Franklin Benjamin Sanborn was born 15 December 1831 in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire to parents Aaron Sanborn and Lydia (Leavitt) Sanborn. From an early age Sanborn’s academic career was promising—having claimed to read works such as Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe before the age of twelve. During his twenties Sanborn decided to pursue a higher education. With the encouragement of Ariana Smith Walker and Dr. Joseph G. Hoyt Sanborn enrolled as a student at Philips Exeter Academy in 1851. He remained there for seven months before entering Harvard as a sophomore in July 1852.
Although an early supporter of his education, Walker and Sanborn had only met a year prior to his enrollment at Philips Exeter. The two would go on to form an intimate relationship that lasted until Walker’s death in 1854. Having presumably suffered from an unknown neurological condition for the majority of her life, Walker’s health deteriorated shortly after her engagement to Sanborn. The two married in haste in August 1854 when it became clear that Walker would never recover—she died just eight days after their ceremony.
While devastated by the loss of his wife Sanborn continued his studies at Harvard. In January 1855 while serving as editor of Harvard Magazine Sanborn published Edward Morton’s essay “Thoreau and His Books”, which contained reviews of both A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden. Upon reading Morton’s essay Thoreau travelled to Cambridge to deliver a message to Morton in addition to a copy of one of his books.*
Sanborn recalls Thoreau’s visit as follows:
My own acquaintance with Thoreau. . . sprang from the accident of my editing for a few weeks the “Harvard Magazine,” a college monthly, in 1854-55, in which appeared a long review of “Walden” and the “Week”. In acknowledgment of this review, which was laudatory and made many quotations from his two volumes, Thoreau, whom I had never seen, called at my room in Holworthy Hall, Cambridge, in January, 1855, and left there in my absence, a copy of the “Week” with a message implying it was for the writer of the magazine article. It so happened that I was in the College Library when Thoreau was calling on me, and when he came, directly after, to the Library, some one present pointed him out to me as the author of “Walden”. I was then a senior in college, and soon to go on my winter vacation; in course of which I wrote to Thoreau from my native town. . .(Henry D. Thoreau, pp. 195-6)
On 30 January 1855 Sanborn writes to Thoreau about his visit to Cambridge:
My dear Sir,—
I have had it in mind to write you a letter ever sine the day when you visited me, without my knowing it, at Cambridge. I saw you afterward at the Library, but refrained from introducing myself to you, in the hope that I should see you later in the day. But as I did not, will you allow me to seek you out, when next I come to Concord?
Sanborn writes about his 30 January 1855 letter to Thoreau along with a description of Thoreau’s appearance in his biography Henry D. Thoreau (1888):
This note, which I had entirely forgotten, and of which I trust my friend soon forgave the pertness, came to me recently among his papers; with one exception, it is the only letter that passed between us, I think, in an acquaintance of more than seven years. Some six weeks after its date, I went to live in Concord, and happened to take rooms in Mr. Channing’s house, just across the way from Thoreau’s. I met him more than once in March, 1855, but he did not call on my sister and me until the 11th of April, when I made the following brief note of his appearance:—
“To-night we had a call from Mr. Thoreau, who came at eight and stayed till ten. He talked about Latin and Greek—which he thought ought to be studies—and about other things. In his tones and gestures he seemed to me to imitate Emerson, so that it was annoying to listen to him, though he said many good things. He looks like Emerson, too,—coarser, but with something of that serenity and sagacity which E. has. Thoreau looks eminently sagacious—like a sort of wise, wild beast. He dresses plainly, wears a beard in his throat, and has a brown complextion.”
A month or two later my diary expanded this sketch a little, with out particulars:—
“He is a little under size, with huge Emersonian nose, bluish gray eyes, brown hair, and a ruddy weather-beaten face, which reminds me of some shrewd and honest animal’s—some retired philosophical woodchuck or magnanimous fox. He dresses very plainly, wears his collar turned over like Mr. Emerson” [we young collegians then wearing ours upright], “and often and old dress-coat, broad in the skirts, and by no means a fit. He walks about with a brisk, rustic air, and never seems tired.” (pp. 198-9)
An active member of several Massachusetts abolitionist groups, Sanborn left Concord during the summer of 1856 and travelled west in order to report back on the progress of the Massachusetts Free-Soil Party. It was during this trip that Sanborn became acquainted with the abolitionist John Brown. In 1857 Sanborn brought Brown to Concord where he was introduced to Gerrit Smith, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, Samuel Gridley Howe, and George Luther Stearns—members of the “Secret Six” who financially supported Brown’s October 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry. Sanborn was arrested the following spring in April 1860 at his home in Concord for his involvement with Brown. His arrest was deemed illegal by judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar and Sanborn spent only a single night in jail.
Although he never fully got over the loss of Ariana Walker, Sanborn remarried in 1862 and had three children—Thomas Parker, Victor Channing, and Francis Bachiler—with his second wife Louisa Augusta Leavitt.
In 1863 he was appointed secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Charities. Between 1865 and 1874 Sanborn helped found numerous charitable schools and organizations including the Clarke School for the Deaf (now the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech), the American Social Science Association, and the National Conference of Charities and Correction. In 1879 he helped establish the Concord School of Philosophy and during that same year was appointed the state’s General Inspector of Charities—a position he held until 1888. In 1880 while visiting a state run almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts a young and partially blind Anne Sullivan approached Sanborn and requested that she be allowed to attend school. Sanborn complied and Sullivan was sent to the Perkins School for the Blind where she later taught Helen Keller.
Sanborn authored numerous biographies on some of Concord’s most influential figures such as Amos Bronson Alcott, Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Thoreau. He was a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly and Springfield Republican along with several other Boston and Concord based papers.
In January 1917 Sanborn sustained what proved to be a fatal injury when he was struck by a baggage cart while waiting for a train at Plainfield Station in New Jersey. Sanborn lived another month before succumbing to his injury and died 24 February 1917 at the age of 86. He is buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.
*There is some discrepancy as to whether Thoreau gave Morton a copy of A Week or Walden. In his biography Henry D. Thoreau Sanborn states that Thoreau left a copy of A Week whereas Walter Harding in his The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography claims it was a copy of Walden. It is possible that Sanborn could have confused which of the two books Thoreau gave Morton. For one thing Sanborn writes that he was not present when Thoreau left the book for him to deliver to Morton. Second, Sanborn had also visited Ralph Waldo Emerson in Concord several months prior in which Emerson is said to have given him a copy of A Week.
Texts by Franklin Sanborn
- A. Bronson Alcott; His Life and Philosophy (1893)
- Bronson Alcott at Alcott House, England, and Fruitlands, New England (1842-44)
- Dr. S. G. Howe, the Philanthropist (1862)
- Emerson and His Friends in Concord (1890)
- Hawthorne and His Friends: Reminiscence and Tribute (1908)
- Henry D. Thoreau (1888)
- Personality of Emerson (1903)
- Personality of Thoreau (1901)
- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1901)
- Recollections of Seventy Years, vol. I-II (1909)
- “The Virginia Campaign of John Brown”, The Atlantic Monthly (Jan. 1875, Feb. 1875, Mar. 1875, Apr. 1875, May 1875, Dec. 1875)
- Life of Henry David Thoreau: Including Many Essays Hitherto Unpublished, and Some Account of His Family and Friends (1917)