Lycoming County Women's History Collection

 

MARGARET MAHAMMITT HAGAN

Margaret Mahammitt Hagan. Photograph from the collection of Sheila Gregory Thomas

Margaret Mahammitt Hagan lived in Williamsport for 50 years--from the 1860s until the early 1900s. In the 1880s, Margaret opened “The Electric Baths,” a 17-room sanitarium East Third Street, where she administered electrotherapy, a very popular medical treatment at the time. Prior to that, she owned and operated Star Laundry, also on East Third Street, a business that had several employees and that, in Margaret’s words, was “patronized by the first families” of Williamsport. She also provided the elite women of Williamsport with fashionable women’s furnishings from a small shop adjacent to the laundry.

Who was this bold, gutsy lady, who called herself “colored” and reputedly was the daughter of an “Arab” from the island nation of Madagascar and the granddaughter of a former slave and a Supreme Court judge? How did she establish and maintain successful businesses in Williamsport, where female business owners and medical practitioners were uncommon and businesses owned by African American or mixed race women were even more uncommon?

Two articles, available online in the Lycoming County Women’s History Collection brought Margaret to my attention—the first article is from the Williamsport Daily Gazette and Bulletin found in the files of the Lycoming County Historical Society. Headlined “Mrs. Margaret A. Hagan, Well-Known and Successful Electrician", a June 29, 1895 article went on to say, “Mrs. Margaret A. Hagan, proprietress of the Electric Bath rooms, 581 East Third Street, is a living example of what a woman can accomplish when imbued with energy and determination.” According to the article, Margaret also had a practice in the summer months in the young resort town of Eagles Mere.

The other article, “Margaret Mahammitt of Maryland,“ by Sheila Gregory Thomas, Margaret’s great-great-granddaughter, was published by the Association of the Study of African American History and Life for Black History Month in 1984.

Electrotherapy was widely practiced at the time, but Margaret’s clinic seems to have been the only one in the area. Electricity, generated by batteries, was applied to treat many ailments, including headaches and muscle pain. In an “electric bath,” a patient was connected by wire to a source of electricity, and then a low charge of electricity was made to travel throughout the body and “bathe” the patient, inducing calm, reducing pain, and stimulating sluggish organs. The medical practitioner was called an electrician.

According to family oral history, handed down to her Sheila Gregory Thomas from her father, Margaret Mahammitt, mixed-race, was a free person from birth, well educated, and a landowner. Margaret’s father, Jeremiah (or Po) Mahammitt, came to this county from Madagascar on an educational tour in the early 1800s. He purchased Margaret’s mother (a mulatto) from a Frederick family and they were married. Family oral history states that Margaret's mother, Serena, was a daughter of Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney. While the truth of this may never be known, it is a fascinating bit of history, because Judge Taney is best known for the Dred Scot decision, handed down by the Supreme Court in March 1857. In that decision, Taney decreed that African Americans were not citizens and “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Margaret came to Williamsport just after the Civil War with her second husband, George Washington Hagan, an African American. According his obituary in the Gazette and Bulletin of August 27, 1903, Hagan had been slave in Frederick, Maryland, apprenticed to a blacksmith. During the Civil War, he became acquainted with Philip A. Moltz of Williamsport. Both Hagan and Moltz were soldiers. After the war, Hagan relocated to Williamsport and worked for Moltz as a blacksmith. Later he went into business for himself. George Washington Hagan was a prominent and well-respected businessman and citizen; he is buried in the Veterans Circle at Wildwood Cemetery.

It appears that Margaret had three children with her first husband Isaac Whiting--John, Fannie Emma, and Eleanor Whiting-- and two with George Washington Hagan—George Washington, Jr. and James Taney Hagan.

In 1903, when she was about 77, Margaret moved to Bordentown, New Jersey, to be with her daughter Fannie. Margaret died in 1914 in New Jersey and is buried there.

A biographical essay, “Margaret A. Hagan: an entrepreneur’s path to success in 19th century Williamsport,” by Mary L. Sieminski was published in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on April 14, 2013.

Want to know more about Margaret Mahammitt Hagan? Type "Hagan" in the search box below to find source material in the Lycoming County Women's History database.

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