This letter was written from Rahway, New Jersey by Catherine (Mellis) Tilton (1771-1843), the widow of William Tilton (1778-1819). She wrote the letter in 1822 to her 12 year-old son, Mellis Tilton (1810-1891) who was temporarily staying with his Uncle Samuel Mellis in North Castle, New York. Samuel’s residence in North Castle is known today as the Moses Quinby House (the first owner) — he purchased it in 1820.
From the content of the letter we can conjecture that Catherine Tilton had vacated her residence — like many other New Yorkers — when the yellow fever epidemic hit the city during the summer of 1822. An account ¹ of the evacuation states that on “the 24th of August, our city presented the appearance of a town besieged. From day break till night, one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandize and effects, were seen moving towards Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city. Carriages and hacks, waggons and horsemen were scouring the streets and filling the roads; persons with anxiety strongly marked on their countenances and with hurried gait were bustling through the streets.” A post-epidemic analyses concluded that the fever originated in the vicinity of Rector Street, between Washington and Lumber Streets — closer to the wharves on the Hudson River — but could not be contained to that area for long. It subsequently spread to another part of the city bounded by Henry Street to the East River and between Catharine and Pike Streets. Between 13 July and 2 November 1822, Yellow Fever is estimated to have taken the lives of 1,236 of the inhabitants.¹
Though physicians had pronounced the epidemic at an end by mid-October, advice was being offered in the newspapers to returning residents that certain steps be taken to render their residences safe:
1 . That previous to any of the houses’ being occupied, the doors and windows be left open for one or two days.
2. That all the apartments be cleansed and white washed.
3. That all filth be removed from the premises, and if any of the cellars contain stagnant water, that it be immediately removed.
4. That quick lime be strewed in the cellars, yards and privies.
5. That fires be lighted in each apartment.
We learn from this letter that many private residences in New York City were entered during the owner’s absence and effectively destroyed by the remaining populace who either feared the spread of yellow fever or, worse yet, capitalized on the opportunity “of making their own property the property of the unfortunate absentees.” ¹ Though I can’t be certain where Catherine resided in 1822, her address 5 years later was at 19 Cherry Street which is on the lower east side of Manhattan overlooking the East River. The area once boasted fine mansions but by the 1820s was being converted into boarding houses which were later demolished to make way for the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage.
Addressed to Samuel Mellis, North Castle, West Chester, New York
For Mellis Tilton
Rahway [New Jersey]
10th Month [October] 13th 1822
My dear little son I know will want to hear from his mother who is pretty well and is very anxious to get home and meet her dear children once more — but do not know how soon that will be. We must try to bear our separation patiently and endeavor to be resigned to the dispensation allotted out to us. I believe I should have tried to have come and spent 2 or 3 weeks with you but I could not have come without at least 3 dollars expense and, my dear, I had it not to spare. I have a doctor bill to pay here and thee knows the first of next month is rend day. I do not mention these things to try thee but only offer them as a sufficient reason for my not coming to see thee. I have just wrote to sisters to encourage them coming after a few nights. Trust that has produced good &c. at which time I expect to go in, if permitted. I will try to write thee as soon as I am in town. But myself and sisters must go in as soon as is thought prudent as our house will want thorough cleaning and scrubbing before we can do anything and the school will be crowding in upon us. It will be best for thee to stay at Uncle’s a few days until we appear to be through a little with our cleaning and then we shall be glad to see thee.
Last night’s paper reported one case. I saw Sally Bowen and Elizabeth at meeting today & enquired where thee was and says she wants very much to go home. I saw Hugh and William last week. They all look well and plump. I hope we shall all meet at home before long. I hear there has been a great many houses broke open and the furniture destroyed, beds cut open and feathers thrown away, peoples clothes cut to pieces, and their crockery broke and, in short, everything destroyed. How our little house will be, I know not but I do not intend to think too much about it as we have but little although it would be our all. I will hope for the best and look forward with hope.
I have been thoughtful about thy shoes. If they want mending, ask dear Uncle to please to have them mended for thee. I had a letter from sisters dated the 2nd of the month. I wrote them when I last wrote thee 3 weeks ago and I find they have now got the letter. The man I sent it by put it in his desk and forgot it. They have never heard from thee since they left home. I am going to send them a letter by post tomorrow which they will probably get next 5 day [Thursday]. They enquire particular about thee. They were then at Uncle James Morriss’ and was about going over the river to Cousin Johannes Cook &c.
I expect thee will be very busy among the nuts. Cousin Isaac Morriss has got about 3 pecks. Do ask dear Aunt to let me have all the sage she can spare and a little mother wants and please to not forget Uncle Joseph’s letter. Also remember to bring all thy things home. Don’t forget thy great coat. I believe I must now conclude with love to thy dear Uncle and Aunt, and a large portion for thyself, and remain as ever thy affectionate mother, — C. Tilton