‘The mysterious disappearance of Paul Massie’

As many of you know, I’ve been transcribing and researching the letters William Macon Waller wrote home to his family over the fall and winter of 1847 and 1848, while he was walking a coffle of slaves from Amherst County, Va., to Natchez, Miss.

Once in Mississippi, he sold the slaves to settle some debts.

In the letters, Waller writes about lots of things: a family of dwarfs he saw in Southwest Virginia, the fact that sweet potatoes were a big crop in a particular area he was passing through, that he ran into so-and-so and his wife, who is a terrible cook.

Like I said, lots of stuff.

In one of the letters Waller writes home to his wife, Sarah, he mentions someone named Paul Massie. The Massie and Waller families knew each other and lived in the same general area.

Dr. Thomas Massie, Paul’s father, was a prominent physician and slaveholder. At some point, he also married Waller’s sister, Lucy. Here’s what Waller said about Dr. Massie’s son, Paul:

… in another paper [I read about] the mysterious disappearance of Paul Massie. … His fathers [sic] anxiety must be excruciating.

So, of course I wanted to know what happened to Paul Massie. I hit the Internet and it didn’t take long for the story to unfold. On Nov. 30, 1847, under the headline “Missing,” the Richmond Enquirer reported the following:

The New Haven Courier says that Paul Massie, of Virginia, a member of the Freshman Class of Yale College, left that city on Monday, under circumstances that create anxiety; and any information communicated to his brother here, P.C. Massie, or to his father, Dr. Thomas Massie, Tye River Mills, Nelson Co., Va., will be gratefully received by them. He is about five feet eight or nine inches high — stout built — black hair — dark complexion; and had on a brown frock coat, dark green pantaloons, double breasted black vest, and cloth cap.

Upon reading the article, I was even more intrigued. Had Paul been kidnapped? Was he a drunk? Was he crazy? Was he ever heard from again? So I got on FamilySearch, a great (and free) genealogy website, to see what I could find.

In the 1850 U.S. Census, I found out that three years after Paul goes missing, he’s not listed with his family in Nelson County, Va.

I kept poking around on FamilySearch, looking for Paul Massies of the right age, who were born in Virginia, etc., and eventually, I found him. In the 1850 census, he shows up at Mount Hope Hospital — described as “An Asylum for the Insane and Invalids” — in Baltimore:

Paul Massie, 19, student, born in Virginia, insane, entered hospital in 1849.

Sadly, I also found Paul at Mount Hope in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. He died in 1894 — possibly at Mount Hope, because he’d been there so long already — and is buried with his family at Blue Rock, the family home in Nelson County. He was 63 years old.

At the Virginia Historical Society, in its Massie family papers, there are more clues about what led Paul to Mount Hope.

On Nov. 6, 1847, Dr. Massie writes Paul, then at Yale College, a letter. Among other things, he encourages Paul to “study well and take exercise enough to keep your health good and your mind clear” and to try and tolerate the college’s rules, which are “necessary to preserve order among so many different kinds of young men collected from every portion of our wide country.”

In the next letter I read — I admittedly did not read the entire Massie family file — Paul’s brother Patrick, also a student at Yale, writes his dad, saying that Paul has disappeared.

In the letter, dated Nov. 16, 1847, Patrick writes that “Paul has seen proper to leave college, and has not been heard of since yesterday noon.” Later, he explains that Paul has “for some time expressed his dissatisfaction with this kind of life and that he wished some more active kinds.

“He had been melancholy for a few days before his disappearance, and frequently expressed to some of his class mates [sic] his intention of leaving.”

Also, according to this letter, Paul has withdrawn all of his money from his bank account and, as Patrick puts it, “His conversation and conduct for several days past would lead one to conclude that his mind is somewhat affected.”

When Dr. Massie writes back, it’s apparent that Patrick has gone looking for his brother, but is now back at Yale and attending his classes. This pleases his father, who also writes, “It is useless to hunt for Paul as no one can tell what course he took.

