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A Love Letter Like No Other

by on August 23, 2013


Today’s post comes from Alyssa Young and Yvonne Ruiz, student interns at the National Archives at Fort Worth, who came across an unexpected and eye-opening find amid the Galveston District U.S. Commissioner’s case files.


While perusing digitized records, Fort Worth Archives Director Meg Hacker found an interesting document in the midst of a seemingly unrelated collection.  Two graduate students, Alyssa Young and Yvonne Ruiz, were thus tasked with making sense of the series.  Masqueraded behind an apparently benign task was a fascinating journey through life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries; sorting through the Galveston District U.S. Commissioner’s case files proved an intoxicating venture.

The actual content of the series differs greatly from its description, which defined the series as documents about foreign deserters in Galveston port.  Instead, the series comprises a wide array of issues from the Commissioner’s office, including indecent letters, production of counterfeit currency, and possession of government property.

The initial take-away seemed clear enough—accurately describing documents is crucial, and we would correct any mistakes.  But we also grew in our appreciation for the archival of human history, even seemingly unimportant documents.

Within minutes of opening the first box we were introduced to the series of emotions that would carry us through the project—intrigue, delight, shock and, occasionally, horror.  The unassuming boxes contained a treasure trove of court cases reaching the basics of our shared humanity.

Of most interest to us were the items not as important to court records.  Physical lewd and indecent letters (envelope and all) held our attention for much longer than their court case filings.  Although the latter maintains legal relevancy, accompanying artifacts uniquely reveal human behavior.

Charge

RG 21, U.S. Commissioners Case Files, Southern District, Galveston, 1887-1925

 

 

One favorite is the 1894 letter of a Sam McGee, a declaration of love to his “Lillie Dear.”  He confesses, “I want to be your paramour, and I want to take you to the opera some night when you feel like going.”

Letter 1

 RG 21, U.S. Commissioners Case Files, Southern District, Galveston, 1887-1925

Within the file is a second letter written to Lillie’s mother after she files charges against him.  Notice the handwriting difference.  The obvious care he took when writing to Lillie makes him all the more endearing.

Letter 2

RG 21, U.S. Commissioners Case Files, Southern District, Galveston, 1887-1925

 

What happened to our star-crossed lovers?  A mother’s disapproval didn’t stop Sam and Lillie, who were 19 and 16 years old, respectively, at the time the letter was written.  Census records reveal they were married a few years later!

Sam McGee’s sweet letter might lead to scoffs at the 19th Century definition of “lewd and indecent.”  Trust us—letter-writers of the time were as indecent as email-writers of today (and in the very same way).

Interacting with artifacts of a time past strengthens a primal connection between two worlds, regardless of the historical significance they’re assigned.  Though separated by the most impossible forces—geography, creed, and even time—human existence is ever-connected.  Our history teachers really were onto something.


Comments

Nancy LaMantia August 23, 2013 at 12:04 pm

The written word of how a person feels about another is everlasting, as opposed to the spoken, where it’s soon forgotten.

Pat Flaherty September 13, 2013 at 9:24 am

The humanness of history sometimes gets lost — thanks for sharing this and the follow-up of what happened to Sam Lillie.

Erin Leigh September 26, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Very nice

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