Mrs Sarah Macdonald-Sheridan

Sarah Macdonald Sheridan
Mrs Sarah MacDonald-Sheridan, 68, (1864-1950), born in Georgia USA, was a suffragist and a classical singer (contralto), singing not just in the concert halls of the US and Europe but also giving her voice for the raising of funds for different social movements.  She also lead the “National Fireside Project” with Margaret Wilson (the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson) to create more opportunities for the youth of America in their evening, and raising funds for the Martha Berry schools, still running today. A suffragist and a mother of four children, she became the close friend of the leading musical, literary and artistic people of the world. Her son-in-law’s family suffered the greatest single loss of any family on the Lusitania, which may have created some connection between her and Lady Rhondda. In her own words, she consecrated her “future life to larger service to what seems to me a very disordered world”. For an American of course the sinking of the Lusitania had the added significance in playing a key role in bringing the US into WW1.


Though she visited England regularly, with her daughter living in Cambridgeshire, it is likely that all her fellow guests will have wanted to talk with Sarah that evening. One of the most remarkable people in the room. The plan we have suggested for this table would have her seated with one of the Heald sisters, Edith or Nora, and with either Vera Brittain or Violet Scott-James.


Good question – but we report below at some length on perhaps one of the least known but most remarkable people in our Puzzle. But as an American visitor, once good friends with Woodrow Wilson, she will undoubtedly have been asked for her views on the newly inaugurated President FDR, his March 9th Bank Holiday and his lifting of Prohibition just a day ago with the legislation of the sales of low alcohol beer and wine. But that may have made a change from being asked about the Wilsons…..


Sarah MacDonald was born on 27th April 1864 on a plantation in Thomaston, Georgia, to Georgia-born Teresa MacDonald[2] and James MacDonald from Maine[3]. Sarah was 5 foot 6, brown eyes, dark complexion, grey hair, rather heavy chin, large mouth, resident in Atlanta, Georgia. She married Charles Oscar Sheridan, architect and interior decorator on 21st December 1880 in Floyd, Georgia, USA, entry written as McDonald. They had two children and divorced amicably in a publicised case in May 1913 (see below). She was registered in the 1910 and 1925 US censuses – in 1925 as a “companion”.

Sarah had a concert in London at the Bechstein Hall in October 1902.[4] [5] [6]

Sarah was a suffragist in the US.[7] The feminist website at the Univ .of Hawaii, notes “Sarah MacDonald Sheridan, concert singer and suffragist, was interested in the study of political science” and subscribed to “Mother Earth”[8]

It took a while to find out more about the life of Sarah, but through the process she has changed from being the somewhat mysterious guest on this table of writers to perhaps one of the more remarkable guests of the evening. Research reveals her to be someone who through her words and deeds stood up for the rights of women and for society as a whole.

First, in 1913, she was in the headlines for allowing her husband to obtain a divorce, on the grounds that she chose to stay in New York to pursue her career whilst he went West for his. The Oregonian newspaper ran the story syndicated from New York.

Morning Oregonian (Portland, Or.) 5 JUNE, 1913, Page 3




Mrs. Sheridan Defends Non-Resistance to Divorce


Artist Says She Could not Bring Charge of Non-Support Against Man, and Any Other Would Be Absurd for Woman.

NEW YORK, June 3. (Special)

Mrs. Sarah Macdonald Sheridan, artist and teacher of singing, and a great friend of the Wilsons, whom she only recently visited at the White House, defended today her position in permitting her husband to obtain a divorce from her in the West on the ground of desertion. Her husband, who is Charles Oscar Sheridan, went West four years ago because his sight was failing, Mrs. Sheridan remaining in New York to earn her living.

“Whatever I might say in defense of the position I have taken in permitting my husband to get a divorce from me,” said Mrs. Sheridan, “would be absolutely valueless as justification for the attitude of non-resistance did I not consecrate my future life to larger service to what seems to me a very disordered world. I have always faced the strain of economics and I feel very keen sympathy for every man, woman or child who wakens in the morning and wonders if he may have strength to earn his bread that one more day. I want to live in such a way as to cast some light on the difficult problems of living for all of us. From the time that I was a little child, born during the terrible years of poverty just after the war in the South, I have in one way or another earned my own way. Just as any other woman would who found herself in the midst of difficult situations, using my ingenuity and the little courage I had born to me of a proud courageous race to sustain my husband in making a home and rearing two children in an environment most trying to the career of a young artist.

