|In 1852, in Manchester, England, Robert Newman Gourdin read a letter that his brother Henry Gourdin had written him ten days earlier in Charleston, South Carolina. The news was anticipated but startling nevertheless. Their brother-in-law, the Rev. Thomas J. Young, rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, had died. Henry had written: |
From the time the fever left him,...he continued rapidly to sink, and at 10 o’clock, exactly as St. Michael’s clock struck the tone, he breathed his last, without a struggle or a groan, perfectly conscious, collected, calm, and resigned to the last moment. From 3 o’clock until within an hour of his death his mind wandered a little, occasionally, but within an hour of his death, as death approached, he became quite collected, and in the end passed away almost imperceptibly into another state of existence (29 October 1852).
Thomas J. Young had married Anna Rebecca Gourdin, the sister of Robert Newman and Henry Gourdin, in 1828. The Youngs had three living children, all born in the early 1830s, and it fell to Robert to share the news of their father’s death with two of his three nephews. The oldest, William, had come to England to work in a mercantile firm to learn the international aspects of his uncles’ merchant business; his younger brother, Henry, had gone to the University of Berlin to earn a law degree. The youngest nephew, Louis, who also worked for his uncles, had remained in Charleston.
The two older boys had left Charleston in the summer of 1851—an experience made possible through the generosity of their bachelor uncles. They had left a father in poor health, but that had not seemed out of the ordinary, for Thomas J. Young had long been frail. When their father became seriously ill in the summer of 1852, the boys experienced the emotional isolation and anguish of distance; each, alone in his own world, was isolated and helpless to comfort his mother. Their Uncle Robert had arrived in Manchester, England, in September 1852 and shortly thereafter had to inform them that their forty-eight-year-old father had died. Thomas J. Young’s sickness and death created a crisis for his sons living in Europe. They were so far away from South Carolina that it was impossible for them to be present for their father’s last days, death and funeral. They were unable to bolster their mother’s courage, unable to share in the communal mourning of an immediate and extended family and a devoted congregation. Distance had excluded and isolated these young men and had endangered a precious sense of kinship based on ties of blood and experience. Feeling deeply the isolation of her sons, Anna determined that they should know everything about their father’s final days. The sons had to share in that part of the family’s collective experience, even if only vicariously, because only then would the tragedy of Thomas’s death and the triumph of his entry into heaven become part of the entire family’s consciousness. In Anna’s phrase, the “joyously sad details” had to be universal to the family, including those who had been four thousand miles away.
Anna Young had always been a dedicated and faithful correspondent, yet the death of her husband made her ill and unable to write for over two months. When she recovered, she wrote her sons that she had suffered, but that “even in the midst of such suffering, I have mourned for you, my absent & lonely Sons....I think of you in a foreign land, so far separated from each other,...&...I...feel even more for you than for myself at this time”(27 November 1852).
As a devout Christian widow, Anna, in one of her early letters, reminded her boys of their Christian duty in those incredibly stressful times. Christians, especially members of a priest’s family, must appreciate the joy mixed with the sorrow, the joy of their father’s union with the Almighty. Anna wrote: “While God gave us good & happy days, He loved us, and now that He has sent us others of tribulations & anguish, He loves us all the same & would never have inflicted this sorrow, but to make it a cause of greater joy, hereafter to us, even as it already is to him in Paradise. Let us pray and fully help each other, my loved & Xtian Children, so to trust in God, as to prefer His will to ours, & without a single murmur to be contented with the ashes & mourning”(27 November 1852). After reminding the young men of God’s continuous plan, she shared with them “how deeply the prayerful desire abides in my heart, that we should derive every possible benefit from this severe calamity & suffering which God has allowed to desolate our happy home, & to turn so much of our joy into mourning” (29 December 1852).
Indeed, in over six months of writing, Anna became so dedicated to sharing her husband’s illness and death with her sons that she confided:
I become so absorbed in the letters I am now writing you, that when called away from them . . . it is very like leaving that holy chamber & bedside. So hallowed do the present moments of writing become by the sacredness of the past, in whose memories I live again as I record them for my children, that I leave my painfully gratifying task with a bewilderment of feeling between the past & the present—The dream & the reality... (7 February 1853).
Anna told her story in long letters from November 1852 until April 1853. She traced the beginning of her husband’s killing fatigue and exertion through the burial of the wrecked body. Backing and filling, remembering most but not all at any one time, constantly being reminded of many details, she eventually wove a coherent story in letters which she intended to be preserved, a chronicle of events and dialogue witnessed by many persons who could correct her memory, if faulty.
We begin her narrative—here rearranged chronologically for clarity—after she has explained the circumstances which had so fatigued her husband and driven him to his sickbed:
He said to me, fully five weeks before his return to God—“My beloved Wife, were it to please my heavenly Father, at this moment to pour into my heart of the fulness of His holy spirit, there is neither hindrance nor obstacle to prevent His entrance, for I am pure from all sin....It is all the work of my Saviour’s blood, & my God has done it for me. I am now meet to go to Him in Paradise.” The same in substance...he repeated to me again & again. At this time, we (indeed none of us) had a misgiving about his recovery, but when he thus spoke, a pang of coming separation shot through my heart... (29 December 1852).
