A Beverly Hills real estate agency is seeking $3 million for a Brunswick home where it says legendary author Harriet Beecher Stowe penned her groundbreaking anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

But some Bowdoin College scholars and the state’s leading historian say the claim contradicts a large body of physical evidence that says Stowe wrote her book at another house now owned by the college.

Bowdoin officials responded with harsh criticism Friday to recent news articles published in The Wall Street Journal and the website Huffington Post that presented the home sellers’ story as undisputed fact, and point to a number of letters and other documents referencing a house at 63 Federal St., where Stowe lived in 1850 and 1851 while writing the novel.

The home’s listing agents, Ernie Carswell and Karen Nation of Teles Properties Inc. of Beverly Hills, Calif., say the home for sale at 28 College St. became a quiet haven for Stowe to write her novel when the house on Federal Street became too noisy.

“She could not concentrate with the commotion going on at the (Federal Street) house,” where six children were living, Carswell said. Therefore, he said, she rented a front bedroom at the home to write the bulk of her famous novel.

His client, 84-year-old widow Arline Pennell Lay, inherited the home.


Lay, whose husband died in 2012, said she decided to sell the six-bedroom, 3,500-square-foot house because it is too big and she wants to move to a warmer climate.

Nation said the property, built in the late 1700s, is being marketed in Southern California because it’s likely that a celebrity interested in Stowe’s history in Maine might want to buy and preserve the home.

“Maybe an Oprah Winfrey type,” she said.

Other possible buyers include historical societies, museums and colleges, Nation said.

“There are many people under the sun that would want to invest in this type of property,” she said.

The selling agents did not respond to a request for information about how much of a premium they had placed on the listing price based on its purported connection to Stowe.


The book, which Stowe wrote in Brunswick when her husband took a job as a professor at Bowdoin, launched Stowe to international fame. First published in the anti-slavery publication The National Era in serial form, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was an instant bestseller, selling tens of thousands of copies worldwide.

President Abraham Lincoln is believed to have said to her, when they met, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

The College Street house originally was located at 183 Park Row in Brunswick, Lay said. It was moved to College Street by famous author, poet and historian Robert P.T. Coffin, who purchased the home in 1905.

“Because he treasured the home so much, he had it moved, which is incredible,” Lay said. “It was quite a feat.”

Lay’s son-in-law, Brunswick-based author Timothy Hladky, said the fact that Coffin moved the home is solid evidence that Stowe wrote her famous book there.

“I’m very sure she wrote the majority of the novel there,” Hladky said. He also produced a recording of family members, including retired Bowdoin professor Richard Coffin, Robert P.T. Coffin’s son, recounting the story.


But some scholars in Maine disagree vehemently.

Articles about the real estate listing and its connection to Stowe were published Feb. 7 in The Wall Street Journal and Thursday on Huffington Post. Officials at Bowdoin College immediately fired off a letter to The Wall Street Journal, demanding a correction.

“There is no factual basis for the claim that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote any part of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the house at 28 College Street,” the letter said. “In the 100+ years that the Coffin, Pennell, and Lay families have owned the house now at 28 College Street … there has never been a challenge to the narrative that has been accepted by historians, Stowe scholars, and the public at large that a home at 63 Federal Street was where Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written.”

Bowdoin associate professor and Stowe scholar Tess Chakkalakal said the fact that the homeowners did not come forward sooner with their claims casts doubt upon their version.

“The fact is, the people came up with the story at the time they sold the house,” she said.

Chakkalakal said she thinks Lay and Hladky honestly believe that Stowe wrote her book at the College Street house, but she said there is a large volume of documentation that indicates otherwise.


“All of the historical evidence points to her writing it at 63 Federal St. and Appleton Hall,” a dormitory at Bowdoin where Stowe also worked for a period of time, she said.

Chakkalakal acknowledged that it adds to Bowdoin’s prestige if Stowe wrote her book entirely on campus.

“The college wants her to have written it on the college’s property,” she said.

State Historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission said this is the first time he has ever heard anyone claim Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” at the College Street house. He agreed with Bowdoin officials that the known evidence points to her writing the novel at 63 Federal St. That house has a plaque on its grounds indicating that Stowe wrote the book there.

A listing on the website for the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks program for the “Harriet Beecher Stowe house” in Brunswick doesn’t include an address, but does indicate that the house is owned by Bowdoin College.

The 28 College St. house also is part of a historic registry, Shettleworth said, but not because of any known connection to Stowe. According to the family, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his poem “The Old Clock on the Stairs,” about a grandfather clock in that house, and painter Norman Rockwell used the home and its occupants as inspiration for his painting “Freedom from Want,” commonly known as the “Thanksgiving Dinner” painting.


Still, Shettlesworth said it is up to the home’s prospective buyers to decide whether they find the sellers’ story believable.

“I think out in the marketplace, there’s sort of a basic principle of buyer beware,” Shettleworth said.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 207-791-6390 or:


Twitter: @jcraiganderson


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