Henry Oliver Peabody was born in Boxford, Massachusetts on May 13, 1826. Peabody was a self-made millionaire who made his money by inventing a cartridge-loading rifle during the Civil War- the Peabody Rifle.
The Peabody rifle was one of the best of its day, but it was never accepted as a standard U.S. infantry firearm. This was partly because the rifle was not perfected in time to play a major role in the American Civil War. His many competitors (especially, Remington) also exerted a tremendous political influence which allowed them to gobble up military contracts. Several foreign countries were interested, however, and the Providence Tool Company in Rhode Island rolled out over 750,000 Peabody and Peabody-Martini rifles between 1862–1879 for sale to Canada. Although he never became famous for his invention, the income from the rifle sales made Peabody a very wealthy man.
When he died in 1903, aged 77, he left the bulk of his estate, comprised of the King Gay Farm in Norwood, Massachusetts, and some $350,000 in cash to a trust whose purpose was to establish the Henry O. Peabody School for Girls on the property. The school was to “furnish instruction to girls by teaching the various branches of art, science, and industry best calculated to enable the scholars to acquire an independent livelihood.”
Peabody’s family contested the will, claiming he was insane to have left his estate for such a purpose. After almost a year and a half of legal wrangling, the Massachusetts Supreme Court dismissed all claims in December 1904.
Peabody’s will instructed the trustees to allow the money in the fund to accumulate until they felt it was sufficient for the construction and operation of the school. In 1910, the trustees sold off the King Gay Farm. Cameron Forbes later bought the farm and built his mansion on the property.
By 1938, despite the financial losses of the Great Depression, Peabody’s trust had grown to over $750,000 – over $14 million today.
The Peabody School flourished for nearly 50 years, providing vocational education programs in business, culinary arts, fashion design, cosmetology, and nursing. The economy declined during the 1980s in the Norwood area, with more light manufacturing jobs moved overseas, resulting in the Peabody School’s closure in 1989.
The Peabody trust continued operation, creating the Henry O. Peabody Scholarship Program in 1991. Today, $1,000–$5,000 renewable scholarships for post-high school study are available to women of all ages who reside in Norfolk County, Massachusetts, and are pursuing a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree on a full or part-time basis; or who are enrolled or planning to enroll in a vocational-technical school. Single mothers and women who are receiving public assistance are given special consideration. Since the Program’s inception in 1991, over $3 million has been awarded.
While his rifle did not achieve the success that it deserved, Peabody’s progressive vision for women was far ahead of its time.