Henry Charles Lea  

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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.


Henry Charles Lea was educated at home. His tutor was Eugenius Nulty, a native of Ireland who taught Henry Lea and his older brother, Mathew Carey Lea (called Carey) such subjects as Latin, Greek, the major European languages, mathematics, chemistry, botany, and celestial navigation. From the start Henry Charles Lea was encouraged to master far more difficult lessons than were commonly expected for a boy his age; he had a ready facility for languages and analytical thought. Henry and Carey 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. Henry 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 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 for a Study 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. With regard to his study of the Inquisitions, although it is widely considered to be groundbreaking, many believe it to be hindered in some regards by his bias.


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