Podcast 187 – A Banned Beard in Massachusetts

We head to Leominster, Massachusetts, in search of Joseph Palmer and Silas Lampson, two men who were persecuted and even jailed for wearing a beard in the 1830s.


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In Episode 187, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Leominster, Massachusetts, in search of Joseph Palmer and Silas Lampson, two men who were persecuted and even jailed for wearing a beard in the 1830s. Though they were both devout Christians, they were attacked, mocked, and even accused of being in league with the devil, all for sporting facial hair. Though both men would live to see the times change, these non-conformists suffered due to the ugliest and most judgmental aspects to society.

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Additional Voice Talent: James Scully
Theme Music by: John Judd

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Joseph Palmer (1789 - 1873) of Leominster, Massachusetts. Persecuted for wearing a beard.

Joseph Palmer (1789 – 1873) of Leominster, Massachusetts. Persecuted for wearing a beard.

The grave of Joseph Palmer in Evergreen Cemetery, Leominster, Massachusetts.

The grave of Joseph Palmer in Evergreen Cemetery, Leominster, Massachusetts.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

JEFF: Ray, you’re looking a little scruffy lately.

RAY: Yeah, I probably could use a shave… or maybe I’ll just grow it out until I look like I could be in ZZ Top or something.

JEFF: I’d grow my facial hair out, but I think it would take me a week just to get a five o’clock shadow.

RAY: You DO have a baby face.

JEFF: Yeah…

RAY: Soooooo I’m assuming we didn’t come here to Evergreen Cemetery in Leominster, Massachusetts, to talk about facial hair, Jeff.

JEFF: Actually, we DID come here to Evergreen Cemetery to talk about facial hair. We’re searching for the grave of Joseph Palmer, a man persecuted for wearing a beard.

[INTRO]

JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 187 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.

RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Leominster, Massachusetts, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. So please like, share, and subscribe to our podcast. We’re a community of legend seekers who love the weirdest parts of New England.

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RAY: Okay, Jeff, so we’re searching for the grave of a man persecuted for wearing a beard here in Leominster, Massachusetts?

JEFF: Yes, but Ray, first I mustache you a question.

RAY: Dear lord…

JEFF: Nevermind, I’ll shave it for later.

RAY: So we’ve moved on to the dad jokes portion of our podcast?

JEFF: No, serious question. Have you ever been treated different because of the way you look?

RAY: Well, sure. I’ve had my hair dyed different colors, I have tattoos, I’ve been in a bunch of bands. Sometimes people look at you funny on the street, or when you walk into a store.

JEFF: It’s true now, and it’s really always been true. When people stick out because of the way they choose to dress, style their hair, their body art, or in this case, wear their facial hair, other folks take notice, and for whatever reason some people get mad about the non-conformists.

RAY: Yeah, I can see that. So how do we know when we find the right grave?

JEFF: Joseph Palmer died in 1865, but he’s one of those people with a memorable headstone. We’ll head over this way to where some of the older graves are located.

[WALKING]

RAY: Wait… check that one out! There’s a face on that monument. It looks almost like Santa Claus!

JEFF: Yes! That’s it! The name PALMER is embossed across the bottom of this white monument, and there’s the sculpted bearded face of Joseph.

RAY: It almost looks like he’s smiling. Or maybe smirking.

JEFF: It does.

RAY: And look at that inscription right below his face! It reads: Persecuted for wearing a beard.

JEFF: There’s a story here, Ray.

RAY: That’s why we’re here!

JEFF: The crazy thing is, Joseph Palmer wasn’t the only person to face public persecution for facial hair. Most of what we know about this story comes from a November 2nd, 1890 Boston Globe newspaper article about this strange case.

RAY: To figure this out, we’re going to head back to 1830 and set this up.

[TRANSITION]

RAY: It’s the May of 1830, and we’re in nearby Fitchburg, Massachusetts, looking for Joseph Palmer.

[HORSE WAGON GO BY]

RAY: He shouldn’t be too hard to find, right? I mean he stands out.

JEFF: While we’re looking for Mr. Palmer, here’s a little more background on him. He was born in a place called No Town.
RAY: No Town?!

