Tuesday, February 23, 2021

The Obituary of Jemima (Burnham) Emerson, 1868 - The Christian Wife of an Infidel

The Col. Joshua Burnham Tavern, photo 2001
where Jemima Burnham grew up, Milford, New Hampshire

My 4th great grandmother was born as Jemima Burnham.  Her name is listed as Jemima Wyman Burnham on an SAR application dated 20 August 1957 for Emerson Francis Thayer McLean, a distant cousin.  I've never seen her listed with a middle name on any other vital record or documentation.  Her mother's name was Jemima Wyman, so it could be possible.  Jemima was born 9 May 1783 in Milford, New Hampshire.  It is often difficult to learn about the lives of our women ancestors, but bits and pieces of Jemima's life have become revealed to me over 40 years of searching for clues.

Her father was Colonel Joshua Burnham.  He was a local character, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a local hero who was present at the Battle of Bunker Hill and served in New York, Philadelphia and Canada.  The history of Milford states that he was an eyewitness when George Washington took command of the Continental Army.  He built a large farm and tavern near the banks of the Souhegan River, which is still standing on River Road.  He later sold his tavern and property to Jesse and Polly Hutchinson, who raised their thirteen children there in Milford.  These children were famous as the Hutchinson Family singers who sang songs of temperance, abolition, women's suffrage, and other progressive movements all over the USA and even in Europe.  

Although Col. Burnham sold his farm to the Hutchinson family, he remained in Milford, and remained a good friend to Jesse Hutchinson.  He must have agreed with all the progressive beliefs, and discussed them with the Hutchinson's various friends who included P. T. Barnum, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.  These famous singers gave their very first concert at the Baptist church in Milford.  The Hutchinson Singers toured England with Douglass in 1845, and some moved to Lynn, Massachusetts to live next door to him.  

Local history and various Hutchinson journals and books remember Col. Burnham as an old veteran who would wander the property, often stuffing his pockets with apples from the orchard.  The Burnham family and the Hutchinson family lie side by side in a small burial ground, the North Yard Cemetery,  within site of the Col. Burnham tavern on River Road.  Joshua Hutchinson wrote the epitaph for Joshua Burnham "Soldier of the revolution zealous in his country's cause, Faithful to the constitution and obedient to its laws"

These stories are what I know of Jemima's life in Milford.  Of course, she had married by 1810 to Romanus Emerson and removed to South Boston where her children were born.  Her family had been members of the Baptist Church in Milford, listed on the records.  The same Baptist church that held the first concerts for the Hutchinson family who sang about abolition before the Civil War.  Although the Baptist church is considered conservative today, they supported very progressive ideas in the early nineteenth century. 

I was not surprised that she married Romanus Emerson.  He came from a family of ministers.  They were Congregationalists going back to Puritan times.  The Emerson family included early ministers such as Rev. Joseph Emerson, born in England about 1620, who married Elizabeth Bulkely, the daughter of Rev. Edward Bulkely (1614 - 1696) the first minister of Concord, Massachusetts.  Even Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882), son of a Concord minister, also studied for the ministry at Harvard.  Romanus Emerson had three brothers who became ministers, and he himself studied for the ministry but gave up due to a speech impediment.  

It was during his time studying theology that Romanus Emerson had a change of heart.  He became an atheist.  He said that "Freethinking" without the constraints of religion and other social mores opened his mind to progressive thoughts and more independent beliefs.  He joined the Free Soil movement, the abolitionists, and the Infidel Society.  He called himself an "Infidel" for the rest of his life, and wrote his own eulogy describing his "Infidel" beliefs. 

I have no idea what Jemima thought of all this during her married life with Romanus, the atheist.  I believe that she agreed with his progressive thoughts and politics.  But to be an atheist, or an "Infidel", at this time was considered quite shocking.  As a Baptist all her life, this was probably somewhat of a problem at home. Or was it? Women were considered to be obedient and quiet in those days. But we know that was not always the case.  

