By Bob Harner
The January 2, 1895, edition of the Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner featured this notice: “If you fail to attend Putnam’s lectures, you will always regret it. Such treats of reasoning of eloquence of Encyclopedic knowledge, don’t come our way every day.”
The lecturer was Samuel Porter Putnam, a leading advocate for the Freethought movement. A former Unitarian minister, Putnam founded the Freethought Federation of America (which later merged with the American Secular Union) in 1892. Freethought philosophy held that people should rely on their own human reasoning rather than on religious doctrines and beliefs. Putnam frequently traveled the country, delivering lectures and promoting the creation of local Freethought Federation chapters.
Putnam came to Prescott in 1895 at the request of Dr. J. Miller, President of the Arizona Antiquarian Society and a local Freethought believer. Putnam lectured multiple times a week for most of two months, drawing large crowds and angering devout church-goers. A witty and powerful speaker, Putnam attracted both the intellectually curious and those just looking for a good show. By the time he had delivered a few local lectures, the Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner reported that forty Prescott-area residents had joined the Prescott Freethought Federation. At the January 10 lecture, the group adopted a constitution for the local chapter.
At the time, Sharlot Hall (who would, in 1928, establish what eventually became the Sharlot Hall Museum) was a 25-year-old ranch woman and aspiring writer. Her personal calendar indicates that she traveled into town to attend Putnam’s lectures. Putnam, who apparently had a habit of befriending young women interested in Freethought, became personally acquainted with Sharlot. She and her father may have had dinner with Putnam at Dr. Miller’s home and Putnam appears to have visited Orchard Ranch, where Sharlot’s family lived.
On January 23, the Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner reported that “The Freethought Federation of Prescott will complete its organization, elect officers and etc.” According to the reports of his Prescott visit that Putnam published in the Truth Seeker (a national Freethought publication), Dr. Miller was elected president, Sharlot was elected one of five vice presidents and the Prescott chapter, by then, numbered 100 members. In a later report, Putnam described Sharlot as a “fearless and gifted exponent of Freethought who has such a brilliant future in the ranks of our Western authors.” Putnam gave Sharlot several Freethought books (primarily ones he had written) and inscribed at least one with a lengthy poem dedicated to her.
The February 6 Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner reported on a “memorable” Freethought presentation on Thomas Paine. In addition to speeches by Putnam and Miller, Sharlot also spoke to the crowd. According to the article, “Miss Charlotte [sic] Hall is said to have acquitted herself admirably in an oration on the hero of the evening.”
Putnam left Prescott in February. Sharlot went on to deliver Freethought lectures on March 24 and April 14 and 28, 1895. She and Putnam corresponded frequently in the following months until his somewhat scandalous death in December 1896, when he and a twenty-year-old woman who had begun traveling with him as a fellow lecturer died of a gas leak in the woman’s hotel room. For several years afterward, Sharlot annually published a new poem eulogizing Putnam.
The Freethought movement died out after President McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, the movement having become (perhaps unfairly) associated with anarchism. In later years, Sharlot began a personal exploration of various systems of belief, including Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, Spiritualism and Emersonian transcendental philosophy. She eventually became interested in Christian Science. Although she did extensive reading on the subject, she doesn’t appear to have joined any organized Christian Science congregations.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at archives.sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles/1 The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to email@example.com Please contact SHM Research Center reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for information or assistance with photo requests.