This is a story about walking between worlds. It happens now (more or less; December 2020) and also then (October 1844).
In the present, I was working on the Dr. Todd A. Herring Collection, re-sorting folders and looking for pieces to scan so I could transcribe them over winter break. I am an archives nerd; writing these stories back into the intelligible world, creating little points of connection—it’s comforting. I wouldn’t have any company for the holidays, but I could create some, or at least a distraction for myself. I could skip through time like a stone and not sink in my own reality.
The Dr. Todd A. Herring Collection is a large and diverse collection and includes, among other things, a vast quantity of correspondence as well as legal and financial documents from early America, the United Kingdom, and assorted points around the globe. The correspondence is a kaleidoscope of people, places, and activities.
As I sorted, I was cherry-picking letters to transcribe. My eye sought connections that follow a particular pattern – early Southerner settlers writing north, for example – or, alternatively, connections that seem unusual or unexpected. I transcribe for many reasons: to facilitate digitization; to support archival instruction and undergraduate research; so I don’t forget how to navigate cursive; because I like it.
I stopped at one particular letter, probably because of the geography and the time period: Cincinnati to Boston, 1844, the early years of America’s westward expansion. Opening the folder revealed some names: Amelia C. to Charles J. Underwood. Who were they? I wondered, envisioning Amelia as a young Bostonian in the wilds of Ohio, perhaps working as a governess, maybe writing home to a relative or sweetheart. Or maybe the reverse: Charles as an Ohioan, studying or working in the East, Amelia writing to him to give him the news from home. A first skim produced a full name: Amelia Coffin. I was hooked now.
I sat down, smoothed the paper out, and plunged in. I read the letter the same way I ask students to read documents during archival instruction: with critical questions like “Who made this? Who was their audience? What kind of document is this? What is this document about? What information may be missing?” at the front of my mind. I was also looking for signposts that might provide external context, such as references to well-known historical events or nationally significant names.
As I began, I read Amelia’s opening paragraph with growing horror and sorrow:
I owe you an apology for my seeming neglect of your kind letter, but the truth is I have not been in a suitable state of mind to imitate meter for the perusal of anyone. Sickness and troubles of various kind have fallen to my allotment during the past summer, two months of such time I was confined to a sickbed, and hardly had I become convalescent before a fearful and deplorable act deprived me of my little boy. Not being very well we called in a physician, he supposing him to be suffering from his teeth he lanced the gums and he lanced too deep. The teeth did not require the lance and my poor boy bled to death!
I put the letter down. I sat there, in my clean and quiet 21st-century reading room, rattled, and thought of all the teething babies that have gnawed upon my fingers. All the advice I have heard addressed to parents, some serious, some joking: Have you tried popsicles? Just rub some whisky on the gums! I had never considered lancing the gums as a cure for teething. It feels apocalyptic, like killing a spider with a nuclear weapon. But apparently it was a remedy used well into the early 20th century.
I took a deep breath and picked up the letter again. Amelia wrote:
I had hardly recouped the first shock of his death and the attending circumstances when an accident befell me which well nigh proved fatal. I was walking along fourth street, in front of Shillito’s a clerk stood in the act of hanging up those heavy shutters, thinking he had screwed it he released his hold it fell striking me directly on my head precipitating me backwards off the sidewalk over the curb and into the gutter, when I came to myself my jaws were firmly locked and it was some four or five hours before I could speak so as to be understood but happily I do not feel any very bad effects from it now, it is now three weeks since it occurred.
I put the letter down again, this time to consider the brain injury she must have recovered from, which seemed miraculous to me, and possibly also to her. When I picked it up, Amelia continued, waxing philosophical:
You will truly call my letter a chapter of troubles and accident, that is were I tell you all, but enough. He is a fool who expects to pass through life without the accompaniment cares and troubles, and he is truly great who bears them best, but these are some misfortunes that defy the powers of cold reason, the affections will not listen to His voice, and Philosophy in vain may teach her lessons to the soul for when affections links are broken, grief burst her stern control.
I paused again, distantly angry that Amelia felt she had to apologize for her grief. Perhaps I felt the echo more keenly this year, awash as we are in a season of uneven mourning, much of this grief as profoundly unnecessary (not to say preventable) as this one.
When I resumed, Amelia was both apologizing again and answering one of my more pressing questions: the nature of her relationship to Charles.
But I have written more than I intended, at present, and I most ashamed to send this ill-written epistle but you know I told you I was a poor scribe the fact is I have very few corresponding friends and as a matter of course I have very little practice, or I would do better, but I trust Friendship will make it acceptable. Mother and the girls send their love to you and promise to write soon.
