‘Of the dead, say nothing’

Herb Morse, ca. 1885

De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum. Since learning this saying in high school Latin class – “Of the dead, say nothing unless good” – I have heeded it as good advice for writing family history. If anything, many past genealogists exaggerate the virtues of forebears they never knew. With Edwin Herbert Morse of Wareham, Massachusetts (1849–1923), known as Herb, my great-great-grandfather, I had the opposite problem: no one among family or acquaintances had much good to say about him. And so, for more than three decades, I have struggled with whether I should pass on how Herb was remembered. Of course, had he been recalled with great fondness, I would have written his story long before now.

Herb Morse died when my grandfather Emory was 14. They lived in the same town, yet only met once. Why, I wondered? Emory responded, “Because he drank…,” as if I was expected to surmise the rest of the story. Another of Herb’s grandsons told me Herb’s second wife, Susie, “threw him out” near the end of his life. Most revealing were the reminiscences of Elizabeth LeBaron Meier, whose mother Lucinda Morse (1870–1973) was Herb’s cousin and neighbor: “Mother had no use for that man who brutalized his wife and children.” Not wanting to transmit snippets of hearsay alone, I hoped retrieving more facts about Herb Morse’s life might render him less of a one-dimensional villain.

Their appearance of genteel respectability belied a troubled house.

Herb’s father, Edwin Morse (1814–1892), a sawmill mechanic, endured the misfortune of two short marriages. His first wife, Thankful Ellis Gurney, died at 25, leaving him with three children. Edwin soon wed again to Rosilla Burgess, 20, of Sandwich, who bore two sons, Edwin Herbert and Millard Morse. Rosilla died at 26, leaving five-year-old Herb without a mother. Unusually for the time, Edwin Morse never remarried; his elder unmarried sister kept house for him. More sadness followed: Herb’s brother Millard succumbed to scarlet fever when he was 13, and his elder half-brother, Jennison Gurney Morse, a Civil War veteran, committed suicide.

Herb Morse and Emily Waters, ca. 1875

In 1875, Herb married the girl next-door, Emily Waters. Her father, Lewis Waters, and Edwin were lifelong friends.[1] A wedding tintype reveals that Herb looked boyish at 26 but had lost his right thumb, circumstances unknown.

The young couple prospered in a charming Victorian cottage on Papermill Road in Wareham. A badly faded photo captures the family with Emily standing in the yard, with daughter Edith and two sons, Millard (named after his uncle) and Burgess, faintly recognizable alongside the fence. Their appearance of genteel respectability belied a troubled house. Edith’s granddaughter told me her grandmother was not allowed to communicate with her maternal grandparents, the Waterses. They had to speak through a lilac hedge.

Morse homestead, ca. 1885. The house, with side-porch enclosed, remains recognizable today.

Edwin Morse bequeathed several parcels in Wareham and Rochester to his son Herb as the latter’s life began to unravel. Emily Morse never fully recovered from the birth of her last child, Edwin Lewis Morse, and died two years later from tuberculosis. After Herb married as his second wife 31-year-old Susie Morrill, a schoolteacher from Prince Edward Island, family divisions intensified when she named her son, Edwin Herbert Jr., even though Herb already had a son named Edwin. (The first Edwin went by Ned, and the second Edwin, like his father, went by Herb.) Herb eventually allowed his childless sister-in-law, Sadie (Waters) Loring, to adopt Ned, which added fuel to the resentment among siblings. Jealousy continued to fester when Susie’s sons, entirely on their own, eventually earned college degrees.

Herb Morse, granddaughter Emily, and daughter Edith Nickerson, in a photo taken shortly before his death in 1923.

The lore that Herb lost most of his assets does indeed hold up to scrutiny in the steady sell-off of inherited property to settle debts. Once more, a photo does not convey the reality of a frayed family. While Herb lived with his son Burgess in Newton, Massachusetts, he sat for a three-generation family portrait with granddaughter Emily and daughter Edith. Note that Herb’s hand conceals the loss of his thumb.

Herb Morse left no estate to probate and, ironically, his widow Susie later bought the more modest house across the road that belonged to Herb’s first father-in-law, Lewis Waters. Susie’s son, Edwin H. Morse Jr., a lawyer and state legislator, later placed a marker on his father’s grave inscribed with Masonic insignia.

All the family members who kept afresh their scars from Herb Morse have long gone to their rest. What have I learned in the process of putting some flesh on this ancestral skeleton? While I cannot name all the demons that may have haunted my great-great-grandfather from childhood, addiction to alcohol, as well as some circumstances beyond his control, blighted his life.


[1] For more on the Waters family, see “Inheriting Mayflower lines,” Vita Brevis, 24 April 2018.

About Michael Dwyer

Michael F. Dwyer first joined NEHGS on a student membership. A Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists, he is a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist and The American Genealogist. His articles have been published in the Register, American Ancestors, and Rhode Island Roots, among others. The Vermont Department of Education's 2004 Teacher of the Year, Michael retired in June 2018 after 35 years of teaching subjects he loves—English and history.

23 thoughts on “‘Of the dead, say nothing’

  1. Hello Michael,

    I am a believer that as a genealogist and historian, truth and candor are crucial. Every family has the proverbial ” good, bad an ugly”. Your comments about alcoholism are appreciated. I believe it is a much wider problem than many people are aware or are willing to admit! I know this first hand from my family research.

    Dan H

    1. Wareham and Plymouth, MA are areas for which I hope there will be more digitized newspapers available for the time I am searching. It’s always good to keep looking.

  2. I admire your willingness to probe the facts of your ancestor’s life and report them with understanding and compassion. I also have a couple of ancestors whose reported behavior I attempted to comprehend without being judgmental in my conclusions.

    1. Thank you, Paul, for the validation. As get older, we don’t want stories and impressions entrusted with us to be lost.

  3. In his wedding tintype, might Herb have placed his right-hand thumb inside his suitcoat’s lower pocket? Or do you know of other records/stories that indicated that his right-hand thumb had indeed been lost/cut off?

    1. Before the discovery of the tintype, I saw a proof for the later three-generation studio picture. In the pose that was not chosen, his thumb is clearly missing, same as in his wedding tintype.

  4. It is a complex issue whether we should share highly negative information we discover about ancestors or long-ago family members. Personally, I want to know everything, good or bad. I have found that is most definitely not the case with most people. It’s a dilemma. As a historian, holding back information is against all my training and instinct. As a family member, I don’t want to hurt living people with information that upsets them. I have not yet solved this problem to my satisfaction.

    1. You sum up the dilemma very well. The ultimate arbiter for me is how this knowledge will impact living people.

  5. The effect of losing a parent, especially at a very early age, must have been devastating to those children. Even now, I have friends whose parents lost their parents in the Spanish Flu epidemic, and it affects lives of grandchildren to this day. What jealousies or unkindnesses, done sometimes with the best of intentions, may have impacted these children…the two who bore the same name, for example. Thank you, Michael, for this.

  6. I too have had to deal with negative information about ancestors. Frankly, their bad deeds make them irresistibly fascinating. I do share the stories on my blog, though I realize some descendants don’t really appreciate it. I try not to editorialize, just state the facts as they were reported.

  7. Thank you for your candor about your ancestor Michael. I had a suspicion about a man who I suspected was my 3rd great grandfather. .. through INCEST.

    After much internal debate, I decided to start contacting anyone who had this man in their tree… to ask about court records and if they had ever heard of this case… and the possibility of a child being born due to the incest.

    I found 2 cousins who not only had the information, but one of them had been able to interview a grandson… who said that both daughters had given birth to a child !

    DNA has since also proven that my theory was correct… my 3rd great grandfather was also my 4th …and my gg grandfather’s mother was his half sister and aunt!

    I believe that the facts are the facts… the familyneeds to know them… without judgement as to what happened in that man’s life to cause him to do such a thing.

    He was a tailor, who was sent to Ft Erie 1 week before the famous battle… ans was taken POW there. I have not been able to find any records about what DISABILITY he had incurred during that battle. .. but his military record states that he was disabled.

    As a tailor, he was assigned to be a hospital attendant… possibly stitching up wounds and after surgery? Any suggestions on where to look for War of 1812 records about the Battle of Fort Erie?

    Enjoyed the article and your perspective.

    1. Karen,
      Thank you for your comments. The subject you broach has to be the most difficult for family historians to explore.
      As for the Siege of Fort Erie, there is a lot of information online, especially to mark the Bicentennial of the event. The Canadian and American perspectives are very different. Two print studies include Louis L. Babcock’s “The Siege of Fort Erie,” and more recently, Joseph Whitehorne’s “Battle of Fort Erie.” General works like these might lead to stories of individual soldiers.

  8. There are three ‘banished’ ancestors in my tree of whom the living (when alive) only gave terse negative accounts about, or refused to speak their name. I think it’s
    lovely that you have fleshed out Herb as a flawed human being and his scapegoat
    status has been removed. My rule-of-thumb is : in everyone there sleeps a sense of life lived in accordance with love.

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