previous next

II: an old-fashioned home

It is a curious fact, considering his vigorous manhood, that the infant Wentworth was at one time delicate, and according to family belief was kept alive by the juices of chicken bones. In after years, Mrs. Higginson wrote this letter, December 26, 1861:—

Your birthday was remembered and honored by gratitude and praise, remembering as I did the poor half dead baby that I had for so long walked about in my arms and fed religiously according to direction every two hours, bearing hope in my heart when there seemed no hope, and even the most experienced doctors gave him up; how could I be but grateful and exultant when I think of my stalwart son, the Day Star of my Life!

‘Too many babies’ is the concise label with which Wentworth, the man, indorsed a letter written by his Aunt Nancy in 1824, in which she says:—

I believe I have not written you since the birth of our young Thomas Wentworth. I meant to have announced to you the arrival of the Stout Gentleman. . . . Our Wentworth grows such a mountain—that we think sometimes it would be well to ask Mr. [11] Perkins to invent some kind of a steam-engine whereby to tend him this summer—for we have some misgivings concerning the strength of our arms. . . . Oh, dear! if this would only be the last blessing of the sort which was to fall to our happy lot. Surely we ought to be resigned—even if our hard fate should condemn us to count only eleven [living] children.

A quaint relic of those days survives in the shape of an old English mahogany washstand, containing a tiny concealed tub in which the Higginson babies were bathed. This extraordinary tub is drawn out by brass handles like a drawer, and with it come the supporting legs. All the children who grew up under the influence of their faithful Aunt Nancy did her credit. Francis became a physician, but was too generous and tender-hearted to make a worldly success. Stephen was a merchant, and the only one of the flock who had a large family of his own. He was in South America during most of Wentworth's childhood, but wrote charming letters addressed to ‘Bro. S.'s little man.’ Waldo, whom the irrepressible Thacher called a ‘thunderina dandy,’ was the soul of honor and chivalry, although his brave life was partially crippled by paralysis. Neither of the two sisters was married. Louisa, brilliant, accomplished, and considered the genius of the family, became— [12] for a time—a Roman Catholic. Learning, however, that according to the belief of the Church her Protestant mother could not be ultimately ‘saved,’ she, to use her own words, ‘saw the door open and walked out.’ Anna, the self-effacing, domestic sister, outlived most of the others.

The pet of the Higginson family was—naturally —little Tommy as he was then called. Soon he was only known as Wentworth, and the Storrow was dropped. Our earliest glimpses of him are found in his mother's diary. They show how the child foreshadowed the man and also reveal the happy home in which he was reared. Indeed, we can almost breathe the atmosphere of that home when we read such sentences as these: ‘A large Damask rose bush sends its fragrance into one of our parlour windows and the yellow sweet briar waves its long wreaths into the other. . . . We read and work and walk and play and study German and laugh and talk and then there is nothing but smiles and sunshine to be seen.’

When Wentworth was not quite four, he went to a Dame School kept by a Miss Jennison. He also went to dancing-school in a private house. His mother writes:—

We . . . have been quietly seated at our work . . . only interrupted by little Wentworth's rampant spirits before he went to bed. He spells to me every [13] night in sister's little book. Last night he read “God Reigns.” He looked up at me and asked, “What does God do with the reins?”

At bedtime, one night, he announced, ‘Now I am going to dream something proper funny.’ Thus early began his lifelong interest in dreams.

Again she writes:—

A very quiet happy day though a storm, engaged in making my little boy's clothes all day, while he [has been] by my side, reading or playing ... he has been part of the time catching fish in Nahant [Nahant]. . . . Between daylight and dark he plays Waldo is his Custard Pudding, and after beating and stuffing him, he roasts him in the oven; then after supper he takes his books ....

We have been highly amused with Wentworth to-night. . . he [said he] could draw the “Possum up the gum tree” . . . he made some marks on the paper and then showed them to me saying as he pointed, “there's the possum up the gum tree, there's the raccoon in the hollow, there's catchhim-up-my-boy, there's give-him-half-a-dollar” ; this indication of genius excited universal acclamation.

The maternal chronicle does not relate the story that Colonel Higginson enjoyed telling about one of his childhood's books which contained a rather too vivid description of a wolf's cave. The careful mamma had pasted strips of paper over the objectionable [14] parts, but Master Wentworth succeeded in removing these precautions and the lurid words remained forever fixed in his memory.

One of his methodical habits was to make lists of his possessions, his friends, or his achievements. One cold winter night, when his brothers were wondering where an extra blanket could be found, one of them cried, ‘Ask Wentworth. He probably has a list of blankets in his pocket!’

The older brothers, Thacher and Waldo, went to a boy's school kept by William Wells, an Englishman, in an old colonial house, still to be seen on Brattle Street (then Tory Row), Cambridge. To this school Wentworth was promoted at the age of eight, and there he remained for five years, until he was fitted for college. His acquaintance with James Russell Lowell began here, the latter being one of the older pupils. There is an amusing letter from Lowell to Thacher Higginson which Colonel Higginson later framed and hung in his library.

My dear thach,— In the course of human events when the mind becomes indued with active spirit, with powerful imagination, with extensive enterprise, with noble designty—Then, my boy, Then! is the time to return to you this—Sallust.


J. R. L.


The first sight of ‘Jimmy Lowell’ made a lifelong impression on the younger boy's mind as the former came galloping to school on a little white pony, although he lived only a few rods distant. Wentworth's own home was a mile away, and he often dined at the school. Afterward he recalled with amusement the fact that the old custom of serving pudding before meat lingered there. Athletic sports, as well as the humanities, were warmly encouraged by Mr. Wells, and the afternoons spent in cricket, football, and skating on Fresh Pond were always remembered with boyish glee. After leaving the school, his brother Waldo wrote thus to the younger boy about Mr. Wells:—

There are few men that I like better, and I came to this state of feelings through some hard floggings, which I am glad your better behaved shoulders have escaped.

When Wentworth was nine, his mother recorded that he had read a great many books and was especially fond of natural history. A year later, she added that he had mastered the Latin grammar. The following summary of Wentworth's virtues from the same, perhaps not unbiased, source, may well bring the maternal records to an end:—

He has genuine refinement and delicacy, with manliness and power of controlling himself and a [16] sense of right, governing his thoughts and actions— which command my respect as much as if he was a grown man. ... I never [saw] one who was more thoughtful and considerate of others—though he has been the youngest and an object of uncommon interest.

The old habit of preserving family correspondence was never abandoned by Colonel Higginson. These little letters were written between the boy's tenth and thirteenth years in a round clear script:—

Dear Aunt:—

Henry [a cousin] left us today. The stage comes to Davenport's tavern [North Cambridge]; so he had to go up there and meet it....

We had [to] wait a long time for the stage and at last it came, with 6 white horses.... Fast Day Henry and me went up to Prospect-Hill [Somerville]. Unluckily the mill was not going, but we ran round and saw lots of little fortifications, and found an old well nearly covered with a large stone which I have heard was made in the Revolution. I brought home two stones from it.

To his brother in Maryland he wrote when eleven years old:—

I have got 5 more Waverley Novels since you have been gone: Ivanhoe, The Monastery, The Pirates, and the 1st and 2nd Series of Chronicles of the Canongate, besides Peveril of the Peak which you left behind. Sunday School is in the Courthouse [17] now. . . . I shall like to hear about a fox-hunt. Are there any slaves at Mr. Martin's, and do they blow a conch in the morning to collect them? . . . I read the Spectator a few days ago.

Aunt Nancy received the two following letters:—

How are you?... I am reading the Tales of a Grandfather and like them very much. . . . I am learning the conjugation of the verb parler, to speak. . . . I think that I shall go into Caesar, after the vacation, at school. . . . I have seen some snowdrops already in Mrs. Carpenter's yard. I meant to ask her for some the other day, but she was not at home. I am learning to waltz now. Several days ago, there was a fire here. It was at the Lyceum. As soon as I woke up in the morning, I heard Henry saying “Oh Tommy there is a fire.” I looked out of the window and saw a blaze. . . . I asked Sister Anna if we might [go] and she said we might if we would not go beyond the common fence. We went and when we got there we found people in abundance. As we were going along, Thornton [Ware] caught up with us having in each hand one of his father's firebuckets. He seemed to be quite at home there. There were a great many blankets, &c., hanging on the fence. . . . Some burnt papers were found as far as Dr. Holmes's. There were a great many books thrown out of the window. . . . I suppose I have not given you a very good description of the fire, but it is as good as I can give. I was glad to receive your knife, for I wanted it very much. Tell brother [18] Stephen that I took the schooner that I was making when he came here, to pieces. I am now making a sloop instead of it. I think this is a pretty long letter, so Goodbye. Love to all.

Your affectionate nephew,

Dear Aunt Nancy,—

I have just been reading “Pride and prejudice” and “Horse-Shoe Robinson,” a book by the author of “Swallow barn,” both which are very entertaining. I have also read Miss Burney's “Cecelia.”

To his mother he thus recounted his doings:—

I will now tell you of our May party. We met on the 30th of April at 5 A. M. just down by Thornton's to choose a queen ... Afterwards we went to Mount Auburn and walked and played until 10 o'clock when we came home. ... I forgot to say that as [we] were going to Mount Auburn we stopped a little while at Mrs. Foster's and she gave us some cake. We found no flowers except half blown anemones.

The miniature tigresses' (that is Aunt Nancy, and Mrs.—) being absent, I sit down, away from the discord of feminine voices, which there usually is when I write! What do you think of that? ... Aunt Nancy will hardly ever show me any of your letters, for she says you always write sentiment to her, and sublunary things to the rest of us.

I had a splendid time on the fourth of July. I [19] went into Boston . . . for the sake of seeing the fireworks in the evening. I walked in with Thornton, at about 10 A. M. . . . The children were delighted to see “Tommy,” as they both called me. I played “me hidey” with Lizzy for ever so long. We saw several companies go by. At last came the grand pageant ... After dinner we went down onto Long, Central, and India Wharves, on board of a great many vessels, and had fine fun.

And this is his comment on the fireworks:—

Suffice it to say that I never in the whole course of my long life saw such a beautiful sight.

To his mother he again writes at the age of twelve:—

The books that I have read lately have been the ‘Heiress’ and “The select British Poets,” a great big book. . . . William has gone on a whaling voyage for two years and a half, round Cape Horn. Aunt N. thinks this is very well for him.

The last paragraph is explained by a sentence in Higginson's ‘Old Cambridge’ which says, ‘Cambridge boys were still sent to sea as a cure for naughtiness.’

At about this time, in 1834, Wentworth's father died. Two years later Mrs. Higginson sold the Kirkland Street house and removed to a smaller one on Garden Street, which had been built by her son [20] Francis. This house is no longer standing, having been absorbed by Radcliffe College. Wentworth wrote this description of a visit to their former home:—

April 13, 1836.
I went to our [old] house to see the auction. Mr. Morse begun with the dining-room, then went to the back parlour and then to the study. The champagne bottles sold for 4 1/8 cents apiece; the clock for $3 3/4; and a little table in there for 1 cent. ... There was an old curious chair, which Mr. Morse finding he could not sell, broke. I was much obliged to him for I got a nice bat by it.

Occasionally a bit of autobiography is found among the old letters, as this:—

I vividly remember when I first swam above my depth in the Charles River. We boys had been learning to swim at a point in the river not far from the willows where we played and read Spenser's “Faerie Queene.” The first time I swam across from one point to another in this river was perhaps the proudest moment of my life. I had no feeling of fear, but one of great confidence. All along Mt. Auburn St. on the side bordering the river were apple trees and no houses.

At the age of twelve the boy kept a diary of his own, from which it appears that one of his amusements was attending lectures on such subjects as these: The French Revolution, Ancient History, the [21] poet Southey, and miscellaneous lectures by ‘Rev. Waldo Emerson.’

The habit of omnivorous reading, which clung to him through his long life, can always be taken for granted. At this period he read ‘Philip Van Artevelde,’ always a favorite, for the third time. A little later he speaks of spending many half-days in bookstores.

During all these evidences of unusual maturity, compared with the slower juvenile development of to-day, the record shows a healthy interest in boyish amusements and activities. For instance:—

Went to see Signor Blitz the juggler, Court House; produced 2 rabbits, guinea pig and cat from a tin.

He was fond of visiting the ruins of the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, the burning of which had made a great impression on his youthful mind, and which seems to have first aroused his love for religious tolerance. He walked often to Boston and spent a good deal of time at Mount Auburn or ‘Sweet Auburn.’ In his Decoration Day address at Sanders Theatre, in 1904, he thus alluded to the old play-ground:—

I remember our great cemetery, Mount Auburn, when it was not yet a cemetery, but was called Sweet Auburn still; when no sacred associations made it [22] sweeter, and when its trees looked down on no funerals but those of the bird and the bee.

In the boyish record of walks and games, girls of his acquaintance are often mentioned, and not always with deference, as when he lost a philopena to Henrietta B——and exclaimed, ‘Confound her!’ These girl friends seem to have been known by symbolic names, as he often speaks of meeting ‘Poetry,’ on the street, or walking with ‘Sensibility’ or ‘Spinster.’ The boys also rejoiced in nicknames, for ‘Soap’ and ‘Broadsides’ are frequently mentioned, and it is stated that ‘no one danced with Sensibility except Broadsides.’

These were happy, care-free days. But a new and thrilling experience was at hand. It was a proud day in Wentworth's life when, at the age of thirteen (1837), he began a student's life at Harvard, entering the freshman class which contained forty-five members, of whom he was the youngest.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1904 AD (1)
December 26th, 1861 AD (1)
1837 AD (1)
April 13th, 1836 AD (1)
1834 AD (1)
1824 AD (1)
July 4th (1)
April 30th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: