This “piecemeal world”

Hedwiga Gray diary1
Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Mark Twain is credited with the line “Humor is tragedy plus time,” and it is certain that with time comes perspective (and perhaps comedy). Of course, context is something that can be lost with time’s passage, as three entries in Regina Shober Gray’s diary suggest. In each case, her subjects are Philadelphia ladies, now (between 1874 and 1881) well-established: Mrs. Gray’s memory stretches back, though, to an earlier day, where their social status was more equivocal.

Boston, Saturday, 21 February 1874: [Rear Admiral Charles Steedman’s[1] daughter] Lou Steedman’s engagement to Dr. Lawrence Mason[2] is announced. I hope there goes more love to this affair then seems to have been vouchsafed to Rollins Morse, poor man, when Lou’s sister May consented to marry him.[3] [There follows a lengthy aside on May Morse’s lapses in good taste: she is credited with statements hinting that she finds her new husband a bore.] The admiral is a man of good family in Carolina – but Mrs. S. was a so-called adopted daughter of Old Ronaldson the “Cemeterian,”[4] as he was called 50 years ago in Philad[elphia]. A shrewd old Scotchman, who turned a pretty penny by laying out a square on the outskirts of Southwark, South Philad. in paths and burying lots – planting trees, shrubs &c. It used to be one of our favorite Sunday p.m. walks when I was a child, to go there – and I rather think it was one of the first regularly & expressly [organized] burying grounds in the country.

[Old Ronaldson] left about $40,000 to this daughter – wh[ich] was a pretty fortune in those days ­– and wh. has enabled Mrs. S. to live in much more style & ease than her husband’s salary as a naval officer could possibly have commanded… She is a person whom in Philad. in our childhood we should by no chance have been likely to meet or know, but she has made a good position for her family in all these years – and is, on dit [it is said], sufficiently lady like &c., but a little too afraid of compromising her position, as people are apt to be who are not quite sure of the same!

Sunday, 1 June 1879: [A Miss Audenried came to tea with Mrs. Gray and her daughter Mary, proving to be] easy & agreeable. K.P.L.[5] came to pass the night and meet her. I never heard of the name when I lived in Philad. and I imagine that even now it is not a part of Philad. society – but they are wealthy coal people, I hear.

Sunday, 6 February 1881: I have been quite interested in an acc[oun]t of the Wm. Lehman Ashmead Bartlett, who is about to marry the Baroness Burdett Coutts[6] – he is 31, she is 62!![7] His mother was Sophy Ashmead of Philad., who with her sister Anna (a very pretty girl) were schoolmates of our early life at “Aunt Eliza Snowden”’s school held in the upper floor of the old Pine St. Quaker meeting house. I remember them well… Ashmead père[8] was, if I remember right, a vendue [or public] auctioneer on a small scale, on the corner of Lombard and Second St., Philad. We used to pass the place often on our way to school. The girls were pretty and pleasant – but were nobodies then, of course.

Anna Ashmead married an Englishman, Brookin by name, now a wealthy Londoner & member of Parliament. Sophy[9] married Ellis Bartlett, descended of an old colonial family in Plymouth, Mass., after whose death she joined her sister in England, educated her sons at Oxford – et voila! What strange turns of fate one hears of in this “piecemeal world” of ours!!!


[1] Charles Steedman (1811–1890) married Sarah Bishop in 1843.

[2] Dr. Amos Lawrence Mason (1842–1914) married Louisa Blake Steedman in September 1874.

[3] Eben Rollins Morse (1845­–1931) married Marion Ronaldson Steedman in 1873.

[4] Richard Ronaldson (1772–1863). His brother James laid out Ronaldson’s Philadelphia Cemetery in 1827.

[5] Mary Gray’s friend Katharine Peabody Loring (1849–1943).

[6] Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, Baroness Burdett-Coutts in her own right (1814­–1906), was actually 66. William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett, who later took his wife’s surname as his own, was 30.

[7] Mrs. Gray (born Hedwiga Regina Shober in 1818) was 62.

