by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The COVID-19 pandemic has involved many heart-rending aspects, the paramount being the sheer number of deaths, now stated to have exceeded 5.5 million worldwide and over 850,000 in the United States, recorded. Remarkable advances in medicine in recent decades have not only eliminated many fatal diseases and allowed for marked population growth, but have helped most people to live much of their lives without the continuously oppressive shadow of mortality that was common through prior human history.
Anyone who has read 19th century letters, for example, will know just how typical it was for correspondents to let the recipients of their missives know what was involved the state of their health. The reason was not just small talk, it was generally because of how easily a person could become sick and, in many cases, have no real recourse to cures, whether the problem was cancer, a communicable disease, or some other malady for which treatment options were limited.
One terrible scourge in the United States, much less worldwide, in the 1800s was tuberculosis, also commonly known as consumption. Some sources suggest that TB was the third-largest cause of death behind cardiovascular disease and influenza/pneumonia, while others report it was the number one cause of death between 1870 and 1910 taking the lives of up to 4 million America. It was not until a reliable vaccine was developed in the 20th century that the disease was largely eradicated in America, though there were over 7,000 cases and 526 reported deaths from tuberculosis in the country in 2020.
In the 19th century, it was widely thought that TB was inherited, rather than contracted through contagion, which was discovered in 1882 when Robert Koch identified the bacillus that caused the disease. In New England, where the Temple family lived since the 1630s onward, consumption was probably more common than any other disease, ravaging poor, urban populations, but also affecting young rural adults, as well. Henry David Thoreau, just as one prominent example, died of TB at age 44 in 1862, with his brother, sister, father and grandfather also contracting the malady, all dying of it save the brother, who was killed by tetanus before consumption could claim him.
The featured artifact from the museum’s holdings, a recent donation from the estate of the late Josette Temple, is a vivid and visceral reflection of the grief and mourning felt by women directly touched by the terrible affliction, as well as a representation of Victorian-era writing broadly. It is a letter written on 18 January 1857 from Clarinda Temple Bancroft (1812-1886) to her brother F.P.F. Temple, long a resident of Los Angeles, about the passing of their 38-year old sister Cynthia from the ravages of consumption.
Clarinda began her missive by observing that it was “sixteen years this day since you sailed from Boston in order to make a fortune, a day long to be remembered by us, as well as you, [and] many changes have taken place in our family since that time.” With this introduction, she informed F.P.F., who she still called Pliny, his given first name, that “it is my painful task to announce to you the last sufferings and Death of our beloved Sister Cynthia her spirit took its flight for the spirit World Tuesday Jan 6th a few moments past six in the morning.”
The letter went on to note that Cynthia lived far longer than anyone could have hoped because she “had great energy and perseverance,” even as “for some months past her sufferings greatly increased, her cough became tedious, especially nights, her feet swollen, her labor for breath greatly increased, her breath very short and it was evident to our minds she was fast wasting away.” She was large confined to bed for the two months before she passed and, on Christmas Day, was beset with what Cynthia called “colic,” or intense intestinal pain.
In following days, Clarinda continued, her sister, not wanting to have a doctor called, lay in bed (she lived with Clarinda and her husband John H. Bancroft—the couple had no children) during the day, but “in the night being very restless she wished to sit in her chair” even as “the impress of Death was upon her countenance.” One Sunday, Cynthia was able to go downstairs, but “with our assistance she returned to her chamber at night seemingly almost in a dying state” and stating “probably I shall never go out of this Chamber untill I am carried out.”
During the last week-and-a-half, F.P.F. was told, his sister “was one of the greatest sufferers I ever saw. She said it did not appear to her that she was capable of enduring such amount of suffering, she said we talk of dying but we know nothing about it untill we realize it. During all her sickness her mind was active & clear. I think she remained in full possession of her faculties to the last.” As the end neared, Cynthia sat in a chair and, even though it was bitterly cold in the depths of a New England winter, “a great part of the time we were obliged to keep our window and door open, and fan her.
