1848: Elizabeth Rivers (McNeill) Caruthers to Martha Rivers McNeill

Headstone of Caruthers

Headstone of Elizabeth Rivers (McNeill) Caruthers

This letter was written by Elizabeth River (McNeill) Caruthers (1825-1849), the wife of John P. Caruthers. Elizabeth and John were married in July 1846. John was a native of Virginia. He was an attorney and judge of the Common Law Court of Shelby County. He also owned a plantation in Tunica County.

Elizabeth wrote the letter to her sister, Martha Rivers McNeill (1827-1887). Elizabeth and Martha were the daughters of Malcom McNeill (1796-1875) and his third wife, Martha Rivers (1800-1827). By the time this letter was written, Malcom was married to his fifth wife, Catherine Boddie.

The letter contains a delightful decryption of two masquerade balls held during Mardi Gras in Memphis — a tradition carried up the river from New Orleans. I could not narrow down the date of this letter definitively. I believe it was probably written in March 1848 or 1849, however.

Image 67

Addressed to Missa Martha McNeill, Lake Charles, Mississippi
Care of Malcom McNeill, Esq.

Memphis [Tennessee]
March [1849?]

I hope Malcom has entirely recovered by this time. I want he & Ang[us] to call & see me if they can conveniently as they go up.

Say to Mother that the slips that I set out for her look very well this evening but I am afraid that I am not adept in raising slips.

My Dear Sister,

I expect you would be glad to hear how I got on traveling alone. I found that the Swiss Boy intended going up to Cincinnati the present trip so I felt a little anxious about the hour of reaching home but fortunately for me she was delayed several hours in the night repairing the wheel-house which was broken by running against a log so I did not land before 10 o’clock on the following day. Mr. Caruthers was rejoiced at my getting back. He said that he had been looking for me a month (so it appeared to him) & that he intended starting down for me that evening. I found everything very neat & in good order at home. So far as I can judge, Adeline conducted herself very well during my absence. I feel the loss of your society very much everyday. Mr. Caruthers & myself frequently wish you were with us but I have too much to employ my time in to suffer myself to feel lonesome.

The weather has been exceedingly since since my return which enabled me to be a great deal in the yard & garden. At other times I have been busily engaged in serving. I am afraid that you will have a quantity of that to do. If so, you must manage some way for myself & Laura to assist you.

The Harry Hill ¹ had passed up before I left Lake Charles. Mr. Caruthers wrote a note describing the trunk — indeed saying everything in relate to it that we thought necessary, explained all things explicitly to the manager of the wharf-boat, & requested him to hand it to the Captain or Mr. Crockett, It was directed to either. It appears that Mr. Bourne — the clerk — delivered the note not knowing anything about the contents of the note. He of course made no enquiries. Mr. Caruthers directed that it should be looked into & if found, landed at Pa’s plantation. Mr. Caruthers was engaged at the court room all of last week & will be this week also. The Harry Hill passed down on last Saturday morning. I do sincerely hope that she left your trunk.

I trust that Mother has not had much trouble with the little calf. My cow (of which I am very proud) is doing admirably. She is perfectly gentle and gives the richest milk Mr. Caruthers says he ever drank. No wonder, he drinks nothing but the cream & says that it is the finest living he ever had. That milk is a great luxury but he knows that I am a great beggar. I am waiting quite patiently for him to tire on cream so that I can make some butter. As neither of us care much for the article, I shall be silent & let him take his own time. Tell Pa that I found no difficulty in getting her to eat but she is still more fond of shucks that boiled corn or hay.

Dandy Jim from Caroline, the song was published in 1844

Dandy Jim from Caroline, the song was published in 1844

Memphis is still very gay. They have had two masked parties since you left — one at Mr. A. B. Harris’s & the other at Major [James] Penn’s.² Miss Penn represented a Swiss peasant girl (at the one given at her father’s). They say that she was as diminutive as a human person could well be. The delectable Dr. Smith had a desire to go to Mr. Harris’s so he went around to Mr. Armour’s & asked Mrs. Armour & Mrs. Pendergrass to fit him up to go. So they got an old drab suit of Mr. Armour’s that he had worn a number of years ago, dressed him up in that, & then two of the largest pillows about the house & stuffed one behind & the other before (it is said that the ladies assisted the gentleman in making his toilette), then an old white hat and sent him off. Everyone at the party was highly amused at his ludicrous appearance. On being asked what might his name be, he invariably replied Smith. Of course all thought it an assumed name. He was not detected the whole evening. Dr. Brown went as Dandy Jim [but] did not disguise his form sufficiently so as not to be known but acted his character very well. They say Abe Heron went as some foreigner, spoke of representing General Harland, but he said as he was the only one that was acquainted with the General & that fact was known, he might be detected so he relinquished the idea.

You may know that I have seen Helen from the quantity of news that I have gathered. Although she did not attend either party, she walked in the other morning & brought my slips of roses (half of them I set out in a box for Mother). Mrs. Robert Lake moved back to Jackson last week. Her sons were dissatisfied. I have seen Mary Armour once since my return. She enquired very affectionately after you. The Captain & Mrs. Pendergrass — both of who required after you — all express their regret at your not returning. We had several calls in my absence. Mrs. Joe Ayers called the other evening & brought her baby. Mrs. Warhop says that she calls her little girl the Tea Rose because it is so rare & sweet.

Well sister, I believe that I have summed up all of the news & it all does not amount to much. I want you all to spend two or three weeks with us on your way to Kentucky. Mr. Caruthers joins me in this request. Also in love to all. Write soon.

Your affectionate sister, — E. R. Caruthers

¹ The H. R. W. Hill, owned by Thomas Hamilton and commonly called the Harry Hill, regularly made the trip up and down the Mississippi River between Memphis and New Orleans. In January 1847, she is reported to have burst a boiler at Louisville, severely scalding the first engineer. The steamers Marengo and Harry Hill collided with each other on the Mississippi River below Natchez on 30 November 1848. The collision was so violent, the Marengo was sunk causing three of her crew to drown. The Harry Hill steamer survived the collision and was repaired, only to be blamed years later for spreading the Yellow Fever epidemic from New Orleans to Memphis (1854).

² Major James Penn (1794-1868) was born in Amherst, Virginia. He resided in Alabama a number of years before relocating to Memphis in the 1840s. He was the cashier at the Planter’s Bank of Tennessee. The “Miss Penn” mentioned in the letter was probably Janthe P. Penn (born 1834).

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