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An Old Merchant’s House
Life at Home in New York City, 1835–65
by Mary L. Knapp
This book offers an authentic view of the domestic life of privileged New Yorkers in the three decades before the Civil War. It is based on memoirs, diaries, letters, and a preserved antebellum home belonging to the same family for almost 100 years. The daily life and habits of that family and their neighbors are revealed in detail.

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Table of Contents and Chapter Fourteen: “Domestic Dramas”
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Chapter Fourteen

Eliza Tredwell was twenty-three years old when she married in 1820. A little more than a year later, she had her first baby, and over the next twenty years, she had seven more. This was fairly typical for women during the three decades before the Civil War. Although the birth rate had begun to decline around 1800, middle-and upper-class women usually gave birth to their first child in the first year or two of marriage and then at two-to three-year intervals, eventually bearing four to seven children.1 Thus women spent some twenty years of their lives shadowed by a foreboding of the pain they would endure during childbirth and the very real possibility that they might die. Anxiety only increased with each succeeding pregnancy as women worried not only about themselves but about what would happen to their children should they not survive.
     Physicians were taking the place of midwives in middle- and upper-class urban families like the Tredwells by the 1830s. However, as a rule, they were not consulted until the time of delivery. Only then was someone hastily sent to summon a doctor. Husbands were typically present at the birth (it was not until much later that they would be deemed a nuisance in the delivery room). Also sometimes present, in addition to the husband and a doctor or midwife, were the woman’s mother, perhaps her mother-in-law or a married sister, a trusted friend, and the “monthly nurse,” who would help care for the mother and infant for a month after delivery. Over time, the number of female supporters diminished in favor of the professional doctor and nurse and, of course, the husband, who offered whatever comfort he could.2
1 Sylvia D. Hoffert, Private Matters: American Attitudes toward Childbearing and Infant Nurture in the Urban North, 1800–1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 6–7, 207–09
2 Ibid., 63
     Mary Harris and Andrew Lester, a dry goods merchant, were married on December 20, 1847. She was nineteen years old. Three weeks before their first wedding anniversary, with the birth of their first child imminent, Mary confided her anxiety to her diary:

I know that I shall soon be in pain and in peril and that perhaps the bed of pain may be the bed of death. My anticipations are chiefly of recovery and of hours of happiness with my beloved husband and the little one whom God may give us, but I hope I may be prepared for either event.

     A week later, on December 7, 1848, at 9:15 in the evening, she gave birth to an eight-and-a-half-pound baby boy. Present were her mother, a midwife, a neighbor, and a nurse, all of whom stayed all night. In the spring of 1851, Andrew recorded the birth of their second child. At that time Mary had dispensed with all of her female supporters; only a doctor and her husband were in attendance. Three years later, when her third child was about to be born, Mary decided to forego the doctor. “She did not wish me to leave her . . . I did not go for anyone,” wrote Andrew. “We were alone all the time.” He was expected at a church meeting that evening, but noted that he was “too tired.”
Over the next twelve years, Mary delivered three more babies with only her husband to help her. Andrew became quite adept as a midwife. He was perfectly capable of supporting the baby’s head during birth, cutting the umbilical cord, and delivering the placenta, which is about all a doctor would do.

