Anna Maria Campbell Hickman was born on July 23, 1809, in Detroit, Michigan, and was the daughter of Harris H. Hickman, an attorney and native of Alexandria, and Ann Binney Hull Hickman, whose father was then governor of the territory. Anna Hickman’s father died when she was about fifteen, and her mother took the family back to her native Massachusetts. She received an excellent private education in Georgia, where an aunt resided, and in Massachusetts, including study with William Bentley Fowle at Boston’s first high school for girls.
In February 1830, in Newton, Massachusetts, Hickman married George Alexander Otis, a Boston attorney. He died of consumption (probably tuberculosis) on June 18, 1831. They had one child, George Alexander Otis, who in 1853 assisted in founding the Virginia Medical and Surgical Journal and later compiled the three volumes on Civil War surgery in the highly respected Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1870–1883). After a second sojourn in Georgia, Anna Otis returned to Newton and lived with her mother while writing children’s books for the American Sunday School Union, of Philadelphia. In keeping with the fashion of the times, her name did not appear on the title pages. The volumes varied in length from about 35 to about 100 pages and included The Good Resolution (1834), The Good Son (1834), The First Falsehood (1835), The Reformed Family (1835), and The Autumn Walk (1836). Otis may also have written one entitled The Evening Walk.
On February 25, 1836, in Newton, Otis married a Virginia clergyman, Zacharia Mead, a graduate of Yale University and the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia, who then joined the staff of Grace Episcopal Church in Boston. They had two sons and one daughter. Late in 1837 the family moved to Virginia, where he became an assistant clergyman at Monumental, Saint James’s, and Saint John’s Episcopal Churches in Richmond and also editor of the Southern Churchman. Zacharia Mead died, also of consumption, on November 27, 1840. For the next several months, until the proprietors appointed a new editor, Anna Mead, who had assisted her husband, took part in editing the Southern Churchman.
On October 4, 1841, with the help of several clergymen, she opened a Richmond boarding and day school for girls. For twelve years, even through the death of her only daughter in December 1843, she was principal of Mrs. Mead’s School, one of the larger and better private schools in the city. She initially employed one other female teacher and two male teachers, but the success of the school was such that within two years she added other members to the faculty and in 1843 began the session with more than 130 pupils. The curriculum was demanding, comparable to the best available in academies for the sons of prominent Virginia families. The offerings included ancient and modern languages, astronomy, chemistry, history, literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, and theology, specifically including poetry with Christian messages. Mead expected her students to attend Episcopal services with her unless their parents provided a proper escort to another church.
Mead continued to write and in 1842 published a collection of short works of fiction and devotion, A Token of Affection, or, Sketches by a Christian’s Way-Side, her first book that directly identified her as author. She added short tributes to a friend and an aunt when she published a second edition four years later with the shorter title Sketches by a Christian’s Way-Side. Over the years Mead contributed numerous short articles to such periodicals as the Boston Home Journal, the New York Churchman, the New York Tribune, and the Southern Literary Messenger.
In October 1853, her three sons having grown to maturity, Mead no longer needed the income from the school and relinquished it to one of her former faculty members. After an extended period traveling and also visiting her family in Georgia and Massachusetts, she returned to Richmond and on January 3, 1856, married David Chalmers, a widower then age fifty-five, and moved to his Halifax County plantation, where she lived for almost twenty years. Late in 1860 she completed Brown and Arthur: An Episode from “Tom Brown’s School Days,” containing six chapters from the second part of Thomas Hughes’s popular 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days, one of the first books in the genre of stories about boys growing up and coming of age at school. Selecting episodes that she believed contained lessons equally valuable for girls, Chalmers published her edition in Richmond early in 1861.
She moved temporarily to New York in 1863 during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and the following year her youngest son, a lieutenant in the Confederate army, was killed in action in Georgia. After the war, Chalmers raised money and established Sunday schools for Halifax County freedpeople and for several years taught them. In 1877 she formed the Southern Churchman Cot fund to support a cot, or bed, for poor children at Retreat for the Sick, a Richmond hospital.
After her third husband died on March 5, 1875, Chalmers lived with her eldest son in Washington, D.C., until his death early in 1881. Thereafter she resided in Albemarle County with her sole surviving son, Edward Campbell Mead, who later wrote a book-length memoir of her life. Anna Maria Campbell Hickman Otis Mead Chalmers died there on December 8, 1891, and was buried near the bodies of her daughter, third son, and second husband in Richmond’s Shockoe Cemetery.
- The Good Resolution (1834)
- The Good Son (1834)
- The First Falsehood (1835)
- The Reformed Family (1835)
- The Autumn Walk (1836)
- A Token of Affection, or, Sketches by a Christian’s Way-Side (1842)
- Sketches by a Christian’s Way-Side (1846)
- Brown and Arthur: An Episode from “Tom Brown’s School Days” (1860)