The death of a family member or a neighbor sometimes evoked strong emotions that overcame normal constraints on expression. Sometimes this expression took the form of an elegy, an ancient poetic form and the one most often adopted by people who did not habitually write verse. The solemnity of the occasion might even inspire the poet to make this writing public by reading it aloud or having it printed. If the cause of death was a disaster, then the horrifying circumstances had their own fascination. The death of a famous person differed mainly in that the poet was joining in a chorus of collective public grief.
The Columbian Tragedy. Boston: Printed by E. Russell, for Thomas Bassett, .
St. Clair’s Defeat, “Perhaps the most shocking that has happened in America since its first Discovery,” was the greatest Indian victory in the campaign to oust them from the territory above the Ohio River. The American army, mostly recruited from prisons and slums, was hopelessly unprepared and badly outnumbered. Their commander, Gen. Richard Butler, ignored intelligence that Indians were surrounding his army and they were taken by surprise at dawn on November 4, 1791, near Miami, Ohio. Two-thirds of the army, 900 men, were killed or wounded in the brief battle. Butler stayed behind when everyone fled and was killed by a tomahawk. Some say his heart was cut out and eaten by the victors. He is pictured on the left of this sensational broadside, which was sold by a peddler in rural New Hampshire for sixpence, a high price for a ballad. see image below
[Samuel Buell].The following lines were occasioned by the death of Richard Brown, Samuel Brown, John King & Peter Brown : who belonged to Oyster-Ponds on Long-Island, and were all drowned by the over- setting of their boat. New London: [T. Green], 1770.
This upwelling of grief may have been written by the minister in East Hampton, but the author preferred to credit the verse to his muse, “ex meo Musaeo.” The catastrophe left “Nine fatherless … Widows two, Orphans three.” The striking woodcut, specially made for this piece and never used again, was far more complicated than the usual gravestone Memento Mori. The sheet was printed at the nearest press in New London and advertised for sale in the newspaper there. There was money in this tragic news.
The Following lines were composed on the melancholly state of the Family of Mr. Benjamin Sandborn, of Sandbornton. New Hampshire, 1795.
The coffins at the top of the sheet tell the story: Sandborn died in October, 1794, leaving a wife and 14 children. (No wonder the town was named after him.) His son Hugh died in December; another son Ebenezer died January 6, 1795; and his daughter Lucy died January 23. Each was “seized with a nervous fever” and “was deprived of reason.” The poems are like a Greek chorus of grief, one for each victim, with a final “acknowledgment of God’s goodness.”
Benjamin Johnston. A few Thoughts, on the loss of Dr. Eleazer Harlow’s house and children by fire. [Boston, 1765].
Justin Winsor’s History of Duxbury, Mass. confirms that a fire in the Harlow house on February 5, 1765 killed daughters Abigail (aged 13) and Polly (aged 11). The parents saved themselves by jumping naked from their bedroom window into the snow; only then did they think of their daughters. This unrecorded broadside may have been published in order to make a veiled suggestion of negligence. (Winsor notes that the Harlows’ house caught fire again in 1797.)
Verses made on the sudden death of six young women and one boy, who were drowned at Jamestown, Rhode-Island, July 13, 1782. [Newport]: H. & O. Farnsworth, [1797 or 1798].
When these verses were first printed in 1782, they were headed with 7 woodcut coffins bearing the names of the victims. The description of the hunt for the bodies must have been painful to read. The moral: “Not to forget the thirteenth of July.” So why does this reprint some 15 years later mention no names? Perhaps to make the lesson more universal: death can strike out of the blue on any summer afternoon. The charming woodcuts were more enticing to young readers than coffins.
[Peter Tharp.] An Elegy on the death of Capt. Annanias Valentine [and 4 others] of Marlborough, who were unfortunately drowned … in a violent storm of Wind and Rain. [Kingston, N.Y., 1800].
Then as now, sudden unavoidable accidents that claimed many lives were the occasion of grief and reflection on the insecurity of life. In early America these powerful communal feelings were often expressed in verse, usually anonymous and lacking all authorial vanity. But another copy of this poem exists with the author’s name printed and (most unusually) a copyright statement. We still do not know why Peter Tharp took on this role, or why his poem was printed when the local pastor’s funeral sermon was not.
[Charles Caldwell.] An Elegiac Poem on the death of General George Washington … dedicated to the patrons of the True American. [Philadelphia, 1799].
Each year newspaper printers struck off broadside “addresses” supposedly written by the carriers, who gave them to subscribers on New Year’s Day to elicit a tip. Normally these were festive seasonal verses, but since Washington died on December 14, 1799, at just the time the carriers’ addresses were usually printed, some newspapers issued ponderous elegies instead. This one is thought to be by a famous physician. It is the only known copy printed on silk, a special tribute.