Tag Archives: Diary

Isabel Chapin Barrows: Love and Tragedy in the 19th Century

It was late summer.  The year was 1862.  William Wilberforce Chapin, a young seminary student at Andover, writes to Miss Katie Belle Hayes in New Hampshire:

Dear Miss Hayes.  When I bode you goodbye at Andover I was expecting to spend the first week of vacation in making a tour through Vermont and Canada.  Therefore I told you not to expect a letter from me for some time.  But Secretary Stanton’s anti-emigration order with sundry other reasons has cut me off from my anticipated flee and has given me an opportunity of writing you some days earlier than I had expected.  Well.  Secretary Stanton might have done a worse thing for me, and perhaps you will not feel like calling him hard names for what he has done…

The letter is signed "Your sincere friend, William W. Chapin."  Over the course of the next year the salutations would become increasingly more affectionate:

With growing esteem,
As ever yours,
Your more than friend,

In November he writes:

My dear Bella.  Every time I commence a letter to you I feel dissatisfied with the customary form of address.  The words do not seem strong enough.  Long use has taken away their force.  As I can think of no better form of address, the old one must still be used, but you must always think of the second word as being greatly intensified, as though it were underscored four or five times.

This real-life love story from the mid 19th-century is told through over 150 pages of letters written by William Wilberforce Chapin and Katherine Isabel Hayes, addressed to one another during the time of their courtship and engagement.  The letters are part of the WW Chapin Papers, held in the Missionary Research Library at the Burke Library.

Could you so tantalize me as to tell about that moonlight boat ride? I might be pardoned for feeling a little envious and hoping that you did not have a very pleasant time, but I will be generous, and hope you enjoyed it first rate.

Tantalize you sir? It is fortunate for you that you shared some generous emotion, for in my heart I hate selfish people.

In the fall of 1863, the year of his graduation from Andover Theological Seminary, William was ordained as a Congregationalist minister.  Two days later, he and Katie Belle were married, though the happy event of their wedding was sadly followed by the death of Belle’s mother two weeks later.

On Voyage to India
In January 1864, after four months of preparations, the couple set sail out of Boston harbor for a four-month journey to India, where they would serve as missionaries under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  They kept a journal together of their long voyage at sea:

March 14th
Katie Belle: While William was skinning the albatrosses we caught Saturday, Farley fixed the line and told me to try my hand.  No sooner had I taken the line than one swallowed the bait, hook and all, and forthwith I drew him up all myself!  He is a splendid fellow, next to the handsomest taken.  [a side note indicates the magnificent bird had a wingspan of approximately 10 feet, nearly twice the size of Belle]
William:  After I had this specimen nicely stuffed I carried it to our room and placed it in one of the berths for safe-keeping, thinking she would be delighted to see it!  Instead of this she raised a great outcry over it, said it smelled musky, fishy, etc etc and insisted on its being put out of the room.  I reasoned the matter with her while I tried to prove to her that the odor was rather agreeable, but could not bring her to regard it in the same light.  So yielding the point I carried the bird away; then getting her cologne bottle I sprinkled myself with it freely and sat down by her side.  She was almost as much overcome in the latter as in the former.  Truly she is hard to please!

May 11th
William: A pretty little swallow came on board at noon.  We caught and looked at him a little while and let him go.  But towards night he came again, nestled down in a corner on deck, put his head under his wing and slept a long time.  He was evidently glad of a resting place after his long flight.
Katie Belle: In the morning the little swallow was dead.  Poor little thing!

This sad omen marked their arrival in Bombay, India.  Within three months, William became ill with fever, and though he recovered, he continued to have fevers off and on for almost two years while performing preaching tours across India.

Belle’s father was a physician to whom she wrote frequently for medical advice, but in November 1864 she received the sad news that her father had passed away, leaving her without both her parents.  In a letter to William she writes,

I long to see you – to hear you and to lay my aching head on that dear shoulder which has so often pillowed it.  You can’t think how I miss you, but for my sake do not hurry.  Above all do not be careless of your own health.  Oh! be careful, if not for your sake, then for mine.  What if the Lord should take you too!  I dare not think of it.  Surely he will have mercy and spare my husband.

