Palmyra’s first female city attorney Mary Alby Anderson possessed rich legal heritage
BY MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
The 19th Amendment gave women in the United States the universal right to vote effective Jan. 1, 1919.
The passage of this amendment was a long and hard-fought battle, which ultimately equalized not only voting rights between men and women in this nation, but also between women across the multitude of states constituting the United States.
Missouri was among the states that allowed women to vote only in presidential elections prior to the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Talk of women’s voting rights preceded the Civil War, but the fight for voting rights didn’t gain momentum until after the war’s end.
A Palmyra woman, Mary Alby Anderson, was among her generation’s early vocal and active supporters of the suffrage movement.
Born in 1879 at Palmyra, Mo., Mary Alby Anderson came from a rich line of purveyors of the law. Her grandfather, Thomas Lilbourne Anderson, was admitted to the bar in 1829, before he came of age. He practiced in Kentucky in 1830, subsequently moved to St. Charles, Mo., and had located at Palmyra by the end of 1832. He represented the First Missouri district in the congress of the United States and was respected as a distinguished lawyer and orator.
Mary Alby Anderson’s father, William Russell Anderson, practiced law in Palmyra with his father. Her uncle, Rufus E. Anderson, born in 1833, practiced in Palmyra and Hannibal, later serving on the judiciary bench. Her great-grandfather was Boswell Preston, who served with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Her brother, Thomas L. Anderson, born in 1865, was a practicing attorney in Hannibal.
Mary Alby Anderson also studied the law and served as Palmyra’s city attorney from 1899-1901, first elected to the post when she was barely 21.
Her first court case drew nation-wide attention; not on its own merit, but because of the uniqueness that she was a woman.
The Los Angeles Herald reported on Sept. 19, 1900: “In the Public Eye - Miss Mary Anderson, city attorney of Palmyra, Mo., made her official debut in court the other day and succeeded in securing a conviction. Her victim was fined $2.”
Her extensive legal background and heritage served as a natural progression to ultimate involvement in the women’s suffrage movement.
Mary Anderson met Ortho Floyd Matthews of Macon, Mo., when he served as attorney on the opposite side of a case she was handling. Her views toward a woman’s right to vote were already well established when they met, and early on conflicted with Matthews’ southern beliefs.
Love ultimately won out over the law, and on Dec. 25, 1901 they married. She moved to Macon, where Ortho was established in a law practice with his father, Judge Richard S. Matthews.
During the early years of her marriage, Mary Anderson Matthews wrote a novel which promoted the right to vote for women, and wove in a love story loosely based upon her own courtship with her husband.
She penned “Love vs. law,” which was published by Broadway Publishing Company, copyright 1905. According to the General History of Macon County, Missouri, Volume 2, the book “was very extensively sold throughout the country and received hosts of very favorable notices in the newspapers and literary magazines.”
An outdoor loving woman, she is believed to be the first woman to take out a license to hunt in Missouri, after the hunting law went into effect June 16, 1905. The Macon Times Democrat reported on July 20, 1905, “Mrs. Matthews is an enthusiastic hunter, and is as good a shot with rifle or shotgun as any of the masculine nimrods in this region.”
The love story that captured the interests of readers across the nation wasn’t to last. Mary Anderson Matthews was granted a divorce from her husband on May 21, 1930. Ortho Matthews died not long after, on Nov. 23, 1933, in Macon.
She died Feb. 18, 1948, at the age of 69, at the home of her sister, Mrs. R.F. Battersby in Columbia,
and is buried near her parents at Greenwood Cemetery, Palmyra.
PHOTO is a screenshot of a 1905 edition of the St. Louis Republic, accessed through Chronicling America, Library of Congress.
Sources: Mirror of Hannibal; The Register of the Kentucky State Historic Society Vol. 19; Students of the University of Virginia 1825-1874; ancestry.com; Macon Chronicle-Herald at Newspapers .com; St. Louis Republic, Chronicling America, Library of Congress; The Macon Republican; LaPlata Home Press; Macon Times Democrat @ newspapers.com