Prior to the invention of first the telegraph, and later the telephone, people who had moved to a different town or city from the one their family lived in had only one way to contact old friends and family – by sending a letter back home.
In today’s world, sending a handwritten letter via the postal service is not only considered passé, but also practically unheard of. Emails and texts are instantaneous and often illicit a response within minutes, if not seconds, of being sent. Facetime via the computer or cell phone is even better when connecting with family and close friends. But a hundred and fifty years ago, there was only one option available – sitting down and writing a letter that would take days to arrive at its intended destination. If it was a matter of some importance, the wait for a response could not only be a long one, but rather agonizing as well.
A few weeks ago, the Historical Society of Easton hosted its first ever scan day at the Easton Senior Center. While our plan was to simply scan old photographs, documents, and letters before immediately returning them to their owners, a couple of folks brought us material that they were willing to part with on a permanent basis. One such donation included several letters from the mid-nineteenth century addressed to various Easton residents. None of this correspondence was directly connected to the donor’s family; instead, they had been collected by his father mostly because of his interest in old postmarks.
As local historians, we were more interested in the contents of those letters and the people and events mentioned within. With nothing more to go on than the name of the addressee, and sometimes the sender, it was time to put on our detective hats and delve into the text to see what we could learn.
One of the first things that will strike most readers of historic writings is the unique and often superb penmanship that many of our ancestors possessed. Cursive writing, while not always easy to decipher, can be a work of art within itself. Spelling did vary among individuals, but by the middle part of the nineteenth century, proper orthography had become more universal among the better educated, making reading their written words much easier to follow.
Another remarkable aspect of the handwritten words of our ancestors was their ability to fill entire unlined pages with perfectly straight text often in the tiniest of font using only a quill pen that needed to be constantly refreshed with ink. Since most early letters sent by post where on a single sheet of paper that would be neatly folded and held together with a wax seal on one side and then addressed on the other, it took a fair amount of careful planning to fit one’s thoughts into such a limited amount of space.
One of the first letters that grabbed our attention was one sent to Mrs. William B. Wakeman from her husband in Boston. The date was January 28, 1854. From first appearances, it would seem that William was concerned about his wife’s health as she hadn’t corresponded with him in quite some time. He asks if she is still ill and tells her that if that is the case, to have one of her sisters or someone else in her family write to him. He then goes on to tell her that he is well and enjoying himself, before informing her that he is considering coming home in a “few months” to “make” her a visit. He ends the letter with “Yours devoted, Wm. B. Wakeman.” An odd closing for a twenty-three-year-old man to his young wife; it would seem as though a simple “William” would have sufficed in the name department.
An odd notation that was added at the bottom of the letter, in what appears to be written in different ink, has the name, Mr. William K. Seeley Esq. followed by “Please (pray?).”
Of the three names written in that letter, only William K. Seeley was easy to locate. He was a Bridgeport attorney who graduated from Yale in 1852.
It took an inordinate effort to locate the correct William B. Wakeman, and his middle initial was the saving grace in this case. His full name was William Burr Wakeman, Burr being his father’s first name. Born in Greenfield Hill in 1831, he married Sophia Nestelle in 1850. In July 1851, she gave birth to their son, also named William Wakeman. However, on July 17th of that year she succumbed to complications from giving birth.
On December 10, 1852, one day before her seventeenth birthday, William married Emeline (Emma) Gilbert from the Tashua Hills district of Trumbull.
However, as evidenced by his letter, in less than two years, the couple was living apart. She in Easton and he in Boston, just a few yards from the old South Meeting House (the site of the Boston Tea Party). What business a twenty-three-year-old man from Connecticut would be attending to in Boston for such an extended period escaped our research efforts, but by 1860, Emeline was back living with her widowed mother at her grandparents’ home in Trumbull, but still listed as being married to William. William was nowhere to be found in either the Easton or Boston censuses of that year. Ten years after that, Emeline was listed as divorced and going by her maiden name once more.
Perhaps the William K. Seeley name had been added to Wakeman’s letter by his wife. Perhaps it was Seeley who facilitated her divorce. In any event, what at first appeared to be a letter of concern for his wife’s health may have actually been a letter of concern as to her intentions to remain married to him. After all, if he were really worried about her health, why would he have talked about making a visit so far in the future as a few months?
With no children between them to pass along the rest of their story, what we have already discovered may be all there is to discover in this case.
In the end we ended our research with more questions than when we started it, but that is often the case when studying history. It is seemingly innocuous, simple little letters like the one shown here that give us insight into the lives of those who came before us. That’s what makes it so darn interesting and keeps us looking forward to finding the next piece of the puzzle!