Catherine Cooper Hopley, Renaissance Woman

Ambrotype portrait Hopley at age 42, 1859. Via Ohio Memory.
Ambrotype portrait of Hopley at age 42, 1859. Via Ohio Memory.
Portrait of Hopley later in life, holding a small turtle, via Ohio Memory.
Portrait of Hopley later in life, holding a small turtle, via Ohio Memory.

 

Ohio has many notable families, both at the state and local level. In the area of Bucyrus, starting around 1850, one of those well-known family names would have been the Hopleys, who made their mark on the state in a number of ways. John Hopley, the patriarch of the family, was notable as a teacher, lawyer and postmaster, as an active member of the Republican Party, and as the owner of two Bucyrus newspapers.  Members of the Hopley clan (which included John, his wife Georgianna, and their nine surviving children) were active in such pursuits as business, politics, journalism, the temperance movement, and women’s suffrage.

But for all the many contributions of the Ohio Hopleys, today’s blog post actually highlights John’s elder sister–a fascinating woman named Catherine Cooper Hopley, who can now be seen on Ohio Memory, and whose birthday was this past weekend. Catherine was born nearly 200 years ago, on October 5, 1817. She was born and lived most of her life in England, but spent a good amount of time in the United States and in Ohio, particularly around where her brother and his family lived.

Cover of Snakes, which is available in its entirety from archive.org.
Cover of Snakes, which is available in its entirety from Archive.org.

 

This renaissance woman is perhaps best-known for being the first author of a popular book on snakes, published in 1882, entitled Snakes: Curiosities and Wonders of Serpent Life. Catherine made a number of other important contributions to the study of herpetology–unusual for a woman during this era–and did fieldwork on snake populations in Ohio and beyond. She also authored a variety of other texts, including scientific work like  “Sketches of the Ophidians” (1873), as well as cultural writings like “Life in the South” (1863) and “Adventures in the Wilds of the West” (1872). According to Artists in Ohio, 1787–1900: A Biographical Dictionary, Catherine worked as a tutor in Ohio and then in the south at the start of the Civil War, during which time her habits of writing letters and drawing sketches “made some Virginians suspect her of being a Yankee spy.” (425) In addition to her numerous published books and efforts in art, she also spent time in Cleveland as the personal guest of Mrs. James A. Garfield, and served as governess to the children of Florida governor John Milton for a time during the war years.

Catherine’s many talents and interests are widely-represented in the collections of the Ohio History Connection, and materials related to her can be found across our library, archives and museum catalogs. These range from a pamphlet on “British Reptiles and Batrachians” (call number PA Box 123–15) to a diploma for “best specimen of fancy drawing” at the annual fair at Logan, Ohio, in 1854 (OVS 5553) to a number of drawings and paintings of sites and scenes around Ohio and the country.

In the Hopley Family Papers (MSS 164), we also hold a half dozen boxes full of journals and correspondence by Catherine, covering her scientific studies, her travels, her literary efforts, reminiscences and more. Although she was not a native Ohioan, the Ohio History Connection is lucky to hold such a rich collection related to this remarkable woman, who made a significant impact on our understanding of our country, our history and the natural world.


Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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