When Opera Star Jenny Lind Came to America, She Witnessed a Nation Torn Apart Over Slavery

Born 200 years ago, the Swedish soprano embarked on headline-grabbing tour that shared the spotlight with a political maelstrom

Jenny Lind illustration
Singer Jenny Lind was widely known as the "Swedish Nightingale." Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via public domain and Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty Images

The lead item in the pro-slavery New York Herald on September 2, 1850, was an editorial advocating that Congress swiftly pass a pending bill that would “dispose of the slavery question forever” in the United States. The Compromise of 1850, a collection of laws passed that month, would decide not only which new territories would permit slavery, it would include the Fugitive Slave Act, a measure that directed federal officials throughout the land to aid in the recapture of African Americans who had escaped bondage. The Herald’s editor, James Gordon Bennett, predicted, “In another week there will be but little anxiety entertained in relation to the question of slavery, the public mind will be so fatigued that it will be disinclined to think of the matter any further.”

The remainder of the Herald’s six-column front page was largely devoted to the arrival in New York of the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. Long popular in Europe, this was Lind’s first visit to the United States. For the next 21 months, thrilling accounts of Lind’s American concert tour would dominate newspapers, but the triumphs of the Swedish Nightingale would not eclipse the national debate over slavery which was polarizing America. In the words of Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish reformer visiting America in 1850, “Jenny Lind, the new Slave Bill, and the protests against it in the North, Eastern, and Western States are…the standing topics of the newspapers.” The two issues would continue to appear side-by-side in the newspapers, and before long, Lind herself would be drawn into the national debate over slavery.

October 6 marks the 200th anniversary of Lind’s birth in Stockholm, Sweden. “[Lind] was hugely famous,” says historian Betsy Golden Kellem. The child of a single mother, Lind began training to sing opera in her tween years. Writer Hans Christian Andersen, who would befriend and unrequitedly pine for her, recalled in The True Story of My Life the night she conquered Denmark. "Through Jenny Lind,” that night in 1843, “I first became sensible of the holiness of Art.” He added, “No books, no men, have had a more ennobling influence upon me as a poet than Jenny Lind.” That performance inspired Andersen to write “The Nightingale,” which helped spread Lind’s fame throughout Europe (Lind’s rejection of Andersen’s affections supposedly inspired him to write “The Snow Queen,” on which the Disney film, Frozen is based). After her triumph in Denmark, she found similar success in Germany and Austria. The composer Felix Mendelssohn, who collaborated with Lind during this period, gushed in a letter to his friend Andersen, “There will not in a whole century be born another being so gifted as she.”

But it was in England that “Lindomania” really took hold, where Queen Victoria attended Lind’s 1847 debut at Her Majesty’s Theatre and where the press reported, “The crowd was immense both without and within the theatre.” Lind enjoyed a career in England for the next two years, where she would learn English but continue to struggle with it. When she announced her retirement from opera in 1849, at the age of 28, the queen attended her final performance.

In January 1850, the showman P.T. Barnum convinced Lind to undertake a concert tour of America. “At the time Barnum booked Jenny Lind, he had never heard her sing,” says Kellem. “Barnum at that point was mostly famous for the American Museum, and things like the Feejee Mermaid. He wanted a little more respectability.”

Lind, skeptical of Barnum’s reputation, demanded full payment of her fee, $187,000 ($6.2 million in 2020), be deposited in her London bank before setting off for the 150-concert tour. Having staked his financial future on this enterprise, Barnum realized, “’I have to get people aware of who she is by the time she’s here to start this tour,’” says Kellem. He launched a public-relations blitz, selling America not only on Lind’s artistry, but on her character, which he described as “charity, simplicity, and goodness personified.”

The marketing campaign proved successful: When Lind arrived in New York on September 1, an estimated 40,000 onlookers crowded Canal Street to meet her ship. Barnum “greeted the singer with a bouquet and waved her into a private carriage as police pushed the teeming crowds apart, Hard Day’s Night-style,” wrote Kellem in a Vanity Fair article about the true relationship between Barnum and Lind. (There was no romantic relationship, as The Greatest Showman might lead you to believe.) Bremer wrote in a letter, “Jenny Lind is in New York and has been received with American furor- the maddest of all madness.”

Americans, seeking to capitalize on Lind’s fame, merchandised a myriad of products in her name—hats, bonnets, cravats, gloves, handkerchiefs, soap, cigars, glassware, houses. Today, in the United States, schools, churches, halls and parks bear Lind’s name and, at least, 33 streets, according to the Census. You can visit towns named Jenny Lind in Arkansas, California and North Carolina. Most well-known today are Jenny Lind beds and cribs, modeled on the turned-spindle bed-frame that Lind slept on during her stay in New York.

Antislavery advocates also saw an opportunity to advance their cause through association with Lind. Historian Scott Gac reports that two years prior to Lind’s visit, the leading abolitionist paper, The Liberator, raised money through the sale of medallions with the likeness of Lind. That wish that Lind would be an ally was tested the moment her ship, the Atlantic, docked in New York. At the sight of the United States flag, Lind exclaimed, as if coached or with a shrewd eye to public relations herself, “There is the beautiful standard of freedom, the oppressed of all nations worship it.”

The British humor magazine Punch took Lind to task for the thoughtless banality of the remark in view of the more than 3 million people in bondage in the country where she disembarked. It reflected, they jabbed, “a sly sense of humor, no doubt, and a general recollection of all she had heard about the slave-trade, and the treatment of Mr. Frederic Douglas (sic), the colored newspaper editor.” More seriously, British abolitionist Algernon Cooper observed that Lind’s comments appeared in the same American newspaper that reported on the sale of young black men offered for sale, by the pound, like livestock. Undeterred by Lind’s immediate misstep, American abolitionists pressed forward with their case.

The enormously successful Hutchinson Family Singers, a Baptist-raised New England quartet consisting of three abolitionist brothers and a sister (Abby, 20 years old at the time, was known as the “Jenny Lind of America,”) were among the first to visit with Lind after her arrival. The group had effectively been Frederick Douglass’s house band during his 1840s abolitionist lecture tour of England; their song, “Get Off the Track,” became the unofficial anthem of the Liberty Party, a national antislavery party.

Even with a repertoire of antislavery songs, “The Hutchinsons were extraordinarily wealthy” says Scott Gac, author of their definitive biography. On September 21, 1850, the group traveled to New York and serenaded Lind in her hotel suite with a song Jesse Hutchinson wrote for the occasion, “Welcome to Jenny Lind.” In tight harmony that Lind would praise, they sang, “From the snow-clad hills of Sweden, like a bird of love from Eden, Lo! She comes with songs of freedom, Jenny comes from o’er the sea.”

With each verse, the Hutchinsons sought to sing into existence a Jenny Lind allied in their cause. “That’s what they would do for a lot of public figures,” says Gac. “They would craft a song to them or for them to try to frame this public stance.” While the song gallantly proclaimed, “Jenny sings for liberty,” Lind did not take the bait. She commended the family on their performance and switched the topic to her longing for the comforts of home. In his book, Gac writes, “Their effort failed.”

Throughout the first few stops of her tour, Lind remained silent on the topic of slavery. Her seeming disinterest in the matter came to be a massive disappointment to abolitionists considering that her tour throughout the North transpired as protests erupted in reaction to the immediate enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Writer Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman living in New York, describing the juxtaposition of these events, wrote, “[W]hile fashionables were listening to the thrilling voice of Jenny Lind in Metropolitan Hall, the thrilling voices of poor hunted people went up, in an agony of supplication, to the Lord, from Zion church. Many families who had lived in the city for twenty years, fled from it now.” Abolitionist heroes, William and Ellen Craft, fled Boston days after Lind’s concerts there, evading bounty hunters from Georgia. Throngs of Bostonians drove the bounty hunters from the city.

Then, the evening of Lind’s debut in Philadelphia, African Americans gathered at Independence Hall to demand the release of Henry Garnet, a man who had made the city his home for years, and was now defending himself against Fugitive Slave Act charges in a courtroom a floor above the Liberty Bell (an icon among abolitionists, who so named the bell for its inscription from Leviticus about the liberation of slaves).