“I have [sic] no idea there was any mental derangement in his case. But that the act was deliberate and premeditated, although its excessive folly would lead to the belief that no sane person would do it.”

In the same letter, perhaps more telling, Dr. Massie writes about Paul:

Boys whose heads are cold to natural affections, and who of course have no experience to guide them, are prone to go wildly wrong and the only medicine that can cure them is suffering.

Eventually, Paul is found — where and how I don’t know — and he lands at Mount Hope.

In 1871, more than 20 years after Paul’s disappearance, his brother Patrick gets a letter from the hospital about the bill for Paul’s care. Among other things, the writer, a nun named Sister Catherine, informs Patrick that “I take great pleasure to report that [Paul’s] general health is good.”

More about Mount Hope:
Mount Hope Hospital, also called Mount Hope Retreat, was founded in 1840. When I searched for Mount Hope on Chronicling America, the newspaper archive of the Library of Congress, and also on Newspapers.com, I found interesting stories about other people sent to Mount Hope.

It’s pretty amazing, the gossipy, scandalous things that newspapers used to report.

For example, under the headline, “Insane Through Religion,” an Oct. 25, 1884, story in the Sacramento (Calif.) Daily Record-Union, tells of a 19-year-old Baltimore woman, “Miss Igo,” who was “found in her bedroom Wednesday evening, wholly nude and a raving maniac.”

According to the story, Miss Igo had long wanted to be a nun, but her family disagreed with her plans. So, she “thereupon became somewhat sullen with disappointment. Her troubles weighed on her mind to such an extent that she gradually showed signs of a weakening intellect.

“She went to her bedroom and, taking off her clothes, lay down on the floor and commenced to scream. It has been found necessary to remove her to the insane asylum at Mount Hope. Miss Igo is of attractive appearance and graduated last year at a prominent private school.”

A second article, in the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette, said that Miss Igo was the niece of a Baltimore grocer named Michael Igo.

I’ve done a little online research, in an attempt to determine exactly who Miss Igo was, but I’m not sure if I’ve found the right person. There was a 16-year-old girl, living in the household of grocer Michael Igo and his wife, Mary, in Baltimore in 1880 who might be her.

According to local newspapers, she also graduated from a local Catholic academy, which goes along with the nun story.

I hesitate to assign this bizarre behavior to someone erroneously, though. If nothing else, I’d hate to get nasty emails from her descendants. So, for now, the identity of Miss Igo will remain somewhat shrouded in mystery (unless, of course, you look her up yourself).

In searching Newspapers.com, I found numerous stories, written between the 1880s and early 1900s, about people being sent to Mount Hope Asylum. Like Miss Igo’s case, the stories often included information about the strange behavior that led the person to be committed to the hospital.

Perhaps I will share some of them in a future post.

Learn about ‘Victorian Times’ Sunday, June 4, at Presbyterian Cemetery

Learn about ‘Victorian Times’ Sunday, June 4, at Presbyterian Cemetery

On Sunday, June 4, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its third “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long, guided tour, “Victorian Times,” will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

The tour, given by Judy Harvey, will highlight mourning practices during the Victorian era. The time period, named for Britain’s Queen Victoria, runs from 1837 to 1901, the length of her reign. The tour also will include stories of people buried at Presbyterian Cemetery during Victorian times.

Augustus Winfield Scott 1843-1905
The weeping angel atop the grave of Augustus Winfield Scott (1843-1905).

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

I have written other posts about the “residents” of Presbyterian Cemetery, including five girls who died in a fire at the Presbyterian Orphanage and the Stephens children, who are buried together under four little stone lambs.

‘Babes Die in Flames’: The Presbyterian Orphanage fire

At about 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1909, a fire broke out at the Presbyterian Orphanage in Lynchburg, Va., killing five girls, ages about 5 through 10. Stories about the tragedy appeared in newspapers as far away as Texas and Kansas, and perhaps even farther afield.

