Death and the Readers of Robert Merry’s Museum,
by Pat Pflieger

Presented at American Culture Association Convention, Chicago, IL, 1994

[NOTE: References in brackets are to the letters printed in the Museum and include all information necessary to find them in the magazine: numbers. Thus, 1852.2.124 would be page 124, second half of 1852. Many of the letters can be found among those selected for “Dear Friend Robert Merry”: Letters from 19th-century children, at this site.]

Robert Merry’s Museum was the first American magazine for children to publish letters from its subscribers. From 1841 to 1872, in “Merry’s Monthly Chat with His Friends” readers found companionship and a sense of belonging to a warm extended family. Calling each other “Cousin” and the editors “Uncle” and “Aunt,” the letter-writers joked, quarreled, and cemented friendships—and, occasionally, found consolation in time of grief.

Letter-writers ranged in age from 5 to 75, with most in their mid-teens. They lived in almost every state, and in the Oregon Territory and the Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw Nations. Some were the children of farmers and some of planters; but most seem to have been the children of professional men: judges, physicians, attorneys, and ministers. Though all were middle class, it appears from a preliminary survey that the families of southern readers were wealthier than northern ones and were more likely to be in one of the professions.

Of the several thousand letters published in the Museum, around 70 deal with the subject of death. A poem on the death of a pet rabbit [1842.1.159-160] and a story of the death of a child through a mother’s procrastination [1849.1.153] probably were created in the grip of pure sentimentality. But in the rest the theme of death is based in reality: Readers commented on the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, of two of the editors, of eight subscribers, and of friends and family members.

It is impossible to compare the deaths among the readers and their families with the greater population. Not all the deaths experienced by the Cousins were mentioned; apparently picking up his older brother’s subscription after that brother’s death, George Higbee did not tell the other readers that Edward had died. Most causes of death were left vague, though ileus, cholera, and consumption claimed victims. Four young men died in the War.

In the early years of the magazine, the deaths of relative strangers predominated, as griefstricken parents used the Chat as an outlet for their emotions. Of three children memorialized in poetry in these years, only one apparently took the magazine. After the Cousins had forged their imaginary family in the 1850s, they felt free to discuss the deaths of family members, and real families followed the wish expressed by one dying subscriber that they “ ‘Tell Uncle Robert about me.’ ” [1865.2.23] In three cases, the death of the subscriber is not merely announced, but is described in a fair amount of detail. [1865.2.23; 1846.1.190-192; 1855.2.94] The details of other deaths were extrapolated by readers or family members: Adelbert Older dying of his wounds as a prisoner of war in a Richmond hospital [1865.1.88] or Henry A. Danker drowning in the sinking of the Tecumseh in Mobile Bay. [1865.1.24-25]

Why were these letters sent to the Museum? After its first year, the Chat was not simply a column whereby the editor could communicate with the subscribers, but a source of fellowship for readers and editors. The Museum’s imaginary editor, Robert Merry, was a fully realized character, and readers responded to him immediately, sending letters and gifts to the Museum’s offices. Once the letters column was established, readers responded to each other’s letters and puzzles and forged relationships with each other inside and outside the confines of its pages. “[A]lthough unknown to us in body, yet in spirit we were friends,” William H. Coleman wrote after the death of Benjamin Tompkins. [1855.2.125] W. A. R. expanded on the idea eleven years later: “[T]hink of this, all ye people! old and young, from all parts of our country, connected in the bonds of friendship, for only one dollar and a half per year, postage stamps extra.” [1866.1.58-59] Subscribers had a unique relationship with their magazine and with each other, and the magazine that was such a part of life became a source of consolation in time of death.

All of the letters expressed very real pain, even when there was no personal relationship with the deceased. “A pall of sadness is thrown over our land by the terrible news of the assassination of our good President,” Lizzie wrote in 1865, “and it is in vain that I try to throw off the feeling of gloom and discouragement that comes over me when I think of it.” [1865.1.187] Having endured the death of her mother and sister and the separation of her family, Anna Elsie wrote, “I have my pets, but they all die.” [1857.2.157] Eight years after her mother’s death, Winifred wrote, “I am almost alone. I have no one to love. Life has hardly one joy left since my mother’s death.” [1862.1.24-25] Religion mitigated but did not erase the sense of desolation. “I know she has gone to Jesus,” Eddie wrote of his little sister, dead of cholera, “but I do miss her so much.” [1855.2.94]

