I study the history of medicine as my primary field or research, but it never ceases to amaze me just how much the face of medicine and public health has changed over the last 200 years. While we undoubtedly have our own modern problems, like dealing with the rising costs of health care, articles like the one below, celebrating the lack of epidemic disease in the city of Boston in 1843, really drive home just how far we’ve come.
Boston Recorder, February 8, 1844
The juxtaposition of this curious letter from “A Friend” to the young Washington Mutual Insurance company imploring for their national expansion immediately followed by the tragic tale of personal property lost to a fire in Philadelphia seems too perfect to be coincidence. Was part of a brilliant marketing scheme for the young insurance company, reminding the American people just how badly they might need insurance? Or perhaps a typesetter with a sense of whimsy found juxtaposing the two pieces to be too great a laugh to pass up. Whatever the circumstances that brought these two pieces together, they offer a glimpse into a nation on the cusp of transitioning into a commercial and consumer society.
New-York Herald, Wednesday, January 20, 1802
I have lately been transcribing parts of the diaries of a young man from New York state, who attended medical school in the late 1820’s and early 1830’s. Not only have I gleaned some interesting insights into early nineteenth century medical education from this enterprise, but it’s also an amazing experience simply reading the day-today thoughts of this young man.
Sometimes, reading secondary historical sources, or even when reading primary sources like books, newspapers, or professional journals, I feel so detached from the events being described that it’s hard to believe that these are the products of real people, who really once lived and walked on this earth, and whose lives were probably not at all unlike our own. But reading these diaries is a completely different experience. This young man, named Asa Fitch, feels so real that it almost feels rude to be reading his private thoughts. And yet, it’s people like Fitch that remind me that history is not something stale out of a textbook, it’s a collection of the experience of real flesh and blood human beings, just like you and I. One passage in particular really drove these feeling home, and I wanted to share them here. The following is an excerpt from Fitch’s entry for Friday, December 5, 1828.
Clarinda is perhaps to be married. It will deprive me of one of my most admired companions. We have known many sweet moments when together, which I shall never, never forget. Who is there on the whole that I esteem more, of my fair acquaintances? Only one, & were it not for certain circumstances, I should say none. Till now I have been looking forwards to more happy hours in her company during the coming summer. But now I expect I shall be disappointed. It should be a happy disappointment to me as her sincere friend, for her condition will probably be much better– but I cannot give up the pleasures of her company without some scintillations of grief. Memory will often in coming years recall the dear & delightful steps of our acquaintance & intercourse– the frequent times we have met, & the ingenuity I have used to bring about such meetings– the letters I have carried to her from Miranda, & the answers I have taken back– the ardour & enthusiasm which thoughts of her have have [sic] occasioned. And are all these joys gone forever! It is her best & wisest course, & I will not repine. But one hope I still cling to. That the wedding will not take place till my return, that I may attend it– & then let me lead one figure in a dance with her that she may see that I too, have got a ‘Light fantastic’ toe? & that its motions have received some attention since last October [Fitch had been taking dancing classes in New York]. For this much I will still hope– and one more kiss from her full; gentle cheek. Then may she depart & the richest blessings of heaven accompany her to a new & a happy home.
Asa Fitch, Journal G, 1828. Pages 133-34.
There are few things I find quite so alienating as a historian as coming across a joke or other playful bits of satire in a historical source and not getting it. Of course, missing the joke can be a source of great inspiration to the historian. The great cultural and intellectual historian Robert Darton wrote one of his most influential essays on his efforts to understand the cultural context that allowed for something that we as modern readers find very unfunny (in this case, murdering cats) to be the subject of raucous laughter and countless mirthful retellings in eighteenth-century France. I suspect, however, that the mystery behind the newspaper clipping below is unlikely to be as culturally revealing as Darton’s Great Cat Massacre, but it still troubles me knowing that I am definitely missing the joke here:
States in the South were not known for being especially lenient to criminals, black or white. In many southern states, capital and corporal punishment remained on the statue books well into the nineteenth century for offenses which many of us would consider relatively minor. However, even for crimes which, to this day, are still considered serious enough to warrant capital punishment, like first degree murder, punishment in the nineteenth-century South went beyond what we might reasonably expect. Particularly if the offenders were black slaves, like Ben and Smart, who faced a truly heinous punishment for murdering the presumably white William Maxwell.
Because local authorities thought their crime deserved a particularly “severe” punishment, they ordered the two men burned alive. Like many slaves who were considered dangerous or rebellious at this time, Ben and Smart, unfortunately bore the full brunt of the law’s more vindictive side. Despite the contemporary perception that execution of slaves was primarily by hanging, the truth is that slaves sometimes endured the most medieval of punishments for their transgressions, and not just through the private punishment of their masters, but by the hands of the state. The historical record reveals that most slaves were in fact hanged, but the unluckier ones might suffer any number of painful executions, like being burned alive, broken on the wheel, hanged in chains, or gibbeted.
Adalberto Aguirre Jr. and David V. Baker, “Slave executions in the United States: A descriptive analysis of social and historical factors,” The Social Science Journal 38:1 (1999), 1-31. doi:10.1016/S0362-3319(99)80001-9
In 1857, New York denizens were becoming increasingly anxious about a series of garrote robberies. Businessmen were being nabbed from behind, a ligature of some sort pulled tightly around their necks, and their valuables (furs, money, watches, etc.) stolen by brazen, but seemingly unstoppable thieves. The article here is only a small bit of a satirical piece which appeared in Harper’s Weekly, skewering the ineffectiveness of city police.
…it seems that the thing to do in the early decades of the nineteenth century was to take out an ad in the local newspaper begging your community not to engage in business with her! It seems an inefficient, not to mention humiliating, way to deal with domestic disputes, but in an age in which divorce was not always a viable option, I can imagine situations in which there was little that a husband could legally do to put a halt to his spendthrift wife’s activities.
It is not clear how common ads like the one below might have been or whether there was more to the story which might explain why Tilman Lewis took such an extraordinarily public measure to censure his wife. Nevertheless, this little accidental find raises a number of questions about domestic relations at the turn of the nineteenth century.