Celebrating Abba May Alcougar Nieriker

29 Jul

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I cannot let too much time go by without acknowledging my youngest sister in my first iteration, Abigail May Alcougar Nieriker.

 

Abba, was born July 26, 1840. We quickly changed her nickname to “May” because we did not want her getting confused with a Swedish singing group of the same name. We were very afraid that she’d parade around Concord in whacky disco outfits telling everyone she was a dancing queen. She could not sing, either.

 

She was, however, quite the painter, showing promise from a very early age. Despite my parents’ lean budget, art lessons were assured. (One could say they were an “investment,” as May later helped supplement the family finances as an art teacher.) Here is one of her most famous, and I think beautiful, paintings, “La Negresse,” dated 1879. 

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My parents encouraged May to practice her art so much, she was allowed to draw and paint on the walls! If you visit Orchard House, you will see some of her work preserved along the walls near the gift shop. 

 

(I should note here that Orchard House did not have a gift shop while we were living there.) 

 

May owes her height – she was about 5 feet 9 inches, a giant by 19th-century standards – and blonde hair and blue eyes to the Alcott family genetic lottery. This, coupled with her flair for flirting, made her attractive to men. But like me, she held off on marriage. We saw how unfortunate our parents’ union was. 

 

One of May’s students was Daniel Chester French. You may recognize that name from the Lincoln Memorial. I like to think that Dan incorporated my baby sister’s artistic and abolitionist influences into his masterpiece. (As of this posting, the Lincoln Memorial has been vandalized with green paint, which my pub and I find very sad.)

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May also illustrated the first edition of “Little Women.” If you have a copy, you have quite an asset. Try not to leave it on the seat when you get off the train. While on this thread, does anyone know how “The Septembers of Shiraz” ended? My publicist was wondering. 

 

After I started receiving sizable royalty checks from the sale of Little Women, I paid for May’s travels to Europe so she could take her art even further. She had studied abroad twice already and found there were no better teachers than the energy of Paris and the beauty of Rome. As predicted, May blossomed. Did you know she is the first American woman to have a still life exhibited in the Paris Salon? We have always been very proud of May.  Here it is:

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Go to this link (but come back!) to see more of May’s work.  

May was living in England when she was in her late 30s, and she began falling for a successful Swiss banker and violinist named Ernest Nieriker. Ernie was 15 years younger than May, a detail May took care of by simply lopping off 10 years when Ernie asked how old she was. Just like that, snip, they were gone.

 

It may not have been the most honest thing in the world, but it got her an MRS title, which she decided she wanted after all. May and Ernie married and she changed her name to Abigail May Alcouger.

 

May wrote a few books, one on how to live as an artist in Europe on the cheap. Actually, any of us Alcotts could have written a book on how to live anywhere with no money, thanks to dad’s occupation of “Transcendentalist.” 

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One year later, the Alcougar/Nieriker family was living in a Parisian suburb. May gave birth to a daughter Louisa May Nieriker on Nov. 8, 1879. Sadly, all was not well. May never recovered from the delivery and died six weeks later. Modern physicians have looked at her symptoms and think she died of “child bed fever.” That is, she may have developed an infection while delivering Lulu. 

 

I think it is amazing how far we’ve come. I had my feline “birthday shots” just this weekend in a sterile environment with the finest equipment and staff available. A well-heeled women in the 1880s still had to worry about poor sanitary conditions in the delivery room. Thank goodness we’ve moved forward from this. 

 

I received the news of May’s passing in Concord. I also learned that she asked that I raise Lulu. I was too sick to travel, so a relative of Ernie’s sailed to the U.S. with our niece.

 

My health never rebounded, so our sister Anna did much of the upbringing. When Lulu was 8, I joined my sister May in the great Orchard House in the sky. Anna and her youngest son John traveled to Germany to return Lulu to Ernie. Lulu lived a long and healthy life, not joining us until 1975. 

 

A misconception about May is that she is buried alongside us in the Alcatt plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. She is buried in Paris, where her heart is. We do have a marker for her in Concord out of respect. 

 

Here is a little something I wrote for my dear little sister, who we called, “Our Madonna:”

 

A maiden full of lofty dreams
Slender, fair, and tall
As all the goddesses she traced
Upon her chamber wall
 

 I hope you enjoyed learning about another wonderful Little Woman!

 

xo, Louisa May Alcatt

 

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3 Responses to “Celebrating Abba May Alcougar Nieriker”

  1. Carol Jamison July 29, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    I have visited Alcott House, and appreciated May’s artwork, both in frames and directly on the walls! Thanks for sharing her story, Ms. Alcatt! Still complaining about those shots, I see!

  2. soonie2 July 29, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    I have visited The Orchard House many times since I grew up in the area. Concord has always been a favorite place! I love your posts Ms. Alcatt, I always learn something new!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Celebrating Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address | Suffragette Kitty - November 19, 2014

    […] But more importantly, this prestigious statue of our 16th president was carved by Concordian Daniel Chester French, who took his first sculpting lessons from my little sister Abigail May Alcatt. […]

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