Laura Carter Holloway Langford was born in Nashville in 1843. Her birth date is often given as 1848, but census records from 1860, 1870, and 1910, as well as various genealogical databases, confirm the earlier date. Laura was one of fourteen children of Samuel Jefferson Carter and Ann Vaulx Carter. Sam Carter, a farmer, horse breeder, and innkeeper, was a Union sympathizer at whose Nashville hotel, the St. Cloud, Union Army generals and government officials were often guests. Laura received a liberal arts education at the Nashville Female Academy and then defied her father by becoming a “rebel”girl. During the war, she taunted the Federals–once even spitting on a soldier’s hat–yet subsequently married Lieutenant Junius Brutus Holloway of the Union army in 1862. The marriage fell apart quickly as Lieutenant Holloway often landed in jail for disruptive behavior, and Laura was twice forced to plead with Tennessee Military Governor Andrew Johnson to have her husband released. The couple had one child, George, born in 1864. After the war, when Sam Carter decided to move his family to Brooklyn, Laura took George with her. Within several years she divorced Holloway but gave the impression to many people that she had, in fact, been widowed.
In New York, Laura began a long career as an author, journalist, and
lecturer. Her most famous book was her first: Ladies of the White
House; or, In the Home of the Presidents appeared in 1870 and made Laura independently wealthy, reportedly selling close to 150,000 copies worldwide. The bestselling anthology relied heavily on anonymous sources and correspondence with the First Ladies’s friends and families. Particularly flattering are the portraits of Mrs. Andrew Johnson and her daughter, Martha Patterson, with whom Laura Holloway was close through their Tennessee connection.
In 1870, Laura was promoted from reporter to associate editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a position she would hold for twelve years. She gave readings of literature and poetry and lectured on such topics as coeducation and women journalists. Her most famous lecture, “The Perils of the Hour” (1870), concerned “the obstacles that check the advancement of woman.” A suffragist who knew Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Anna Dickinson, Laura nonetheless criticized “strong-minded women” and their masculine habits. She supported temperance, urging the New York City Board of Education to adopt anti-alcohol textbooks, and continued to write books herself, including An Hour with Charlotte Bronte (1883), The Hearthstone, or Life at Home, a Household Manual (1883), and The Woman’s Story (1888).
During the late 1870s, Laura became committed to Theosophy, a system of ideas and beliefs that challenged Western traditions of philosophy and religion. Notably, some scholars have considered Theosophy to be a fraud. Evidently, Laura showed promise as a clairvoyant, and American Theosophists wished her to become a chela, or disciple. In 1884, she traveled to Europe to meet Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the charismatic leader of the movement. Laura worked with the Theosophists for about six months before returning to Brooklyn, where she remained a theosophist though not closely involved with the movement.
While organizing the Seidl Society, which sponsored concerts of
Wagner’s music for women-only audiences at Brighton Beach, Laura met Edward L. Langford, a Republican politician and businessman. They were married in 1890; he died in 1902. During these years, Laura developed close friendships with several Brooklyn women who were considered “radical,” including Dr. Lucy M. Hall and Dr. Anna D. French, Rev. Phebe A. Hanaford, and the socialist Imogene C. Fales. Also at this time, Langford made plans to write biographies of Madame Blavatsky and President Andrew Johnson, though neither book materialized. She published The Story of a Piano (1900), inspired by Shaker craftsmanship, and a children’s book, Atma Fairy Stories (1903), based on Theosophy.
During the 1870s, Langford had started a long correspondence with
Eldress Anna White of the New Lebanon, New York, Shaker community. Among their shared beliefs were pacifism, feminism, vegetarianism, and cremation. Over time, Langford developed a strong affinity with the simplicity of Shaker life and eventually purchased five hundred acres from the Canaan, New York, Shakers and intended to farm the land. Laura’s brother Vaulx Carter, her son George, and her nephew Charles Terry lived with her at various times between 1910 and 1930. She continued to describe herself as an “authoress” and wrote for The Word, a journal of the Theosophical Society. Laura Carter Holloway Langford died in Canaan in 1930 and was cremated.