Those who work in digital collections often talk about supporting scholarship and new research. While that’s certainly an important endeavor, occasionally it can be fun to explore the wacky and weird in the archives without necessarily having higher academic pursuit in mind.

Full-length portrait of Edward Hitchcock
Edward Hitchcock

Since December 2013, I have been working closely with the Edward and Orra White Hitchcock collection held by Amherst College. As the Metadata Resident, I look at individual objects in depth to attach titles, dates, subject headings, and abstracts (among other things) to these items to make them discoverable in our online collections in Amherst College Digital Collections (ACDC). I have read nearly all of the letters that passed between Edward Hitchcock and Benjamin Silliman, have read pages upon pages of sermons written by Hitchcock during his early career as a Congregationalist minister, and have become quite the expert at reading Hitchcock’s notoriously bad handwriting. In all, I’ve read over 200 letters, 144 sermons, 28 sermon outlines, packets of lecture notes on botany, chemistry, and natural history, and much, much more. Often, I come across passages, phrases, or situations that strike me as funny and I thought I’d share some of them.

1.)    An 1854 remedy for constipation: 

In a letter Edward Hitchcock wrote to his son, Edward Hitchcock, Jr., he writes: “I am sorry to hear that Mary [Hitchcock Jr.’s wife] is unwell: yet I think she cannot be well so long as troubled with obstinate constipation. I am sorry I did not converse with her about it: for this has been one of my troubles. Yet I have conquered it mainly by coarse bread, applesauce, and milk diet. Perhaps she would prefer the disease to the remedy.” Hitchcock was constantly ill and it’s rare to find a letter from him that doesn’t mention his poor state of health, but generally his ailments included fatigue and problems with his lungs, so I just had to laugh at this unexpected ailment and cure.Image of Hitchcock's letter to his son

2.)    A pocketful of bats:

In October of 1860, Edward Hitchcock, Jr. was traveling in Switzerland. One of the letters written to him during this time includes pieces written by six members of the Hitchcock family. Charles H. Hitchcock, who was 23 or 24 at the time, had just been involved in a naming ceremony to name a summit in Dorset, Vermont, “Mt. Eolus” [now Mt. Aeolus]. I was surprised to read this passage about the trip to Vermont: “I obtained a pocketful of bats at the Eolian cave …” At first I assumed this meant dead bats, but I read on “… and have them now in a glass before me. There are five or six of them. They are now quite active, though torpid when taken from the cave. One flew out of my pocket on the way down the Mt. Two of them have been flying round my room, & one I rather think got out of the house & flew to the church. […]I have just let my bats loose & they are flying all over the room with great joy.”

Edward Hitchcock Jr. letter portion
Edward Hitchcock, Jr.’s comments about the bats highlighted in his letter

The letter seems to indicate that Charles was back in Amherst at the time of writing. How Charles not only managed to take “five or six” live bats from a cave in Vermont but also managed to get them home to Amherst (a two-hour car ride now, Dorset, VT, to Amherst, MA, was quite the journey in 1860) I have no idea, but it’s impressive to say the least.

3.)    Hitchcock and publication

Hitchcock kept up correspondence with Benjamin Silliman, founder and editor of the American Journal of Science, and they were constantly discussing scholarly publishing either for the Journal or other publications. In one letter (I unfortunately can’t recall which), Hitchcock tells Silliman that he has sent a review to a different publication. He apparently didn’t think the publication was well run, because he confided to Silliman that submitting his review was equivalent to “throwing it into the Dead Sea.”

4.)    A sermon for children

From 1821 to 1825 Hitchcock was minister at the Congregational Church in Conway, MA. His sermon “Duties of Children,” is the first I read intended for the children in his congregation. For the most part, Hitchcock didn’t rely on the “hellfire and brimstone” approach to preaching, but his sermon to children uses that strategy and is the most morbid of all those I read. Hitchcock tells his young listeners: “And let me tell you that every one of you must die too. It will not be long before the bell will toll at your funerals and you will be put into the coffin and covered up with earth.” He also tells the children about what happened to people who told others about Jesus during times of hostility to Christianity, saying “Very many were thrown into the fire and burned to death – others were torn to pieces by wild beasts.” I’m sure he gave those children nightmares!

Excerpt from "Duties of Children"
Excerpt from “Duties of Children”

5.)    Love notes to Orra White

Edward and Orra White Hitchcock were married May 31, 1821. In the archives, we have a small number of love notes arranging late night trysts between them prior to their marriage. One September 6, Edward wrote to his future wife:

Orra White Hitchcock
Orra White Hitchcock

“Do you think, Orra, if you should go up to Harriet’s towards night we would make it so muddy, dark and rainy this evening that it would be impossible for you to get back tonight? If such should be your belief I assure you I should be very happy to be placed in the same predicament (after Mr. Eliphlalet & wife have gone to bed) or in other words ‘I’ll be with you bye & bye’”

After spending so much time reading business correspondence from Hitchcock related to science and publishing, these slightly scandalous letters revealed a drastically different side of Hitchcock. That’s part of what’s so exciting about getting to work with original materials. Hitchcock’s published work can’t offer this type of insight into his life and personality.

6.)    A very strange sermon.

Fourth of July Occasional Sermon
The final page of Edward Hitchcock’s Fourth of July Fair sermon

The item in this collection that made me laugh the most was an absurd occasional sermon written for the Fourth of July in which Hitchcock appears to write primarily in wordplays on the word “fair.” It seems the women in the town of Conway were planning a fair for the Fourth of July, and he writes “The 4th of July Fair, a charming affair. Begun carried on and completed in elegant style by our own Fair on a very fair day we thank them for their many fair smiles and words and refreshments and nic-nacks,” but after four pages of discussing what a fine affair a fair is, he mysteriously concludes with this bizarre statement: “I have tried and failed. One woman = 5 pairs of cattle.” What he intended by that I’m not sure, possibly a comment the hard work of women in putting on the fair? Whatever the case may be, I cracked up laughing at my desk reading it.

Lots of new material from the Edward and Orra White Hitchcock collection, including letters and sermons, is now available within ACDC. I hope more people will explore these materials and find something that interests them, inspires them, or just makes them laugh.

3 thoughts on “Finding Humor in Edward Hitchcock’s Correspondence

  1. This is wonderful! I’ve just been transcribing a Hitchcock sermon, not realizing it may already have been done — it’s the Thanksgiving 1821 one where he rhapsodizes about the vast numbers of species of animals, stars, galaxies. I try to imagine his congregation hearing this and wondering what kind of preacher they’ve got!

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