Friday, July 27, 2012

Don’t Try This One at Home

A snippet from a letter whose remaining segments I could never find provides a sliver of life in Chicago from nearly a century ago. One side, I am quite sure, was written by the woman in whose possession it has remained: Agnes Tully Stevens. Save for the tone of the other—and certain inferences in the text—the second page could well have been written by her also.

The most likely reason that Agnes tucked the paper in her own file was a recipe of sorts. Not a recipe you might use for a new casserole dish, or for a delectable dessert, but for relief from the type of misery that someone in the household must have been suffering. (Just in case you read this and think it would be a terrific home remedy to try, I add: warning—I am not a physician, nor do I intend to play one on this blog. What I am writing about is not something for you to try at home! And don’t say I didn’t tell you so.)

Whoever “Dad” is in this letter, he has been suffering from abdominal distress long enough to be desperate for relief. I suspect the letter may be intended for Agnes’ mother-in-law, Theresa Blaising Stevens in Fort Wayne, the step-mother whom I’ve mentioned previously. In that case, “my father” would refer to Agnes’ own father, John Tully, now long gone.

It would be no surprise to know that “Dad” had been having such troubles. If that was John Kelly Stevens, he died in 1929 of “cancer of the sigmoid,” in late stages a possible cause of his pain. Whether the episode that elicited this advice occurred before the elder Stevens sought out professional help, I’ll never know. The distress that ultimately led to that diagnosis wasn’t documented until his physician signed the death certificate after his passing two days before Christmas at the end of that year.

…this awful weather. We have a splendid prescription for that sort of cholera that Dad gets—It is wonderful for any pains in the stomach or bowels and dysentery—
            Equal parts of—Peppermint; Camphor, Rhubarb, Capsicum and Opium. –I don’t think a Druggist will put in the Opium without a Dr’s prescription but may be Dad could get the Dr. to write it for you, then you could get it filled any time—
We always keep it in the house. It cured my father many times. You put a teaspoonful in a cup of hot water and sweeten a little with sugar. It is pleasant to take.
I suspect the recipe was the reason for clipping the page. It was specifically framed by the scissors that carefully discarded whatever else the letter contained. However, the reverse of the letter could not be entirely obliterated. From it I can glean a few clues as to the time frame in which it was written.

This reverse side of the letter had some odd details. First, it is written at a ninety degree angle to the lines of the reverse side of the letter. In other words, while most letters either flip to the reverse with a side to side movement, or an upside down motion, the other side here is not so. It is almost as if the two sides had nothing to do with each other—as if one side were used as scrap paper with which to jot down a separate note.

The content of the letter seems to indicate otherwise, however. From this snippet, with missing words completed within brackets where I could guess them, here is the reconstruction:

…are swollen. The Dr. told her s[he] must go to bed and stay there.
            She has two lovely baby girls. Wi[ll] and I stood for the baby. She is ten months old and they called her Josephine Therese. Antoinette was [born?] last June.
            I stopped for supper. John ma[de] two swell coffee cakes. He is [a] great baker— Now he has gone out to spend the evening with [one] of the fifth year seminarian bo[ys]. He has been helping him out wi[th] his Latin. Bill went out to serv[e] Benediction and is back again— I….
It tells me that the letter was composed sometime in the late 1920s—obviously before John Kelly Stevens, Will’s father, died in 1929, but after Agnes’ namesake niece, Agnes Tully McNamara, had given birth to her second child. The fact that she, too, died in 1929—perhaps of the very ailment that caused the swelling that confined her to bed—helps narrow the date to one previous to April fifth of that year, yet after the birth of her second daughter in 1928.

Having escaped the trash bin so many years ago, this letter also gives me a clue that William and Agnes Tully Stevens may have been that baby’s godparents, too, a possibility that I’ll note in my database. Why, though, it was a letter that Agnes wrote and then kept for herself, I’m not sure.

Perhaps there is another explanation…


  1. Fascinating. It's a miracle anyone survived to adulthood with recipes like that!

    1. Fi, I totally agree! Brings to mind some of those nasty remedies I had to choke down as a child...which I'm sure, of course, were infinitely more effective...

  2. Interesting home remedy..what did they have to lose if they were really desperate:)

    1. And really, the source of the recipe being for John Kelly Stevens, he was really desperate. He died of cancer within a few months of its diagnosis. Those were indeed hard times. The mixture was more likely a pain reliever than a medicinal remedy.

  3. I suspect "It is pleasant to take" means it relieved pain and left one pretty insensible.


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