Chase and Death

Among other things, I have been thinking about Salmon Chase, about the way in which he faced death over and over during his own life. I wanted to quote and comment on a few of his many letters about death.

The first major death in Chase’s life was that of his father, who died in August 1817, when Chase himself was only nine years old. Chase’s father suffered a stroke, lost the ability to speak and to move, and then died. Here is a description from a letter Chase wrote years later:

“They called it the numb palsy. No remedies availed. He lingered some days, and then we were called into his room. Father was dying. How still the room was, except the heavy breathing and the ominous rattle. He could not speak to us, and we stood mute and sobbing. Soon all was over. We had no father. Then came the funeral. The Rev. Mr. Strong, of Northampton, came up to preach the funeral sermon. His brother masons paid the last tributes of respect and honor. And all was over. The light was gone out from our home.”

Chase’s first wife, Catharine Jane Chase, died on December 1, 1835. Chase was not with her when she died; he had left Cincinnati on a business trip to Philadelphia. He later faulted himself, believing that if he had stayed home in Cincinnati, he could have saved her from overzealous bleeding by the doctors. Chase wrote to his friend Charles Cleveland in April 1836:

“But the calamity, which has fallen upon me, was so severe, so overwhelming, so unexpected, that I have hardly yet recovered from it sufficiently to perform any duty, which the exigency of the immediate occasion does not imperiously require. To me the sudden blight of my most cherished hopes, the unanticipated destruction of all that seemed to promise pleasure in life, was a shock of which you can form no conception. And now though months have since elapsed I feel its paralyzing influence.  I pray that it may be sanctified to me & to others—that it may teach me a juster estimate of life—a juster estimate of the objects of life, that it may lead me to look less to earth as a permanent abode & more to that world of bliss & glory whither I humbly hope, my dear wife has gone before me. Still, however, I cannot but feel the difference between the world with her & the world without her. The very habits of feeling & of life which religion enjoined make me more sensible of my loss. I sought no pleasure except in her society. I was never absent from her except when summoned away by business. And now I feel a loneliness the more dreadful from the intimacy of the connection which has been severed. And to think that the dreadful calamity might have been averted, had I been home to watch over her & care for her, as I am sure it might have been, this is a reflection deeply agonizing. Why did I permit myself to leave her? Why did I allow myself to trust her to the care of others? I feel now that I ought not to have done this: but I feel it now too late.”

Chase’s hope that his wife’s death would make him a better person, a better and more faithful Christian, was pretty standard at this time. Nineteenth century Christians hoped for a Good Death—a death in which one died at home, with family, with one’s minister, with faith on one’s lips. We have somehow lost this notion—or it is so deeply buried in our aversion to death that it only emerges from time to time.

Chase’s second wife, Eliza Ann Smith Chase, died of tuberculosis on September 29, 1845. A few days later, Chase wrote again to his friend Cleveland:

“The great sorrow, within the shadow of which I have lived for years, has, at length, fallen crushingly upon me. My dear wife, whom I loved as my own soul and whose comfort has been my main earthly object so long that I feel providing for her wants to be almost a necessity, has been taken from me. ‘The Lord hath dealt very severely with me.’ This mournful cry of Naomi expresses my own anguish partly, but I cannot tell you all my grief, and if I could you could not understand me, for you have not been—I thank God for that—thus bereaved. Alas, alas how sad & lonely is my heart. I feel an aching void, of which I have read, but I never felt the force of the words as I do now. On this fifth day of the seventh year of our marriage, I have laid all that was mortal of my precious wife in the tomb, and I feel as if my heart was broken. I write weeping.”

Chase continued, however, in a more hopeful vein. “Yet all is not dark. The cloud is fringed with light. She died trusting in Jesus, as I trust, though for eighteen hours before she expired she was able to articulate but three words. . . . Several times before she became so very ill we had spoken of her probable departure, and she seemed always to have her hope in Christ; and during the few days before her death I repeatedly spoke to her of the Savior and she expressed her trust in Him as the sufficient foundation of her hope.”

Chase married again, in 1846, but soon his third wife was quite ill, at death’s door. And, one by one, his siblings—he was part of a family of eleven children—died. In January 1850, Chase wrote to his friend Charles Sumner from Washington.

“You ask for a word of cheer. The response must come from a sad heart. I have just heard the tidings of the death of a beloved sister, than whose a sweeter, kinder, more affectionate heart never yearned towards a brother. You may remember that when I was in Boston last fall I went up to New Hampshire to see her.  Little thought I it was our last meeting on earth. But God has so willed it—would that I could say more truly from the heart God’s will be done!

My wife, too, is still very ill; but I hope is mending slowly. I fear, however, her constitution will never recover wholly from the shock it has sustained.

What a vale of misery this world is! To me it has been emphatically so. Death has pursued me incessantly ever since I was twenty-five. My path has been—how terribly true it is—through the region of his shadow.  Sometimes I feel as if I could give up—as if I must give up. And then after all I rise and press on.  Have you ever experienced these feelings? I should faint certainly if I did not believe that God in mercy as well as wisdom orders all things well, and will not suffer those who trust in Him through Christ to be utterly cast down.”

Chase and his three wives had six children, all but two of whom died as infants or toddlers. Chase understandably obsessed over his two remaining children, especially his oldest daughter Kate. He wrote to her in December 1851 that “already eleven years of your life are passed.  You may not live another eleven years; perhaps only a very small part of that time; certainly or almost certainly not many times eleven years.  How short life is!”

Modern biographers have criticized Chase for being too stern with Kate, and perhaps he was, but he was also writing in a way far more common in those days than in these: using death, the inevitability of death, to press people to be better Christians.

One final letter, from January 1865, when the last of Chase’s siblings, Helen, died. Helen had suffered a stroke, a few years earlier, and struggled along. Now Chase wrote to his friend Susan Walker:

“My dear sister Helen has exchanged mortality for immortality.  God was gracious in restoring to her so much of health & strength after that first terrible blow; but she never fully recovered.  The paralysis never wholly left the side which received the shock; though she could ride a little, walk a little, attend to some household duties, and enjoy the society of her family & friends.”

After a paragraph about Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam, Chase continued:

“I feel pretty well & strong considering I am so close to my fifty-eighth year. Eleven days more & I shall have completed fifty-seven. But I live in more than ordinary uncertainty of life. Several members of my family as you know have died very suddenly & I cannot help feeling that I may be called in like manner. Ever since I was twenty years old I have thought something wrong about the region of the heart & although assured that there is no organic disease I have never been convinced that I was mistaken. Latterly I think I perceive more indications. It may be there is no occasion for special uneasiness. It may be I shall reach the allotted term of three score & ten—now not remote, but it may be also that a year—a month—a week may bring the end of earth. It is natural that under these circumstances & left alone without brother or sister I should feel serious. But I do not wish to take any other views of my relations to time & eternity, to man & to God, than I ought to take if I were sure to live a hundred years in uninterrupted health & vigor. In His sight ‘a thousand years are as one day’ and I would fain be what He requires whether for one day or many years.”

Chase’s predictions about his own health and death proved in part correct. Chief Justice Chase suffered a severe stroke in August 1870, from which he recovered slowly and partially. Then Chase suffered another stroke in May 1873 and died a few days later in New York City. Chase was only sixty-five years old.