1824: James Canby Biddle to John Worthington Williams

Account of accidental shooting published in the National Advocate (NYC) on 25 September 1824

National Advocate (NYC) on 9/25/1824

This entertaining letter was written by James Canby Biddle (1802-1841), the son of John Biddle (1763-1815) and Elizabeth Canby (1776-1832). James’ father was an apothecary and druggist in Philadelphia. James became a lawyer and eventually moved to Montrose, Pennsylvania.

Biddle wrote the letter to his friend, John Worthington Williams (1803-1837), the son of John Williams (1762-1840) and Sophia Worthington (1765-1813) of Wethersfield, Hartford County, Connecticut. John graduated from Yale College in 1822, studied law in Philadelphia and began his practice there. But his love for literature caused him to give up his practice, pursue free-lance writing, and eventually become the editor of the National Gazette in Philadelphia — a post he held for approximately one year before his premature death at age 34.

Preparations for Lafayette in Philadelphia, Boston Commercial Gazette, 9 September 1824

Boston Commercial Gazette, 9/9/1824

The letter contains an interesting description of the accidental shooting of Williams’ chum, Robert Frazer Smith (1804-1826), of Philadelphia — the son of Jonathan Smith (1766-1839) and Mary Anne Frazer (1774-1845). Robert had numerous sisters and two successful older brothers, Persifor Frazer Smith — a career soldier, and Beaton Smith — a medical doctor. Whether Robert fully recovered from this accidental shooting is unknown; he died less than two years later.

Biddle also mentions his political acquaintance William Morris Meredith and ends the letter by giving a delightful description of the preparations underway for the hosting of the Marquis de Lafayette to Philadelphia, which occurred on September 28th 1824.

1824 Letter

1824 Letter

Addressed to J. Worthington Williams, Esq., Wethersfield, Connecticut

Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]
September 22d 1824

Mr dear Williams,

Dr. Philip S. Physik

Dr. Philip S. Physick treated the wounded Robert Smith

I am truly sorry to communicate to you a most depressing accident which occurred on Sunday afternoon to your fellow student Robert Smith. He had in the morning loaded a pistol for the purpose of shooting a wild and troublesome cat which at times came into the yard and had gone out leaving the pistol on the table having forgotten to lock it up. After dinner, recollecting this circumstance, he returned home for that purpose and holding the pistol in one hand, with the other was in the act of unlocking the drawer when the keys fell and he, at the same time stooping to pick them up, the pistol went off, the ball entering his head nearly on the top part. He was insensible until towards Sunday [Monday] morning when he woke up perfectly rational and has been at various times to different persons given the same account as I have stated to you to different persons. Very little hopes are entertained of his recovery. Late last night he still continued perfectly rational. I have not yet heard of him this morning. I am just informed that he still continues so and is only slightly feverish. Drs. [Philip Syng] Physick and [Nathaniel] Chapman who attend him do not seem to have any expectation that he can recover. As you may well suppose, this unfortunate accident gave rise to various rumor which prevailed until his return to reason enabled him to detail the manner in which it happened.

Meredith later became Zachary Taylor's Secretary of Treasury. In this cabinet picture, Meredith sits at right of (standing) President Taylor.

Meredith later became Zachary Taylor’s Secretary of Treasury. In this cabinet picture, Meredith sits at right of (standing) President Taylor. [1849]

To turn from this gloomy affair, I am gratified to inform you that my exertions in favor of my excellent friend [William Morris] Meredith have proved successful and that his name is in due form placed upon the Assembly Ticket at which I heartily rejoice. It will, I doubt not, afford him an opportunity to display those cultivated talents which he unquestionably possesses.

We are all in confusion and noise even to uproar is the order of the day. Arches are thrown across out street. Trumpets are sounding with shrill music. “The ear-piercing fife and the spirit sritting drum” “know no cast from their labors.” The day before yesterday, the Governor of the State escorted by a throng and splendidly equipped military body, and an immense cavalcade of mounted citizens and concourse of foot shouting, throwing their hats into the air, and making it rebound with their declamations. This together with the roar of artillery gave an imposing effect to the whole scene. You will be ready to exclaim that I too am not free from the contagious influence of the mania which surrounds me. I wish you could participate in our — what shall I call it? I will leave you to supply the word and conclude by counting myself, your friend, — J. C. B.

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