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Doctor’s Daughter and the Medicine Show, a Family Letter

Imagine This

Imagine that you are a 13-year-old girl living in a town of about 800 people in rural Ohio, Holmes County. It is February, 1895, so the dirt streets usually turn to mud in winter, but this winter has been mild, and a medicine show has come to town. You sit down to write a letter to your Grandma, Emeline Stout, who lives in Guernsey County.

The Letter

Vera and Emeline

(The photo of Emeline Stout below is undated, but since I have younger and older pictures, I believe this is roughly the right time period. I previously mis-identified it as being Hattie Stout because I misread a caption that said “Grandma Stout”.  Since it was my Grandmother Vera’s handwriting, it is Emeline, not my mother’s Grandma Stout–Hattie.  The photo of Vera is approximately the time she wrote the letter, but unfortunately I do not have one that is better quality.)

The Background

Your father is a doctor and, as usual, is out in the country helping a patient.  Not a lot happens in this small town except church on Sundays and other church meetings. A medicine show with a painless dentist has replaced the interest stirred by the Methodist Church revival, which has now ended. The revivals are almost as well attended as a traveling circus, and draw nearly everybody in town.  Some of those people, not already committed to your father’s chosen place of worship, the Church of Christ,will respond to the emotional sermon of the traveling minister and walk down the tent’s aisle to join the Methodist Church. After you report on the Methodist’s success, t occurs to you a that you had better also tell Grandma about the activities of the Church of Christ. (You are writing the letter on Monday, so your church yesterday occupies your mind ).

When you announced your intention to go to the medicine show, your mother, upholding the reputation of the good doctor, lets you know in no uncertain terms that you cannot go.  One can only guess how appalled she is to think that neighbors would see Doc Stout’s youngest daughter at this charlatan’s traveling show. Additionally, although you Vera might not have known, alcoholism ranks as the biggest social problem of the time. The traveling medicine man’s main income comes from selling “medicine” that is almost totally alcohol or morphine.  It would not occur to you that Grandma Stout might disapprove as much as your mother did  of the medicine show.  Emeline Cochran Stout took an active role in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

You let it slip later in the letter that you already went to the medicine show, because you were tempted to let the painless dentist pull your teeth.  But since you report honestly on both the good and the bad, you admit that you chickened out of having the teeth extracted.

Perhaps your mother did not realize you had attended before, and when she learns about your plans to go again, you see your mother’s refusal as being contrary, and you pitch a fit.  You get so angry that you even refuse to write a thank you letter to your Grandmother Stout even though your obedient older sister, Maude, has written her letter.

But when you calm down, you write the letter to Grandma and in plain terms, confess to your contrariness.

Transcription and Notes

The 13-year-old was my Grandmother Vera Stout (Anderson). She wrote the letter on her father’s stationary and filled in the date February 25 1895. In three months she would celebrate her 14th birthday. The portion in italics is what Grandmother wrote. I have left her spelling, but for clarity I added periods at the end of sentences. My notes are in brackets. I will include additional notes at the end of the letter explaining things that might not be clear.    

Printed letterhead, with fancy frame around name (see picture above):

W. C. Stout, M.D.

Office days, TUESDAYS and SATURDAYS (from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M.)

Killbuck, Ohio, Feb. 25 189 5

Dear Grandma,

I will answer your letter this evening. I was to contrary to ans when Maud {Vera’s sister} did because I was mad. I received your mittens you sent me and thank you ever so much. think they are very nice.

There is a show in town & has been here for wk and is going to stay all this week. ma got a contrary spell & would not let me go & I have been crying about it for a long time. Pa is up to Stagers. Mr. Stager was down after him to go to see his wife. she has the grip. {grippe–flu}

The Methodist church broke up last night I do not know how many members they got. I think about 30 I am not sure. Are school will be out in about 2 months & Mr. Searles is going to teach a Normal school {school for teachers} this summer. I will not attend.(1) We had church last night & two came out and three were taken in.(2) Bertie Knavel and Mrs. Williams joined and the Fox girl was taken into the church. We got Uncle Tom’s little boy’s picture & he is awful sweet. they named him after Pa. William Clarence Stout. & it make it W. C. Stout like Pa name. He is awful sweet. I expect you have one of them. he is standing by the hobby horse.(3)

Well grandma I got two teeth filled the other day . Mr. Mackey from Millersburg {County Seat, and biggest town in the county}. I only have two more to have filled & 4 to have pulled & will have good teeth. will be glad of it. The show that is here is a medicine show and the Doctor pulls teeth without pain & I am to big a coward to get my pulled. I started to and set back down. backed out.

This was a lovely day. the sun shone all day & the roads are nice.(4)

When are you coming out{?}

This is all I have to say this time so good bye. From your grand daughter Vera

Tell the girls I will write to them to. {Vera’s cousins, who were close to her in age– the nieces of her father, Doc Stout. Mary (b. 1883) and Myrl ( b. 1885), daughters of “Lib” Elizabeth Stout Cunningham.}

 

(1) If May seems early for school to be out, remember that in an agricultural society, parents needed their children on the farm during planting season.

I don’t know why Vera felt it necessary to say she would not be going to the Normal School conducted by Mr. Searles, since Normal schools were for high school graduates, not pre-high school.

(2) “two came out and three were taken in”  In Evangelical churches like the Church of Christ people “come out” and confess their  belief generally at the end of a service.  After some time passes, the minister baptizes them and they are “taken in” to membership in the church.  “Taken in” could also mean people who moved from another congregation.

(3) Uncle Tom is Tom Stout who ranched near Sheridan Wyoming.  The little boy named after Doc Stout, born in 1891, grew up, married and had a child, but was killed in an automobile accident in 1919.  Unfortunately, I have not found a copy of the picture of the child with his hobby horse.

(4) “the sun shone all day and the roads are nice”  This is the most evocative line of this letter, taking us back to a town when the condition of the roads could not be counted on to be passable, particularly in winter.

What Did I Learn About Grandma’s Life?

Now if your imagination is still in tact, and you are transported back to small town Ohio in 1895, imagine what happened after Vera wrote this letter.

My first reaction focused on how wonderful it was to have such a revealing letter from my grandmother.  I can see the plain-spoken, no-nonsense woman I knew in her later years. It brought back to me that  small town life really did include things like medicine shows and painless dentists, and the westerns that I saw in the movie theater where Grandma worked in later years were not just making things up. Did you ever see Bob Hope as a painless dentist in The Paleface?  (Remember, also, that in 1891, Ohio was still considered the West.)  Excellent description of the American phenomenon of traveling medicine show in this article.

But my second reaction was to ask, “If this letter went to Emeline Stout, why was it among my great-grandmother’s papers?”  Was Vera’s Ma, Hattie Stout still being ‘contrary?; Was Vera drop the letter in the slot at the post office, or did her mother make her recopy it and leave out some offensive lines? Perhaps I am over thinking this, because when people wrote letters by hand  in an era that prized beautiful writing, it they frequently recopied a letter and mailed the “clean” copy.

Now that you know Vera as a 13-year-old, and her mother Hattie, what do you think happened? And what do you think of my grandmother?

 

The Last Letter Grandma Mary Morgan Received

Perhaps my headline exaggerates just a bit. My great-great-grandmother probably did receive more letters in her lifetime. Heaven knows she handled hundreds of letters when she worked as a Postmaster at the Killbuck Post Office in the 1860s and 1870s. But to set the scene for this particularly life-changing last letter, let me take you back to Killbuck, Ohio, in October 1850 and remind you of Mary’s life up to then.

An old sewing basket

The sewing basket

Mary and Jesse’s Story Up To 1850

Mary Bassett traveled with her parents to Keene, Ohio from Keene New Hampshire, shortly after the founding of that little town near the Ohio Canal. When she arrived in 1826, at sixteen years old, she already had enough education that she shortly was teaching school–privately, at a neighboring farm.  She was only 19 when her mother died and Mary met and married the merchant Asahel Platt. Asahel came from a very religious family, perhaps even more religious than Mary’s father who descended from Pilgrims, and her mother, who came from the Puritan New England family of Stone.

Mary had brought a hand-made wooden chest with her from New Hampshire, and in it she kept precious hand-woven and embroidered cloths and clothing. She also kept important letters. (Fortunately for me, her daughter also kept the letters, and did HER daughter–my grandmother.)

Mary and Asahel had only one child, who died in infancy. They had moved to Killbuck in neighboring Holmes County, where Asahel opened a general store.  But their domestic life did not last long. Asahel died young, leaving Mary a widow at twenty-three years old.  Her father died the same year, and during the next few years, Mary returned to Coshocton County. Perhaps to save money, she moved into the home her parents left.

There she met Jesse Morgan, newly arrived from the state of New York. He was educated, lively, and must have seemed a good choice after the strait-laced family of her first husband.  They were married, and to lessen the burden on his new wife, Jesse farmed out his two oldest children–both boys.  One of the girls returned to New York, but one of the girls stayed in Killbuck, with Mary.  My great-great grandmother’s marriage had taken her back again to Killbuck.

I believe that Mary would have been happier to have Jesse be a teacher, but he was the restless sort who believed there was a fortune to be made somewhere. Jesse was determined to pursue that fortune.  Mary may not have been overjoyed by his frequent absences, but she surely adapted. He traveled through the mid-West buying and selling horses and sometimes land. He wrote to her frequently when he was “on the road,” and she stored his letters away, until this last letter.  They had a baby girl, Harriet (Hattie) Morgan who would be my great-grandmother, in addition to Malvinia, the daughter from Jesse’s first marriage.

The Last Letter Arrives

I can’t imagine the agony that ensued when Mary read this last letter. She apparently had never met the author, Solomon Frisbie, the husband of Jesse’s sister, Charlotte.

There Mary sits, in Killbuck, Ohio, with her 8-year-old daughter and Jesse’s 15-year-old daughter in the small town of Killbuck. She has not heard from her husband for many months, perhaps as much as a year. (The last letter to Mary from Jesse in the bundle she saved is dated September 1847.) Although she is accustomed to his being gone for long stretches of time and correspondence is slow, it has been long enough that she must be worrying.

Letter to Mary Morgan

Letter to Mary Morgan from Jesse Morgan’s brother-in-law. Oct.1850

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Madame: Haveing received a letter from Jesse Morgan when he was on the road to California, and never expecting to see him back again, and I takeing the New York Tribune a paper that is in Circulation in that Country I have watched with anxiety the Deaths that take place there, I find in the paper of Oct. 14 an account of his Death in a Skirmish between the Settlers and Officers respecting Land Titles.  He may have consiterable Property there and thinking you would want to look to it.  I therefore give you notice. I should [insert]if in your place [end insert] find out the circumstances by the Tribune.  If you should need assistance I would help you if you thought proper.  At any rate I should be glad to hear from you to know how he was Circumstanced there and why he went to California. please Write to us and oblig Your Brother and Sister.

Canaan Oct. 1850                                                      Solomon Frisbie

Now she learns that Jesse has been dead for a full two months before she knew his fate. The pain must have been terrible.

Did Mary know that Jesse had gone to California? What my mother knew of her story and the evidence of letters saved contains no hint that she knew. Surely if she had received any letters from Jesse during his trip to California, she would have kept them, since she kept so many other letters from the road. Mr. Frisbie’s letter would have been her first indication that this time the distance traveled by Jesse was far greater. But worse, he had been killed in a riot. The painful knowledge that this time he would not return from his wandering contained the blacker feeling of disgrace. Multiple shocks contained in one letter.

It would seem to me that she would have been shocked that the brother-in-law back in Pennsylvania knew that Jesse had set out for California (even written him a letter when he was “on the road”) but had not kept in touch with her. And it strikes me as very odd that Jesse’s sister and brother-in-law knew that he had married and lived in Holmes County, but did not know his wife’s name or what town he lived in. They probably were unaware that he had a child with Mary.

Delivering the Last Letter

Solomon Frisbie gets points for trying his best to find Jesse’s widow. He sent a letter to the Postmaster at Holmesville, obviously (and erroneously) assuming that Holmesville was the county seat of Holmes County. The population of Holmes County was sparse and I imagine it did not take long for this last letter to find its way to Mary Morgan.

