On this day in 1922, the Athens Daily Banner ran the following announcement on their Society page:
Poet John Howard Payne, most famous for penning the lyrics to the song Home, Sweet Home, was "an actor, a playwright, an editor, a cosmopolitan, a peripatetic man of the world," who came to Georgia in 1836 to meet with Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross. Georgia authorities, who were suspicious of Payne's intentions, arrested him and put him in prison in Spring Place. Payne carried with him a letter of introduction to General Edward Harden of Athens, who had him released from prison and insisted Payne stay at his home rather than take a room in a local inn.
The Harden family was known for their hospitality. Formerly of Savannah, they had entertained General Lafayette during his famous 1824 tour of the United States, and "brought from Savannah all the graces of that city's social life" when they moved to Athens the following year.
During Payne's time in the Harden home, he apparently became enamored with General Harden's daughter, Mary Eliza Greenhill Harden, who was in her mid-twenties at the time. Though some believed the story of their courtship "has been often told and oftener exaggerated," letters between them indicate that Payne did later ask Mary to marry him. Her reaction to the proposal is unknown, but the couple never married, and it was believed that General Harden "knew Payne was a rolling stone; and while he admired the poet's genius he may have doubted his ability to support a helpmate."
Mary never spoke publicly about her relationship to John Howard Payne, though it was known he sent her a handwritten copy of his poem, Home Sweet Home, at her request. Neither Payne nor Mary ever married. Payne died while acting as American Consul to Tunis, North Africa, in 1852 at the age of 60; Mary lived another 35 years, spending her whole life in Athens, and was buried in Oconee Hill Cemetery, next to her mother, in 1887.
Though Mary Harden kept her relationship to Payne private, her cousin's daughter, Evelyn Harden Jackson, eventually came to inherit the Harden home, and strongly promoted the legend. In 1918, she even published a small booklet, Souvenir of the Harden Home, with portraits, photographs, and short articles from newspapers and magazines about Payne, the Harden family, and the rumored love story. She also hosted events like the one above as fundraisers for charitable causes.
- Athens Banner, Nov. 1921 - Feb. 1922 on Microfilm in the Heritage collection.
- Annals of Athens, 1801-1901 by Augustus Longstreet Hull in the Heritage collection.
- Souvenir of the Harden Home, compiled by Evelyn Harden Jackson in the Heritage collection.
- Oconee Hill Cemetery, Athens, Georgia, Volume I by Charlotte Marshall Thomas in the Heritage and general collection.
- A Standard History of Georgia and Georgians, Volume III, by Lucian Lamar Knight in the Heritage collection.
- A Postcard History of Athens, Georgia by Gary L. Doster in the Heritage and general collections.
- John Howard Payne to His Countrymen by John Howard Payne in the Heritage collection.
- Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears by Theda Perdue in the general collection.
- Cherokee Tragedy: The Ridge Family and the Decimation of a People by Thurman Wilkins in the Heritage collection.
- Cherokee Removal: The Journal of Rev. Daniel S. Butrick, May 1, 1838 - April 1, 1839 by Daniel Butrick in the Heritage collection.
- Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War by A. J. Langguth in the general collection.
- The Return of Lafayette, 1824-1825 by Marian Klamkin in the biography collection.
- China As I See It by Pearl S. Buck in the general collection.
- China, 1890-1938: From the Warlords to the World War by Suyin Han in the general collection.
- Listen to Home Sweet Home.