Betsy Stedman’s Letter on the Passing of her Friend, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson
On this day in Graeme Park History, 1801, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson passed away at the home of Seneca Lukens, the clockmaker and friend with whom she stayed at the end of her life. Her friend Betsy Stedman composed the following letter to her cousin Deborah Senior in Jamaica informing her of the sad news:
On me devolves the melancholy task to inform you of the death of our beloved friend Mrs. Fergusson, the sisterly affection that subsisted betwixt you ladies calls upon me to inform you madam, the particulars relative to your cousin’s sickness and death. She had enjoyed her usual state of health till the 11th of February at 10 at night she complained being very cold, left her writing table and sat down by the fire. I pressed her to go to bed, she said it was too early for her to sleep, would sit an hour longer, some time passed in silence, then she observed no one knew how soon she might be called away from time to eternity; whenever that event takes place, it is my desire that funeral expenses may not exceed 15 pounds; a coffin of plain cherry boards, to be taken to town and laid at the feet of my parents. I am not worthy to lay at their side. The neighbors are to be invited they appear to respect me. I respect them. Having now become warm again returned to the writing desk for an hour when a chill came on again. I then repeated my request she would retire to bed, not doubting but a warm bed and sleep would return her to better feelings in the morning — an approaching spring always disordered her and brought on chills and fevers, next morning I went to her room very early she then informed me, she had passed a very painful night with a severe strangury*, this was a complaint she had many years been subject to, she appeared all day much inclined to sleep, as the strangury still continued I pressed her consent to call a physician but this she positively refused — observing it was an old complaint and would go off again as formerly. On the third day she consented for physical aid to be called. A physician of note was sent for in whom she had much confidence; he pronounced her case dangerous, a pleurisy** had now made its attack, this brought on a great oppression and shortness of breath, caused her speaking to be very difficult, often requesting she might not be asked questions which required to be answered, therefore she said very little during her illness, she took no food during her sickness which was short but sever, cold water was all she had inclination for; her strength gradually wasted; but the powers of her mind were clear and strong till 19th sight hearing and speech were all taken away. On that night in the former part of it as Miss Smith (Mrs. Fergusson’s niece)was sitting by her bedside she said, let no one think too much of the horrors of death. The great Doctor Young whose mind was always engaged on that subject, felt uncommon distress in those moments, implies death was then her mediations. Yet I do not think she apprehended dissolution so near, or she would have made some arrangements for such an event. She now slumbers sometime, then her person appeared in great agony with great restlessness till the 21st, this to Miss Smith and me was a dreadful part of observation, darker every hour, she then became perfectly quiet and appeared to feel no pain, but insensible to everything, in this state she continued till the twenty third, on which day at four in the morning she expired. What a happy change for her whose life was one continued series of benevolence. No person could possess a mind of greater sensibility, too feelingly alive for her comfort, she drank deep of the cup of sorrow from a variety of interesting events which her lie was full of – the last of her family, each member of which doted on her – disappointed in her last and only hope for happiness, you undoubtedly know madam the unfortunate difference with Mr. Fergusson her fortune faded to the she of a shadow, when Graeme Park was left to her, it was by her father held at ten thousand, when sold by her five hundred pounds was all she could claim, as her property. This was put in an annuity of sixty pounds yearly, out of which she paid fifty pounds a year for her board at a farmers house, in there remained ten pounds to support all her wants, as was she reduced at a period of life when indulgence most requisite, sometimes she would lament, she had not a house to entertain those she had a regard for and that her former bounty must be so circumscribed; as to personal appearance, I never heard a regret escape her lips, her dress was indeed humble, but she always commanded respect from her well know charter; she was not what might be called a gay temper, but a cheerful one, loved conversation, was brilliant in company, from her quick succession ideas which caught and improved every hint that could promote hilarity, though thus calculated to impart and receive pleasure in society her confined income, not for inclination, caused her for years to live a retired life, her active mind must have employment, writing became her constant pursuit; her unremitted application thus made of filling up her hours often astonished me; you madam are in possession of a large portion of the labors of her pen, therefore can form an ide how industrious she must have been. She never lost a moment in idleness, the longest day always set up late, but was not an early riser — one day