Freddie, My Love

“Oh, Mrs. Crane, he looked so pretty. He looked as if he was asleep and dreaming a very pleasant dream.”

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A partial letter from “Julie” to “Mrs. Crane,” single page with black borders, page one. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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.”

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Although this real photo postcard may date from as much as 60 years after his death, it illustrates a home viewing in about 1905 that may have differed little from Freddie’s. White lilies drape the coffin and the table beside the young man, who is likely a son of the house, but possibly a young father. He rests in his casket, nestled in bright white crinkled satin beneath a canopy a black netting edged in white. Above him are twin hand-colored portraits painted over underlying photos. At left, the planter is of art nouveau/craftsmanesque style, perhaps a red base with trails of blue. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

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

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Julie’s partial letter, second page.

A Mother’s Mortality, A Woman’s Glory

The posing of mother and child may also deliberately highlight the loss of her long and well-cared for hair.

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Photo courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.

This stunning tintype, circa 1875, of an American mother and infant, is owned by collector and Your Dying Charlotte contributor Beverly Wilgus, who notes, “This little tintype is not as much a ‘hidden mother’ as a mother who chose to put the emphasis on the baby. I do wonder about her very short hair. One explanation could be that she has been very ill, maybe after a difficult birth, and her hair was cut short for comfort.”

It is possible that the woman pictured suffered from puerperal sepsis (called childbed fever) in the aftermath of delivery, which had been combatted, in part, by hair cropping. If true, this mother surely thought the tintype image celebratory—even triumphant: She had survived; her magnificent reward was the healthy infant draped over her shoulder, offered visually to posterity.

The sitter was lucky—a scarce survivor of a bitter scourge. “Childbed fever killed at the cruelest moments. It was described as a ‘desecration,’ an aspect of the natural world that felt almost deliberately evil. What caused it? Some thought ‘a failure of uterine discharge;’ others, a little later, called it ‘milk metastasis,’ noting that the internal organs of the women who died seemed covered in milk. Eventually it was accepted that the fluid was not milk at all. It was pus,” wrote Druin Burch in a Live Science article, “When Childbirth Was Natural, and Deadly.” When obstetricians and midwives talked of “delivering women,” he explained, they meant delivering them from the deadly perils of childbirth.

Puerperal sepsis from Streptococcus pyogenes is transmitted via unsanitary conditions during delivery. In an age before antibiotics, the takeover of its host was medicinally unstoppable. Between 1847 to 1876, an estimated five deaths resulted after each 1,000 live births, with puerperal sepsis causing up to half of those losses. “There was no cure available: doctors merely prescribed opium, champagne, and brandy-and-soda, trying to ease the passing, rather than making a vain attempt to cure a mortal illness,” wrote Judith Flanders in her 2003 book Inside the Victorian Home.

Yet against the odds, this mother survived.

In the Little House series, Mary Ingall’s lovely blonde hair was cropped during the throes of scarlet fever in a bid to save her life.

That hair should be cut during a high fever steamed from a long-held notion that it could drain the energy of the seriously ill; cutting it also allowed heat to escape the body thus lowering the patient’s temperature. In the popular Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, Mary Ingall’s lovely blonde hair was cropped during the throes of scarlet fever in a bid to save her life. (As an aside, JSTOR Daily points out, “Pediatric historian Beth A. Tarini believes the term was inaccurately used to describe viral meningoencephalitis in Mary Ingalls, whose disease rendered her completely blind.” The article is a fascinating read.)

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This late-19th Century teen may have had her hair shorn during a serious illness. Courtesy State Library and Archives of Florida.

Whenever a woman’s hair was cut for medical reasons, it was mourned by her family and friends as a brutal loss. Long and well-cared for tresses were considered a Victorian woman’s chiefest treasure. Writers of the age reflected the obsession in their literary works. “No other writers have lavished such attention on the physical properties of women’s hair: its length, texture, color, style, curliness. There is scarcely a female character in Victorian fiction whose hair is not described at least perfunctorily, and often the woman’s hair is described in incredible detail. The brown, neatly combed heads of virtuous governesses and industrious wives; the tangled, disorderly hair of the sexually and emotionally volatile women like Hetty Sorrel and Catherine Earnshaw; the artfully arranged curls of the girl-women like Dora Spenlow Copperfield and Isabella Linton are all familiar, even conventional elements in Victorian character description.” wrote Elizabeth G. Gitters in “The Power of Women’s Hair in the Victorian Imagination.” (PMLA Journal, October 1984).

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Lady Lilith by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The watercolor’s model, Rossetti’s mistress Fanny Cornforth, had thick golden-red hair that hung well below her waist.

In a culture that all-but worshiped long female hair, caring for it was a rigorous process. It was an an era before shampoo and available cleansing options often contained caustic or drying elements. Women instead brushed their hair to redistribute the natural oil whilst often adding in tonics or perfumes. The brushing regimen was done daily by some women, such as the singer Aline Vallandri, for upwards of a half hour. Mrs. Walker, who published a 400-page tome in 1840 titled Female Beauty, as Preserved and Improved by Regimen, Cleanliness and Dress, recommended the use of a soft brush for at least ten minutes, twice a day, after the hair had been combed and brushed with a hard brush to remove dandruff and dust, such as soot from coal burning fires.

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A Victorian advert for hair tonic shows a maid brushing her mistress’s tresses.
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Fanny in reality: Taken in the 1860s, this carte de visite is believed to show Fanny Cornforth from behind with her hair undone.

Other cleansing tricks written about in the 19th Century include the use of baking soda and vinegar, rum, and black tea, as well as egg yolks and rosemary as conditioning agents. Ladies could powder their hair and then brush it after the excess oil was absorbed—as descendants of these women do today with dry shampoo. Ω