She explained how shocked the whole family was at the gravity of his illness, lulled as they had been by the frequency of his previous bouts with sickness which had always been followed by recovery. She wrote:
Up to Sunday night the 10th of October, with scarcely more than transient intervals, my faith in his recovery had been like a rock, & my hope such, that had he risen suddenly from his bed in health & strength, I should have been more grateful & happy than surprised (7 February 1853).
But Reverend Young knew his fate, and he had tried to prepare his family for it. One evening while Anna was at his bedside, her husband broached a subject which he knew his family would soon face. Anna wrote her sons:
He seemed at a loss how to allude to our coming trial in the least painful words. He put his arm around me, & seemed to entreat that I would anticipate his meaning but I could only help him with looks of anxious tenderness, for I knew not what he wished. But I did say, “Go on, Dearest, God will help me to hear even as He helps you to speak.” So he went on, “I know, my own love, that the first day[, do] you understand me?” And here another pause & searching look, as if to see if he could spare me the trying words. “I cannot bear to give you pain, but I mean the day of my death, On that day you & Looly [Louis G. Young’s nickname] will wish to keep me all to yourselves, do so, & if you choose, exclude every one, but, my Wife, you know I belong to the Congregation too....Would it be asking what you could willingly grant, if I express the wish, that about 10 o’clock on the second day...I may be placed in my coffin & carried into the drawing room, & then the street door & iron gates be set wide open, for the admission of the St. Michael’s Congregation particularly, & for the Clergy & other friends generally. But mind, my dear Wife, this is not to be done, unless you can willingly consent to part with my remains for so many hours.” My Children, as there is no strength of love so strong as the conjugal, you cannot understand how I felt while he spoke of these two days, as so certainly & closely at hand, when he would be an inhabitant of one world, & I of another, never again to look upon each other’s faces, or to hold sweet communion together. But God enabled me to answer calmly, “My Husband, when I married you, I knew that you had stood at the Altar of our God once before you stood there with me, & that you had given y[ou]rself to Christ & His Ch[urch], before you gave yourself to me, & I have tried always to feel that you were mine only in part. For nearly 25 years I have given you to yr Congregation in life, & will do so in death” (28 January 1853).
Of course, Mr. Young was ever mindful of the absence of his two eldest sons, of the impossibility of their coming to him before his inevitable demise, and he seemed determined that they have a personal memory of him, a last word directed specifically at them, and he left his wife, as she reported, with remarks made especially for each. Anna wrote:
It was after this that we all seemed to pass in review before him, & after speaking of his own future of bliss in heaven, & my future of widowhood on earth, he said, “Give to our precious, precious Boys the love & blessing of their dying Father—tell them they have always been the best of Sons to us, & a comfort & joy to our hearts, that I have in these last hours of life great happiness in the confidence I feel in their piety & principles.” “For Gourdin [the eldest son, William’s, familiar name], I have no fears, but tell him, I beg him to study more, much more, he is becoming very thorough as to the manual part of his business, but this is far short of all that he will need & ought to acquire, let the head be well informed, & let him be well-read as well as skil[l]ful in his calling. His writing too—more attention to that.” “For Henry I have fears for his happiness until he has suffered much from the discipline of life, he is ambitious. Oh tell him from my death bed, I beseech him to beware of ambition, pride & vanity. Tell him I intreat him to engage prayerfully & humbly.” Here he looked earnestly into my face, & repeated, “prayerfully & humbly, in all the duties of life”(4 December 1852).
We turn now to Anna’s narrative of the last days of her husband’s life:
But on this last Sunday night, God Himself seemed as much to crush my hopes as man had discouraged them. The breathing most painfully indicated fearful & increasing weakness, & his symptoms had an effect on me which all others had failed to awaken. I felt that he was passing away, & that all my feelings of faith, hope, & trust, as regarded his restoration, were tottering to their fall. Shifting sands seemed the only ground on which my feet were standing, & it was in vain that I struggled to plant them once more upon the rock. He had repeatedly said to me, “Oh my Wife! Wont you let me die? I have been made meet & fast to enter into Paradise, where God is ready to receive me, & I feel that your faith & yr prayers are all that keep me here. You alone detain me”(7 February 1853).
These were painful words; Reverend Young was pleading for Anna to resign herself to the inevitable, to bless his passing and be joyful in his triumph over this world and his fulfillment of God’s wishes.
Anna continued her narrative:
After this, I began to understand, & I never hoped again ....he put his hand in mine, & we looked steadily into each others faces. Oh how I prized the precious flying moments! I knew that days & months & perhaps years were coming when I should remember this, almost the last interchange of loving looks, between us... (7 February 1853).
