- “To Trust it to Another’s Hands—Another’s Love”:Deathbed Directives and Last Wishes of Elite Women in the Antebellum South
Louisa Davis, the privileged wife of a Virginia clergyman, had three small children, would soon become pregnant with a fourth, and suffered poor health and frailty from years of difficult pregnancies and childbirths. In January 1860, fearing her declining condition, she wrote a lengthy letter to her mother and her husband detailing her last wishes. “It has occurred to me,” Louisa began, “that in case this sickness, which I expect so soon, should prove mortal it would be a comfort to you to have my last wishes and feelings written down so I will prepare this letter to be opened in case of my death.”1 Louisa proceeded to leave detailed instructions regarding the education, custody, and care of her children, along with directions as to how her husband should choose his next spouse. She conveyed her feelings about religion and morality, as well as her desires regarding the distribution of her personal belongings. Death, however, was not as imminent as she feared; Louisa would continue to live for another seven years. Although premature, her instructions about the care, management, and actions of her family and household represented Louisa’s active, and in some respects authoritative, role in fulfilling her domestic and maternal duties beyond the grave.
Historical studies of the antebellum South have long recognized the region’s high maternal mortality rate and the effects of maternal death on southern families and households. All nineteenth-century American women faced the physical hazards of parturition, but historians agree that the risk of death was much higher for women in the antebellum South. High birthrates exemplified the fulfillment of proper gender roles ascribed by southern society, and the high temperatures and humid climate bred disease and increased [End Page 121] mortality rates (McMillen, Motherhood 81). Pregnant women were particularly vulnerable to illness and infection. Defined by their maternal roles and with few contraceptive options available, most southern women confronted the physical dangers of childbearing multiple times. The perils of childbirth and the risk of death from poor medical care, infection, and disease weighed heavily on nineteenth-century southern women and their families. Yet, upper-class women, more often than not accepted motherhood with love and commitment. Their role as mothers figured central to their identity and the fulfillment of their familial duties. Although elite women could, and often did, rely on slaves to carry out childcare duties, slaveholding mothers assumed primary responsibility for infant care, breast-feeding, and child-rearing.2
Maternal death in the Old South greatly affected the lives of family members and often resulted in new childcare arrangements. In many cases, child custody was transferred to grandparents, aunts and uncles, or adult siblings. At other times, female relatives—those who came for a mother’s funeral or who had been visiting to assist in her illness—stayed within the home to raise children indefinitely or assisted in domestic duties until the father remarried. Following the death of her mother, three-year-old Virginia Tunstall of North Carolina was placed in the care of her aunt and uncle (Clay-Clopton 4). Similarly, after the death of his mother in 1825, one-year-old Thomas L. Bayne of South Carolina was taken to live with his Aunt Abi and Uncle Edward and was “most kindly cared for by them.”3 Only rarely did young children stay in their original home without the care of an older female relative or friend, and when they did, domestic slaves probably assumed most child-rearing duties. Southern ideals of fatherhood and masculinity dissuaded men from taking on such responsibilities, and widowers often remarried quickly to ensure proper childcare.4
Historical scholarship on the role of elite southern mothers, the risks associated with childbirth, and the effects of maternal mortality on the family emphasizes the centrality of motherhood to women’s identity and the household, yet it largely omits any explanation of how these circumstances influenced the way that upper-class mothers confronted and prepared for death. How did this high risk of mortality affect the lived experiences and...