“A rich morsel to roll under their tongues”

Like many young couples in the 19th century, they courted through their letters.  After they met early in 1880, Nellie Gates, 24, of Calhoun, Kentucky and Robert Coleman “Coley” Duncan, 26, began a correspondence.  Their face-to-face time was limited, as Coley’s travels selling for a wholesale grocer regularly took him to communities along the Green and Barren rivers between Calhoun and Bowling Green.

Coley’s letters covered the usual topics: gossip about their mutual friends, his reading, his travel accommodations, and plans for their next meeting.  He also expressed some envy of potential rivals for Nellie’s affection, and urged her to ignore warnings from old flames about his suitability as a correspondent.  Nellie’s replies must have been encouraging, for by late 1880 he had declared his love and by early 1881 they were engaged.

The couple tried to keep their plans to themselves, but when Coley boarded the Evansville and Green River packet steamboat to make his sales rounds, he found himself warding off the curiosity of one particular onlooker: the captain, Elmore Bewley, who knew not only Coley but many of the region’s young people through their leisure travel on his craft.  “Capt B. told me as I came up the river,” he wrote Nellie, “that he had seen you that day and went on with the usual compliments he pays you whenever he speaks of you to me.”  A few months later, Coley expressed his annoyance to Nellie after Bewley asked him if their engagement “was not satisfactorily settled. . . . He looked at me like he knew all about it.”  When Coley insisted that Nellie had given him the brush-off, Bewley “didn’t believe it and was going to ask you about it.”

But pointed questioning wasn’t his only device.  Bewley’s sleuthing skills were enhanced by the fact that his boat also carried the area mail.  Coley was reluctant to post too many letters on board “because those steamboat men are such accomplished talkers.  They all see the letters – know just who corresponds and make that the topic for their remarks to the public.”  Visiting the boat’s mail room, Coley himself had spotted a letter addressed to one of his friends “in a lady’s handwriting.”  As far as his own correspondence, he declared that if he were to mail a letter to Nellie “two Saturdays in succession,” he would be handing the boatmen “a rich morsel to roll under their tongues.”

Ultimately, the stress of controlling public perceptions of their relationship, combined with a host of other insecurities and misunderstandings, were too much for Coley, and he broke it off with Nellie a little more than a year later.  How Captain Bewley took the news is unknown, but it’s possible he figured out – even before the principals did – that the affair had “sunk.”

Robert Coleman Duncan’s letters to Nellie Gates are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more courtship letters, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Let Us Serenade You

Making sweet music. . .

They were late-night, improvised musical events that captured the romantic imaginations of nineteenth-century students, particularly those at Southern women’s colleges.  At Bowling Green’s Potter College for Young Ladies (located where WKU’s Cherry Hall now stands), these “midnight serenades,” courtesy of the boys at Ogden College just down the hill, featured a group of admirers sneaking on campus to croon up at the windows such old-time standards as “Swanee River,” “On the Banks of the Wabash,” and “Home Sweet Home.”  Even the rumor of a forthcoming performance would stir excitement among the girls and consternation among their live-in teachers, whose job it was to shoo the interlopers off the grounds.

But at Cumberland Female College in McMinnville, Tennessee, serenades attracted more participants than just the parties to an exaggerated courtship ritual.  While staying with her aunt Josephine and uncle Joseph P. Hamilton, a teacher at the college, young May Hamilton told her grandmother about the previous night’s music.  “Just as I started to bed I thought I heard serenaders up at the college,” she wrote in a letter, “and so I went & sat down on the floor by the window to listen.”  The performers, however, were not ardent young males but “the girls of the college. . . making sweet music” nearby for one of the professors and his family.  His appearance at the door to thank the performers must have emboldened them, for the troupe then marched down to the Hamilton household.  “One of the girls plays the banjo & several had harps,” wrote May, who woke up another boarder at the house so they could both enjoy the “lovely” melodies.