Sadly, when William finally returned to her the following March, his health began to take a turn for the worse.  Belle's journal tells the tragic tale:

The second week of March I was very sick with diphtheria.  God spared my life.  How tenderly [William] took me in from the sun’s glare and called me ‘little Wifie’.  Hardly was he seated before I saw he was burning up with fever.  Naturally I was alarmed, but he said ‘It is nothing; I have had the like a hundred times.’  [Friday] the fever returned with sore throat.  I begged him to come into Nuggur but he thought me over-anxious.  Monday as it was only too evident that disease was making progress he consented to set out on our weary journey.

The couple had been living in a mud hut in a rural outpost called Pimplus.  The closest town with a medical doctor was Ahmednuggur, where William's sister and brother-in-law lived, but the journey was 50 miles, and the only transportation was a bullock cart.  The couple rode through the night, trying to avoid the heat.  Of that ride Belle writes,

My heart was breaking.  Each moment I knew might be his last.  Yet for his sake I tried to be cheerful.  When he was awake I sang to him and read him much from the pen of the beloved disciple.  When he dozed I wept bitterly.

By the time they finally arrived at the house of William’s sister and called for the doctor, it was clear that William had an advanced case of diphtheria and would soon die.  In her final journal entry Bella wrote,

Kneeling by his side with an arm thrown round my waist and my head on his shoulder I heard all his dying messages – I received his last words to me.  Ah, I cannot write of it.  Too sad, too sweet, too sacred.

Those heartbreaking last words exchanged between Belle and her beloved husband William were recorded by his sister in a letter to her sons in America:

Belle asked, “Aren’t you going to get well?”
He said, “How can I live?  My heart has ceased to beat.”
She asked, “Are you willing to go if God calls you?  Can you trust in Christ?”
“Yes,” William answered, “I have always trusted in him and he will not forsake me.  It is hard to leave you.  How will you live?”
“Do not feel anxious, the Lord will provide for me.”
“I want you to stay here and work for the heathen.  I want you to work with all your strength because the Messenger is taking me away.”
“What, here in India?” asked Belle.
“Yes, if you can.”
“If not, shall I go home?”
“Yes, and wherever you are, live for Christ because the Messenger calls me away.  When you go home, tell them all to be good to you.”  Then he asked, “Will you dig me a little grave?”
“Where,” Belle asked, “in Pimplus?”
“No,” he answered.  “In the graveyard by the old meeting house," meaning the one in Somers, Connecticut, where he grew up.
At one point William clasped Belle in his arms and said, “The Messenger has made a mistake in separating us.  I will take you with me!”  But Belle comforted and encouraged him, saying that she would let him go.  When she saw that he was fading she drew close to him and asked, “Who is this?”
“Wifey,” he replied.
“Are you glad to go to Christ?”
“Yes deary.”

These were his last words.  William was only 28 years old.

"I want you to work with all your strength…"
Belle was just 19 when she found herself in rural India both an orphan and a widow.  But this tragic tale of a life and a love cut short is not the end of the story.  Isabel did go on to work and live with a fervor and a strength uncommon for a woman of her station and situation living in the 19th century.  She continued her mission to teach women in rural India to read and write for ten months before traveling on a long, lonely voyage back to the United States.  Her intention was to become a physician like her father and then return to India to practice medicine there, but in 1867, two years after William's death, she was married a second time, to a man named Samuel Barrows who worked as a congressional stenographer in Washington, D. C.

When Samuel became too ill to work, Isabel took his place, and thus became the first women ever to work for the U. S. State Department.  She graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1869, and then traveled to the University of Vienna Medical School to become one of the first female ophthalmologists, a vocation perhaps inspired by her late husband William, who often complained about his eyes, and affectionately expressed concern for hers in those early letters.  She also became the first woman to have her own private practice in Washington, D.C.

In 1880, Isabel gave up her medical practice to become the Associate Editor of The Christian Register.  She worked as both a journalist and editor covering controversial issues and supported international human rights as a social activist.  Isabel collaborated with Alice Stone Blackwell in editing The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution, and she was overseas attempting to win freedom for the Russian revolutionary Catherine Breshkovsky when her second husband died in 1909.  She subsequently took his place that year at the International Prison Congress in Paris, and continued to work for women’s prison reform and other social causes until her own death in 1913.

“These Are Bloody Times in Which We Live…”: The Journal of Mary Lewis Shedd


June 17, 1918

One of the first collections I processed at Burke was MRL2: Mary Lewis [Mrs. W. A.] Shedd Papers, 1918. This journal made an impact on me not just because of the first-hand account it provides, but also because this copy appears to be completely unique.