Life Dedicated to Others

“So through nearly 30 years of vicissitude, having the children educated in school where the genius of their lives could expand, following them into their maturity -with my right eye blind, my left was of necessity turned toward my own art and consequently and unavoidably becoming, more and more sympathetic with all the phenomena of struggle and sorrow of the world outside, I find myself prepared for a more serious pursuit of trying to make conditions easier for others. I believe there is a solution for it and a redemption from it somewhere in the minds of men and women. I have a large plan laid in my own mind for this work and I believe it will be realized. “My husband had no intention of doing me an injury. I am certain. We have always been friends. Just what his future will be I do not know, but presumably something where being married to me would hinder him. I want his happiness. A divorce could have been of no service to me in my work. If it frees him for any special purpose he may have in view, then I must permit him to have it.

Any Other Charge Absurd

“I could never have brought a charge of non-support against a man, when I believe the woman should share the struggle with a man if it is necessary. Any other charges are absurd for a woman to make before a court. If a woman fails to keep a man’s love or his chivalry, certainly no court judgment could console her. From the little I have observed in such trials, I would prefer misjudgment of the outside world rather than bare my heart to the lawyers and judges of the average divorce court. There is a splendid majority. Just God and one’s Belt. No other decision can count.”

Coincidently on the same page is a report of the sentencing of boxing champion Jack Johnson to jail – he received a posthumous pardon in 2018 from President Trump, 105 years later.

Charles died in California five years later in 1918.

Sarah then continued to pursue her artistic career, but singing not just in the concert halls of the US and Europe but teaching and singing across the poorer communities of the US, driving forward the “National Fireside Project” with Margaret Wilson (the daughter of President Woodrow Wilson) and raising funds for the Martha Berry schools, still running today. Again the press tell the story very well, this time on the front page of in her home state newspaper The Atlanta Constitution on Tuesday 27th May 1913:[9]

The Atlanta.png

Gives Up Husband Rather Than Quit Her Welfare Work


Wife Believes Her Sociological Work Is of Greatest Importance Than Maintenance of Domestic Relations


Former Atlanta Musician Is Intimate Friends of Family of President Wilson – Enlists His Daughter in Cause.

New York, May 26 – (Special) –

Mrs. Sarah MacDonald Sheridan, intimate friend of President Wilson and his family, musician, sociologist and founder of the “New National Fireside” movement for the opening of school buildings after hours as neighbourhood social centers, believes her work of great import than the maintenance of purely domestic relations.

Rather than give it all up to join Charles Oscar Sheridan in Nevada where he had gone four years earlier because of ill-health, she permitted her husband, without protest, to obtain a divorce in Reno.

Mr. Sheridan obtained his degree of absolute divorce on Saturday.

“Two Impulses Govern My Life”

“My life has been devoted to two great impulses” she said today in her apartment at No. 36 Gramercy Park. “Through my voice I have given myself for thirty years to sociological work, retaining from my services only enough to support life and to give my two children all that it was possible for a mother to give.

“I have lived to see my son, Mark Sheridan, established in the old family home, Atlanta, as one of the most promising young mural painters of the day. My daughter I lived to see happily married to the younger son of one of England’s noblest families, David Compton [sic].

“This accomplished, I feel that my family life has been full. My remaining years hold the great purpose of incessant work for the betterment of social conditions.”

Mrs. Sheridan has just returned from a visit to the White House. It was through her that Miss Margaret Wilson became interested in the “National Fireside” idea, and the two are working hand in hand toward the accomplishment of their purpose.

