and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 696-697.


  1. says

    Dear Ms. Maryanski,
    I just came across your post about Mary L. Booth on Facebook and felt compelled to write to you. I am a trustee of the Yaphank Historical Society on Long Island, and we have just restored her birthplace and opened it as a museum. We have copies of her correspondence from the New- York Historical Society as well as those from The New York Public Library on exhibition. It was our understanding that MLB was requesting patronage for her brother Charles who was a Union Army Colonel in the Civil War and she was interested in acquiring a diplomatic post in Japan for him. There is also a letter from Abraham Lincoln that should be in your collection thanking her for her efforts in the Civil War and abolitionist cause.
    We have just published a small book on the history of Yaphank for Arcadia, devoting a chapter to MLB, and she is featured in another new book called Women of Long Island’s Past. I have been working on a biography on her for several years, and continue to unearth many exciting discoveries about her life, including your interest in her in your blog! Would be happy to share our research on Mary L Booth if you are interested. I can be reached at tricia@triciafoley.com. I look forward to hearing from you. Best regards, Tricia Foley

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