Dear associations

Hedwiga Gray diary1
Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Regina Shober Gray (1818–1885) spent the last forty years of her life in Boston, but she remained strongly connected to her native Philadelphia – and to her siblings. The death of her eldest sister Mary Morris Shober (1816–1873) hit Mrs. Gray particularly hard, as she – with their older brother John Bedford Shober (1814–1864) – was in Mrs. Gray’s view one of the heads of the family, and someone she thought of when she thought of home.

By the time Mary Shober died, though, relations between their younger brother Samuel Lieberkuhn Shober (1828–1902) and his three surviving sisters had cooled, and the process of settling Mary’s estate – benefitting Regina Gray, Sue Davies, Sallie Lewis, and Sam Shober, and then the children of Mrs. Gray and Sam Shober – brought the latent friction between the siblings into focus. Mrs. Gray’s diary tells the sad tale, one rich in genealogical detail:[1]

Pottsville, Pennsylvania, Monday 30 June 1873: We received on Wednesday last, Sam Shober’s list of the “few articles, old things endeared to him by association &c” as he told Mr. Mc Murtrie [a Philadelphia lawyer], which he wishes to have set off to his share. The list comprises almost every thing that is valuable for artistic beauty, antiquity, association, and money value – the cream, literally of all the effects.

Boston, Thursday 14 August 1873: I have harassed myself a good deal drawing up schedules of several ways by which the plate, pictures, furniture, &c can be fairly divided – to be submitted by Mr. Mc Murtrie to my brother Sam. If he can not make up his mind to some such fair & equitable, amicable adjustment, we must resort to an arbitration, which seems an absurd & almost scandalous extreme to be driven to….

Pottsville, Friday 18 September 1873: …Mrs. Shober [the diarist’s stepmother] we hear praises Sam’s generosity in giving up all but these few things; why, he claims 4 fifths of all that has any special value…. [Mrs. Gray goes on to describe some of the contentious pieces:] As to yielding up to Sam all three of the old pieces of rare antique silver – 5 out of nine, of John’s carved furniture so dearly associated with him in his latter years – the two pictures (one alone of wh[ich] the “Sea Eagles” even by common appraisement out values ½ dozen of the usual parlor pictures) & [Rembrandt] Peale’s Washington [portrait] – Uncle Anthony’s commission in its carved frame – the old clock, 8 day one & the 6 antique high backed chairs which have been in the family since before the “Revolutionary War,” no one can expect it of us, or justify him.

Boston, Monday 3 November 1873: A letter from Mr. Mc M. last week urging us to stand firm and let Sami do his worst, even to the extent of bringing a suit-at-law. Mr. Mc M. says it would be impossible for him to prove a legal right to any of this furniture plate &c. It is not mentioned in the inventory of John’s estate – and the only document in wh. it is referred to is one dividing among the 4 unmarried sisters [Mary (d. 1873), Elizabeth (d. 1865), Susanna, and Sarah] – as part of their patrimony; this is in John’s writing, drawn up after he had purchased it all, in the settlement of father’s estate, at the time [their stepmother] Mrs. Shober separated from his children – and gave up to them everything but the 8th St. house [in Philadelphia] which was bought, partly with her money & settled on her.

Boston, Monday 8 December 1873: Sam L. S. has acceded to the compromise we offered, thank God. We gave him the old tankard and the case of tea caddies & father’s gold lined goblets, to none of which could he legally lay claim; but we all feel the moral claim undeniable & that the time has come for this final division. Happily for us our position was so strong, that Sam had to compromise or risk losing entirely the antiques he craved so eagerly…. I have lived for weeks in such a horror of great darkness – dreading an execution on her house for Sallie – or a long law suit, with all its humiliation & exasperation, that the relief is so exciting that I cannot sleep at night! to know that Sam cannot force that disgraceful auction sale. The old tankard is the oldest & most precious of our antiques; and comes to us from great great grandparents, through Grandmother Shober’s brother James Jones – who sold it to his Uncle Col. A. J. Morris, who left it to Grandma S.; She to our father &c.

Boston, Sunday 1 March 1874: We have had a week of utter confusion; huge packing boxes, cumbering every where; but they are all cleared away now, and the pictures hung…. But oh – it is all so sad to me – so heart-breaking when I think at what a cost of “retrieveless loss” these things come into my possession – how much self-sacrificing affection & devoted tenderness have gone from our lives for ever more, ere the precious portraits of Lizzie & Sallie, and the dear old grandparents (the indulgent fairies of our youthful experience)[,] the splendid Peale’s Washington, the carved book case – the quaint little table made from the case of my mother’s piano – &c &c could rightfully come to me.


[1] Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, various entries between June 1873 and March 1874.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

7 thoughts on “Dear associations

  1. I handled people’s estates for 40 years, both as a practicing attorney and as a bank trust officer. It always amazed me that, even in the largest estates, it was dividing up the personal possessions that caused the most difficulty. Sometimes the only way to do it was to have a “family auction”, letting each family member choose items in turn.

  2. Where is it ALL now? Or has stuff resurfaced on Antiques Roadshow, and who would know? I mean, The TANKARD! Here’s provenance via diary. And those 6 high-backed pre-ARW chairs!!! If they read this, the Keno Brothers will start to lean forward, reading intently.

    Provenance is hidden away in probate papers, too. Out of a sad little house in Stratford CT emerged a true Duncan Phyfe {sp?} chest of drawers with a largish candle burn mark on the left side panel, sold at auction there with one of the Keno brothers in attendance. (Circa 2009-2010.) The cousin-in-law running the final garage sale told me that among the family documents they were keeping were copies of the RI legal papers detailing who in the family got what, dating from the settlement of the grandparents’ house, along with the estate auction catalog, both from the late 1860s.

    He also had a slip-of-paper from one of the two sisters who had lived in the Stratford house from the 1920s which noted that two 17th-century portraits had been sold in the 1930s to Duveen. He asked me if I knew who that was. A man with a sharp eye, I told him.

    So, sometimes I wonder if that silver spoon, marked R P D, which had the P turned into a B for Benjamin the grandson who inherited it (circa 1740s), has survived. If so, I may be one of a few people who would know what it was if found.

    And, OH! what a wonderful writer Mrs. Gray was; naturally succinct but with a eye for the telling detail and a phrase full of meaning.

  3. My mother used to say that “it’s only things,” but oh, what things!! Small as they are, they are all meaningful. At least she knew where they were going! We were robbed of our “things” last September; I will never again see the miniature paintings, the naturalization papers, the deeds to the cemeteries, the hand made jewelry or ancestral rings or the wedding silver and baby spoons. The TV and computers can be replaced but all the rest will only be remembered!

  4. Due to an alarmingly similar set of circumstances, I lost nearly all of the meaningful momentoes, family papers, documents, and photos that had been meant for me and my daughters. Sylvia, I so agree with you. There were more valuable things in terms of dollars, including some fine antique pieces, but it is the momentoes and documents I miss the most. How sad to read of the fuss over who gets what. All too common, I’m afraid: in a time when people are coming to grips with a death, sometimes the need to retain some control over what’s left overrides a common sense of grief and cherishing of memories.

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