Thursday, July 3, 2008

Teenagers IM-ing, circa 1802

A few days ago, I posted about the letters we found in a trunk in that attic, one of which contained a lock of hair that a teenage boy sent to his sister in 1801. We've been reading and transcribing more of the three dozen or so letters that Alexander Hemsley (age 18 when the correspondence began) sent to his sister, Anna Maria (age 15) ... and I, at least, have found them mesmerizing reading. Not because they are beautifully written and talk about important historical events (they're not, and they don't), but because they give an all-too-rare glimpse into the intimate conversation between adolescents who lived more than two centuries ago ... and particularly into one teenager's romantic/sexual awakening.

Letters like these are the equivalent of two present-day teenagers instant-messaging about crushes and flirtations ... the same kind of rambling, coy, self-absorbed stream-of-consciousness flowing unfiltered onto the page. And like IMs, these letters were never intended to be saved, much less for 206 years (notice poor bashful Alexander's repeated orders to "Burn this", which were obviously not heeded by his sister!) When he wrote these, Alexander, the younger son of a wealthy planter, was working as assistant to a merchant in Chestertown, Mr. Ringgold, to learn the business. Clearly he was also getting a bit of an education in certain other things from some of the "popular kids" and young adults in town ... as the following letter reveals. (I have left spelling and punctuation as in the original. You can click on the images of the manuscript to view at full size.)

Chester Town Septr 23rd 1802

Dear Anna

Anna I have nothing to doo – therefore thinking that you would take some pleasure in reading nonsence at a leasure hour, as coming from your Brother, I attempt to write about something or other, well what shall it be? I don’t know what, but however I have just thought how I spent last evening, it was with the Bride and Brid’s Groom (at Mr Smith’s where I used to live, William Smith the gentleman, and Miss H. Nicholson the lady, the daughter of Mr. J. Nicholson of this County). But to return to my nonsence, after sitting some time upstairs, two or three in the room, Miss W Smith, Miss M Comegys, the brids maid, Mr W. Barroll and as how Mr A. Hemsley, were those in the room, talking on different subjects, Miss S observed that Miss C was the brids maid, upon which Mr. B. kissed her very plentifully as I thought, however Miss S asked me if the same compliment was not due from me, I said that I did not know how to take hints, this lady being an entire stranger to me (although upstairs) I thought probably it would not do for me to take the same liberty with her as Mr B. However I was rallied at for not kissing the brids maid, this lady I had heard was very fond of kissing so I had determined not to be one of those very polite gentlemen who kiss ladies upon every occasion. Well in the course of the evening I had several hints as they called them, but declared I never kissed a lady in my life (I meant a stranger) so that was the way I escaped being kissed so much what in my opinion is very --. I like a kiss now and then as well as any person but not to be every minute at it; before I left I had the appellation of – you must guess what – There you have read the nonsense of last evenings excurtion, and you will laugh at me, but you must. There was kissing a plenty as we were coming off, do not think me in love with the beautiful Miss Comegys – What is the reason Anna that I cannot sleep of a night, I wish you would write me your opinion of [the] diseas, for disease I have of some nature or other as I can’t eat with any appetite except off a Pudding, or when I do sleep it is not sound, in those slumbers as it may be called I pass the night Dreaming some thing dreadfull; last night I did not dream, it was because there was a wedding cake under my head. I am [word missing], so will you be by the time you end this nonsensical peace of stuff, therefore I beg you to commit it [to] the flames as soon as you have finished it. I wish I could leave Town, but I can’t tell the reason – let me hear from you soon –

I am yr affect.


Alexr. Hemsley

Burn this as soon as when have read it – [sic]
A. Hemsley

I was asked to dine with them again to day but could go [sic]
A. Hemsley

P.S. I don’t know who is to be the bearer of this – You must think me a little deranged at my making such mistakes –

(note one of his "Burn this" instructions to the left of his signature)

His mention of wedding cake probably refers to the 18th-century tradition that a young person could sleep with a piece of wedding cake under his pillow so as to dream of his future mate. Alexander enclosed the above letter inside another one, written the very next day ... when he was feeling somewhat more cheerful, having made a conquest of sorts ...

Chester Town Sept 24th 1802

Dear Anna

Read the enclosed first

What a bashfull fellow I am it makes me blush, to think that I might be so very polite as to kiss a lady – well then I yesterday kissed the beautiful Miss – you see in the other letter who I mean. I wrote you in the enclosed that I should not dine with the wedding people yesterday but Anna who would withstand from going with the company when he might be sure of getting a kiss or two from the sweat [sic] angelic creature, I could not, and I went – you must think as kissing makes a person polite, I am one of the politest fellows in the world – Again I charge you to burn this directly –

I am yr affect Brother

Alexr. Hemsley

I received my waistcoat by Scipio, and am much obliged to you, I have not had time to get more of the same kind yet, but will try to send by Brother Will –

Notice the passing reference to Scipio, almost certainly a family slave. (Scipio was a popular name for slaves at the time - a classical reference to Scipio Africanus, the Roman general who conquered North Africa.)

