I have in my collection this incomplete letter from the mid- to late 1800s written by an American woman named Julie who had endured the loss of her fiancé, Freddie. Julie’s letter was for another woman—her elder and probably close family friend, Mrs. Crane.
Julie and Freddie were young, possibly in their teens. Julie was quite literate, but her writing contains numerous errors, phonetic spellings, and a general disuse of commas, full stops, and quotations that is endemic to the era. I have corrected her mistakes and added modern punctuation in the quotes below.
“I sat and looked at him all night,” Julie wrote at the top of the single page, recalling the aftermath of the passing. “So many spoke of his smiling and happy beautiful countenance even in death. He looked too beautiful to bury.” She then hopped backward in time, writing, “He was sensible until two minutes before he died, but whether he realized he was really dying, I know not.”
Next she confides in Mrs. Crane, “About two hours before he died, I sat crying and he looked at me. I said, ‘Freddie darling, how can I give you up?’ He raised his hand and said ‘Oh, Julie, don’t.’”
Don’t? Don’t weep? Don’t imply that he was dying? Don’t tarnish his “good death” with female hysteria? Perhaps Freddie’s command was more prosaic: The dying man needed to move his bowels. “[H]e wanted to get on the chamber [pot] and I asked him if I should tell his mother. He said, ‘Mother is weak.’ I said, ‘Freddie, shall I help you?’ He said, ‘Yes, please,’ so I [assisted] him,” she next wrote. Of all the letter’s painful details, this strikes deepest—a heartbreaking intimacy, demanded by circumstance, between a couple who may never have seen each other unclothed.
This passage also raises the question of what killed Freddie at an early age. It could have been tuberculosis (“consumption”) and it is easy to ascribe it as the likeliest cause, but Freddie mentions that his mother is weak—potentially recovering from whatever disease her son then had. Possibilities include cholera, dysentery, typhoid, influenza, yellow fever, and malaria. However, many of these, including consumption, fail to leave a corpse too lovely to put in the ground.
Julie continued, “All that week he could not bear to have [me] out of his sight. I stayed by him all that week, night and day, until he was buried. The last night I [sat] up and kept cloths on his face.” Here, Julie may have meant she placed cold cloths on her fiancee’s visage to keep it from discoloring before the funeral.
In 1891’s Polite Society at Home and Abroad, author Annie Randall White noted, “When the funeral is held at the house, the family do not view the remains after the people have begun to assemble. Just before the clergyman begins the services the mourners are seated near the casket, the nearest one at the head, and the others following in order of kinship. If it is possible, they are placed in a room adjoining, where the words of the service can be heard. They are thus spared the pain of giving way to their grief before strangers. Those who are present should look at the dead before they take their seats for the service, although it is customary for the master of ceremonies (usually the undertaker) ere the coffin lid is closed, to invite all who so desire, to take a last look, ere parting forever.”
“Oh, Mrs. Crane,” Julie wrote, “he looked so pretty. He looked as if he was asleep and dreaming a very pleasant dream. I think some day I shall see him again where there [are] no more partings.”
After Freddie’s burial, Julie remained with his family. “I am here at his home yet. They seem to think the world of me. His father said I should stay with him as long as he lives but I don’t know. Sister Mary was married the 24th of last month to a Frenchman. My sister Emiline died in August. My cousin died in August—she had been married 8 months. My brother-in-law that lived near us died 1 year ago this month with….”
And there, maddeningly, it ends, leaving little more to note than the hope that Julie found love again, established a family, and lived to a full life. Time’s window closes and we must move on, so very much against our wills. Ω