Thursday, January 20, 2011

"The Cries of my Baby": the Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 5

May 28--I was wake'd this Morning at five o'clock with the cries of my baby... I jum'p up--frighten'd half to death--run to mammas room where the child was, & found it almost in fits with pain.


In the middle of an intensly emotional debate about custody of her only daughter, young Nancy Shippen faced one of the most frightening ordeals yet: an accident that nearly took her child's life.

Almost two weeks before, Nancy's father had instructed her to send little Peggy to live with her Grandmother Livingston several days' journay away at Clermont. The news had sent Nancy into a marked depression as she struggled to figure out a way to hold onto her beloved child after she had already fled an abusive relationship with her Livingston husband.

The weekend of May 24th, Betsy, the child's nurse maid got sick with the measles. The highly contangeous virus begins with coughing and high fevers (as high as 104 degrees!) and can include an itchy red rash. It can be fatal, and out of concern for Peggy, the maid was sent to another house to convalesce for the duration of her illness. Nevertheless, Nancy was not worried enough about it to mention it in her diary yet. In Betsy's absense Mrs. Shippen's maid would take on the extra duties of caring for the baby. Crisis seemed to have been averted.


On Tuesday night, May 27th, Nancy distracted herself by having tea with a friend. She couldn't bear to miss a moment with Peggy (and Betsy was gone anyway) so the little girl played at their feet the whole time. When old flame Louis Otto walked by the house, Nancy's heart leapt, and their eyes met for just a moment. But "prudence" reminded her that as wife (who's husband was already jealous and suspicious of this particular man), the best course of action was to let him go. An old flame wasn't going to solve her new woes. Nevertheless, she was "never more happy" than she was that night.


The next day, in the dim of early morning Nancy woke to the most frightening sound of her life: the terrified screams of her baby daughter. Peggy had awoken as usual at "daybreak," and the maid "being very sleepy" (possibly from trying to do two jobs at once for four days) could not bring herself to rise with the child. Instead, she gave the baby a snuff box (perhaps like the English one at right) to play with and went back to sleep. Peggy's tiny fingers worked at the edges until she opened the box and was almost strangled by a face full of snuff, a finely-powdered tobacco product.

Nancy immediately lost her composure and screamed for her father until she almost fainted. She had to be lead from the room so that her parents could deal with the crisis. After an hour of tears and crying, the child was quieted and went back to sleep. Thus the tense vigil of a frightened mother began.


Peggy spent the day waking and sleeping, feverish and ill. Nancy hovered anxiously beside her, leaving only for a few minutes at dinner time. Her father, a respected physician, twice administered "balm Tea & lime juice & sugar," as well as "a dose of nitre." This may have been spirits of niter (also called saltpeter), which could be administered to the skin to cool the fever. Besides this, he only hoped that sleep could cure the girl.

At midnight, exhausted, Nancy poured out her fears to her diary. After recounting the story, she wrote:

It is near Twelve oclock--every creature in the house sleeps but me--I have no inclination. I will watch my dear baby all night--I feel pleasure in doing this service.

What else could she do but wait? She sat alone in the dim of candle light, listening to her daughter's breath and the hourly call of the watchman.


For five days Peggy was so ill "her life has been depair'd off." For another six she remained ill, but improving. Nancy staid by her daughter's side, refusing to let her mother take over the vigil. Nancy wrote only one brief entry in her journal then, repeating her fears and her devotion to the baby. But on June 7, things were finally improving. Peggy was still weak: "She has lost that beautiful color that used to adorn her lovely cheeks..." but she was improved enough that the following day Nancy's mother convinced her to get out of the house and go for "a little ride to refresh me."

While on the ride, she finally had time to once again think of Margaret Beekman Livingston's request that Peggy leave Philadelphia and some to live with her at Clermont. After the events of the past eleven days, Nancy knew she could not give up her baby. "Mrs Montgomery shou'd not take it--that it--if it did go, I would carry it myself," she wrote. Staying by her daughter's side, she had decided, was worth going back into the lion's den at her husband's house.

Nancy immediately began preparations to return to New York. If need be, she would win her husband's love. She wrote him a letter, telling him that she would return to his house. She hired a new maid for Peggy (what became of Betsy? Did measles kill her or was she unable to go to New York for another reason? Nancy does not answer this question).

And Nancy had a portrait of she and Peggy completed by "Mr Wright" (probably Joseph Wright who was working in Philadelphia that year) to help win Henry's love. "She [Peggy] is dressed in White & has a peach in her dear hand...she looks like an Angel." Nancy was dressed in a white gown with a blue sash, "but what adorns me most is my Angel Child sitting in my lap & one of my arms encircling her dear waist."

On July 7th, she was ready to go. A large party gathered to see her off-including her old flame Louis. She dressed her best and baid goodbye over tea and an after-dark stroll in the gardens. Tomorrow, in the heat of summer, she was to bid goodbye once again to her home and friends--only this time she knew what awaited her.

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