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Henry Charles Lea Papers - Biographical Sketch

Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909), a historian of medieval Europe, wrote extensively on the institutional and legal history of the Catholic Church. His active writing career on historical subjects spanned more than fifty years, during which he published ten books and numerous articles. He wrote a series of books on the Inquisition, beginning with A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (1888) and continuing with A History of the Inquisition of Spain (1906-1907) and The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies (1908). He collected materials related to witchcraft beliefs, the prosecution of witches by the Inquisition, and contemporary reports of witchcraft. These notes and drafts, which Lea was working on at the time he died, were published posthumously. In order to conduct his research using primary sources in European and Latin American archives, Lea arranged to have documents in those archives copied and sent to him. Through purchases, Henry Charles Lea acquired a major library of primary and secondary source materials relating to medieval European history, all of which were donated to the University of Pennsylvania upon his death.

Henry Charles Lea's father, Isaac Lea (1792-1886) was a distinguished naturalist and member of the American Philosophical Society. Descended from a Philadelphia Quaker family, Isaac Lea was born in Wilmington, Delaware. From 1807 to 1814 he was a wholesale importer in Philadelphia in business with his brother John. Because of his military service in the War of 1812, Isaac Lea lost his birthright membership in the Society of Friends. On March 8, 1821, he 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 at Passy. When Carey arrived in Philadelphia, Lafayette provided him with financial assistance to publish a periodical, The Pennsylvania Evening Herald. From this beginning Carey went on to develop Philadelphia's most 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. [See Rowe's study of Mathew Carey (1933) and Kaplan's study of Mathew's son Henry Charles Carey (1931); also Bradley's biography of Lea (1931), pp. 22-35.] Upon his marriage in 1821, Isaac Lea entered this firm, then called Mathew Carey and Sons. [The names and dates of this firm are: Carey, Stewart & Co., 1792-1817; M. Carey & Sons, 1817-1822; H. C. Carey & I. Lea, 1822-1827; Carey, Lea, & Carey, 1827-1833; Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1833-1838; Lea & Blanchard, 1838-1850; Blanchard & Lea, 1851-1865; Henry C. Lea, 1865-1885; Lea Brothers & Co., 1885-1908; Lea & Febiger, 1908-1995.] Henry Charles Lea entered the firm in 1843 and became a partner in 1851. From 1865 to 1880 he carried on the business alone; he then retired to devote his time to academic studies, leaving the management of the firm to his sons.

Henry Charles Lea, the second surviving son of four children was born in Philadelphia on September 19, 1825, and was educated at home. [The first child, Matthew Carey Lea (1st) died in 1822, the year of his birth. The surviving children are Matthew Carey Lea (2nd) (1823-1897), Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909), and Frances Lea (1834-1894). See Bradley 1931, page 16.] His tutor was Eugenius Nulty, a native of Ireland, who taught Henry Lea and his older brother, Matthew Carey Lea (called Carey) lessons in Latin, Greek, the major European languages, mathematics, chemistry, botany, and celestial navigation. From the start Henry Charles Lea was encouraged to master much more difficult lessons than would be expected for a boy his age; he had a ready facility for languages and analytical thought (Bradley 1931, 42). Henry and Carey worked in the chemical laboratory of Booth & Boy‚; this experience led to Henry's first published paper--at age 13--on the topic of the salts of manganese. Carey went on to pursue a career as a private researcher in chemistry, pioneering in the field of photographic chemistry. Henry followed his father's interest in natural history and wrote several papers on descriptive conchology. From his father Henry Charles Lea also learned to appreciate and collect art. During a trip to Italy in 1852, Isaac Lea acquired and brought back to the United States one of the finest collections of Italian art in America at that time. Henry had 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. Through his mother's influence, Henry Charles Lea developed an interest in poetry. He translated works from the Greek poets and composed verse himself. As he grew older, he delighted in writing satirical parodies of popular songs on political subjects.

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 which caused him to abandon his intellectual and scientific work for some time (Bradley 1931, 77). 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. Lea suffered from recurring bouts of nervous exhaustion throughout his life, often brought on by his tendency to overwork. In a letter to Dr. Edouard Montet, dated 22 December 1893, Lea describes his illness as neurasthenia and relates how he undertook sea voyages in his yacht Vega to aid in his recovery. He 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 extraordinarily productive during the final twenty-five years of his life.

