Sunday, February 4, 2018

Funeral for a Bluestocking

Portrait of Rebecca “Robina” Napier
McRuer, 1833-1866
Rebecca “Robina” Napier McRuer was a Bangor bluestocking and socialite.  Intellectually active and politically aware, Robina recognized the social inequity affecting the lives of poor Irish immigrants in her home town. An abolitionist and Union patriot, she was equally aware of her own socially-defined place as a woman in Bangor’s upper class and mastered her role as a doctor’s daughter and potential wife. She did not marry until nearly 30 years of age and then to a man 18-years her senior.  Only three years later, in July 1866, Robina died from complications following childbirth. 

The daughter of Scottish immigrant Dr. Daniel McRuer and Mary Ann Wright, Robina was one of nine children. She graduated Bangor Girl’s High School around June 1851 and with her best friends Marion (May) Lunt, Celia Frances (Fanny) Dwinel, and Ada Josephine Hortense Pierce, according to the recollections of John Edwards Godfrey, Esq., passed a week as the guests of he and his wife, Elizabeth Angela Stackpole Godfrey at Cliff Cottage in Bangor. The week, described by Godfrey in his journal as “one of unqualified pleasure” made such an impression on the man that he recalled it 20 years later following the death of Ada [Pierce] Williamson in March 1872.

Aside from the occasional, brief mention of Miss R. McRuer entering floral arrangements in the Bangor Horticultural Society show, the woman’s name only once appeared prominently in the pages of the Bangor Whig & Courier when she was selected by her peers to present the men of Maine’s Second Civil War Regiment with a silk American flag sewn “by the ladies of Bangor.” In the company of Mayor Charles Stetson and Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, the formal presentation took place on Broadway as citizens of the region waved their sons off to war on Tuesday, May 14, 1861.

Maine’s Second Regiment including officers, soldiers, and military band
standing on a snow-covered field at Camp Jameson on the grounds of
Mt. Vernon, Virginia. Above the assembly waves the American flag—
very possibly, the same flag made by the ladies of Bangor and presented to
the Regiment prior to their departure from Bangor. Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
LCCN 2009632246 LC-DIG-ppmsc-03307
From the porch of James Crosby’s home on Broadway, the Mayor introduced Robina to the men of Maine’s Second Regiment and the crowd. The speech she authored and spoke, was recorded in the Whig & Courier:

Soldiers of the Second Regiment—Colonel Jameson: On behalf of the ladies of Bangor, I present this flag: the pride of our nation, the guardian of its institutions, the symbol of its liberty. You are called upon to vindicate its insulted honor and re-establish its supremacy over the fortunes of a now divided people. From a distant part of our land, from those who should have been our friends and brothers, the sharp cry of disunion has risen; but the sole response echoed back by millions in an undivided and enthusiastic North has been—“Union.”

This flag has been consecrated by the women’s prayers to the defense of the Union, and to your honor and bravery it is now entrusted. It were easier to bear it against a foreign foe, alien in language and ignorant of the blessing of freedom; it were better that its sacred folds should be stained by a stranger’s than a brother’s blood, but let not this thought dishearten you.
Remember that you have that which alone can ennoble war—a noble cause—and go forward to battle for the right, secure of victory. Our hopes, our prayers are with you in your sacred work

               “Yes, let all good things away.
                Him who cares not to be great
                But as he saves or serves the State.”

Take then this ensign of the Free! Under its folds let no coward or traitor to his country lurk! Eager eyes will watch its progress amid the vicissitudes of war, and joyous hearts will exult when it leads you to glory and victory. —And when you return to the peace of your Northern homes, (God grant it may be soon,) bring back this flag and we will cherish it as a priceless memento of the bravery of the soldiers of Maine.

On August 1, 1861, following the shock of the Union’s loss at the First Battle of Bull Run and reports about the catastrophic number of casualties occurring on both sides, Robina penned the abolitionist poem, “Let Us Hear No More of Sending Back the Slave” published in both the New York Independent and The Liberator out of Boston. Though published anonymously, John Godfrey, with a father’s pride, attributes the work to Robina, transcribing the poem in his journal along with the comment that she was “too modest” to allow the work to be published locally. The poem, both eloquent and terse, takes politicians to task for the cretinously continued enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act as Northern volunteers died in a war to preserve the Union. Even as she penned these words, Robina could not predict that little more than a week later, her own father would be called to serve as surgeon to Maine’s Second.

