For years, gathering dust and love in equal measure, the hands lay upon whatever flat surface could be found in overcrowded offices of people editing the Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. No one we talked to knew who had made this cast of the hands of Stanton and Anthony or how many existed.
Someone did scratch a date into wet plaster–November 12, 1895. This was helpful: with that at least we knew the models’ ages. The well-padded hand on top that seemed to lack bones is that of an 80-year-old Elizabeth.
Flip the cast and there is the lean wrist and long fingers of a 75-year-old Susan.
Or, in a description by a journalist who saw the hands in 1899:
No greater contrast could exist than the hands of these two women, both interested in the same cause, one being short and plump, while the other is long and thin and full of nervous energy.
The date also proved to be a nearly magical clue to much more. On that date, we knew, the old friends were both in New York City to celebrate Stanton’s 80th birthday at a huge gala at the old Metropolitan Opera House. Susan B. kept a diary, and it revealed that the correct date for the cast was November 13. After a morning chatting with friends at her hotel, Susan recorded,
went to Mrs Stanton’s & had cast taken of my single hand & then with it clasped with Mrs Stantons–& the Italians pronounced it good cast–
Still no name of an artist. When the editorial staff searched for new details about Stanton’s birthday celebration, they turned up a letter written after the event by one guest to a friend of hers unable to attend. The writer, Elizabeth Pike, mentioned a new acquaintance she had made there:
A young lady Miss M. E. B. Culbertson from Ind[iana] . . . has taken the hands of Mrs Stanton & Miss Anthony clasped, in plaster— They are very good & are to be sold thro the various clubs & leagues.
Intrepid staff set out to follow that path to Indiana.
With state, surname, and “ young lady,” they narrowed the search down to the city of Richmond–one of the most consistently active and organized sites of suffragism in the state. The next leap necessitated a visit to the Local History and Genealogy Division of the New York Public Library. At last, in a book of Wayne County tombstone transcriptions, they spotted an entry for the Earlham Cemetery, listing M. E. B. Culbertson, born in 1864, died in 1929. An additional notation read “Mary E. B., known as ‘Meb’, artist & sculptor, single.”
Knowing that she went by “Meb” opened up all kinds of sources. In 1896, she had a studio in New York City on East 23rd Street, though she still lived in Indiana, according to the city directory. Her career interested Indiana’s journalists, and their stories sometimes were picked up in other parts of the country. Staff first spotted news of Meb in the Oswego (N.Y.) Daily Times, 17 December 1897. It was a feature story that we later learned had been picked up from a paper in Terre Haute, about “A daughter of Indiana,” “the Young and Handsome Sculptor,” Meb Culbertson. It included this crucial bit of history:
In 1896 Miss Culbertson introduced in New York the fad of modeling hands and arms. Many celebrities were her willing subject . . . One of the most interesting of her models is a cast of the clasped hands of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
Curiosity pushed on, and more glimpses of Meb’s life were found. The longer Terre Haute version of that story in 1897 included her picture.
Meb started out as a painter, studied in Paris, earned some recognition. But back in the U.S. she changed direction, according to journalists who wrote about her. She had a talent for the modeling that preceded portrait sculpture. Other sculptors sometimes relied on her casts. She was a finalist–though unsuccessful–in the competition to erect a statue in Indianapolis honoring the state’s wartime governor, Oliver P. Morton. It was said that when she finished casting the hand of Robert Ingersoll, “the Great Agnostic,” she then made a bust of him. But the trail of Meb Culbertson’s artistic career is thin and often depends on the fame of the people she modeled.
She also wrote poetry–at least enough poetry to get her included in a collection of Indiana writers published in 1902. A photograph that precedes two poems shows her in an artist’s smock admiring a bust that might be one of her own creations. What is to be made, however, of the poem she titled “Sculptor”?
There is a lot still not known. Who were “the Italians” who assured Susan Anthony that the cast was good? The craft, referred to as “modeling,” was Culbertson’s specialty, but this implies that she worked in a team.
The Woman’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls displays a bronze version of the hands.
Did Culbertson oversee the production of both plaster and bronze hands? Possibly so. When she copyrighted her cast of Col. Robert G. Ingersoll’s hand in 1900, after his death, she sought protection for versions in plaster, bronze, and marble.
If Elizabeth Pike’s information was correct, there could be, or could have been, many copies of the clasped hands sold by local suffrage clubs. Where are they?
Anthony tells us that a cast was made of just her own hand as well as of the clasped hands. A short article about Culbertson’s visit home in February 1896, dateline Richmond, also refers to separate casts of Stanton and Anthony, though errors in that article suggest that its author did not listen very carefully. Assuming these were made, where are they now?
Meb Culbertson died in Richmond, Indiana, in the house that had belonged to her parents. If enthusiastic journalists are to be believed, there should be a great many examples of her work out there somewhere–plaster, bronze, or marble. Robert Ingersoll, anyone? There should be a lot of famous hands, but it was also said that young women cast their hands as gifts to their betrothed. Maybe in an attic or two?
The intrepid researchers who first worked on this story and opened a path for me to explore further were Shannen Dee Williams, Kathleen Manning, and Patricia Hampson when they were graduate students at Rutgers. Photographs of the plaster hands were the work of another graduate student, Laurie Marhoefer.
If Meb Culbertson’s craft interests you, see this article that she mentioned to a reporter in her hometown. Cleveland Moffett, “Grant and Lincoln in Bronze: The New Equestrian Statues by O’Donovan and Eakins–How Horse and Rider Were Fashioned in Clay from Living Models–How the Casts in Plaster and Bronze Were Made,” McClure’s Magazine 5 (Oct 1895) 419-432.
The letter that first gave us Culbertson’s name: Elizabeth E. Pike to Caroline Putnam, 21 Nov 1895, in Elizabeth Cady Stanton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.