I have no evidence that Thomas was aware of T.S. Eliot and his poetry. Their lives overlapped a bit. Thomas 1846-1918 and Eliot 1888-1965. Hopefully the spirit of Eliot will forgive me for parodying the title of one of his most famous poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Prufrock as it is commonly called (I am told by Wikipedia) was first published in 1915. The Thomases by then had just about lived their entire lives. Kate would pass in 1917, William in 1918. I suppose the love letters of William Lyman Thomas to his intended, Catherine (Kate) Compton Sutton, could also be called a love song.
Chrissie Hayes McConnell lent me these letters to examine almost two years ago. I am fascinated by them yet they overwhelm me. It takes an awfully long time to scan them. I imagine that these letters have not been removed from their envelopes since they were written in 1867-69. They are a tantalizing glimpse of life in our community in that year… one hundred and fifty some odd years ago. Another chance like this just won’t be coming along. Still after I carefully remove one from its envelope and read it with my magnifying headset, I get tired.
After all, they are love letters and filled with just what you imagine love letters would be filled with. Expressions of love and undying devotion, over and over. I hope for the occasional historical nugget that will make this sifting of mountains of sentiment worthwhile. There are a few. Many of the names of the friends and neighbors of the Thomases and the Suttons are recognizable to us today as street names- the Hanleys, the McCauslands, the McKnights, the Rannells and Gratiot (the surname of the original Swiss gentleman who once owned nearly all of what we call home).
The letters being their only form of communication when they weren’t in each other’s presence are long. Deliberately so. The longer it took to read the letter, the more entertained was the recipient. In this case, Kate, as none of her letters to WLT have survived.
All of the envelopes are small by today’s standards. The oldest ones are tiny. Even so WLT managed to squeeze an eight page letter into some of them. And he wrote very small. They are much easier for me to decipher if I scan them first but that takes so much time.
I doubt that I will ever be able to read all of them but I hope to be able to give you, the reader, a good idea of what they are about. So here goes.
This is what the collection looks like. The letters in the bottom row are from 1867 beginning June 11th when WLT and Kate first met. The letters I have scanned and placed in archival sleeves are also from 1867. I put them in chronological order. The letters in the middle row are all from 1868. I separated them by month. Some months have as many as 8 or 9 letters. The ones in the top row are from 1869. They end on March 25th, their wedding day. By the end of September 1867, Thomas had switched to a slightly larger envelope. There are only two letters in this collection that seem to have no connection to the rest. They are also the oldest letters being sent in 1866. They follow.
This is a letter from a woman named Callie to her father. She mentions her companion, Will, who we will learn in the next letter is Will Grumley. There is more information on the Grumleys in this earlier post. She says that “Will’s eyes are to bad to either read or writ much…” On the second page, I don’t quite understand her message, “I can’t writ much now for Will is nearly ? ? for me to stop and talk to him as he can’t read or amuse himself he sits there as Judeth says ? a dacent spell of graving sure because there is no one to talk to him.”
This is the second oldest letter in the collection. Written on May 13, 1866 from Memphis, it begins with “Dear Father” and was written by W. Grumley. One sentence in the page above attracted my attention. It reads, “The riots only lasted 2 days, now every thing is as quiet here as it is with you in the country.” A quick search revealed that the riots mentioned was the horrible Memphis massacre, race riots that occurred May 1st thru the 3rd. That is worth mentioning but now we’ll switch gears and take a look at the very first letter WLT wrote to Kate.
This is the envelope WLT used to begin his love song to Kate. It has a 3 cent stamp on it. There was a family connection to Stephen Smith but I’m forgetting what it was at the moment. I’ll try and refind it and link to it before the end of this post.
It is laborious to scan and resize these letters. I truly want to look at all of them. I feel fairly certain that this is the only time I will have this opportunity to take this intimate of a look at life in our community in the 1860’s. Be patient, it will be slow going. I’ll try to feature the highlights.
From WLT’s 1911 History of St. Louis County, John L. Sutton married Margaret L. Smith, daughter of Captain Stephen Smith of Carondelet. John was Kate’s brother.
From WLT’s 1911 History of St. Louis County, pgs 32 and 33. On page 31, WLT writes about the Tesson family. He mentions that Asa Parmalee Tesson built a rock house in 1851. It was still standing in 1911. Joseph Casebeer did the stone masonry and Captain Stephen Smith did the plastering.
There is much more to be learned from these letters. I’ll try to avoid burnout by skipping around to subjects that are less labor intensive.
January is over. We usually experience a little spring-like weather in February. I’m hearing it is possible we may get a breath of it today. Hurrah!
‘Til next time,
Doug Houser February 2, 2020