Mrs. Sally Morse

I went to visit a couple of old friends on Sunday, both of whom I’ve known since high school. One of them is dead.

At age fourteen, I went to boarding school outside of Boston. When my parents and I came to visit Boston, we went to the Central Burying Ground. That is where I happened upon Mrs. Sally Morse for the first time. The inscription on her slate tombstone reads:

In memory of Mrs. Sally Morse

Wife of

(Mr. Samuel Morse)

who died July 25th 1799

of the Cramp in her Stomach

after about one hours Illness

Aged 26 Years & 2 Months

At the time I could not read the bottom, but a good look at the photo reveals a further epitaph, carefully squeezed in:

Compleat she shone through every scene of Life

The tender Parent and Indulgent wife

When you are a teenager, twenty-six seems like old age. And yet, when I saw the grave of Sally Morse in the mid-nineties, it suddenly was no age at all. It was my age. By modern standards, I have had no major physical illnesses, and yet I would have died twice over in Sally Morse’s time. I knew it then and I know it now. I have always had a morbid fear of the inside of my abdomen, of the chance of appendicitis or of ectopic pregnancy. Either of these could have killed Sally Morse. I lay in my narrow dorm-room bed and thought it over.

I was, as I have said before and will say again, the kind of girl who would, “with her disposition, be having a better time in the graveyard.” When I was younger, I had no frame of reference for what Sally Morse’s life would have been like, except for a few dark interstices — vague ideas pulled from Johnny Tremain, from the claustrophobic antebellum houses I had visited. It would have been a hard life and a small one, compared to ours. Sally herself may well have been hard and small. All the tombstone tells us — besides what it says, of course — is that Sally mattered, and Sally’s death mattered. It mattered either to one person with money to spend, or several who could at least put together the money to buy her this tombstone, and to have it carved to order. The suddenness of it left them aghast, and they wanted to tell the world, perhaps to warn them that the Lord was at hand. What else can we know?

If Sally Morse was twenty-six when she died, she was born in 1773. That means she was ten in 1783, when peace was concluded between the armies of Great Britain and the United States of America. It must have been a strange and exciting time to be a child, frightening and hopeful — even for the Loyalists, who fled to Canada, and eventually brought their descendants peace and universal health care. And if my rough research has come to anything, it also means that Sally knew that her father was safe.

The names Sally (Sarah), Samuel, and Morse are very common in colonial New England, so it is not quite possible, without a heavy investment, to confirm her. Still, it appears to me, from, that Sally Morse was born Sally Dix, the daughter of John and Mary Dix, in Reading. A Reading birth record names such a child, who would have been twenty-six years and three months old at the gravestone’s death date (take that as you will). One John Dix of Reading, according to an application for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution, was a commissioned officer in the Continental Army, who resigned in 1779.

A marriage record shows that Samuel Morse of Boston and Sally Dix of Newtown (sic) married in March of 1794. What became of the children to whom she was a “tender Parent,” I cannot tell from here. If my guess is correct, her husband did not have an easy time of it in death himself. One Samuel Morse, roughly three years older than Sally Morse, died in Boston on January 7, 1826, of “gravel.” By that, the recordkeeper meant kidney stones. Being “cut for the stone” (PDF) was such an arduous, humiliating experience, even by the standards of premodern medicine, that Samuel may have chosen to avoid treatment. Whether he chose to do it or not, he must have suffered greatly.

Across the way from the Central Burying Ground is the Public Garden. Until I passed through the other day, I had never yet noticed the Ether Monument. Anesthesia as we know it was first demonstrated in Cambridge in 1846. Ether would have greatly alleviated the pain of Samuel Morse, and perhaps made a successful treatment possible. Although anesthesia could not have saved Sally Morse, its availability made abdominal surgeries conceivable as a regular practice, rather than as a desperate measure, and laid the groundwork for the surgeries that might have saved her.

(For a story about quite another woman who noticed the Morse tombstone and was shocked, see here: “Indelicate and Unladylike.”)