Charles Cornish Pearson and the Great War, Part V
By Susan Martin, Collections Services
This is the fifth post in a series about the wartime experience of Charles Cornish Pearson. Go back and read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV for the full story.
Today we return to the letters of Sgt. Charles Cornish Pearson of the 101st Machine Gun Battalion, serving in France during World War I. By the early summer of 1918, Charles had been serving for a year, and he wrote more often about specific things at home that he missed. His letters are peppered with wistful reminiscences of family vacations and home-cooked food. He longed to spend an evening just listening to records or taking in a movie (though war movies had lost their appeal, he said). He also missed his young nieces and nephews. In early June, he wrote to his sister-in-law:
Glad to hear the “kiddies” are well. My how I would like to see them. Believe me I think of them often, especially when I run across French youngsters. It is quite a common occurence when in a town for a couple of the youngsters to run up to you, & grab hold of your hand & walk along with you, & you know that cann’t help but make you think of the little ones at home & wonder how they are.
The month of June was fortunately short on “hair raising experiences.” As always, Charles reassured his family that he felt well and optimistic about his chances of survival. He lovingly scolded his mother for worrying, telling her, “They haven’t got me yet.” To his brother Bill he wrote, “I am a great little shell dodger […] but when they come down OH MY, what a sensation, makes you long for home & a little peaceful scenery.” However, while no fan of the military life, he wondered if he’d be able to adjust after the war.
Haven’t sat down to a table to a meal for so long that I am afraid I wouldn’t know how to act. […] Fear greatly that I will get so accustomed to this life that when I get back in the states, I will have to build me a dugout in the backyard to live in, won’t be able to live in a steam heated apartment. Will be kind of tough on my wife.
At the end of the month, the 101st Machine Gun Battalion was on the move again. Of course, Charles was circumspect about his location, so I consulted Philip S. Wainwright’s History of the 101st to fill in the details. Wainwright describes several stops on the way to the battalion’s final destination in the woods near Montreuil-aux-Lions. This was an active sector.
Charles wrote to his parents from this position on 15 July 1918. It would be almost two weeks before he wrote another letter to anyone—an unusually long gap in his correspondence. What happened during that gap? The Battle of Château-Thierry.
Wainwright’s history contains a detailed description of the fighting at Château-Thierry, including troop movements, strategy, etc., as well as the battalion’s pursuit of the retreating German army to Trugny. But Charles was taciturn. In a brief and apologetic letter dated 28 July, his first after the battle, he explained to his parents that he didn’t “feel much in the mood for going into details […] One sure does lead a pace when things are breaking the way they have and you often wonder how you keep going.” He was clearly shaken.
Charles opened up about the battle a few days later, in a series of longer letters to his family. His account is harrowing. There were no trenches, dugouts, or sheltered emplacements in this sector, so the troops’ position was unprotected except for a few sparse patches of woods and hastily dug holes. The men of the 101st were forced to haul their heavy machine guns, sometimes by hand, back and forth over many kilometers of damaged roads. Rations were small to nonexistent. To top it all off, the fighting took place during a heavy thunderstorm. As Charles wrote to his brother Bill on 4 August:
Would like to relate to you all my experiences of the past month but […] certain of them are not pleasant ones and the less said about them the better.
Sure have had my belly full of war the past month & suppose have come as near to being killed as I ever will be until my time comes. One gets to be a fatalist over here (except when one is dodging shells) as often times one gets the hardest knock when things are seemingly most peaceful.
The details of Charles’ account are confirmed by Wainwright, who states that “more was learned in the short time between the 18th and 26th than could possibly have been taught by years of maneuvers” (p. 43). Wainwright’s book also helped me to identify one of the photographs that came to the MHS with Charles’ papers. Below is an image of the graves of William Alfred Bruton, Paul Watson Butler, and Andrew Smith (a.k.a. “Duke”) Wellington. The three men were killed by shell fire on 25 July 1918 and buried in La Fère Woods. All were members of Charles’ company.
Beginning on 2 August, the men of the 101st were billeted in the peaceful town of Courteron and enjoyed ten well-deserved days of rest. They swam in the Marne River and caught up on their letters home. Officers and non-commissioned officers, including Charles, were granted a 48-hour leave to see the sights in Paris.
Join me in a few weeks for Part VI!
| Published: Friday, 20 April, 2018, 12:08 PM
This Week @ MHS
The Society is CLOSED on Monday, 16 April, for Patiots' Day/Marathon Monday. Enjoy the race!