[8] John Ashmead (1783–1857), who married Anna Lehman in 1806.

[9] Sophia Ashmead (1815–1896) was married to Ellis Bartlett 1848–52.

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.

9 thoughts on “This “piecemeal world”

  1. The underlined phrase “so-called adopted” with reference to the daughter of Old Ronaldson quite certainly implies that this girl was adopted by Ronaldson and his wife–but that the child had in fact been fathered (out of wedlock) by Ronaldson himself. Not uncommon way of handling such situations at that time.

    1. That is the implication, although Sarah (Bishop) Steedman’s parents are elsewhere identified; it might also refer to gossip about Miss Bishop’s relationship with Old Ronaldson or his brother.

      1. You might think about doing a Vita Brevis piece sometime on the illegitimacy/adoption stories of the 1800s–rarely discussed in public but often alluded to in contemporary letters, etc. I have learned of two from living descendants who are now more amused than embarrassed by “outing” their ancestors and even naming names of all involved, evidently precisely remembered for a century and a half.
        The likelihood of Old Ronaldson’s paternity in your story was suggested to me by the large inheritance he left to this particular daughter. Other instances I know of, on Cape Cod where my research is focussed, include in-family adoptions of nieces, nephews, etc.
        Re-reading your reply to my earlier note, and your original article, I am confused: the admiral’s wife, Mrs. S., seems to be identified once as adopted by Old Ronaldson but bearing the maiden name of Bishop?
        No biggie, overall — but I do find the use of euphemisms in old gossip quite interesting to decode. The terms “pregnancy” and “birth” are another example: even when the situation was entirely legitimate and women were writing to other women, they used such euphemisms as “sick” or “has been ill” or simply “it”.

    2. There was a moment when I was under 12yo, reading a lot of history and biography (especially English), when I realized how shaky each elite’s own social construct was because they worked so hard to maintain it (who could visit who on New Years, etc.), acting as if what their parents had created were eternal laws. And, of course, a lot of that had to do with managing sexual issues (cf a previous entry comment on “she hardly knows her own mind”), as it does for any culture and specific society. There was no Aha! moment, just a putting together of understanding what, say, Edward VI’s Prince of Wales career was made up of. Decoding Mrs. Gray’s views on “what must be said slant” has been fun here, and in the larger edition likely more so.

      They were ALL arrivistes in fear of the even newer arrivistes in a broader culture becoming more and more “all people are created equal” and thus are “on the make.” The women of these elites were both its greatest burden bearers and its chief enforcers, as Scorcese remarked in filming Wharton’s Age of Innocence (a phrase that EW meant to carry 90% irony).

      Oddly, and for the better, this “now golden age of genealogy” has up-ended Austen’s Mr. Bennet’s ancestral obsessions as a source of comfort, transforming it into a democratic enrichment.

      Which gets you to Sophy Ashmead, an early example of an “American Girl” type who, to borrow a Tammany Hall phrase, “seen her opportunities and took ’em.” And her boy Will took after her.

  2. William Bartlett’s career through 1895 from Armorial Families via Google, note that his relationship with the Baroness began at least in 1877:

    Master of Arts of the University of Oxford, Member of Parliament for Westminster; Born 1851, being the son of the late Ellis Bartlett of Plymouth, New England, United States of America by Sophia his wife, daughter of John King Ashmead of Philadelphia (his grandparents on both sides having been British subjects); In 1877 was Special Commissioner to Turkey to administer the Turkish Compassionate Fund, which had been initiated by the Baroness Burden-Coutts, and received from the Sultan the Collar and Star of the Medjidie; In 1879, 1880 visited Ireland to assist in organising relief in the distressed districts; Largely developed the Baroness Burdett’s scheme for benefiting the Irish Fisheries; Trustee of the Baltimore Fishing Scheme; was on Executive Committee of International Fisheries Exhibition, 1883; owner of the Columbia Market and of the Brookfield Stud of Old English Breeding Horses; carried Hampstead Heath Enlargement (Parliament Hill) Act 1885, Police Enfranchisement, and Metropolitan Management Amendment Acts 1887, and Advertisement Rating Act 1889; one of the Founders and a Director of the British East African Association, and of Stanley Expedition for relief of Emin Pasha; was Master of the Turners’ Company 1888 and 1889.

