By Alison Roth

Times Herald Staff Writer

“She was a woman with a mind of her own,” is the characteristic most descriptive of famous women in Allegany County, Helen Phelan told Allegany County Democratic Women Monday.

Mrs. Phelan, an Almond resident and writer of local history, told her audience that the women county residents are most familiar with in local history are outstanding because of their strength of personality.

She said coming up with a list of famous and infamous women was difficult since what made women “infamous in the 1850s is kind of common these days.”

Women have become situated in the pages of county history for a variety of reasons ranging from the notoriety gained by a murderess to women who cavorted with political figures and heroines who were “firsts” in their field.


Among the more famous, rather than infamous, local women, was a woman of strong character, Angelica Church, for whom the town of Angelica was named, Mrs. Phelan said. 


Strong-willed Angelica eloped with an Englishman with an assumed name, only to find out two years later his true name was John Barker Church.  “She was a real jet-set person in her day,” Mrs. Phelan noted, adding the township’s namesake was involved in a life-long affair (“and made no bones about it”) with her sister’s husband, Alexander Hamilton, and she was “much admired” by Thomas Jefferson.   To this day, Mrs. Phelan said, she “pops up” frequently in the biographies of Hamilton.


“Although Angelica has the fame,” Mrs. Phelan continued, “we really can’t claim her in Allegany County” since she visited the town named for her only two or three times.


Angelica’s daughter-in-law, Anna Matilda Church, Mrs. Phelan described as “a completely different character” who seemed not to have been interested” in the social activities her mother-in-law engaged in.  “She was a very righteous woman, but not too exciting,” she continued.

While Anna’s husband was away in England, she attended an Indian holiday celebration which “made a great difference in the attitudes of the Indians” who felt some of their customs were accepted by the white woman.

Mrs. Phelan also discussed Abigail Maxon Allen, a painter and the wife of Jonathon Allen, an early president of Alfred University.Even though women did not have the right to vote at that time, Mrs. Phelan said Abigail “decided she would vote anyway.”  After gathering a group of women at the polls, Mrs. Phelan said, “they were promptly arrested” and Abigail was given a choice of paying a fine or spending a night in jail.  “She decided she would spend a night in jail,” Mrs. Phelan concluded.

She is referred to in Seventh Day Baptist texts as “the sainted Mrs. Allen” Mrs. Phelan observed, “probably because she had to live with him.”  She said Mr. Allen was reputed to have “no common sense,” particularly in the area of finance—he pledged funds beyond his means to the university.  “She influenced the women of Alfred to take a very definite stand on women’s rights,” Mrs. Phelan noted.

Mrs. Phelan’s favorite female historical figure was Mrs. Ella Rumpff, the first female in Allegany County to run a newspaper—“Angelica Every Week”.  The paper was published from 1885-1901.

Mrs. Rumppf had certain thoughts about what was proper when she wrote “Leonard Smith was visiting his ‘cousin’ this weekend.”  And, Mrs. Phelan, observed , her character descriptions lost some objectivity, such as when Mrs. Rumppf wrote of “the quaint Sylvester Hines, the bard of Baker Valley….”

Mary Karr Jackson, and Almond resident whose husband was a lawyer, was the first woman lawyer and judge in the Hornell-Almond area.  Mary took a case (known as the Bum’s Law) “regarded as a joke by other lawyers” at the time, Mrs. Phelan observed, because it made it mandatory for anyone convicted of four crimes to be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mrs. Phelan said Mary took the law to numerous courts before it was finally repealed.

“Some said she was a much better judge and a much better lawyer than her husband,” Mrs. Phelan added, “although she was described as a very retiring person who didn’t reveal herself to too many.”  Her strength of character manifested itself in the courtroom.

Hazel Steward, another long time Almond resident, was the first public health nurse in the area, as well as the first rural school nurse in the county in 1917.   She eventually became the state supervisor of county health nurses and was the first county tuberculosis nurse.

Although it is “the mild mannered people” who are “easier to forget,” Mrs. Phelan observed, “I think Allegany county owes a special debt to those women, known and unknown, who worked in study groups….because there were no other places where they could exercise their intellect.”  Those groups, who started out studying a variety of topics, eventually became the numerous women’s clubs which formed in the county.  These days, Mrs. Phelan added, women are no longer asked to deliver papers at these meetings, instead, they invite guest speakers to their meetings.   But the original organizations were important since “a lot of these women were responsible for the libraries formed in their villages.”

“The patterns of people’s lives made these groups change, and they may eventually disappear,” Mrs. Phelan concluded, “but they meant a great deal  (historically) to their villages.”