JEFF: No Town – it’s an area of about 500 acres next to Leominster that was given to the Palmer family back in the 1600s. It was a gift from the King of England for the Palmer family’s service during the Indian wars. And speaking of Wars, the guy we’re looking for, Joseph Palmer, is a veteran of the War of 1812. So he’s served his country in the past. Then sometime around the 1820s, he starts to grow a beard.

RAY: Any particular reason why he wants to have facial hair and stick out?

JEFF: Joseph Palmer is a deeply religious man, and the reason he grew facial hair was because of his devout Christianity. Even when his own minister first condemned Palmer for the beard, Joseph replied and reminded the good reverend that both Jesus and Moses wore beards like his.

RAY: Got it. So he wants to look like those Biblical figures he admires.

JEFF: Exactly. But not everyone sees it that way. At one point his minister even accused him of communing with Satan.

RAY: Just for sporting a beard?!

JEFF: That’s it.

[HORSE WAGON GO BY]

RAY: Hmmm there seems to be some commotion up ahead by the Fitchburg Hotel there. (BEAT) It looks like some people are shaking their head in disgust. Wait! There’s a bearded man walking into the hotel carrying a box.

JEFF: That’s Joseph Palmer! Let’s go follow him.

[DOOR OPENING AND CLOSING]
[MURMURS OF A HOTEL LOBBY]

RAY: So Joseph seems to be delivering something to the hotel, he’s walk… wait a minute… look at those men over there in the corner.

JEFF: This looks like trouble.

RAY: There’s four of them, one of them is holding scissors, another guy just pulled out a razor blade, and they’re closing in around Joseph Palmer.

[FIGHT]

JEFF: Three of the men just grabbed Joseph. They’re trying to wrestle him to the ground.

RAY: The fourth man is going for his beard. I think these guys are going to try and forcibly shave Joseph!

[FIGHT]

JEFF: This is terrible!

RAY: Wait! Joseph Palmer just pulled out a pocket knife from his coat pocket.

JEFF/RAY: OH! OUCH!

RAY: Palmer just stabbed one of his attackers.

JEFF: AHHH!

RAY: He just stabbed another!

[RUNNING]

RAY: Now the four men are running out of here.

JEFF: Just in time too, because the police are already here.

[HANDCUFFS CLICKING]

JEFF: Wait! I can’t believe this! They’re arresting Joseph Palmer! This guy is the victim. He was only defending himself!

[JUDGE GAVEL]

RAY: Here in the courtroom the judge just informed Joseph Palmer that if he pays a small fine and the court fees, he’s free to go.

[ROOM GASP]

RAY: Wow! Palmer refused. He said he’s innocent, he has the right to wear a beard, to NOT get assaulted in the street, and he’d rather face jail.

[CELL DOOR SLAMMING]

JEFF: And jail is exactly where he goes. Worcestor County Jail to be exact. (PAUSE) Months go by. And Joseph Palmer is appalled at the conditions. Plus, he knows in his heart he’s an innocent man who was defending himself. So he starts writing letters to the local newspapers. The thing is, Palmer can write. And his descriptions of the deplorable conditions, plus reminding the public of what he did… or rather DIDN’T do, is putting a lot of pressure on his jailers. Finally, after 15 months in prison, the very judge who sentenced him pays a visit and tells Palmer, just pay the $10 fine and you’re free to go. There’s arguing, because Palmer feels paying any fine is admitting guilt. But in the end, his freedom wins out. He’s out of jail August 31, 1831.

RAY: Joseph Palmer now spends his days fighting for causes he believes in. Causes like prison reform, the abolition of slavery, and temperance. All the while, he’s proudly displaying his beard.

JEFF: Though Joseph Palmer is the most well-known Massachusetts man to sport a beard against all odds, he’s not alone. From here we’re going to head south…

[HORSE AND WAGON]

JEFF: Just about six miles to the town of Sterling.

RAY: We’re here to find out more about Silas Lampson, a contemporary of Joseph Palmer who also wears a beard for religious reasons. We had the chance to talk to Sila’s son, E. G. Lampson.