not long ago I observed to her how happy it was for her she loved writing, as it prevented time from becoming heavy and tedious, that I wished I was as fond of that employment, her answer was, “do you think I am never tired of writing, alas! tis often necessity compels me, not choice, but what have I to do but this to occupy my time! yet I intend to relinquish it soon for another pursuit.” What it was to be she did not inform me. You know madam, among her own productions, is the whole of Telemachus put into verse, this work was intended for the press, but her finances did not admit of its being published at her own expense, and to solicit subscriptions, did not accord with her feelings; so it yet remains a manuscript. Poetry was her favorite in reading and writing in verses, she had a very pleasing and happy method of expressing her sentiments, as to letter writing, you know she had a charming pen, the extracts she sent you madam, at different times, are evidences how extensive her reading has been; she was blessed with a remarkably tenacious memory, in some instances that retentiveness operated to her woe; as she recollected every painful event, on those days of the year they had occurred, her imagination was so lively, that it was the same as though such transactions were then passing. Those days in which her nearest circle of friends had, never passed with out the tribute of a tear, her heart was all glowing to friendship, all sympathy to the distressed, this was not merely in expressions, but carried to action, if she had but a shilling, sixpence would go to the relieve the indigent; did she hear a person was sick, would walk miles to see them and carry a little preserved fruit that she thought might be salutary. It has been observed to her that many of the common mendicants were impostures her answer was, not matter. I would rather be imposed upon by nine than the tenth real object should be unrelieved. When in company if any absent person was mentioned slightly, or with disapprobation she was eager to shade their errors, and bring forward their good qualities, she was not fond of introducing religion as subjects for conversation, but she was truly a religious and pious character. Her bible she resorted to every day for instruction and to warm her heart (?) are, imitation of the great example there portrayed, her life was one series of endeavor, to discover what were her duties, and to practice them, how great must now be the reward for our angel friend! for such she is, I am convinced and one of the brightest order of charity; this was a prominent feature in her character and possessed in the most extensive (sense?) including thoughts, words, actions, her virtues whilst here were but in the bud now they are in full blow, what an (explanation?) or was her soul capable of; sometimes I make an attempt to follow her track in idea, but alas, I feel the distance between us so great that I fear I have lost her forever. Our range in the (ethereal?) regions must be far apart, I shall never soar to her height. I will endeavor to convey to you madam, some idea of her person, this, in stature was rather rising above the common size, slender and fragile, her neck and shoulders finely formed, complexion remarkably fair, the texture of her skin like an infants. Her eyes were quick and piercing the soul looked, the were expressive of what passed within, her lips plump and a fine hue, and her hair yellow.———– The general cast of her countenance pensively thoughtful, but when animated by conversion every feature spoke. Latterly time had made great ravages, sorrow had marked her for her own, its traces were deeply indented; all her faculties continued in full power till she had no longer use for them; what a blessing it was to be thus favored with sight, memory and the use of her limbs to the last, except for three days. She often told me she thought she would die in the spring season, that sixty five would terminate her life; this came to pass in both instances, if the happiness of a personal interview with Mrs. Senior was allowed me, how much could I inform you relative to our friend, which as you loved her would be pleasing to hear, now as a stranger I ought to apologize for intruding this long on your notice, the subject I fear has lead me into prolixity; let the powerful name of Mrs. Fergusson plead for me, sometimes my friend would read your letters to me and often have I told her I felt an ardent desire to be acquainted with Mrs. Senior, but this like many others will evaporate in air, as I cannot (obtain?) it on this side of our blue canopy. My mode of life must be very confined, I am an unconnected being, in this world an atom afloat on its surface, having to depend upon resources within myself for amusement, therefore great is my loss in the deprivation of my friend’s conversation and society, yet be assured I do not wish her back, no, every day convinces me her removal was at a time, the properest and best — permit me now dear madam, to take my leave with every sentiment of respect and regard.
I am Mrs. Senior’s friend and humble servant
Horsham April 6th 1801
* Strangury – a condition caused by blockage or irritation at the base of the bladder, resulting in severe pain and a strong desire to urinate.
** Pleurisy – inflammation of the pleurae (two large, thin layers of tissue that separate your lungs from your chest wall), which impairs their lubricating function and causes pain when breathing. It is caused by pneumonia and other diseases of the chest or abdomen.