Excerpts from my ancestor’s journal (April 1889)

It’s been a few months since I posted from my ancestor’s journal, mostly because I had fallen off in my transcription project. But! I worked on it last night, and have some fun excerpts to share.

March 1889 was a rough month for Emma as her eight-year-old daughter, Mattie, became very ill from pneumonia. A few entries were simply variations of: “Mattie very sick.” Finally, Mattie did pull through. In early April, calamity fell again to the household when Emma’s mother-in-law, who lived with them, fainted dead away and hit her head. Days later, her head still ached. From about this time, Emma wrote the following entry:

[Friday, April 12, 1889]

Shower during the night – sunshine, clouds and showers today. Men have been grafting and trimming the trees in the “clover lot” this week. Frank went from there to the depot soon after 4 o’c., and as he has not returned yet think he has gone out of town. Mother has made ginger-bread and doughnuts. I swept and cleaned the west chamber etc. Did mending this P.M. and evening. Henry was happy as possible this morning when he found that he was not to have to have on skirts any more – he looks nicely now his hair is cut. Heard thunder in the distance – we have had two thundershowers this spring – one in the night and one at noon.

The following is something that came to me in good time.

“Do thou thy work; it shall succeed

In thine, or in another’s day,

And if denied the victor’s meed

Thou shalt not miss the toiler’s pay.”

(Robert Moffat)

I like reading about the orchard work, especially as I’m reading about it in the springtime. Four-year-old Henry’s transition out of skirts is amusing, especially as the Victorian practice of dressing little boys in skirts is something I’ve wondered at before.

The quote, which initially struck me as so very New England Puritan, was actually written by a Scottish Congregationalist missionary. Robert Moffat (1795 – 1883) was a missionary to South Africa and was the father-in-law of the more famous missionary David Livingstone.

Another excerpt:

[Sunday, April 21, 1889]

Pleasant but very windy this P.M.

Grandpa, Prescott and Henry walked down to church. The meetings today had special reference to “The Constitutional Amendment.” Shall we vote Yes or No?

[Monday, April 22, 1889]

A beautiful morn – but wind clouds blew over and was so windy we could hardly get clothes on to the line.

Grass is up two inches high and is very green, and fresh.

The vote for the Amendment came in 11 or 13 ahead in this town. School did not keep – children all went after checker-berries.

Grandpa carried Mr. Wheeler down to vote.

Pease came home tonight.

The Constitutional Amendment was for state Prohibition. This did not pass in 1889. I know from later entries that Emma was at some point a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union but I’m not sure she was active in it in 1889.

I had never heard of checkerberries, but the plant also goes by the name American wintergreen or eastern teaberry.

Mr. Wheeler was a neighbor of the Richards family, and was mentioned quite often in Emma’s journal. As he was older and ailing, members of the family would frequently go down to his house and check on him. He died five days after the day Emma’s father-in-law carried him down to the vote.

J. Howard Pease was a hired hand who had started working for the family in December 1888. I loved this little bit from the end of January 1889:

Frank, Pease and I went down to the vestry to a sociable and chicken pie supper. We had a fine time. The young people went to the Town Hall afterward to a select dance. Frank went over and introduced Pease to the co. before we came home.

His presence around the household allows for a peek into Williamsburg’s more social scene, since Frank was often traveling for work and Emma was constrained by caring for her children and by housework. In April 1889, Pease went to see Comical Brown, an entertainer hailing from Maine, and he also attended a lecture given by a M. Kimball of Chicago.

I was able to find the table of contents for a songbook written by Comical Brown (whose real name was William B. Brown) through William & Mary’s library website:

Table of Contents:

  • The strong minded female. Words by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I’m a strong-minded female, from Boston)
  • The kiss at the door. Music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: We were sitting in the doorway)
  • William Henry White. Pathetic ballad, composed by Wm. B. Brown (first line: Come all ye people high and low)
  • Shun the broad road (first line: The happy home circle is breaking, my boy)
  • The Irish wedding (first line: Now won’t you hear what roaring cheer was had at Paddy’s wedding)
  • Pat Murphy’s employment. Words and music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: Pat Murphy’s my name, I’m a broth of a boy)
  • The wife-hunter. Written and composed by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I married a wife, a loving wife)
  • The ‘orrible tale. Composed and sung by W.B. Brown (first line: It’s an ‘orrible tale I’m a goin’ for to tell)
  • The little boy that died. Poetry by Dr. Chalmers. Music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I am all alone in my chamber now)
  • Werry Mysterious. As sung by Wm. B. Brown (first line: O dear! what a world of misfortune and care).

I’m going to assume based on the titles that Mr. Brown wasn’t “comical” all the time. “The little boy that died” sounds like something out of Dickensian sentiment. Also, I am very curious to know the rest of the lyrics to “The strong minded female”!

My working theory for the identity of M. Kimball is that Emma had the first initial incorrect, and that the speaker was actually Edward A. Kimball, a Chicagoan who studied Christian Science under the movement’s founder Mary Baker Eddy in early 1889 at her Massachusetts Metaphysical College (located in Boston).

I love how transcribing this journal has turned into a portal for all sorts of great 19th century trivia. As I make more progress, I will be sure to post more excerpts.



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3 responses to “Excerpts from my ancestor’s journal (April 1889)

  1. How cool that you’re learning about all sorts of things as you read through. I’m so interested that they were voting on Prohibition, particularly.

    • Yeah it took a little research to find out what they were voting on, since she never said outright. (And she was quite coy I think on which way she thought the vote should go.) She was living in a time of great change and it’s interesting to see glimpses of that change in her journal. I’m interested also in the ways I can take what is really a quite matter-of-fact journal and see the story/narrative hidden there.

  2. piningforthewest

    You are so lucky to have this journal, I find it fascinating. We’ve never had Prohibition in Scotland – surprise surprise! but until quite recently there were areas in some towns which were called ‘dry’ because the inhabitants didn’t want any pubs in the neighbourhood. The quote seems very Scottish Presbyterian to me.

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