Pieces of the Puzzle at the Schlesinger Library

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This week finds me in at the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge, MA, another glorious repository of women’s history goodness. Walking into an archive, you never know how the day will unfold. Even if you’ve spent hours searching the on-line catalog and exchanged dozens of e-mails with archivists, there’s no telling what the actual sources will yield. Today’s post looks how I process documents as a researcher, as well as more on the social and gendered dynamics of 19th century Jacksonville.

My day began at the Schlesingler Library with the vague but intriguing finding aid for the letters of Emily A. Jones (4 J768). The collection consists of one folder containing six letters addressed to Emily A. Jones in Ritchie, Illinois, dated October 20, 1895-April 16, 1896. The letters are signed ‘Matt’ or ‘M.C.D.’ from Jacksonville, Illinois. We know the the writer is Emily’s sister because she opens with “Dear Sister.” We also know the writer identifies as female, as she describes her job as a nurse for Dr. Carl A. Black. The only other clue is a statement in the finding aid that: “Emily A. Jones was probably married to Thomas W. Jones and lived in Wesley Township, Illinois. They had three children, John W., Carrie L., and Arthur C., living with them in 1880″ (italics for emphasis). Otherwise, it says nothing more about the sisters’ ages, relationship, or even an indication of who M.C.D. might be.

As a researcher, I prioritized these letters because even though M.C.D. is a mystery, Dr. Carl A. Black was a prominent physician both locally and nationally. We know a lot about Black, but we know little about the female nurses who worked for him. Opening the folder and delving into the handwritten pages, I’m looking for anything about what M.C.D. did on a daily basis, who she interacted with, and her role as a caregiver. For example, on December 26, 1895, she revealed herself to be an experienced nurse who once worked for an older physician, Dr. David Prince. For her, nursing was less about serving others and more about paying bills. In fact, from the way M.C.D. describes it, she is only working for Dr.Black to pay some kind of family medical bill. With a critical eye to her new situation, she wrote:

“This is a very hard place. there is not the conveniences for the help there was at the old Prince Sanitarium, and Dr.Black is not Dr. Prince by any means, but he has to pay me $10 per week for every week I stay here, I have had as many as 4 patients, all in bed, one went home last saturday and one was a holy terror, she went the day before Christmas, she had to be carried, if she comes back I will leave this house, in the 16 years I have been nursing I have never taken from a sane person such insulting talk as she gave me and I’ll not do it again if I never pay any bill. her home is here in town, she is a Portagal, and a nobody. So I have only two patients now, a woman about my age with a broken hip, and a young man 25 years old who has had a surgical operation on his side. I think he will only be with us a few days longer. He is gradually going down… his mother stays in town and spends every afternoon with him. That helps me. his father came yesterday to spend Christmas. he intended to go home in the morning, but I told him tonight that his son could not live long, and he may change his mind. it is a very sad case. the young man is so nice, and he wants to live.”

Her moment of tenderness toward the dying patient is unusual. In other letters, she espouses anti-Catholic sentiments as well as harsh judgement of immigrants. On March 11, 1896, she wrote:

“I was called out sunday evening to a bad case. was up all sunday night, Monday the patient was very ill and the neighbors got wind of it, and swarmed in and interfered and caused dissatisfaction, so I came home tuesday morning. She was a Swede and he a German. both ignorant and superstitious, a very hard class of people to work among. I think she will die. I was glad to leave.”

By the time I read these lines, I am ready to find out more about who M.C.D. might be. As interesting as those quotes are, they lack meaning without context. I turn first to Google Books, where I type in “Emily A. Thomas Jones Ritchie, Illinois.” The collection contains one envelope addressed to Emily in Ritchie, so we can at least confirm that’s where M.C.D.’s letters were going. Google searches don’t always yield results, but this time it turns up a match on Google Books. The Biographical Review of Cass, Schuyler, and Brown Counties of Illinois, published in 1892, reveals that Emily was likely the sister of Richard W. Mills, a prominent Jacksonville attorney. They shared two more brothers and a sister, Martha Demerest – or M.C.D. From there, I spend about fifteen minutes on Ancestry.com piecing the family together. Martha was born in 1839, but her father died in 1844 and her mother raised five children on her own. In 1868 she married Henry Demerest and by 1880, the census lists Martha as a widow with two young children, Kate and George. In 1895, she indicated that she had been nursing for 16 years, so that means she started her career upon the death of her husband.

But then Ancenstry.com throws me for a loop. There’s a photograph of the Henry Demerest with a claim that he died in Trinidad, Colorado in 1888 – well after Martha claimed status as a widow. Could it be that he left his family? The 1880 census lists a Henry Demerest living in Missouri, and his daughter Kate is listed as living in Mesa, Colorado in the late 1880s. Its a long way from Trinidad, but something drew her west and then back to Jacksonville by 1895. There’s a chance the family tree compiled on Ancestry is wrong. It happens all the time. But either way, the census confirms that Martha was a single mother struggling to raise her children and support herself as she aged.

Just these small puzzle pieces begin to provide a hazy picture. The ability to identify Martha, her siblings, and her children reveal that not even Richard Mills’ prominence and wealth could fix a dysfunctional family.  Martha writes of arguing with their brother George, her embarrassment when her son converts to Catholicism, and her biting criticisms of her daughter, Katie, whose children and home were “shamefully dirty.” During this time, Katie was also a single mother who supported her
children by sewing, doing laundry, and taking in boarders. In an interesting turn, however, Martha described how Katie took in an older woman from the “poor house.” In exchange for her room and board, the woman took “better care of the children than Katie does.” Even with such criticisms, Martha also provided assistance to the woman by giving her “two pairs of mother’s home knit stockings. I though it was as well to do that as to let the moths eat them.”

Conducting research is more than simply reading and taking notes. Moving through documents, I’m constantly making judgements about their usefulness to the project, where they will fit into the narrative, and whether they are telling me anything new or helpful. This is where my knowledge of broader trends in U.S. history comes in, as well as my ability to make quick use of digital tools.

By the end of the day, I was able to confirm that these letters were more than just bits of commentary or trivia. We now have a better understanding of how women living on the edge of economic stability utilized family connections, even when those connections were strained. From Martha, we learn that nursing was (and still is) a strenuous line of work that yields small financial rewards. Her experience sheds light on a moment when nursing was experiencing a shift toward professional training. We also learn that family stability was one of the single most important factors in women’s lives.

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