The joy is in the details

They say that the devil’s in the details, but when you’re doing research, that isn’t true. I love that "wow" moment when small details bring people of the past to life, when you suddenly see them as real, multi-dimensional human-beings.

For example, one of my ancestors, Samuel Waite, was a seafaring captain from Lyme. He made a fortune in the West Indies trade, but he wasn’t always a wealthy, influential adult. Once he was a little boy who sometimes got into mischief. My family used to own a carefully embroidered sampler he stitched when he was 7 years old. It said, “Sammy was a naughty boy.”

Another family story I like concerns my great-grandparents, Griswold and Cornelia Avery. They were apart for four years while he went to the California Gold Rush. The long separation didn’t make the young couple rich, but some things matter more than money. My grandmother, Genevieve, remembered Griswold as a stern, no-nonsense father with a loving heart. She recalled that even when the Averys’ parlor was crowded with friends and family, if Cornelia wasn’t present, Griswold would inquire plaintively, “Where is Everybody?”

Like family anecdotes, the power of firsthand accounts provides enriching insights that history books can’t. In his autobiography, Jonathan Whipple, whose teaching methods led to the founding of the Mystic Oral School, described that moment when he realized his baby boy was hearing impaired. The situation ultimately had positive outcomes: the child became a “good talker.” and many students benefited from Jonathan’s techniques. Still, we can feel a father’s pain when, as an old man, Jonathan recalled his emotions that dreadful day: “It never entered my heart … that he was deaf.”

Albert Crary Burrows, a Mystic steamship captain, subdued a mutiny aboard a ship under his command and wrote about the incident in an account now held by the Mystic River Historical Society. Albert was a skillful storyteller, and the details jump right off the pages.

The voyage from Hong Kong to New York had begun badly. The crew was inexperienced and surly. Albert thought that only the cook, the carpenter, and the steward could be trusted. He considered the first mate a coward, and he wasn’t surprised when city authorities served an arrest warrant on the second mate before the ship even left the harbor.

They were battered early on by a monsoon. When a second storm threatened, Albert decided to outrun it rather than make a planned stop at an island for fresh provisions. Several crew members, who’d been eagerly anticipating the chance to buy liquor, didn’t take disappointment well. The ringleader threatened Albert, angrily demanding that he reverse course and head for the island.

The mutineers had underestimated their captain. Albert knocked the rebels’ spokesman unconscious with his pistol, handcuffed all the conspirators, and hung them by their wrists, with their toes barely skimming the deck. Albert declared he would take them down and not report the incident if they agreed to obey orders. He told them, “You shall all be well treated as though it had not happened … it will be your own fault if the whole thing is not soon forgotten.” He then added that if they caused any further trouble, he’d put a bullet through their brains. The men believed him.

Albert didn’t intend his account to be a self-portrait, but it is. In the details, you meet a strong, decisive man who could think on his feet and who, even when severely provoked, could be merciful.

And finally, when I was learning about Thomas Wolfe, a Mystic sea captain who escaped from a Confederate prison, I was touched not only by his incredible courage, but by the many people who helped him on his 340-mile flight to Union-held territory. Giving someone a piece of bread, a drink, or permission to sleep in a barn — these don’t sound like extravagantly generous gestures. But these small acts of kindness meant the difference between life and death to an exhausted, starving man.

Details matter and little things mean a lot.

 

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