Luckily, the night’s entertainment was not over.  The strains of more music came through the window, but the darkness concealed the identity of the players, who then proceeded up to the college.  May learned the next morning that the group consisted of four or five African-American youths who “go around that way often up here.”  So popular had they become, in fact, that the girl boarding at May’s house knew the group by the sound of their instruments, and even knew the horn player by name.  The local custom, it seemed, was for everyone so inclined to reach out and say goodnight with a song. 

May Hamilton’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Ambitious Women and Postmasters

In summer 1913, life was becoming intolerable for Nannie England.  The 35-year-old Bardstown native had lost her husband Alfred to tuberculosis two years earlier, her 11-year-old son Edward had just been accidentally killed in a dynamite explosion, and the mortgage on her home was in default.  But Nannie, described as “refined, cultivated and capable,” was determined to support herself and her three surviving children by becoming the next postmaster of Lebanon, Kentucky.

The incumbent postmaster was due to leave office in April 1914, and the vacancy would be filled by President Woodrow Wilson upon the recommendation of Ben Johnson, the member of Congress for Nannie’s district.  The good news for Nannie: Ben Johnson happened to be her cousin.  The bad news: Johnson had already given his early and public endorsement of local farmer John B. Wathen for the position. 

Congressman Johnson explained his quandary in a letter to Nannie.  Having extended his support for Wathen, he was loath to pull the endorsement or even walk it back to some milder expression of goodwill.  Furthermore, President Wilson was unlikely to approve her appointment since he was “discouraging nepotism to the fullest extent that he can.”  Johnson encouraged Nannie to take the civil service exam, then pursue some other position in the postal or internal revenue service.

Completely undeterred, Nannie and a large circle of loyalists began a ferocious campaign to gain Johnson’s surrender.  Her letters implored him to “lift me and my babies out of the mire, where we have been struggling ever since the death of my husband.”  Referring to her rival, she declared “I am as competent as Mr. Wathen” to hold the position.  She presented a petition signed by most of the patrons of the Lebanon post office, and warned Johnson of the political fallout that would arise from his neglect of the popular will.  She gathered letters of endorsement from Lebanon’s business community and even from members of Wathen’s family, who claimed that his misplaced ambition, unpopularity with the locals, and mistreatment of his children disqualified him from consideration.  Nannie suggested that Johnson find some other emolument for Wathen, knowing “so many good positions . . . that could be acceptably filled by a man, and the post office duties so peculiarly suitable to a lady.” 

As the time for filling the position drew near, Nannie and her supporters intensified their efforts.  “Her heart and soul are in this fight,” wrote one of her backers.  Nannie appealed to Johnson’s wife (“cousin Annie”) and to her Senator, Ollie James, to bring some pressure on the Congressman.  She asked to meet personally with the Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. before the appointment was made.  The beleaguered Johnson, now hopelessly boxed in by his premature endorsement, was even presented with another scheme by one of Nannie’s allies: that he make her Postmaster and mollify Wathen by appointing Wathen’s daughter Edith, a capable young woman who had recently passed the civil service exam, as her “first assistant.” (One wonders how much Nannie knew of this proposal since it would have involved dividing the salary 50-50, an unlikely compromise for two male candidates.)

Alas, the story has an all-too-familiar ending.  In spite of Nannie’s spirited campaign, John Wathen became Lebanon’s postmaster and remained there for more than a decade.

Correspondence regarding Nannie England’s application for Postmaster is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Closings and Reopenings

His letter written 158 years ago today showed the 22-year-old negotiating life in fits and starts. 

“People have not yet gained full confidence”

After graduating from New York’s Hamilton College in 1859, Hector Voltaire Loving had returned to his home town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  For the next year, he confessed in a letter to a classmate, “I did nothing but run around and enjoy myself,” hoping that such leisure would allow him to “build up my health and strength.” 

Finally, Hector roused himself to begin law studies in Louisville, but at the close of the 1861 school year returned again to Bowling Green to find the city in turmoil.  Civil war was bearing down on Kentucky, “the public mind was very much excited,” and “discussions were growing very violent.”  The young man was repelled by the “storm of fanaticism and treason” and by “the secessionists in our midst, who sugar coated their treason with the euphonious title of ‘Southern Rights.’”  Despite growing intimidation by rebel troops who “strolled through our town” from military encampments across the Tennessee line, he had resolved to speak out against the “Secesh.”

After the Confederates occupied Bowling Green in September 1861, however, Southern sympathizers gained “unlimited license.”  Hector’s father, worried that his son would be forced into the ranks of the rebel army, had urged him to make his way back to Louisville and finish his law degree.  Hector succeeded, only to come home again early in 1862 just after “the evacuation of this place by the Rebels” had ended the occupation.  He was dismayed at the state of “my once beautiful town.”  Bowling Green was left “partially burned, many of the fences totally destroyed, almost all of the beautiful groves cut down, and the sidewalks and streets in a very filthy condition.” 

Fortunately, wrote Hector, a clean-up effort and some cleansing rains had now restored the city to “much of its former attractiveness.”  He had entered into partnership with an established lawyer and even gained appointment as the town’s attorney.  “I am in a position to do very well and enjoy myself when the war is over,” he declared, but was still conscious that “owing to the uncertain condition of affairs and the feverish excitement constantly prevailing people have not yet gained full confidence.”  Indeed, there was much to be resolved about the comeback.  The Confederates had been driven no farther away than Tennessee.  Hector’s own father, a prominent lawyer, legislator and judge, maintained enslaved labor on his farm.  And another of Hector’s Hamilton College classmates was back home in Bowling Green, too, planning to go North to law school despite being a “very violent ‘Secesh.’”

A finding aid and typescript of Hector V. Loving’s letter can be accessed by clicking here.  For more collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Teacher’s Watch

“We are very dependent creatures”

It was just after 10 o’clock on a July evening in 1899 when Roland Patterson started a letter to his parents.  He sketched a peaceful picture.  He was seated in a large rocking chair, with a “sweet quiet pervading the room” – no sounds except for the ticking of a clock, the embers of a fire lit to drive away the dampness of three days’ rain, and the “occasional low of a friendly old cow” outside.  Patterson had just returned to Barren County, Kentucky to reopen his small rural school.  He was boarding with a “good, kind, and intelligent family” consisting of  a “tall, rather stooped, dark complected man about 38 years old,” his wife, “a pleasant lady of about thirty,” and their children, including a son, Hermon.

But Patterson’s duties that evening extended beyond preparing for the classroom.  Like others in the community, young Hermon had been visited by malarial fever a few days earlier.  As he worsened, the fearful family called for one doctor, then another, but Hermon slowly began to recover.  Now, Patterson was sitting up as his “night watchman” while the parents and one of the doctors, the boy’s own grandfather, slept nearby. 

Patterson had opened his school on the same day Hermon fell ill, but his sense of dread about his own prospects had been allayed when he found 47 young scholars waiting for him.  “I am well and getting along as well as ever in life,” he assured his parents.  Now, “amidst this quietude, viewing the slumbering bodies of my friends, meditating upon life and its attendant cares and responsibilities” and with Hermon’s crisis past, he was struck by one thought: “that we are very dependent creatures.”  For the devout Patterson, support came from God, “who not only watches over us in our unconscious hours of sleep, but safely bears us over life’s uneven places.”  For the sick boy and his family, however, gratitude was surely due to the young man who sat ready, as he noted, to administer the next dose of medicine in “just one hour and two minutes.”

Roland Patterson’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. Click here to access a finding aid and typescript.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Taking Advantage of the Fact

Civil War recruiting broadside depicting the path forward: Freedom, military victory, education, literacy, and the destruction of the flag of the “Slave Power” (Kentucky Library)

The Juneteenth celebration has its origins in the announcement delivered on June 19, 1865 by Union troops at Galveston, Texas, that “all slaves are free.”  The Confederacy’s surrender the previous April had finally put the U.S. Army in a position to enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had taken effect on January 1, 1863.

