In honour of Father’s Day, a post in a sombre and very different vein from our recent forays into bridal phantoms and follies. It has been suggested by some historians that high childhood mortality made parents indifferent to their infant losses. While 19th century families tended to be large ones, few were untouched by the death of a child. This piece poignantly expresses a universal anguish, which even at this remove, arouses our sympathy.
“There are a thousand impressions which we receive during our earthly pilgrimage, and which at the time are interesting, and often deep and solemn. But as soon as they have gone by, and we return to the active pursuits of life, they gradually become less and less vivid till they are wholly gone. All can look back to such events, and they seem like pleasant or troubled dreams; and all wish that they had something to recall the circumstances of the scenes, so that they could live them over in all their detail. It is for this purpose I now write these pages, that when one and another event shall have partially obliterated what now seems as if it could never be forgotten, I may recall it to my own mind and feelings, and to those of my dear wife. For her eye and mine alone I write.
“Our dear little boy was born at sunrise, October 6th, 1827. Mrs. Todd had been remarkably well and active since our marriage, and probably his premature birth was owing to her over-exertion. At his birth, none seemed to think he could live but a short time; but with great exertions he was made to revive. He was small, but promised, humanly speaking, to do well. He soon opened his eyes, and began to notice sounds and objects of sight. For a week we had no fears concerning him, and enjoyed as much as parents could enjoy. When I went out, I hastened home to see my dear child lie in his mother’s arms, and, at the sound of my voice, open his dark-blue eyes and turn them toward me. We began to talk of a name, and in my own mind I had begun to form many little plans concerning him.
“As we had been married not quite seven months, the enemies of religion at first made a great noise about it, and threw out a multitude of stories; but as it was well known that I had not been out of Groton for eight months previous to our marriage, and as Mrs. Todd’s character stood far above all suspicion, the stories only buzzed a while through the region, never disturbing us, and never injuring us in the least.
“On Saturday, the little boy being a week old, we weighed him again, and found that he had lost. Here I first began to fear that he would not be spared to us. Still, he seemed well, and his nurse appeared to have no fears concerning him.
“In the afternoon of the same day he was evidently sick, and we began to be alarmed. Every thing was done for him which could be. That night he rested pretty well.
“Sabbath morning he was evidently very sick—appeared to have something like fits—and during breakfast he turned so black as greatly to alarm his mother; but from this he soon recovered. I was obliged to leave at half-past ten o’clock, to go into the pulpit. I left the child in his nurse’s arms, and tears in the eyes of his mother. I endeavored to conceal my fears and feelings, and went into the pulpit with a heavy heart. As soon as possible I was at home, and found the child worse, and his mother greatly distressed. It was then evident that he could not live. When I really came to the conclusion that he must die—our own sweet boy, our first-born, must die—it was almost insupportable. As we then came to the conclusion that he must leave us, we determined to give him formally to our covenant-God in baptism. I immediately wrote a note to our friend, Mr. Chaplin, requesting him to bring his venerable father down to baptize our dying child. Mrs. Todd’s dressing-table was placed before her bed, the baptismal font was placed on it, and the family stood around the room. The child was in the arms of the nurse. The venerable old man, Doctor Chaplin, prayed with deep feeling and great appropriateness. I was kneeling by the side of the bed and holding my dear Mary’s hand, while we both wept, and endeavored to give our child to God. The prayer ended, I took the dear babe in my arms and presented him to Doctor Chaplin. The old man was eighty-four years old, upward of six feet high, silver locks, and the most venerable person I ever saw. Our child was eight days old, fair, well-proportioned, and seventeen inches in length. Striking contrast, indeed! He was solemnly baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, by the name of John William— the former name being his father’s, and the latter that of his friend. The bell rang for meeting while the ordinance was administering, and I was obliged to go again into the pulpit, expecting to find my child a corpse on my return. I walked alone to meeting, with my eyes flowing. It was an agony which I can remember, but can not describe. On entering the pulpit, I felt somewhat composed: attempted to read that beautiful hymn beginning,
“’It is the Lord, enthroned in light/Whose claims are all divine/Who has an undisputed right/ To govern me and mine.’
“Immediately a thousand inexpressible feelings rushed through my heart. I choked, hesitated, faltered, wept, and sat down after reading one stanza. The audience felt for me, and very many wept. I preached as well as I could, hardly knowing what I was about, and again hastened home, and again found our dear child alive.
“It was now toward night, and he continued to have spasms, in which he would turn black, groan, and seem to be in great pain. I sent immediately for a physician, who put him in warm water, and he revived; but it was only for a time. During the whole afternoon the nurse held him in her lap without moving. In the evening, hoping it would endanger Mrs. Todd less, I had him removed into my study. He was carried out, and it was the last time his weeping mother ever saw him alive. I was in and out of the study during the evening, but was for the most part with my wife. At ten o’clock he had an awful spasm. I went in, and was told he was no more. I gazed at him: his beautiful little features were all composed and set, and it seemed as if Death had indeed now set his seal. All hope was cut off, all doubt removed. I returned to my dear Mary, and was obliged to tell her our first-born was no more. She burst into grief the most passionate, and it seemed as if her very frame would be crushed under the burden. We spake but little: it was, that God ruled; that our dear boy had gone to his bosom; that we trusted he would be among the angels, himself an angel; and that we should meet him again beyond the shores of mortality. I then knelt by the bed of Mrs. Todd, and we prayed, our right hands joined, and we committed and gave ourselves away to God.
“At eleven o’clock I left Mrs. Todd and went into the study; and here was the most severe trial I was called to undergo. I found the child was not dead: he had revived, and was now in great agony; it was the agony of death. He was in the arms of Miss Chaplin, his eyes open, his arms thrown out, his little fists clenched, and every muscle brought into intense action. They dared do nothing to relieve the little sufferer. I immediately gave him paregoric, and anointed his chest with warm olive-oil. His pains were less intense after that. As he lay with his eyes open, I spoke to him, called him ‘ John;’ he turned his head and bright eyes toward me with an expressiveness that I shall never forget. I do not pretend he knew me or my voice; but it was such a look as a dying child might wish to leave with his father, if he could choose. I sat without turning my eyes from him for an hour, and then returned to inform his mother that he was still living. I did not see him again alive; for he ceased to breathe soon after the Sabbath was over. I never saw such suffering before; and it seemed as if God had indeed cursed our race, and had most awfully written his displeasure with sinners on the features of our dying boy. Mysterious system! that such a child should suffer so intensely! But ‘clouds and darkness are round about Him,’ which we trust will one day all be rolled away.
“Early on Monday morning I opened my study door. The room was solitary, the windows open, and the cold winds of a chilly morning were sighing through the shutters. The room was in perfect order. In a corner, near my book-case, were two chairs, and a white cloth between them. I went slowly and lifted the cloth, and there lay my sweet boy, pale as the cloth which covered him; the beautiful white robe of the grave was upon him; his little hands were folded on his bosom; he was dressed for the coffin. Never did I see a countenance so beautiful. Every part was well-proportioned and perfect. His dark-brown hair was parted on his forehead under his cap. It seemed as if death never could gather a fairer flower. I stood over him for a long time, and, if possible, loved my boy more in death than in life.
“For fear of injuring Mrs. Todd, we had rather a private funeral, that afternoon, at half-past three o’clock. There may have been fifty present, all of whom seemed to feel for us. The good old man was our pastor. He talked well to us: they sung a hymn, and he made the prayer. The little creature was put into a mahogany coffin, with a plate on the top with the following inscription: ‘John W.Todd, who died October 15, 1827, aged nine days.’ Without any parade or bell, he was carried in a chaise, and I rode alone in my chaise, and saw him softly laid in Doctor Chaplin’s tomb, in the very spot where the good man himself expects to lie. When that event takes place, I intend to have him placed beside the old man’s head, or on his breast, that in the morning of the Resurrection they may rise together. It seemed to be his wish to have him entombed there, and it was gratifying to us, for it seems as if even the grave would be sanctified by his remains.”
Years afterward he wrote:
“I shall perish sooner than forget the feelings which I had clinging around our dear first-born. I know that we did not deserve him, and that it was all right; but my aching heart too frequently goes back to that dear lost one, and the gems of all the earth could not compensate for the loss of that one. Is he now alive? Shall we ever know him? Will that beautiful form ever come up again from the tomb? Oh, the agony of that moment when the little coffin-lid was actually closed! May God in mercy spare me from ever witnessing another such scene!”
John Todd: the story of his life told mainly by himself, edited by John Todd [son], 1876
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The Rev. John Todd, minister and author, was born in Rutland, Vermont, 9 October, 1800 and died in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 24 August, 1873. His mother, whose mental state was tenuous at best, became a hopeless lunatic after Todd’s father was badly injured in a carriage accident just before his birth. The accident prevented his father from practicing his profession of doctor and the family slid into poverty. After his father’s early death, the family was dispersed. Todd was sent to live with his Aunt. Somehow he acquired an education and was graduated from Yale in 1822. He spent the following year in teaching, then entered Andover theological seminary, and in 1827 was ordained a minister of the Congregational church in Groton. His autobiography was edited by his son, also named John Todd, and is full of affecting incidents and charming anecdotes. His unsettled youth made him a kindly and indulgent father.
This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, which is also available for Kindle.
You will find more stories of fathers, kindly, heartless, and ghostly at Saturday Snippets.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.