Let Us Hear No More of Sending Back the Slave

Stand up in the Capitol and proclaim
To wondering nations the fearful game
Which the soldiers play for us, North and South,
At the bayonet’s point and the cannon’s mouth—
Count up the stakes and reckon the chances;
Say, as each bristling column advances, —
                “So we contend against slavery,
                Lying and cheating and knavery” —
                                And then send back the slave.

North, East and West have poured out their treasures,
Doubled their tithes, and heaped up their measures—
Called to strong men, “Now arm for the fight,
Crush the proud traitor, and strike for the Right!”
Into the ranks slip young men and bold men—
Into the ranks step wise men and old men—
And the mothers kiss and caress them,
And the maidens cheer them and bless them,
                And you send back the slave.

 “Forward!” they march at the President’s call
Through Baltimore’s streets to the Capital.
“Forward!” where foes are entrenched in their might,
(Now God be with them, and favor the Right!)
And they see the hard battle before them,
And they think of the mothers who bore them,
                And the maidens’ cheers and flatteries—
                March up to the murderous batteries—
                                While you send back the slave.

Weary and thirsty, they strike for the Right—
New men, but true men, they gallantly fight;
Bravely resisting, they stand by their flags
Till their gay colors are torn into rags.
They are falling, the young men and bold men,
They are falling, the wise men and old men—
                And the cannon-ball leaps and whistles,
                And cuts down the shamrocks and thistles—
                                And you send back the slave.

Ay, weep for the soldiers who lie there dead,
And weep for the soldiers who turned and fled!
Send to the Northland, and gather a host,
Fill up the places of those you have lost.
Cry to the nations, “Come now and aid us
Crush out the wrong for which you upbraid us.”
                Then call upon God for assistance,
                For strength in your holy resistance
                                And then you send back the slave.

My countrymen, can you not understand
‘Tis a “holy war,” which the Lord hath planned;
That Justice and Vengeance shall make you strong
When you throw in the scales the pond’rous wrong?
They have hated you, scorned you, scouted you,
And now from the field they have routed you,
                While you with clinging humility
                Kiss their soft hands in servility—
                                And you send back the slave.

Through reading Robina’s own words, one is able to gain a better perspective on Godfrey’s ardent pride in Robina as “no ordinary woman.” A year after her December 1863 marriage to New York merchant Gilbert Howell, Godfrey compared Robina favorably with his own wife, Angela, stating, “They both, when young, were of the independent rompish kind, such as most girls are who amount to anything.” 
Mary C. (McRuer) Clark (1828-1904),
Sarah “Sally” Russ (McRuer) Field (1824-1900), and
Rebecca “Robina” Napier (McRuer) Howell (1833-1866). 
From the collection of Richard R. Shaw.

Upon learning of Robina's death in July 1866, a clearly heart-broken Godfrey wrote, “Though of beautiful person, she possessed a superior mind. She had great versatility of talent, excellent judgement, great wit, a vast fund of humor, a big heart, a forgiving disposition, and exquisite taste. Take her all in all, I never saw her superior—in some points never her equal. She possessed remarkable conversational powers. She was passionately fond of the fine arts. Kept up her reading and her studies. A year ago, when I left her house in Brooklyn, she was talking French with a Frenchwoman, and it seemed to me that she was quite at home...Probably never has there been a happier wife than she. Her husband is a wealthy merchant, and toward her his conduct has been that of a lover, during her whole connection with him. No wish of hers was left ungratified ... Like a devoted wife she did all in her power to return his kindness.”

“It is with great grief to us all, her death. [Mrs. Godfrey] has done nothing but mourn since she heard of it. Dr. McRuer will be inconsolable. He thought there was no one to compare with her—and her husband will never get over it,” Godfrey wrote.

Grave marker of Robina McRuer Howell, Mount
Hope Cemetery, Bangor, Maine.
Author photo, 2016.
While Godfrey noted multiple local deaths in the first volume of his published journals, it is his report of Robina’s funeral, as well as that of his wife, Angela in May 1868 that gives a glimpse into the community’s mid-19th Century funerary practices. Robina’s body was returned to Maine from New York and laid out for the viewing at her father’s home on State Street on August 5, sixteen days following her death. Godfrey stated he would “not have known the person, had I seen the body elsewhere. It looked 10 years older than Robina,” though his wife assessed the face as natural in appearance.

As was fashionable during the Victorian-age, and likely due to Robina’s involvement in the Bangor Horticultural Society, the McRuer house “was filled with flowers,” Godfrey reported. “The attendance at the funeral was very large. Mr. [Rev. George W.] Field’s prayer at the house was eloquent.” As with Angela Godfrey two years later, Robina was likely dressed in a white silk or satin burial robe. Her hair would have been fashionably styled and her cheeks lightly rouged to relieve the pallor of death. Those assembled would have said prayers and heard the Reverend read from the scriptures.

