Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Thomas William Milburn’s “Vicissitudes”

Besides his “Texas letter,” one other piece of Thomas W. Milburn’s writing has survived and turned up again after seventy years. Late in his life TW put down on paper a set of anecdotes, a little clutch of incidents from his childhood and youth in Washington. He calls them vicissitudes, a word he must have chosen to be a little too fancy, like a stage wink. The three pages of his “Vicissitudes letter” were mailed to Mrs. G.F. Carlisle, and introduced by a sort of bread-and-butter cover letter. The whole thing was found in an envelope with a 1943 cancellation.

The memoir content was certainly written two years earlier, in about August of 1941, and seems from the language of its apologetic last paragraph to have been conceived as though talking to some specific person, not to The World or to Posterity. Why then the two-year gap between the writing and the mailing? And, since the letter was actually sent off to Mrs. Carlisle, how did it come back into possession of the Milburn family, so that we have it now?

To answer that last question I’ll have to guess and say that Mrs. Carlisle simply returned it to the family when TW died in 1944. Seems reasonable. As for the first question, about the gap, I just don’t know. I can’t come up with a good explanation.

TW’s “Vicissitudes Letter” is short enough that I will print the whole content here, and after it mention a little point of interest to me.

Some of the Early Vicissitudes in a Long Life.

To have been born, in Washington D.C., in the 1850’s. was my first V.

Three years after birth, while meandering along, back of the stalls of a lot of big mules, upon my Uncle’s Maryland farm and being led to the slaughter by a little slave girl, at least one mule saw an opportunity for revenge against the white race and kicked me in the middle and against the barn door. In some manner, the dead boy survived a long buggy trip to W. and after the third day he returned to life, thanks to that sweet drug – Niter.

A couple of years later, this same colored nurse permitted this same near angel to crawl from bed, while enjoying a high fever and to roll down the kitchen roof, to the walk below, which, I suspect, caused the fever to drop to a reasonable figure —

So, we get to the beginning of our Civil War – Washington was in as much confusion then as now, in 1941 – but there was a Patriot in the White House. Lee’s army was just across the mile wide Potomac, in Virginia. The Northern Army, mostly, had come to W. to save the city and I stared daily at the troops, officers, cannon and at the killing upon the streets, of many distempered horses. The streets were all unpaved and muddy, except between the double car tracks, in all parts of W., which were cobble stoned – in fact there were no paved streets – that I remember until U. S. Grant’s inauguration, when Penna. Ave. was paved, from Capitol to White House, with pine blocks, laid upon boards, which lasted until they floated away – Cement and bitulithic were practically unknown.

I grew up or down in South Washington – It was then known as the “Island[”] – V-shaped by the Potomac on one side – Eastern Branch of same, upon the other and a canal, upon the N. and S.E. sides entirely separating it from Northern & Eastern W.

This canal began at Harper’s Ferry, ran to Georgetown parallel, all the way, with the Potomac – At G. there were flour & meal mills. The canal kept on going – crossed down back of the Executive Mansion and from 15th street to the Botanical Gardens it paralleled Penna. Ave. one block South, thence south east to empty into the Eastern Branch.

This canal has been filled in but not before its great attraction nearly got me. Skating upon its ice one day, an air hole suddenly engulfed me and when they pulled me out I was a stiff mass of mud and ice[.]

Not long after this, while under a bridge my boy friends shoved me into deep water, knowing that I couldn’t swim – that and the next act were cruel acts.

I was growing up and trying to impress females. Sunday School time was the most impersive [impressive] place, so one Sunday, dressed in a white duck suit, I lined up at the curb with a muddy pool behind me – Something suggestive must have been seen in that duck suit because the boys ganged up on me and over I went into the mud — Did I put up a fight – no. I ran 8 blocks to the river[,] jumped in with all that finery and walked home and sneaked into other clothing –

I have to omit some other escapades, such as taking the School Trustee’s horse for a ride, so, at 17 I landed 3 or 4 jobs, finally stuck to telegraphy and in 1875, at 20½, came to Texas but my vicissitudes don’t end yet this “I” story must end, as I am 86⁷⁄₁₂ths and sleepy.

T. W. M.

There is a PDF of the letter available which includes the cover letter and envelope.

“My Uncle’s Maryland farm.” In a chronicle that makes no mention of any of TW’s immediate family, who was this off-stage uncle? On TW's mother’s side there was no family, or none that I know of. On his father’s side TW had three aunts. The oldest was Mary Ann. Her first husband, Mr. Hinton, was long dead by 1858, the purported year of the mule incident. Mary Ann’s second husband, Mr. Gunnell, has no connection with Maryland that I know, but came from Virginia, and his family is always associated in that direction. TW’s middle aunt was Margaret, who was not married at the time, nor for some years more. Last there was the youngest aunt, Violet. Her first husband, Mr. Williams, in 1858 was recently deceased. He might have had some property in Maryland since Violet held a sale of his slaves in December of 1858 at Hughesville in Charles County. Violet did marry for the second time in October of 1859 to Mr. Abell, who was without question a Maryland farmer. The Abell property was located at Scotch Neck near Hollywood, in St. Mary’s County. That’s almost sixty miles from Washington—long for a buggy ride. Perhaps TW simply made a mistake, and the mule incident took place when he was four or five years old rather than when he was only three. Of course there is, as ever, the great likelihood that there are persons and places that I simply don’t know about yet.

I do know that TW’s brother George died, according to the papers, at Vineyard Farm, located in Charles County, Maryland. If that’s the same farm as the one with the stalls of big mules it must have seemed like a place of doom.

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