If Lind sympathized with the “oppressed of all nations,” abolitionists wanted her to demonstrate it by extending her much-touted philanthropy to antislavery organizations. “The Liberator is where they take Jenny Lind to task, and Barnum most intensely,” says Jennifer Lynn Stoever, an English professor at Binghamton University. “They did not pull punches in the Liberator, at all, about her silence.”

When a rumor circulated that Lind had made a $1000 contribution to an antislavery group, Barnum publicly shot down the claim for fear it would alienate audiences in the South, where she was scheduled to tour for several months. “[Barnum] is incredibly attuned to the political climate and the cultural climate. I see Barnum in 1850 as treading a cautious line,” says scholar Bluford Adams, author of E Pluribus Barnum.

In an exchange of letters published by The Liberator, the editor of the Daily Union, a D.C-based pro-slavery newspaper, inquired of Barnum in December 1850:

“I understand that there is an insidious report in secret circulation, calculated, if not designed, to injure the success of M’lle Lind in this city and in the South. It is insinuated that, besides the numerous acts of beneficence which she has conferred on our countrymen, and which do her so much honor, she has presented an association of abolitionists in the North with one thousand dollars, for the purpose of promoting their alarming and detestable projects. Do me the favor to say whether this report is not without the slightest foundation.”

Barnum responded:

“In reply to your letter yesterday, inquiring whether there is any truth in the report that M’lle Jenny Lind has given a donation to an association of Abolitionists, I beg to state most emphatically that there is not the slightest foundation for such a statement. I feel no hesitation in saying that this lady never gave a farthing for any such purpose, and that her oft expressed admiration for our noble system of government convinces me that she prizes too dearly the glorious institutions of our country to lend the slightest sanction to any attack upon the Union of these States.”

The Liberator headlined the exchange “Ludicrous and Pitiable,” another example of Lind’s refusal to speak out on slavery.

Instead, Lind granted a reception to the very politicians who had brokered the America’s compromise with slavery when she traveled to Washington in December 1850 for two performances at the National Theatre. President Millard Fillmore called on Lind at the Willard Hotel (which now boasts a Jenny Lind suite) the morning after her arrival. House Speaker Howell Cobb, of Georgia, described the audience at the second of Lind’s performances there, “the most brilliant…ever assembled in this city.”

In addition to Cobb, the audience included other major proponents of the Compromise of 1850: President Fillmore, Senator Henry Clay, and Secretary of State Daniel Webster. At the close of the show, Lind, from the stage, exchanged repeated bows and curtsies with Secretary Webster, of Massachusetts, the man abolitionists charged with selling out the North by leading the government’s enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lind visited Cobb in his House chambers, and watched Senator Clay, of Kentucky, argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A University of Georgia history professor, writing in 1960, captured the view of official Washington during Lind’s visit, which is at odds with the antislavery sentiment that was roiling the North: “Americans had just saved the Union from disruption over the slavery question….the Swedish artist thus reached the United States at a time when its people were in the grip of luxuriant jubilation unrivalled in thirty years.”

Of course, it should have occurred to antislavery advocates that Jenny Lind might not actually be a believer in their cause. Judith Griffiths, a British abolitionist who lodged with Douglass’s family and managed his business affairs, concluded this when she met with Lind during her stop in Rochester, New York, in July 1851. In a letter to Gerrit Smith, the 1848 presidential candidate for the Liberty Party, Griffith wrote, "[U]niversally benevolent as [Lind] is decent, the colored people are regarded by her as beneath humanity - and too unworthy to be educated…" Griffiths continued, “[Lind] seemed horrified at colored people—I now know for myself that she is thoroughly pro-slavery—I am so grieved.”

That Lind actually looked down on black people is consistent with the observations of Maunsell Field, a law partner of abolitionist John Jay, who later served in the Treasury Department under Abraham Lincoln. In his memoir, Field portrays himself as an unwitting bystander drawn into Lind’s circle when she summoned him to her New York hotel to draw up a formal contract between Barnum and Lind.

