Henry Charles Lea

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Henry Charles Lea

Henry Charles Lea (September 19, 1825 – October 24, 1909) was an American historian, civic reformer, and political activist. Lea was born and lived in Philadelphia.



His father, Isaac Lea (1792–1886) was a distinguished naturalist and a member of the American Philosophical Society, and was by profession a publisher. Isaac Lea was descended from a Philadelphia Quaker family, and was born in Wilmington, Delaware. On March 8, 1821, Isaac married Frances Anne Carey (1799–1873), daughter of Mathew Carey, the Philadelphia publisher. Mathew Carey, born in Ireland in 1760, came to the United States in 1784, escaping prosecution by the British government for his outspoken criticism of Britain's Irish policy. During a period of exile in Paris, Carey had met Benjamin Franklin, for whose print shop he worked. When Carey arrived in Philadelphia, he began to publish a periodical, The Pennsylvania Evening Herald. From this beginning Carey went on to develop a highly successful publishing house, which printed the works of Thomas Jefferson, Parson Weems, Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and the first quarto Bible of American manufacture, in both the Douay version and the Authorized version. Upon his marriage in 1821, Isaac Lea entered this firm, then called Mathew Carey and Sons.


His bookplate

The then eminent Irish American theoretical mathematician,[1][2] Eugenius Nulty (d. 1871),[3] provided the substantial of Henry Charles Lea’s scholastic education, tutoring both Henry Charles Lea and his elder brother the, later, pioneer photographic chemist Mathew Carey Lea (called by family “Carey”) at their home in Philadelphia.[4] His study under Eugenius not only helped to mold Henry Charles Lea as a scholar but also supplemented his father’s and grandfather’s connections in opening many a door of United States academia to Lea.

Described by his contemporaries as “brilliant”,[5] after arriving in the United States from his native Ireland, Eugenius quickly became ensconced as a member of the new nation’s small intelligentsia. In 1814, he became a professor of mathematics at Dickinson College. In 1817, Eugenius was like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton before him elected to the American Philosophical Society and in 1832 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[6][7] In 1823, the University of Pennsylvania awarded Eugenius an honorary A.M.[8][9] Eugenius Nulty’s Elements of Geometry, theoretical and practical Philadelphia: J. Wetham (1836) was one of the first two or three original geometries published in the United States[10] and is still over 150 years later available from multiple publishers in historical reprint.[11][12][13][14]

Bradley and Peters state that Henry and brother Mathew received a classical education from Eugenius. An individual of extraordinary erudition, Eugenius singlehandedly taught the pair the entirety of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and celestial navigation) and classical languages and history of its standard curriculum. Peters continues that Eugenius’ sole curricula innovation was to immerse the boys in a single subject for long periods to encourage its complete mastery. Both these Lea family historians state that observing Henry Charles’ obvious precocity, Eugenius from start successfully encouraged Henry to master far more difficult lessons than expected of a student Henry’s age. Henry Charles too had a ready facility for languages and analytical thought.[15][16]

During their years of tutelage under Eugenius, Henry and Mathew also worked in the chemical laboratory of Booth & Boy. This chemical work led to Henry's first published paper—at age 13—the subject being the salts of manganese.[17] At prior annotation, Peters also states that the avocational interests of Lea’s father, who was a noted natural scientist and conchologist in addition to a publisher, and Lea’s mother, a knowledgeable botanist and classical linguist in addition to a homemaker, supplemented Henry’s and Mathew’s education and shaped their interests. Henry, in part, followed his father's interest in natural history and wrote several papers on descriptive conchology. Henry displayed a talent for drawing. He illustrated his own early articles on the fossil shells that he had collected. His drawings were used for the engravings illustrating his father's revision of the Synopsis of the Naiades in 1838. Henry Charles Lea developed an interest in poetry. He, following his mother, translated from the Greek poets and composed original verse. As he grew older, he often wrote satirical parodies of popular songs on political subjects.


In 1843 Henry Charles Lea joined his father in business, and he retained his connection with the firm until 1880. In 1847, when he was twenty-two years old and had been working in the family publishing firm for four years, Lea suffered a nervous breakdown and abandoned his intellectual and scientific work for some time. During his period of convalescence Lea began reading French memoirs of the medieval period. They kindled his interest in medieval history and changed his career course from scientist to historian. Thereafter he focused on history, mainly on church history in the later Middle Ages, and on institutional, legal, and ecclesiastical history, as well as magic and witchcraft. He also did significant work on the history of the Italian city-states. His active writing career on historical subjects spanned more than fifty years, during which he published ten books and numerous articles. His literary reputation rests largely on the books he produced.

