Over a year ago I wrote a Vita Brevis post about my great-great-great-grandfather, James O’Neil, who successfully sued the town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, for the wrongful death of his daughter, Emily O’Neil. I had only recently learned that James had three children in Vermont before moving to Boston in the early 1870s: Mary Ellen (1864), Arthur Michael (1866), and Emily Ann (1867). Continue reading James O’Neil revisited
[Author’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 9 September 2016.]
One of the trends in my ancestry is the curious one whereby, when given the choice between staying in a locale or moving on, my nineteenth-century forebears often remained behind as other relatives ventured further west. One of the sadder family stories is covered in the 1999 book Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California, by Albert L. Hurtado, and concerns my great-great-great-uncle John Henry Beeckman (1818–1850).
Uncle John was the eldest son of Henry Beeckman and Catherine McPhaedris Livingston, and the family was a prosperous one in the days before the Civil War. That they were socially acceptable to New Yorkers and Virginians alike is suggested by the fact that John H. Beeckman married Margaret Gardiner in 1848 at the Virginia plantation of the bride’s brother-in-law, former President John Tyler. Still, John Beeckman was a young man, fired up by the discovery of gold in California, and in 1849 he left bride and newborn son to travel west. Continue reading ICYMI: Lost generations
The recent acquisition of a 1947 photograph of the mezzo-soprano Dorothy Dow playing Susan B. Anthony made me think about how historic figures have been represented on stage and in film – and, thus, in the still photographs that capture moments in these productions. In most cases, inevitably, the production choices reflect the date of the production as much as the purported date of the action. This example, by Carl Van Vechten, tells us as much about Van Vechten as it does Susan B. Anthony. While the setting is presumably the stage set for a scene in the opera, the lighting and even the backdrop belong in the photographer’s own studio. Continue reading Artistic imposture
While the obsequies associated with President Lincoln’s death and burial continued into May 1865, Regina Shober Gray’s thoughts turned to other subjects as well. It would also seem that the Shober gift for descriptive writing was present in at least one of the diarist’s sisters.
61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Thursday, 4 May 1865: This day no doubt the weary, restless, and unparalleled funeral march for our beloved President ends in the sealed silence of the tomb, and mortal eyes have looked their last of earth upon the martyred statesman & patriot. At last he rests in peace forevermore, emphatically alone in the glory and the gloom of his immortal story. For where in all history shall we find a man risen from the very people, untrained in the “learning of the schools,” unpolished by the habitude of cultivated society, who could have so nobly acquitted himself in the high station to which God, and the people God-guided, called this true patriot and humbleminded Christian, this far seeing, cautious, yet tenacious statesman, this genial-hearted and merciful man? Continue reading ‘The glory and the gloom’
While to us the Civil War ended suddenly, over a period of days early in April 1865, for Regina Shober Gray it still dragged on at the end of the month:
61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Sunday, 30 April 1865: We had a thoroughly fine discourse to-day from James Freeman Clarke, and he made an admirable prayer for us & our country – not too long, but comprising all our need. It has been a sad solemn week. The slow march of the martyred President’s funeral train has shaken earth with the heavy tramp of this mighty army of mourners; for hundreds of miles across our wide country, hundreds of thousands of men & women have stood with bowed, bared heads & burdened hearts in the funeral train of this good great man, revered in life, sainted in death. Had ever mortal man such grand burial pageant before?
This day week we were all distressed & anxious at hearing of Sherman’s armistice & peace treaty with Johnston, granting the rebels such terms as the loyal people would never have consented to yield them, when they were strongest – far less now, when rebeldom is in a state of collapse. Continue reading ‘Something to remember’
Regina Shober Gray’s account of the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination continues, although a hint of the return of normal life appears at the end of her 23 April entry.
61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Monday, 17 April 1865: We have captured Mobile, with 3,000 prisoners & 300 cannon. We have long held its harbor & forts – now this, the last important Southern seaport, is in our hands. A few days ago how gladly we would have greeted this good news – now we are so crushed by our great loss, so stunned by the awful circumstances attending it, that we hardly give any heed to the new tale of success!
