Several years ago, I transcribed the diary of Sadie Margaret Avery, who chronicled her life on a New England farm in 1919. Weather reports, housework, and farm chores could have made my task tedious, but somehow they didn’t. Her observations weren’t intended for a stranger’s eyes, yet her character and personality are evident despite the primarily routine topics. I came to admire her work ethic and kind heart. I felt her sorrow when her brother died and her joy when her boyfriend returned from World War I. When I typed up Sadie’s last entry, my eyes filled with tears.
The diary of a precocious Mystic child, Helen May Clarke, is quite different. Helen started it ln 1915, when she was just 10 years old. Unlike Sadie, Helen spoke directly and at length to the future audience she hoped her journal would have. Her critique of the adults in her life is perceptive and funny, and her descriptions of early 20th century Mystic and New London are vivid. Here are two excerpts from “An Account of “My Life 1915-1926,” published by the Mystic River Historical Society. (The book can be purchased through their website.)
December 31, 1917: “Saloons are interesting but bad. Bank Street in New London has more than a sufficiency of them … It does not matter which side of the street you are on because they are on both sides. I try to peek in as we go by, but Grandma and Mama keep their eyes on me. You are not supposed to look right or left. Well, you miss a lot that way. I am not afraid of drunken men ...”
June 25 and 26, 1921: “I love New London on Race Day, when the streets are jammed with peddlers with their great bunches of crimson and blue flowers, and the whole pushing crowd of people. … As we passed the Mohican Hotel I thought I saw Charles Dana Gibson (creator of the Gibson Girls) coming out.” She found the scene at the train station exciting and chaotic with men in uniform, gentlemen in summer flannels, and a young boy clutching a violin all milling about. Helen concluded, “It was a wonderful day … and filled me with longing to think of all the world I don’t know of …”
Finally, for this column, there’s Joshua Hempstead’s famous diary, which he kept from 1711 to 1758. The New London County Historical Society first published it in 1901 and then again in 1999. Today NLCHS is preparing to publish an expanded version that will include corrections and material omitted from earlier editions.
Joshua (1678-1758) chronicled his numerous business and civic roles, including surveyor, carpenter, lawyer, scribe, gravestone-cutter, farmer, trader, and account manager for the town during smallpox outbreaks. He also owned a slave, Adam Jackson; Allegra di Bonaventura's book “For Adam's Sake” masterfully explores this important topic.
Joshua had so many jobs and knew so many people that his diary is an invaluable source for genealogical and historical research. Joshua may not have expected his words to be read by strangers centuries later, but during his own lifetime, the diary had a public purpose: evidence in court cases.
Drawing from her extensive research on colonial diseases, New London Landmarks volunteer Mary Beth Baker told me about some of the health crises the Hempsteads experienced. For example, on August 5, 1716, Joshua’s wife, Abigail, died from childbirth complications. Joshua, who never remarried, had to send his 2-year-old daughter, Betty, “my pritty babe,” to Long Island to be cared for by in-laws. Five days after Abigail’s death, his 17-year-old son died, of “the choking distemper.” Joshua wrote, “my Dutyfull son died about noon like a lamb … a patren of Patience.“ Some years later, he lost another son, to another contagious disease.
Joshua’s journal isn’t all business and personal tragedies. There are lighter moments, at least from a reader’s perspective, like his commentary about the antics of his “Old Wild Cow.” Apparently riled up after calving, the animal ran at Joshua’s head, loosened some teeth, and “Ript off (his daughter) Mollys Gown & tore her (corset) Stays….” Joshua sentenced the unruly bovine to death.
Pat Schaefer, a researcher for the NLCHS, wrote “A Useful Friend, A Companion to the Joshua Hempstead Diary” and is currently working on the upcoming republication of the journal. When I asked Schaefer if she thought Joshua had a sense of humor, she replied immediately, “Oh, yes! It’s subtle and dry, but he often reminds me of my grandfather who could turn a witty phrase.” Think how extraordinary it is that a man who chronicled his life 300 years ago can make such a personal connection today. So be mindful if you keep a diary. You might, unwittingly, give future readers a portrait of yourself.
Sincere thanks to Mary Beth Baker, of New London Landmarks, and Pat Schaefer, of NLCHS, for sharing their research and knowledge, and for providing a glimpse of Joshua Hempstead, the man behind his words.
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