In the early morning hours of Twelfth Night, or 6 January, the account went on, “at 3 o’clock, she said “Dying, Dying,” after that she called for water several times. I presume she drank 3 pints of water. Little before 6 she partly opened her eyes, and made an effort to spit & raise but without effect, in a few moments she breathed her last.”
Clarinda then wrote to F.P.F. to the grief that she felt, especially as Cynthia’s death followed, by fewer than nine months, the death of their mother, Lucinda Parker Temple, who died in April 1856 at age 80 of “old age,” as recorded in the Reading death register. Among her lamentations was:
Dear Pliny I wish you could have come and made us a visit, Mother & Cynthia had a great desire to see you, as well as the rest of us. The great attractions are taken from us, and probable I shall never see you here. I should like to see you. A few days before Cynthia died she said tell Pliny I want to see him very much. Since last I wrote you, we have drunk deep of the cup of affliction, a wound inflicted that time can never entirely heal, could you have been her you would have mingled your sympathies with ours.
Clarinda turned to their mother, noting that it was not long before that “we met with an irreparable loss a beloved Mother was taken from us, she was one of the best of Mothers, very few are blessed with so good a one, she was a person of very superior abilities, and conducted very judiciously in the situation she was placed. Very deeply do I feel her loss.” Reiterating her sadness and loneliness, she reminded her brother that, “in quick succession a beautiful Flower [was] cut down in the midst of womanhood, a beloved Sister of superior abilities an[d] intelligence.”
As to both their sister and mother, Clarinda recalled, “their good society & advice, their pleasant features, their happy smiles, their cheerful voices”, though she found that “it is a consolation to think the spirits of our departed friends watch over us.” She reminded herself not to “murmur nor repine” as she relied on her religious beliefs to “carry me though six and yea through seven troubles.” She reminded F.P.F. that “we are poor judges of what is best, we cannot fathom His ways” and, through the losses of their mother and sister, “we are reminded of the frailty of our earthly existence and brevity of our career, and that this is not our home.”
From here, the letter ends rather abruptly with the statement “our friends are all in their usual health” while F.P.F. was urged to write every time the mail was sent out by steamer from the Los Angeles area. The official Reading death register recorded that Cynthia’s cause of death was “bronchial consumption,” considered a variation of pulmonary tuberculosis, which was sometimes known as phthisis (pronounced tie-sis or thigh-sis).
Notably, not long before her death, F.P.F. encouraged her to come to California and seek relief from her affliction, something that became quite common as transportation improved to the west coast. By the late 19th century, greater Los Angeles was known as a “health-seekers paradise,” with its temperate climate considered ideal for consumptives and resorts and sanitariums opened throughout the region, especially in the foothill communities of the San Gabriel Valley, such as Monrovia and Sierra Madre.
Tuberculosis also struck F.P.F.’s second child, Francis, who, during his years of occupancy and ownership of the Workman Homestead from 1876 and 1888 sought relief from the malady by taking long sojourns in the desert climate of Arizona. Not much older than Cynthia when she died, Francis succumbed to consumption in August 1888 and it is interesting that, in a letter, from just five months later and recently highlighted in this blog, his brother William tried to assure another sibling, probably Walter (later owner of the Homestead) that their sister Margarita’s illness was probably just a cold, not TB. Such was the fear, however, that the contagion caused!
As to a visit from F.P.F., that actually did happen almost thirty years after he left “to make a fortune.” In 1870, having, in fact, built up a substantial estate and, by some accounts, becoming a millionaire, he traveled over the newly completed transcontinental railroad to see his old home, taking his sons Francis and William to enroll them at Harvard Law School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively (later, son John would attend the Reading High School and a commercial college in Boston.) Included was a reunion with Clarinda and one can imagine the joy she felt after having “drunk deep of the cup of affliction” thirteen years before.