Falling out of fashion sometime in the 1700s, those who grew a full beard in the 1800s were somewhat of an anomaly. Thought to have been unkempt and uncouth, it was a sign that a man had fallen to neuroticism, or worst, had fallen into the clutches of the devil himself.
Joseph Palmer didn’t care about any of that. As a veteran of the War of 1812, Palmer was inspired to grow out his beard as a tribute to an evangelical preacher he had admired as a child. For the farmer from NoTown, Massachusetts, he opened the doors for public scrutiny.
Men and women alike would pelt Palmer with rocks in town and found Palmer’s beard downright offensive. Legend has it that Palmer’s persistence in wearing the beard caught the attention of a local preacher from the nearby town of Fitchburg. The Preacher asked Palmer, “Palmer, why don’t you shave and not go around looking like the devil?” Palmer replied,
“Mr. Trask, are you not mistaken in your comparison of personages? I have never seen a picture of the ruler of the sulfurous regions with much of a beard, but if I remember correctly, Jesus wore a beard, not unlike mine.”
It would seem that no one could sway Palmer’s opinion of his glorious beard. Fed up with Palmer’s defiance against the societal norm, a group of men plotted to take care of the bearded one, once and for all. Armed with scissors and razors, the four men waited for Palmer in order to shave him.
Though it was a four to one attack, the men underestimated Palmer. Palmer pulled out his jackknife and stabbed two of his assailants. Palmer was arrested for committing an unprovoked assault.
A simple fine would have taken care of all the charges, but Palmer was stubborn and refused to pay based on principal. He was sentenced to Worcester City Jail for failure to pay his fines. Guards and other inmates attempted to, again, shave Palmer by force. The press ate this up and after months of bad publicity, Palmer was allowed to walk free.
Freedom wasn’t a concern for Palmer. With great beard, comes great responsibility, and rather than going free Palmer demanded that officials issued a proclamation that it was perfectly acceptable to wear a beard. This proclamation would never materialize. Instead, Palmer was tied to a chair and removed from the jail by force.
During his stay in jail, Palmer would meet up with a man named Bronson Alcott. Palmer respected Alcott and agreed to go with him to a commune Alcott had co-founded called the Fruitlands. This commune of philosophers and thinkers believed that a strict vegan diet would help bring humans closer to the divine. This experiment would last only seven months.
During his time with the transcendentalists, Palmer was able to make an impression on Alcott’s daughter Louisa May, who would go on to become a novelist. She’s best known for her semi-autobiographical book Little Women, but it was in her novel Transcendental Wild Oats that Palmer would become immortalized as the character Moses White.
Palmer died in 1865, never once agreeing to shave. As a final act of rebellion, a large statue was placed upon his burial spot with a carving of his face. An inscription reads: “Persecuted for Wearing the Beard.”
If you’d like to see the Great Bearded One’s grave for yourself, it is located in Leominster, Massachusetts, in a cemetery on Palmer Street, nestled between Legate Street and Richardson Drive.