And then, mixed in with news of other friends, there is this tantalizing tidbit: “Politics are the order of the day and torchlight processions and song singing the order of the night.”
I paused again, taking a deep breath against a spike of alarm. (All I could imagine are tiki torches moving down a dark street, lighting the way for malevolence on foot.) Later investigation revealed October 1844 was near the end of James K. Polk’s successful presidential campaign, which was marked by torch-lit parades and speechifying. Then as now, Ohio was a political hot potato and both parties were eager for votes. And it was 1844; torch light for Amelia was as common as a cell phone flashlight is for me. In this instance, the fear is all mine.
But in the reading room I pushed the threat of fire out of my mind, and returned to the main mystery: who were these people and how did they know each other? I started with Amelia. I found her in the 1850 census, living in Cincinnati with her husband George and their children Ada (9) and Cora (3); George’s occupation was given as bell foundry. They tried again, I thought, still wanting to reach out and hold Amelia’s hand. I was relieved that Amelia was granted the joy of a third child, and that child survived. From here, I could follow Amelia back to her marriage to George in 1838. I determined that she was born in Kentucky in 1820, later moved to Ohio. At some point the family returned to Kentucky, as Amelia died there in 1884; George followed her in 1893.
I then turned to Charles James Underwood. He was, surprisingly, somewhat harder to find. (It’s usually the women who sink under history’s waves.) He was the son of James Underwood, once a publisher, later head of a Bible Society. Charles was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1826, and moved to Ohio with his family in 1830. His mother died in Cincinnati in 1832, followed by his sister Sophia in 1837. In the wake of all of this loss, his father moved to Knob Prairie, Illinois, where he died in 1841, leaving Charles an orphan at 15. Charles then moved to Boston, probably to live with his uncle William Underwood, founder of the first food preserving company in America. Charles married Caroline Luyster in 1847 and died in Cambridge in 1895.
In 1844, Amelia was 24 and Charles was 18, and she was, as I suspected, giving him the news from the place he might have thought of as home. Perhaps they met as children, at a Bible society meeting or in school, and became friends. Close friends, even, since Amelia told Charles the son so cruelly taken from her “was your namesake and my second Charles, it was the name of my father.”
Amelia closed with a reminder to write often, with gentle teasing about the rate at which she will respond. I was cheered by this spark of playfulness amid the weight of the rest of her news.
I closed the letter, put it back in the folder, and I left them. But they did not leave me.
Archival processing is, by nature, an immersive activity, which often requires the archivist to become intimately familiar with the creators of the records. Every archivist has documents and people that haunt them, and this one is now one of mine.
- Or at least I meant to; what actually happened is I sat down, opened my first scanned document, and found myself in the Napoleonic Wars, reading a letter sent to a beloved friend (or maybe just a beloved) by a sailor anchored off of Algiers, writing in anticipation of his own death and . . . I could not do it. I got through the first five lines and then I juddered to a halt, grief rising in my chest for these long-dead men. I closed everything down and walked away. I would not come back to that cache of transcription-work-in-waiting for another five months. ↑
- Cameron Addis, “16 Westward Expansion,” http://sites.austincc.edu/caddis/westward-ho/ ↑
- See also: E. C. Kirk, “Gum Lancing in Difficult Primary Dentition,” American Journal of Dental Science 28, no. 3 (July 1894): 120–9, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6115143/; and T.E.C., “On the Importance of Lancing the Teething Infant’s Guns, As Viewed in 1857,” Pediatrics 67, no. 1 (January 1891), 135, https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/67/1/135. ↑
- “The Torch Lit Myriads,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, Ohio, Oct. 3, 1844, p. 2 ↑
- U.S. Federal Census, Year: 1850; Census Place: Cincinnati Ward 2, Hamilton, Ohio; Roll: 687; Page: 143b, via Ancestry.com ↑
- Amelia Meisner and George Coffin marriage record, Film number 000344454, Ohio, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1774-1993 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. ↑
- “Deaths reported yesterday,” The Courier-Journal Louisville, Kentucky; Feb. 19, 1884, Page 8; “Large Estates Divided,” The Courier-Journal Louisville, Kentucky; Sept. 19, 1893, Page 6. ↑
- Charles Underwood Baptismal record, St. James Episcopal Church, May 7, 1826, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records; Reel: 231, via Ancestry.com. ↑
- Lucien Marcus Underwood, The Underwood Families of America (The New Era Printing Co: Lancaster, PA, 1913), 620–1, via Ancestry.com. ↑
- Charles James Underwood, Find-A-Grave, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/164093789/charles-james-underwood ↑