Who was Alice Lincoln?

November 25, 2018

By Volunteer Docent Robin Hazard Ray

On one of the more out-of-the-way paths at Mount Auburn, under a stone that is barely readable, lie the remains of a woman who changed Boston history. Being childless, and having been followed to the grave by her husband within a month of her death, her story remained unwritten. Had it not been for the research of Mount Auburn volunteer Bill McEvoy, we would still be ignorant of the remarkable Alice North Lincoln (1852–1926, Lot 817 Snowdrop Path), who started good institutions in Boston and closed bad ones.

McEvoy was researching deaths on Rainsford Island—one of the Boston Harbor Islands—which served variously as a quarantine station, a pauper hospital, and a boys’ reformatory. He discovered that in 1894, complaints by one Alice Lincoln led to 54 days of hearings before the Boston City Council on the appalling conditions at Rainsford, which was then a women’s pauper hospital. Acting as her attorney in eliciting witness testimony was Louis Brandeis (1856–1941), later associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The testimony was hair-raising. Lincoln and other visitors had discovered on Rainsford Island dozens of ailing women, some with infants, many elderly, packed into an old hospital building. The food was revolting, and there was never enough milk for the infants, though the superintendent’s dogs got a quart a day. The attic was drafty and distant from any lavatory, yet beds were crammed under rafters with just inches of headroom. A fire in such a place would have meant death to almost all so housed. The women had no place to sit during the day and were confined to their beds at night.

The superintending physician, Dr. Jenks, did not take well to being questioned about conditions on the island; he testily asked one of the City Council members, “Have you any more damned old women cranks to bring before me? If you have, you can trot them in now.” In the end, the testimony forced the closure of the Rainsford Island Hospital and the removal of its patients to places more easily visited and supervised.

Who was this Alice Lincoln? The Rainsford Island research led McEvoy down a long trail of discovery.

She was born Alice North Towne to a prosperous Philadelphia family with Boston connections. Her aunt Sophia Towne Darrah (1819–1881, Lot 4701 Kalmia Path) was a talented painter of New England landscapes. Alice moved to Boston as a young adult to attend the School of Social Work and married Roland Lincoln, a Harvard graduate, at the age of 27. She quickly moved into activism on behalf of the urban poor.

One of her efforts, done in partnership with a friend, was to rent an entire 27-unit tenement building in Boston’s North End for $1,000 a month. The building was notorious for its filth and its unruly immigrant inhabitants. Keeping careful track of expenditures and rental income, the partners demonstrated that a vigilant landlord could still make a profit while improving sanitation, fixing peeling paint and plumbing, and treating tenants like sentient human beings. “We did not attempt too much at once,” she later wrote. “We expected to improve the character of the inmates as we did that of the house, gradually. It has been my experience that tenants of this class often need only the stimulus which interest and sympathy give to enable them to do better.”[1]

In addition to her success in closing Rainsford Island and providing decent housing for the poor, Alice Lincoln funded a medal given by the Animal Rescue League for valor in saving animals and was an early and vocal advocate of cremation. In 1894, she addressed the New England Cremation Society, describing a cremation she had witnessed:

“We stood in silence, watching the rosy glow which played over the white surface of the retort, a feeling came over us of awe, certainly, but also of peace and rest. There was something so spiritual, so elevating, in the absolute purity of the intense heat that it seems to all of us who stood there far less appalling than the blackness of the open grave.”

Her cremated remains lie in her husband’s family plot, alongside her husband’s coffin.

[1] Marcus T. Reynolds, “The Housing of the Poor in American Cities,” Publications of the American Economic Association, Vol. 8, nos. 2–3 (1893), pp 65–66.



  1. Nancy Hewitt says:

    I Love reading the historic stories of Mt. Auburn Cemetery. They are inspiring as well as entertaining. It is important to remember our history. Especially in our own backyards!

  2. Gail Garda says:

    Thank you for this story about this remarkable Towne family “cousin”. Your article was emailed to me by a member of TFA (Towne Family Association, Inc.), of which I am the current president. Alice comes from a family of remarkable men and women. TFA was founded in 1980 and is a genealogical family group of the descendants of William and Joanna Towne who immigrated from Great Yarmouth, England to Salem, MA in about 1635. They had 8 children. Alice is a descendant of their eldest son, Edmund Towne (I am also an Edmund descendant). Alice’s father, John Henry Towne (1818-1875), her brother, Henry Robinson Towne (1844-1924), and her aunt Laura Matilda Towne (1825-1901) (Sophia’s younger sister), were also well known figures of their time, and written about in various articles and books. I would love to have you permission to republish this article in our TFA quarterly newsletter “About Towne”, which is distributed to our members and libraries throughout the US.

