The staff of the Special Collections department reveals some of their
sentimental favorites from The Filson's collection in honor of Valentine's Day.
~Ellen Bodley and $50 of Love~
While searching for Valentine’s Day related material in the Filson’s Special Collections, this particular item caught my fancy due to its humorous and somewhat sarcastic tone. In a letter to her brother William Bodley dated 5 March 1855, Ellen Bodley described a surprise Valentine she received while out of town.
"I must tell you about my valentines...sister Maria opened it and thought it was a $50 bank note brother Harry had sent me, but on examining it more closely, it was the State of Matrimony, the Bank of Love, fifty years of devotion (I would prefer the money) of a true and faithful heart on acceptance."
Despite her lack of sentimentality in this letter, love had not given up on Ellen (who at over 30 years of age was probably considered a spinster): according to the records, Ellen married George H. Gill in St. Louis on 13 April 1857.
~Jennie Cole, Associate Curator of Special Collections
~Valentine Cards from the Bullitt Collection~
Although Valentines have been around since the Middle Ages, when lovers more than likely sang or said their valentines, manufactured cards did not come on the scene until the late 19thcentury. Since then the practice of sending Valentines has taken off. Americans do like to express their love for one another. So much so that Valentine’s Day is now second only to Christmas as the Holiday when most cards are sent. These two Valentines are from the Bullitt family papers and were sent to a young Tommy Bullitt in 1929.
~Shirley Harmon, Associate Curator of Special Collections
~John “Romeo” Thompson~
Letter writers of the 18th and early 19th centuries didn’t typically write passionate love letters – at least many that survive. Their letters tended to be rather formal and circumspect in any proclamations of love. An exception to this is John Thompson. Born in Virginia in 1764 he married Elizabeth “Betsy” Housion (ca. 1768) on February 15, 1784, just missing a day that suited him so well. In their courtship, and whenever separated from her, he faithfully writes of his love and affection for her. A surviving letter written during their courtship serves as a wonderful example:
My Dear Miss Betsy,
Were you acquainted with the Tumult of my soul, the agonizing Torments your Absence occasions me to suffer, you’d pity my distress, and render me some relief, since from you alone it is in my Power to obtain it. . . . What hope of Happiness have I now left, what flattering reflections to sooth [sic] my troubled Breast, but your Constancy, Generosity and Fidelity. Remember the Vows you have given me, my Love, my Sufferings, the great Probability of an eternal Seperation [sic] without your Exertions? Consider your own Happiness, the Ease with which you may obtain it; &you must, “it is impossible you can avoid it” you must consent and be mine forever, throw off every appearance of reserve, tell me the Secrets of your Soul, drive away each Thought of doubt and make me blest in blessing you. I declare to you “my dear Miss Betsy” I call Heavens to witness, I never deceiv’d you, that I have told you every Circumstance concerning me, & I swear to you again that what you have heard is base, false & malicious. If it’s in my Power to make you happy, if I am the Person you would chose to marry, you may entrust yourself with Safety to my Care, & nothing in my Power shall be ever wanting to make you forever & compleatly [sic] blest. . . . Reflect, “Oh lovely Maid,” reflect on what I feel, bless me once more with your deluding Smiles & if I am to die then will I die content. I am My Dr Miss Betsy Your unhappy Lover John Thompson April 29, 1783"
“Die” John Thompson did. After moving to Kentucky in the mid-1790s and settling just outside Louisville on a farm along present Brownsboro Road in Crescent Hill, John left his family in August of 1805 to serve as a territorial official in Louisiana. He never saw his beloved Betsy again. His letters are full of his protestations of love and longing but she refused to move to Louisiana and he never returned home, not even for a visit. In January 1810 Thompson suffered a mental breakdown and killed himself. Despair over believing he’d lost the love of his life – like the ill-fated Romeo and Juliet – was certainly a contributing factor.
~James J. Holmberg, Curator of Special Collections
~A Undying Affection~
There is always a sense of intruding when reading someone else’s letters. Never is this more apparent than when reading their love letters. But please, don’t call me a snoop, I’m an archivist! It’s my job to catalog and preserve the lives of others. Most correspondence is fascinating and it is truly difficult to not get sucked into the lives of others, nevertheless select letters are more arresting than others. I encountered one such letter recently while helping a researcher and was immediately moved by its tenderness.
The letter was written by a young Simon Bolivar Buckner to his sweetheart (and later wife) Mary Jean Kingsbury. The romantic sentiment and respect expressed in his short letter is almost tangible. At the time, Buckner was 24 years old and a soldier in the Mexican-American War (Buckner went on to have a career as a business man, Civil War General, and Governor of Kentucky). On 15 August 1847, he dashed off a short note from Chalco, Mexico to his beloved Mary Jean while facing an impending battle. I imagine him quickly penning these words, with growing anxiety, as he approached battle, then slipping the letter into his pocket. Should he fall in battle, the note, with his last message, would be retrieved from his person and delivered to Mary Jean.
My “best friend,” We move in a few hours to attack the enemy’s works. If I fall, believe that I remained until death, with fondest affection, Your “best friend,” S. Bolivar Buckner
166 years later as I hold his letter to Mary Jean, I feel downright swoony. What a rush of emotions he must have felt writing this message to his Love, contemplating his mortality! How her heart must have swelled to receive this and to know that her ‘best friend’ and Love was thinking of her at such a vulnerable moment!
Buckner and Kingsbury were married in 1850 at her aunt’s home in Old Lyme, CT and in 1858 had a daughter, Lily. The Filson’s 'Simon Bolivar Buckner miscellaneous papers' contain many compelling letters that document their deep friendship and romantic courtship.
~Sarah-Jane Poindexter, Associate Curator of Special Collections
~Major General Elliott Warren Rice and Marion Harlan Lincoln~
While recently cataloging a small collection of photographs belonging to Civil War Major General Elliott Warren Rice, I encountered a faded carte de visite of a woman. Although in relatively good condition, the CDV was creased and exhibited two or three very tiny holes. The photograph had without a doubt suffered some wear over the last 150+ years, but had none the less been lovingly preserved. Examining the back of the photo for identifying text, I read “Marion Harlan Lincoln, carried through the war by General E. W. Rice." As I continued to look at the photo, I was incredibly moved by the idea of General Rice carrying Marion Harlan's image all throughout the dark days of the war. The years seemed to fall away as I imagined Marion giving her likeness to Eliott, and what that might have meant to him....what comfort it may have given him in the difficult times ahead.
I have found nothing to indicate the nature of the relationship between Marion and Elliott, other than a note on the back of a CDV of Rose Mitchell in the same collection. Mitchell was a "...cousin of Mrs. R. Lincoln," and the note further states, "... Mrs.Robt. Lincoln and Miss Rose Mitchell were friends of General E. W. Rice." However, we do know that in 1868, Marion Harlan married Robert Todd Lincoln, oldest son of President Abraham Lincoln. Brevetted Major General for war service on March 13, 1865, Rice mustered out of Federal service on August 24th, having been wounded 7 times in 4 years. After the war he practiced law in Washington D.C., until retiring in poor health to his sister's home in Sioux City, Iowa in 1885, where he died.
~Robin Wallace, Associate Curator of Special Collections