Because of its murky cover and middling size, “Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist” seems almost destined to disappear in bookstores. That’s a shame, as it fills a gap in Maine – and American – social history. The rudiments of the career and life of lapsed Quaker, publisher and social critic Jeremiah Hacker (1801-1895) have been known to a smattering of scholars. Writer and Bar Harbor resident Rebecca Pritchard is the first to present the man and his thoughts in modern biographical form.

Cover courtesy of Frayed Edge Press

In his time, Hacker, who was born in Brunswick was – if not famous –  strangely influential. Bearded and standing tall in a crowd, Hacker always carried an ear trumpet (he lost his hearing at the age of 19) and copies of his radical newspaper, The Pleasure Boat (1845-1862). Deeply opinionated, Hacker felt intensely for the disenfranchised. His paper argued many of the liberal causes of the day, even naming local people he thought responsible for specific problems, a tactic that often put him in direct conflict with powerful neighbors in religious, commercial and social circles. Think of the paper as a 19th century blog, sold for a penny or two or given away to the needy. The Pleasure Boat was also placed in libraries and collecting institutions for contemporary readers and – as it turns out – future ones.

In the pages of Hacker’s newspaper, today’s readers can find insights into Maine life available nowhere else: Descriptions of boys throwing rocks at locomotive engineers who retaliated with chunks of coal that the boys then brought home to warm cold hearths. The names of proud donors of Bibles who might, Hacker felt, more usefully have given money, shelter, food or clothing. Jeremiah writes of a local citizen who boasted of keeping a “slave room” for escaping slaves from the South. Why not, The Pleasure Boat chided, offer your best bedroom instead of making a socio-drama?

Hacker’s religious views, like many of his other views, were extreme for his time. “As he hacked away at all religious institutions, Pritchard writes, “Hacker advocated for what he called ‘pure and undefiled religion.'” Its requirements were that adherents visit widows and the fatherless and “‘live unspotted from, rather than spotted with, the world.'”

Hacker opposed the Civil War, preferring peace, an unpopular stance, and one that led him to close The Pleasure Boat, and move to New Jersey. There, he farmed; continued publishing; became best known as an earnest, if benign, anarchist – and eventually died.

Pritchard, who studied writing at the Salt Institute and the American and New England Studies Program at the University of Southern Maine, spent years researching libraries in Maine and New Jersey before turning her master’s thesis into this volume. While she labored at the Maine Historical Society, I introduced her to Jeremiah and The Pleasure Boat, but there our association ended.

Toward the end of “Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist,” Pritchard notes that in 1928 the Portland Press Herald carried a sketch of the reformer; “As it turns out, that was the last Portland heard of Hacker. The man spent his life writing had found no place in written history.”

That’s not quite true. The Pleasure Boat and other Hacker publications have always abided at local institutions, read or unread but standing ready for history buffs and other interested readers. Pritchard’s biography opens the door to the man, his thoughts and his career. She reveals his deep connections with contemporaries Down East and all along the Eastern Seaboard and his lively interactions with his activist Maine cousins and lapsed Quakers John Neal (1793-1876), “father of American Art criticism” and Neal Dow (1804-1897),” father of American Prohibition.”

“Jeremiah Hacker: Journalist, Anarchist, Abolitionist” opens a window on a fascinating Maine original, as well as on a whole era of thought, social justice, religion, women’s rights, reform and farming. Maine’s 19th century Jeremiah Hacker and his vehement convictions are at last unbound.

William David Barry is a local historian who has written/co-written seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He is working on a history of the Maine Historical Society and lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.


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