Biography of Josephine Peary
JOSEPHINE CECILIA DIEBITSCH PEARY
My Grandmother was in her late eighties, wearing a blue dress with a white lace collar. High on the left side of her chest was a thick gold button that contained a delicate spring loaded chain holding her glasses. At her ears were the shining onyx rings she almost always wore. She was folding and refolding a tissue on her knee. I had been asking her about her experiences and she was saying softly, “Ed, I have often thought that my life has been divided into three distinct parts, the time before Bert, the time with Bert, and the time after Bert.” “Bert” was her husband and my grandfather, Robert E. Peary, the Discoverer of the North Pole. So let’s examine that life in those three parts.
"Peppy" in 1875, with her baby sister Marie.
In the first part she was Josephine Cecilia Diebitsch, known as “Josie” to her family and friends, and “Peppy Diebitsch” to her playmates. She was born on a farm in Forestville, Maryland, just a few miles southwest of Washington, DC on the 22nd of May in 1863, the oldest of four children and thus often charged with the care of her younger siblings. When she was eight the family moved into Washington, where her father was a scholar and translator at the Smithsonian Institution. As her nickname implies, Josie was full of energy and joie de vivre. She also had a sense of adventure and strong opinions of her own.
After two years of high school she talked her father into the then unconventional step of attending the Spencerian Business School, owned by the the Spencers of “Spencerian” penmanship. She was valedictorian of her class and predictably spoke her mind at graduation on what she correctly believed was the contemporary neglect of female intellectual potential. An excerpt: “To cook, wash, and iron, sew on the inevitable buttons, and even to work blue poodle dogs on green canvas in any possible hour of leisure, have been considered a round of duties and pleasures that ought to suffice to occupy the time, the heart and the mind of a woman.”
After business school, Josie (shortened to Jo by now) took competitive exams which earned her a job at the Census Bureau, and in 1882, when her father’s illness made it impossible for him to work, at age 19, she took over his duties at the Smithsonian at his salary, until his death in 1883. She was still holding down responsible positions at the Smithsonian in 1886 when she resigned, on her engagement to Lieutenant Robert E. Peary of the Civil Engineer Corps of the U.S. Navy, and the second part of her life began.
Jo and Bert, August 11, 1888
In this central section of her life she was simply Mrs. Peary, and Jo to her family and friends. She had known Lieutenant Peary for two years before she agreed to the engagement, but he was deeply committed to his Arctic work which entailed long separations, and the prospect of life with an “absentee husband” did not appeal. But Peary, who had met her at a popular dancing spot in Washington and found her unforgettable, predictably persisted and succeeded.
Josephine and Robert were married on the stiflingly hot 11th of August 1888 and took the train to Atlantic City for their honeymoon—with Peary’s adoring mother. When the newly weds moved into their new apartment in Philadelphia where he was now stationed, she moved in too. Shortly thereafter Jo Peary announced to her husband that she would be visiting her own mother in Washington. From there she wrote a gentle note saying how much she missed him and promising a happy reunion as soon as the elder Mrs. Peary had returned to her residence in Maine. That first separation was not a long one.
Josephine in Greenland, 1892
Courtesy Maine Women Writers Collection
For the next two decades Jo Peary became an indispensable partner in Robert E. Peary’s driving, unswerving, fiercely determined quest for the Pole. She accompanied him on his first two expeditions, accepting the hardships and the dangers, tending strings of traps and hunting deer, ptarmigan, rabbit and walrus with the men, enduring the long, dark, frozen winters, cooking for six men and keeping the morale high with her graciousness, good humor, and small feminine touches on the edge of the Arctic Desert. On the second expedition, high above the Arctic Circle and less than 800 miles from the Pole, she gave birth to a daughter who became the most northerly born Caucasian child up to that time.
Back home she provided the secure base her driven husband needed to press toward his goal, helping to raise the needed funds, charming potential allies in the quest, and twice when the need was there organizing and somehow raising the required resources for relief expeditions in support. During one of his absences, Jo bought red, white and blue taffeta and hand stitched an American flag which henceforth Peary literally wore, wrapped around his body under the furs because he would not trust it to a sledge which might be lost. Whenever he achieved a major goal a piece of the flag was left there as part of the record; and it was a long diagonal strip of Jo’s flag on the sixth of April 1909, that marked the conquest of the Pole. (That lovingly patched and welltraveled old flag now hangs in Explorers Hall at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C.) During other lonely months she used the time to write three books based on her experiences in the arctic, one a first person account entitled simply My Arctic Journal, another called The Snow Baby (the name coined by the Eskimos, who had never seen an infant so white, for the Pearys’ daughter) and another, Children of the Arctic.
