1840: Mrs. Catharine (Peet) Bostwick to Mrs. John Howard

This letter was written by Mrs. Catharine (Peet) Bostwick (1796-1863), the wife of Charles Bostwick (1775-1852) of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Charles Bostwick graduated from Yale in 1796, and the Litchfield Law School in 1798. “He was admitted the bar in Fairfield County in 1799. Bostwick’s father (Benjamin) became the proprietor of the Washington Hotel in Bridgeport, Connecticut where Charles took the position of postmaster from 1804-1810, the post office operating from the hotel. While in Bridgeport, he married [1809] Catharine Peet, with whom he had seven children. Bostwick left Bridgeport for New York in 1810, and engaged in mercantile business until 1837 when he returned to Bridgeport, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1840, he was elected mayor, of the city and chief judge of the city court.” One of the Bostwick children, Charlotte Bostwick (1818-1889), is mentioned a couple of times in this letter.

Burning of the Steamboat Lexington

Mrs. Bostwick wrote the letter to Mrs. John Howard of Augusta, Georgia. From the content of the letter, we learn that Mrs. Bostwick and Mrs. John Howard were not intimate acquaintances. In fact, they may have never even met each other. It appears they may have been related by marriage but that connection has eluded me in my research. What has occasioned the letter is the 13 January 1840 sinking of the Lexington in Long Island Sound — a steamboat carrying upwards of 150 passengers and a cargo of cotton from New York to Boston via Stonington, Connecticut. It caught fire and drifted out of control for several hours before going down in the frigid water of the Sound, killing all but four people.

The letter suggests that Mrs. John Howard is the mother of a daughter or grand-daughter who died in this disaster. I’ve scanned numerous lists of the deceased passengers published in dozens of newspapers but I have not been able to identify, with certainty, who the woman was. There were very few females aboard the vessel and most of these were the wives or children of listed passengers who’s surnames have not led me to a connection with Mrs. John Howard.

Stampless letter

Addressed to Mrs. John Howard, Augusta, Georgia

Bridgeport [Connecticut]
January 18th 1840

My Dear Mrs. Howard,

When I wrote John, I should write to you on the afflicting bereavement — the loss of the well-beloved and the joy of your eyes, it never occurred to me, the ____ to express sympathy or give consolation could be in______ but the ____ of this has kept me silent, long since I would have expressed that Christian sympathy for your sorrows while, while it cannot would, may chance to soothe.

Full well I know the power of Christian sympathy and that moment when the heart is oppressed with the most ____ sorrows will occur, when it is open to its benign and gracious influence. Alike in our desires, our aims, and in our afflictions, we suffer and feel the same calamities, joys, and hopes. I can too well realize your sorrows, and tough I know to some it would appear as one of peculiar poignancy, because of the value of the lost, her worth and loveliness, her mental endowments and Christian graces, but how much do the charm of all there add to the sweet _____ of memory. You have no corroding reflection, no agonizing regrets that the dear plant so long nurtured and cherished in the garden of your pleasures is separated from the parent stock, unfitted for the celestial regions of her Savior God. No, there she lives, too glorious and bright for mortal eyes, and there she prepares bowers of unfolding verdure for the dear ones she baid on earth.

What more selfish than our grief in cases like this. We never cease to contemplate on what we imagine a prolonged life would procure for us from such a source. No joy but they might have been the source of it, and the mind ranges through all earth’s flowery path, and bright sunny scenes, no thorn is felt, no cloud is seen, the bright image of the departed is never shrouded in gloom or the prey of Hydra head cure, thus we nurse our grief.

But what does the scripture and experience teach us? We cannot always, but we do sometimes, see the mercy that takes as well as that bestows. We know too little even to doubt that God’s time is best. The dear child you mourn was the gift of that being who cannot err. The same being has withdrawn the treasure in the cup of life. Her existence was unmmingled with bitterness. But what might it have been had she continued here? What evil may she have escaped and what sorrow may you have been spared? Alas! How often is it that life, though it dawn like hers, with the brilliant glow of an included sun, sets in the deep gloom of storm and tempest. My God, what are we that we question thy wisdom and mercy! Oh teach us to lay our hands upon our mouth saying, not my will, but thine, Oh God.

My dear Mrs. Howard, we know little of one another, but we feel in unison like joys and sorrows. Accept my sympathy and do not believe a heartless form prompts this expression of it. Experience is a teacher, not to be withstood an engraver on stone, not on the sand, and though the waves of affliction have not washed over me, the threatening billow has repeatedly washed my feet. In watching Charlottes shortened health, I have passed months in conflicting hopes and fears. How many anxious hours have I struggled with desponding and with what a load at my heart I endeavored to attend my family duties. Wakeful nights and weary days have too often taught me to feel what such bereaved affections as you suffer ___. May you seek consolation where it is surely to be found abundant, adapted to your sorrows and sufficient for all your wants, and there you will learn how little this world is to be r___ed by those who seek a better. How selfish the grief that would shroud a glorified spirit in a perishing garb of clay to suffer sorrow and death. And these too you will learn to sing hymns of praise that one of your dear children is beyond the reach of sorrow or sin.

Burning of the steamboat Lexington

Hannah More says, “there is always mercy behind a cloud if we will look for it.” How impenetrable are these clouds sometimes, and at this moment how do we tremble and stand appalled at the sight of human misery. The [steamship] Lexington burnt before our eyes a full six hours. Like a specter ship, she haunts my vision. We know there must be the extreme of human suffering. Our purpose frozen no man could refuse them, these hundreds of fellow beings must struggle for life with a foe powerful and deadly as fire, frost, and the whelming flood. I  cannot tell you what I have suffered, when alone my breath was an audible groan. I would not sleep not eat nor talk. The very attempt at cheerfulness in my family was sickening. How was she freighted with ___ and joyous beings — the rich and successful returning to friends after an absence of years to enjoy the wealth earned by every privation — the friends and wedding occasion member of different families. Was death in all their thoughts the morning with her second husband and family and friends? Did she or they think to be buried in the same grave? The ____ and the good, the father, brother, and child all perished. What were they as they went proudly on their way? What are they now? Not a wreck is left those persons escaped on bales of cotton. The friends of the dead are constantly arriving all on the melancholy errand seeking to hear of the dead, but the “Ice king” holds them in their grave and we they heed him not. “It is the survivor dies.” Whose sorrow is like unto their sorrow. Was ever heart pierced with more bitter grief than must be them? I could _____ many particulars but why dwell on this soul harrowing subject? May God of his infinite mercy make it profitable to all.

Remember me kindly to Elizabeth and her husband. They have displeased me by their disregard of family ch____ upon them. William, above all, should not forget that his fathers blood still runs in the veins of a few. But I forgive them all offenses — life is too short to notice them. May God bless and keep you, yours, and them, for eternity.

P.S. I have crowded my letter in an uncomely manner without saying something I ought. The wretched disaster has driven all thoughts away. Should you ever feel competent to speak of your daughter, let me know something of her sickness and death. John is very general in what he writes. Charlotte’s health is now thanks God very good.


5 responses to “1840: Mrs. Catharine (Peet) Bostwick to Mrs. John Howard

  • howard letcher

    This letter was written either by the mother or sister-in-law of Uncle William Bostwick who was married to my collateral Aunt Elizabeth Adaline Howard — the daughter of my gggg-grandparents John William Howard and Louisa Emmeline Matilda Stoner (aka Mrs. John Howard of Augusta) to whom this letter was written. Uncle William was the financial investor for my grandfather’s international import/export and cotton factoring and brokerage businesses that were conducted from New York City, Augusta, Savannah, and Mobile. As the son of my 5th g-grandparents Rhesa Howard and Hannah Few, grandfather John William Howard was the maternal nephew of first Georgia U.S. Senator and signer of the U.S. Constitution, William Few.

    Shocked by the horror of the Lexington disaster and her own issues with Charlotte, Catharine Peet Bostwick is primarily consoling grandmother Howard on the recent death of her own daughter, Aunt Frances Matilda Howard, who died 27 November 1839 at the age of 22 and is buried in the Howard Cemetery plot in Summerville, Georgia — an early resort area outside Augusta where the Howard and Vostwick families lived. Collateral Uncle William Few was the longest serving president of City Bank and director of Manhattan Bank in NYC while his brother-in-law, Abraham Alphonse Albert Gallatin, was not only the president of Gallatin National Bank in NYC but also U.S. Senator, U.S. Congressman, U.S. Minister to Great Britain as well as longest-tenured U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

    Also, Charles Bostwick was the paternal uncle of William Bostwick, so the author of this letter, Catharine Peet Bostwick, was the aunt of Uncle William. Charles Bostwick and Uncle William’s father, Benjamin Bostwick, were the sons of Benjamin Bostwick and his cousin, Esther (Bostwick) Bostwick. Catherine Peet Bostwick was also a Bostwick relative. These families lived in New Milford, Connecticut.

    • Griff

      Howard: Thank you for the family information and filling in the details regarding this letter. I trust you found it informative and I hope you and other family members will learn something valuable from it. — Griff

      • howard letcher

        Thank you, Griff. I enjoyed seeing the letter having put a lot of this family research together a little over a year ago. I was able to share the letter with my 90-year old cousin in Alabama who was equally interested. He wrote a comprehensive genealogy on the Howard family, a copy of which I believe is contained in the Alabama Department of Archives and History and perhaps both in Savannah and Augusta.

  • Ed Mason

    Howard Letcher, if you are still out there and have time to respond I would like to hear from you. You seem to be one who likely knows a good bit about Rhesa and Hannah Howard. I assume that you descend from their son John. I am trying to get information on the children of Rhesa and Hannah but nobody seems to know much. I have researched direct lines back only, for the most part, on every line I could uncover for the past 51 years so I have spent a lot of time in the older records. Much of my work was done before PC’s were ever thought of. I really need to find someone who is knowledgeable about Rhesa and Hannah’s family. Hope to hear from you. Ed Mason

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