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A Woman's Place Is at the Top: A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers

A Woman's Place Is at the Top: A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers

by Hannah Kimberley


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Annie Smith Peck is one of the most accomplished women of the twentieth century that you have never heard of. Peck was a scholar, educator, writer, lecturer, mountain climber, suffragist, and political activist. She was a feminist and an independent thinker who refused to let gender stereotypes stand in her way. Peck gained fame in 1895 when she first climbed the Matterhorn at the age of forty-five – not for her daring alpine feat, but because she climbed wearing pants. Fifteen years later, she was the first climber ever to conquer Mount Huascarán (21,831 feet) in Peru. In 1911, just before her sixtieth birthday, she entered a race with Hiram Bingham (the model for Indiana Jones) to climb Mount Coropuna.

A Woman’s Place Is at the Top: The Biography of Annie Smith Peck is the first full length work about this incredible woman who single-handedly carved her place on the map of mountain climbing and international relations. Peck marched in suffrage parades and became a political speaker and writer before women had the right to vote. She was a propagandist, an expert on North-South American relations, and an author and lecturer contracted to speak as an authority on multinational industry and commerce before anyone had ever thought to appoint a woman as a diplomat. With unprecedented access to Peck’s original letters, artifacts, and ephemera, Hannah Kimberley brings Peck’s entire life to the page for the first time, giving Peck her rightful place in history.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250084002
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/01/2017
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Hannah Kimberley is an academic who has made Annie Smith Peck the focus of her scholarship, resulting in her book A Woman's Place Is at the Top. She is considered the authority on Peck, and her work has been referenced for numerous publications such as American National Biography and National Geographic, anthologies on women explorers and works of history such as A World of Her Own: 24 Amazing Women Explorers and Adventurers and Continental Divide: A History of American Mountaineering, and publications by the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Read an Excerpt



The sky leaked a steady drizzle on the city of Providence in April of 1865 while Annie began her second effort at stitching horizontal woolen thread over the hole in her sock at her mother's request. At age fourteen, Annie's thin lips pressed tightly together in a set line and the shallow creases traversing her forehead belied the fact that she was used to her mother's insistence on exactness. This time, she was extra careful to make sure every stitch covered an extra half inch on each side of the hole lest her mother insist on a third attempt. Annie felt that she had more important work to do than darning socks, but her mother would not understand. Ann Power Smith Peck was persistent in the perfection of her children. As a result, Annie spent much of her time after school with her mother's sister, Aunt Amanda, who offered a place of solace for Annie, free of instructions and demands. She would go to Amanda's after school to practice piano and end up staying for kindhearted chats. Amanda was always sure to have tea for Annie, which sometimes came with oysters, one of Annie's favorite foods, and a sympathetic ear. Annie finally gave up her sewing effort when she was called downstairs to breakfast.

As she watched two of her brothers, William and John, drink large tumblers of milk from the family cow, Annie felt a pang of fear for her oldest brother, George, who was notably absent from the table. Was he safe from the enemy, or would he be destined to join the thousands of other young men she had heard about, already dead, yet still carrying diaries, Bibles, pipes, and locks of hair in their pocketbooks, whose bloated bodies sometimes outnumbered the residents of the towns where they lay? She said a quick, silent prayer for George, finished her breakfast of rye cake and potatoes (besides precision, their mother also advocated a plain diet), and rushed upstairs to get ready for the day. Annie dressed as she tried to shake the image of George likely being sick or hungry from her mind. She knew it would be hard walking from her home on Main Street to church, and she prepared for her passage through the pools of water that would overwhelm the sidewalks.

Annie admired her mother's sewing skill as she ran her fingers over the scrolling black braids from the high-cut neckline of her dress, which curved away at her waist, to the hem. The plain dress and coat adorned like a military jacket was popular through the Civil War years, and Annie was thankful that her mother helped her to stay fashionable, if only by altering her old thibet dress's indistinct twill.