On 27 May 1850, Henry Charles Lea married Anna Caroline Jaudon (1824-19?), his first cousin. Anna Jaudon's younger sister, Elizabeth Lea Jaudon, married Henry C. Lea's brother, Matthew Carey Lea, two years later. Henry Charles Lea's first child, Francis Henry Lea (1851-1902), was known as Frank. The second child was Charlie (Charles Matthew, 1853-1927). Anna Lea (1855-1927) was known as Nina, and the youngest child, Arthur Henry Lea (1859-1938), became his father's literary executor and literary heir: he is the Lea family member (besides Henry C. Lea) most often represented as a correspondent in these papers.

By the time of Arthur's birth the family had moved (in 1857) from 1427 Spruce Street in Philadelphia, where the three older children were born, to 3903 Spruce Street. In 1869 Lea moved to 2000 Walnut Street where he had built a large double house with a library for his growing acquisitions of books. Also in 1869 Henry Charles Lea built a home at 9 Grant Street in Cape May, New Jersey, where he then spent his summers writing. Towards the end of his life, he spent as much time as possible in Cape May, writing prolifically, and taking walks to collect and study botanical specimens--a pursuit that he began in childhood and enjoyed throughout his life.

The Civil War Years

During the American Civil War Lea was a member of the Union League of Philadelphia and head of its publication committee. He authored a number of the pamphlets published by the League. He founded the Union League of the Twenty-fourth Ward, where he lived in West Philadelphia, in order to ensure the home defense of his area of the city. In 1863 he was appointed one of the Bounty Commissioners under the Enrolment Act and served until 1865, working closely with Provost Marshal General James B. Fry (1827-1894) and members of his office with the accounting for the quotas of men 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. Lea compiled a number of scrapbooks to preserve clippings of maps of battles fought during the Civil War; he was particularly interested in the defense of harbors. During 1863 he sent his wife and family to New Hampshire for their safety and wrote frequent letters to his wife which describe the reports from the Battle of Gettysburg (copies of some of these letters are preserved in the collection).

Civic Affairs and Politics

Henry Charles Lea was outspoken on issues involving public projects and public health in Philadelphia. He vigorously 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. The project cost too much, and Lea was angered by the political corruption involved in the contracts and building materials for the project. Lea planned and held a large public meeting at the Academy of Music to recruit support for his alternative to the Penn Square project. Along with other concerned 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.

In 1871 Lea became a founding member of the Citizens' Municipal Reform Association of Philadelphia, organized to oppose patronage, ballot fraud, and corruption in the city-owned Gas Works. Lea was chairman of the Executive Committee and served as vice-president and president. In 1872 Lea founded the Reform Club, a private club men of social standing who would act to effect political reform in the city. Lea served as president of the Reform Club and was honored at a special dinner at the Club in 1874.

Lea had a great sense of humor about politics, writing parodies of popular songs, such as this one on the subject of vote fraud in Philadelphia:

The Battle-Song of the Rounder

Come, all ye jolly rounders;
Come, all ye bummers bold;
For we have got a job to do,
As we have done of old.
Come, Gopher Bill, and Rummy Dick,
And Educated Hog,
Six months you've loafed at our expense--
You now must earn your grog.

Ten thousand bogus voters
Are registered all right,
And you must vote them every one
By six o'clock to-night.
Each captain take his gallant squad
And march them round the town.
Here are the names for every man--
Mistake not Smith for Brown!

from "Songs for the Politicians," 1872

These he printed up as pamphlets and published in a newspaper called The Right Way, printed by Lea in 1872 and illustrated with cartoons depicting the "Educated Hogs" and the bosses who were running Philadelphia's city government.

In 1873 Lea sailed to Europe on a voyage to benefit his health. Shortly after his arrival there he received news of the death of his mother and returned to the United States after only three days in London. He returned to England in 1879, again under doctor's orders to rest, particularly to rest his eyes, because his sight appeared to be failing. In the spring of 1880 Lea's "overworked nervous system" as he describes it in a letter to his friend W. E. H. Lecky (15 February 1882) again collapsed, just as Henry C. Lea was retiring from running the publishing business and anticipating devoting all his time to historical research and writing (Bradley 1931, 158-164). In December of 1880 he purchased the schooner Stephen D. Barnes and renamed her Vega, setting sail in January for Bermuda and the West Indies. Returning to Philadelphia in April, Lea spent the summer months cruising to Maine and to Halifax, Nova Scotia: both voyages greatly improved his health. The logbook of the Vega has been preserved in Lea's papers.

