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Timor Mortis Conturbat Me

The past is another country: mortality:

Done With Mirrors : [S]eeing certain facts gathered together illuminates them.... [S]omething keeps punching through... to almost wrest control of the narrative....

When I read early 19th century biographies and life stories I always notice the fearful swath death cut through young families. Seeing five different biographical stories overlaid, as in "Team of Rivals," makes that effect all the more dramatic.

Edwin Stanton lost his daughter to scarlet fever, then three years later his wife, Mary, at age 29. He buried her in a bridal gown and was distraught for months; his sister had to come live with him as he stalked the house at night, from room to room, with a lantern, sobbing and screaming, "Where is Mary?" At the time he was the leading lawyer in Jefferson County, Ohio, with a hand in almost every case, and the entire spring court session had to be canceled while his wits were lost. His younger brother, a medical student, suffered a fever that damaged his brain and he took his own life by puncturing his throat with a medical tool.

Salmon Chase lost his first wife after 18 months of marriage from complications in childbirth. She was only 23. The daughter she bore died of scarlet fever at age 5. Chase fell in love with and married a friend of his wife, but their daughter also died, and tuberculosis felled the mother at age 25. Chase married a third time, to a society belle in Cincinnati, but of their two daughters only one lived past a year and the mother soon died as well. By 44, he had buried three wives and three daughters. He never remarried, and the sole surviving child, Kitty, was his brilliant "first lady" throughout his political career.

The Sewards lost a baby daughter to smallpox in 1837. William tried to bring his wife, Frances, with him in his political posts, but she prefered to stay home. She wrote to a woman friend, "you can very well understand that I am more happy to be here -- There is a sort of satisfaction, menancholy it is, in being once more in the room where my darling babe lived and died -- in looking over her little wardrobe -- in talking with those who missed and loved her."

Lincoln himself, as a young man, lost the three women he most loved: his mother, his sister, and Ann Rutledge; the death of the latter threw him into a suicidal despair. Mary Lincoln never recovered mentally from the loss of her 3-year-old son, Eddie, in 1850, after she nursed him in vain as tuberculosis tore through his body in seven weeks.

Researchers into early nineteenth century families quickly come to accept the high death rates among children as a fact of life in those days. Families were large, medicine was crude, disease ran rampant, and it seems no family was untouched by the tragedy of a child lost.

We tend to think of death as a country for the old. It was not so then. People of all ages were vulnerable, the cold calculus of contagation meant that often if a disease got into a household parents would lose some or all of their children in a matter of days.

Parental bereavement came not only by the sudden stroke of a gunshot or accident; with tragic frequency they had to watch, deperate and powerless as death took its agonizing time with their children, who writhed as parasites dissolved their bowels or languished delirious in parching fevers.

Nowadays, parents who lose a child have to go in search of support. No one, it seems, really knows how to talk to them. Parental bereavement is alien to most of us. But 150 years ago, death of a child was a common denominator among American families.

All this first struck me ten years ago when I wrote a cinder-block-sized history of a small city in Pennsylvania. In this comparatively wealthy and healthy place, as many as a third of the children born in the early 1800s died before age 10. I was reading through fat caches of letters, mainly to sort out the political evolutions of that turbulent time and trace the rise of the Republican party from wind-blown threads of abolitionists, Know-Nothings, and other fringes.

But I kept meeting family tragedies. Such as Townsend Haines, a leading political lawyer who left a voluminous correspondence and who had lost a young daughter, Sarah, in 1824....