Tag Archives: India

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.

Conviction Born From Struggle and Conversion

MRL 3: Arunodaya: The Autobiography of Bãbã Padamanjí, box 1, and folder 1,
The Burke Library Archives, Columbia University Libraries, at Union Theological Seminary, New York

When I was first given the very small collection of Bãbã Padamanjí (so small in fact, that it only contains one book), to process I wasn’t sure if I would find much information about a Hindu man born in May 1831 in Belgaum, India.  I was sure that my history of Bãbã would be limited to what I found in the handwritten translation of his autobiography Arunodaya (which means light or dawn in Marathi).  I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to find much more information than I expected for someone who I assumed might have been overlooked by history. Bãbã Padamanjí was a man that by the time of his death in 1906 was responsible for over 70 texts in his native Marathi and also in English, which ranged from Christian tracts that were either written or translated by him to Marathi dictionaries.  He was a man that was dedicated and praised for the conviction of his faith.

MRL 3: The Autobiography of Bãbã Padamanjí, box 1, and folder 1,
The Burke Library Archives, Columbia University Libraries, at Union Theological Seminary, New York

 Bãbã Padamanjí was able to overcome struggles with caste, former religious and pagan practices, family and friends in his journey to become a Christian man in India.  The handwritten translation of his Autobiography in our collection chronicles and gives insight into those particular struggles. I came across numerous sources that discussed how difficult it was to change religions in the caste system of India at the time that Bãbã Padamanjí was struggling with his new found faith.  One source I looked at, Stitches on Time was a collection of social anthropology essays, one of which detailed reasons why these difficulties existed.  Saurabh Dube summarized that “a nation cannot be exorcised from history through the mere expedient of turning our backs on its standardized past and monumental present.”  This is also detailed in a note written for My Struggle for Freedom, (another edited version Arunodaya) the editor Rev. M. P. Davis states, “In a time when changing religion or political belief resulted in a loss of home and family.  [His] story reveals the great advance made in this respect.”

MRL 3: The Autobiography of Bãbã Padamanjí, box 1, and folder 1,
The Burke Library Archives, Columbia University Libraries, at Union Theological Seminary, New York

Bãbã's struggles are evidence as he tells the story of his conversion.  His family was “orthodox and religious minded” and he learned all of the worship ceremonies “from [his] mother’s religious observances.”  These religious observances were mixed with pagan practices such as relying on astrologers, sorcerers, and wizards for “oblations, magic antidotes and the muttering of spells.”  Witches were also brought into the house when the men were gone and he experimented with the “incantations of witchcraft taught by them.”  He admitted to wanting to learn magic spells with “the object of attaining divine power.” His conversion to Christianity was a long process beginning when he was a child and while it was difficult to stop these practices, he was eventually able to overcome them.  He credits the teachings of Christianity with this.  In fact Bãbã states that he writes of these experiences to tell others that “the plan of God made it clear to me…that there is no power in Hinduism to keeps its followers from immoral behaviour [sic]…the fraction of love and peace which is found in the Hindu families is the fruit of their thought, good nature, wisdom, and of reading books of advice of saints; it is not the product of idol worship, muttering of magic spells, vows and fasts…etc.”

His family was of the Kasars caste and prominent.  It was difficult to break with the caste, which was one of the first steps to becoming Christian; once he realized that was something he felt he wanted to do.  He first broke with the caste in secret, with others of like minds in a meeting of the Paramhans Society.  He thought he might not feel as guilty if no one else knew what he had done.  However, he soon became “haunted” in his mind because he was lost to family, “thrown out of the caste (excommunicated);” he felt that all people would call him “polluted.”  This was not the end to his troubles for a man came to meetings, took the vow of secrecy and then revealed the names and the goals of the men there.  “There was great agitation…” his parents like many others took him out of the Mission School and many criticisms were published in the newspapers. 

As his family learned of his desire to become Christian they grew angry.  His father told him “To become a Christian was to him to become polluted and sink to the lowest level.”  His uncle advised his father to disown him, to take away his jobs and money and to encourage others to shun Bãbã in this way as well.  Bãbã felt “in this way I was surrounded and pressed upon from all sides by my own people and the people outside.”  So much so that he vacillated between wanting to run away and poisoning himself.  He eventually set upon expressing his conviction to his father, who even though he felt it would bring great disgrace on the family, realized that Bãbã’s conviction was true and agreed to let Bãbã “have freedom in matters concerning religion.”  His father never followed the advice of the uncle and eventually requested that  his son teach him this religion Bãbã thought was true.

Bãbã Padamanjí said, “It is needless to say what opposition has to be met by one who has to contemplate on an important subject like religion and has to discern as to which things have to be retained or rejected and especially by a man who practices them…we understand how a Hindu (and men of other religions too) has to struggle with hindrances and suffer sorrow, if he desires to become a Christian.”  It is evident throughout the subsequent years following his baptism that once those hindrances and sorrows were overcome Bãbã was able to do what he enjoyed most, write Christian tracts and translations in order to educate other Hindus on what he felt was a more true and enlightened path. 

MRL 3: The Autobiography of Bãbã Padamanjí, box 1, and folder 1,
The Burke Library Archives, Columbia University Libraries, at Union Theological Seminary, New York

Even though I was able to find more information about Bãbã Padamanjí than I thought I was going to, that material is not a large amount.  I am happy that the Burke Library Archives now has been able to add just a little bit more to the history of Bãbã and I that I got a chance to briefly spend some time getting to know him. 

Sources include quotes from Bãbã himself as written in Arunodaya, as well as these other sources:

  • Dube, Saurabh. Stitches on Time: Colonial Textures and Postcolonial Tangles. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Padamanjí, Bãbã. My Struggle for Freedom: The Autobiography of Bãbã Padamanjí. Raipur, C.P. [India]: Christian Book Depot, 1944. Burke Call Number: MRL Pamphlets 1830