3 Mary Harris Lester diary, December 10, 1848, Manuscript Division (New York: New-York Historical Society).
4 Andrew Lester diary, January 5, 1853, Manuscript Division (New York: New-York Historical Society).
     He did, however, send for a doctor after the birth of their last child in 1865, when Mary appeared to be more exhausted than he felt was normal.5
     Doctors had some means at their disposal that midwives—and husbands—did not. They had a more thorough understanding of anatomy. They could employ the use of ergot, a fungus that would accelerate labor, although its use was potentially dangerous. And they sometimes administered opium, which provided a modicum of relief from pain. They were also trained in the use of obstetrical forceps.6 However, should things go very wrong, a nightmarish scenario could quickly develop that even the most skillful doctor was incapable of resolving. If the use of forceps proved ineffective, the alternative was a craniotomy, in which the infant’s skull was crushed to permit removal of the infant from the uterus, or an embryotomy, the piecemeal dissection and removal of the infant.7
     With the discovery of the anesthetic property of ether, labor became easier for a few women. In America, its first use during childbirth was in 1847. The patient was Fanny Longfellow, wife of the poet. She already had two children and so knew what she was missing. She (and her husband) declared the experiment a success. However, as strange as it may seem, the idea of alleviating the pain of childbirth was a controversial issue in the American medical community. In fact, the Longfellows had to employ a dentist to administer ether to Fanny, for no doctor could be found who would do it.8
5 Ibid., Feb. 21, 1856; Aug. 24, 1862; Oct. 3, 1865
6 Hoffert, 65, 77–78
7 John Ward medical notebook, 1863–64, February 17, 1864, Manuscript Division (New York: New-York Historical Society). See also Hoffert, 86, and Judith Leavitt, Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750–1951 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 44–45
8 Hoffert, 82–83
     Charles Meigs, professor of obstetrics at Jefferson College, one of the most prestigious medical schools in the nation, was an influential and adamant opponent of the use of ether in childbirth. He believed that its use would interfere with God’s desire to punish women for Eve’s role in tempting Adam. He declared that labor pain was “a most desirable, salutary, and conservative manifestation of life-force.” He also believed—and convinced his students and other doctors—that the pain of childbirth served to bind women more closely to their children.9 Eventually and gradually, sympathetic doctors and women themselves would win the debate, but not until countless mothers had suffered unnecessarily.
     Having previously been safely delivered of a number of children was no assurance that things would go well the next time. Surely there was no doctor more aware of the inadequacy of his profession when it came to delivering babies than Dr. Daniel Whitehead Kissam of Huntington, Long Island. Dr. Kissam was married to Seabury Tredwell’s oldest sister, Elizabeth. She died at the age of thirty-six giving birth to a stillborn infant, the couple’s eighth child.
     It was customary for a mother to confine herself to her home for one month after the baby was born. There was no proscription against a pregnant woman appearing in public, but it was considered vulgar to appear to recover too soon after delivery.10 In fact, the danger of childbirth was not over once the baby was born. Puerperal or “childbed” fever could strike suddenly three or four days after delivery. It was a virulent staphylococcus infection of the womb from which women seldom recovered. Eleanor Patterson was one who did. Her husband recorded the crisis in his diary:

9 Charles Meigs, Obstetrics: The Science and Art (Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea, 1856), quoted in Hoffert, 87–88
10 Hoffert, 26–30, 116–17
Eleanor was taken with the pains of labour last Sunday, early in the morning—I immediately summoned Dr. Bayard & the nurse, Mrs. Absly, & at eleven o’clock a.m., she was delivered of a male child weighing eleven pounds. She suffered much & was greatly prostrated, but got on very well, until Tuesday night, when she was taken with remittent fever, which continued with great violence until Friday evening, when it began to abate, & is now nearly gone. The child is doing well. I was obliged to go to the Doctors every night for four nights in succession, which kept me up very late, and made me nearly sick.11

     The monthly nurse made sure that the new mother got enough rest during recovery. She was particularly helpful to a first-time mother, who was bound to feel overwhelmed by her new responsibilities. If all went well, after the first week, the mother could expect a steady stream of visitors, whom she received sitting up in bed. They called to admire the baby and to rejoice that mother and child had made it through what everyone acknowledged was a “perilous hour.”
     When the cause of infectious disease was misunderstood and antibiotics were unavailable, the mother frequently shared her bed with a feverish child, and there was nothing much anyone could do to make him well. Parents waited and prayed that their sick children would recover. Often they did not. Scarlet fever, whooping cough, dysentery, diphtheria, pneumonia, measles: these diseases took a terrible toll. And the loathsome disease of smallpox was still a threat, for although vaccination for smallpox was possible, many people refused to subject their children or themselves to what they considered a suspect and risky procedure. Even a minor cut or scrape could develop into a life-threatening infection.

