Isabel Chapin Barrows: Love and Tragedy in the 19th Century

It was late summer.  The year was 1862.  William Wilberforce Chapin, a young seminary student at Andover, writes to Miss Katie Belle Hayes in New Hampshire:

Dear Miss Hayes.  When I bode you goodbye at Andover I was expecting to spend the first week of vacation in making a tour through Vermont and Canada.  Therefore I told you not to expect a letter from me for some time.  But Secretary Stanton’s anti-emigration order with sundry other reasons has cut me off from my anticipated flee and has given me an opportunity of writing you some days earlier than I had expected.  Well.  Secretary Stanton might have done a worse thing for me, and perhaps you will not feel like calling him hard names for what he has done…

The letter is signed “Your sincere friend, William W. Chapin.“  Over the course of the next year the salutations would become increasingly more affectionate:
         With growing esteem,
         As ever yours,
         Your more than friend,

In November he writes:

My dear Bella.  Every time I commence a letter to you I feel dissatisfied with the customary form of address.  The words do not seem strong enough.  Long use has taken away their force.  As I can think of no better form of address, the old one must still be used, but you must always think of the second word as being greatly intensified, as though it were underscored four or five times.

This real-life love story from the mid 19th-century is told through over 150 pages of letters written by William Wilberforce Chapin and Katherine Isabel Hayes, addressed to one another during the time of their courtship and engagement.  The letters are part of the WW Chapin Papers, held in the Missionary Research Library at the Burke Library.

Could you so tantalize me as to tell about that moonlight boat ride? I might be pardoned for feeling a little envious and hoping that you did not have a very pleasant time, but I will be generous, and hope you enjoyed it first rate.

Tantalize you sir? It is fortunate for you that you shared some generous emotion, for in my heart I hate selfish people.

In the fall of 1863, the year of his graduation from Andover Theological Seminary, William was ordained as a Congregationalist minister.  Two days later, he and Katie Belle were married, though the happy event of their wedding was sadly followed by the death of Belle’s mother two weeks later.

On Voyage to India
In January 1864, after four months of preparations, the couple set sail out of Boston harbor for a four-month journey to India, where they would serve as missionaries under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  They kept a journal together of their long voyage at sea:

March 14th
Katie Belle: While William was skinning the albatrosses we caught Saturday, Farley fixed the line and told me to try my hand.  No sooner had I taken the line than one swallowed the bait, hook and all, and forthwith I drew him up all myself!  He is a splendid fellow, next to the handsomest taken.
[a side note indicates the magnificent bird had a wingspan of approximately 10 feet, about twice the size of Belle]
William:  After I had this specimen nicely stuffed I carried it to our room and placed it in one of the berths for safe-keeping, thinking she would be delighted to see it!  Instead of this she raised a great outcry over it, said it smelled musky, fishy, etc etc and insisted on its being put out of the room.  I reasoned the matter with her while I tried to prove to her that the odor was rather agreeable, but could not bring her to regard it in the same light.  So yielding the point I carried the bird away; then getting her cologne bottle I sprinkled myself with it freely and sat down by her side.  She was almost as much overcome in the latter as in the former.  Truly she is hard to please!

May 11th
William: A pretty little swallow came on board at noon.  We caught and looked at him a little while and let him go.  But towards night he came again, nestled down in a corner on deck, put his head under his wing and slept a long time.  He was evidently glad of a resting place after his long flight.
Katie Belle adds: In the morning the little swallow was dead.  Poor little thing!

The dark omen marked their arrival in Bombay, India.  Within three months, William became ill with fever, and though he recovered, he continued to have fevers off and on for almost two years while performing preaching tours across India.

Belle’s father was a physician to whom she wrote frequently for medical advice, but in November 1864 she received the sad news that her father had passed away, leaving her without both her parents.  In a letter to William she writes,

I long to see you – to hear you and to lay my aching head on that dear shoulder which has so often pillowed it.  You can’t think how I miss you, but for my sake do not hurry.  Above all do not be careless of your own health.  Oh! be careful, if not for your sake, then for mine.  What if the Lord should take you too!  I dare not think of it.  Surely he will have mercy and spare my husband.

