People & Events: Jane McDowell Foster, 1829-1903
She inspired "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," but her marriage to composer Stephen Foster proved to be less than the romantic ideal. Jane McDowell, daughter of a Pittsburgh physician, married fledgling composer Stephen Foster on July 22, 1850. He was 24; she was 20. An attractive young woman with auburn hair, Jane had rejected the attentions of at least one other suitor in favor of Stephen. She may have broken an engagement with another suitor in 1849 as well.
What attracted Jane to Stephen -- and vice versa -- remains a mystery. According to acquaintances, Jane showed no particular fondness for music, and Stephen no particular fondness for physical affection. Yet they married after a whirlwind courtship, and Jane gave birth to their only child, Marion Foster, almost nine months to the day after their wedding. While this event undoubtedly provided some joy in the marriage, it was probable by then that Jane was deeply unhappy.
A number of factors probably contributed to the tension between Jane and her husband. First, Jane and Stephen lived from the beginning of their marriage with Stephen's family in Allegheny, a Pittsburgh suburb. There, Jane likely played second fiddle to Stephen's mother Eliza, and to his siblings, to whom Stephen remained exceedingly close. Stephen's composing style, which required long periods of solitude, undoubtedly wore on Jane. Friendly and amiable when he wasn't working, Stephen became a different man when he worked -- serious and emotionally detached. Finally, Stephen was the first American ever to try to make a living solely as a songwriter. He constantly teetered on the brink of financial insolvency, which could not have been reassuring to his bride.
By the spring of 1853, Jane separated from her husband for the first time, taking Marion to Lewistown, Pennsylvania, where her mother and sister Agnes resided. For his part, Stephen ventured to New York City, where he hoped to make his mark in what was by then becoming the epicenter of American music publishing.
Within about a year, Jane had reunited with her husband. After living briefly in a New York boarding house, they moved into a house in Hoboken, New Jersey, where they lived until fall. It was then that Stephen returned to Allegheny. Jane probably stayed in Hoboken for a few weeks before following him home.
For a while, the Fosters seemed happy -- owing perhaps to the fact that the death of Stephen's parents and the departure of his siblings left Jane the matron of her own home. Still, Jane, Stephen, and Marion moved again, in the spring of 1860. This time the destination was Warren, Ohio, where Stephen's sister Henrietta lived. The Fosters stayed there until fall, then returned to New York.
By July 1861 Jane Foster had returned to Pennsylvania with Marion. After a brief period of prosperity, Stephen's financial situation had once again collapsed. Liquor increasingly dominated his life, and many of his biggest hits had already been published. Determined to support herself and Marion, Jane took a job as a telegraph operator with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had recently begun to hire women for the job.
Although Jane remained physically separated from Stephen, the emotional bonds remained. She kept in contact with her husband, and visited New York with some frequency, trying to help him stay afloat. When Stephen died on January 13, 1864, Jane traveled to New York with Morrison Foster to claim the body. After the funeral, she returned to her telegraph work. She eventually married again, to Matthew D. Wiley, who worked as a railroad baggage and express agent. She died of burn injuries in 1903, after her clothing caught fire as she sat near the hearth in her home in Allegheny.
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