In his next letter, the girl-crazy Alex has another encounter with the object of his adoration. He also starts obsessing about Anna's ring, which apparently she has told him was stolen from her by another girl. The reason for Alexander's interest is probably that he had sent Anna the ring himself (earlier letters refer to his plans to do this) ... and so he assumes, of course, that whoever stole it must have a big crush on him.

Chester Town October 9th 1802

What Lady, Anna was it that stole your ring from you? In your next letter to me let me know, and as I am very polite, I will punish her with six kisses, provided ---

All the fun is over, and I have returned to the gloomy and silent ways of the Store, when 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. I was amuzed for a short time last Night, the ladies and gentlemen had a handsome Ball, (and I among them,) I danced with your Neighbour (Maria) – You were not far out, when you supposed, that Maria’s presence would dispell the gloom from my countenance, I own it did, while in her company, but I am so seldom in the company of Ladies, and particularly in hers, that I can’t well say what effect it might have on my spirits if I was more in their company –

What angelic creature is it that you have given such a discription of, where does she live? I am sure I am quite unacquainted with any face that would answer that discription – I’ll ask Maria who it was – Be sure and write the Ladys name that took your ring – Tell Henrietta Forman I have not seen H.C. these two weeks, but there are all well.

I still Remain yr affect


Alexr. Hemsley

And in the last letter I'll post here, Alexander is once again moping and mooning about - a mood swing all too familiar to anyone who has ever been 18 - but then his spirits are revived by another sexy encounter, this time with a mysterious stranger -

Chester Town Oct 25 1802

Dear Anna

I have not received an answer from Dear Anna to my last letter, but as I am ceremonious, I shall excuse you. Since Brother Tom’s leaving Town I am more lonesome than ever, and have no person to converse with, and no one’s company to enjoy, therefore you may conclude how I spend my time. At night I take a ramble about Town, like some forlorn and lost creature having no place to go, when I come home I return to my cell, for such it may be called (that is my room), it contains a bed, armchair and my trunck, that is the furniture that my room consists of. I generally find my bed not made, however I make it up, and there I lay till morning.

The Last excursion –

Last evening I was wandering by chance I stopped and hesitated wheather or not I should proceed, at length my determination was to move on, and gently tapped at the Door, I was asked in by a low, but harmonious voice, and upon entering I saw sitting by the fire side, An Angelic creature, she seemed as if determining upon something of importance, at length she arose, her manners easy without affectation, her form tall and gracefull, her complexion rather fare, and her sparkling dark eyes that shone through her orburn hair which hung neglectfully over her face, displayed before me a beautiful and angelic creature, after conversing sometime with her, I took my departure, and returned to my lonesome cell, where I passed a sleepless night, why do I say sleepless night? For I dreamt a most charming dream, and have not time to relate it now. I hope you will not forget to tell me the persons name that took your ring. Farewell and Believe me yr affect


Alexr Hemsley

Frd. by Wm. Carmichael Esq.

It's especially uncanny reading about him wandering the streets of Chestertown, since he was probably working and living within a block or two of my office in the town's old Custom House ... those are the same streets I walk almost every day. (In fact, the Custom House was kept as a shop by the Ringgolds in the 18th century, so it's even possible that Alexander worked in the same building as I do. And it wasn't until I got to the end of my transcription that I noticed this letter had been hand-delivered by William Carmichael, the original owner/builder of my house in 1804. I'm sitting in Mr. Carmichael's front parlor as I write this.)

Maybe you can see why these people and their world come to life so easily. Also perhaps because they remind me of the world of Jane Austen's novels ... transposed to our own small town in Maryland.

Olivia will be transcribing more of these letters to her great-great-great-great-grandmother over the next few days, so stay tuned for the further adventures of our young hero.


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read the Next Exciting Installment!

Olga said...

wow. Very interesting doings going on here! Jane Austenish indeed.
I came over after seeing this on NPR page, have to bookmark you to keep up with all the doings.

Tom O'Donnell said...

This is an amazing find and an intriguing way to share it. I am a history grad student with hopes of being a college professor and have thoughts swarming in my head about how this could suck in those less historically-inclined then myself. "Come to life" indeed. I wonder if this might be a great new tool for teaching undergrad/lower-division primary resource history. Thanks for the efforts to post your findings.

Contessa Kris said...

A friend showed me an article on your monumental find. For a mixed media artist, finding a treasure trove such as you have would put me into shock I'm sure (of course I would copy everything before using in my art! lol) Found your blog through the article. It's so wonderful to sit and read through the correspondence of the 2 teenagers. I have a teenager and can imagine the things they would talk about. I find it refreshing that a brother would tell a sister such intimate things as he did. Keep up the wonderful work of uncovering this history. I look forward to reading more.

Anonymous said...

I heard the interview on CBC Radio's "As It Happens" on 04/07/2008. An INCREDIBLE experience for the historians on-site. I will be watching here for the happenings...enjoy

Carol H.
Metchosin BC

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying the Poplar Grove blog so much! I feel that I am there with you on each discovery and I'm sure it is because of your intense awe and interest and your wonderful narration. THANK YOU