This letter was written by Edward Weeks Boldero Canning (1813-1890) to his father, Rev. Josiah Weeks Canning. Edward was a prolific poet and author. After graduating from Williams College, he taught school in Western Virginia but later removed to Stockbridge where he became principal of the Williams Academy. From 1854 to 1858, he operated a family school in Stockbridge. Later he took up writing and published several books.
Most of this letter surrounds the latest news and impending death of Edward’s brother, Dr. William Pitt Canning. It is reported that William, an Assistant Surgeon in the U.S. Nanvy, died on board the U.S. Ship Vandalia while at sea on her passage from Port au Prince to Norfolk. He died on 7 April 1845 at age 26.
Addressed to Rev. Josiah W. Canning, Post Master at Gill, Massachusetts
Tuesday, April 22d 1845
My dear friends,
With a sad, sad heart, I write to announce, or re-announce (for I suppose Joseph has certified you already of the mournful tidings) that our worst fears with regard to dear brother William are probably destined to be realized, & that that beloved one is now beyond the reach of our sympathies and our prayers. Alas! that it should be so!
I received a second letter from Joseph last evening penned in a spirit amounting almost to frenzy, giving up all, as indeed he seemed to do from the first. After continuing all Sabbath and Monday in a most distressing state of debility, from the discrepancy of the two accounts which I sent you, & which you probably receive today, I watched with intense feelings the arrival of the last evening’s mail, which, I conjectured, would settle my hopes, or confirm my fears. It came, and brought the aforesaid letter from New York, stating that Dr. Parker & other friends of William in New York had advised Joseph to go immediately on to Norfolk to learn the particulars & receive Dr.’s effects. In compliance, Joseph was about leaving that (Sab.) afternoon.
In a letter I wrote him immediately after receiving his first, I urged him to the same thing, but that could not have reached New York until yesterday. I also wrote the Post Master at Norfolk requesting him to inform me immediately of the whole truth. Joseph closed his letter with the expression — “A naval officer has just informed me that brother is still alive! God grant it may be true, but I fear the worst.” This letter, of course, would only have added a darker shade to the gloomy side of affairs without absolutely destroying hope. But in the “New York Express” which arrived by the same mail, I found the same account as I copied to you from the Tribune word for word, except that the deaths both of surgeons & assistants were mentioned. The latter, it appears, had for some reason been left out in the Tribune’s copy.
So the door is nearly or quite closed against our hopes, & we had better prepare for the worst certain intelligence. In view of this, our hearts wrung with anguish at the loss we have sustained, have often — very often, flown over to the stricken household in the Connecticut Valley, & have shrouded all its smiles & fixtures in the renewed gloom of the fall of 1834. O may God sustain you all — particularly dear Mother! May it not be in vain that you have known so long the promises of the Bible & the consolations of its holy religion. I will feel & trust. I do feel, that all is for the best, & will one day so appear. I can write calmly now. I believe, but I feel my own necessity of spiritual comfort quite as much as those can to whom I write. May grace & strength be imparted sufficient for this our hour of trial & darkness.
All our friends here most heartily sympathize with us. They feel as tho’ they had lost a brother — particularly dear Junius. He is a dear good fellow & will probably soon need a reciprocation of the like sympathy asa Lib is no better. O how full this world is of mourners! Those that are, & those that are to be, comprise its entire population.
We receive also the sympathy of all the villagers — most of whom knew William’s worth. A touching incident occurred this morning. Overburdened with a load of grief, which would not off at my bidding, I wended my way to school over the path I had so often trodden with dear William, I managed to get thro’ the opening exercises when a paper was silently laid upon my desk, signed by all my pupils, requesting me to relieve myself of the burden of instruction for the day or week if I so desired. How affecting is such sympathy. I gladly complied so far as the day is concerned.
O that I could see you & mingle our griefs together. Can some of you not come over? We cannot go to you at present. Do, if compatible with your circumstances. We are all quite well — physically at least, except that dearest Kate has a cold. Do write immediately & tell us all you have learned. I will write again speedily. Be assured of our ardent & constant prayers for your support & comfort.
As ever, — Edward