Old letters open a window to the past. There isn’t a genealogist or historian who doesn’t yearn for them. And for good reason: letters carry the voices of our ancestors, they tell us a story. They illuminate our history.
One such letter, written on May 1, 1830 by Hingham resident Benjamin Thomas, Jr., to his uncle Martin Cushing in Maine, contains “sorrowful” news. It relates the death of Martin’s older brother Adna, who died the day before. The story it tells is of working conditions, medical knowledge, and a community caring for its own.
By way of background, Martin and Adna, sons of Isaac and Mary Cushing, were born in Hingham in 1788 and 1785, respectively. Descended from Matthew, the first Cushing to settle in town, they grew up in Hingham Centre, working on the family farm and in the sawmill. As adults, they entered the trades: Adna became a stonemason, Martin a bricklayer. In 1810, Adna married Sarah Leavitt and built a house at what is now 63 Pleasant Street; within a decade, he had moved his family to Leominster. Martin married Susan Thomas and moved to Maine.
In the letter, Benjamin recounts the facts of Adna’s death. He does not indulge in emotion or offer sympathy. From it, we learn that, in the winter of 1830, Adna worked indoors as a stone mason and that “the dust gave him a bad cough.” We learn that spring brought bad weather: there were “3 weeks of easterly winds and mist, by which [Adna] took a bad cold.” We learn that at the tail end of April, while working on a job in Charlestown, Adna fell violently ill and died. We learn he “labored” within days of his death.
When he died, his body “was brought to Hingham by a sail boat,” and “he was buried from M. & F. Burrs house” on the day of his death.
What the letter doesn’t tell us is that Adna was only 44 years old when he died. It doesn’t say how his wife and children learned of his death. Knowing he was buried the day he died, we understand that he was in the ground before most people knew he was dead. We see that immediately following his death a group of friends or co-workers carried his body from Charlestown to Hingham by sailboat. We know the news was rushed to Hingham Centre, and that the Fearing Burrs opened their home for an unexpected funeral. We realize that, in a matter of hours, a coffin was acquired, a gravedigger found, and a minister fetched. We are left to imagine the ripples of grief that spread across the villages and towns as friends and family heard the news.
Martin died seven years after his brother and is buried in Maine. How the letter survived is not clear as his widow is believed to have remarried and moved west, but it was handed down through the Cushing family. Thanks to the letter, we have a better idea of what it was like to live in Hingham in 1830.
Benjamin Thomas Jr. (1799-1854) was a nephew of Susan (Thomas) Cushing, Martin Cushing’s wife. He was the son of her brother, a gunsmith who lived in Hingham Centre. Lincoln, George et al., History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, Vol. III (Genealogical), 1893. Pub. by the Town.
A copy of the letter from Benjamin Thomas Jr. to Martin Cushing was shared with me by researcher Margie von Marenholtz.
Adna Cushing (1785-1830) and Martin Cushing (1788-1837) were two of Deacon Isaac and Mary (Jones) Cushing’s seven children.
The Capt. Adna Cushing house at 63 Pleasant Street was built in 1811, according to the Hingham Historical Commission, Inventory of Historic, Architectural and Archaeological Assets. On Adna’s move to Leomister, see Cushing, James Stevenson. The genealogy of the Cushing family, an account of the ancestors and descendants of Matthew Cushing, who came to America in 1638.1905. Montreal, The Perrault Printing Co.
On M. & F. Burr’s house: Fearing Burr Sr. (1778-1866) had a store and home in Hingham Centre. Lincoln, George et al., History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, Vol. III. Ibid. Adna is buried with his parents and his wife in Hingham Centre Cemetery. Note: His gravestone says he was 45 years old when he died; he was 44, in his 45th year.
Martin Cushing died 20 May 1837. “Maine Deaths and Burials, 1841-1910,” database, FamilySearch, Feb. 2018.