Under the dramatic headline, “Babes Die in Flames,” the Baltimore Sun reported that the fire erupted in Shelton Cottage, a girls’ dormitory. It was first detected by the orphanage cook, a “Mrs. Priest.”

Mrs. Priest, they say, was awakened “by the roar of the flames.”

In one eternally long sentence, the newspaper goes on to describe the scene:

“When [Mrs. Priest] saw that it was then impossible to get the children out by the stairway, the entire basement and first floor at that time being enveloped, and that it would be but a few minutes before the whole building would fall, she rushed to the third story and brought 15 children down to the second floor, leading them to the veranda roof, where they were taken down a ladder, several of them dropping into the outstretched arms of the older boys of the institution.”

As described in “Feed My Lambs: A History of Presbyterian Homes & Family Services, Inc., 1903-2003,” by Mary Jo Shannon, “Boys in nearby Paxton Cottage rushed to bring a ladder to rescue the frightened children. Some of the smallest girls jumped and were caught by the older boys.

“Tom Bowles, a sixteen-year-old crippled boy who lived on the first floor of Shelton Cottage because he could not manage stairs on his crutches, caught five or six of the girls before he collapsed, exhausted.”

The little girls who died that fall morning were Ruby and Lucile Moorefield, sisters from Lynchburg; Mamie Reynolds of Bath County; Marie Hickman of Campbell County; and Mary Poole of McDowell County, W. Va.

Beneath the exceedingly morbid headline, “Five Children are Cremated in Nursery,” the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal reported that Ruby Moorefield had initially been rescued but, upon learning that her younger sister, Lucile, was still trapped inside ran back into the inferno and “lost her life.”

Wanda Carpenter photo - graves of girls killed in pres home fire
Five little graves. Photo by Wanda Carpenter, Presbyterian Cemetery.

A funeral for the girls was held two days later at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The Washington Post reported that the church was “crowded” and “the bodies were held in five little white caskets.”

The girls are buried at Presbyterian Cemetery on Grace Street in Lynchburg.

As for the cause of the fire, Charlotte’s Evening Chronicle reported that there “seems to be no doubt but the fire was started in the furnace from which the building was heated.”

The Baltimore Sun said a coroner’s inquest, held the day after the blaze, “threw no light on the cause of the fire, but the verdict included a statement fully exonerating the Home authorities from blame.”

The Bryan, Texas, Eagle, reported that the building “caught fire in a manner that made the rescue impossible.”

Despite that dire description, 24 of the 29 girls were helped to safety, many by the aforementioned Mrs. Priest and possibly Sue Gamewell, another Shelton Cottage matron.

They did this without the benefit of a fire escape and neither escaped unscathed.

According to accounts in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, Gamewell, a widow in her late 40s according to 1910 U.S. Census, “contracted pneumonia while escaping from the fire in her night attire.”

As reported in the Evening Chronicle, Mrs. Priest — who was likely 20- or 21-year-old Ohio native Edna Preas, according to the 1910 census — had numerous injuries, including a dislocated shoulder, sprained back and a scalp wound.

“Mrs. Priest, after seeing the children in the main part of the building out safely, was compelled to jump,” the newspaper said, adding, “She will recover.”

There was even talk of nominating Mrs. Priest for a Carnegie medal for heroism. (Either she wasn’t nominated or didn’t win, as she’s not listed among the honorees for 1909 or 1910.)

Despite that, the Baltimore Sun had this to say about the bravery displayed by the women:

“Dr. R.H. Fleming, the superintendent, was away at the time of the fire, and there were no men about except some distance away in the farmhouses. When they arrived at the burning structure it was too late to save the little tots.

“The women could not have save[d] them, as they barely succeeded in saving 24 of the other girls.”

All I have to say to that is, “Really, guys? The lady saved 15 girls and then jumped out a second-story window, probably in her nightgown. Obviously, your editor was not a woman.” 