Lea discovered and acquired most of his materials from European sources, purchasing manuscripts and incunabula as well as other early printed books. The room holding his collection, built in 1881 as an extension to his house at 2000 Walnut Street, was conveyed to the University of Pennsylvania in 1926 by Lea's children.

Lea was treated by his friend Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, one of the country's most prominent doctors in the field of nervous disorders. Lea's highly disciplined habits of work enabled him to continue to write even as he suffered from headaches and problems with his eyes. He was very productive during the final twenty-five years of his life.

On 27 May 1850, Henry Charles Lea married Anna Caroline Jaudon (born 1824), his first cousin. During the American Civil War Lea was a member of the Union League of Philadelphia and was the head of its publication committee. He composed a number of the pamphlets published by the League. In 1863 he was appointed one of the Bounty Commissioners under the Enrollment Act and served until 1865, working closely with Provost Marshal General James B. Fry and members of his office responsible for accounting for the quotas of men enlisted from the city of Philadelphia. In this capacity he became involved with the efforts to recruit African American regiments to fight in the Union army.

Henry Charles Lea was outspoken on issues involving public projects and public health in Philadelphia. He strongly opposed the building of City Hall at the Penn Square location at the intersection of Broad Street and Market Street (then known as High Street) where it now stands, preferring instead that it be built in Washington Square, near Independence Hall. Lea believed that the project cost too much, and he was angered by the political corruption involved in the awarding of contracts and purchase of building materials for the project. Lea planned and held a large public meeting to recruit support for his alternative to the Penn Square project.

Along with other politically active citizens he filed a lawsuit in 1884 opposing the building of a large slaughterhouse on the Schuylkill River at Thirtieth and Spruce streets on land owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, citing the pollution of the river, the stench, and devaluation of properties near the plant. He opposed the construction of the Market Street elevated train, over properties he owned on Market Street. He also opposed building the "boulevard" from City Hall northwest to Fairmount Park, where the Philadelphia Museum of Art was later built.

Lea was chosen president of the National Republican League in 1880 and was president of the Association of Republicans and Independents in 1885. In 1891 he helped found "The Reform Political League of Pennsylvania", with Herbert Welsh as president, Henry C. Lea and Justus C. Strawbridge as vice-presidents, and Charles E. Richardson, secretary.

Lea became a member of the newly formed American Historical Society and contributed a number of articles to its publication, American Historical Review. Lea was elected president of the American Historical Society in 1903. When the second annual meeting of the newly formed American Folklore Society was held in Philadelphia in 1889, Lea met with some of the founders, sent an article for publication in the Society's journal, and became the first life-member of the organization.

The Henry Charles Lea Library, named in his honor, includes much of his personal collection of books and manuscripts. Speakers at the opening dedication in 1925 included Professor George Lincoln Burr of Cornell University, who worked to complete the manuscript of Lea's Materials Toward a History of Witchcraft ; Professor Dana C. Munro of Princeton University, vice president of the American Historical Association, who had used Lea's collections as a young scholar; and Hampton L. Carson, Philadelphia historian and former attorney general of Pennsylvania.

As an authority on the Spanish Inquisition Lea stood in the highest rank of modern historians, and distinctions were conferred on him by the universities of Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Giessen and Moscow. Although in the U.S. he was attacked for his bias against the Church, Lea’s work was highly praised by some Catholic and non-Catholic scholars in Europe, and he received many honors from European institutions. In Europe, as well, the question of his anti-Catholic bias was raised.[18] With regard to his study of the Inquisitions, although it is widely considered to be groundbreaking, many[who?] believe it to be hindered in some regards by his bias.



