A.E. Pillsbury, Class of 1867
If you’re a graduate of LA, you’ve probably seen him presiding over various corners of the campus: Currently in a hidden niche in Ansin, he has also hung out in the College Office, the library, and any number of other places over the years. And you have certainly seen his house, and possibly lived in it. It was originally located where the Ferguson Building stands, and was moved to its present location in 1966 to make room for that edifice.
Albert Enoch Pillsbury was far more than a bronze bust, however. He was born in Milford, N.H. in 1849, and graduated from Lawrence Academy in 1867. He entered Harvard College’s Class of 1871, but left (not of his own volition, as we shall see in a moment) after two years to study law with an uncle in Sterling, Illinois, in the northwestern corner of the state. Admitted to the Illinois bar in 1871, he returned to New England to practice law in Boston.
When this brilliant young man came home from the Midwest to start his life’s work, no one, doubtless including Albert himself, could have predicted what an extraordinary career lay ahead of him. A natural leader and a gifted speaker, Pillsbury nurtured a love for animals, a strong sense of justice, and an abiding concern for the plight of minority peoples, especially the African American population of his day. He became vice-president of the National Negro Conference, a predecessor of the NAACP, and was a member of the Boston Committee to Advance the Cause of the Negro. When the NAACP was formed in 1909, Albert Pillsbury wrote the organization’s bylaws. He was a passionate supporter of President Lincoln and the abolitionist movement, and wrote and spoke regularly on the unjust treatment of African Americans. He even resigned his membership in the American Bar Association when they refused to admit a black assistant U.S. Attorney.
The feisty young lawyer.
Before long Pillsbury had earned a reputation as one of Boston’s finest legal minds. The list of presidencies, chairmanships, and organizations to which he belonged would fill a page or two; among other things, he served as chairman of LA’s board of trustees.
Not surprisingly, Pillsbury’s accomplishments led him to political office. He served in both houses of the Massachusetts State Senate, rising to president of that body at the age of 36, and was the Commonwealth’s Attorney General for three years, from 1891 to 1894.
Concerning young Albert’s departure from Harvard: Along with his keen mind, it seems, came a rather bad temper and an acid tongue. According to an article in Time magazine of June 19, 1931, a few months after his death, he was expelled from Harvard for “pranks.” The article continues:
“Unwary hazers remembered his stocky, undaunted figure: once he beat them off with upraised chair in one hand, menacing clasp-knife in the other. Two years later he was expelled…” After he passed the Massachusetts bar exam, Harvard somewhat sheepishly invited him back, to which he replied, “Go to hell!” In 1891 the college awarded him an honorary A.M. degree, which he did accept, “as of 1871,” the year of his non-graduation.
As involved as he was in social issues of the day, Pillsbury was — as many men were at that time — a staunch traditionalist when it came to one subject: women’s place in society.
His will, quoted in the Time article, left an “unsolicited [and] embarrassing” bequest to four colleges:
“Believing that the modern feminist movement tends to take woman out of the house and put her in politics, government or business, and that this has already begun to impair the family as a basis of civilization and its advance, I bequeath Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia Colleges $25,000 each… [to be used] toward creating or developing sound public opinion and action on the subject.”
Perhaps fortunately, there is no known record of how the colleges used the money. What is known, however, is that the brilliant and combative Mr. Pillsbury had two wives. He married his first, Louise Wheeler, when he was 40, in 1889; he quietly divorced her after a while and, in 1905, married Elizabeth Mooney, with whom he had two children. Eventually she wanted out badly enough that she travelled all the way to Reno to divorce Albert.
Even though he wasn’t much of a family man, Pillsbury attempted to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, his stance regarding women probably explains why his bust remains hidden in that corner of the Ansin Building.
Thanks to Library Director Sara Anderson and LA archival expert Paul Husted ’64 for their help on this article.