Field recorded his experience with Lind around the time of the first concert of the tour, held at the city’s Castle Garden. Barnum took to the stage to announce that Lind was donating the night’s proceeds to a dozen charities, including $500 each to the Home for Colored and Aged Persons and the Colored Orphan Asylum. Barnum proudly declared that Lind, with him, selected the charities without regard to race, creed or history of servitude. Yet, Field reveals in his memoir that he, not Lind, picked where the proceeds would be donated. “I asked her to what institutions I was to present it, and she told me to select them myself,” he wrote. He and a couple others made a list, which she approved, barely reading it. Overall, Field appraised Lind as “a calm, sensible, conscientious woman of high principles, rather calculating than emotional.” But he concludes the chapter with a two-sentence paragraph: “She had an abhorrence for negroes she could not overcome. ‘They are so ugly,’ she used to say.’”

Yet, moments before Lind departed the United States in June 1852, she made a $100 contribution to Harriet Beecher Stowe, to help purchase the freedom of the Edmondsons, a family enslaved in Washington, D.C. Stowe recounts in a letter to her husband how the donation came about. Stowe asked a friend to help her get tickets to Lind’s farewell concert in New York. The friend, George C. Howard, visited the box-office early to buy tickets only to meet Otto Goldschmidt, Jenny Lind’s pianist, whom Lind had married earlier that year in Boston. “Mr. Goldschmidt told him it was impossible to get any good ones, as they were all sold.”

Upon learning whom the tickets were for, Goldschmidt exclaimed, “Mrs. Stowe!... the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin? Indeed, she shall have a seat whatever happens!” Stowe sent Lind a note of thanks with a copy of her book, and received a letter back, where Lind wrote:

“You must feel and know what a deep impression Uncle Tom's Cabin has made upon every heart that can feel for the dignity of human existence…I must thank you for the great joy I have felt over that book… I have the feeling about Uncle Tom's Cabin that great changes will take place by and by… and that the writer of that book can fall asleep to-day or tomorrow with the bright, sweet conscience of having been a strong means in the Creator's hand of operating essential good in one of the most important questions for the welfare of our black brethren.”

Lind also responded to Stowe’s appeal to her on behalf of Edmondsons: “It is with pleasure also that I and my husband are placing our humble names on the list you sent… Hoping that in the length of time you may live to witness the progression of the good sake for which you so nobly have fought, my best wishes go with you.”

What accounts for Lind’s change of heart not even a year after Julia Griffiths discerned that Lind was “pro-slavery” and revolted by blacks? Could she have really changed?

“One of the dangers,” Gac warns, in judging 19th-century historical figures, “is to immediately align pro-slavery and antislavery with racism and anti-racism.” Joan Hedrick, a scholar on Stowe, says, “Most abolitionists didn’t believe in social equality with people of color.” So, the objectionable views that Lind expressed to Field and Griffiths didn’t foreclose the evolution of her views on slavery.

Hedrick suggests that Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have changed Lind’s heart. “Clearly she was affected,” Hedrick says. “[Her letter to Stowe] is more testimony of the power of the book to make white people understand the subjectivity of black people in a way they never had before… I don’t think you need to look any further.”

Stowe had published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in serial form in The National Era over the course of 40 weeks, starting in June 1851. So, in the final year of Lind’s stay in the United States, the story was gaining readers, culminating in its publication in novel form in June 1852, when Lind was departing the United States. In its first year of publication, the book sold 300,000 copies in the United States, and 1.5 million in Great Britain. Hedrick says, “[The book] affects people. I have no reason to think [Lind] was not responding the way the majority of people did who read it.”

Jenny Lind’s 21 months in America began with, at best, indifference to the fate of enslaved African-Americans, and ended in prominent public support for antislavery upon her departure; the soprano’s name headed Stowe’s list of those who contributed to the purchase of the Edmondsons’ freedom.

Maybe it is wrong, then, to conclude the Hutchinson Family Singers “failed” in their effort to get Lind to sing for freedom; this was not a battle to be won in one day. For once the Hutchinsons started singing, it may have been inevitable that Lind would one day join the chorus. Perhaps, the Hutchinsons had divined in the closing lines of “Get Off the Track” that, in a moral universe, people of conscience had no choice, sooner or later, to join them:

See the people run to meet us;
At the Depot thousands greet us.
All take seats with exultation
In the car Emancipation.
Huzza! Huzza!
Emancipation soon will bless our happy nation!
Huzza!... Huzza!… Huzza!...

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