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Why was Joseph Palmer Persecuted?

Joseph Michael Palmer was a member of the Fruitlands Commune and a Transcendentalist who was friends with Louisa May Alcott and other Transcendentalists. Palmer was persecuted for such an odd reason back in 1830.

In 1830, Joseph Palmer was attacked because he had a beard, then imprisoned for defending himself. He died in 1873, at a time when beards became popular. “Persecuted for wearing the beard,” his tombstone reads.

How Did Joseph Palmer Defend Himself?

Four men armed with scissors and razors attacked Palmer outside a Fitchburg hotel one day in early May 1830 and attempted to shave him. Palmer successfully repelled his attackers. He was even able to wound the legs of two of his assailants with his jackknife. Palmer was then charged with unprovoked assault and fined a few days later before Judge David Brigham.

He refused to pay the $10 fine, over $40 in court expenses, and a $700 bond he was ordered to pay as a result of his conviction for self-defense. He was arrested and held in the Worcester County Jail for more than a year after he refused to pay the fine. (Source: New England Historical Society)

Joseph Palmer’s Time in Prison

His prison diary chronicles the words and actions of his often cruel jailers, the experiences of his fellow inmates, and his tenacity in resisting the state’s and society’s efforts to break him of his unconventional habits and opinions. Palmer’s incarceration was extremely unpleasant at times. During his first few weeks in jail, he became dangerously ill.

Later, he was beaten by the prison guards several times, nearly starved for days at a time, placed in solitary confinement for several months, and physically threatened by other prisoners who attempted to cut off his beard. Palmer, on the other hand, made life nearly as difficult for the officials who were keeping him in jail as they did for him.

He sent a steady stream of letters to Worcester County Sheriff Calvin Willard, complaining about the jail’s poor conditions. To show the sheriff how little food he was getting, he once sent Willard a package containing every morsel of food the jailers had given him in a single day. Palmer’s jailers, particularly Hosea Bellows and Dorance Wilder, treated him even worse for such actions.

Palmer exploded in distress and rage on September 22, 1830, after a little more than four months in prison, at the treatment he and his fellow prisoners were receiving. He was sentenced to three months in solitary confinement for his outburst. (Source: The Vintage News)

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