President Lincoln’s funeral takes place on Wednes’y April 19th! The anniversary of battle of Lexington – and of the firing on Mass. 6th in 1861, by the mob in Baltimore. Continue reading ‘Crushed by our great loss’
Mrs. Gray’s diary entry for Easter Sunday 1865 continues.
61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, 16 April 1865: Vice President Johnson was sworn into office yester’y morning in place of our beloved President Lincoln. He is said to be a man of great natural ability but very uneducated. Has been very influential among the loyalists of Tennessee & the West. He was so disgracefully drunk on the 4th of March as to mortify and alarm us all very much. But we hear since that that was an accident – he is habitually a thoroughly temperate man, and was overcome then by what would have affected most men not at all, owing to his being so entirely unaccustomed to the use of stimulants. If he will but keep good advisers about him! And we will hope so. It is said his wife taught him to read and write after their marriage! Continue reading ‘Nothing from the Boston Courier’
Mrs. Gray’s Easter Sunday entry for 1865 is one of the longest in the diary. In it, she grapples with the sharp shock of President Lincoln’s assassination at the moment of the Civil War’s end. Her 15 April diary concludes “A horror of darkness & gloom has settled over all. This awful calamity shuts out every thought but of itself…”
61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Saturday, 15 April 1865: Oh, dark, dark day! Our great, good, wise President, is dead – assassinated in Ford’s theatre, in Washington City at about 20 minutes past nine last evg. Shot through the head, and lay insensible till about 22 minutes past seven this morning when he breathed his last. The assassin is supposed to be J. Wilkes Booth, the actor, and brother to the great tragedian Edwin Booth.
…At about the same hour another desperado made his way past the servants, into Secretary Seward’s sick chamber, leaped upon his bed and stabbed him three times about the head and neck – stabbed Major Seward in the arm & head – mortally wounded the nurse, a man, who leaped on the bed behind him and tried to pinion his arms – and also injured a state messenger, who was in the room – thus disabling entirely the four unarmed & astounded men who opposed him he too made his escape. Continue reading ‘The noble pilot’
A previous post about former President John Quincy Adams and his son visiting Nantucket listed their dining partners at a meal in the tiny village of Siasconset, on the eastern edge of the island. Most were family members of the inn’s proprietress, Betsey Cary, and all but one could conclusively be identified as island residents or relatives. The only nebulous person (and he would really love that term!) was R. T. Paine. After going down various rabbit holes trying to determine who he was, I gave up … but editor Scott Steward came up with a likely candidate: Robert Treat Paine (1803–1885).
In his own right, this gentleman was an attorney of some prominence, with a passion for astronomy and meteorology; at his death he left an “astronomical” endowment to Harvard for that purpose. His own accomplishments, however, were overshadowed by those of his father, a brilliant poet … and most especially by the grandfather for whom he was named. Continue reading An interesting dinner party
The Confederate army was in full flight, with repercussions as far north as Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yet even in triumph there were intimations of some fresh disaster; reading the penultimate paragraph in the diarist’s 10 April entry sends chills:
61 Bowdoin Street, Boston, Tuesday, 4 April 1865: Frank [Gray] has just come in – all lectures and recitations are suspended to day at Harvard in honor of the taking of Richmond. The students had a great excitement yesterday on receiving the news and were allowed to cut recitations for the rest of the day. This morning after prayers, President Hill made a short address and dismissed them as he said to “meditate for the day” on this great blessing – whereupon they all adjourned to the green, sang Old Hundred with vim, and after some cheering, scattered. The public schools yesterday were dismissed at once on reception of the news. To-day there will be a great meeting in Faneuil Hall – ah! how the great “golden-mouthed” orator Ed. Everett will be missed there. How he would have thrilled all hearts to-day; and my poor brother John, how this news would have gladdened his heart! Continue reading ‘To the light at last’