Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Pepperell Tragedies

While attempting to authenticate the gravestones depicted on a series of postcards marketed as "The Tragedies of Pepperell, Massachusetts," I came across a transcription of the Pepperell Vital Records from the 19th century.

The most common causes of death among Pepperell residents were consumption, dropsy, dysentery, stillbirth, canker, mortification, and unspecified fever. Many are listed as dying in the army, either as the result of wounds or of disease. I learned a few new words, including "quincy," an eighteenth-century term for tonsilitis (vocab lesson here). Quite a few Pepperell residents died of "old age," which is pretty remarkable when you consider how many were drowned in wells, run over by carts, and crushed by mill stones.

Below, I have reproduced some of the more horrifying entries. Though certain of my professors would scold me for doing so, I cannot help but imagine an elaborate story behind each of these laconic records. Did a terrified older sister desperately try to save poor little William Emerson only to have him expire before their parents returned? How could Abigail Blood have died of scurvy, not in the dead of winter, but in July, when fresh vegetables should have been easy to find? What did people whisper when Josiah and Mary Nutting walked past? And what on earth happened to Henry Shattuck?

BLOOD, Abigail, w. Nehemiah, scurvey, July 3, 1798, a. 42 y.

BLOOD, Abigail (Nabby) injury in a cida mill. Oct. 10, 1833, a. 42 y.

BLOOD, Jonathan, s. David & Abigail, killed by a cart wheel at Concord, July 19, 1763, a. 21 y.

BLOOD, Moses, strangling, Apr. 30, 1838, a. 88 y.

BLOOD, Volney, found dead in the road in Groton, a. 13, supposed to be in consequence of injury in falling from a cart, Nov. 26, 1833.

BOWERS, Aaron, s. John & Lydia, killed by the fall of a stack of boards, Sept. 12, 1791, a. 2 y. 10 m.

BOYNTON, Abel, S. Abijah & Sarah, lockjaw. Dec. 21, 1798, a. 22¾ y.

BOYNTON, Sarah, w. Capt. Joseph, strangled, Aug. 17, 1787, a. 47 y.

ELIOT, J.K., drowned while bathing in the Nashua, a. 17 y.

EMERSON, William, a ch. Rev. Joseph, d. at Reading, while parents were on a visit, Oct. 17, 1753, a. 4 m. 7 d.

FISK, Susan, found dead Dec. 2, 1820, a. 76 y., supposed to have died Nov. 15th.

FITCH, Jonas, fell in little brook, stunned, wounded & drowned. May 31, 1808, a. 67 y.

FITCH, Luther, s. Jonas, fever & worms, Nov. 11, 1819, a. 3 y.

GREEN, John Brooks, s. Jonathan, by scalding, Mar. 15, 1831, a. 8 y. 4 m.

HARRIS, Joseph, delirium tremors, Nov. 14, 1841, a. 37 y.

HOSLEY, Elizabeth, wid., bleeding from the stomach, Oct. 27, 1806, a. 86 y.

JEWETT, Sarah Green, wid. Nehemiah, Sept. 26, 1829, she fainted and fell into the fire, a. 90 y.

LAWRENCE, Lydia, a short time resident in town, killed by lightening in the house of Joseph Stevens, jr., July __, 1825, a. 36 y.

NUTTING, ———ch. Josiah & Mary stillborn monster, Jan. 18, 1762

PARKER, Abijah, a pecular sore on the thigh, Dec. 4, 1811, a. 66 y.

PETERS, Joseph, found dead in Jonas Wright's san pit, Nov. 10, 1774, a. 25 y.

RICHARDSON, Abiel, h. Sarah, killed by a fall, assisting at Dunstable raising of meeting house, July 19, 1753, a. abt. 30 y.

SHATTUCK, Hannah, wid., insanity, Apr. 20, 1830, a. 69 y.

SHATTUCK, Henry, s. Emerson & h. Azubah Bowers, suicide at Westminster, remains were found Nov. 3, 1827 & buried, he d. in Dec. 1826.

SHATTUCK, Jackson, cancerous disease of the face, Oct. 9, 1840, a. 40 y.

SHATTUCK, John, hanging, Dec. 15, 1785, a. 74 y. 6m. 12 d.

TENNEY, Catharine W., incubus, Jan. 22, 1837, a. 8 y.

VARNUM, William, s. John & Eunice, killed from stroke of his sythe, Aug. 9, 1820, a. 19 y. 4 m.

WHITE, Sarah, wid. Patrick, generally thot by hydrophobia, Apr. 3, 1810, a. 77 y.

WRIGHT, Edward, a foreigner at the poor house, suicide, Oct. 18, 1834, a. 55 y.


Robert J. said...

Ha, probably 3/4 of the folks in the Pepperell cemetery would be cousins of mine. The records read like Edward Gorey's Gashleycrumb Tinies.

The last one is the most poignant. A middle-aged foreigner dying in the poorhouse. Surely there is a story there, whether your professor wants you to imagine it or not.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

I agree - Edward Wright is the saddest case (though I'm still wondering about Henry Shattuck).

I have one history prof whose standards for evidence are so specific that they preclude pretty much any history except high political history. I agree with him that historians should argue from the available evidence — I'm just willing to think more broadly about what counts as evidence.

Robert J. said...

Many of these are among the core family names of the western Middlesex towns -- Blood, Shattuck, Lawrence, Fitch, Nutting, Parker, Green. Occasionally they produced someone who stood out locally: Lemuel Shattuck was a genealogical pioneer and a founder of NEHGS; Dr. Samuel Green was a president of the Mass. Historical Society (IIRC) and he published "Groton Epitaphs" in the late 1800s, one of the most careful nineteenth-century volumes of gravestone transcriptions. (You should certainly look it up as a sample of good early scholarship in this field.) Groton was the home base of the carver William Park, a foreigner who thankfully did not die in the poorhouse. All these towns are full of Park stones (and Dwight stones from nearby Shirley).

Many of these families followed a similar historical route, beginning with settlement in Watertown, then migrating out to Concord, and then to the more remote towns of Lancaster and Groton, the first two inland settlements after Concord. The settlement patterns of subsequent generations are still visible today:


It's too bad those "Tragedies of Pepperell" cards are not shown a bit bigger, but they all look authentic. The third one is certainly a Park stone from what I can see of it.