Historical Writing

From 1870 to 1873 Lea wrote scores of letters to archives and libraries in Europe to obtain documents or copies of documents related to the Inquisition. He established lasting relationships with many European scholars, corresponding with some of them up until the time of his death. For the revisions of his book, Superstition and Force (first published in 1866), Lea made extensive notes on the religious beliefs of peoples throughout the world, from Islam and Hinduism, Norse mythology, to classical Greek and Roman mythology. In the Inquisition documents that he was now receiving from Europe, he noted the persecution of Jews by Christians and made an in-depth study of the subject, as well writing extensive notes on the beliefs and ritual practices of Jews. This work earned Lea recognition in the Jewish scholarly community, evidenced in his correspondence with prominent Jewish historians including Cyrus Adler (1863-1940) of Johns Hopkins, the American Jewish Historical Society, and the Smithsonian; Elkan Nathan Adler (1861-1946) of London; Felix Adler (1851-1943) of Cornell University; Moses A. Dropsie (1821-1905); Max J. Kohler (1871-1934); and others.

Lea's health improved. He revised his Studies in Church History (1869) and in 1884 completed a revision of his An Historical Sketch of Sacerdotal Celibacy (1867), a book which brought Lea much attention from Protestant historians and from some Catholics who were struggling with Church law on the subject of celibacy. Lea began to write drafts for his three-volume work on A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, published in 1888. Lea's final drafts are dated, and it is clear that he worked steadily and with great energy to complete the book.

In 1886 Mandell Creighton, later Bishop of London and editor of the English Historical Review, initiated a correspondence with Lea and visited him in Philadelphia. Lea published a number of articles in the Review, and his association with Creighton and other scholars at Cambridge led to an invitation from Lord Acton asking Lea to write a chapter on the Eve of the Reformation for the Cambridge Modern History, a chapter which later evoked some controversy around the issue of Lea's anti-Catholic bias. This controversy was aired in a series of letters published in the English periodical, The Tablet, in 1906.

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. Lea was active in the American Society of Church History, which merged with the American Historical Society for a time and was a member of the American Oriental Society through his friendship with Morris Jastrow, librarian of the University of Pennsylvania. Among a number of other historical and scholarly organizations Lea was also a member of the Massachusetts Historical Society and the American Antiquarian Society. Henry C. Lea was presented with honorary doctorates from Princeton University, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Republican Party Politics

Lea also found renewed energy to continue his involvement in reform politics. He was especially interested in civil service reform as a way of ending patronage jobs and belonged to the National Civil Service Reform League from 1882 to 1908. In Philadelphia Lea maintained close relations with Herbert Welsh on the issue of civil service reform. Welsh also headed the Indian Rights Association in Philadelphia to which Lea made contributions. Lea's efforts to reform municipal government involved him in efforts to reform the Republican Party. Always independent in his political views, he sought to work with coalitions of other independent Republicans to fight corruption within the Party.

He 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's opposition to Republican senator Matthew S. Quay of Pennsylvania in 1890 led him to be labeled a "mugwump Democrat" by the press. Lea's efforts to reform Republican politics and get rid of party bosses of whom Quay was seen as the leader (he was referred to as the "Beaver boss"), caused him not only to denounce Quay repeatedly in the press but also to denounce Quay's Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania in 1890, George Wallace Delamater. Pennsylvania's independent Republicans supported Robert E. Pattison for governor, whom Lea had persuaded to run. The successful campaign for Pattison was managed by Wharton Barker, who later made an independent run for President of the United States. Lea opposed President Benjamin Harrison's appointment of prominent Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker to the position of Postmaster General of the United States, because Wanamaker was another of "Quay's men." In an article for the Independent in 1892, Lea proudly defends his positions as an "original mugwump."