  1. ^ Florian Cajori "The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States", Vol. 890-893 (Circulars of Information, United States Bureau of Education, The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States, Florian Cajori, Issue 3 of U.S. Bureau of Education, circular of information, 1890, No. 3) Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office (1890), pages 95-96, describing Nulty as among “the more prominent mathematicians of America” and a contributor to the defunct Mathematical Diary, one of the 3 earliest learned mathematical journals published in the U.S.
  2. ^ [1] Bulletins of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, Harvard College Copies, digitized by Google, printed at Washington: Gales and Seaton and others from 1840, "Proceedings of the Meeting of April, 1844", Opening Address by John Tyler, President of the United States and Patron of the National Institutes, in Introductory Address of the Hon. P.J. Walker of Mississippi, Director of the National Institute, p 447 “In the pure mathematics Nulty (‘esteemed adopted citizen’) is unsurpassed at home or abroad.”
  3. ^ Proceedings, American Philosophical Society, Commemorating Centennial Anniversary of First Occupation of Hall, Vol. 27, No. 131, Nov. 21, 1889, p 147
  4. ^ The Biographical Encyclopedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century Philadelphia: Galaxy Publishing Company (1874) “LEA, HENRY CHARLES” ”Mr. Lea’s education was conducted under private tutors, among others the eminent mathematician Eugenius Nulty.”
  5. ^ [2] Charles Coleman Sellers Dickinson College A History Middletown: Wesleyan University Press (1973) ISBN 9780819540577, pages 157-158
  6. ^ [3] Members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1780-2013
  7. ^ [4] Encyclopedia Dickinsonia Faculty Index 1783-
  8. ^ Committee of the Society of the Alumni Graduates of the Departments of Arts and Sciences and of the Honorary Graduates of the University of Pennsylvania 1749-1880 Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co. (1880), p 82
  9. ^ Charles Francis Himes A Sketch of Dickinson College, Carlisle, Penn’a Harrisburg: Lane S. Hart (1879), p 152
  10. ^ [5] Online Books Library U. Penn
  11. ^ Eugenius Nulty Elements of Geometry, theoretical and practical (1836), reprint Ulan Press (June 4, 2011) BOOATT9698 ; Eugenius Nulty Elements of Geometry, theoretical and practical (1836), reprint BibloBazaar (August 21, 2008) ISBN 0554636344; Eugenius Nulty Elements of Geometry, theoretical and practical (1836), Kessinger Legacy Reprints (September 1, 2010) ISBN 1164731599; and others
  12. ^ Hugh Richard Slotten Patronage, Practice, and the Culture of American Science Cambridge University Press (1994) ISBN 9780521433952, p 130 Eugenius was also called by his new countrymen to assist with mathematics for the U.S. Office of Coast Survey.
  13. ^ E.J. Moorhead “Sketches of Early North American Actuaries” Transactions of Society of Actuaries Vol. 36 (1984) “JOSEPH ROBERTS, JR.” p 356; James Henry Morgan Dickinson College Mount Pleasant Press, J. Horace McFarland Company (1933) Chapter 15 [6] Eugenius was too recruited by both the Philadelphia Life Insurance Company and the Pennsylvania Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to aid each as one of the first U.S. actuarial scientists.
  14. ^ [7] Robert M. Patterson Papers (1775-1853) Nulty was also a correspondent of mathematician, chemist and natural philosopher Robert M. Patterson, M.D.
  15. ^ Edward Sculley Bradley Henry Charles Lea. A Biography Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (1931) p 42
  16. ^ [8] Edward Peters “Henry Charles Lea and the Libraries within a Library” 2 from the Penn Library Collections at 250, page 35 Noting also that “Some of Lea’s school exercise books from this period survive and show his impressive and precocious grasp of a number of complicated subjects.”
  17. ^ "Henry Charles Lea Papers - Biographical Sketch". Penn Special Collections. University of Pennsylvania:Rare Book & Manuscript Library. 2003-01-31. Retrieved 2010-12-01. Henry and Carey worked in the chemical laboratory of Booth & Boy‚; this experience led to Henry's first published paper--at age 13--on the topic of the salts of manganese. 
  18. ^ Dewey, R. S. "The Last Historian of the Inquisition," The American Catholic Quarterly Review, Vol. XIII, N°. 51, July 1888.

Further reading[edit]

  • Baumgarten, Paul Maria. Henry Charles Lea's Historical Writings: A Critical Inquiry Into Their Method and Merit, J.F. Wagner, 1909.
  • Bradley, Edward Sculley. Henry Charles Lea. A Biography, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931.
  • Bussy, R. Kenneth. Two Hundred Years of Publishing: A History of the Oldest Publishing Company in the United States, Lea & Febiger 1785-1985, Lea & Febiger, 1985.
  • Cheyney, Edward Potts. "On the Life and Works of Henry Charles Lea," Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1911.
  • Coulton, G. G. Sectarian History, Barnicotts, 1937.
  • O'Brien, John M. "Henry Charles Lea: The Historian as Reformer," American Quarterly 19(1), 1967.
  • Peters, Edward. "Henry Charles Lea and the `Abode of Monsters'," in The Spanish Inquisition and the Inquisitorial Mind, edited by Angel Alcal, Atlantic Research Publications, 1987.
  • Tollebeek, Jo. Writing the Inquisition in Europe and America: The Correspondence Between Henry Charles Lea and Paul Fredericq, Palais des Académies, 2004.

External links[edit]