In Texas and elsewhere, according to historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Emancipation “wasn’t exactly instant magic.”  News traveled slowly, and sometimes those “who acted on the news did so at their peril.”  After 1863, nearly 200,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union Army, and others took risky steps to establish (in the words of Juneteenth.com) “a heretofore non-existent status.”

Whites could be rather flummoxed by their former slaves’ embrace of emancipation.  Shortly before the war ended, Sallie Knott observed that “Negro troops” had come to Lebanon, Kentucky to recruit.  “They have already induced many to go,” she wrote in her diary, given that “their families are free as soon as they enter the army.”  A Southern sympathizer, Sallie was nevertheless amused at the travails of a white neighbor whose slaves had all decamped.  “The Madam is cooking herself!” she snickered. “There is a little good mingled with all this evil!”  A month earlier, she had heard from her stepfather in Warren County that an enslaved member of his household had the temerity to ask “for wages!  Papa told him he’d not give his own servant [sic] wages,” but would graciously give him Saturdays off.  “I should not be surprised,” wrote Sally, to hear of the “servant’s” early departure.  Similarly, in Sherman, Texas, Patience Smith wrote to acknowledge the first letter received from her sister Emily in Tennessee “since the war broke up.”  She seemed even more disoriented by the absence of enslaved labor.  Her brother Burrell, she complained, “has not a negro on his land,” and his wife and daughter were stuck with all the work! 

Sophia, 1888

We have blogged before about the post-Emancipation odyssey of a young woman named Sophia, who for more than two decades was the mistress, housekeeper, and companion of Richard Vance, an Army officer from Warren County, Kentucky.  Vance first met Sophia in 1867 at his military station in Little Rock, Arkansas and learned her story.  When Emancipation came, she was still a young girl, and the rest of her enslaved family had already been sent away by their master to keep them from falling into the hands of the “hated yankees.”  Sophia remained in a condition of “absolute slavery” until early 1866, when local African Americans learned of their freedom “through the instrumentalities of the Freedmen’s Bureau” and “were enabled through the same agency to take advantage of that fact.”  Carrying only a bundle of ragged clothes, Sophia finally left.  Twenty years later, she enjoyed a reunion with her long-lost brother and sisters in Texas.  She found them prosperous, the owners of “farms, horses, cows, hogs, orchards, bees and all the paraphernalia of thrifty cotton growers.  This is remarkable,” wrote Vance, who had helped her locate them, “seeing that only a couple of decades since they were slaves, uneducated, pennyless, and surrounded by a hostile population.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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History from Home

David Ellen Tichenor’s D-Day letter

Everyone knew something big was coming – just not when or where – but on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the mystery was solved.  As soon as she heard the news that morning in Calhoun, Kentucky, David Ellen Tichenor penned a letter to her son Thomas, then serving as a convoy communications officer with the U.S. Navy.  In short letters (her V-Mail stationery limited her to one page) she relayed something of the predicament of ordinary people: the “majority in the middle,” in the words of philosopher Eric Hoffer, over whose heads “the best and the worst” so often clash to make history.

On the morning of D-Day, “about 4 or a little later,” she wrote, “we were awakened by the Methodist bell ringing.  [S]oon all the other church bells began ringing.  I got up and turned on the radio as did every one else.  Soon a line of people were seen going to the churches to pray – the invasion had started!” – but she had stayed home, “being too full of emotion and sadness of knowing some of our boys were in it, but I did my part of praying.” 

With the outcome still uncertain, there were only ordinary things to talk about.  David Ellen reported that she and Thomas’s father had recently spent a day visiting family in Bowling Green (she was a niece of WKU’s first president Henry Hardin Cherry).  Upon their return to Calhoun, they found that a generous rain had revived their beloved garden.  “In fact it there had been quite a storm.”  Everything, however, was “fresh and pretty.”