Through his connections with editors at the New York World and the New York Evening Post, Lea had considerable influence with the press. In Philadelphia George William Childs of the Public Ledger published Lea's letters and announcements. Lea and his political allies were opposed by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which kept up a stream of negative commentary on Lea during 1890, including a satirical piece suggesting a "Barkerite Torchlight Parade," referring to Lea's friend Wharton Barker. It reads in part:

We suggest that Mr. Barker hire the Academy of Music and give the parade on the stage. Mr. Barker might march ahead carrying a banner, inscribed:

The Barkerite, the Barkerite;
It barks and barks, but doesn't bite.

Mr. Mapes could follow, pulling one of L. Emery, Jr., & Co.'s toy wagons, bearing a representation of his Petrolia feed store,... Mr. Henry Charles Lea would follow with a large assortment of samples of instruments of torture used by the Spanish Inquisition. These would be intended to show without need of explanation their immediate bearing upon the present campaign.... The reporters of the New York World and Evening Post would, of course, be present as spectators.

By marching across the stage to dead march time and then running back behind the scenes the head of the parade could catch the tail before the latter had passed out of the New York reporters' sight,... It would not be expected of the Barkerites that they should keep step.

Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 September 1890

Lea's name was constantly in the press: his clippings files for the years 1890 and 1891 occupy the most space in the newspaper clippings series. He continued to fight against corruption in the Republican Party and in municipal politics, but after 1902 he began to turn down requests from political organizations and concentrated his remaining energy on the completion of his four-volume A History of the Inquisition of Spain.


Although he did not wish any publicity for the many philanthropic projects he supported, Henry Charles Lea was a major contributor to a number of Philadelphia institutions. Chief among these was the University of Pennsylvania. He contributed $50,000 to construct the building for the Institute of Hygiene, a laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania devoted to the developing study of bacteriology. At Lea's suggestion to Dr. William Pepper, Dr. John S. Billings was appointed dean of the new department, which was the first of its kind to award a degree in this specialty as part of the Medical School at Penn. Lea made a number of donations between 1900 and his death in 1909 to the University Library to acquire special collections as can be found in his correspondence with Morris Jastrow, Librarian. Lea also supported the work of the University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, donating funds to support both local excavations and the far-reaching Babylonian expedition to Iraq to unearth thousands of Sumerian clay tablets from the ancient city of Nippur.

Henry Charles Lea contributed to many local hospitals and health organizations, including the American Oncologic Hospital in Philadelphia, the Associate Society of the Red Cross, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Free Hospital for Poor Consumptives, and Pennsylvania Hospital. He made substantial donations to Jefferson Medical College through his friend Dr. H. A. Hare, who attended Lea on his deathbed, and to the Pennsylvania Epileptic Hospital and Colony Farm at the request of Dr. Wharton Sinkler.

Lea donated $50,000 in 1888 to the Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin, for a new building in the hope that it would become Philadelphia's main library. Lea also contributed substantially to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, both for its building fund and for the Greenland Exploration fund for Lieutenant Peary.

Final Years

Lea continued to work on his project of a history of witchcraft until a few days before his death on October 24, 1909. In the drafts of his later work, his distinctive handwriting is as firm and sure as it was when he was a young man. Lea contracted pneumonia and died at his home at 2000 Walnut Street in Philadelphia. He was attended by Dr. Hobart A. Hare, whose own father was dying in Atlantic City during the night that Lea died. Dr. Hare's loyalty to his long-time friend kept him from his father's bedside. The story of Lea's funeral and memorials are well-documented in the scrapbooks that contain his obituaries. His youngest son, Arthur H. Lea, was named Lea's literary executor, and Arthur supervised the completion of translations of many of Henry C. Lea's books into European languages, oversaw the transfer of his father's library to the University of Pennsylvania in 1925, and made sure that his father's work on a study of witchcraft was published.


A definitive biography of Henry Charles Lea reassessing his contributions to historical scholarship and nineteenth-century politics remains to be written. There are many materials in his papers of interest to historians of United States politics in the nineteenth century. Many of the issues in those political battles were grounded in beliefs and conflicts about religion. Lea shared in a widespread concern over the power and influence that the Roman Catholic Pope might wield in American politics as the populations of Philadelphia, New York, and other cities were swelled by hundreds of thousands of Irish, German, and Italian Catholics. Lea collected newspaper clippings about the Pope, and wrote about the separation of church and state and the issues of parochial versus public education in the United States.

