"Mary W. Bell of Manchester died in 1858, at the age of 24. Her short life is memorialized in 399 letters written to her by an assortment of family members and friends. She carefully organized her correspondence in three scrapbooks that are held in the archives of the Manchester Historic Association. The letters are arranged chronologically, and indexed by author.
In the future, when the letters can be fully transcribed, they are sure to reveal a thousand intriguing details of the busy life of a young lady of the era. Even a cursory look at a few of the letters from one year — 1852 — reveals intriguing slices of life.
In September 1852 Mary's friend and former schoolmate Juliana (Julie) Chase wrote from Pepperell, Massachusetts, where she was a teacher, "Mary, you must do one thing for me without saying a single word, viz. (namely): burn all my letters now — do not expostulate as in the affair of the minister, but grant me this favor without remonstrance…I am very particular on the subject. Be sure to tell me, when next you write, that it has been done."
What was the "affair of the minister?" At least two of Julie's letters from earlier in 1852 are missing and presumably destroyed. One of the remaining letters mentions a minister, and this may provide a clue. In February 1852 Julie wrote, "I was most agreeably surprised, last evening, by a call from Mr. Bullard (our near neighbor in Cambridge) and he brought me a bundle and letters from home. Was it not charming?"
This was likely the Reverend Asa Bullard of Cambridge. Perhaps Julie had warm feelings for the minister, although he was married? Perhaps she had confessed these feelings to Mary?
In the summer and fall 1852 Mary spent several weeks with relatives in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. Apparently, she had written to Julie to complain about her exile to the unbearably quiet countryside.
"Why do you stay buried at Hampton Falls?" Julie wrote in August. In September she wrote "Poor child! I am sorry that you are in such a barbarous place…What sort of a town are you in? I had an idea that Hampton (Falls) was more of a place than that. Do not stay there, I beg, since it is so far behind the times, and you are out of reach of everything. Do you not find that you are beginning to retrograde in all matters, social, political and literary?"
Mary's friend Sarah Lee wrote in March 1852 from her home in Lexington, Massachusetts. The 17-year old expressed opinions about several ministers whom she and Mary knew, comparing their abilities as preachers and pastors. Sarah's tone became emotional when she wrote, "But you must not forget dear Mr. (Reverend) Buddington. I cannot love another as I do him (so it seems to me now). That there are those who preach better, and are better I doubt not. But the truth as it comes from his lips is most acceptable to me."
Perhaps having a crush on a minister was a common occurrence within Mary's entourage.
Sarah wrote again in September from the Charlestown (Massachusetts) Female Seminary where she was a student, "Another surprise I had yesterday. As I was sitting at the tea-table someone whispered to Mrs. Pool, 'Miss F. would like to see Miss Lee.' I hastened upstairs and I met our Lizzie F. as cool 'as you please,' and looking composed as if she was an entire stranger. We were so glad to see her that we know not what to say. She has been here again today, and brought with her no other than her particular friend Charles and your esteemed uncle Charles. How funny to think he is your uncle. If I were to tell you just what I thought of him you would laugh one of your own peculiar laughs. I wish I could see you laugh now. Oh, Mary! I do love to receive your letters."
A person could imagine the plot to an entire novel based on the allusions contained in these sentences! Mary Bell's letters open a door to the past, and for that we can be grateful.
Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — The formidable Clarke brothers..
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org