And special thanks to Wayne Fitzgerald for posting an article about the Presbyterian Home fire last October.

‘Sunday Stroll’ shows off natural beauty of Presbyterian Cemetery

On Sunday, May 7, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its second “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long walking tour, “Natural Beauty,” will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

The tour, given by Judy Harvey, will highlight plants and gardening traditions in the historic cemetery, along with stories of the past. Harvey also will address the meaning behind certain plants — roses, lilies, ivy, etc. — commonly used on tombstones and cemetery statuary.

You can read more about cemetery symbolism here.

10 babies
The final resting place of the 10 Waldron infants.

One story Harvey will tell involves the Waldron babies, 10 infants born to Robert and Susan Waldron, of Lynchburg. They are buried in a long, segmented plot behind their parents. Other than two monuments paying tribute to the infants as a group, the graves are unmarked — no names or genders and no birth or death dates.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers are buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

Road Trip Recap, Part 1

Last week, my good friend and running partner, Paula, and I took a road trip to Mississippi. Our primary mission was doing research for a book I’m working on about the journey William Macon Waller and his slaves took in 1847-48 from Amherst, Va., to Natchez, Miss.

Our secondary goal was eating. There’s lots of good food in and on the way to Mississippi.

We left Lynchburg on Saturday morning, April 22, bound for Birmingham, Ala. On the way, our route would take us through Bristol, Va., where there were doughnuts at Blackbird Bakery. Really good doughnuts.

The bakery, which is open 24/7, is located on the Virginia side of Bristol. In case you didn’t know, Bristol is a divided city. Tennessee is on one side of its main drag and Virginia on the other.

At Blackbird, I had three doughnuts: a vanilla cake, chocolate cake and a chocolate/caramel yeast doughnut. I washed them down with a pint of milk. Paula, who has more self-restraint than I do, had two doughnuts.

One of hers was blueberry pancake flavor with maple/bacon topping. It looked pretty good.

If I didn’t hate traveling I-81 so much, I might be at Blackbird every weekend.

Back in the car, we drove on, through Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tenn., and then Birmingham, Ala. Along the way, we counted 17 dead armadillos. They started appearing roadside, belly up with their tiny, clawed feet in the air, somewhere around Chattanooga.

Paula Googled “armadillo” on her phone and discovered the word was Spanish for “little armored one.” That made sense. She also read that armadillos had an odd — and suicidal — habit of jumping straight up when startled.

Sometimes, the article said, they jumped straight into the undercarriages or fenders of cars, thus all the little, armored bodies. Before the week was out, I’d count 42 dead armadillos along highways in Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. And not a single, solitary live one.

alabama sign
Yes, it really says that.

In Bessemer, Ala., south of Birmingham, we checked into a hotel. Hungry again, we went to Bob Sykes, a local barbecue joint that’s been around since 1957. Husband John and I had been there once before, on the way to a family wedding in Louisiana.

It was about 6 p.m. and the place was packed. Many customers were wearing University of Alabama colors — red and white — causing us to suspect there was a spring football game down the road in Tuscaloosa that day.

I had a barbecue pork sandwich, macaroni and cheese a pile of fried okra. Normally, I wouldn’t cross a busy street for fried okra, but this was fried in a cornmeal batter and very tasty. Bob Sykes might have made a convert that night.

At the hotel, we watched several episodes of “Law & Order Special Victims Unit,” my favorite TV show. In addition to enjoying the dramatic stories and vicariously reliving my days as a sex crimes detective — yes, that was one of my “past lives” — I also appreciate its star Mariska Hargitay’s dedication to real-life sexual assault victims.

In 2004, in response to what she learned by playing Olivia Benson on “Law & Order” and the mail she received from sexual assault victims, some of which were telling someone about their abuse for the first time, Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation.

You can read more about the organization here.

Soon, I’ll take you a little further down the road, where more dead armadillos, more good food and a few historic discoveries await.