EG LAMPSON: My father wore a beard since before I can remember. He was known as “Old Jew Lampson,” and we children were called the young Jews.

RAY: It’s important to note that the Lampson family weren’t Jewish. But during this time the only people wearing beards are Jewish people. Lampson continues.

EG LAMPSON: We were all greatly annoyed because of our father’s singularity. Whenever he went among people he was stared at, and run after by the children, and was considered fully as much a curiosity as an elephant. He was by some regarded as a fool, by others as crazy, and all because he wore a beard. He had hurled at him all kinds of vile epitaphs and was even stoned, but bore all uncomplainingly and seemed to glory in his self-imposed martyrdom.

JEFF: Silas Lampson stuck out because of his beard. And sticking out is what non-conformists do. It’s kind of their thing. But I’m curious how it all started for Silas?

EG LAMPSON: He based his ideas upon the teachings of Christ, whose life he tried to emulate. In his earlier life he had no religion, but after the death of a son he joined the Baptist church. Then began his peculiar actions. It was about this time that he began to allow his beard to grow, and then began the troubles for the family. He ever after dressed in white. Wool he would not color, because he declared that coloring took from it its strength. He defied the church law of his time, and would not pay church taxes. For this he was arrested and placed in Worcester jail.

[CELL DOOR SLAMMING]

RAY: And now we have another bearded man in Worcester County Jail.

JEFF: Silas also had a run-in with locals who tried to hold him down and shave his face, but he took the assault in stride. He never fought back, but was strong enough to move his attackers out of the way and go on with his day.

EG LAMPSON: My father affirmed that it was nature’s law that the beard should grow. He declared that to shave was but to disfigure the face; also that the time would come when beards would be tolerated, and ultimately it would be uncommon for men to shave.

RAY: By the 1860s, Silas Lampson and Joseph Palmer would live to see themselves become trendsetters. President Abraham Lincoln wore a beard, as did both Union and Confederate army officers during the Civil War, and pretty soon, that filtered down to the common man. And that brings us back to today.

[TRANSITION]

RAY: And today we have to deal with those mighty hipster beards. Thank-you-Joseph-Palmer!

JEFF: HA! Trends come and go. (BEAT) So this Boston Globe newspaper article from 1890 has a headline that reads: For Wearing Beards, Men Once Were Imprisoned in Massachusetts. But there’s also an interesting sub headline to this article: Old Jew Sampson and Old Jew Palmer and Their Persecutions.

RAY: It’s worth noting that Old Jew Lampson and Old Jew Palmer are in quotes in this article. I guess stressing that though these men were called that, they weren’t Jewish. Reading the article and meeting these two men, it sure does seem like antisemitism was at the heart of their persecution.

JEFF: Antisemitism on steroids because these two men weren’t Jewish. They were attacked because they wore facial hair that even resembled how a Jewish person would look.

RAY: It’s interesting that, according to Silas Lampson’s son, Silas seemed to love the negative attention. It seems like you could say the same for Joseph Palmer. These guys both believed in living their lives a certain way, and it only took wearing a beard to call attention to it. They were attacked and jailed for it, by alleged fellow Christians.

JEFF: As we said before, non-conformists stick out. It’s what they do. And there’s always been a certain segment of the population who get mad at non-conformists. I believe a lot of that has to do with jealousy. Jealousy that these folks aren’t afraid to stand out and truly be themselves… no matter what.

[OUTTRO]

RAY: We love when you legendary listeners connect with us. And we really love our patreon patrons! For just $3 bucks per month you’ll help a lot with our growing hosting, production, and promotion costs. Plus you’ll get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.

JEFF: If you want to see a picture of Joseph Palmer’s legendary headstone, check out our Web site, and click on episode 187. On our Web site you’ll also find an archive of all of our past episodes, links to dates for my ongoing story tour, transcripts for the deaf, plus video clips from the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime.

RAY: We’d like to thank our sponsor Nuwati herbals, we’d like to thank James Scully of the Breaking Walls podcast—a really cool podcast on the history of American radio—for lending his voice acting talent this week. And our theme music is by John Judd.

JEFF: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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