Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Love Letters in the Samuel Latham Mitchill Papers

Samuel Latham Mitchill was a man of many interests. He held a medical degree from the University of Edinburgh, studied law, taught chemistry and botany at Columbia University, and served in both state and national legislatures. Even with so much on his mind, his wife, Catherine, was still never far from his thoughts.

The Clements Library's Samuel Latham Mitchill Papers include detailed letters he wrote to Catherine while he was serving in Congress. Discussions of politics and Washington society are tempered by expressions of marital love and affection. He opens his letters with sweet and varied salutations that warm the heart.  "My dear little Duck," "My Queen of Hearts," "My beloved wife," he writes, or, "My sweet love," "My pretty little Picture," "My dear friend and sweetheart," "My true Love."

On Valentine's Day, 1803, he wrote a long letter to Catherine. In what may be perceived as a bit of a romantic misstep, he spent some five pages writing about the holiday's ancient history, leading up to the American practice of sending valentines and the current belief that "Birds also choose their Mates" on Valentine's Day. In a last minute save, he closes the letter by proclaiming, "on this very fourteenth day of February in the year one thousand eight hundred and three, your absent Dove has re-elected you to be his Mate for the next twelvemonth."

Two days later he refers to a Valentine's Day poem he also sent Catherine, which one of his friends declared "enough to make you crazy with love." Sadly, the poem is lost to us. The passion and affection that inspired it, however, is documented throughout the collection well beyond Valentine's Day. Missing his wife in early December 1803, he sent her a letter despite having just written the day before. "I have little else to send her to day," he admits, "that a parcel of Kisses, well assorted, which I have imprinted with my lips on this Paper; Take them, my love, and make the most of them in behalf of the giver."

Samuel Latham Mitchill ALS to Catherine Mitchill, Washington, [D.C.], 1803 December 2. Samuel Latham Mitchill Papers, William L. Clements Library.

No matter how you spend this Valentine's Day, you can always find enough romance in the archives to make you swoon.

Jayne Ptolemy
Reading Room Supervisor and Manuscripts Curatorial Assistant

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