More than just a pretty face: Symposium June 10 to tell of Harriet Lane's life
MERCERSBURG >> Women in the 1800s too often heard the word "No." They couldn't own land, couldn't vote, couldn't earn their own money.
But wealthy women had an advantage: They could endow.
With the death of her husband, a Baltimore banker, Harriet Lane Johnston was a wealthy widow. As a former White House hostess for President James Buchanan, she had social and political contacts. And as a mother whose sons both died young, she couldn't help but think about the needs of children.
Upon her death, this Mercersburg native founded both a school and a children's hospital, both of which are still in existence.
More than just a pretty face, Harriet Lane Johnston was a woman who endowed her resources to help those in need and to heighten the appreciation of art. A symposium about her life's work will take place from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. June 10 in the Edwards Room of Keil Hall at Mercersburg Academy, East Seminary Street. Parking will be available on the academy campus.
The program will begin with a presentation by Joan McCulloh, president of Mercersburg Historical Society, who will tell of Harriet's Mercersburg roots.
Four other speakers will add to the picture. They are:
• Jane Rissler, curator of Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town, West Virginia. She will discuss the West Virginia family from which Harriet was descended and will have on display 60 to 70 objects of the Lane family.
• Jennifer Walton, museum associate of Lancaster County Historical Society's Wheatland, the home which Harriet inherited from her uncle, President Buchanan. She will offer insight into Harriet's years as White House hostess. Walton is an authority on Harriet Lane, said McCulloh.
• Mark Wilkerson, archivist for St. Albans School, Washington, D.C. He will talk about the legacy Harriet established in memory of her two sons.
• Douglas Smith, Mercersburg Academy archivist, will tell about her final visit to Mercersburg in 1901, two years before her death.
Harriet's visit that year was for an unveiling ceremony for a portrait James Buchanan, which still hangs in the Edwards Room where the ceremony took place. Harriet had commissioned the portrait by American artist William Merritt Chase.
Following her husband's death, Harriet moved back to Washington, McCulloh told Public Opinion. Having acquired a fine collection of art, she was interested in establishing a national gallery for the public to enjoy.
"In her will she gave her paintings — a collection of 30-some works of art — to the nation. She didn't know at the time that the Smithsonian Institution already was planning a national gallery for American art."
Harriet's will also established the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children in Baltimore. "She specified that it would help all children, no matter what race, creed or ability to pay," she said.
That center is now Johns Hopkins Children's Center, said McCulloh. Since 1953 or '54, the "Harriet Lane Handbook" has been published regularly by Johns Hopkins Hospital to share current pediatric diagnoses and treatment with medical professionals.
IF YOU GO
Harriet Lane Johnston Symposium
WHEN: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. June 10
WHERE: Keil Hall, Mercersburg Academy, East Seminary Street, Mercersburg
COST: $40, includes reception, lunch and lectures
RESERVATIONS: Make checks payable to Mercersburg Historical Society, P.O. Box 115, Mercersburg 17236.
IN ADDITION: From 3:30 to 5 p.m. the Lane house along North Main Street, which is privately owned, will be open for those attending the symposium. Fendrick Library will also have an exhibit focusing on James Buchanan.
INFORMATION: Call 328-2248 or 328-2897