Last column I told you about a sobering discovery as I carried forward an attempted clean sweep of debris from my desk. It was the 1814 Will of my Great-greatgreat- grandfather Owings in which he distributed among his heirs, and along with other kinds of chattel, a whole list of slaves, men, women, and children.
I can’t hold the longdead man to our contemporary standards on the issue, but neither can I understand how blinded were so many in his times behavior that surely cries to Heaven for vengeance: holding other human beings in permanent bondage.
The attitude could not continue, whatever spurious religious and economic arguments were raised in its support. Only 47 years after that will, the pent-up pressures exploded in civil war. In that war’s years, 500,000 Americans were dead because of it, and at one another’s hands.
But deaths over the slavery issue were occurring long before the war broke out, and I also turned up evidence of one of them in my overstuffed records. It’s an 1854 book I now I have lying on my desk top, a strange presence next to my thoroughly modern MacBook Pro laptop. Inside the book’s front cover is a dedication in a spidery, Spenserian hand:
“A small token of gratitude to Dr. Wm. R Massey from Ann Hill, June, 1859.” On the faded cover of this book of meditations I can barely read its title: “The Tent and The Altar, Sketches from Patriarchal Life.”
Also on the faded cover and on the gilded page edges are tiny flecks of brown, perhaps just ancient mold. But when our grandmother Atwell told the book’s story to my brother and me, we wide-eyed boys had no doubt what those flecks were. They were dried blood.
For in 1859, 153 years ago last month, our three-times-great-uncle Dr. William Massey had this book in hand when he was murdered, mistaken for an abolitionist.
Dr. Massey was a respected physician in Alexandria, Va., and I know nothing about his views on slavery. I’m guessing, however, that he was a man of his times and place, and so shared Virginians’ general outrage that outsiders were trying to disrupt something that was none of their business — something on which Southern economy was deeply dependent.
But whether he was pro- or anti-abolition made no difference. Somebody took him for a proponent, and that someone then took his life.
The doctor had been spending his evening hours making house calls among his patients. He was dressed, in spite of sultry June weather, in a top hat and with a full black cape over his frockcoated, vested suit.
To his great misfortune, a notorious abolitionist firebrand was in Alexandria just then to give a speech, and that man had already appeared on a public platform, dressed as was the doctor that evening.
Evidently some Alexandrian, ablaze with righteous indignation, saw Dr. Massey standing on a house’s front steps, awaiting an answer to his knock. In a flash the citizen decided that this was the hellish speaker, about to enter a house where he was to spend the night.
And so, armed with a length of lead pipe, the citizen strode up the walk. He swung the lead pipe and stove in the back of Dr. Massey’s head. When the door was opened, the physician tumbled into the foyer, a bloody corpse. Next to him fell Anne Hill’s gift book, still in his hand from his last house call.
All Alexandria mourned the good doctor’s death, called it a tragedy. But they blamed it on the abolitionist. If he hadn’t been in town, insulting people and their values, Dr. Massey would still be alive and visiting the sick and the housebound. In times of public anger and frustration, you see, people are careless about distinguishing between what actually has caused an awful event, and what merely occasioned it.
(Whether that last sentence has application to today’s spite-filled politics, I leave to you.)
Over the years since Grandma first put the book, a family relic, into my hands, I’ve tried to read it several times. Each time, I’ve given up, overwhelmed by its doleful tone. “Doleful” doesn’t do the job, and so I’ll add a word that I don’t think I’ve ever used in print: “lugubrious.”
That word comes closer to describing a tone that is not only profoundly mournful, but seems to enjoy being downbeat.
A lot of lugubriousness shows up in 19th-century religious writing, and it’s still around today. Watch out for it; a taste for it is akin to enjoying any good thing that’s gone bad — gone “off,” like cooked fish kept in the refrigerator two days too long.
And, just as spoiled fish can make you really sick, lugubrious religious sentiment can sicken your spirit. It certainly has no place in a faith that proclaims, “Rejoice in the Lord! Again I say, rejoice!”
Anyway, I have dutifully tried to read my murdered ancestor’s book, knowing he had no chance to do so. Somebody back in the family did get up to page 30, for there are passages marked in pencil up to that point. And opposite the index page, to edify future readers, somebody has penciled “28-29.”
Of course I’ve just reread those pages, and even slogged on, up to 30. But the words of the writer were making me feel ever more as if I were wading in a deepening marsh, muddy water about to flood my boots. Here’s just a taste for you:
“Many eyes never gaze upon the morning sun except through tears. Many ears hear in the brightest music the wild and melancholy minor of human sadness. Many tongues are constrained, some in bitterness, some in sorrow, some even in pain, to breathe the prayer of the fretful Jonah, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’”
In fairness, the author follows with a message of Christian hope, but the damage has been done. He’s made this life seem so miserable that we are tempted to agree with “the fretful Jonah.”
I’m glad Dr. Massey never got to read that, and very sad that he had to die a martyr for a belief he probably didn’t hold.
A was once said, however, by a very credible authority, “The rain falleth on the just and the unjust alike.” So don’t expect to figure everything out. But just don’t go wading in swamps. Being lugubrious is bad for your health.