Persistent research has made possible the addition of a new site to the Freethought Trail: the site where sex radical Frances "Fanny" Wright probably gave a consequential lecture in Auburn, New York, in 1829.
"Confirming the date and place of events prior to 1850 is enormously difficult," said Freethought Trail Director Tom Flynn. "West-central New York was so totally remade by the Erie Canal that often records from those early years are unavailable."
In mid-2017, the Freethought Trail first told the story of Frances Wright, the abolitionist and sex radical who was the first woman to speak in public before mixed-sex audiences, and Orestes Brownson, a troubled intellectual who drifted between Universalism, atheism, Unitarianism, and Catholicism. Biographies of both figures said Wright and Brownson became friends after a lecture she gave in Brownson's home town of Auburn. That prompted Brownson's third and most public period of atheism. But when and where did all this occur? The record was silent, so for almost two years the incident was described on Wright's and Brownson's biographical pages, but the Freethought Trail included no page to describe where the event likely unfolded.
Research by the Cayuga County Historian's Office in Auburn unearthed a newspaper clipping from 1829. It identified which of her stock lectures Wright had given and narrowed down the date. Wright gave her freethinking lecture "On the Nature of Knowledge" four times during the first week of November 1829. Understanding of Auburn's early history made clear where the lectures happened—probably, if not certainly. A long-gone structure called Corning Hall was Auburn's premier place of public assembly in those early days; it was almost certain that Wright's lectures would have taken place there.
So, on March 24, 2019, the Freethought Trail added a page—its 125th—describing Corning Hall as the likely site of the Fanny Wright lecture that helped shape Orestes Brownson's intellectual and (sometimes non-) religious odyssey.
"Partnering with local historians has been essential to the growth of the Freethought Trail," Flynn added. "This example is unusual only because it involves an incident 190 years ago, when research information is usually very spotty. I'm proud we could bring this incident more clearly to light."