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Quite Contrary, Indeed

posted Jan 28, 2012, 10:21 AM by Great American Fierce Beard Club   [ updated Jan 30, 2012, 8:53 AM ]

Those of us who sport large beards are often met with nasty glares, or simple tsk tsks.  They will shield their children away from us, despite the fact that we are simply walking down the street or through the aisles at the grocery store.  We take it in stride, knowing that around the corner is someone who will stop us and exclaim "Awesome beard."  We can be discriminated against in a minor fashion, and it can be obnoxious.  However, we've got nothing on Joseph Palmer.

Anyone who is truly enveloped in the facial hair community has probably at least a passing familiarity with the story of Joseph Palmer.  Someone posted a story about it on your Facebook wall, or mentioned it to you while you were out for drinks (but couldn't quite remember the name of the gentleman in question, nor many of the details).  In case you have never heard of him, quite simply (and as his gravestone states) he was "Persecuted for wearing a beard."

Joseph Palmer sported a large beard during the early 1800's, and when he moved to Fitchburg, MA in 1830, he was openly mocked for his decision to be awesome.  It wasn't even that he had gone against the norm and was ridiculed for being different, but the local pastor even chastised him, saying his beard was an affront to God and man.  He was threatened repeatedly, and on one occasion attacked by four men from the town who attempted to shave him. 

If the attack on Joseph Palmer wasn't enough, he was sent to jail for stabbing two of his attackers with a jacknife, used in self-defense.  The men claimed that Palmer attacked them viciously and unprovoked.  While locked away, the guards attempted to shave him a number of times, but Palmer was able to prevent it from happening.  He spent his time writing letters to the local press, about his unfair treatment, and gained status as a national celebrity as the story spread around the country.  He was eventually released due to the bad publicity (after a year), but charged a fine to pay for his time in jail.  He appealed for the fine to be rescinded, as well as demanded a public proclamation that it was okay for him to sport a beard.  Neither of these things happened, and so he refused to leave the jail cell.  Eventually he was tied to a chair and carried out of the jail cell and left on the street. 

Palmer had gained such a following for his stance that he used his influence and money to help support the Abolitionist movement, as well as running with
Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. 

This is a simple summary of Palmer's adult life, but it is a far more complicated story than that.  One that is difficult to teach to children in a proper manner.  However, Patricia Rusch Hyatt does just that in her book "The Quite Contrary Man."  Utilizing some the free flowing illustrations of Kathyrn Brown, Hyatt uses the story of Palmer to teach children that it is important to stand up for what you believe.

The story glosses over some of the more violent aspects of Palmer's time in Fitchburg, and instead focuses on his life as a dedicated family man, who firmly believes in himself and his values/morals.  Describing his day to day life as a farmer and in all respects (except for the beard, apparently) an otherwise outstanding citizen, the book uses a free flowing style of illustration that shows great amount of movement.  Kathyrn Brown's work on Palmer's beards shows something that is beautiful and to be celebrated, in stark contrast to the story at hand which deals with close-mindedness and the inability for some people to see past someone's exterior. 

Hyatt seems to be using the story of Palmer to teach children, and their parents, that their are certain social norms that we just take for granted, instead of challenging them.  Beards have gone in and out of fashion for thousands of years, depending upon pharaohs, kings, media campaigns, and the like.  However, just because social norms are to be clean shaven, doesn't mean it is wrong to sport a beard.  The story teaches children to stand up for their ideals, and refuse to be beaten down by those who may tsk tsk their choice of fashion.  What's truly important is what you do with your time with your family and your community.  Palmer changed popular perception of the beard.  He unfortunately had to spend a year in jail, but he let his beard flag fly and is still effecting the world today.  Sometimes greatness is way ahead of its time.

Find the "Quite Contrary Man: A True American Tale" in your local bookstore, and read it to your kids.  They'll thank you for it.