But there was a sense that a pain shared was a pain halved, and the Museum was seen as a place of comfort and consolation. Letter- writers knew that in the pages of the Chat they would find sympathy, for here they were among friends. “Cousin Jennie, you and I should be the best of friends, for we can sympathize with each other,” one wrote after the death of a 13-year-old boy [1865.2.58]; to which Jennie, whose brother had died in the War, responded, “I would offer the hand of friendship to Juno, who has so recently lost a darling brother. We can indeed sympathize with each other in our great affliction.” [1865.2.120] Sigma assured another reader, “Dear Franc, you know how I mourn with you the loss of your truly Christian father.” [1865.2.155] Winifred requested and got the sympathy of an editor, who reminded her, “Don’t say you have no one to love, with so many uncles, aunts, and cousins. They can not give you a mother’s love—but such as they have, they give unto you freely, cordially, always.” [1862.1.24-25] After the death of a relative in battle, Pet found herself turning to the editors and to the readers “for sympathy—most of all, to you, dear, sweet cousin Daisy. Come, sit by me, and let me tell you of him. Perhaps you have friends who have thus nobly died; if not, I know your sweet, pitiful nature will make you weep in sympathy with me, and help to heal the wound in my heart.” [1862.1.155-156]

In the pages of the Chat, readers also had a sense of shared grief: “How painfully throbbed our hearts, how freely flowed our tears, I need not tell you, dear Uncle Merry,” Caddie Everette wrote on the death of Lincoln. “You felt it all.” [1865.1.186-187] And, there may have been a sense that a death shared is a death with purpose, especially in the case of the very young. Children such as Lewis Meriam [1845.1.63] and Benjamin Tompkins [1855.2.94]—both age 8 when they died—were extolled for their virtues, “worthy of imitation by all.” The author of a poem on the death of an 11- year-old hoped that “the perusal of these lines by your youthful readers may have an abiding influence upon their hearts.” [1846.1.190-192]

Several themes predominated in the letters: that heaven is our true home; that life is brief, but even a brief life is not pointless; that God sometimes takes the very young to protect them from life; and that, given life’s briefness, one must be prepared to die at any time. Children, especially, were presented as angelic beings whose virtues were worth imitating. Letter-writers often echoed the themes in Our Little Ones in Heaven, a work of consolation literature advertised in the Museum in 1858. After 19 pages proving the premise of infant salvation, the book’s poems and essays emphasize the brightness and angelic sweetness of young children, consoling parents on their loss. Children are better off in heaven, safe from the harshness of life, like sheltered flowers transplanted to keep them from harm. (“The Transplanted Flower” 124) Parents would do well to submit to God’s will, for a child may grow up into a life of sin and strife. (“The Mother’s Dream” 205-208)

Letter-writers also emphasized that the earth was not our true home and that heaven was preferable. In many letters, the world was pictured as a harsh place from which we should be glad to go. It was a place of “chills” and pain [1846.1.190-192] and of “tears and strife” [1864.2.125], where the possibility of evil was ever present. Heaven was preferable. It was a “haven” [1846.1.190-192] of “endless, perfect day” [1864.2.125], a “land where wind and tempest are never known” [1849.1.153] and where one led a “never-ending happy life.” [1864.2.125] Those who died were “[h]omeward- bound ones” [1865.1.154], and no one should mourn “for those who make an early and safe voyage home.” [1867.2.61]

This theme was especially important in the deathbed descriptions, where it was emphasized that all pain was eased by death, when great joy would begin. These descriptions allowed their writers to retell the trauma in a therapeutic way and, perhaps, to show how a good person died. They also served to acquaint the young reader with the realities of death—which many may have observed already. But, most important, the deathbed descriptions assured the reader that a “good death” was possible and that death was not the end. Death was painful, but patience and virtue could help one overcome it. Bennie Tompkins died an agonizing death from an obstruction of the intestine, but even he was “relieved of pain for a few hours, and breathed his last calmly, and with his mind perfectly clear.” [1855.2.94] One young girl murmured “amid the moans,/ Of pain and suffering, in sad sweet tones” of the joys of heaven and of the mercy of God, “[t]ouching each heart with her bland tenderness,/ And, childlike, winning with a fond caress.” [1846.1.190-192] An editor wrote of Ella, “After months of severe sickness, during which she manifested such patient submission and Christian cheerfulness, she was so calm and happy, so peacefully waiting her departure, that there seemed to be a coming down of heaven to receive and welcome her to glory and immortality.” [1865.2.23]

Life, letter-writers assured the reader, was brief. “Oh, how short does life seem!” one writer exclaimed. “We will soon pass away and fade like a leaf.” [1857.2.27-28] A staple of letters written in the 1840s and 1850s was the sentiment, “if I live to grow up.” In the 1860s, the deaths of several subscribers pointed up to others that one could be taken at any time: At the beginning of 1865, Pontiac asked, “Who, how many of us, will live to see the close? All, I hope, but I am afraid not. … See how many of our friends have been suddenly taken away!” [1865.1.25-26]

