Who was Mother Bailey?
Born in 1758, young Anna Warner was orphaned at an early age and went to live with her grandmother Mills on a farm at Candlewood Hill, where she helped her uncle, Edward Mills, with the crops and animals. When the Revolution began, she longed to fight the despised Tories.
On September 6, 1781, when the British attacked Fort Griswold, her uncle Edward, a corporal in the militia, hurried to the fort, leaving behind his wife, a young son, and a very new baby. When night fell, and the guns were silent, Edward did not return. At dawn Anna walked the three miles to Fort Griswold, where she found Edward mortally wounded. His last wish was to see his family once more, so Anna hurried back to the farm and returned, this time by horse, with her aunt and the children, to place the infant in the arms of the dying man. This only served to increase her hatred of the British.
She married veteran soldier Elijah Bailey in 1783. They went on to inn-keeping on Thames Street below the fort where Mrs. Baileys’ hearty manner and outspoken ways made the tavern popular from the start. At one time Elijah Bailey was the Postmaster and the house served as the post office. The house, built by Dr. Amos Prentice, still stands at the southwest corner of Thames and Broad street: known familiarly as the Mother Bailey House. Interestingly, Dr. Prentice tended to the wounded at the Battle of Groton Heights. He and Anna may very well have crossed paths when she went to find her uncle.
When the War of 1812 occurred, and with it the barricading of New London Harbor by British ships, it frightened the locals into thinking there would be another bloody attack. Most of them packed up their households and fled inland. Mrs. Bailey sent away her household but was still in residence when a messenger from the Fort came by, desperate for cartridges and flannel for wading. As the story goes, the discouraged messenger met Mrs. Bailey and told her of his need. In a moment, she loosened her long flannel petticoat, stepped out of it, and presented it with a loud wish that the wadding would do its work well. Amused, bystanders saluted the daring gesture, for in 1813 ladies did not admit to wearing petticoats, much less remove them publicly. The messenger carried his prize to the fort, where it was received with cheers.
News of this generous and impulsive act spread across the country. Newspapers hailed her as the war’s greatest female patriot. Later, a stream of celebrities knocked at her Groton door: President Monroe in 1817, Lafayette in 1824, and in 1833, President Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. As her fame increased, visitors flocked to the tavern to hear the lively tale told from her own lips.
On January 19, 1851, as Mother Bailey snoozed in an armchair near an open hearth, her clothes caught fire and she died within an hour at age 93. Her only survivors were cousins, for her title of Mother was purely honorary.
Today the house stands empty, victim of neglect and abuse. Part of the fence, a gift of President Andrew Johnson, is still standing.
It is the wish of the new Friends of the Mother Bailey House that the house be saved, repaired, and returned, not to her former glory, but to find life anew as a cultural and educational resource. In doing so, the legacy of Mother Bailey will live on.