Six days later, wrote David Ellen, everyone was still glued to their radios, but “the invasion seems to be going along O.K.”  Nevertheless, some of the Calhoun boys were “thought to be in it and their mothers are frantic.  What  a mess the world is in.”  Mr. Tichenor was gathering “big luschious” cherries from their tree, an old one that would probably expire after “making its ‘war effort.’”  Two days later: “The first ripe tomato to-day!”

Almost three weeks into the invasion, local mothers were still feeling the aftershocks.  One of them came by David Ellen’s home crying because her son hadn’t received any of her letters (“Of course she writes all the time”) and was worried that something was wrong at home.  For another, it was worse.  “Alma” was “almost crazy,” she wrote, having received word that her son had been missing in action over France since D-Day.  With so many boys being killed, the July 4th holiday was “the quietest day I have ever known around here.”

But still, ordinary life and hopes populated David Ellen’s thoughts: a lack of rain for the garden, a new veterans bill promising servicemen a college education, local marriages and babies, and especially her postwar plans for her son.  Although the world was “a mess,” she didn’t think for a moment that it would stay that way.  “I like your idea,” she told him, “of going to school a year when the war is over and getting your masters degree and a place in a college. Bowling Green would be a nice place.”

These are some of many World War II letters in the Tichenor Collection, held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Planning in Uncertain Times

The year 1946 marked the beginning of the “baby boom,” a dramatic increase in the U.S. birth rate following the Depression and World War II.  Signs of what was to come, however, had appeared at the outbreak of war, when many couples hastily married and conceived their first child before the husband shipped out for military duty.  Afterward, there was always the opportunity for “furlough babies” to enter the world. 

During the war, the question of pregnancy was challenging and complicated, as shown in two collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  In 1943, Philip J. Noel, Jr. and his wife Mary Katherine of Bowling Green, Kentucky were newly married and living with their baby daughter in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Training to serve as a medical officer with the U.S. Army, Dr. Noel received an invitation from the Pennsylvania Federation for Planned Parenthood to acquaint himself with its mission and services.  The country’s war against the Axis, stated its brochure, included “a war against a way of life in which human freedom is consistently violated.  In America, we believe in the right of children to be wanted and well-born, and in the right of parents to plan their own families.”  With young men overseas, and healthy women needed to work in war industries and support their families at home, “competent medical advice on the spacing of pregnancies” was an “essential part of the war health program.”  Equally important was the “treatment of involuntary sterility” in order to support a mother’s well being and build “the world of the future.”  Only 16 years old, the organization had established 30 “child-spacing centers” for teaching, demonstration and treatment, and boasted a board of sponsors that included citizens, doctors and clergymen.

Family planning was also on the mind of James C. Browning, an Edmonson County, Kentucky teacher who joined the Army in 1941.  A year earlier, “J.C.” had married his wife Lila and they had recently become the parents of a daughter.  Lila, however, had suffered health problems after the birth and was anxious about another pregnancy. In letters from training camp in Arkansas, J.C. was equally anxious to reassure her, for among the many dreams he shared with his much-loved wife—of paying off their debts, buying a small farm and building a life for themselves after the war—was the prospect of “a good time” with her when he made his scheduled return to Fort Knox.  If she didn’t want more children, he assured her, “we will try our best and use the best remedies available.”  She should go to the doctor and arrange to be fitted with a diaphragm, he instructed; then “[m]aybe you won’t be scared all the time.”  Inquiring about her progress in successive letters, he even offered to “get the diaphragm for you if you don’t want to get it.”  He finally advocated a “double preventative”—diaphragm plus condom—as the solution to their problem: then “surely there won’t be anything wrong.”  The young husband trying to avoid “anything wrong,” however, couldn’t plan for the attack on his ship off the coast of North Africa that took his life in 1942.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections. For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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In search of a cure

When her late husband, astronaut John Glenn, became the first American to orbit the earth, Anna Margaret “Annie” Glenn, who lost her life to coronavirus on May 19, was herself rocketed into the public spotlight.  She found her new celebrity mortifying, however, because of her severe stutter.  After a successful program of therapy in 1973, Annie became a champion for people with communication disorders.

