Zelig Was a Woman: Meet Freethought Campaigner Lucy N. Colman

March 8, 2012


As we observe International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, it’s worth remembering one of nineteenth-century America’s most active – and best-connected – freethinkers. Lucy N. Colman (1818-1906) was the Zelig of the Golden Age of Freethought. She contributed to every reform cause of the day and touched the lives of the time’s most noteworthy freethought activists.

Born in 1818 in Massachusetts, Lucy Colman embraced the causes of abolitionism and woman’s rights early on. By 1852 she renounced Christianity. While residing in Rochester, she accepted employment as a teacher in a segregated “colored school.” So deeply did its segregation repel her that she lobbied parents to withdraw their children, causing the school to close. She established a reputation as a campaigner for liberal causes whose special gift lay in silencing Christian hecklers by throwing their own principles back at them.

When her only daughter died in 1862, Colman spurned a traditional funeral, opting instead for a secular memorial conducted by Frederick Douglass. She wholeheartedly embraced freethought.

Colman attended the 1878 New York State Freethinkers’ Association Convention in Watkins Glen, New York, at which freethinking feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage was among the featured speakers. At that conference atheist publisher D. M. Bennett, Boston freethinker W. S. Bell, and Josephine Bell, sister-in-law of sex radical Ezra Heywood, were famously arrested for selling a marriage reform and birth control tract authored by Heywood. Colman arranged bail for Bennett. With Rochester freethinker/abolitionist Amy Post (1802-1889), who had paid Tilton’s bail, Colman campaigned successfully for charges to be dropped against all three.

She is also known to have spoken at the New York Freethinkers’ Association convention held at Hornellsville, New York, on September 2-6, 1880, as did the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. By 1878 she had moved to Syracuse, where she wrote her autobiography, Reminiscences, and died in 1906, aged eighty-eight.

None of Colman’s residences are known to survive. But her home sites in Rochester and Syracuse, the site of the colored school, and the sites of her Hornellsville lecture and the Watkins Glen conference are commemorated on the Freethought Trail, the Council for Secular Humanism’s online celebration of freethought and radical-reform history in west-central New York State.