Thursday, June 26, 2008

An old trunk and a lock of hair

In the attic of the main house at Poplar Grove, we found a number of 19th-century steamer trunks, several of them full of photographs and papers. The largest one (on the left in the photo) appeared when we opened it to be full of old bolts of cloth and bits of lace that had been tucked away many years ago. Dr. Papenfuse was ready to close the trunk and move on to the next one - it bears mentioning that it was about 150 degrees in that attic, and that some honeybees who lived in the rafters appeared none too happy to see us - but I started pulling out the bolts of cloth to see what was underneath.

Lo and behold, under the cloth at the very bottom of the chest lay a stash of letters, some three dozen of them. They were written between about 1801 and 1805 from a teenage boy named Alexander Hemsley to his sister Anna Maria. Alexander was living in Chestertown working for to a merchant there, clearly missing his sister, who was back at the family plantation of Cloverfields, about 30 miles south. He also seems to have had a lot of time on his hands to write during business hours - in one letter, penned while he was keeping the "gloomy and silent" shop, he complains that "I see no person except, now and then, an old Negro comes in, and inquires for some thing or other, probably for articles that we have not."

Alexander also told his sister all of the latest gossip from town - who was dancing with whom at the ball, who was kissing whom at the party. He himself seems to have been a shy and somewhat lonely boy, always reproaching his younger sister for not writing him more. The most evocative fragment of the past, though, came to light when Dr. Papenfuse was unfolding the letters to place them into acid-free folders. We heard him utter a by-now-familiar exclamation - "Holy cow!" - and looked over to see what he had found. It was a lock of blondish-red hair, tucked carefully into a letter dated February 14, 1801. Young Alexander had sent his sister a lock of his hair for Valentine's Day.

Alexander lived until sometime in the early 1830s, dying bankrupt after an unsuccessful career as a planter. His sister Anna Maria married Thomas Emory in 1805, when she was just 18, and moved to Poplar Grove, where she would spend the rest of her long life - she died in 1864 and is buried under a marble slab in the family cemetery. Clearly, she cherished and preserved this token of her brother's memory until the end of her days, and it has now survived for more than two centuries to remind us of the long-vanished bond between two siblings.


emory said...

Dear Adam-

Found the AP story and the blog link. Will follow with interest.

best regards,


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