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"A Season of Cold": The Diary of Persis Seaver (Long) Bartlett

As we constantly work to update and improve descriptions of our holdings here at the MHS, we often find interesting and unexpected items buried in large collections, usually items by previously unidentified or misidentified relatives. A staff member recently identified the author of an anonymous diary in the papers of Massachusetts Governor John Davis Long. The diary was kept by Long’s sister, Persis Seaver (Long) Bartlett (1828-1893), from 14 Oct. 1889 to 30 June 1892.

Unfortunately, the circumstances that prompted Persis to write the diary were very sad ones. Her younger son, Percival Temple Bartlett, suffered from tuberculosis, and he and Persis were traveling West in hopes that a change in climate would alleviate his condition. The trip was ultimately unsuccessful, and Percy died in San Antonio, Texas, on 20 May 1890 at the age of 27. The diary documents his deteriorating health and his mother’s feelings at every stage of his illness and after his death. It’s a very personal and fascinating account of loss that still resonates 120 years later.

By 1889, Persis had been a widow for over 20 years. She had also lost her parents, a sister, a brother, and a daughter. Her older son, Stephen Long Bartlett, was a businessman in Boston, and her brother John and his family lived in Hingham, Mass. But writing so many miles from home, Persis described her feelings of isolation, helplessness, and anxiety as the sole caretaker of her weakening son. A typical diary entry reads: “I am thinking of him, so much, as I sit in my room adjoining his, while he sleeps and breathes, too short, and coughs too often….His case looks very discouraging to me. I hope I am mistaken.”

Persis recorded the daily changes in Percy’s symptoms, treatment, appetite, energy, and attitude. At various times, he suffered from the measles, “the grippe,” lameness, depression, and even, for some time, lost his voice entirely. Persis also worried about the weather and its effect on her son’s health. For example: “Clear and cold. Now comes their winter here, frost that has killed the strawberries and vegetables, and stripped the trees of their leaves and blossoms. A season of cold never known here before. Some how bad luck follows us where we go.”

The most poignant diary entries are those containing little details of Percy’s gradual decline. On 10 Mar. 1890, Persis wrote: “Percy and I walk to the Ice factory, a short distance, to be weighed. He weighs 115. I 132. Can it be possible this is my bright, sunny, strong Percy that walk[s] by my side so weak…[?]” The seats on a streetcar “are hard for his poor thin body.” A little later, “Percival and I ride a little way. I can see he reluctantly allows me to get out and open the gate. His shortness of breath and weakness is terrible for me to see, but how much harder for him to bear.”

After Percy’s death and her return to Massachusetts, Persis continued, on every page, to express her longing for him. She noted the monthly anniversaries of his death. Whenever her other son, Stephen, showed any sign of illness, she was overcome with anxiety. (In fact, Stephen would survive her by 44 years.) She also maintained a close relationship with a Miss Minnie Speare, who had been, it seems, Percy’s sweetheart. And although her lost son would never be far from her mind, Persis was able to write, on 3 Mar. 1891: “Sometimes I can bear it better than at others. Some days I am a little braver.”

For more information about the diary of Persis Seaver (Long) Bartlett, see the collection record in our online catalog ABIGAIL. Or visit the library to spend time reading the diary.

permalink | Published: Friday, 23 March, 2012, 12:00 PM