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In the two branches of families that have descendants of Luther and Mary Briggs, the Smiths and the Wierums, there is an oral history that Mary was "read out of [Friends Meeting]" when she married out of her faith, and as Gertrude "Gig" (Smith) Wister put it, it was "apparently an amicable event, as they all came to the wedding supper aferwards." The New Bedford (Friends) Monthly Women's Meeting minutes contain this on 28 December 1837:

This meeting is informed that Mary Briggs (late Thornton) has married in a manner contrary to our descipline, with one not in membership with us - on which account Ruth S. Davis and Mary Card are appointed to visit her and report to a future meeting.

On 25 January 1838:

The friends appointed to visit Mary Briggs (late Thornton) have made the following report viz. Agreeable to appointment we have visited Mary Briggs on account of her outgoing marriage, but did not find her in a disposition of mind to condemn her deviation. She manifested the desire [not] to be retained a member of our religious society and expressed a decided choice to attend the mettings of another with her husband. Believing further labor from us will be unavailing we submit the case to the monthly meeting. Mary Card, Ruth S. Davis

The Men's Meeting records reveal this:

Which report being considered, is accepted by this meeting, the conclusion whereof is to disown her right of membership with us, men friends uniting therewith and Ruth Baker is appointed to inform her of the judgement of this meeting.

     The New Bedford Mercury reported that Luther and Mary were married by Charles Morgridge, the minister of the First (North) Christian Church. Their wedding supper probably took place at Mary's father's house at 20 Seventh Street, in which she had lived at least since her mid-teens. Luther and Mary lived with her parents in that house for several years. By 1841 they had taken rooms at the former Friends Meeting House across the street. Their landlords were probably an African American couple named Nathan and Polly Johnson, who lived next door. Mary grew up in an anti-slavery atmosphere. Her grandfather Thornton, who died when she was two, was a Friends ("Quaker") minister and teacher and noted for his anti-slavery views. Mary's father and brother Elisha (III), at least, appear to have or did help fugitive slaves. Although she left the Friends faith as an adult in favor of Luther's preference, she was still imbued with it.
     Spotty publication of New Bedford city directories makes it hard to trace where they lived in the 1840s. By 1849 they had moved in with Mary's grandmother Bethia Russell at 13 So. 6th Street.
     Before modern ways of exchanging information, the lives of "average" housewives and mothers generally went unrecorded unless there was a grisley death or crime involved for newspapers to latch on to. There is one mention of Mary I've found in a newspaper. She was one of the "ladies who manage the affairs of the [Mariner's Family] Asylum" according to an article about a charity event on Staten Island.1 It's hard at first to decipher who the ladies were. The list of women from Brooklyn starts with a "Mrs." and continues with a string of male names. We're to infer that these are the wives of the men named, Mary being "L. J. Briggs." Up until well into the 20th century, women were rarely refered to by their own names unless they were getting married or died. The "Board of Counsel" of the Society was, apparently, the actual governing body and were men, including the president, treasurer, etc. "Capt. J. Briggs," a board member, was likely Luther, given Mary's involvement, but there was also an "N. Briggs," secretary. Another much earlier article about an event at the Asylum says it was promoted and organized by women, but a history of it (not included in the article) was given by Nathaniel Briggs. Such is the state of researching women before mass media expanded in the last half of the 1900s.
     In the 1857 diary of one of Luther Brigg's ship passengers, Celia Marsh, she continues the diary after they landed. She visited the Briggs family on "Jerry Lemon" Street in Brooklyn Heights. Mary Briggs is mentioned in a few places. She and her sister "Aunt Beck," also called "Bettie," went to meet Luther at the dock, and Celia found them "most agreeable." After a week's stay elsewhere, they came to the Briggs' house, "Mrs. Briggs and Bettie were anxiously waiting our arrival - had tea - chatted all teh evening - the boys were at the school exhibition - they came in at twelve. Thornton and Luther - very smart boys they are." "Breakfast at nine. Capt. Briggs left at half past eleven for town...after he left went up in Mrs. Briggs room and mended all her stockings for her - she went out for a little while." On July 4th "saw the fireworks in the neighborhood and Capt. Briggs sent up a few. When they were all over, the party went over on the Heights to see the remainder - leaving Mrs. Briggs and I alone - we had a nice quiet time - on their return had ice cream - cake - port wine." "Capt. & Mrs. Briggs, Ellen [Celia's sister] and I went to church to hear Henry Ward Beecher." It probably wasn't a coincidence that Beecher was an anti-slavery advocate, although that particular sermon didn't have an obvious orientation to that. The group, maybe all of them, went to Green-Wood Cemetery, which was a tourist attraction as soon as it was laid out. When they were there there were already many impressive monuments and memorials to see. "We drove to Capt. Briggs lot, saw where his two little ones he's buried - on the stones which stand at the head of their little graves is simply 'Mary and Harry.'" For no obvious reason, the Briggs bought a nearby plot and used that as their family lot, the other sold to another family. There are no stones in the newer Briggs lot for Mary and Harry, and the original lot only has markers for the Gray family. Presumably the children's graves were moved, but the cemetery has no record of it. They died several years before Celia visited. "Mrs. Briggs read me some letters she received from her husband and friends when she was mourning the death of her two little ones."
     Mary's life must have been affected significantly by the fact that her husband was away at sea for most of their married lives. She joined Luther for at least two of his trips from New York to Liverpool and back. She suffered the death of her only daughter when she was in her early teens, followed soon after by her youngest child, Harry. Fortunately she had the comfort of her sister Rebecca ("Aunt Beck") Thornton, who probably moved to Brooklyn with the Briggs and had surely been a companion to Mary since Mary married. Mary became a mother of sorts again in the 1870s when her granddaughters Harriet and Mary came to live with them for a time in Brooklyn Heights. "Gig" Wister said that her mother (Harriet) cherished the memory of her grandmother Briggs. The families of Harriet (Smith) and Mary (Wierum) also recalled Aunt Beck as a surrogate mother. The Thornton sisters died twenty years apart at the family home at 168 Livingston Avenue, Brooklyn, and are buried in the family plot at Green-Wood Cemetery. Mary's death certificate confirms family information that she died of breast cancer. It had been discovered six months earlier.

Mary's gravestone in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn

children of Mary Brown Thornton and Luther Jenney Briggs:

Thornton, b. abt Fall 1843, Brockport, NY, d. 29 September 1898, Boston, MA
Luther Jenney, b. 6 July 1845
Mary B., b. 1852?, d. 26 December 1855, Brooklyn, NY
Henry Russell, b. 18? October 1853, d. 18 January 1856, Brooklyn, NY

vital records sources: Mary's birth is taken from New Bedford vital records. Her death is recorded on her death certificate (Brooklyn 1879 #2486), her gravestone and was reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The attending doctor was William Henry Thayer, who had been her doctor for the last 3 years. Her age at death is given as 65 years, 2 months and 5 days. She was in the city for 26 years and died at 10:00 PM of "carcenoma of mesenteric gland." She was buried on 23 March.

1. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 18 June 1869.

all text and photographs © 1998-2020 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted