1847: Minerva Persons to William Barlow Persons

What Minerva Persons might have looked like

This letter was written by Minerva Persons (1813-18xx) to her brother, William Barlow Persons (1824-1899) of West Randolph, Vermont. They were the children of Perly Persons (1786-1886) and Lucinda Melissa Hardy (1791-1876). Another brother, John Worcester Parsons (b. 1824) is known to have been a sailor on a whaling ship in the mid 1840s.

William B. Persons married Lucretia Ann Lockwood (1834-1898) in 1855 and by 1860 he was residing in Monroe County, Wisconsin. He was a farmer.

Nothing more could be found on Minerva Persons. She appears to have been living in Lowell, Massachusetts — perhaps one of the many single female textile mill workers — and begins her letter there while recovering from a severe illness that she says afflicted many of the residents of the town. She ends her letter in the mill town of Saxonville, Massachusetts, where she says she has relocated to try to regain her health.

Though Minerva does not mention the type of “contagion” that killed or laid low the residents of Lowell in 1847, I found an article printed in the Boston Medical & Surgical Journal (Vol. 36-37) that says “Dysentery commenced in this city [Lowell] early in the summer, and continued till winter, but the greatest prevalence of the disease was in August and September.” The same article claims that “the whole number of deaths in Lowell, from dysentery, from July to December, taken from reports made out by the superintendent of burials, was 194.” It suggests, however, that this number was probably on the low side due to the transient residents who may have left the city before their deaths or who died there and were buried elsewhere. The physicians themselves estimated treating from 2000 to 2500 patients during that period. They further estimated that they lost 1 in every 10 or 12 patients to the disease. The cause of the epidemic is not conjectured but retrospectively many have attributed the outbreak to the large influx of Irish emigrants, some severely affected by fever and dysentery, who came to the United States and Canada during the Potato Famine in Ireland.

Stampless Letter


Addressed to Mr. William B. Persons, West Randolph, Vermont

Lowell, then Saxonville, [Massachusetts]
November 21, 1847

Dear Brother,

Since I last addressed you great have been the changes that time has wrought. How many hearts have been made desolate and hopes cut off. Our city the past summer has ben but a scene of sickness and death. Many probably have died for the want of proper care. The contagion has commenced and gone through whole families, and in many instances taken 3 or four from its number and with but few days warning, all cut down in 2 or 3 weeks.

The nature of the disease was dangerous owing to its liability to take a sudden change and blast the hopes of those who a day before were thought to be doing well. It was something that baffled the skill of the physicians. They gave little but opiates to ease the pain of the sufferer. In that region of mountains, you can have but a faint idea of the desolation that not only walked in darkness but wasted at noon-day.

You may ask, why dwell thus mournfully on the past? I would answer, those that I loved have been lain in the dust. Those also that worked by my side. I sympathize with the afflicted when I see the inroads that death hath made upon their path. I have watched the couch of the sick and dying, have seen the anxiety of parents for children, and children for parents. But more than all, I myself have been a sufferer from the hand of disease, thrown upon the care and sympathy of strangers. For some 3 weeks, I was unable to sit up long enough to have my bed made. I was reduced so very low that it has taken some time to get up again. I was taken the 20th of August and am just getting able to resume my labor. My health is not very good now — have not fully regained my strength. It will probably take 3 months to pay the expense of the 3 months past.

I have much for which to be grateful. The Lord does not willingly afflict the children of men. It is only for our good to wean us from earth, to cut off all dependence of happiness but in himself alone. Nothing is worth a thought beneath but how I may escape that death that never dies. And we feel it so when brought near the gate of death apparently. How the Earth then recedes and appears in its native nothingness. A sickbed is no place to prepare for death. Shall we delay a preparation to an uncertain hereafter? We have had in instance of the danger of delaying in one this day consigned to the house of the dead. John Haven is no more. George Tower died a few months since. Sary Ann is also dead — and others with whom you were acquainted. When I commenced this, I was in Lowell. I now find myself in Saxonville. I think the change will be for my health.

I should like to hear from home once more and I hope not to be as much disappointed as when I received your last. You wrote nothing of your circumstances, how you were getting along with regard to paying for your farm. Will you please to give particulars concerning house and farm, health and prospects of all.

I should like to be at home at Thanksgiving. I think more of home at those times when family circles meet. I seem to be destined to roam among strangers. I sometimes feel sad when I see others blessed with all the endearments of home — happy by their own loved firesides. Where does our dear Brother John roam? Well we meet but to part. We live but to die.

Earth has no charms for me. My eye is directed upward. Yonder is my home. Shall we come up an unbroken family, never to be severed?

I wish you all prosperity in worldly things, but what is all temporal good compared with a heart prepared to meet God in peace.

I hope to hear from you soon. I hope I will take her long neglected pen if she has not forgot to wield it. I would have a little of feigned comfort and a word from all would be gratefully received. Give my respects to all. Favor me with a long letter if you are not pressed for time. I shall have to close and I remain your affectionate, — Mineva Persons


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