Romanus died in 1852.  He was a famous Bostonian, with his obituaries carried in newspapers across the country.  His last wish was to not have a Christian funeral, but to be buried in South Boston "At the point" and for his best friend, Horace Seaver, to read his self written eulogy.  However, his family (Jemima?) did not follow his final wishes, and gave him a funeral officiated by the Rev. Capen of the Hawes Place Church (next door to their house) and he was laid to rest in the Hawes Burying Ground.  Was it out of spite that she ignored her husband's final wishes? or did Jemima truly love her husband and worry about his immortal soul? 

As a widow, Jemima Emerson was enumerated in the 1855 Massachusetts State Census and the1860 Federal Census living in the Boston home of Melzar Stetson, her son-in-law, husband to her daughter Emily.  Her death certificate lists her place of death as 88 Emerson Street, her home address on the street in South Boston named after her Infidel husband, Romanus. 

Jemima died in 1868. Unlike her famous husband, I found only one mention of Jemima's death (other than short death notices in Boston newspapers) in The Christian Watchman (a Boston Baptist journal), dated Thursday, 27 August 1868, on page 7. See the obituary transcribed below.  She was laid to rest at the Mount Hope Cemetery in the Mattapan section of Boston, and Romanus was reinterred from the Hawes Burial Ground to lie next to her.  I like to think that perhaps it was out of love that she had him moved to be next to her for eternity.


Mrs. Jemima Emerson

In South Boston, August 5, Mrs. Jemima Emerson, at the advanced age of 86 years, widow of the late Romanus Emerson.  When 18 years of age she was converted, and baptized in Milford, N. H.  Afterwards united with the Dudley Street Church, Roxbury, and then with the South Baptist Church, and finally became a constituent member of the Fourth Street Baptist Church.  Her early Christian experience began with deep conviction of sin, from which, after long struggles, she was delivered by the power of Christ.  This, together with the opposition she encountered in following the Lord in baptism, determined, in great measure, the marked features of her subsequent life.  She loved the doctrines of grace, and clung with ever increasing tenacity to the great pillars of eternal truth.  She loved the assembly of God's people, and even until within a few weeks of her death her voice was frequently heard in the prayer meeting, as she bore cheerful testimony to the faithfulness of God.  Her children have lost a faithful, godly mother, whose prayers for their spiritual welfare ended only with her life.  The church she honored has lost a firm friend.  The community, which for forty years has been growing around her, has lost a beacon of light.  She now enjoys the rest which for many years she has anticipated, and she "being dead yet speaketh."  "Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God.  They shall still bring forth fruit in old age."

For the truly curious:

"Romanus Emerson's Boston Obituaries 1852", published February 9, 2021: https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2021/02/romanus-emersons-boston-obituaries-1852.html   

"Romanus Emerson's Obituaries 1852" (published across the United States), posted on this blog on October 1st, 2020:  https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2020/10/romanus-emersons-obituaries-1852.html    

My Surname Saturday post on the EMERSON family:   https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2015/01/surname-saturday-emerson-of-ipswich.html    

My Surname Saturday post on the BURNHAM family:     https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2014/05/surname-saturday-burnham-of-chebacco.html  

"Tombstone Tuesday ~ Col. Joshua Burnham, Milford, New Hampshire":     https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2013/10/tombstone-tuesday-col-joshua-burnham.html  


To Cite/Link to this post:  Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "The Obituary of Jemima (Burnham) Emerson, 1868 - The Christian Wife of an Infidel", Nutfield Genealogy, posted February 23, 2021, ( https://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2021/02/the-obituary-of-jemima-burnham-emerson.html: accessed [access date]).  

1 comment:

  1. That’s a fascinating story. Wouldn’t their pairing make a great play or movie? As interesting as your ‘main characters are, however, you drew me in with the mention of Elizaneth Bulkely, married to Joseph Emerson. I vaguely remembered a Bulkely in my family tree. So of course I had to go back and sort it out. Indeed, Elizabeth was an 8th great aunt. Her brother Major Peter Bulkely was my 8th great grandfather. A little more searching and comparing led me to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who I learned was my 5th Cousin,4x removed. Isn’t genealogy fun!