Annie parted her hair in the middle, which displayed her hairline set far back on her forehead, making her seem both practical and diligent. She then tied her tresses neatly in a chignon at the back of her head, and tamed her curls with a hairnet made of such fine thread that it was hardly noticeable. She studied her own image: her face had almost grown into her prominent nose and her deep-set blue eyes were full of ideas, never failing to show her intent.

Annie tied up her wool boots, hoping that the leather toe foxing and lace reinforcements might shield her from the weather. She added a black cassock for further protection and walked down her street, past the North Burial Ground and through the College Hill neighborhood to the First Baptist Church at the corner of North Main and Waterman Streets. Annie, like all of the Pecks, felt a sense of belonging when she was at her family church, although she would often criticize the grammar or lackluster sermons of some preachers. For her, church was an extension of school as well as a place to socialize with friends and neighbors. Annie was religious in that she attended the Baptist church for most of her life; however, she noted, "my religion is more intellectual than spiritual."

Annie proudly recalled that her church was aptly named for the oldest Baptist church in America and was founded by Roger Williams, Annie's ancestor by two lines of descent on her mother's side. As legend had it, Williams traveled to Rhode Island, where he encountered the Narragansett Indians, who greeted him with a phrase in mixed English and native, "What cheer, netop?" or "What cheery news do you bring, friend?" A British exile who was also banished from Massachusetts for his "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions against the magistrate," Williams eventually founded the state of Rhode Island.

The church's wooden building boasted a 196-foot spire, under which Annie and her friends made comfort bags filled with sewing materials, cakes of soap, combs, and personal letters to anonymous soldiers. This was her small way of doing her part to help the Union troops, which included her absent brother, George.

Beginning when Annie was eleven years old, the Civil War changed the face of Providence more than it did other Union territories. In four years, there were eight calls for troops, and Rhode Island exceeded the Union requests in seven of them. When the war began, Annie's brother George was not old enough to fight, so he joined a ward company of Home Guards. In September 1861, while at Brown University, he enrolled in the University Cadets, where he remained for two years. In 1863, George enrolled as a private in the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery and was promoted to major. By now, at the end of the war in 1865, George was a second lieutenant in the Union Army and assigned to the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers.

Annie awaited the mail each day for his letters, as he wrote home to tell of his life in Virginia in the last year of the war. In April, Annie learned that George had been shipped with his command to Virginia the month before, wherein he found himself at the Siege of Petersburg, a Virginia railroad depot that supplied the Confederate capital with resources. Annie learned about the siege when George later wrote details of the news:

I [saw] Petersburg on fire. About four o'clock an explosion occurred, followed by a marked diminution of the crimson cloud. We had nearly reached the center of the city when loud cheers were heard from the right of the column and rapidly nearing. I looked up, and lo, President Lincoln accompanied by Generals Grant and Meade, with full staff and escort of cavalry. With hat in hand he graciously acknowledged the greetings of the soldiers, who enthusiastically swung their caps high in air, and made the city ring with their loud hurrahs. His careworn countenance was illumed with a benignant smile; it was the hour of triumph; he was receiving the reward of four years of unparalleled toil, anxiety and care.

He was unrecognized by the late slaves who lined the streets in considerable numbers, but upon learning his identity they too joined heartily in the welcome. The white residents were for the most part invisible; some could occasionally be discerned peeping through the half-turned blinds of the upper windows. As he passed I turned for one last lingering look, impressed that it was my only opportunity. Those brief moments will be sacredly cherished to the latest moment of life.

Little did George imagine that Lincoln's presidency would quickly end in such a horrific manner.

Like many young soldiers who enter into war, George was not prepared for its horrors. In fact, all three of Annie's siblings were bookworms. George knew Latin and Greek and mulled over philosophy and ancient history, and he wrote to Annie in swirly language with a keen depth of description. Just having graduated from Brown University the year before with a degree in civil engineering, George was a better fit for distributing equipment, instructing the men in the manual of arms, and turnpiking roads — "the easiest duty in that neighborhood" at the Union Army works of Fort Fisher — than he was for a shootout. And he knew it. But when staff officers rode up to his brigade to tell of the Union occupation of Richmond, Virginia, and after hats, caps, and knapsacks were tossed in the air and national anthems were sung, George was ordered to march supplies near Farmville, Virginia, in order to help close the war.