    He assumed by Royal License the surname of Burdett-Coutts in addition to and before his own surname of Bartlett, and the arms of those families quarterly with his own; and subsequently obtained a second Royal License. bearing date May 19, 1882, to bear the name of Bartlett-Burdett-Coutts in lieu of Burdett-Coutts-Bartlett. Clubs—Carlton, Prince’s, Union.

    1. And a bit on the Baroness, also from Armorial Families (1895):
      [Bartlett] married, February 12, 1881, the Right Honourable Angela Georgina Burden-Coutts, Baroness Burdett-Coutts of Highgate and Brookfield, in the county of Middlesex, the youngest daughter of the late Sir Francis Burdett, Baronet of Foremark, in the county of Derby, Member of Parliament, by Sophia his wife, daughter of Thomas Coutts, Banker. Her ladyship succeeded under the will of her grandfather’s widow, Her Grace Harriet, Duchess of Saint Albans, to Mr. Coutts’ property, assumed by Royal License 1837 the additional surname of Coutts, and was created a Peeress, as Baroness Burdett-Coutts, June 9, 1871. She is one of the co—heirs of the Baronies of Scales-Laytimer, and Badlesmere. Residences— Holly Lodge, Highgate, London, N.W.; 1 Stratton Street. Piccadilly, London.

      Her Wikipedia page does much more justice to her complexity and efficacy of good deeds:,_1st_Baroness_Burdett-Coutts

      A person who could generate the admiration of George MacDonald Fraser (Flashman) and Terry Pratchett (Discworld) so as to get included in their fiction must be a person to be taken note of. That she lost 2/3rds of her fortune, according to Wikipedia, upon marrying Bartlett (an American by birth) adds to her humanness; the Duke of Wellington should have taken her up on her direct proposal of marriage. The cheek of her!

  3. Another English set of families that overlaps with the beginning of Mrs. Gray’s diary, interrelated by blood, marriage, and interests, is that of Florence Nightingale. I’m reading with fascination “Nightingales: the Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale.” (Gillian Gill, 2004) Nightingale wrote thousands of letters which circulated among her clan and family friends, some of them published. She also wrote many journals, in which she recorded thoughts and feelings which often contradicted what she wrote in the letters.

    I wish I had some sort of documents, letters or journals, to go with the bare notation in my ggg grandmother’s Bible that she had a baby in 1798. I later learned this child was out of wedlock, from her baptismal record. What were the circumstances? What did her mother feel about this? Or the fact that the father married someone else between the birth and baptism? Without a journal or letter, I’ll probably never know.

    1. Doris, doesn’t coming across something like your ggg grandmother leave you with a strange feeling. Something that was momentous when I was young, even more so in the society of that time. I immediately go into a sort of protective mode, both hurting for my relative and wanting somehow to retroactively support and comfort her or him. The lack of information is so frustrating. Not everyone kept journals.

      I’ve come across so many things in the history, not just of my own family but of others, that I’ve come to realize that our current circumstances are not so very different from the past as we often suppose, just perhaps more acceptance– and learning about families in the past with unexplained children, I’m not even sure about that.

      I did a search that revealed the late birth of a child to a woman of 51. Not impossible, but the child was born in the same month that the 16 year old daughter of the family died. A hand-written note on the daughter’s death notice (no certificates in that state at the time) indicates an unspecified link with a local boy, just an arrow and a name. According to a story passed on by later relatives, the baby was raised as a beloved younger child, with the older siblings helping to care for her and doting on her. I can understand that, if, as it is easy to surmise, the child was the offspring of the older daughter, likely deceased as a result of childbirth. Bittersweet.

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