[To “Nineteenth-Century American Children”]

The Early Dead,
edited by William Chalmers Whitcomb (1857)

Consolation literature isn’t read for pleasure; and in the aggregate can strike us as mawkish and sentimental and melodramatic. It’s difficult even to use the word “literature” to describe the books: the writing is utilitarian, and not particularly beautiful or deep or nuanced. But the bereaved can find consolation from works that are far from artistic.

The Early Dead is a large collection of poetry intended for the consolation of parents losing a child. While the editor isn’t listed on the title page, he makes his identity known throughout the book, which reprints works written as memorials to his twin daughters. William Chalmers Whitcomb was a minister prominent in the abolitionist movement; appointed a chaplaincy at the U. S. hospital in Newbern, North Carolina, in 1862, he died in Newbern in 1864 at the age of 44.

Most of Whitcomb’s published works are sermons. But he also published two works of consolation literature, both focused on the deaths of the children. The Early Dead (1857) is the precursor to The True Consoler; or Balm for the Stricken (1861), a work of 213 pages, of which 108 are focused on the deaths of children, in a section titled “The Early Saved,” Whitcomb’s “second series” to The Early Dead. “A work like this,” Whitcomb asserts in The Early Dead, “is an experiment on the part of the compiler and the publisher. Should it prove a successful one, and the book meet with a cordial reception in bereaved families, it may be followed ere long by another, and somewhat similar volume.” [p. xii] True Consoler “is only redeeming of a pledge made years since, when a somewhat similar work issued from the Press. But the Editor and Compiler is constrained to acknowledge, that amid the multiplicty of other labors, he had well-nigh forgotten his conditional promise, until his attention was directed thereto by the special Providence of God in the removal of another of the ‘Olive Plants’ that had begun to blossom ‘round about his table’. ” [The True Consoler; p. 95. page images at hathitrust.org]

Both books were apparently inspired by personal tragedy. Married to Harriet Lincoln Wheeler in 1851, Whitcomb fathered eight children between 1853 and 1865 (a son was born five months after Whitcomb’s death). Five of those children lived to be adults. The Early Dead is collected around memorials to Maria Sarah and Mary Harriet Whitcomb, twins born on 22 August 1854 who died of typhoid a month apart in 1855, Mary dying on 28 September, and Maria dying on 27 October. (For births, see birth records for Stoneham, Massachusetts, for 1854; p. 159, line 1: in Massachusetts, Birth Records, 1840-1915; at ancestry.com. For deaths, see See Deaths Registered in the Town of Southbridge, Massachusetts, for the year 1855; lines 55 and 65: in Massachusetts, Death Records, 1841-1915; at ancestry.com.) Mary and Maria are pictured in the frontispiece and are the subjects of several poems in the book. The “olive plant” whose “removal” inspired The True Consoler was Mira Florence Whitcomb, who lived only a month (April-10 May 1860). (See record at Find a Grave: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/66091326)

The Early Dead and “The Early Saved” section of True Consoler share a number of themes. The preciousness of children is, of course, a theme; here they are tiny angels too good for this world, encouraging the bereaved parent toward a heavenly home. God smites the child in order to bring the parent closer: “The heavenly Surgeon maims to save,/ He gives no useless pain.” [The Early Dead, “Our Eldest Born,” p. 89] This theme can be tenderly expressed, but sometimes there is an air of victim-blaming; Whitcomb includes the words of a clergyman equating a grieving mother with a ewe that “would neither hear [the shepherd’s] voice nor follow him” until the shepherd takes the ewe’s lamb from her. [p. xiii]

But life after death can be better than life before it. Children who have died are safe in heaven, surrounded by angels. And, there, families torn apart by death on earth can be complete for eternity, safe, immortal. In “the Celestial State,” Whitcomb asserts, “none of the inhabitants ever say, ‘I am sick,’ … death never enters, and … all is life and immortality.” [The True Consoler; p. 97. page images at hathitrust.org] The death of a child is a reminder to take heart in religion, and the end result would be a complete and eternal family.

Why did Whitcomb focus on the deaths of children? Beyond his personal need, he notes in the preface of The Early Dead “how seldom can bereaved parents obtain, in the hour of adversity, books especially adapted to their peculiar circumstances. And this too, notwithstanding the estimate, that half our race die in infancy”. [p. x] Half? Whitcomb also notes in True Consoler a “startling item” of information: “in four No[r]thern cities of our Union the number of deaths in one year amounted to 43,432, and that of these 24,767 were children under five years of age.” [p. 96] Were his statistics accurate? Difficult to say, though family historians know that few families in the 19th century did not lose at least one child; Whitcomb and Harriet lost three of their eight children as infants. The author of “Children, From One To Three Years of Age” points to a surprising number of ways in which an infant could die: it could “pine or die with teething or summer complaint; … creep off the steps, or down the cellar stairs, or into the well, or get scalded in a pot of hot water left on the kitchen floor exactly in its way, or tip over the lamp, or set its clothes on fire, or meet with any of the mishaps that uncontrolled children are so apt to encounter.”

The death of even one child is a tragedy. The Early Dead memorializes several children: Jennie Sharp (1853-1857), a very distant relative of Samuel Griswold Goodrich; Clara Merriam Bartlett (1852-1857); Charles Webster (1821-1824); William Ephraim Wheeler (1844-1846), brother of Harriet Lincoln Wheeler Whitcomb; and Grace Webster Hinsdale (1854-1857), Charles Haddock Hinsdale (1851-1857), and Theodore Swan Hinsdale (1856-1857), related to Daniel Webster. And, probably, a number of children whose names weren’t connected to the poems about them.

The Early Dead reprints the work of a wide range of poets, from Shakespeare (here, “Shakspeare”) and Milton to Lydia Sigourney and a number of popular “newspaper poets.” The quality of the poems is also wide-ranging, from Shakespeare’s clear and concise lines to Park Benjamin’s “I dreamed when years had passed away I still should hear thy words,/ More welcome than the harmonies of all the singing birds.”

In this variety, mourners would have found something to comfort them: a line that spoke to them; an explanation for their broken hearts; an assurance that their children still lived, if only in a spiritual state; a reminder that other parents had endured the unendurable. Whitcomb’s preface alone would have likely been a source of consolation, mentioning his dead twins and exploring the ways in which a grieving parent might find comfort. The book ends with sentences from the Bible: small snippets acting as reminders to readers of passages they probably already knew. The first are from the Old Testament, and mostly concern the deaths of children. The last are from the New Testament, and they focus on God’s acceptance of them and a reminder of the special place of children in heaven—consolation indeed for the book’s original audience.

The Early Dead is presented here as a single file, with the original page numbers. Biographical information on several subjects of the poems is included with the poem about them. This copy’s distinctive spine makes it easy to find on a shelf. The sole review found appears below.

I would like to acknowledge the excellent family historians who have presented their work at ancestry.com for information on the Whitcomb family and the children memorialized in The Early Dead; I could not have completed my research without their well-laid trails to the information.

Information about William Chalmers Whitcomb can be found in a number of digital dabatases:

The Early Dead 

Review. Happy Home and Parlor Magazine 7 (February 1858); p. 143.

The Early Dead is an excellent collection of poetry designed for those who have been bereaved of children. The compiler is Rev. W. C. Whitcomb, and he has brought together in this little volume, the cream of all that has been written and published on the death of children. It will be hig[h]ly valued by afflicted parents as being congenial to their bleeding hearts. We r[e]cognize in it some familiar pieces of our best poets, and we rejoice to see them here on errands of consolation.

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
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