Birds of a Feather at 400 Beacon Street

By
  • William O. Bisbee
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William R. Rathvon’s personal copy of an ornithology guide. Longyear Museum collection.

Downy Woodpecker. Scarlet Tanager. Long-billed Marsh Wren. What do these birds have in common? Along with dozens of their feathered kin, they all made it onto a list of bird species spotted at Mary Baker Eddy’s Chestnut Hill home in 1909.

Discovered tucked inside William R. Rathvon’s copy of Our Common Birds and How to Know Them by John Beveridge Grant,1 this typewritten list not only offers a glimpse into Mr. Rathvon’s own personal interests, but also into daily life at 400 Beacon Street, where he lived from November 1908 until the time of Mrs. Eddy’s passing in December 1910.

William R. Rathvon. Longyear Museum collection.

Born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,2 William Rathvon went West as a young man. He eventually ended up in Colorado, where he became a successful businessman, with most of his wealth in silver mines. Wiped out financially in the “Panic of 1893,” he found Christian Science while visiting Chicago, and it was there that he and his wife Ella took primary class instruction from Mary W. Adams, a student of Mrs. Eddy’s. Afterwards, the Rathvons returned to Colorado, where they did pioneering work in Christian Science. Mr. Rathvon also continued his business endeavors for a time, and became successful in the oil industry.

The Rathvons’ education in Christian Science continued in 1903, when they were invited to attend a Primary class taught in Boston by Edward Kimball under the auspices of the Christian Science Board of Education,3 and then in December 1907, Mr. Rathvon was invited to go through Normal class with Judge Septimus J. Hanna.4

Returning again to Colorado, Rathvon was called back to Boston in November 1908. This time, however, he went to the village of Chestnut Hill, to serve as corresponding secretary at Mrs. Eddy’s home on 400 Beacon Street. Mrs. Eddy received copious amounts of mail and telegrams from well-wishers in the field, including those asking for healing, reporters seeking interviews, and the like, all of which needed to be dealt with. While she had multiple secretaries lending a hand, her correspondence was Rathvon’s primary responsibility.5

This typewritten checklist of birds was found tucked inside Rathvon’s copy of “Our Common Birds.” Longyear Museum collection.

Rathvon may have become interested in birds well before living in Chestnut Hill. His copy of Our Common Birds and How to Know Them was published in 1891, and bears a stamp on the inside cover with the date May 15, 1897. The slim volume includes tips on where and when to go birding, an example of a bird-watching journal, 64 black-and-white photographs, and a short section on the scientific aspects of ornithology. The typewritten list found folded inside has checkmarks and a few handwritten dates beside each bird that Mr. Rathvon spotted.

Given the scope of his responsibilities, it’s unlikely that Rathvon had much opportunity for bird-watching, but of the 60 birds on the typewritten list, he managed to check off 31 that year, including such “Permanent Residents” as Blue Jays, Flickers, and English Sparrows, along with a host of “Summer Boarders,” from Robins and Bluebirds to Goldfinches and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.  

Rathvon may have been aided in his birdwatching quest by this birdhouse sitting atop a pole behind Mrs. Eddy’s home, likely visible from his bedroom. Longyear Museum collection.

Rathvon may not have been the only birding enthusiast in Mrs. Eddy’s household—one worker kept a pocket diary listing 90 different species of birds in 1910.6 And while the staff needed to be prepared at any time to respond to a call from the Leader of the Christian Science movement, there were moments of leisure, particularly in the early morning before Mrs. Eddy entered her study, and in the afternoon when she went on her daily carriage rides. Her staff lived “normal and happy” lives, according to one member of her household,7 enjoying the occasional bicycle ride (all of the secretaries owned bicycles), as well as such hobbies as amateur photography and astronomy.8

The Chestnut Hill neighborhood has transformed since Rathvon was recording birds in 1909, and some of the species listed have probably left never to return, but Mrs. Eddy’s home at 400 Beacon Street, which is situated on eight wooded acres,9 is still a haven for many feathered visitors. In the month of June 2015 alone, a Longyear staffer saw wild turkeys fly up to roost in trees in the front yard, witnessed a young hawk perched at eye level outside Mrs. Eddy’s study, and spotted many smaller birds that could have used William Rathvon’s help—or that of his copy of Our Common Birds—in identifying.

Notes


  1. John Beveridge Grant, Our Common Birds and How to Know Them (Boston, Mass.: Scribner and Sons, 1891).
  2. On November 19, 1863, William Rathvon witnessed Abraham Lincoln give the Gettysburg Address. Rathvon recorded his memory of the event in 1938, and is the only known witness out of an estimated ten thousand who were in attendance that day to leave an audio recording of what the experience was like for him. A CD of Rathvon’s recorded remarks is available in the Longyear Museum Store.
  3. In the early years of the Christian Science movement, it wasn’t unusual for people to take Primary class instruction more than once.
  4. William Rathvon, “Reminiscences,” 26-27. The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, Massachusetts.
  5. Ibid, 146. After Mrs. Eddy’s passing, Rathvon joined the Board of Lectureship and delivered lectures throughout the world. In 1918, he was appointed Treasurer of The Mother Church, and then four months later he was appointed to the Board of Directors. Rathvon served on the Board for 21 years, until his passing in 1939. See Yvonne Cache von Fettweis and Robert Townsend Warneck, Mary Baker Eddy: Christian Healer, Amplified Edition (Boston, Mass.: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1998), 496. Another lasting contribution Rathvon made to the field was “The Devil’s Auction,” a brief but inspiring statement on discouragement that he wrote in 1911, and which has since been widely reprinted (see Longyear Museum Quarterly News, Winter 1977-78, v14, n4, 222). It’s also available in the Longyear Museum Store.
  6. Irving Tomlinson, Twelve Years with Mary Baker Eddy, Amplified Edition (Boston, Mass.: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1994), 267. It’s unclear whether Tomlinson is referring to Rathvon, or another bird-watching staff member. Tomlinson also notes that some members of the household took an interest in flora as well as fauna, with one individual identifying 140 varieties of wildflowers within a 10-minute walk of Mrs. Eddy’s Chestnut Hill home.
  7. Ibid, 267.
  8. Ibid, 267. In her reminiscence, Adelaide Still recalls: “At one time we took up the study of astronomy and used to go on the roof at night to find the constellations. Mr. [Adam] Dickey told Mrs. Eddy about Halley’s Comet when the papers were talking about it, and she instructed him to get a telescope so that we might look for it.” We Knew Mary Baker Eddy, Expanded Edition Vol. 2 (Boston, Mass.: The Christian Science Publishing Society), 495.
  9. The property covered 12 acres during Mary Baker Eddy’s lifetime.

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