by George H. Bresnick
“Now I would ask you in the presence of the living, made solemn by the silence of the dead;- How could you! Oh!…How could you sit there and give uterance [sic] to such expressions as those which fel [sic] from your lips, under such circumstances, and your tongue not cleve [sic] to the roots of your mouth!”
This startling condemnation is contained in a letter dated May 28, 1866, from North Chester, Massachusetts, addressed to Edward L. Higgins, Esq., also of North Chester, and written by Nellie W. Smith, an aggrieved woman who could no longer hold her tongue or stay her hand in the face of an awful prior affront. I discovered the letter in a trove of documents kept in a trunk in the attic of the Old Methodist Episcopal Parsonage in South Worthington, Massachusetts.
Though the letter never specifies what Edward did to warrant this condemnation, the following article investigates the main characters and content in this explosive missive. The original letter is pictured below.
Standing on a small hillside cemetery near Kinne Brook Road at the eastern edge of Chester, Massachusetts, in May of 1861, Ellen (Nellie) Wise Smith was shaking to the core from what she had just witnessed. Her neighbor and primary school friend, Edward L. Higgins, had just buried his mother, Phebe, and turning to the nearby grave of Nellie’s recently interred little sister Addie, he uttered a falsehood that wrenched at Nellie’s heart. She could not bring herself to speak of this, and only years later, in May of 1866, did she finally write a letter to Edward, filled with anger and pathos, condemning him for his dastardly words, and beseeching him to repent for his duplicity. “I now commence the important, although unpleasant task of addressing you,” she wrote. “Receive it not as an Instrument of retaliation, but rather, as a subject of contemplation…for I have meditated long & fervently on the efficacy of informing you, in this manner, of your duplicity.”
Indeed five years had passed before Nellie, then 23 years of age, summoned up the courage to address a matter that traumatized her so deeply. Much had transpired in that five-year interim. A bloody war had been fought across the southern and western parts of the country, and virtually every New England family had young men in the War, losing lives and limbs in the pursuit of Union and justice. Edward Higgins was among the enlistees, serving in Company K, Massachusetts 46th Infantry Regiment, from October 1862 to July 1863.
The 46th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia was raised largely in Hampden and Hampshire Counties in response to President Lincoln’s call for short-term troops in August 1862. Company K was sent to New Bern, North Carolina, along with Company A, which was under the command of Russell H. Conwell of South Worthington. The 46th saw limited action during its assignment, losing 36 men, all but one to disease. Edward spent two weeks in the military hospital at Bern in the spring of 1863, most likely due to disease rather than war wounds. By the summer of 1863 the Regiment was back in Massachusetts, where Edward mustered out on July 29, 1863, at Hampden Park, Springfield.
The Smith and Higgins families lived on nearby farms along Kinney Brook (as it was spelled on an 1870 map) north of Chester Center. Nellie’s father, Amok Clinton Smith, came from a long line of Chester farmers. Her great-great-grandfather Captain Abner Smith emigrated from New Haven to Chester before the Revolutionary War, probably in the 1770s. Her mother, Sarah L. Belden, was also born in Chester and came from similar stock. Amok and Sarah married in 1839 and had a son, Henry, in 1841, two years before Nellie was born. Addie, Mary E., Marshall C., and Jennie followed over the next twenty years.
The setting for the drama in the letter of May 1861 centers on Nellie’s little sister Addie, who died from diphtheria in March 1861 at the age of 12. Just two months later, on May 22, Edward Higgins’ mother Phebe died. His father Barney predeceased her by six years. Both the Higgins and Smith families maintained burial plots in a cemetery off Kinne Brook Road in Littleville, Chester Township.
Nellie’s 1866 letter to Edward recalls the terrible events in the cemetery five years earlier. “How could you! Oh! How could you, sit there, where you were so recently seated beside the remains of that Dear Sister, whom memory made, & still makes, dear to us all;- How could you sit there and give uterance [sic] to such expressions as those that fel [sic] from your lips, under such circumstances, and your tongue not cleve [sic] to the roots of your mouth! …Standing by the grave of her [Edward’s mother], whom we all loved so well, and watching clod, after clod, falling into the narrow house, hiding her forever from mortal view – Then turning from the resting place, of Father,- mother, & Sisters, to speak premeditated falsehoods…” [underlining in original]
The “Dear Sister” is Addie Smith, and during her March burial Edward was seated close to her remains. Now, in May, he was standing next to the coffin of his mother Phebe, who was being buried in the family plot, which also contained his father Barney; his older sister, Martha Maria Higgins, who died at the age of 19 in 1848; and an infant sister, Nancy, who died in 1843. For Nellie, the cemetery was hallowed ground, from which both families would ultimately enter their eternal rewards or punishments. Her sense of shared fate was heightened by the intimacy of the cemetery, which had only 57 graves, of which one quarter belonged to Smith or Higgins family members. A place of transition from the earthly to the heavenly state was no place for “duplicity.”
Why did it take Nellie five years to come forward and confront Edward? Perhaps it was partly her youth at the time of the affront (18 years old) and her gender. Perhaps the intense pressures of the lead-up to the Civil War, followed by the disruptions of the War itself, also figured in. Edward’s having served in the War clearly earned her respect, and perhaps even heightened her concern for him and his eternal fate. She repeatedly affirms that her letter is inspired by concern, not vengeance. “Know, therefore, that I would not cause you that anguish of soul, more bitter than the grave, even, were it in my power;… Nevertheless, I am compelled by the imperative calling of duty, to perform this act. Thinking, perchance, you may yet listen to the exortations [sic] of a friend of former years;- that you may yet reflect on your double-dealings; that you may yet repent, & turn from the error of your ways, ere the star of your honor, sits in blackness of darkness forever.”
As an ardent churchgoer, Nellie believed in the salvation of repentant souls. Her family were prominent members of the First Chester Congregational Church. In 1772, her great-great-grandfather Abner Smith and his family held a pew in the front row next to the pulpit, a position reserved by tradition for congregants of the highest “dignity.” Repentance was the only route to salvation for sinners. Nellie ends her accusations thus: “A young man of your years, of your attachments, & your refined sensibilities, which, in your situation, God most generously bestowed upon you: Taking into consideration all these qualities, together with love of Character, which no one doubts, you in common with every true son of America, passes [sic]…to speak premeditated falsehoods, such as no villain would dare to speak, unles [sic] his honor was trampled in the dust, his tongue the avowed instrument of deceit – his heart the abode of universal wicked, while his dark, contaminate, feindis [sic] opperations [sic] were preparing him for an honorable situation, if not a crown in Ston’s [Satan’s?] infernal kingdom. Then, and not till then, let the act be forgotten and forgiven.”
There is a distinctly biblical tone to Nellie’s letter, suggesting inspiration or even borrowing from Bible passages. Consider the underlined in the following segment:
that you may yet repent, & turn from the error of your ways, ere the star of your honor, sits in blackness of darkness forever.
and compare to Jude 1:13 in the King James Bible:
Raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.
Another excerpt from the letter:
How could you sit there and give uterance [sic] to such expressions as those that fel [sic] from your lips, under such circumstances, and your tongue not cleve [sic] to the roots of your mouth!
can be compared to Ezekiel 3:2:
And I will make thy tongue cleave to the roof of thy mouth, that thou shalt be dumb, and shalt not be to them a reprover: for they are a rebellious house.
Perhaps the borrowing was not conscious, but simply reflected the vernacular of the day, colored by the Bible’s ever-presence in the people’s daily lives and ministers’ exhortations.
By contrast, another passage in the letter suggests Nellie’s schooling in classic poetry. She writes of Edward observing his mother’s coffin as it was buried in the ground:
watching clod, after clod,
falling into the narrow house, hiding her forever from mortal view.
These lines evoke one of the most famous and revered poems of the English language: Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, first published in England in 1771:
Each in his narrow cell forever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The Elegy was included among other poems and classical texts in the Sixth McGuffey Reader, part of a series of textbooks widely used by grammar and secondary schools in New England and elsewhere during the 19th Century. It is likely that both Nellie and Edward read the poem in their little Chester schoolhouse. The rural setting of the Kinne Brook cemetery, although not attached to a church, may also have evoked Gray’s country churchyard burial ground for Nellie as she penned her jeremiad.
Another couplet in the Elegy reminds one of the context of this affair:
Some village Hampden, that, with
The little tyrant of his fields withstood.
This reference is to John Hampden (ca. 1595-1643), one of the leading Puritan parliamentarians in England who challenged the authority of King Charles I. He and four other Opposition members of Parliament were unconstitutionally designated for arrest by the King, but the Commons refused to hand them over to the monarch’s henchmen. This was one of the signal acts that led directly to the English Civil War, and ultimately to the trial and execution of Charles I. (Hampden’s cousin Oliver Cromwell became the Lord Protector of England after the overthrow of the monarchy.) Hampden was killed during the English Civil War, and his life so inspired the Puritans of New England that they named a county of Western Massachusetts County after him – and the Town of Chester belongs to Hampden County.
Nellie Smith’s Puritan forbears were among those early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, most of whom migrated from England in the wake of the Puritan upheavals in the 1630s and 1640s. One of those migrants, George Smith, by 1644 had settled in New Haven, Connecticut, as part of a religious splinter group that moved from the Bay Colony up the Connecticut River to establish new communities. George Smith’s great-grandson, Captain Abner Smith, as we saw earlier, left New Haven for Chester, Massachusetts, in the 1770s, and Nellie Smith was a scion of that line.
Before writing the letter, Nellie was for a time a factory worker in Chester, where industries in the 1860s included the manufacture of bedsteads and emery grinding wheels, as well as mills for cotton and a carding factory for local wool. At the wool factory Nellie probably met the overseer, Robert Billings, who had moved to Chester with his wife, Hannah Gorton Billings, and their children around 1865 from East Providence, Rhode Island. Presumably Robert was recruited because of his experience in the mills of Rhode Island. Apparently the Billings moved back to the Providence area (Rehoboth, MA) a year or two later. In 1868 Hannah Billings died, leaving Robert a widower with three young children. One year later Robert married Nellie Smith, 12 years his junior, in Rehoboth where the family remained. Robert worked in a nearby factory as a wool carder. Robert and Nellie had no children together.
Robert Billings died in 1910, and Nellie moved back to Hampden County, living with her younger sister, Mary E. Smith, in West Springfield by 1920. Nellie died in South Worthington in 1927, apparently at the home of her youngest sister, Jennie Smith Freeman, who reported Nellie’s death for the town records. Anson and Jennie Freeman lived in what is now the Schrade/James house at 17 Ireland Street behind the Conwell Academy building in South Worthington.
Mary Smith had married Ptolemy Smith (a cousin) of West Chesterfield in 1866, and they lived for many years on what is now Ireland Street in South Worthington. Ptolemy and Mary were active members of the South Worthington Methodist Church, as were Ptolemy’s parents, Lucy Cole Smith and Warham Smith. Ptolemy and Mary had a daughter, Idella, and a son, Howard Clayton. Idella married Wilbur T. Hale, a minister of the Methodist Episcopal New England Conference, in 1896. They lived in many places around Massachusetts, settling finally in West Springfield after Wilbur’s retirement. Wilbur and Idella died in 1955 and 1959, respectively, leaving no immediate heirs. Howard Clayton Smith also moved to West Springfield as a young man, and had two sons: Rexford and Wayne C. Smith. In Idella’s obituary, printed in the Springfield Union newspaper, Wayne C. Smith is listed as executor of her estate. Nellie Smith’s letter must have come into his possession at that time. Wayne C. Smith bought the Old Parsonage in South Worthington from the Trustees of the New England Conference of the Methodist Church in 1960 for $1. In 1968 he sold the old Parsonage to Beatrice Mercer, who kept the letter along with other Smith/Cole family papers in a trunk in her attic. I acquired the papers from a local antique dealer who had recently purchased them from Bea Mercer’s estate.
Edward Higgins remained in Chester and farmed his father Barney’s land. He raised a family of four children, and, as far as we know, led a respectable life. Yet for some reason Nellie kept the letter for the rest of her life, and passed it on to her sister Mary. There is no proof she sent the letter, unless another copy turns up in the possession of Edward’s family. I suspect the letter below is Nellie’s original copy, with corrections and insertions, and from this original she copied a clean draft to send to Edward. In any case, one could imagine she was saving the evidence for some final Day of Judgment. Perhaps Mary felt the same, as did Mary’s daughter, Idella, who also retained the letter. I suspect that by the time it came into the hands of Nellie’s grand-nephew Wayne Smith, it had become part of the family legend, too memory-laden to discard.
The other retained papers in the Smith/Cole trove, aside from legal papers (deeds, wills, and a fire insurance policy), consisted of a Cole family genealogy; a copied treatise entitled The Political Struggle, originally published by Horace Greeley just prior to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln; two 18th-century documents apparently stolen during the Civil War from the courthouse in Union-occupied Stafford, Virginia; and a somewhat bawdy poem, entitled “The character of a young gentleman,” about a man from “Chestertown” who goes on a tryst to Sandersfield, losing his pants in the process. Nothing else in the collection compared in drama and gravity to Nellie’s letter to Edward Higgins.
We will probably never know the content of Nellie’s accusation, nor its veracity. One can only assume that Edward’s “premeditated falsehoods” were directed at either Nellie or her dear departed sister Addie. Did Edward ever respond to the letter, in writing or in person? Given the proximity of their properties, they must have run into each other on occasion. Did Nellie leave Chester to marry Robert Billings a few years after writing the letter in part to escape the discomfort of her surroundings? Did Edward spread rumors about Nellie that could have been grist for the likes of a Hawthorne short story concerning the mores of a small New England town? Any suggested answers – or further research – would be welcome in the comments section below.
Nellie’s gravestone in Ringville Cemetery, Worthington, is shared with three of her siblings: Henry (H. H.), Fitch (who died in infancy), and Adda. Their other siblings Marshall, Mary, and Jennie are also buried at Ringville. Thus Adda and Fitch Smith each have two gravestones: one by Kinne Brook Road in Chester, and another at Ringville Cemetery, where their names remain united with their fiercely protective sister.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
George Bresnick has been researching Worthington history since moving to the village of South Worthington in 1999, and has continued his interest in the area even after relocating to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2010. During his tenure as Chairman of the Worthington Historical Commission, the South Worthington Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places. As founding director of the H. Stanley Bresnick Foundation, George reconnects material objects of historical significance with people or organizations closely associated with those objects. In recent years he has returned stolen Civil War papers (found in the attic of the former Methodist Parsonage in South Worthington) to the Stafford, Virginia, Courthouse; an 1886 letter (written by a young Yankee steamboat traveler cum patent medicine salesman on Florida’s longest inland waterway) to the Florida Historical Society; and a Boston lady’s diary (1887-1893) to the Massachusetts Historical Society.