After the holiday we get right back into the public events here at the MHS. Here are the details:
- Tuesday, 17 April, 5:30PM : This week's seminar, part of the History of Women and Gender series, is "Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the High School U. S. History Curriculum: A Conversation." This panel discussion, featuring university faculty, secondary educators, and activist curriculum specialists, aims to seed an ongoing discussion between high school and post-secondary instructors of American history about gendering the U.S. History curriculum. What topics in women’s and gender history and in the history of sexuality get covered when, where, and how? How can college- and university-based scholars do more to connect their work with high school classrooms? How are secondary educators—and their students—advancing and reshaping the field? This program takes place at the Fay House, Radcliffe Institute, in Cambridge.
Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. To RSVP: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (617) 646-0579.
- Tuesday, 17 April, 6:00PM : What fuels a family’s compulsion for philanthropy? Charitable giving is an intrinsic part of our culture and its story can be told through a colorful, multifaceted family whose actions mirror America’s attitudes towards giving. Between 1638 and today, the Browns of Rhode Island have provided community leaders, endowed academic institutions, and transformed communities through art and architecture. However, they also have wrestled with society’s toughest issues slavery, immigration, child labor, inequality and with their own internal tensions. Sylvia Brown, of the family’s 11th generation, and Edward Widmer will explore this story in "Grappling with Legacy."
This program is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows or EBT cardholders). Pre-talk reception starts at 5:30PM, followed by the conversation at 6:00PM.
- Thursday, 19 April, 6:00PM : What would the week be without some talk of the first shots of the American Revolution? "Lexington & Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World" is an author talk with George C. Daughan who will discuss his recent book by the same name on the anniversary of those pivotal events. The mounting political tensions that ignited the battles of Lexington and Concord are critical to the narrative of the American Revolution. However, the economic forces that propelled these iconic battles are another vital part of this history. When Benjamin Franklin wrote home describing the living conditions in Britain and Ireland, his country men were appalled. Could the Crown’s motive be to reduce the prosperous American colonies to such serfdom? This threat inspired the vast turnout of Patriot militiamen that so shocked the British and led the colonists to victory in the first armed conflictsof the War of Independence.
This talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows or EBT cardholders). Pre-talk reception starts at 5:30PM, followed by the conversation at 6:00PM.
| Published: Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 12:00 AM
“Vast awful & never ending Eternity”: Personal Accounts of Mourning
By Erin Weinman, Reader Services
I recently came across the Elizabeth Craft White diary, written in 1770 when the death of her husband left her distraught. “Life seems a burden to me since Death, Cruel, & unrelenting Death- has snacht from me the Partner of my heart: O fated Death how could you come, tho he called for thee why did you not pass by him, turn from him & flee away.” Elizabeth White’s diary lasted from December 26, 1770 until its sudden end on January 23, 1771. Throughout its passages, she questions the fate of her husband’s soul and laments over the ultimate fate of her own soul. The entries read more of a reflection of her own spiritual awareness as she makes it clear that she has accepted death’s presence and hopes that her daughter would be properly guided into heaven.
“Jan ye 10th 1771”
The diary is heartbreaking, but Elizabeth White’s thoughts were not uncommon during a period in which mourning became intertwined with religious culture. In early Massachusetts, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use the death of a loved one as a time to reflect upon their own souls and ask God to forgive their sins, faced with the reality that their own end could be near. Ministers often encouraged their parishioners to keep diaries to embellish their faith in Heaven, viewing this as another way to become closer to God and to understand what death meant. Sermons often revolved around the topic of dying, such as Timothy Edwards’ All the living must surely die, and go to judgement.
Man is born to trouble as the Sparks fly upward tears sorrow & Death is the Portion of every person that is Born into the world. I have been born, most certainly & it is as certain that I must die & I know not how soon. Die I must! & die I shall! (Elizabeth White, January 18, 1771).
While Elizabeth White would live another 60 years, her words reflected those of many others who faced the prospect of death. While writing a diary was certainly a way to privately grieve and bring routine back into one’s life, the sentimentality can be found in countless other accounts. Public displays of mourning were common through sermons and poetry, much of which told personal stories to illustrate the importance of accepting our demise. In an undated poem titled A few lines to a Friend: Mourning the loss of a Beloved Wife, the author clearly states the purpose of a loved one’s death is to remember our own mortality.
“A few lines to a Friend: Mourning the loss of a Beloved WIFE,” n.d.
