Monday, November 3, 2014

The Volapükian Daughter of the Father of Prohibition

I wanted a picture of her. I got this.
It’s a tiny item in a collection of short pieces on women in the November 3, 1891 Wichita Daily Eagle, under the heading “Feminine Fancies.” The second fancy is about Volapükian, one Louise Dow Benton. A quick search on the Internet assured me that my Volapükian readers[1] would likely know who she was. Out of the first ten Google results for “Louise Dow Benton,” three deal with Volapük as well.

Not only did Ms. Benton’s name not ring a bell for me, neither did that of her father, General Neal Dow. Here, at least, Wikipedia came to the rescue. General Dow had enlisted in the Union Army, starting with the rank of colonel, but rose to brigadier general. Given as he was both an abolitionist and prohibitionist, we can assume that he didn’t get one of those barrels of “what Grant was drinking” that Lincoln joked about sending to his other generals.[2] The entry notes that some called Dow “the father of prohibition,” since due to his efforts, Maine became a dry state. But while Wikipedia talks about all that and more (not about the barrels though), there’s scant reference to his family life. Wikipedia does not that Neal Dow was married to Maria Cornelia Durant Maynard Dow, but gives no other details. You wouldn’t know from the Wikipedia page if they had any children. Clearly, at least one.

You could read the item in the Wichita Daily Eagle as suggesting that General Dow had more than one daughter, and you’d be right.
A daughter of General Neal Dow, Mrs. Louise Dow Benton, is so accomplished in volapuk that she translates works into that language for publication.
“A daughter,” not “the daughter.” I like making brief biographies of forgotten people, and Mrs. Benton fits the bill. Her parents had at least eight children, of which Louise was the eldest. She had two sisters, Emma and Maria, and five brothers, Edward, Henry, Josiah, Frank, and Russell. (There could be more children who died in infancy for which I just haven’t found the records, though not looking hard enough or because the records are not to be found.) Two of her brothers, Josiah and Russell, died in infancy. Louise was born on 23 March, 1831.

In 1860 (prior to her father going off to fight in the Civil War), Louise married one Jacob Benton. Mr. Benton was a lawyer and the couple moved to New Hampshire, where in 1880, she has two servants. Jacob Benton was significantly older than his wife. She was born in 1831, but he was born in 1815. She was 29 when they married, and he was 45. Despite this age difference, they only died three years apart, he in 1892, and she in 1895. The couple had no children.

In between all that, Jacob Benton became a member of Congress. According to Wikipedia (which gets his wife’s name wrong), he was a member of Congress for New Hampshire from 1867 to 1871. Wikipedia names his wife “Louise Dwight,” but the 1912 Part Taken by Women in American History, by Mrs. John A. Logan, gives all that I’ve found in other sources, and adds that
She became a confirmed invalid from rheumatism, being unable to walk, and lost almost the entire use of her hands, but possesses such fortitude and courage that even this did not prevent her from study, and she learned to read Italian, Spanish, German, Greek, and Russian without any instruction. Then she took up Volapük, and is well-known as a Volapük scholar.
Given that, and two servants to help around the house, Louise had plenty of time to be translating works into Volapük. However, WorldCat lists no works under her name. The Arena of December 1891 attributes Black Beauty to her; this must be a translation of Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel about a horse. There are samples of Mrs. Benton’s work in the May 1889, and March and September 1890 Volapük, which I am not going to include here for two reasons: 1) I hate typing umlauts; 2) I’m aware the language has shifted.

It took some research to figure out what the date was on the publication. One is headlined “1889, LULUL,” and the others “1890, KILUL” and “1890, ZÜLUL.” A Wiktionary page on the months in Volapük gives the following: yanul, febul, mäzul, prilul, mayul, yunul, yulul, gustul, setul, tobul, novul, dekul. And then gives a second list (which I am assuming to be unreformed Volapük): balul, telul, kilul, folul, lulul, mälul, velul, jölul, zülul, degul, degbalul, degtelul. I don’t know if current Volapükians can read what Mrs. Benton wrote in 1890, and I know I would have no fun typing it up.

A list of acquisitions of the New York Public Library does include a leaflet translated by L. D. Benton, No. 5 in the series Beale’s Volapük leaflets. It seems to be titled Ninovag Luray. Despite that she was the wife of a Congressman and brigadier general (just like her father) of the Union Army, the Library of Congress does not have anything by her.

She died on 7 December, 1895 of septic peritonitis, a disease of bacterial growth in the abdominal cavity. She was sixty-four years old.

When I started writing this, I decided on the title I’ve used at the top. However, this also could have been titled “The Congressman’s Wife Who Spoke Volapük.”

  1. For those of you who do not speak Volapük, yes I do have Volapükian readers. So there.  ↩
  2. The story goes that someone complained to Lincoln that Grant drank and Lincoln said that he wanted to know what Grant was drinking so he could send a barrel of it to each of his generals.  ↩

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