Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pages from the Past

 Thomas Nelson, jr, Signer of the Declaration, in youth, by Mason Chamberlain (Richmond Museum)

Among the blessings of my retirement is a feeling of being licensed to read whatever I want, and in whatever direction, without worrying about some proximate product in the form of a publication of my own.  So I read all sorts of unlikely stuff.  For example, I just finished reading in full and in sequence two unlikely documents: (1) the complete indictment from a grand jury in the federal court for the Eastern District of Virginia in the case of the United States vs Robert F. McDonnell and Maureen G. McDonnell and (2) the Wikipedia List of the Governors of the Commonwealth of Virginia.   A more depressing confirmation of my sense of national moral decline would be difficult to find.  Our Founders gave us foundations of polished granite on which some of our contemporary politicians are happy enough to build their plywood shacks.
            The very early governors of Virginia included Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, James Monroe, and (let it be remembered) William Fleming.  I am willing to grant that the McDonnells are to be considered innocent of criminality until proven guilty thereof, but the vulgarity of their greed and the utter conventionality of its objects (Oscar de la Renta dresses, Rolex watches, and gewgags from the Pro Shop) need no further demonstration.  And I would hope that even a former attorney general might know that in addition to statute law there are such things as simple right and wrong.
            I’ve had better luck this week with two other governors--Thomas Nelson, Jr.  (1781) and John Page (1802-1805)—and it happened like this.  Among the second-hand books in my library is a devotional volume entitled Called to Be Saints by Christina Rossetti, one of the finest Anglican poets of the Victorian era.  I greatly admire this author, but I bought this particular book, probably twenty years ago, chiefly for its ownership inscription: “L. Page Nelson / October 1881- / New York”.  My maternal grandmother, to whom I must be forever thankful for my own Anglicanism, bore the maiden name of Cora Louise Nelson; and the one example I have of her pre-marriage signature, on a French grammar book of the 1880s, is strikingly similar in its beautiful penmanship.
            This congruence probably has more to do with the quality of American primary education a century and a half ago than to any specific connection of the two Nelsons, but it did prompt me to do a little Internet snooping.  This immediately led me to the web-page of something called the Page-Nelson Society of Virginia and to a very helpful correspondence with one of its current officers, Thomas Nelson of Yorktown.  The Page-Nelson Society is devoted to the genealogical history of two of the firstest of the First Families of Virginia.  Mr. Nelson of Yorktown almost immediately identified with a high degree of probability “my” L. Page Nelson as one of his own collateral kin and a woman listed in a church document of December, 1907, as a contributor to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City.  This may provide me with a topic for further research in the New York archives.  For the moment Ms. Page Nelson’s book itself has plenty to engage my interest.
            She appears to have been a parishioner of Grace Church at Broadway and 10th, not far from where my daughter lives today.  Several of the prayers in Called to Be Saints are annotated in ink or pencil reporting what “Dr. Potter” said about them from the pulpit.  This would be the eminent Henry C. Potter, who was rector of Grace Church until his elevation to the episcopacy.  There are a few pressed plant leaves still within the book and signs of others that were once there.  In the opening at pages 346/347, in the chapter devoted to Saint James the Greater, there are the petals of a whole flower, probably a rose, now drained of all color yet still faintly fragrant.  They have been there for at least a century.  We often speak metaphorically of “a whiff of the past;” this is a real one.
            There are also a few clippings from an unidentified religious periodical dated April 25, 1885.  One of them is a mini-essay concerning the evangelist Mark, who commands a chapter in the Rossetti book.  It undoubtedly interested Ms. Nelson.  But of course I am the kind of historian who specializes in the obscurities of nooks and crannies, and what interests me is something in six point type in the small ads  on the backside of the clipping.  It is an obituary resolution published by the rector, wardens, and vestry of Trinity Church, Chicago, upon the recent death of one of their most prominent parishioners—“the late Anson* Stager”.
 from the collection of the New York Historical Society

            A bell faintly rang in that part of my semi-consciousness devoted to the Civil War.  So I poked about a bit more.  Anson Stager was the intelligence officer—a general by war’s end—in the Union army who invented the telegraph code, never cracked by the Confederates, credited among the Union's important strategic advantages.  One of the reasons it was never cracked was the tightness of the secrecy surrounding it.  Neither President Lincoln nor General Grant was in the loop—a fact that at least on one occasion was distinctly unpleasing to Grant!  After the war, Stager became one of America’s early electronic millionaires as President of the Chicago Telephone Company and the Western Edison Company—a fact no doubt pleasing to the rector and wardens of Trinity Church, who were in the loop.

*I originally published this as Anton.  See the first two comments if interested.