January 21, 2014
With this week being one of remembrance and admiration for the bold and courageous lives of those who came before us, paving the way for the rights we cherish today, it is only fitting that we highlight the life of Miss Mary Thorsen. Granddaughter to Emma and the youngest of the original 12 Founding Women of The Danish Home of Chicago, Mary was known as The Compassionate Rebel. Her story is one of altruism and adventure, and begins on a beautiful morning long ago.
Mary Emma Thorsen was born to James (Emma’s second of five children) and Clara Thorsen in Chicago in 1873. She was the first of her family to be born in America after her father and his four siblings and parents had immigrated to The United Sates just four years earlier.
Shortly after the Thorsen family arrived in Chicago in 1869 Mary’s father went to work in a neighborhood bicycle shop. He was a very responsible and hard working young man, determined to help his family make an honest living in their new home country. Coming from Copenhagen, a city known (still today) for its dependency on cycling as a valuable mode of transportation, James had a wealth of knowledge to share with the booming town of Chicago. Two years later James opened his own bicycle shop with neighborhood friend Charlie Cassaday.
1871 proved to be an exciting year for the Thorsen family. While James was becoming a successful entrepreneur, his mother Emma was at the same time beginning to formulate a plan to help elderly Danes living in Chicago. It would take her another twenty years to organize The Danish Old People’s Home Association (eventually becoming The Danish Home), of which her granddaughter Mary would also become an integral part. During this same year James also fell quickly in love with Charlie’s younger sister, Clara, and they were married in 1872. They welcomed their first child the following year, a daughter they lovingly named Mary Emma, after James’ older sister and mother.
As Mary grew up her father became quite a successful businessman. The bike boom of the late 1800’s was upon them, and living in one of the most quickly growing cities in the United States proved to be a perfect opportunity for prosperity. She learned the value of hard work and dependability from her family. She loved to read and dreamt of one day traveling the world to visit the far off places she learned about.
By the time Mary was 18 she had become a responsible, empathetic and courageous young woman. She was steadfast in her pursuit of philanthropy and social change and became particularly interested in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. American activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott increasingly inspired her. She was also fond of Danish National Council of Women founder, Henni Forchhammer and The Danish women’s movement happening halfway around the world, still having strong ties to Denmark.
In 1891 Mary would join her beloved Mormor Emma as one of twelve women determined to organize a society to aid elderly Danish-American citizens in Chicago. In the coming years she would also fulfill her dreams to travel and was involved in many historical events throughout her life, including The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the New York and Washington, D.C. Women’s Suffrage marches in the early 1900’s.
Mary was headstrong and rebellious, but also much like her Mormor Emma, who she fiercely admired. Her story is one of adventure and empowerment, and she accomplished and discovered so much during her lifetime. Learning about her life and her family’s dedication to helping others reminds us of all of those significant people who have greatly impacted our life today.
Read more about how bikes were actually an important part of the Early Women’s Liberation Movement here!