Noting that Robina, “had a great many friends among the lowly,” Godfrey reported that a large number of people he believed to be the city’s poor Irish immigrants assembled along the perimeter of Dr. McRuer’s property. This group followed the funeral procession to Mount Hope Cemetery, where they continued to pay their respects while keeping at a distance from the Protestant funeral party.

Once the procession reached the cemetery, a second lengthier service was held graveside with an assembled choir. The casket would have been opened to accept offerings of flowers—both wreathes and bouquets—and religious items, such as Christian crosses—from friends and family.  “At the grave the services were very interesting,” Godfrey wrote. “The grave was lined with evergreens, as is the custom here, and all through these evergreens, the friends had woven white flowers and her last resting place was literally a bed of roses, and death in one sense had lost its victory.”

“The choir sang, “Unveil thy bosom faithful tomb,” and Rev. George W. Field made one of the most eloquent affecting and still consoling prayers I ever heard. People were standing and sitting about in all directions and many were the mourners for Mrs. Gilbert Howell.”

Sic transit, the beauty, the glory, the excellence of the world. With good reason may her husband be inconsolable.”
Monument memorializing five of the nine children
born to Dr. Daniel McRuer and Mary Ann
Wright McRuer. Author photo, 2016.

Following her burial, Gilbert Howell employed the company of S. P. Bradbury to mark Robina’s grave with a white marble Victorian-pedestal monument topped with an urn and shroud and draped with carved garlands of ribbons and cabbage roses. The pedestal is edged with acanthus leaves. The stone is simply inscribed: “My dear wife. Robina N. McR. Howell.”  

Nearby, in the center of the double-lot, stands a large white marble monument featuring a fluted column that was erected by Dr. and Mrs. McRuer to memorialize five of their nine children: infants Walter and James and six-year-old Ellen as well as Robina and her sister Lucretia, who experienced brain damage in adulthood as the result of epileptic seizures. Godfrey described her as “a beautiful child, but her mind at the age of 26 was almost gone by reason of fits.”

Unlike so many of Bangor’s fashionable young women, Robina McRuer Howell’s public identity has been preserved in the published journals of John Edward Godfrey. Godfrey’s insight, supplemented by two examples of Robina’s own writing, gives the modern researcher a view to the person whose identity and relationships are also represented in the marble monument that marks her grave.

The urn and shroud topping the monument are traditional symbols of death. These are accompanied by the high-relief carving of cabbage rose garlands, representing Robina’s own love of flowers as well as her husband’s deep, passionate love for his youthful wife. Acanthus leaves surrounding the pedestal base represent the heavenly garden and eternal Christian afterlife. Knowing the woman’s life, reputation, and own words, provides the viewer a deeper understanding of the monument’s meaning to the survivors who accompanied her memory to her grave over 150 years ago.

Departure of the Second Regiment. (15 May 1861) Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, p. 3.
Died. (28 July 1866). Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, p. 3.
Died. (31 July 1866). Bangor Daily Whig & Courier, p. 3.
Godfrey, John Edwards. (1979). The Journals of John Edwards Godfrey: Bangor, Maine 1863-1869, Vol. 1. James B. Vickery, ed. Courier-Gazette, Inc.: Rockland, ME.
Kelly, Howard Atwood, & Walter Lincoln Burrage. (1920). American Medical Biographies. The Norman, Remington Company: Baltimore, MD.
McRuer, Robina. (13 September 1861). Let Us Hear No More of Sending Back the Slave. The Liberator, p. 148.
Peters, Hayden. (12 May 2010). “Symbolism Sunday: The Acanthus,” from Art of Mourning. Retrieved from
Pierce, Frederick Clifton (1901). Field Genealogy: Being the Record of All the Field Family in America, Whose Ancestors Were in this Country Prior to 1700. Emigrant Ancestors Located in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Virginia. All Descendants of the Fields of England, Whose Ancestor, Hurbutus de la Field, was from Alsace-Lorraine, Vol. 2. Hammond Press: Chicago, IL.
Porter, Joseph W., ed. (1888). Bangor Historical Magazine Jul, 1887-June 1888, Vol. III. Benjamin A. Burr: Bangor, ME.
Shaw, Richard R. (1994). Images of America: Bangor. Arcadia Publishing: Charleston, S.C.