Sadly, when William finally returned to her the following March, his health began to take a turn for the worse.  Belle’s journal tells the tragic tale:

The second week of March I was very sick with diphtheria.  God spared my life.  How tenderly [William] took me in from the sun’s glare and called me ‘little Wifie’.  Hardly was he seated before I saw he was burning up with fever.  Naturally I was alarmed, but he said ‘It is nothing; I have had the like a hundred times.’  [Friday] the fever returned with sore throat.  I begged him to come into Nuggur but he thought me over-anxious.  Monday as it was only too evident that disease was making progress he consented to set out on our weary journey.

The couple had been living in a mud hut in a rural outpost called Pimplus.  The closest town with a medical doctor was Ahmednuggur, where William’s sister and brother-in-law lived, but the journey was 50 miles, and the only transportation was a bullock cart.  The couple rode through the night, trying to avoid the heat.  Of that ride Belle writes,

My heart was breaking.  Each moment I knew might be his last.  Yet for his sake I tried to be cheerful.  When he was awake I sang to him and read him much from the pen of the beloved disciple.  When he dozed I wept bitterly.

By the time they finally arrived at the house of William’s sister and called for the doctor, it was clear that William had an advanced case of diphtheria and would soon die.  In her final journal entry Bella wrote,

Kneeling by his side with an arm thrown round my waist and my head on his shoulder I heard all his dying messages – I received his last words to me.  Ah, I cannot write of it.  Too sad, too sweet, too sacred.

Those heartbreaking last words exchanged between Belle and her beloved husband William were recorded by his sister in a letter to her sons in America:

Belle asked, “Aren’t you going to get well?”
He said, “How can I live?  My heart has ceased to beat.”
She asked, “Are you willing to go if God calls you?  Can you trust in Christ?”
“Yes,” William answered, “I have always trusted in him and he will not forsake me.  It is hard to leave you.  How will you live?”
“Do not feel anxious, the Lord will provide for me.”
“I want you to stay here and work for the heathen.  I want you to work with all your strength because the Messenger is taking me away.”
“What, here in India?” asked Belle.
“Yes, if you can.”
“If not, shall I go home?”
“Yes, and wherever you are, live for Christ because the Messenger calls me away.  When you go home, tell them all to be good to you.”  Then he asked, “Will you dig me a little grave?”
“Where,” Belle asked, “in Pimplus?”
“No,” he answered.  “In the graveyard by the old meeting house,” meaning the one in Somers, Connecticut, where he grew up.
At one point William clasped Belle in his arms and said, “The Messenger has made a mistake in separating us.  I will take you with me!”  But Belle comforted and encouraged him, saying that she would let him go.  When she saw that he was fading she drew close to him and asked, “Who is this?”
“Wifey,” he replied.
“Are you glad to go to Christ?”
“Yes deary.”

These were his last words.  William was only 28 years old.

“I want you to work with all your strength…”
Belle was just 19 when she found herself in rural India both an orphan and a widow.  But this tragic tale of a life and a love cut short is not the end of the story.  Isabel did go on to work and live with a fervor and a strength uncommon for a woman of her station and situation living in the 19th century.  She continued her mission to teach women in rural India to read and write for ten months before traveling on a long, lonely voyage back to the United States.  Her intention was to become a physician like her father and then return to India to practice medicine there, but in 1867, two years after William’s death, she was married a second time, to a man named Samuel Barrows who worked as a congressional stenographer in Washington, D. C.

When Samuel became too ill to work, Isabel took his place, and thus became the first women ever to work for the U. S. State Department.  She graduated from the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary in 1869, and then traveled to the University of Vienna Medical School to become one of the first female ophthalmologists, a vocation perhaps inspired by her late husband William, who often complained about his eyes, and affectionately expressed concern for hers in those early letters.  She also became the first woman to have her own private practice in Washington, D.C.

In 1880, Isabel gave up her medical practice to become the Associate Editor of The Christian Register.  She worked as both a journalist and editor covering controversial issues and supported international human rights as a social activist.  Isabel collaborated with Alice Stone Blackwell in editing The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution, and she was overseas attempting to win freedom for the Russian revolutionary Catherine Breshkovsky when her second husband died in 1909.  She subsequently took his place that year at the International Prison Congress in Paris, and continued to work for women’s prison reform and other social causes until her own death in 1913.

 

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