But, brief as it was, life did not have to be pointless. Children were equated with angels put onto the earth as examples of purity:

A fair young being passed before my view,

A tender, guileless child—one of those few

Whom Heaven doth lend to us for a brief space,

That we may mark the meek and winning grace

Of a pure spirit, shedding forth a ray

Of man’s sweet nature, ere he went astray. [1846.1.190-192]

God sometimes took a child before it could be harmed by the world: “Dry, dry those tears,/ Nor wish him home,” one poet advised, “He’s only gone/ From sin and fears!” [1845.2.318] Another writer found comfort after the death of a 13-year-old in the idea that “our darling is safe from the evil to come.” [1865.2.58]

Letters on the deaths of older teenagers and of adults focused on their accomplishments, personal or professional. The Museum’s founder, Samuel Goodrich, may have died, Pinckney Latham wrote, but “he still liveth in his works, and can look down from above, upon the good results of his labors below.” [1860.2.157] Lincoln’s “zealous and unwearied efforts for our country’s good” were lauded by Caddie Everette, who called him “our second Washington.” [1865.1.186-187]

The less famous, too, were remembered for their accomplishments. Letters about young soldiers and sailors emphasized their roles as “defenders of [God’s] eternal principle of human freedom” [1865.1.88] and “sacrifices” on the “altar of human freedom” [1862.1.155-156] who died “for ‘fatherland’ ” [1864.2.123-124] and for “their ‘country’s sacred cause.’ ” [1865.2.27] Letters about others focused on personal accomplishments. William . Oakley died at age 26, but his pastor lauded the way “ ‘He had matured his own character, and established his influence upon others. I would never erect as a monument over the grave of such a young man a broken shaft, emblematical of an unfinished life, but a solid, perfect column, symmetrical and complete.’ ” [1864.2.60-61]

Younger or older, the deceased served as models for the readers, in the way they died and in the way they had lived. Ella’s “patient submission and Christian cheerfulness” [1865.2.23] and the murmuring of the unnamed 11-year-old of God’s eternal love [1846.1.190-192] showed a good Christian death. Lives, too, could exemplify virtues. Of 19-year-old Henry Danker, an editor wrote, “he was just as good as gold.” [1869.1.435] Esther Meriam wrote of her son, “In kindness of disposition, care of his little sisters, strict adherence to truth, and fixed principles of duty, his example is worthy of imitation by all.” [1845.1.63] Another adult wrote of William Oakley, “One who knew him well has told us of his personal worth, and his bright, Christian example. Let us emulate his virtues. … ” [1864.2.88]

The most important virtue to be emulated was that of being prepared for death, since it could come without warning. “May we heed the warning which these sudden deaths would teach us,” the editor wrote of those on board the Tecumseh when it sank. [1864.2.87] William Oakley’s death especially reminded subscribers that one must be ready: Exempted from serving after being drafted in 1863, he died less than a year later at home of a brief illness. This prankish subscriber (for years he pretended in his letters to be a girl) also was one of the most popular, and his death hit the other subscribers especially hard. “My consternation and grief were great, as on joyfully opening our mag. at the Chat, the first words I saw told me one of our dearest cousins, brightest stars, would never more meet with us in this world. What can we do without him?” one wrote [1864.2.88-89], echoing other letter-writers. But they took comfort in knowing that Oakley was prepared for death: ” …[O]ne sweet thought soothes our grief. He was ready to go home, and with him ‘all is well,’ ” wrote one [1864.2.87-88], while a third agreed, “Let us thank God that when the messenger came he found [him] ready.” [1864.2.92] The deaths of Oakley and Danker, which came close together, reminded readers that “the young and talented are every day passing away, teaching us to be also ready” [1864.2.126-127] and that they should “strive to imitate the noble example of [Oakley] and H.A. Danker, so that when our time shall come, like them we may be found ‘ready and waiting.’ ” [1864.2.157]

The rewards of heaven, for the Cousins, may have gone beyond the everlasting garden and the endless day. There may have been a sense that the extended family of the Chat was eternal. Like many of the time, the Cousins hoped to “meet above.” But at least one letter-writer felt a further bond. Charles F. Warren may have died, she wrote, but “I love to think he is with us still—that all the dear ones of our band who live on high see us and care for us.” [1867.2.29-30] It was the culmination of the extraordinary metaphor that was the Chat: a family formed mostly of strangers who never met, who sympathized with each other’s sorrows, and who mourned together each other’s deaths. “All these years I have been with you, till your names and faces are become as familiar as those of my friends,” Bertha wrote in 1865, “I have been with you unseen, when the circle re-echoed with joy and gladness; and when the shadow of the ‘dark-winged angel’ has fallen heavily upon you, I, too, a sincere mourner, have been with you in your grief.” [1865.2.123]

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