11 Henry Patterson diary, March 19, 1848
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74. The Mother’s Blessing.
Engraving from Godey’s Lady’s Book, March 1858. Author’s collection.
Mothers spent many an­xious hours nursing their child­ren. Lacking effective medical measures, they were helpless to influence the course of childhood disease. Scarlet fever claimed many children, and because it was highly infectious, sometimes all the children in the family succumbed within a matter of weeks.
     From the time of their birth, children were looked upon as a contingent blessing. Mary Lester, after having been safely delivered of a healthy son, commended her “dear child” to God and prayed that “if his life is spared” that God would enable her “to train him up in the way he should go.”2 This is not to suggest that parents became inured to the death of their children. Those who recorded the loss of children in their diaries express a profound sense of grief. When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his wife Fanny buried their seventeen-month-old daughter in September 1848, Fanny wrote that she “struggled almost in vain with the terrible hunger of the heart to hold her once more.” She imagines she hears the child crying at night and dreams of her sitting by her side. As she listens to her other children at play, she thinks how they will look when dead. “Their gleeful voices agonize me.”13
     Children themselves were aware of their own mortality. One evening in 1855, as Julia Lay was getting her two younger boys ready for bed, Georgie, the five year old, remarked about his little brother: “Ain’t Johnnie a sweet little boy? Maybe God will want him some day. Maybe God will want me too one of these days.”14 Georgie had no doubt been told about his older sister, Mary, whom the family called “Buty” and who was in heaven with God .
     When Buty was four, her mother was afraid she had scarlet fever, so she did the only thing she knew to do; she soaked Buty’s feet in water. As it turned out, the child recovered. But two years later, in 1853, she became ill again. On Tuesday, January 25, Julia noted that Buty had been “alarmingly” sick all day.

12 Mary Lester diary, December 18, 1848.
13 Quoted in Hoffert, 175
14 Julia Lay diary, July 20, 1855
I have given her nauseating medicine and hung over her in an agony of anguish, wept and trembled for fear she should be taken from me. I have prayed that she might be spared. She is better of the croup, her cough is loosened and she is out of danger. God has heard my prayers.

But by Thursday, Buty was still very sick, and there could be no doubt that this time it was the “dread disease.”

Jan. 27 Buty all broke out with scarlet fever. Very sick though her throat is not so bad. Some delirious. Very high fever.
Jan. 28 No better. Her throat worse. She growing weaker. Has not eaten a particle today nor all night.
Sat. 29 Some better. Am encouraged, hoping she will recover.
Sab. 30 Very much worse as the croup has appeared. We sent for the Dr. before light this morning. Have had a very sad day. All day she has been very sick.
Mon. 31 Still very, very ill all day and I am coming more and more assured that she will not be mine very long. Sister Mary and John Rodgers came with a little babe. Had to leave in the morning being so much alarmed about the child getting the fever.
Feb. 1 Worse and worse and I am despairing of her recovery. I never spent such a night of sorrow in my life as my little darling daughter was rolling and tossing in agony all night and I was walking the floor in such distress, feeling so unwilling to give her up. My grief was insupportable. I could not feel reconciled to so great a bereavement as she, my only daughter, so beautiful and interesting, so full of life and animation, should have to lie down in the cold grave where I could see her no more. Oh how can I bear it. My loss, my great loss.

Wed. 2 No better although the Dr. says so yet I feel that she is drawing nearer to death. I have given her up and am feeling more resigned to the will of God, who doeth all things well. He will do what is best. Why need I complain, but how hard.
Feb. 3, 1853 There is no hope left. The death rattle is heard and my sweet child will soon be in the Saviour’s arms free from anguish and suffering—but how awful to hear her groans and agony, but she will soon—go.
The scene is over. She died at 10 o’clock quite easily and all that is left of my beautiful little Mary is wedged in death and yet so exquisitely beautiful.

     Until the year she herself died, Julia never failed to write in her diary about “her darling child” on the dates of Buty’s birth and death.
     Children who died from scarlet fever suffered for a week or ten days. But sometimes death came quickly—without warning. On May 16, 1847, a servant arrived at Maria Todd’s door with a frantic note from her daughter, who lived in Brooklyn. Maria’s grandson, nine-year-old Willey, lay gravely ill. By the time Maria and her husband were able to hire a carriage and get to Brooklyn by ferry, Willey was dead. Maria recorded the sad event in her diary.

His little spirit had fled to the world above. His Savior had kissed his life away with only ten hours sickness from health to death. The day before he had been dress’d in his soldier clothes and marched as Captain of the company, and we are left to mourn.

     They brought Willey’s body back to Maria’s house where he had been born. She was comforted by the fact that at his tender age, Willey had already read The Pilgrim’s Progress, and loved to read the Bible.
15 Maria Todd diary, May 17, 1847, Manuscript Division (New York: New-York Historical Society).
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75. Post-Mortem Photograph of George Dieter, Jr., c. 1850.
Collection of the New-York Historical Society, negative number 83783D.
The practice seems unbearably painful today, but it was customary in the nineteenth century to have a photograph taken of a deceased child. It may have been the only photograph of the child that the family had to remember him by.
     It was not only the children who died prematurely. The fact is that everyone was living on the edge. Mourning crepe on front doors was a common sight as were funeral processions on city streets. Julia Lay noted in her diary on February 10, 1852, that she and her son Olly had met with six funeral processions within the space of half an hour as they walked down Broadway on their way to buy a piece of music.
     The death notices appearing in the New York Herald of January 4, 1855, tell the story:
Jan. 3 of congestion of the brain, George Henry, aged 4 yrs. 4 mos and 15 days.
January 3, Mrs. Hannah Graham in the 80th year of her age.
January 3 Nicholas Stouvener, aged 30 years, 11 months.
January 4 after a short illness, Mrs. Eliza, wife of John Stanley, aged 31 years and 25 days.
January 3 of consumption, Oliver Haring, aged 37 years.
January 4, Francis, youngest son of Joseph and Harriet D. Myers, aged 8.
January 4 after a short but severe illness, Bridget, wife of Patrick Tracy, aged 32 years.
January 4, Fairy Queen Alling, daughter of Eliza Ann and Theodore Alling, aged 1 year, 3 months and 10 days.
January 4, Daniel Sharkey, aged 60 years.
January 4, Matilda Riddle, aged 51.
January 4, Carrie infant daughter of Charles R. and Harriet Ann Miller.
January 4, of scarlatina, Elisha Galladett, son of Joseph G. and Mary Jane Merritt, aged 1 year, 8 months and 12 days.

     Today we would consider all but Mrs. Graham to have died before their time. Remarkably, Seabury and Eliza Tredwell raised all eight of their children to maturity. No parents could have realistically expected to be so lucky.
     One is struck in reading nineteenth-century diaries how much sickness there was and how often it was life-threatening. On August 22, 1845, Henry Patterson wrote in his diary:

Dr. Wright is attending Theodore. He has the bilious remittent fever and is very sick. We have been much afflicted this summer. One or the other of my family have been sick and I spend my night times around the bedside.
     Of all the infectious diseases, the one that claimed the most lives in the nineteenth century was tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was called. Anyone, including children, could contract the disease, but the death rate among young adults was particularly high. A person could be sick for years with tuberculosis, during which time he or she gradually wasted away. In the fall of 1861, Mary Church, the sister of John Ward’s best friend, Ben Church, lay dying of the disease. John sent her a bottle of port by Ben. This was not such a strange gift as it might seem for an invalid, for alcohol was a popular treatment for tuberculosis. Just before Christmas of 1861, Mary succumbed. John recounted the details of her death as told to him by Ben:

On Saturday, Miss Mary remarked that her memory was failing and that she could not remember what time it was. In the morning, a change came over her face and the doctor declared she was dying. . . . At 11 she asked the doctor who was feeling her pulse how much longer she had to live. He replied, “Longer than you would wish, Mary, about an hour.” “I wish the hour were over,” she replied. Dr. Elliot went to get Mr. Smith, a clergyman. He offered up a prayer for the dying. Mrs. Church asked her how she felt and she said happy but remarked, “My eyesight is failing. I do not see too clearly.” “I am afraid, Mary,” her mother replied, “that you will never see better in this world.” She bade them all farewell. Mr. Smith offered the final prayer and with one gasp which distorted her mouth a little, drawing the lip in, she passed away. Sid Morse stepped up and said, “Doctor, is it all over?” “Yes,” he replied.

     Writing in 1852, Lydia Sigourney, a popular nineteenth-century poet who had run a female academy in Hartford from 1814–1818, wrote an essay titled “My Dead,” in which she paid tribute to her former students who had died prematurely from tuberculosis. Out of a total of eighty-four young women, twenty-six had perished.16
     A cure for tuberculosis would not be found until 1944.
    Doctors didn’t know what caused people to be sick. What was worse, they didn’t know that they didn’t know. It would be many years before the medical community understood the role that microscopic organisms played in causing disease and infection. In the meantime, various erroneous systems of belief led doctors to prescribe positively harmful treatments and medications—what were known as “heroic measures.” Bleeding or venesection was one of these. It was based on the notion that an overactive circulatory system caused blood to accumulate, leading to inflammation, which caused disease. The doctor used a razor-sharp lancet to cut into a vein in the arm or leg or sometimes in the neck to drain blood from the circulatory system. In addition, he may have drained blood from local tissue by using leeches (segmented worms with jaws and teeth and a sucker on each end). Getting the leeches to attach themselves could be difficult. Sometimes the doctor placed an overturned wine glass holding the leeches on what he presumed to be the inflamed area of the patient’s body. Mrs. Farrar recommended using blotting paper in which holes had been cut to direct the leeches to the patient’s bare skin. Once the leeches attached themselves firmly, the bloodsucking began. The procedure took an hour or two. The leeches were painless, but doctors admitted that patients found the creatures repugnant and that children were terror-stricken by them.
16 Lydia Sigourney, “My Dead” in Letters to My Pupils, 2nd ed. (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1852), 205–337
17 Mrs. John Farrar, The Young Lady’s Friend (Boston: American Stationers Co., 1838), 76
     When the doctor treated Eleanor Patterson for puerperal fever, it is likely he bled her on each visit, for it was believed that only copious bleeding could effect a cure. In 1842 Dr. Meigs described the treatment of one of his own patients, a twenty-year-old woman who developed puerperal fever on the fourth day after delivery:

I took away, between 1 and 6 o’clock on the first day of the attack, 52 ounces (1500 ml) of blood, without which, I think, she must have died. (I relate this case from my notebook as a fair specimen of the mode of practice, in such attacks, which I have for years been in the habit of pursuing.)18

     Another authority on the treatment of puerperal fever, Dr. George B. Wood, recommended that after one or two of these large bleedings, fifty to 150 leeches be placed on the abdomen. Dr. Meigs agreed that this procedure would be useful, though he emphasized that the lancet should be the first remedy. Puerperal fever patients were also given calomel, a mild laxative that was prescribed for every ailment imaginable.19