“O may we all now heart his call,
Prepare for Death I say,
That we may stand, at Christ’s Right-hand
In the great Judgement Day.
And hear Christ say to us that day,
Come enter into Reît,
Then we shall go, to see and know,
And be forever Blest.”
Such expressions were also common in letters of correspondence. In a Letter from William and Mary Pepperrell to their children, the Pepperrell’s express a similar sentiment at the death of their son.
Your kind & symathiseing Letter of this day we received for wich are oblig’d to you and as you justly observe that if this Great affliction may be wich we have meet with in ye Death of our Dear Son may be sancthifyed so as to warn our hearts from our Earthly Enjoyments & to set them more & more upon our Great Creator […]
As the living hoped to reflect upon death, there was also importance placed upon a person’s final words. Tracts were commonly produced to teach people of the importance of dying properly and to share examples of good Christians, such as The Triumphant Christian: or The dying words and extraordinary behavior of a gentleman. Rev. Mr. Clarke later wrote in 1756 The real Christians hope in death, or, An account of the edifying behavior of several persons of piety in their last moments. The resting words of young children and women were of particular interest and were commonly published for the public to learn from. This model became embedded in New England culture. Dying words reflected one’s entire life. To speak such proper final words meant that one had led a pious life and was ready to accept their fate. It meant they would make amends with any sin they had caused and reassured those close by that they were off to heaven.
Mourning Picture, ca. 1810. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
To die quietly or without any resting words often caused distress to the living. Oftentimes, many would suspect that silence meant the person led a sinful life and that their fate was eternity in Hell. Elizabeth White’s husband died quietly after succumbing to fever, leaving her to question his fate.
When I think of home it seems to hurt me, once I had a home but now I have none. O that it was with me as in time past- But alas I shall never see a good day, more in the Land of the Living, once I was a girl then was I happy; once I was a married woman & was very happy till it Pleased the Lord to visit the pasture of my joys & cares, with a violent likeness that; deprived him of his senses so that he was never himself not long together to his dying day- now alas he is gone from whence he will never return, even to the Land of darkness, & ye shadow of death: a Land of darkness, as darkness itself & of ye shadow of death without any order- if he had died upon a sick bed, I should have some Peace concerning him: but now I have none- he is gone, I know not how it is with him […]
Such a prescribed mentality towards death is found across hundreds of letters and diaries, but they certainly don’t discredit the sentimentality of the writer’s feelings. It is simply part of human nature to cope with tragedy. In a society where religion played a vital role in everyday life, it is not at all surprising that death became a lesson to remind oneself of their ultimate ending.
To see what other related materials are held are at the Society, try searching our online catalog, ABIGAIL, then consider Visiting the Library.
Seeman, Eric R. “’She died like good old Jacob’: deathbed scenes and inversions of power in New England, 1675-1775.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, v. 104 (1994), p. 285-314.
Vinovskis, Maris. “Angels’ heads and weeping willows: death in early America.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, v. 86, pt. 2 (1977), p. 273-302.
| Published: Friday, 13 April, 2018, 12:00 AM
The Baker and the Bear
By Daniel Tobias Hinchen, Reader Services
In a previous post here on the Beehive, I introduced readers to William Emerson Baker and his estate called Ridge Hill Farms, highlighting his affinity for all things porcine. As mentioned before, the MHS recently acquired a handful of items that relate to Ridge Hill Farms, including documents, artifacts, and photographs. Today, we return to the estate once more, but for a different sort of affair.
You've lost your bear, so bear your loss,
Of all your hopes the ruin;
And while you drain the bitter draught,
Reflect--'twas your own "bruin."
William E. Baker purchased Billy Bruin - a two and a half year old black Labrador bear - from a Boston showman. On 15 July 1874, Billy was delivered to Baker's estate at Ridge Hill Farm, and promptly escaped three hours later. Over the next ten days, Billy roamed the area, frightening parishioners in Dedham, Selectmen in Needham, and Irish quarrymen in Quincy, among others. With a sizable reward offered for his capture, Billy was pursued as far as Weymouth. Sadly, a starving Billy was shot and fatally wounded while crossing a river in that town, then carried on the current into Boston Harbor, finally washing ashore in the town of Hull about 25 July.
