The McHenry Literary Society

 In the early part of 1877, some of McHenry’s citizens put together the McHenry Literary Society. The earliest literary societies were said to have been formed in the Middle Ages. Literary Societies were very popular in America in the late 1870s. In McHenry County alone, there were Literary Societies in Woodstock, Crystal Lake, Ringwood, Salon Mills, and Greenwood during that time. The Societies put together programming that sought to be informative as well as entertaining. One of the reasons they were established was so people could get together and discuss prearranged books and debate topics of the day, sing songs and eat treats. McHenry’s Literary Society held some of its well-known citizenry, George Gage, Jay Van Slyke, the Overtons, the Grangers among others. Meetings or programs were held at the Methodist Church on Main Street at 7:30 pm, usually on Wednesdays. Some of the topics debated were: Who did more for America, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. Also discussed was, should suffrage (voting rights) be based on one’s education. The Society usually held its meetings from December until the end of April.  

Eliza Ann Young, in photograph taken in 1875. one of the Library Association’s speakers. Compliments of the Library of Congress.

The following year, the Literary Society either changed its name to the McHenry Literary Association or probably the Association was another group altogether, it’s hard to say which. Either way, in February 1879, the McHenry Literary Association decided to hire speakers for a series of lectures held at the Universalist Church. Before the advent of the radio or television, bringing speakers to a lecture was a great way to offer live entertainment to a small village. The first speaker the group had was Eliza Ann Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young, the President of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Despite, being involved in polygamy, Eliza Ann ended up being an outspoken critic of the practice and spoke as an advocate of women’s rights. It was noted that Ms. Young’s lecture was well attended despite some inclement weather. The second speaker was Civil War veteran, General Judson Kilpatrick. After a highly decorated military career, Kilpatrick became the U.S. Ambassador to Chili in 1866. On 19 February 1879, he presented “Sherman’s March to the Sea”, a military operation that Gen. Kilpatrick took part in. Both speakers cost the Literary Association $75, which the group planned to make back in ticket sales. A ticket for the entire lecture series would cost $1 and .35 for a single lecture.

General Judson Kilpatrick, presented “Sherman’s March to the Sea” to the McHenry audience in February 1879. Compliments of the Library of Congress.

Starting in March, the Association featured William Stanley, a comedic entertainer who imitated many famous humorists of the time. Some of those portrayed were famous in their day and included, Nasby on the Red Ribbon and Josh Billings on the Telephone. Stanley also recited from William Shakespeare and Scott Tennyson. Stanley finished with some of his own works of comedy. The next speaker was George W. Bailey, also known as Tank Kee, an expert on China. He presented twice for the Literary Association and was scheduled to be touring the entire spring of 1879. He dressed in Chinese garb for his performance and brought many different types of Chinese items for attendees to see. He ended up donating 1,290 books of his Chinese book collection to the Newberry Library in Chicago. Some items included swords, paintings, coins, jewelry, and many others. He did so well that the Association hired him on to do three more lectures in June of 1879. This time was the peak in McHenry for Literary Clubs. Shortly after this lecture series, the Literary Society (Association) fizzled out for a while. Whether it was from lack of interest, financing or something else is hard to say. The McHenry Literary Society had a short resurgence in the early 20th century. They continued with the smaller-scale meetings, lectures, and deserts.

Ad for the McHenry Literary Society appearing in the 28 Nov 1877 McHenry Plaindealer.

  • “Lecture Course” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 5 Feb 1879, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “McHenry Literary Society” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 10 Apr 1878, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “McHenry Literary Society” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 17 Apr 1878, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “McHenry Literary Society” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 5 Dec 1877, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “Lectures by G. William Bailey” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 11 Jun 1879, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “China and the Chinese” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 5 Mar 1875, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “The Lecture by G. W. Bailey” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 12 Mar 1875, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “Entertainment to be Given By Wm. Stanley” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 26 Feb 1879, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “Entertainment of a Combined and Classic…” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 19 Feb 1879, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “Gen. Kilpatrick” The McHenry Plaindealer. (McHenry, IL) 12 Feb 1879, 5. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • “Anne Eliza Will Deliver Her New Lecture” The Woodstock Sentinel. (Woodstock, IL) 13 Feb 1879, 4. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • DeCou, C. (2018, October 17). Tank kee’s LIBRARY: Christopher decou. Lapham’s Quarterly.
  • Houseworth, Thomas, photographer. Houseworth’s celebrities: Mrs. Ann Eliza Young, 19th wife of Brigham Young / Thomas Houseworth & Co., photographers. , ca. 1875. Photograph. Web. 16 Aug 2021.
  • Gen. Judson Kilpatrick. , None. [Between 1855 and 1865] Photograph. Web. 16 Aug 2021.