Friday, October 8, 2021

Letters from Lucy Stephenson: September 27, 1820

 **Written in September 2021 by RoxAnn Raisner (house director) in the voice of Lucy Stephenson and published in the online Edwardsville Intelligencer, October 6, 2021, Based on historical facts, current happenings at the House, and a historians vivid imaginings. Follow Letters from Lucy Stephenson on Facebook (

September 27, 1820
Edwardsville, Illinois


 Dearest Mary,

     It is with a very heavy heart that I write this letter. Unfortunately, we have not escaped the encroachment of summer fever sweeping across the region and mourn the loss of so many. It seems hardly possible that mere few weeks ago all was well, only to find ourselves caught unaware by a loved one’s sudden and complete departure from this world. How I ache from it daily. Preparations are being made so our house may observe a period of mourning. My daughters, Julia and Elvira, have begun the task of washing, airing, and mending clothing suitable for the expression of our loss. And, Winn has set to task picking apart some old garments to dye black and refashion. This morning, I sent an order to the fabric merchant in Belleville to procure several bolts of bombazine so we may sew-up some additional mourning attire for the entire household since it will be some time before we are unburdened by grief. The wool crepe bunting now hangs above our door so that all those who pass may be aware of our sorrow.

     Winn, in her infinite ability to be prepared, has baked several batches of funeral biscuits embossed with cherubs and crosses for mourners attending the funerals to pay their respects. I visited the newspaper in lower town yesterday to procure an order of small, printed remembrance wrappers to cover the biscuits, as well as several pieces of black sealing wax from Mr. Poage’s store to use in the closure of each. I find having a useful occupation keeps my mind from dwelling for too long on that which I cannot change. The reprieve does not last long, of course. I know you will want a copy of Winn’s receipt for the funeral biscuits so I shall include it. It’s quite simple and they store exceedingly well for long periods of time. I find many guests chose to keep their biscuit as a memento mori as opposed to eating them at the funeral.


Funeral Biscuits

Take twenty-four eggs, three pounds of flour, three pounds of lump sugar, grated, which will make forty-eight finger biscuits for a funeral.


     Dr. Todd, our local physician, has truly been a godsend the last weeks. Besides attending to countless families suffering from the summer fever’s, Ben’s ague recrudesced quite suddenly. As you well know, for some time now, Ben has been plagued with bouts of this insatiable illness. Some episodes far worse than others. Admittedly, this particular recurrence was quite arduous, causing me great concern as to his safe recovery. The severity, at one point, warranted the need to send for Rev. Ballard who provided much comfort through his ecclesiastic ministering and friendship. Thankfully, a new shipment of yellow bark arrived a Poage’s store to which we procured two orders before the supply was depleted from demand. After several days of treatment, it appears the most critical time has passed. Ben appears to be returning to health, slowly, but I do believe we owe much to both Dr. Todd and Rev. Ballard. I fear the probable outcome without the succor of both.

     Well, my dearest friend, I must close this letter for there is much to attend to. Hopefully, my next will contain happier news and these dark times shall be left behind as distant memories. I pray you stay well. Please write soon so that I may have something to brighten these bleak days. Give my love to all and know I hold you in high regard, as always.


Yours In Friendship,


Lucy Stephenson


Bombazine was a fabric used for mourning clothing in the early 19th century. It was a silk and wool mixture with a very flat appearance. It is no longer made. The closest fabric resembling it today is wool crepe.

The Funeral Biscuits receipt (recipe) was published in the 1828 (5th Edition) of The Whole Art of Confectionary: Sugar Boiling, Iceing, Candying, Jelly Making, &c. by W.S. Staveley. These biscuits were commonly given out at funerals and often wrapped in paper with the deceased name, poem, and/or information about the person printed on the outside and sealed with black sealing wax stamped with a funerary image such as skull and crossbones, cherub, rooster, cross, heart, etc.

Ague is the historical term for malaria. At the time, it was treated with a bark from South American known as yellow bark, Jesuit bark, lima bark, or Peruvian bark. The bark contained quinine and was the most effective treatment available at the time.

Col. Stephenson died on October 10, 1822, from what historians believe to be malaria. The museum will host Mourning Col. Stephenson: A Special Exhibit from September 30-October 31. 

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