Upon Baker's request, the body of Billy Bruin was returned to Ridge Hill Farms. The hide was mounted by a taxidermist and the remains were buried in a $2,000 solid copper casket on 8 August 1874. And while this was a somber affair, Baker, in his usual style, took the opportunity to make it a grand and remarkable event. As with an event to lay the conerstone of his new piggery, Baker sent formal invitations to the funeral of his departed bear. It is said that over 1,000 invited guests and several hundred others showed up for the affair. And as with the other party, those who could not attend sent their regrets along with bits of inspired poetry, published and shared with guests that day. No less a personage than Oliver Wendell Holmes extended his regrets to Baker:
Many thanks for your polite invitation to attend the obsequies of the lamented plantigrade. I am sorry that it will not be in my power to attend upon the melancholy occasion. I have a great respect for bears since those two femal one taught the little children of Bethel and Belial that they must not be rude to elderly persons. I think a loose bear or two might be of service in our community, and I regret much the loss of an animal who might have done so much as a moral teacher for the young of this city and its suburbs.
I am, dear Sir, yours very truly,
O. W. Holmes
269 Beacon Street, August 1, 1874.
Among the recently-acquired items now at the MHS is a watercolor painting which shows the funeral procession for the ill-fated Billy Bruin.
The Funeral of Billy Bruin / [landscape] by an unidentified artist
From a distance, the image fairly clearly shows a procession, of sorts, but it is on closer inspection that the wonderful idiosyncrasies of a Baker-hosted event start to show.
Detail. The Funeral of Billy Bruin
Here we can see a segment of the procession, with the stuffed hide of Billy at the center. With him are members of a marching band, various costumed individuals including the pallbearers, and sundry other onlookers. In seeking more information online, I found a piece over at the Wellesley History blog (titled "Billy Bruin and his festive funeral") which thankfully sheds some more light on this colorful cast of characters. To wit:
What follows is a partial list of the participants: the Grand Marshall (Baker) a la cheval, the stuffed corpse of Billy Bruin on a bier carried by four men wearing animal skins to represent the Bulls and Bears of the Financial District, 5-month-old bear cub Topsy, the 20-piece Natick Cornet Band, men dressed as frogs to symbolize the greenbacks of American finance, someone dressed as a monkey as a nod to the wise heads who thought they knew how to catch Billy, Native American hunters, a "black man turned white with bare fright," and following up at the rear, a handful of babies that supposedly had been swallowed by the bear.
And to that, I know not what to add...
To find what other items here at the MHS are related to Ridge Hill Farms and William Emerson Baker ,or to read the full story of Billy Bruin consider Visiting the Library!
- Crumbaker, Leslie G., The Baker Estate, or Ridge Hill Farms of Needham, Needham, Mass.: Needham Historical Society, 1975.
- "Billy Bruin and his festive funeral," Wellesley History, accessed 10 April 2018 at https://wellesleyhistory.wordpress.com/townsman-articles/billy-bruin-and-his-festive-funeral/
| Published: Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 3:51 PM
This Week @ MHS
It is a quiet week ahead at the Society as we lead into a long weekend. Here are the programs on the schedule for coming week:
- Tuesday, 10 April, 5:15PM : This week's seminar is part of the Environmental History series and features Andrew Robichaud of Boston University, with David Spanagel of Worcester Polytechnic Institute providing comment. "The Ice Trade: Frederic Tudor's 'Slippery Speculation'" reexamines the emergence and development of the ice trade in Boston and North America, described in 1806 by the Boston Gazette as a "slippery speculation." What can the ice trade tell us about environmental, economic, political, and spatial change in nineteenth-century Boston and North America?
Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. To RSVP: email email@example.com or call (617) 646-0579.
- Wednesday, 11 April, 12:00PM : Stop by at noon on Wednesday for a Brown Bag lunch talk with Kimberly Blockett of Pennsylvania State University at Brandywine, whose talk is titled "#sayhername: Recovering the Itinerant Ministry of Zilpha Elaw, 1820-1873." During the Second Great Awakening, almost all denominations discouraged female preachers. Of course, some women did it anyway. Elaw ignored her husband and clergy, faced significant danger, and preached from Maine to Virginia. Then famous, now Elaw and her published Memoirs are mostly unknown. Blockett will discuss the silences of race and gender in the archive. This talk is free and open to the public.
The exhibition Yankees in the West is now CLOSED. The exhibition galleries remain closed through the month of April as we prepare for our next exhibit, Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston's South End: The Furniture of Isaac Vose & Thomas Seymour, 1815-1825, which opens to the public on Friday, 11 May.
Please note that the Society is CLOSED on Monday, 16 April, in observance of Patriots' Day.
| Published: Sunday, 8 April, 2018, 12:00 AM