A longer version of this article was published in the New York paper, The Evening World so we continue the story with its fuller version:[10]

“Our Idea In a nutshell.” said Mrs, Sheridan, is to give the thousands of young men and women in the cities an opportunity to meet at wholesome entertainments and In true social Intercourse by opening the public school buildings In the evenings.   At present the girls and young men of any neighborhood have no place to so except the moving picture theatres and worse. Why should the school buildings – property of the people – stand like purposeless tombs from afternoon to morning? The greatest social workers throughout the nation have been aroused by this suggestion and I am confident that another year will find the legislatures in every progressive State passing adequate laws turning the school buildings into social centres.”

As a professional woman Mrs. Sheridan numbers among her singing pupils the daughters of New York’s most distinguished families. Carrying out her life work of devotion to sociological work, she puts all Income over that covering her actual living expenses to good use.

She has many pupils who cannot afford to pay for Instruction and her voice, remarkable in view of the fact that she is no longer young, is still constantly in demand for recitals, the proceeds of which go toward some social movement.

Mrs. Sheridan has had a remarkable career. Her father, James MacDonald. was one of the leading men in Georgia at the time of the civil war. Too old to serve field, he gave all his property to the Confederacy and died as poor at the poorest “Cracker” in the State. From girlhood Mrs. Sheridan devoted herself to the improvement of social conditions among the people of her own State. Instead of seeking personal fame and fortune on this concert or operatic stage, she travelled from one Georgian village and town to another, often using freight trains or riding mule-back, giving recitals and turning almost every dollar over to one to sociological cause or another. It was through her voice and untiring devotion that the first funds for the establishment of the now famous Martha Berry Industrial School on Georgia were raised.

Continuing her work abroad, Mrs. Sheridan studied under Jea de Reszke, who urged her to go into opera. She refused to consider it, preferring to give her voice for the raising of funds for different social movements. She became the close friend of the leading musical, literary and artistic people of the world, and her apartment is filled with mementoes of these relationships.

Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan were married in Atlanta in 1882. He is an architect and decorator. In recent years, owing to the nature of his calling and hers they were very much apart.  

The original edition also referred to the “unrefined wastes of Nevada” which adds a little extra colour….and added “Mr Sheridan prefers the West. I do not feel that I should leave the work to which I have given so much of my very heart and soul to join him. That is all there is to be said. I hoped it would be unnecessary to say anything.”

Margaret Woodrow Wilson, the eldest daughter of the President, would in August 1914 take up the reins of White House social hostess after her mother died and before the President remarried in December 1915. In 1938 she moved to Pondicherry to live on an ashram, where she died in 1944. Margaret also sang and made several recordings, so no doubt she and Sarah got on well.[11]

A colourful Christmas telegram to Martha Berry survives: [12] [13] [14]

holiday greetings.png

An example of Sarah’s work in the community can be seen in this edition of The Red Man Helper, working with the Native American community.[15] “Mrs Sheridan has a very attractive personality, and sings and speaks with much soul”.

The Red Man combined.jpg

In 1906 Sarah sailed on the Minnehaha from London to New York. The New York Times noted that of the liners sailing that week, on only one took advantage of singers on board to have the usual fund raising concert for seamen’s widows and orphans: The NYT virtually named and shamed the thirteen noted opera singers on the Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the sixty singers for Oscar Hammerstein’s new opera company on the St Louis who did not raise money. On the Minnehaha $125 (over $3000 in today’s money) was raised for the Seamen’s Fund – a solo performance by Sarah perhaps? [16]

A notice in The Atlanta Georgian on 12th January 1907 suggests she should be heard before she goes off to Paris in the spring.[17]

the-florida-combined.jpgIn 1908 you could have found her singing with the adult education movement, the Chautauqua, in Florida too:[18] [19]

Sarah’s daughter Lillian, born in 1889, married David Henry Crompton in 1912, the son of one Crompton and Lucy Henrietta Romilly, from where the “nobility” came. Lucy was the daughter of the 1st Baron Romilly, a Whig politician and son of Huguenot refugees who left Montpellier after the Edict of Nantes. Lillian’s husband David was “permanently saddened by the death of Paul, his elder brother, wife and six children in the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania” – it was probably one of the saddest stories of the tragedy, given the size of the family and perhaps hints at a link perhaps which links to Lady Rhondda? With that in mind, is this someone that would have valued a conversation with Vera Brittain? Or perhaps they knew each other already through their experience of loss? [20]

On 8th January 1932 Sarah sailed from Southampton to Genoa on the Marnix van Sint Aldegonde, giving her most recent address in the UK as Kingsley, Borden, Hampshire, US citizen, Ist class passage, age 66.


