Like a Rainbow: Resurrecting Mary Avery White Forbes

Mary Avery White Forbes, colorized daguerreotype from the Jesse Cress Collection.

This glorious colorization by Sanna Dullaway returns vividly to life Mary White Avery Forbes, a 19th Century denizen of Westborough, Worcester County, Massachusetts. Her birth was recorded on 12 March, 1813, in Roxbury, to William White (1779-1848) and his wife Nancy Avery (17831865). In Mary’s time, Roxbury was already an ancient settlement first colonized by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630; it is now one of the 23 official neighborhoods of Boston.

The original 1/6th-plate daguerreotype of Mary Forbes, Circa 1848, from the Jesse Cress Collection.

Mary’s future husband, Daniel Hall Forbes, born 5 September, 1808, in Westborough, was the son of Jonathan Forbes (1775-1861) and Esther Chamberlain (1770-1867). According to the 1892 Forbes and Forebush Genealogy: The Descendants of Daniel Forbush, Jonathan Forbes “always resided in the Forbes homestead, West Main Street…. He taught school when a young man. He was a captain as early as 1813, when he was elected deacon of the Evangelical Church, holding the latter office 48 years. He held most of the town offices and was a natural leader in church and town affairs. It is said he was always chairman of every committee in which he served.” The genealogy also notes, “His children, Susannah, Julia, Jonathan, Jr., and Daniel were all baptized Oct. 29, 1808.”

The group baptism was a sign of commitment to Christianity that the Forbes family kept alive for multiple generations. When he died more than four decades later, Daniel, the month-old infant christened that day, would leave hundreds of dollars to missionary societies. His daughter would die in a far away country, serving God’s cause.

At age 34, Daniel married on 6 June, 1842, in Charlestown, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Jane Jemima Baker (b. 3 July, 1815). The union was short-lived—Jane expired less than a year later on 12 January, 1843, the reason for her demise recorded as “fever.” The widower soon turned to pretty, 30-year-old spinster Mary Avery White, who had moved to the Westborough only a while before. After a successful courtship, Daniel and Mary wed on New Year’s Day, 1845. She became pregnant shortly thereafter. Their first child, a daughter they called Mary Jane, arrived 3 October. A son, Jonathan Edward, was born two years later on 31 May, 1847. Daniel Hall Forbes, Jr., their final child, arrived 3 January, 1851, when Mary was 38.

The 1850 Census placed Daniel, Mary, and Jonathan, aged 3, in Westborough, along with two Irish farm laborers and an Irish domestic servant. The family’s real estate was then valued at $7,000—about $208,000 today. The address at 43 Church Street was a veritable mansion built by Mary’s mother Nancy Avery during her years of fresh widowhood. Mary White Forbes’s diary would be found secreted in the house more than a century and a half thereafter.

Daniel and Mary Forbes’ former residence at 43 Church Street, circa 1880. Today, the exterior has been preserved, but the interior, gutted by previous owners, was rebuilt as a thoroughly modern home by the Fitzpatricks.

Jane Keller Gordon wrote in a June 2012 Westborough Patch article of how the discovery was made by the home’s current owners: “For the past three years, furniture maker Michael Fitzpatrick and his wife, ophthalmologist Jean Keamy, have been painstakingly restoring the barn and colonial house with a mansard roof on Church Street. Demolition worker Kim Scioneaux of Berkley, Massachusetts,  found the diary. Kim said, ‘I found an old shoe, a bunch of acorns, corn cobs, a clothespin, and the diary in the eaves that I was pulling apart.’ When she found the damaged diary, she left it on a table in the house.”

Mary’s diary, now timeworn, waterstained, and nibbled by rodents, was composed in the years 1852-1857. After its rediscovery, It was given by Fitzpatrick to Ken Gilbert, a traditional bookbinder and repairer. According to the Patch article, “His first action was to carefully take apart the four groups of six pages of the diary. After mechanically brushing the surface, Gilbert put the papers in a bath of water and alcohol to remove the mold. Several water baths followed until the water was clear. Once clean, Gilbert created pieces to fill the empty spaces of the diary and added sizing to make the paper more pliable. Gilbert replaced the marbleized cover of the diary.”

Mary White’s diary when found. Photo courtesy Westborough Patch.

I contacted both Gilbert and Fitzpatrick for this article and they were kind enough to supply me with photos of the entries concerning the illness and death on 18 May, 1854, of Mary’s husband Daniel. He had ailed for some time, sinking by degrees, although the diary touches little upon this, instead featuring terse entries such as “Made sausages” and “Spent the evening at Mother’s.” In the immediate aftermath of Daniel’s demise, however, Mary recorded the story of her loss in detail, even if the written words were meant for no eyes but her own.

13th Wednesday

Mr. Forbes was carried out of doors and sat in his chair an hour and a half. Mrs. Wilde [probably Julia Miranda Forbes Wilde (1804-1878), his older sister and wife of the Rev. John Wilde (1803-1868)] came to see him. Mr. Cady called. Mr. Jonas Stone called. Mr. Forbes sat at the table and took dinner with us, helping us all as he used to do when well.

Mrs. Wilde copied a letter for him. He wrote a letter to Mr. Talcott and superscribed his letters and then unmasked that he believed his work was done. When he was laid in his bed, he asked Mrs. Wilde to commend his spirit to God, saying it was the last night he should live.

After prayer, he talked with me, expressing submission to the Will of God. He wished me to go to bed with him as usual. He was awhile troubled with phlegm but after that, lay quietly most of the night. About four o’clock he heard a Robin sing, which he had been accustomed to hear for some weeks before. He said, “That sweet robin again. It is the last time I shall hear it.”….

