“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.” James Baldwin
In this post I want to share some letters from our archives that have two things in common. One is that they were all written in the aftermath of profound loss. The other is that I wasn’t looking for letters like this (in doing research on grief, for instance); I came across them simply while doing my job as an archivist. As such these letters weren’t chosen: they chose me. My intention is largely to let the voices in these letters speak for themselves and so this post will largely consist of the letters themselves. I will, however, preface them with a reflection on what it means for all of us to be able to read these letters because they have come into the archives.
In a certain sense, these letters are quietly unremarkable; they depict ordinary people living ordinary lives and dying ordinary deaths. We know very little on a personal level about these people, and their situations do not illuminate any momentous historical events. But in another sense their writing is powerful. The letters’ contents represent cries of the heart: much tempered by the restraint of their time, but nevertheless conveying the unique voices of these distressed people. These documents are also remarkable because they survived – and not only survived but overcame a thousand odds against doing so to arrive at a public archives. (For this we must thank generations of family custodians and the present-day donors.)
Precisely because these letters are now in a public archives, anyone who visits us can read them, and someone like me can put them on the internet thereby making them available to the entire connected world. I have found myself wrestling with the decision to do so. My deliberations reveal something not only about archivists’ work but also about how archives form links across time that reveal our common humanity.
There are two viewpoints we can consider when we think about making material like this widely available. The first is the viewpoint of those involved in the circumstances that produced the letters: these include the letter’s author, its recipients, and the people described in the letter. In the case of all the letters below, all these participants are long dead. It may seem odd to consider the viewpoints of the dead, but this is something archivists do routinely (in a sense). Privacy legislation closes official records until various periods after a person’s death, and copyright laws protect the legacy of their intellectual property for other periods. But neither apply in the case of these older letters.
What I mean here by the viewpoint of the participants transcends the law. I wonder what these people would think were they able to conceive of the access we have to their personal and intimate communications and circumstances. Like most of us, I suspect, their attitude would fall somewhere between bewilderment and horror. Centuries later, does it matter? Do the dead have moral if not legal rights to some kind of limited privacy? How would that be administered? (Archivists often compromise – as I have done here – by limiting wide exposure of sensitive personal records to those of people long dead. Why do the more recently dead merit greater consideration than the long dead?)
I recently talked over my misgivings with a wise colleague. His answer helped me to decide to go ahead with this post: “But if no one knows about these letters, these people die again in a different way.” These letters are likely all that remain of the people they depict. I share them with both unease and respect, asking readers to remember that these are not small works of fiction but the experiences of flesh-and-blood human beings like ourselves who once worked, played, and loved.
The other viewpoint on sensitive records is our own many years later. One of the most compelling and familiar uses for material like this lies in its value for the social historian. Within these letters, details such as the role of religion in assigning meaning or the use of mourning stationery tell us about the world they come from.
Here, however, I want to call attention to more subjective but equally meaningful responses to the letters. On the front lines of that unique kind of encounter is the archivist. After records like these reach the archives, the archivist may be the first person in many years to read them. Archivists are increasingly discussing something they have always dealt with, the phenomenon of “vicarious trauma.” Closely analysing the raw material of history, from forensic photographs to witness statements, means that we are exposed to the gamut of what human beings can suffer at the hands of one another and of fate. While accounts of grief may not perhaps disturb us to quite the degree as other types of records, we cannot help but be affected by them not only as professionals but as human beings, and to bring our own personal experiences to our work.
Grief is pain that attends the loss of anything integral to our sense of ourselves and our well-being. We can grieve the loss of loved ones through death or separation; we can grieve ways of life, beloved places, lost futures, lost trust, and lost hope; we can even grieve things we never had, but very much wanted or needed. Like most people who have reached a certain age, I have experienced all of these and so I recognize in these letters the characteristics of loss: the alternating pain and numbness, the disorientation, the fear, the difficult duty of finding the words to tell other people, the compulsion to recount minute details of events surrounding the loss.
The rambling quality of some of these letters perhaps represents an attempt to digest what has happened to the letter writer. But telling stories of loss isn’t only about processing the loss or conveying news. These storytellers may also be trying to evoke a sense of the presence of the person they have lost, both for themselves and for their correspondents. In turn, many years later their stories make both the letter writer and their world present to me, especially as I hold in my hands the same paper and ink that they held in theirs. While the world they lived in may be alien to me in some respects, their feelings are not. These letters move me to sadness, but it is the sadness of empathy. And empathy makes me a better archivist because I want to honour these voices and the paths they took to be able to speak to me and to us.
Grief is isolating. It shuts us up into our own diminished world. When we feel there is no sorrow like our sorrow, we are right. Every instance of grief is as unique as every person and as every relationship between people. And yet one way to ease the burden of loss is to share it, or simply to be in its presence as a wounded witness. Perhaps a communion of sufferers doesn’t suffer quite as much. And this, at least for me, is one great value in sharing letters like this. They show us we are not alone.
by Samantha Thompson, Archivist
Following are transcriptions of five letters from the Region of Peel Archives collections dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. The first four letters deal with the death of a relative and the last with permanent separation brought about by emigration. I have added punctuation for clarity but have left spelling intact. Some material has been excised for brevity, but I have tried to maintain text that reveals the writer’s state of mind. Citations for the letters and for images used in this post can be found at the end of this post.