Later in the month, Annie learned from one of his letters home that on April 6, George chanced to find himself in the last major engagement between Union and Confederate troops — the Battle of Sailor's Creek (part of the Appomattox campaign) — in the final days of the war. In early evening, the 2nd Rhode Island attacked a part of the Confederate Naval Brigade and went headlong to their front lines, when it met relentless fire from the side. The fighting men came so close together that they stabbed their enemies with bayonets and cracked their heads with musket butts. Even so, the Rhode Island soldiers eventually regained their lost ground.

George reached the foot of the hill and was about thirty feet from the edge of the creek when he felt a dull blow in his left hip. The gash in his hip was four inches long, but a fold in the wet cloth of George's pants leg showed three bullet holes that narrowly missed him and would have ensured the amputation of his foot had they hit. He was sent off the battlefield to recover three days before Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

When he recovered, George rejoined his regiment as soon as he could walk without crutches. However, his doctor declared George unfit for duty. George resigned from the army and was honorably discharged in July. He would arrive home just one week before the rest of his unit.

Just before midnight on Sunday, April 9, Annie woke to the sound of bells ringing and cannons firing throughout her neighborhood, announcing that Lee and the Confederate Army had surrendered. While she wasn't allowed to venture out so late at night, Annie could hear people rushing southward from their houses on Main Street to Market Square. Nearby, citizens set the war recruitment houses on fire in celebration, since they would no longer be used to enlist the young men of Providence. Shouts, cheers, and songs clanged loudly through the air — enough to rouse even the drowsiest citizens.

The whole Brown University campus was deserted as the young men joined the crowd in the square to sing celebratory songs. The students eventually arrived back to the hill, rolling empty barrels along with them — material for their own bonfires on campus. In acts sanctioned by the university president and professors alike, the barrels and other wood scraps were quickly turned into a blazing pile in the center of campus.

The following day, Annie joined her classmates at school, where they listened to speeches by Rev. Leonard Swain of the Central Baptist Church and Union general Ambrose Burnside, who would go on to serve as the governor of Rhode Island the following year and then serve in the U.S. Senate. Burnside made an impression on Annie when she shook his hand after his speech. If it wasn't his remarkable facial hair — two strips of whiskers growing from his ears down his cheeks and into a bushy mustache, which rested above a cleanly shaven chin that would inspire the style of "sideburns"— it was his words about duty and freedom.

Later in the week, Annie attended Brown University's official celebration of the end of the war. The campus was illuminated with colored lanterns suspended from windows and elm trees, swaying to the music of an American brass band and the university glee club. There were more bonfires and speeches — each orator pointing to their nation as a powerful, united, and irresistible entity. Annie listened to lectures on economics, race, and citizens' rights. But the Union win sparked more than just talk; it also set a flame within Annie. Along with discussion on the rights of man, the women's rights movement had been drawing a following before the war — and it resumed after the war's conclusion, just in time for young Annie to join in on the discussion.

The Pecks received a letter from George on April 14 that told of his "flesh wound." He downplayed his injuries so that his mother, whose face was one of the last that he "tenderly envisioned" before he entered into his first and last battle, would not be too worried.

However, by the following morning, just five days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, the city's exultation turned to sorrow. At 10:15 p.m. on Good Friday, a darkly handsome, popular twenty-six-year-old actor named John Wilkes Booth sneaked into the balcony of Ford's Theater with a five-inch Derringer pocket pistol fashioned from engraved walnut and brass, and shot the president in the back of the head as he sat in a rocking chair, looking on to the stage from his theater box. Lincoln's wife was with him. While many audience members believed the ruckus to have been part of the play, Mary Todd Lincoln saw what the whole nation would soon learn and cried out, "They have shot the president!" The president's eyes were closed as he lay next to his signature top hat that still bore the mourning band for his young son Willie's death from typhoid fever a few years before. The bullet was small, less than an ounce of lead, and left very little blood, but it was a fatal shot. The president would die the following day. At the same time, another member of Booth's clan, Lewis Powell, went to assassinate the secretary of state, William Seward. Powell, a tall, well-dressed twenty-year-old, whose face, which slanted to the left, bore a crooked smile when he wasn't scowling, rushed into the Seward household. He attacked Seward's servant, children, and bodyguard, and stabbed Seward in the neck and chest with a dagger. On the morning of April 15, the Peck family read the telegraphed announcement published in the morning paper:

Appalling National Calamity — MURDER IN THE CAPITAL — PRESIDENT LINCOLN ASSASSINATED IN A THEATRE — Secretary Seward Stabbed in his Bed — The Assistant Secretary of State also Seriously Hurt — THE PRESIDENT JUST ALIVE AT HALF-PAST TWO O'CLOCK THIS MORNING — His Case Absolutely Hopeless — SECRETARY SEWARD'S INJURIES PROBABLY FATAL

Fortunately for Seward, the papers were wrong, and he and the rest of his household survived the attack. What the press did not know at the time was that Booth's gang of assassins included a third man, George Atzerodt, who had signed on to murder Vice President Johnson. Atzerodt, a Prussian-born Confederate with a pinched face, booked a room in Johnson's hotel. Fifteen minutes before he was to assassinate the man second in command of the nation, at 10:00, he changed his mind. After drinking at the hotel bar, he lost his nerve and then wandered off into the night.

The Peck family, along with the rest of the nation, was in shock. On the same day that they received word from the Depot Field Hospital in Petersburg that George was better and his wound was healing, Booth — the angry young Confederate who had performed in Providence's Pine Street Theater the previous year — had murdered the president in an unprecedented conspiracy the likes of which the country had never before seen.

The United States was as vulnerable as ever, and Providence felt her own fragility at the news of Lincoln's passing. Annie's uncle Nathan arrived at the house and took her for a ride in his horse carriage through Providence, which she noted, "was all in mourn." A shadow of sorrow had been cast over each building and individual on the streets of Providence. No other conversation could be heard except that concerning the death of Lincoln, and those voices were tuned in a minor key. As Annie and Uncle Nathan rode through their familiar streets, the whole town seemed to be cloaked in black bunting and crepe — the 1860s cloth of woe. Even the most modest of homes were dressed with solemn decorations, expressing the sorrowful feeling of their residents more powerfully than words could. Portraits of the late president, decked in mourning, were displayed in store windows. Many people created altarlike displays at their homes and places of business. Flags were at half-staff and heavily creped. Annie noticed that most citizens wore mourning badges, attesting to the sincerity of the city's collective grief.

It is possible that the people of Providence were sharing in something more. The city contained 29 percent of Rhode Island's population in 1860, but it had supplied nearly half its fighting men. It wasn't just Providence that felt the blow of Lincoln's death. By the time his funeral train rolled into Springfield, Illinois, millions of people had gathered at more than 440 stops to see the president's remains during his procession and one-third of the nation participated in memorializing him in some way in what constituted the largest public event at that point in U.S. history. Annie would share in the loss. The front side of her high school was trimmed in black and white drapery, and Annie and her friends pinned their clothing with black and white ribbons to match.

On April 16, Easter Sunday, Annie went to the First Baptist Church, also handsomely decorated in mourning cloth, like so many other churches draped in black from floor to rafter. There were no Easter sermons in Providence that Sunday. Instead, every church pastor and minister preached on the lamentation of Lincoln's death.


Excerpted from "A Woman's Place Is at the Top"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Hannah Kimberley.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Prologue 1

1 Providence 3

2 The Dangerous Experiment 27

3 She Ought to Have Been a Boy 53

4 Unmerited Notoriety 86

5 Search for the Apex of America 115

6 Almost, but Not Quite 154

7 Born, Not Made 183

8 It's Just a Walk 205

9 Don't Call Me a Woman Climber 239

10 You Could Not Stop It If You Would 267

11 Uncommon Glory 306

Acknowledgments 325

Notes 329

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