The collection is comprised of a 42-page typed copy of Mary Lewis Shedd’s journal, which gives in great detail the events from February to October, 1918 in Urmia, Persia (written as Uremia or Urumia by Shedd) and the withdrawal of Assyrian Christians. Along with experiencing this directly, she was privy to other information because of her husband and includes this in her journal. The journal has been published as The Urumia Exodus: More Leaves from the War Journal of a Missionary in Persia. The collection available at the Burke contains more detail and entries than the published version.

Born in Glen Lock, Pennsylvania on January 15, 1873, Mary E. Lewis became the third wife of William Ambrose Shedd [1865-1918], Presbyterian missionary to Persia and later United States consul in Urmia, in July 1917. According to the forward by Laura McComb Muller in The Urumia Exodus,

Out of Persia, the little-known neutral country that lies between Russia and Turkey… Since the war began, its northern province, and especially the city of Urumia, has been either at the mercy of the Turks or in the hands of the Russians… the Christians endured a five months’ siege in the mission compound…

The published Urumia Exodus jumps from an entry dated March 11 to August 28, 1918. A note is included which says,

When the curtain rises again, five months later, upon the people of Urumia, not only is the scene changed, but a different party is in power. Following the treaties between Germany and the Bolsheviki, the Turks had again advanced and were taking their revenge. (The Urumia Exodus, Page 14)

The longer, unpublished Shedd journal in MRL2 includes entries from this time. Mary has heard news of what is now known as “March Days” or “March Events,” which refers to the infighting and massacre of up to 12,000 Azerbaijanis and other Muslims that took place between March 30 and April 2, 1918 in the city of Baku, then part of the Russian Empire:

This led to the discussion of the potential for Christians to be sent away from the area for safety:

Developments can be traced by reading further through Shedd’s journal:


Mary’s last entry is July 28, after which she is silent until September 24, 1918 when she is located in Hamadan, Persia. She begins to recall the last few weeks:

The Shedds were forced to evacuate Urmia on July 31, 1918, along with thousands of other Assyrian Christians, as the Ottoman Army threatened nearby. She writes in great detail about the confusion, including:

They retreated for six days, at which point her husband became ill with cholera and died shortly thereafter:


"Fifty thousand hunted, terror stricken refugees had passed on, the desolate, rocky mountains loomed above us, darkness was all about us and heaven too far away for prayer to reach."

Mrs. Shedd’s group escaped further from the warzone with the aid of the British towards Iraq, and buried her husband along the way, about seven miles east of Sain Kala.

Mary reached Hamadan August 24. On October 2, she wrote that probably seven or eight thousand died, were killed, or were taken prisoner on the journey she had recently completed.

Despite everything, in her last journal entry Mary Lewis Shedd writes:

Mary would later write a biography of her husband, The Measure of a Man: The Life of William Ambrose Shedd, Missionary to Persia, published in 1922. While not much more is known about her life, she continued her work as a missionary. She appears in New York Passenger lists in 1919; 1930; and 1933. Microfilm copies of Mary Lewis Shedd’s passport, and New York Passenger Lists are available at the National Archives and Records Administration.

All images from: MRL 2: Mary Lewis [Mrs. W. A.] Shedd Papers, The Burke Library Archives (Columbia University Libraries) at Union Theological Seminary, New York.

Further Sources

Mary Lewis Shedd’s first journal was published as a fifty-one page monograph, The War Journal of a Missionary in Persia [1915], available at the Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary (see MRL Pamphlet 1890 and 2069).

The second journal is The Urumia Exodus: More Leaves from the War Journal of a Missionary in Persia [1918]. This can be found at the William Smith Morton Library, Union Presbyterian Seminary, and in the Special Collections of Northwestern University (http://nucat.library.northwestern.edu/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=1940338). The New York Public Library has it available on microfilm (http://catalog.nypl.org/record=b14791152~S1).

Mary Lewis Shedd’s biography of her husband, The Measure of a Man: The Life of William Ambrose Shedd, Missionary to Persia was published by the George H. Doran Company: New York in 1922. Many libraries have the book, and it can also be found online in its entirety (http://www.archive.org/stream/measureofmanlife00shedrich/measureofmanlife00shedrich_djvu.txt).