“A narrow escape”

Fanny Appleton Longfellow
Fanny Appleton Longfellow

As I read along in the Gray diary, I am finding certain recurring themes. One, every New Year’s Day, is concern over the arrival (or delay) of “the Philadelphia box,” containing presents for the Gray children in Boston from Mrs. Gray’s siblings in Philadelphia. Another is the annual drama surrounding the Grays’ summer holiday in Manchester, Massachusetts, since the options for affordable rentals were so limited and Manchester itself – just a short train ride from Boston – such a desirable place in which to “rusticate.”

I hesitate to put it so bluntly, but Mrs. Gray’s diary does have another, overarching theme: she writes feelingly, and frequently, about illness and death. This is not surprising, as even well-to-do Bostonians of the 1860s were subject to the same (to them) mystery illnesses and sudden deaths as their poorer neighbors. Mrs. Gray’s own family were almost continuously ill, it seems: Frank Gray, her eldest son, suffered annually from “poisoned eyes,” making study difficult if not impossible, while her studious son Sam had periodically to withdraw from the Boston Latin School, as he was too sickly to keep up with his classmates.

Two entries in the diary from this period speak to another danger in Mrs. Gray’s world: fire. The first is the famous case of Fanny Appleton Longfellow, wife of the poet:

“The anniversary of our marriage, 17 years ago – it does not seem so long… We have been painfully shocked to hear of Mrs. Longfellow’s death from fire. She was stamping wax seals for one of her children [when] the light drapery of her sleeve took fire. Her face escaped, but chest, shoulders and back were frightfully burned; she lingered on till 11 a.m. to-day when death released her. A woman in the vigor of life and health, of queenly beauty and haughty carriage — she leaves 5 young children motherless. — Mr. Longfellow was much burned in his attempts to save her – but his life is not threatened.”[1]

The second case, with a happier outcome, concerns the daughter of former U.S. Senator Robert Charles Winthrop:

“Eliza Winthrop has had a narrow escape of burning to death. About a week ago, her window draperies caught fire in the gas jet – it was midnight, she was locked in the room, fortunately had on her flannel dressing gown, and no hoop – she tore down the curtain, threw it on the floor, dragged upon the bed clothes, extinguished the flames which had caught in the chintz sofa covers &c, and then turned to see that the sheets &c were on fire – she dragged the mattress upon them, and succeeded at last in smothering the flames, at the cost of several bad burns on her hands & neck. She had no time to call for help, or to unlock her doors, till all danger was over[.] It was a frightful situation to be in, and she certainly showed great presence of mind, and resolution.”[2]

It is easy, looking at the stiffly posed photographs of the period, to imagine Mrs. Gray and her contemporaries far removed from life’s daily miseries; such entries as these provide a corrective lens through which to regard the lives of our ancestors.


[1] Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, entry for 10 July 1861.

[2] Ibid., entry for 11–17 January 1864.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

2 thoughts on ““A narrow escape”

  1. I’ve noticed that many people tend to interpret events in ancestors’ lives in terms of the framework of our own lives. Scott, I think you put it well when you speak of the “corrective lens” provided by diaries and other examinations of the circumstances in which people lived. I think that’s as true of people and events now, for that matter. Imagine the lives of those of poorer means who either were unable to leave a written record, or whose letters, journals,etc. have been lost. In my attempt to grasp both everyday events and the sometimes abrupt changes that shaped the lives of my ancestors, I have been reading what I call “intimate histories” that go beyond biography to explore such things as how specific cultural and financial forces might shape decisions and outcomes. The diary you are reading adds to my understanding, and brings an immediacy to the accounts. Well beyond mere nostalgia or lines of begats Thank you so much for sharing these deeply sad insights.

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