 

Letter from Solomon Frisbie

Solomon Frisbie to .Postmasters of Holmes County, seeking the widow of Jesse Morgan. Oct. 1850

Dear Post Masters
Not haveing any one in the County to communicate with but recently haveing a Brother in Law there by the name of Jesse Morgan which went from there to California which I see by the New York Tribune Died in Sacramento City Aug. 14 and he leaveing a Wife there, in what Township I know not but wishing to convey the intelegance to her I take this way of doing it Hoping that you Sir, will take the trouble to send it from one to the other Placing your Names on from whence it went making a Circular till it gets to the Township where he belonged. In so doing you will Oblige his Brothers and Sisters remaining here. Jesse Morgan has formaly be a Merchant and Wool Carder (illegible word) Yours Respectfully, Canaan, Oct. 1850 Solomon Frisbie

Solomon Frisbie’s Letter

Besides the fact that he did not know exactly where his brother-in-law lived and did not know the name of Jesse’s wife, I am struck by  pessimism.  He clearly expected bad things to come to anyone who dared undertake the journey to California. And Solomon, who lived all his live in his corner of Pennsylvania, must have thought Jesse was a wild man. He definitely expected Jesse to die, and thus made it a point to get a newspaper that covered California news and diligently read the obituaries, ultimately ‘rewarded’ for his diligence. The other thing he has no idea about is what Jesse does for a living.  Jesse had not been a wool carder since he left Pennsylvania, many years before.

In Solomon’s letter to Mary (the anonymous widow), the brother-in-law assumes that Jesse surely must have accrued valuable property in California. (He may have considrable property there, and thinking you would want to look to it.)Perhaps, like so many others, he had fallen for the legends of riches just waiting for the taking. At any rate, he offers his assistance to the widow–perhaps hoping there would be enough to spread around, or perhaps as the husband of the sister closest in age to Jesse, just fulfilling his familial obligation.

How Will the Widow Survive?

In fact, Jesse had not been in Sacramento long enough to amass anything, and probably left Ohio with barely enough to survive the long trip.  Poor Mary at forty years old with an eight-year-old daughter was once again a widow, and this time left without financial support.

I know that she had a small inheritance from her first husband and was a prudent manager, as she invested in properties in Killbuck.But as she worked later in life as a seamstress, I have to believe that she was earning some money with her fine needlework. We found some samples of her work in the wooden chest with a hand written note by her daughter.

lace collar

Mary Bassett Morgan collar, stitched together with a cloth made by her mother.

Also, Mary did have the support of her Bassett sisters and Stone relatives in nearby Coshocton County. And unlike many widows who moved in with family or quickly remarried, she remained single and stayed in Killbuck with her daughter.  She must have loved Jessie even after what might look like betrayal from our vantage point.

Jessie Morgan: a Scoundrel or a Hero

The best evidence of that is the fact that no ill will against her husband remained in the family. My grandmother spoke of him almost admiringly as an adventurer who was ‘done wrong.’ Despite newspaper articles that accused the rioters of being unlawful troublemakers, within the family Jesse was seen as a hero to disenfranchised people seeking their rights against greedy landowners. My great-grandmother named her middle son William Morgan Stout, which she would certainly not done if she felt animosity toward her absent father.

And Jesse’s own children  used the Morgan name with their children, so they also apparently felt no ill will against him.

*You can read the details of Jesse’s untimely end in the post written by my brother about the well documented Squatter’s Riot in Sacramento. Jesse’s name even appears on a plaque. The squatters riot was covered widely in newspapers of the time, and also is described in history books. However, at the time, the squatters were reviled and nobody bothered to record where Jesse might have been buried. (One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s anarchist.)

 

More Information About Jesse and Mary’s Lives

I will return at a later date to Jesse’s trip to California with the 49ers and some further mysteries of his life and death, but a this point so much of that story is speculation that I prefer to move on to talk about some other ancestors with less vague histories.

The information in this story comes mainly from the letters, although it also contains my speculation based on family history and the deduction based on records of Mary’s and Jesse’s life and family heirlooms.

If you have not been following the story of Mary and Jesse, here is a guide to the stories of their lives.

Mary and Godey’s Lady’s Book

Postmaster Mrs. Mary Morgan

Seeking Security with Mr. Platt

The Jesse letters

Promises and Instructions 1843

Teaching and Land Speculation 1845

Canal and Lake Travel 1846

Buying land in Illinois 1847

Letter from nearby Wooster 1847

Traveling by Steamboat 1847

A Discouraged Jesse 1847

More About Jesse

Pennsylvania to Chautauqua New York1829

Letter From Ohio Lures Jesse 1835

Jesse’s Friend, Doc Woods

Jesse Feels “Almost Like Flying” from Palmyra

Have you read Jesse Morgan’s earlier letters to his wife? If you read the first letter, you may remember his enthusiasm for describing the land and his trip. Do you recall his admonition to Mary?