Josephine Diebitsch Peary in 1892
Although she resented the months and years of separation and was intensely aware that life was “slipping away,” even when another daughter was born and died without ever seeing her father, even deeply wounded by her husband’s relationship with an Eskimo woman, she never wavered. In 1903 she bore him a son Robert E. Peary, Junior, and the next summer moved with her family into a simple cottage on his beloved Eagle Island in Maine’s Casco Bay, helping him to realize another dream. When, in 1909, with the goal of the Pole finally attained, the charlatan Cook attempted to perpetrate his shameful fraud upon the world, claiming his own success a year earlier, Jo was at her husband’s side, staunch and strong and comforting, providing a shield against the emotional erosion of the controversy. To sum up this era, Jo Peary literally gave the best years of her life to Robert Peary’s attainment of the Pole for his country. And equally literally in my view, with all his iron will, skill and courage, he could not have succeeded without her. In belated implicit confirmation of that view, on her late husband’s birthday, May 6, of 1955, Josephine Peary was awarded the National Geographic Society’s most prestigious honor, its solid gold Medal of Achievement.
When in the years immediately after the Pole, with the Cook fraud exposed, Peary was honored and decorated by all the major geographic societies of his time, she was proudly at his side, rightfully acknowledged by all who knew the facts as a full partner in the great achievement. For eleven fleeting years Jo Peary lived her dream so long delayed, at home in Washington with her husband and growing children, spending the glorious Maine summers together on their beloved Eagle IslandPeary’s “promised land” with the promise now fulfilled. Then, in February of 1920, Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary succumbed to the slow ravages of pernicious anemia (a condition now easily controllable)... and Jo Peary entered upon the final third of her life.
In these sadly unfamiliar and unwelcome new circumstances, she remained of course Mrs. Peary, but now she was called by many names, some familiar like Jo and Mother and Aunt Jo, some new in the mouths of her grandchildren such as Grammy and Dahma (the one my brother and I coined for her). And it was on the speakers of those names that she now poured the warm attention, devotion and the love whose primary object death had taken. At first her handsome young son, his father’s namesake, was the principle beneficiary. When he enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, his father’s alma mater, she took an apartment there and made a home for him. She did the same when he went on to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania for his degree as a civil engineer. And when he was assigned to build a bridge in Longview, Washington, she was there as well. Nor did she neglect the others in her family. Every summer she saw that Eagle Island was open and welcoming to all and watched as her grandchildren grew tanned and healthy in the salt air, the sea and the sun and learned the ways of the winds and the tides and the chill blue bay.
When I was ten and my brother eight, she took us with our mother to Europe where we attended school for a month in Geneva and learned enough French at least to provide a passable accent and a solid basis for more learning in later years. And that autumn and for the next four years she picked up the full tab for me, and later for my brother, at a military school which, looking back, I believe put us both on the road to military careersand surrounded by the sea each summer and given the pervading legend of our Admiral grandfathernaval careers. Those were big things, but there were also little, loving things. She taught us to tie our shoes, later to write our checks, to pick raspberries fast by hanging the pail around our necks and using both hands. She gave me my first air rifle, my first real rifle (a single shot .22) my first car (a ’32 Chevy roadster). She gave us our first boat, a twelvefoot white rowboat with a fivehorse outboard, which we named the “Peppy” in her honor. When I was accepted at the Naval Academy she treated us to a weekend in Atlantic City, and when I took “French leave” from a battleship in Quebec and flew home to Eagle Island for my twentyfirst birthday, my present was twentyone ten dollar gold pieces from my grandmother.
1937 - Josephine with her grandson Ed
Needless to say we all loved her. When I earned my first pilot’s license, I presented her, over her protest, with the shiny new wings. When my brother was awarded the golden wings of a naval aviator, he did the same.
When, as an undergraduate at Dartmouth, I was asked to give a talk about my famous grandfather, I drove her over from Portland to attend, and she sat there, smiling and demure, and corrected me half a dozen times to the great enjoyment of the audience. But no matter how many of us loved her, or how much, in hindsight I think that in her heart she had really felt alone since “Bert” had left her for Valhalla.
On 19 December 1955 the final third of Josephine Peary’s life ran out and at ninetytwo she joined her Bert in death and was laid to rest beside him at the base of the great granite globe with the bronze star at its Pole in the National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. A semicircle of Maine pines stands honor guard.
Jo Peary has left this world, but not the hearts of her progeny. At last count some twenty men, women and children proudly carry the Peary name—and it is not entirely for the great admiral who discovered the Pole.
Cdr. Edward Peary Stafford (USN Ret.)
Cdr. Stafford is the author of two well known books “Little Ship, Big War” 1984, the story of life aboard a Destroyer Escort in World warII and “The Big E” (a best seller) 1988 The story of the Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise in World War II. Both were recently republished by the Naval Institute Press.
Most of Josephine’s personal papers, photographs, and even her shotgun were left to the Maine Women Writers Collection, Westbrook College Campus, University of New England, Portland, Maine. They may be seen or studied there by appointment.