The reader is warned that the following includes detailed accounts of the deaths of individuals.
February 22nd, 1906
I received yours all safe and was sorry you were unable to come but it could not be helped. God knows what will happen. Poor Eliza had a cold running through her all winter but nothing more than usual and the last two weeks she complained of her heart spysms running through her chest and bowels but never was unable [for] her work. She said that it would soon go away. The day before her death she churned and washed the room and floor, and when I came in at supper time she said I have churned and got my butter in fine order in fifteen minutes and washed the room. And I said it was too much to do in one day and she said, oh I don’t feel tired only a little paine round my heart, and after tea she was reading the paper and she said to me, Henry, listen to this – and she read two or three little pieces of news aloud to me, and then gave me the paper and went on knitting a little sock for the baby, and then fell asleep perhaps half an hour and then woke up and read a book she was reading. And when 10 o’clock came I said it was bedtime. She said, fix up the fire and I will soon come up. And Eliza came up about half an hour after me and no complaint, just her usual self.
And in the morning when I called her to breakfast she came down and commenced to cut the bread and then said to me, Henry you cut the bread I am very ill, and sat down in the rocking chair, and I cut the bread and poured out the tea, and Eliza sat up to the table in her one place. And all at once she said Henry I am awfully ill, and said, I will go to bed again. And she went straight up smart as ever I seen her, and I followed her up, and she asked me to lose her close [loose her clothes]. I did so, and she said, pull of my stocking, and then she said, take these bricks too and warm them and bring them up.
So sent the boy over for Emma and drank a cup of tea and ran up with the bricks and the first words Eliza said, have you got the bricks and I said yes. She said give me one and she clasped it to her heart and told me to put the other to her feet and layed back in bed, and almost a minute after she sat up and tried to vomit and could not and then fell back, I thought that she was dead and I ran to Broadleys and as luck happens Bell Young was there and she and Joe came out at once but she was dead. Dead, just had she had lain when I left. And then Emma came in just a few minutes after we got in the house and you can guess the awful state. Then Guss went for Aunt Marion.
She died it seems without a struggle as calm and as natural as I or anyone else ever saw her. We buried her on Sunday at the English church burying ground, and next Sunday we are to have the funeral service preached and I hope dear Emma and Aunt Marion will be their, and Uncle John and Jess and John were at the funeral.
God knows but I often thought I should be called away before Eliza but God knows best, his will not mine. But when I look round and see the empty chair I think of my loneliness. I cannot say what I shall do yet. I will need time to consider. When I think dear Eliza never had cause for a doctor until lately but she would not hear of one. It might have helped her.
God bless you. Sincerely, Henry
Sunday afternoon, 1857
My dear Jane,
I little thought when I wrote you last that I should so soon have such a melancholy theme to write on next. My poor dear mother has a last gone to her long home. Oh Jane, if you had only been here it would have been a great relief to me, for I was all alone…Oh my dear Jane, we never know the value of a mother so much as when they are gone. Then we feel all they have ever done for us and we think of all we have done in their life time to annoy them. But I have tried to do my duty through her illness as well as I knew how, yet that was but little…
As you know, she has been poorly for a long time but until last Sunday we never thought very dangerous or past recovery. She has been doctoring with our old Dr. but it proved of no use; it was the will of her Father that she should leave us now and it was not in the power of human kind to stay that sad event. I have prayed that I may be reconciled to abide by the will of providence. But Jane, it was a hard blow for me.
Last Sunday she seemed to be getting weaker…the Dr. came and he said she was much worse. He left her some soothing powders. She took one of them on going to bed and next morning at six o’clock I came into her room and in ten minutes after she breathed her last. Oh Jane, what an awful thing it is to see death, yet how peacefully she left this world of troubles and I hope we may all be as ready and willing to go as my poor mother was.
She spoke to Pa a short time before and said she was very easy but sleepy. Little he thought ‘twas the sleep of death that was stealing over her frame. That was on Tuesday, and Margaret never got here till Wednesday afternoon. What I suffered during that time I hope I may never be called on to pass through again. It came so suddenly on us I could not make up my mind to submit to the dispensations of providence.
But when Margaret and Fred came it seemed to lift half the heavy load off me and, dear Jane, when I look at it sensibly it would have been almost selfish in me to have wished her to live much longer. She suffered so much the last three days it would only have been prolonging her misery and she seemed prepared to go. She did not wish to live, and I can now see how many of her prayers were answered even in her death… but Oh dear Jane I can never come back alone to this old house…Give my love to all the girls and write soon.
Your friend, Mary
First letter: George W. Gordon family fonds
Second letter: George W. Gordon family fonds
Third letter: Curry Clark family fonds
Fourth letter: Curry Clark family fonds
Fifth letter: Region of Peel Archives textual records collection
All black and white photographs: Robertson Matthews fonds, circa 1910