In 1846, William Malone of Limestone, Alabama was also hoping to find therapy for his 23-year-old son, Clement.  In a letter to his brother-in-law, John Marion Robertson of Franklin, Kentucky, he reported the results of what appeared to be an extensive search.  “We have heard,” he wrote, “that there is a man in Kentucky some where perhaps at or near Springfield, who can cure persons of stuttering.”  He requested that Robertson find out who the man was, where he lived, and what success he could claim.  Working as an overseer in Mississippi, young Clement planned to come home to Alabama before departing for Kentucky in search of treatment, and his father was eager to have some information for him before he went on his way.

We don’t know if Clement found his cure, but speech impediments have sent others on paths that, like Annie Glenn’s, do not surrender to reclusiveness.  It was some kind of speech disorder, probably a stutter, that caused a young Romanus Emerson (1782-1852) to veer away from a career in the ministry, but the Boston merchant (and cousin of transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson) openly abandoned religion in his fifties. Pronouncing himself an “infidel,” he wrote and published pro-atheist tracts. 

Reverend Henry David Carpenter (1859-1927), by contrast, retained his faith as both the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Kentucky and the founder of a county school for African-American children.  Widely respected in both the community and the classroom, Carpenter too had a stutter, but his “presence just demanded attention,” according to a colleague in the ministry.  “He’d walk into class and if the students was cutting up they would be quiet because Dr. Carpenter was in.”

Click on the links to learn more about these individuals, found in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  To search our collections further, use TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“A Great House of Mourning”

Cholera devastated “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1833

We’ve blogged in the past about Kentuckians’ varied reactions to epidemics of disease.  In 1833, cholera’s assault on Federal Hill in Bardstown left permanent scars on the surviving members of the Rowan family. During an outbreak in Bowling Green in 1850, by contrast, a young man affected amusement as he witnessed some rather chaotic attempts at social distancing.  Somewhere in the emotional middle was a Scott County native taking public health training in Philadelphia during the influenza epidemic of 1918; struggling with illness himself, he nevertheless viewed the deluge of cases at the city’s hospital as interesting subjects for clinical study – if they didn’t die first. 

At home in Arkansas in 1835, Jane Washington Walker must have been dumbstruck when she read her mother’s letter.  “The cholera has been among us,” wrote Rebecca Smith Washington from Russellville, Kentucky, as the scourge turned her town into “a Great House of Mourning.”

In language reminiscent of those reporting from today’s virus “hot spots,” Rebecca proceeded to recount in grim detail what the disease had wrought.  “It broke out last Friday night three weeks ago with great violence, in twenty four hours there was nine widows left to mourn the sudden death of their husbands.”  What followed was a parade of names—all known to Jane—and all dead: husbands, wives, children, neighbors, acquaintances, enslaved people.  The disease initially “raged more violently among the Negroes than the White people,” her mother reported, and those who had somewhere to escape to had quickly left town.  Rebecca closed her school.  Stores “shut up, their owners either dead or fled to the country.”  Those who remained were fearful of contact with others.  Though she “felt like I was signing the death warrant of a great part of my family,” Rebecca nevertheless agreed to shelter the family of a man helping to nurse the sick.  She praised the other first responders of the day, even though they could do little to alleviate the suffering.  “The young men performed every office male and female,” she observed, from tending the victims to making coffins out of boxes and planks, digging graves and burying the dead. 

The epidemic was subsiding, but Rebecca’s lingering shock was still evident.  As she watched merchants begin to reopen their stores, and townspeople return to their deserted (and in some cases, burglarized) homes, her thoughts were of her loved ones.  She had long contemplated pulling up stakes and moving to Arkansas; now that “life has become so uncertain,” her desire to do so was overwhelming.  “I shall never enjoy life again,” she wrote Jane, “until I join you.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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