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Happy Valentine's Day!

Posted by Megan Rohleder on Feb 12, 2021

By: Lauren Gray, Head of Reference

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner (at least we don’t have to worry about getting restaurant reservations this year)! We put together some of our favorite love letters in the archives.

From courting candles to bundling bags, courtship and marriage had their own rituals in the 19th century. Letters and cards kept couples connected while apart, and locks of a loved one’s hair were as cherished as class rings and letterman jackets are today. 

A blog post about romance would be remiss without mention of these letters, a classic example of unrequited love. Written by John Brown’s associate, Aaron Stevens, while he was awaiting execution for his participation in the Harper’s Ferry Raid in 1859, Stevens wrote to his prospective lady friend, Jennie Dunbar, confessing his love and affection:

“….you seeam to fill my soul with what a woman ought to be. if you can love as poor a [mortal] as I am, it will be more than I expect, but if you doo I Shall strive to never have you sorry for so [dooing], for no love intrusted in my [ boson] shall ever complain [sic].” 

 

Jennie, a fellow abolitionist, visited him in prison in hopes of having his death sentence commuted, but she made it clear she was more concerned with his soul than his heart. Comforting Stevens as best she could, she nevertheless broke off their hasty engagement in the hours before his death by hanging, concerned that once he arrived on the spiritual plane, he would know that she only loved him with sisterly affection. Ever a romantic, Stevens brought a ring with him to the scaffold.

Absence, it seems, does make the heart grow fonder, as this Civil War valentine attests. Private Joseph Forrest kept his new bride, Elizabeth, in his thoughts as he fought with the 8th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Forrest sent her several valentines during his service.

 

During the Civil War, the country suffered over 800,000 casualties in four short years, and Forrest’s promise to be “Faithful in Death” certainly had the potential to be binding.

To those who believe Victorians lived lives of stuffy repression, you’re partly right. But behind closed doors, they could let their corsets out. John Brown, Jr. (the son of the famous John Brown) travelled relentlessly during his wartime service. He kept up a dedicated correspondence with his wife, Wealthy Brown, during that time. While their letters include details of his service and his experiences during the war and are ostensibly family letters between husband and wife, they hide a titillating secret: The Browns wrote amorous coded messages to each other embedded in their correspondence. Discovered by researcher Bill Hoyt in 2010, the code is a basic numeric cipher that enabled the Browns to exchange private messages to each other while apart, without fear of the messages being intercepted.

While references to bosoms abound, the coded messages were also assurances between husband and wife that their love persisted through separation and war. “When the war is over if I live, it seems to me that my greatest [pleasure] will be to make a beautiful and happy home. It has come to be one of my strongest desires…Fondly your John.” He also writes, in code, that he has stashed away nearly $1,000 with which to purchase a home when the war ends. Thrifty AND an abolitionist? What a lucky gal!

While we can’t all have Brown, Jr.’s flair for correspondence, we’ve come up with some historical ditties for your own Valentine’s Day cards this year. What, don’t we all want to rhyme about disease?

 

Roses are red,

cholera is blue,

it's a good thing

you didn't live in 1842!

 

Poppies are red,

bubonic plague is black,

nothing will save you

when the germs attack!

 

Roses are red,

violets are blue,

I’ll sure be sad

if you get the flu!

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Bibliography:

 

Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. Henry Holt & Co., 2011. 


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