On 23rd June 1933 Sarah landed in New York having sailed on the Berengaria from Southampton, en route for her daughter Lillian’s home in Wilton New Hampshire. For the next seventeen years she criss-crossed the Atlantic perhaps once or twice a year it seems (apart from the war years perhaps). She travelled to England possibly most years: the records show her sailing in January 1934, on the Mauretania, in October 1935 on the Scythia, in September 1936 on the Scythia, and in April 1939 on the Laconia, generally shuttling between daughter Lillian’s home or her own home, 15 Gramercy Park New York.

Having brought up her children she presumably could follow the fortunes of her children and grandchildren. Lillian and David had four children: Bonty Romilly, Catherine MacDonald, Belinda Booth and David Henry. Catherine married the future Baron Walston and had a 20 year affair with Graham Greene from 1946, thought to be influential in the writing of The End of the Affair, published in 1951, the year after Sarah died. Catherine’s husband demanded that the affair cease at that point but it continued until 1966. Her marriage was probably as much in the headlines as that of her grandmother Sarah. Baron Walston remarried after Catherine died.

Sarah’s artistic son Mark (1884 – 1962) became an interior decorator, following in his father’s footsteps, in 1917 with Lindsay & Morgan. We know his mother was proud of his murals! Though he was called up in September 1918, he lived mainly in Georgia for his whole life, married to Olive.   He did sail with Olive on the Berengaria from Southampton in February 1937, giving his mother’s Gramercy Park address as his NY destination.

In May 1949 Sarah sailed on the Queen Mary from New York, staying with the Walstons at Thriplow Farm, Cambridgeshire, sailing home in November on the Mauretania. On 16th April 1950 Sarah sailed to Liverpool on the Cunard White Star Line’s Britannic, headed for 37 Charles St Berkeley Square, London. Her US address at that time was “Apple Green”, Old Westbury, Long Island, NY. Her son Mark was living then at Wilton, New Hampshire. Granddaughter Catherine, Mrs Walston, was at that time living in Anapari, Italy.

grave stone.pngSarah died on 1st October 1950 at her daughter Lillian’s home, Thriplow Farm, Thriplow, Cambridgeshire, where she was laid to rest.





[1] Florida clipping

[2] According to Sarah’s 1905 US Passport application, ahead of a singing tour

[3] Maine, based on a later census form and his name based on newspaper reports below

[4] Yesterday’s Concerts London Evening Standard 24.2.1902 p3 col 6. By subscription:

[5] Bechstein Hall, Morning Post 13.10.1902. By subscription:

[6] Mrs Sarah MacDonald Sheridan of Georgia, 1904. By subscription:

[7] Susan B. Anthony, Ida H. Harper, The History of the Women’s Suffrage: The Flame Ignites: The Trailblazing Documentation on Women’s Enfranchisement in USA, Great Britain & Other Parts of the World (With Letters, Articles, Conference Reports, Speeches, Court Transcripts & Decisions), Musaicum Books, 2017

[8] Emma Goldman’s Women

[9] Gives Up Husband Rather Than Quit Her Welfare Work, The Atlanta Constitution 27.5.1913

[10] The evening world, New York, 26.5.1913 Final Edition

[11] Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Wikipedia

[12] Martha Berry Wikipedia

[13] Martha Berry New Georgia Encyclopedia

[14] Martha Berry Digital Archive

[15] The Red Man Helper 1904

[16] ©The New York Times, 19.11.1906

[17] The Atlanta Georgian 12.1.1907

[18] The Florida Chautauqua 1908

[19] The Chautauqua, Wikipedia

[20] The Oregonian, 5.6.1913 p3

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