Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sampling History at the More House: Not That Typhoid Mary (Or, Why I Love my Job)

By: Kajsa Sabatke, Interpetive Projects Coordinator The More family sampler project goes beyond recreating a pattern with needles and thread. My first stop for research was the NYSHA Library. One family history included Mary in its family biography section. From it, I learned about her illness:
While just in the full flush of womanhood and usefulness, a wearing cough made its appearance, and failing strength warned her of approaching danger, and alarmed and distressed her friends. Their fears were fully realized, for she continued to fail until there was no shadow of hope,--only a weary waiting for her release. During the three anxious years that she was confined to her couch of weakness and suffering, no murmur escaped her lips; not only was she resigned, but positively happy, always looking for a rift in every cloud that settled about her, and where one was not discernible being assured the cloud had a silver lining.
This book gave me greater insight into Mary’s personality and place in her family. I wondered about what disease caused her untimely death, but did not expect to find any other mention of it. Next, onto the internet. I typed “Mary More Burhans” (her married name) into Google, just to see what would come up. Surprisingly, I found a Google Books link to Dark Genius on Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons. Jay Gould’s mother was Mary’s cousin. I read that Gould was a business associate of Mary’s husband Edward, and that Gould visited the Mores in the spring of 1853 when Mary had typhoid. This may have been the initial cause of her three-year battle with illness. Successful research can depend on happenstance; if the More family hadn’t developed such a strong sense of family history, or if Mary wasn’t related to a major public figure like Jay Gould, we may have never learned even these small details. Mary’s illness is only part of the larger scope of her life, but it adds more information about a person about whom I know very little other than the dates of her life’s major events. And that’s why even news of an illness can be an exciting research find: it’s another small piece of the puzzle. As a historian and museum educator, my job is to find these small pieces and share them in a way that helps our visitors understand more about the people who lived in the 1840s. Learning about Mary More Burhans is about more than the sampler project; it’s about finding the ways that her life relates to issues of family, disease and medical care, death, and community relationships. And it can help people to think about our historic village at the museum as not just a series of buildings, but as an example of the communities that people created and sustained in the 1840s and continue to build today. Making these connections – large and small – is one of the best parts of my job.

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