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Mary Elizabeth Baird Bryan was born in Perry, Illinois June 17,1861, the only child of John and Lovina Dexter Baird. Her father was a general store proprietor in Perry. Her mother, born in New York state, was the daughter of Darius Dexter who settled and farmed in Pike County. He donated land for a school in 1850 where the one-room Dexter School was constructed and still stands two miles west of Perry.
Mary attended Perry Public School housed in a grout building that was constructed in 1856 and stood on North Street where the Griggsville-Perry Middle School is located. After completing school in Perry, Mary attended the Monticello Seminary in Godfrey, Illinois for one year. It was founded in 1835 and was “devoted to the moral, intellectual and domestic improvement of females”.
At age eighteen she enrolled in the Illinois Female Academy in Jacksonville, Illinois which some local residents referred to as the “jail for angels”. It was during this time that she met William Jennings Bryan, a student at Illinois College, and they began courting. Mary and Mr. Bryan enjoyed a buggy ride in Jacksonville without the academy principal’s permission and Mary was suspended. Happily, she was readmitted and graduated in 1881. The couple continued their relationship and were married October 1, 1884. They continued to live in Jacksonville and, over the course of their marriage, three children were born.
Mr. and Mrs. Bryan moved to Nebraska in 1888 where Mr. Bryan practiced law, entered politics, and was elected to Congress. Mary independently continued her education studying the German language. She also took the prescribed Union College of Law course reading law with her husband as instructor. Her purpose in doing so was to help promote her husband’s political career. She was admitted to practice in Nebraska but did not pursue a career.
William Bryan unsuccessfully ran for president representing the Populist Part in 1896. Following his election defeat, Mary wrote a biographical sketch of her husband in “The First Battle: A Story of the Campaign of 1896”.
“Writing from the standpoint a wife, eulogy and criticism
are equally out of place. My only purpose, therefore, is to present in a simple story those incidents which may be of interest to the reader.”
It was during the 1896 campaign that Mr. and Mrs. Bryan visited Perry where he rehearsed the famous Cross of Gold speech for an audience on the lawn behind the Presbyterian Church. An historical marker in that place commemorates the event.
After two more unsuccessful runs for the presidency in 1900 and 1908, the Bryan’s built a house in Miami, Florida making Villa Serena their permanent home. During this time, Mary was active in the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
William Bryan died in 1925 and Mary Baird Bryan in 1930. Both were interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
– Researched and written by Kristine Camphouse