He wished me to call Mrs. Wilde and Lizzie and Trowbridge [his younger brother Ephraim Trowbridge Forbes (1815-1863)] and tell them it was his last day. He wished Mrs. Wilde to pray that he had an easy transit. He continued to sink until about eight o’clock, when he sank quickly and apparently without much suffering into the arms of death….

The restored diary pages on which Mary wrote about her husband’s final day. Photo by Ken Gilbert.

19th Friday

A post-mortem examination was made this morning. Brother Avery [Joseph Avery White (1822-1912)] was present. His disease was scirrhous [a hard mass] in the stomach which nearly filled the passage from the stomach to the bowel, and an inflammation of one part of the large intestine and an adhesion of the caul to the intestine.

21st Sunday

Daniel was buried today. May this afflictive providence be so sanctified that I may be better fitted to live or to die as God may appoint.

The stone marker for Daniel Forbes, Pine Grove Cemetery, Westborough. Photo by Ginny Fisher.

Noteworthy in these two diary entries: They include Mary’s singular reference to her husband by his given name, Daniel, rather than as “Mr. Forbes.” Also, her description of the autopsy’s findings indicates that Daniel likely perished from abdominal tuberculosis of the gastrointestinal tract. Mary, the wife he asked to lay beside him as always on his last night, was probably already infected with the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria. She had five years to live.

A cousin of Daniel’s, William H. Forbes (1854-1879), would literally fall to tuberculosis a quarter century later. This heartrending description is taken from the Forbes and Forbush Genealogy, “His energy and integrity gave promise of a remarkable … career, but his active spirit seemed to fairly burn out his physical strength and that dread disease, consumption, found lodgement therein. One August day, with her whom he hoped to make his wife, he alighted at his father’s door, entered the house, and sinking into his mother’s arms, passed away, as a child, weary with the heat and burden of the day, falls asleep.”

The first page of the Daniel Forbes’ Will.

Daniel left to “my beloved wife Mary Avery, all my household furniture, bedding, clothing etc. of whatever description, all my cattle and stock of which I am in possession, all my carriages, carts, wagons, and farming implements of every description, to be hers … forever.” To his three children, all under the age of ten, Daniel left two shares each of Essex Company stock and one-third of his property and personal belongings after their mother’s death.

We don’t know what form of consumption eventually took Mary’s life, but the end came on 28 February, 1859. She was 45. Mother Nancy White outlived her daughter, as did her in-laws, Daniel’s parents. The three Forbes orphans, all still underage when Mary expired, were recorded on the 1860 Census living with Nancy. After her death in March 1865, they were raised by some unrecorded combination of grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

6d15a97c-4256-40e9-9fc8-12f693ab26f8The gravestone of Mary Avery White Forbes. Photo by Ginny Fisher.

Jonathan Forbes went west. By 1880, he was in Kansas City, Missouri, with a wife and two daughters, running a hardware business. By 1910, he was enumerated in Franklin, Kansas. He died in that state in 1933. His little brother Daniel, Jr., landed in Topeka, Kansas, by 1875, and worked as a hardware machinist. He had three children and remained in Topeka for the rest of his life.

Mary Jane married the Rev. Daniel Crosby Greene (1843-1913) (linked names, here and below, refer to Wikipedia pages that have been created for these individuals where more information is easily available), a graduate of both the Chicago Theological Seminary and the Andover Theological Seminary. He became a member of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which was amongst the first American Christian missionary organizations. Together, the couple sailed for Japan in December 1869, where Greene would undertake a Japanese translation of the Bible.

Mary Jane Forbes Greene in later life.

Their first child, Evarts Boutell Greene, was born in Kobe 8 July, 1870; he would become a Harvard-educated historian and a faculty member of several universities. A daughter, Fanny Bradley Greene, followed Evarts on 29 August, 1871, and Daniel Crosby Green arrived 29 January, 1873. The following year, another child, Jerome Davis Greene, was born 12 October in Yokahama. Eventually, the family moved to Tokyo, where no less than six more Greene children were born. Mary Jane ended her days in Tokyo, dying 18 April, 1910. A cenotaph to Mary Jane and Rev. Greene exists in Pine Grove Cemetery, Westborough, but the couple was, until recently, buried in Aoyama Cemetery, Tokyo. The current resting place of their remains is unknown.

Jerome D. Greene, grandson of Mary Avery White Forbes, circa 1905.

The Greenes’ son Jerome bore a striking resemblance to his grandmother Mary. Like an echo of the woman gone before, Jerome looks out from the dry-plate glass-negative image reproduced here—young, handsome, stiffly-collared.

Jerome would live a prosperous life. After returning to the United States from Japan in 1881, he spent two years traveling in Europe as a student, became general manager of the Rockefeller Institute from 1910 to 1912; he was a founder of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and authored the constitution of the Institute of Pacific Relations in 1926. He then turned his attention to investment banking, joining the Boston firm of Lee, Higginson & Co. in 1917. For a time, he lived in Toynbee Hall, at 28 Commercial Street, London, in the first university-affiliated institution of the Settlement Movement, where the rich and poor lived together in an interdependent community.

Green remained an investment banker until 1932, when his address was 655 Park Avenue, Manhattan, New York City—a home he shared with his wife May Tevis (1871-1945), whom he married in 1900, and three immigrant Scandinavian domestic servants. The couple had no children. He lived until 1951.

Restoring the color to Mary Avery White Forbes was probably the kindest thing that her daguerreotype’s guardian, Jesse Cress, could do. Consumption drained her of her vividness, along with her life, but now Mary is preserved in perpetual glory in the colors of a rainbow. Ω

The Forbes family plot at Pine Grove Cemetery. Photo by Ginny Fisher.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

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