    • Bill McEvoy says:

      Gail, I have just completed a PowerPoint presentation about Alice North Towne Lincoln. Several months ago, I was asked by a friend to give a presentation to the Lexington, MA chapter of the DAR. That is scheduled for January. My friend requested that I speak about any interesting person who was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery (MAC). Although I did not find Alice on the rolls of the DAR I was able to find her eligible as a descendant of Robert Tevis. (1752-1846)

      Two years ago, I gave a presentation to them about Mary Phinney von Olnhausen who is buried at MAC. I came across her in early 2011 as I was researching the Veterans of the Civil War buried at MAC. Mary was featured in my Non-Combatants of the Civil War buried at MAC. Julia Ward Howe was also featured in that program. Julia Ward Howe and Alice Lincoln were noted in the newspapers as attendees at meetings to assist various causes in the Boston.

      Mary was from the Lexington Phinneys and a nurse during the Civil War. She, as well as Clara Barton, later served as nurses during the Franco-Prussian War. Both Mary and Clara were awarded the Iron Cross of Merit.

      Five years later, I was surprised when PBS presented the series “Mercy”. I was ahead of the curve in bringing her story to light.

      I have accumulated about 200 newspaper articles that mention Alice. She was also noted in many books, periodicals and government reports. The picture noted above is from the front page of the Boston Post, July 5, 1903. It was the only likeness of her that could find. I have also been unable to locate a picture of Alice and Roland’s residence from 1906 to 1926. It was located on South Street, Forest Hills, near the Arnold Arboretum. The home was named Stoneleigh. I have yet to locate a picture of that residence. I do have pictures of rubble that remains at the top of a kettle hole on the almost 7 acre lot.

      I have recently completed a three years long research project of Rainsford Island. It is a horrible story. I did not begin that project with the intention it being comprehensive. However, I found it to be a human off-shore dumping ground for many of Boston’s outcasts; the poor, criminals, the physically and mentally ill, the addicted, unwed mothers and children, as well as those that were sent there while pregnant.

      The story of Rainsford Island needed to be told. There are at least 1,770 men, women, children and infants buried in the one acre cemetery on the less than eleven acre island. There are no grave markers.

      That number includes 117 Veterans of the Civil War. Of that number there are 14 African American Veterans, including one man who severed with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment from March 1863 to August 1865. That Veteran of the “Glory Regiment” died at Rainsford in 1882.

      My motivation, like any good detective, was to speak for the dead, as well as those that suffered and survived.

      Alice and Louis Brandeis were the only bright lights to be found during this project. I am glad that I traveled down the path when I first saw her name. Alice’s obituary, in 1926, noted that she was an invalid during her final 15 years. She was 73. It would not be unreasonable to speculate that her tireless efforts for good of others took its toll. Her husband, Roland died three weeks after Alice.

      All of the Townes should be proud of Alice and Roland.

    • Jennifer Johnston says:

      Hi Gail, Thank you for your interest in Mount Auburn Cemetery. Someone will be in touch with you shortly.

  3. Keith Arbour says:

    This seemingly easy essay is brilliantly distilled research that well reminds of the impact of a caring practical person whose example should not be forgotten. Thanks for your fine and important work.

  4. Alice van Huijzen says:

    Just found some letters from her and her husband in the archive of our Museum in The Hague (NL), where they wrote about the purchase of a painting. Wanted to know who she was.
    After reading this, I can only think WOW!

  5. Doug Horan says:

    Gail and Bill,

    I came across this comment section only recently, and I was very interested to see your comments. My wife and I currently own Little Orchard, which was the summer residence of Alice and her husband Roland Lincoln from 1884 to 1926, when they died. They did an extraordinary job converting Little Orchard from a simple farm house (circa 1700) into a charming country house with exceptional architectural details. I have a great deal of historical material (photos, deeds, contenmporary records) about the house, including owners prior and subsequent to Alice and Roland Lincoln. If you are interested in seeing it, let me know. I would be interested in seeing the publications and other materials you mention. Let me know if you are willing to share it.


    Doug Horan

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