Road Trip!

Soon, my friend, Paula, and I will head to Mississippi for a week of searching old courthouse records and archives, and maybe even knocking on some doors. We’ll be looking for evidence of William Macon Waller and the slaves he sold in the towns of Raymond and Natchez in 1848.

If you’re new to the blog, for the past couple of years I’ve been transcribing and researching letters that Amherst County, Va., slaveholder William Macon Waller wrote while taking a group of his slaves from Virginia to Mississippi.

My goal is to write a book telling this story.

Waller and his slaves took the overland route, traveling through Virginia, Tennessee and likely Alabama before entering Mississippi’s eastern state line at Columbus. The slaves, including several children, walked 25 or 30 miles a day for 900 or so miles.

According to the letters, it appears Waller rode along on a horse or mule.

slave-coffle-virginia-lewis-miller-drawing
This is what the group might have looked like as they traveled to Mississippi. Credit: Slave coffle, traveling from Virginia to Tennessee. Lewis Miller, Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, 1853-1867. Courtesy, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

Waller was selling his slaves to pay debts he had at home. On the advice of friends and family, he sold them in the deep South because prices were better in cotton country.

In Raymond, he sold “Sarah and child,” Henry, and three sisters named Lucy, Louisa and Sarah Ann.

forks in road
It’s possible Waller sold some of his slaves at the “Forks of the Road,” a huge slave market in Natchez. Today, there are interpretive signs and memorials at the site.

In Natchez, he sold Ellin, India, Pleasant and Charlotte — all children — along with Anderson (also called Tups), Susan, “Nelson and wife,” “Piney Woods Dick” and “Runaway Boots.”

There were four or five others, but I don’t know their names. It’s possible, they included individuals named McDonald and Emily, but I’m still working on identifying whether they were along on this journey or not.

I’ve included the slaves’ names because, first of all, they weren’t just “Waller’s slaves.” They were people with lives and families. Some, including the girl India, were forced to leave their families in Virginia.

Also, there might be someone out there who recognizes these names or this story from their own family’s oral or written history. If so, I’d like to hear from you. I’d like to tell you more about what your great-great-great-relative survived and share details about their life that you might not know.

Of course, all of this travel and research will make me and Paula hungry, so we’ll also be eating some good food in Mississippi. Hopefully, we’ll hit at least one spot on Garden & Gun magazine’s “Fried Chicken Bucket List.”

And then there are the tamales. Apparently Mississippi is famous for them. Really, it’s a thing. There’s a festival and everything. So, in Natchez, we’ll drop by Fat Mama’s Tamales.

Husband John and I ate at Fat Mama’s a couple of years ago, while traveling home from a wedding in Louisiana. It was definitely worth the detour, as was the town of Natchez, which is an architectural showplace perched above the Mississippi River.

big house
One of the many old mansions in downtown Natchez.

In the spring and fall, Natchez hosts Pilgrimage, when many of its historic houses are open for tours. Paula and I will arrive in town the week after spring Pilgrimage ends, but that’s OK, because we’ll be staying at a historic plantation called Glenfield.

Glenfield, previously called Glencannon, was once owned by William Cannon. According to another letter I’ve transcribed — this one written by a man named James Ware, who helped Waller find buyers for his slaves — Cannon bought the aforementioned Piney Woods Dick and Runaway Boots.

While Cannon didn’t buy the Gothic revival cottage until about three years after Waller came to Natchez, it’s possible that Piney Woods Dick and Runaway Boots lived and worked at Glencannon. So, as you might imagine, we had to stay there.

Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for photos and (hopefully) a report of amazing historical and culinary discoveries on the road.

armadillo
John and I drove a few miles up the Natchez Trace, an old trade route and now a scenic highway. Along the way, I yelled for him to pull over so I could see a live armadillo. There are lots of dead ones between Tennessee and Mississippi, so I was glad to see this tiny live one along the roadway. It was really hard not to reach down and pet it.