A daughter of the Puritans led two lives. One, a happy ordinary life of a New England girl filled with school, friends, play, chores and family; the second, an inner life of secret terror.
So Caroline Stickney Creevey wrote of her early life in Rockville, a village of Vernon, Conn. When she was born in 1843, the Puritan theocracy hadn’t completely lost its influence in New England. And the stern, unforgiving teachings of the Puritans cast a shadow over her childhood.
As a little girl, Caroline played minister rather than house. She read a chapter of the Bible every day, sometimes two if she’d sinned the day before. The very word “theatre” was spoken with bated breath, since it stood for the worst wiles of Satan. And the family certainly didn’t celebrate the papist holiday of Christmas.
Her autobiography, A Daughter of the Puritans, shows how her upbringing affected her psyche and inspired behavior that seems bizarre, almost unfathomable, today.
“I led a sort of dual life,” she wrote in her autobiography. “[O]ne full of fun and play, the other dark and mysterious, shadowed by an angry Deity whom my best efforts could not wholly please, and by an “enemy of souls,” whose deceitful wiles could be met only by constant vigilance.
“Satan was a reality in those days.”
Daughter of the Puritans
As an adult, Caroline Stickney Creevey wrote a classic book about botany and a field guide to wildflowers. She mentions neither in her autobiography.
She does mention that her father traced his origins to the Mayflower, and her mother was related to Nathan Hale. Both sides had ancestors who fought in the Revolution.
“Puritan blood flowed, almost undiluted, through my veins,” she wrote.
Her grandfather, David Hale, founded the Broadway Tabernacle, and he helped to bring into existence the churches of Richard Salter Storrs and Henry Ward Beecher.
“I lived two lives, one natural and childlike, the other terrified and unnatural,” she wrote. “I was most serious about securing my soul’s eternal salvation. No nun, relinquishing all that is natural and free in this life, could have worked harder for that end.”
At the age of six, she and her sister disobeyed their mother and fell into the nearby river, nearly drowning. Foundry workers fished them out, but Caroline caught pneumonia and came close to death.
Her uncle came to visit her on her sickbed and called her unregenerate. “Where would you be now, if you had died in your disobedience?” he asked her.
“Without, with dogs and whoremongers,” she replied matter-of-factly.
The Wages of Sin
At the age of seven she pretended to baptize her baby brother. As a true daughter of the Puritans she realized she’d committed the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.
Terrified when she realized what she’d done, she told her mother. Her mother then eased her mind by saying if she told God of her sin He would forgive her.
At nine her baby sister died of cholera, and Caroline felt so much grief she took to her bed. Her mother told her that it was God’s will and a sin to rebel against it. She told her daughter to be perfectly resigned to God’s will.
But if being a daughter of the Puritans had its downside, being a Catholic maid in a Puritan household could be even worse.
In her autobiography, Caroline includes a letter from her mother describing her efforts to convert her Irish-Catholic servants.
“The priest came yesterday and last night the girls went to confession, and after they came back I had a long talk with them on the subject, in which they were completely used up, and I think have had their thoughts set in a new train,” wrote her mother. “I hope it may do them some good. But I am sure nothing but the Spirit of God can fathom and enlighten such ignorance.”
One day, Mrs. Stickney took her maid to the Congregational church with her. The priest ran after them, grabbed the maid by the arm and marched her to his own church. The next morning he gave notice that no one in his parish should live in service with Mrs. Stickney. The maid went to the priest’s house and sent for her clothes. She never returned to the Stickney household, and Mrs. Stickney had to find maids from her own church.
No one worked or played on the Sabbath, never called the heathenish “Sunday.” The Stickney family had hasty pudding and cheese for breakfast before going to church at 10:30. Sunday school followed church, then home for a dinner of cold meat and baked beans. Afternoon brought a second service, then home again.
“We might walk around the house in solemn procession, but on no account run,” wrote Caroline. After supper they had a prayer meeting, perhaps with the missionaries her father often hosted.
In describing a thunderstorm, Caroline sounded very much like Cotton Mather. “This morning we had a most terrible exhibition of the power of God,” she wrote in her journal in 1854. “We have had a thunderstorm the most awfully grand.”
Her parents sent her to high school, where the teacher tried to whip a boy for mocking him. Instead the boys ganged up on the teacher and sent him home bleeding.
“It was an era in which whipping for small offenses, even failures in recitations, was the prevalent mod of punishment,” wrote Caroline. “The master often had to prove his physical superiority by overcoming a mob of boys before he could establish successful discipline.”
Caroline herself went to teach high school in New Britain after attending Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Conn.
One day, to her horror, she discovered one of her students furtively reading a yellow-backed dime novel. Caroline viewed the dime novels as worse than trash; they were positive evil.
Once, her father had found a yellow-backed book. He picked it up by a pair of tongs and dropped it into a fire.
Caroline discovered many of her students read the yellow-backed novels. She demanded they turn them in. They did. Some were blasphemous and some indecent, she wrote. She made the janitor throw them in the fire, and watched to make sure they burned.
The incident made her physically ill, and she took to her bed. Her students repented when she finally returned to the classroom. Soon after, a religious fervor seized many of them.
Daughter of the Puritans
A Daughter of the Puritans ends when Caroline Stickney reaches her early 20s. She fell in love with the high school’s new principal, John Kennedy Creevey. They married and had two children.
Many years later in 1916 she published her autobiography. She made no mention of her accomplishments writing and illustrating botanical books.
What she did mention was her changed attitude toward religion. She had more tolerance for people who worshiped in different ways. “My own experience has taught me not to regard those who differ from me as wrong, while I am right,” she wrote.
But then she concluded, “To be a daughter of the Puritans is a goodly heritage.“
You can read A Daughter of the Puritans for free online here. You can also hike Caroline’s family’s old property in Vernon, now Stickney Hill Park, owned by the Manchester Land Trust. Photo of the Stickney house courtesy Google Maps. This story was updated in 2023.