The Mystery of the Remarkable and Audacious Dr. Mrs. Rachel C, Martin: A Women’s Suffrage Juggernaut

In 1876 the “Albany Evening Journal” newspaper ran an ad for Dr. Rachel C. Martin advertising the availability of garments for “Under Dress Reform” and electro – thermo treatments. At that time there were only three female physicians in Albany, and they all treated only women and children in the most traditional ways. Dr. Martin’s path (and her advertisement of services) seemed more than just a bit unconventional, We needed to know more about her. She was clearly a woman ahead of her time.

Rachel was born in 1819, daughter of John Cutler, a watchmaker and son of a Revolutionary War soldier, and Magadelena Goewey from an old Albany area Dutch family. She was one of four children who survived to adulthood. It seems to have been the most ordinary of families. In 1848, when Rachel was about 28, she married Joseph Martin and moved to Philadelphia. At this point her father had passed away, her sister Ann was married and her mother was living with Ann. There’s scant information about her life in Philadelphia. Her husband was listed as a sewing machine maker in that City’s 1860 directory.

In 1861 we found Rachel had left Philadelphia and about age 41ish, enrolled in the Albany State Normal School to become a teacher, one of the few jobs available to women. At that time only single or widowed women were permitted to teach. Rachel was neither.

Her husband died a year later in Philadelphia in 1862. His death notice mentions he was the son-in-law of John Cutler; Rachel isn’t mentioned. This was the same year Rachel’s mother Magdalena is died; there is no mention of Rachel in that death notice either. Something had caused a schism between Rachel and her family.

Next, we found Rachel listed as a teacher in Albany directories. In the middle 1860s she had a “select school” at 696 Broadway. Starting in 1866 we found newspaper ads for Rachel Martin’s dance classes, conducted by a variety of dancing “professors” at both the 696 Broadway (a/k/a Kinter Garden Hall) and a State St. location. In 1869 she was operating both a school in that location AND a Turkish Bath!

Rachel Martin was clearly determined to make her own way in a world where women were expected to depend on men – fathers, husbands or brothers.

In 1869 and 1870 Rachel was lecturing in Albany on “Social and Domestic Reform” and “What Woman has done and can do to establish herself” (in the Assembly Chamber of the NYS Capitol) and in surrounding counties on the issue of women’s suffrage. She was a one woman juggernaut for equal rights. In July 1870 she took the stage with Susan B. Anthony in Saratoga Springs at a woman’s suffrage convention in Congress Hall. The issue at hand was the enactment of federal legislation providing voting rights for Black men while excluding all women. In May 1870 she was again standing with Susan B, Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Apollo Hall in New York City at the Union Suffrage Convention. (Unlike Anthony and Stanton Rachel had no family supports or husband – Rachel was an anomaly.)

(In the 1870 census Rachel is identified living in Albany with an Albert Cutler, age 21, born in New York State. Another mystery. Is Albert her son? A nephew? Why the Cutler surname? In any event Albert disappears from the records never to be seen again.)

And now another plot twist. In 1871 when Rachel was in her early 50s she enrolled in the newly established New York Free Medical College for Women. (It’s clear from NYS records and newspaper reports that she played a key role in securing State legislative approval for the College.)

Who saw this coming? We did a little digging and found a possible answer. In the late 1860s and 1870 Rachel’s establishment at 696 Broadway was next door to that of Dr. Emma Burleigh* who at the time appears to have been the only female physician in Albany. It’s quite likely that Dr. Burleigh influenced Rachel’s decision to attend medical college.

In 1873 Rachel graduated from Medical College and became Dr. Martin (or “Mrs. Dr. Martin” or “Dr. Mrs. Martin” – it’s clear the world was grappling with what to call married female physicians). But rather than practice medicine she appears to have spent the next year living in Brooklyn and lecturing throughout that borough and Manhattan on behalf of the temperance and women’s suffragist movements.

By 1876 she returned to Albany and opened her own practice, specializing in women’s health issues, including undergarment reform. Dress reform was a hot topic of the time. Many physicians and feminists were trying to persuade women to abandon tightly-laced whale bone or steel-ribbed constricting corsets. (It would take another 40 years and a shortage of steel in World War I to get women to stop wearing corsets.)

An example of 1870s under garment dress reform alternatives

In that year she lectured in Saratoga Springs on the general topic “Reform”. A Saratogian newspaper article notifying the public of the forthcoming lecture said, “The Doctor is highly spoken of by the press as a clear thinker and a good speaker”. And yet in April 1880, when Rachel became a founding member of the Albany Women’s Suffrage Society, the press singled her out and savaged her. The Argus didn’t bother referring to her as “Dr.” or even “Mrs. – massive shade for the time. At the first meeting of the Society the Argus reporter didn’t share the sentiments of the Saratogian. He refers to her “wanting in propriety” and “lack of perception”. Oh boy! She seems to have ruffled some feathers.

In the 1880s Rachel divided her time between Saratoga Springs (probably in the “Season”) and Albany, Although in 1880 she’s the second physician to register with the town of Saratoga Springs, in 1885 the town board of Saratoga Springs appointed Dr. Martin as the town nurse, rather than as a physician. (Sigh.)

Finally, about 1891 she returned to Albany and entered the Home for the Friendless (a/k/a The Guardian Society) on Clinton Ave. It was large well-appointed retirement building for older, single Protestant ladies with some funds, but without family. (In the terminology of our day, it was a continuing care community – residents turned the bulk of their assets over to the Home in exchange for a promise to be well-cared for to the end of their days.)

But there’s life left in Rachel. In her last public act in 1894 she wrote a letter to the editor of “Argus” in which she called out prominent Albany attorney Matthew Hale who had just given a major address railing against votes for women to a large anti-suffrage group. In the letter she said “.. if he (Mathew Hale) would track up the bad men as sharp as the bad women politics would not need the women as they do now.” (Smackdown.)Dr. Martin died in 1901. She’s buried in Albany Rural Cemetery Section 89 Lot 32.

But Rachel left one last mystery. Her gravestone also carries the name of James Whelply, who died in 1875. It’s a joint headstone. It took a while to sort this out, with the help of Paula Lemire, Historian at the Cemetery and Lorie Wies, Local History Librarian, Saratoga Springs Public Library.

Rachel was named in Whelply’s will and inherited money. The cemetery plot was provided for Whelply and Rachel in 1875 by the daughter of Whelply’s best friend. James Whelply was a number of years older than Rachel, an attorney who grew up in Albany who never married. You can draw your own conclusions about their relationship, but we think that at some point they were devoted lovers, which is why they share a plot and headstone.

This is the last surprise in a surprising life of a woman who marched to the beat of her own drum.

*Dr. Emma Burleigh would become a woman of great notoriety. She was born outside Utica, married young, was abandoned by her husband in England who kidnapped her children, who she never saw again. In the 1850s she graduated from a female medical college in Philadelphia. She acted as an agent for a NYC publisher who sent her to Albany to lobby the Legislature to adopt his textbooks and charts for statewide use. It appears she was quite a favorite with NYS legislators. She had a torrid affair with Benjamin Sickles, who would become well-known Civil War general and who was also notorious for killing his wife’s lover, the son of Francis Scott Key. He was not convicted, having invoked what would become known as the “insanity defense”. Emma had several children by a former classmate from her home town while living in Albany. By 1871 Dr. Burleigh was lived on Howard St. between Lodge and Eagle. In 1872 she was accused of being an abortionist (no criminal charges were brought.) In the same year her lover turned she and her children out of the Howard St. house he owned. She traveled to Utica, followed him onto a horse car, pulled a gun and attempted to shoot him. Sadly, she killed his companion. She was tried and found not guilty. She returned briefly to Albany. She lived the last years of her life, surrounded by her children, on the Jersey Shore.

Julie O’Connor

Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor

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