18 Charles Meigs, “Introductory Essay,” in Treatment of Puerperal Fever & Crural Phlebitis (1842), 336, quoted in John L. Wilson, M.D., Stanford University of Medicine and the Predecessor School: An Historical Perspective, Part 1, Ch. 5, “Medical Care and Public Health: 1800–1850” (Stanford University), (February. 7, 2009).
     “Cupping” was another widely used treatment. It consisted of heating a glass cup, thus creating a vacuum within, and placing it on the patient’s body. The skin was drawn up, a blister raised, and it was believed a therapeutic increase in blood circulation occurred.
     Some doctors did reject such “heroic measures” As early as 1835, Jacob Bigelow, a homeopathic physician and professor at Harvard, observed that “the amount of death and disaster in the world would be less if all disease were left to itself.”20 And by the time that John Ward was a student at Columbia College of Medicine in 1863–64, many of his professors referred to heroic measures as “the old way” and seldom recommended them. Yet most doctors continued to inflict bleeding, purging, and cupping on their hapless patients. In 1918 many doctors turned to bleeding in a desperate attempt to save lives during the great flu epidemic in which 675,000 Americans died, most of them within twenty-four weeks. And even as late as 1937, Edith Wharton, who could afford the best medicine had to offer, was bled during her final illness.21

19 Dr. Wood’s treatment with leeches quoted in Wilson, Part 1, Ch. 5, p. 2 as is Dr. Meigs’s reaction. George B. Wood, A Treatise on the Practice of Medicine, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Gregg, Elliot, and Co., 1847), 690. Charles Meigs, The Philadelphia Practice of Midwifery (Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun., and Brother, 1842), 372.
20 Quoted in John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (New York: Viking, 2004), 29
21 John Ward medical notebook, January 21, 1864. For bleeding of flu patients in 1918, Barry, 355; number of deaths, 450. For bleeding of Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee, Edith Wharton (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 748
     With the availability of general anesthesia, surgical procedures that had not been possible earlier began to be performed. But of course doctors, lacking a knowledge of microorganisms, saw no reason to provide a sterile environment, and patients frequently died of postoperative infection as a result. Infection after surgery was simply taken as a matter of course. In 1864 John Ward was invited by his mentor and professor, Dr. Peters, to observe the removal of the breast of a Mrs. Loper. The operation took place in the upstairs bedroom of the patient’s home on Forty-Fourth Street. There were no surgical gowns or masks or gloves then, no imperative to sterilize instruments or to scrub hands and nails. Three other young assistants were in attendance in addition to John. One administered the ether, one tied the arteries, and one washed the wound (and got his shirt bloody). John’s job was to wash some sponges and thread some needles. Once the breast was removed, Dr. Peters threw it into a basin and John took it upon himself to transfer it to a bucket. There is no indication in John’s medical notebook as to the further disposition of the breast or the outcome for Mrs. Loper.22
     Understandably, many people turned to alternative practioners: homeopaths, herbalists, or purveyors of water cures. Some people became their own doctors, relying on cookbooks that included recipes for remedies or the advice of experienced “old ladies.” Many naively trusted the claims of the promoters of patent medicines like Moffat’s Vegetable Life Pills, which were guaranteed to cure “every human disease. Flatulency, palpitation of the Heart, Loss of Appetite, Diarrhea, Fevers, Rheumatism, Gout, Dropsy, Asthma, Consumption”—whatever ailed you—“yielded readily” to Moffat’s pills.23 At least Mr. Moffat probably did no harm.
22 John Ward medical notebook, January 27, 1864.
23 Citizens’ and Strangers’ Pictorial and Business Directory for the City of New York and Its Vicinity: 1853, 85
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76. Reenactment of the First Surgery Performed with Anesthesia.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
On October 16, 1846, ether was used for the first time to anesthetize a patient during surgery, but no photograph was taken to commemorate the historic event. Several years later, the original surgeon, Dr. John G. Warren (facing camera with his hand on patient’s thigh) and some of his colleagues posed for this reenactment of the operation to remove a tumor from the neck of the patient. Doctors in street clothes and the obvious absence of a sterile field are breathtaking evidence of the primitive nature of surgery before the awareness of microorganisms that caused post-operative infection.