“Don’t let any trouble annoy your feelings but keep up a buoyant spirit.”

That was back in 1843. It looks like my great-great grandfather could use a little of his own advice as he writes to Mary from Palmyra, New York during August 1847.

Palmyra was the home of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormon).  Coincidentally, Joseph Smith was born the same year as Jesse Morgan–1805.  A Mormon publishing house thrived in Palmyra, and the Book of the Mormon was firsts published there. By 1847 when we know that Jesse visited Palmyra, Joseph Smith had been gone for several years, having migrated west, first to Kirkland Ohio and then on to Nauvoo, Illinois. However, the Mormon headquarters in Kirtland Ohio was still active when Jesse moved to Ohio. The majority of Smith’s followers had moved on to Illinois by the time that Jesse started making forays into Illinois. Jesse seems to be always following the Mormons. Particularly in the next stage of his life.

But now he has stopped at Palmyra, along the Erie Canal. Perhaps the contact with the Mormon religion during this low period of Jesse’s life had an influence on later events. (You’ll just have to keep reading future posts to find out the significance.)

If you compare the writing on this letter to that on previous letters, two things are immediately obvious. It is not the carefully formed script he used earlier, and instead of firmly straight lines across the page, the lines dip downward. A graphologist will tell you that downward slanting lines denote pessimism.  (You can’t fool us, Jesse!)  Only in his signature, does he at least try to regain his strong sense of self importance and optimism.

The Letter

Jesse writes from Palmyra

Jesse Morgan’s letter to his wife, Mary, August 1 1847 from Palmyra, NY

Jesse writes from Palmyra NY

Bottom of 1st page of Jesse Morgan’s letter to his wife, Mary, August 1 1847 from Palmyra, NY

Jesse's letter form Palmyra

Jesse’s signature on letter August 1847

The Transcription

Palmyra [New York] Aug 1st 1847

Dear Wife

I improve the present opportunity to write you a few lines which I should have done two weeks ago to inform you that I am alive and tolerably well at present.

I had a long and tedious journey down this time owning to the warm weather and one of my horses got sick, and I got him in a bad season, just at the commencement of haying and harvesting and but for wanting to buy, the sudden change in the market of Wheat has produced a stagnation of business at present.

As soon as haying and harvest is over which will be next 6 weeks the fall work will commence and the boats on the canal will begin to do business again and it is _______horses will be in some demand then. I have sold but one since I came down that I made $25.00.

I am now living cheap. I buy my hay from $5.00 per ton and stable room found on a farm just in the edge of Palmyra and have gone to work for the man at $1.00 per day and the privalege[sic] of taking care of my horses. I have lost some time. I got poisoned almost as bad as I was last fall. My horses consume about  ___[10 lbs] per day which is 25 cents and I make $1.00 so I gain .75 cents. I find no grain, you can hardly imagine how bad I want to see home when I think about it I feel all most like flying but mean to hold on a little while yet. I want to do well this time if I can but I am well satisfied that I shall not do as well as I did the second time I was down. I think I shall be at home in a two weeks.

Receive these few lines with together with my warmest affection for you

from your affectionate husband

Jesse Morgan

Mary Morgan

Thoughts on the Letter

I have very few comments to make on this letter from Palmyra.  His remark that he should have written two weeks ago, indicates to me that he has been away at least a month. Possibly  he continues a trip he wrote about in April and June.

One thing slightly puzzles me–his references to going “down” when he is going to Palmyra in northern New York.  Since we do have the usage of “down East” for Maine, I wonder if East was “down” and West was “up” in the way that now North is “up” and South is “down”? Perhaps one of my astute readers can clarify?

Say what you may about Jesse’s odd, meandering way of life, and his long absences, he was not afraid to work hard. He will do whatever is necessary to survive.  I am particularly touched by “..you can hardly imagine how bad I want to see home when I think about it I feel all most like flying but mean to hold on a little while yet.”

However, I can’t help but feel even sorrier for Mary.  Back home in Killbuck, she takes care of her own daughter and one of Jesse’s, without a regular source of income. She has no certainty about when her husband will resurface. What a pity that we do not have a record of how Mary is getting along with her end of “living cheap, ” while Jesse is suffering in Palmyra.

Coming Next

Jesse continues to travel, but with greater success.  He purchases land, indicating that he must have had success in selling horses.