Anna seems almost to have forced herself to narrate the morning of the funeral:
[He asked to be raised up.] From this raising him on the pillow, I date the immediate beginning of the immediate ending. I was on my side of the bed, as it stood in Summer in the middle of our chamber, with his left hand in both of mine, & Looly was in his accustomed place, standing on the other side, his Father’s right hand clasped in his, & his left arm around & just above, not under, his head on the pillow....There was no word spoken, until he broke the solemn stillness with that exclamation, for wh[ich] we should ever thank our heavenly Father—“I have a glorious prospect of heaven” (7 February 1853).
Looly withdrew to the head of the bed, beckoning to me at the same time. As soon as I stood by him, he put his arms around me & said, “Dearest Mamma, do you not think that Papa should be told that he is dying?” I answered “My Child yes, I have been feeling this keenly for the last ¼ of an hour, & tried to speak, but not a word could I utter.... “Mamma would it save you any suffering for me to tell Papa? Would the pang be less to you?” “Tell him my child,” were the only words I could speak, but the prayer was in my heart, “& God be with us & our absent ones.” We then resumed exactly the places we had left, & Looly said gently to him, “Dearest Papa,” at this he turned & looked, & I [also] fondly & enquiringly into our dear child’s face, & he went on, “you know some time since, I mean several times since I have come home, & when you were not as ill as you are now, you have prayed that it might please God to take you to Himself. He has now answered your prayers, He is taking you home to Himself, Dearest Papa you are dying.” At these words, yr Father raised his eyes toward heaven, & solemnly & distinctly said, “Whatever is God’s glory is my will....” Then came a deep silence, during wh our looks spoke, & only our looks, for there were no more words (7 February 1853).
Looly [then] whispered this touching farewell in his Father’s ear, “Dearest Papa, good bye. I wish you a happy passage through the dark valley, & across the deep river.” The power of speech was then gone, for he was on the very confines of heaven, but his intellect bright & clear as the Noonday sun. He turned to his Boy, & with a smile of rapture, twice bowed his head in recognition of this prayerful angel-like leave taking (7 February 1853).
Looly & myself then fulfilled our last sacred office of love, & precisely as you have him in yr Daguerr[e]otype did we robe him in his Oxford gown, cassock & bands; & even before we had commenced our mournful & solemn duty, the tolling of those bells he loved so dearly were striking their thrilling sounds on our hearts & ears (5 March 1853).
[On the next day] Looly & I cut from the back of his head, some precious hair, wh. I intend sharing with you....Then 9 o’clock struck, & yr. Uncle, Looly & I assisted the two men, who removed him from our old bed, wh you so well remember, to his new & narrow one, in wh he was sweetly to sleep through the long night of his fulsome life. I had intended remaining in our chamber, but could not, I followed to the head of the staircase, & looked over the railings, but when he was passing out of sight I quickly overtook [him]¼& with Looly’s arm around me, I stood by his side in the drawing room, as we had done for so many weeks in the chamber above....Looly & I bent down & kissed the marble lips, & then did I, as he had requested & I had promised, “give him to his people in death, even I had, for nearly 25 years, given him to them in life”(26 March 1853).
...we were fixedly gazing on the “shattered casket” of that spirit, soon to be hidden forever from our mortal visions....Another bending down, & another kiss, for a longer & sadder parting than the 10 o’clock farewell of the morning. And then, Oh how quickly followed the black form & veil. And all was ready. And we two arm in arm...passed through the opening wh was made for us in the entry, by the crowd pressing back to the wall (2 April 1853).
In August of 1853, almost a year after her husband’s death, Anna Young joined her loving and concerned sons in Liverpool, England. They spent much time together further enriching what was already a fulsome and strong relationship. The collective memory of the family had been reconstructed, the tragedy placed in its Christian context, and the family enriched. In one of the last letters in which she had described the events surrounding the death of Thomas Young, Anna had written: “Oh my Children had you been here, could I have gone through these harrowing memories, these anguished details for any other? I think not”(2 April 1853). As Anna Young told her sons, her husband’s spiritual and realistic acceptance of death was “a priceless legacy from your Father to us & to our descendants.” Anna’s own determination has left us with an unusually full record of a mid-nineteenth-century death experience, written by a deft hand in a series of letters stretching over a number of months. As historians, we are thankful for Anna’s vivid re-creation and reminder of how mid-nineteenth-century families assigned meaning to death by celebrating both its tragedy and triumph.
[And at the church] it was all an indiscribable mingling & confusion of dream & reality to my bewildered feelings. My eye rested on his coffin in the aisle, & yet I expected to see him in the desk & to hear his voice in the service. It seemed...that he must be at my side, or would soon be there. From this bewilderment the music roused me by its unearthly strains. And then our Blessed Lord seemed to draw very near & whisper, “If I have prepared such soothing strains for you on earth, what must those triumphant strains be wh now welcome him into the heaven of My presence?” From this moment, I say it with deep humility & gratitude, my Saviour never left my side & with...Him seemed the presence of yr Father’s spirit... (11 April 1853).