Lea's personal beliefs regarding religion are difficult to discern beneath the objective scientific stance he assumed when writing his histories. He repeatedly claimed that he was impartial in dealing with religious issues "which for centuries have been the object of acrimonious debate," due to his strict adherence to facts and his reliance on primary (manuscript) sources rather than secondary sources of information. (See Lea's "Preliminary memoirs," Folder 2372.) He contributed financially to the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia, and that church's emeritus pastor, Joseph May, officiated at Lea's funeral, which took place at his home, not in a church. Lea corresponded with many prominent Unitarians in New England, including Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909). Lea maintained close associations with Philadelphia Quaker businessmen and with members of the clergy from many Protestant denominations. In Lea's many contacts with Protestant organizations and individuals that were actively anti- Catholic, the researcher will find much material that undermines Lea's claims to objectivity. A number of letters and pamphlets in these papers show the polarization between Protestants and Catholics during the second half of the nineteenth century, including journals promoting Protestant "Americanizing" plans, and efforts to convert the immigrant Catholic population to Protestantism. There are letters to Lea from Catholics who converted, some at least partly in response to Lea's writings.

And yet, Lea's grandfather, Mathew Carey, and mother, Frances, were Roman Catholics. Mathew Carey was involved in a major dispute within his own parish in Philadelphia, St. Mary's, known as the "Hogan schism." Henry C. Lea witnessed the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in 1844, when two churches and many Catholic businesses were burned to the ground. In one letter Lea describes taking part in the citizen groups who defended Catholic property during the tense weeks following the riots. He contributed small amounts of money to Catholic orphanages and missions, but made much larger contributions to Protestant organizations.

Henry Charles Lea's consuming interest in religion and belief, not only that of the Catholic Church but also the religions of cultures both ancient and modern, has its roots in the circumstances of his family history, both Catholic and Protestant. The value of his papers for researchers in religion and politics lies not only in the historical materials he collected, but also in his correspondence with major scholars, clerics, publishers, and political figures who shaped American attitudes toward religion in the last half of the nineteenth century.

The Henry C. Lea Library

Henry Charles Lea's library, donated to the University of Pennsylvania upon his death, was formally opened by the University on 28 May 1925. After several years of discussions--originally between Morris Jastrow, librarian of the University of Pennsylvania, and Arthur H. Lea--it was decided that Lea's library should be reproduced as far as possible within the University Library, and this wish was respected down to the minutest detail, complete with shelving and furnishings, in an addition to the Frank Furness-designed library building at Thirty-fourth and Walnut Streets. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur H. Lea and Miss Nina Lea donated funds to the Library of the University of Pennsylvania to make this transfer/re-creation possible. When the main University Library was moved in 1962 into a new building, the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, the Lea library was again moved intact to become part of the Department of Special Collections.

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.

A list of Henry Charles Lea's published books appears on page xviii. The following is a list of published sources about Lea. Thanks to Professor Edward Peters for additions to this guide and bibliography.


Bradley, Edward Sculley. 1931. Henry Charles Lea. A Biography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Bussy, R. Kenneth. 1985. Two Hundred Years of Publishing: a history of the oldest publishing company in the United States, Lea & Febiger 1785-1985. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger.

Kaplan, A. D. H. 1931. Henry Charles Carey: A Study in American Economic Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

O'Brien, John M. 1967. "Henry Charles Lea: The Historian as Reformer." American Quarterly 19: 104-113.

Peters, Edward. 1987. "Henry Charles Lea and the `Abode of Monsters'." In The Spanish Inquisition and the Inquisitorial Mind, edited by Angel Alcal , 577-608. Highland Lakes, N.J.: Atlantic Research Publications.

_____. 1995. "Henry Charles Lea (1825-1904)." In Medieval Scholarship, Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline, edited by Helen Damico and Joseph B. Zavadil, 89-99. Volume 1. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

_____. forthcoming. "Ecclesiastical History in Nineteenth- Century Perspective: Henry Charles Lea's Studies in Church History." Introduction to reprint of Lea, Studies in Church History. New York: AMS.

Rowe, Kenneth Wyer. 1933. Mathew Carey: A Study in American Economic Development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

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