1836: Caroline Corson to Dr. Richard D. Corson

What Caroline Corson might have looked like in 1835

This very entertaining letter was written by Caroline Corson (1815-1838), the articulate and well-educated daughter of Richard D. Corson, M.D. (1785-18xx), and Helen Stockton Johnson. Caroline mentions her brother, David Ramsey Corson (1817-1841) and her sister, Helen N. Corson (1825-1849) in the letter. Caroline’s life was cut short at the age of 23 when she fell victim to Typhoid Fever. Her brother Ramsay graduated in medicine but died in 1841 of heart disease. Her sister Helen died in 1849 of consumption.

In the letter, Caroline describes visiting with Dr. Abraham Liddon Cox, a successful New York Physician and a founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He entertained ardent abolitionists like Lewis Tappan, Theodore Weld, and the Grimke sisters in his home on Charlton Street, which was ransacked during the Abolition Riots of 1834-35. She also describes visiting someone named Mrs. Frank Van Polanen in New York City who appears to have been a distant relative or family acquaintance. “Frank” may have been short for Frances, which was common in mid 19th century parlance. “V.P.L.” as Caroline later referred to her, must have known Caroline’s mother, Helen Johnson, when she was a young woman.

That Caroline was well-educated is quite apparent from her letter. She was obviously conversant in French and she had read the works of Washington Irving and other “great men” — as she called them. The citation “like mad” was used liberally by Washington Irving in his stories.

Caroline includes a delightful description of custom of New York gentlemen to pay visits to their lady-friend acquaintances on New Year’s Day.

Stampless Letter


Addressed to R. D. Corson, M.D., New Hope, Bucks County, Pennsylvania

New York [New York]
January 18th 1836

Dear Papa & Mama,

You cannot easily imagine how much pleasure your letter to Matilda (received today) gave me. I had conjured up all manner of gloomy pictures about home — that Grandpapa perhaps was dying & I should never see him again &c. I am very sorry I had not written last week but I was waiting to know what day I should leave New York. However, that is still undecided as yet. The travelling is safe again & I only wait for a good escort. Nothing could exceed the kindness & hospitality with which I am treated here but I wish now very much to be in Philadelphia to see Ramsay & be getting ready to go home. By the by, I had a letter from him today in answer to one I sent him on Friday. He tells me Grandpapars better & “not to fret as that will do no good.” I “might as well take it easy.”

Did I tell you that Agnes Auchincloss is in Philadelphia? Miss Ingliss has opened a select school in Washington Square next door to Mr. Picot’s.¹ I intend calling to see her, but I am afraid there will be too many big I’s in this letter. Auld acquaintance shall not be forgot.

In my last I told you what a search I had had after Frank Van Polanen. Last Saturday, Matilda was engaged so I started out alone to see her for I can find my way now almost anywhere by just coming back to Broadway if I feel at a loss. I.E., I think I could have not had an opportunity of trying often. It was about twelve o’clock when I got there. She made her appearance in a morning dress & observed it was the first time she had been down that day as she breakfasted a la franscorse in her chamber. She apologized for her fire not being good & said when it was warmer I must take off my cloak & spend the day with her. She was so polite I regretted so much that I had been unable to find her before that. I staid & spent the day very agreeably. She said if I had dropped your letter in the post office with Mr. McCombs’ number, she should soon have found me out. Did not think of that not knowing whether she was in Holland or America. She enquired very particularly after Grandpapa, you & Mama. Said I looked very much like Mama. She talked a great deal about her “dear Polanen.” Said he was very playful in his natural disposition. She recollected his writing once to her mother saying he was sorry to send her bad tidings but sooner or later she would have to hear that her son Henry had fallen in love out of the garret window with Miss Helen Johnson. The old lady threw down the letter & screamed out that her son must be terribly hurt, but on second examination she found he had only fallen in love from the garret window with their neighbor — not fallen out. Her dutch brain must have been a little dull or so. Found Mrs. V. P. L. not the stately, literary, dignified lady I had supposed, but sociable, pleasant, pretty fond of news, & just neighbor-like, to use a homely phrase. E_____, to make a long story short, I came to the conclusion that you knew a great deal more about matters & things than your own daughter does, as they say here. Mrs. V. P. L. says she will visit New Hampshire next summer if she does not go to Europe.

Spent Thursday afternoon at Dr. Absolom Peters with Mr. & Mrs. Reed ³ who have just returned from Hindustan after a stay of five years as missionaries. Found them both very agreeable & entertaining in conversation. On their way home, they staid three weeks at St. Helena. I was surprised to hear that Bonaparte’s grave has nothing to mark it but three common flagstones; not a line, not a letter carved to tell the traveller that he who once made all Europe tremble, who swayed the scepter of one of the most powerful empires in the world, lies there. His grave is in a beautiful valley — a spot chosen himself — shaded by three willow trees. It was my old habit of asking questions that led Mrs. Reed to speak about the grave. You recollect the picture of Bonaparte standing over his tomb? I enquired about that, but there is nothing of the kind there.

Since I last wrote, I have seen a great many “wonders,” but I believe New Year’s Day in New York is the greatest. About twelve o’clock, every gentleman sets out to call upon every lady that he knows. They go about the streets in companies of four or five, almost upon a run. Just come in, make a bow, wish a happy new year, take some cake, bow again, & make their exit. They make a business of visiting on that day & despatch as much of it as fast as possible. It really is amusing to see the old & the young — all kinds & sorts of people following the same fashion. Some of the visitors are in such haste they cannot take time to sit down. Their object seems to be merely to say they have made so many calls. Mrs. Rockwell’s next neighbor had 3 hundred, it is said. In short, the men & boys were “thick as hasty pudding.” My ideas of New Year’s Day here will remind you of Brother Johnathan’s Visit to Pawtucket — that hasty pudding just reminds me of a comparison of Mr. [Benjamin] Silliman’s ² in speaking of flint being found embedded in chalk. He said the flint stone was like plumbs in a pudding, to use a familiar illustration. The house was very full — upwards of a thousand people. This remark produced a general laugh. I was rather surprised that he explained some of the most simple expressions. For instance, what primary, tertiary, etc., etc. meant. He is a very interesting lecturer but had nothing new except some anecdotes of the finding of fossil remains. His subject was the structure of the earth, illustrated by drawings. The lecture I heard was his introductory. He is spending the vacation in Yale College here & has agreed to give four lectures in Clinton Hall for the Mercantile Library Association. From the reputation he has acquired, I supposed he must be quite old [but] he does not appear to be more than forty-five.

In visiting at Mr. W___’s, I have been guided by circumstances. The family have been very polite to me. I found them agreeable & intelligent & do not think you would have disapproved of my going there if you had been here yourself. However, it was a faux pas — it is not very materially so. I only visited them because I found the society of that part of the family I had not known before more interesting than I had expected & think I have not in the least infringed the rules of propriety & delicacy. Hope your opinion is not to the contrary. I was introduced there on New Year’s evening (went by special invitation to spend the afternoon) to Dr. Abraham Cox, physician. He showed the family predisposition to enthusiasm quite plainly when he wound the conversation upon abolition. He has a fine command of language & talks a great deal. He says his old preceptor, Dr. [Joseph] Parrish [of Philadelphia], is a timid abolitionist. You would not suppose his pupil Dr. Cox to be so if you heard him talk — apropos, did you see my account of a piece of halter being franked by a member of Congress from South Carolina & sent to Arthur Tappan & his gang? It was enclosed in the protest of the abolitionists. You have no idea of the violence & extravagance of these abolitionists. They oppose the colonizationists in all their efforts to do good.

Have you had the subject of slavery brought before our renowned lyceum as yet? Should like to have heard your lecture very much indeed. No doubt at all I should have thought it excellent “although” some people might say I was too much interested in your success to form an impartial opinion. Suppose Harriet has been highly delighted with seeing Amelie & Madeline, notwithstanding “although” was with them — am very sorry I was not at home. Hope they will come again & p______ bring the brother Amelie says she is not ashamed of, alias is proud of “Ercurius.” Since I have been here, I wrote for Matilda in a tract circular to Mary McClain & she wrote to H. Stockton & told her I was here. So perhaps Harriet may take the visit all to herself.

Great Fire of New York City, December 1835

But I have now scribbled long enough & must reserve the other side for Philadelphia. Mr. McComb says if it were not so cold, he would accompany me to Philadelphia. He has sent Grandpapa an engraving or rather a lithographic sketch of the ruins [of the Great Fire in New York City]. It is rather rough but quite correct. The people here don’t talk of the fire scarcely at all. Mrs. Shannon has been a considerable loser, she says. They have had good sleighing here for several days. We are all quite tired of the jingling of bells. They go night & day “like mad.” — Washington Irving. You see what an aptitude I have for adopting every intelligent expression of these great men. Am not tired of writing — not written out — but you may be the “least bit in the world” tired of trying to decipher this.

Oh, I must not forget to compliment Papa on the happy turn he gives in Matilda’s letter. Was very much amused although it was at my own expense. In my humble opinion, it was a very well written letter. Mr. McComb laughed heartily at that part about the dates, but Ma chire Harriet [remainder of paragraph in French].

Dear Papa,

I arrived here safely this afternoon. Had a very pleasant journey & got through quite safely thanks to the politeness of Mr. Eaton, a clergyman who came here to preach for Mr. Barnes tomorrow. Am very sorry you & Mama had not staid a little longer. Feel as if it had been a long time since I saw you all. Ramsay took Harriet to the _____ this morning. I have not seen him yet. Helen says I must not tell you yet when we will come home, but it be some time next week.

Yours truly, — Caroline Corson


¹ Charles and Marie Picot operated a French Seminary for Young Ladies at No. 15 Washington Square in Philadelphia. Perhaps this is where young Caroline Corson studied French.

Dr. Benjamin Silliman, ca. 1850

² Dr. Benjamin Silliman (1779-1864) was a professor of Geology at Yale. An advertisement posting notice of the upcoming lecture by Silliman was published in the New York Evening Post on 8 January 1836:

“Mercantile Library Association. Professor Silliman, of Yale College, will deliver the first lecture of his course before this Association on Friday Evening , 8th inst: at half past seven o’clock, in the Lecture Room, at Clinton Hall. Subject — An outline of the structure of the Earth, illustrated by drawing. By order. S. Townsend Nicholl, Sec. pro. tem.”

Another notice was published in the New York Spectator on 21 January 1836, which read:

“Professor Silliman’s Lectures. — A correspondent complains that we have not noticed Professor Silliman’s lectures at Clinton Hall. Not possessing the power of ubiquity, it has been impossible for us to hear them. We have heard them spoken of with the highest degree of admiration. Should they be repeated, we would cheerfully publish condensed notices of them, if some competent listener will prepare them. By the way — it has been suggested, and we have no doubt that professor Silliman will gladly avail himself of the hint, that if his introductory lecture (which we are assured by many friends, was in the highest degree interesting and brilliant) were to be repeated in aid of the collections for the relief of the sufferers by the fire — the price of tickets raised to two dollars — the lecture room would be crowded and a handsome addition made to the fund.”

Napoleon’s original gravesite in the Valley of the Willows on St. Helena

³ Rev. Alanson Reed (1807-1837) and his wife, Jane Everts (1807-1857), were missionaries to Hindustan (southern part of India), Burma, Siam, and China. The Reeds returned to China in March 1836 where Alanson died in 1837. According to Caroline, the Reeds stopped at the island of St. Helena on their return to the United States from Hindustan and visited the gravesite of Napoleon Bonaparte.


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