Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dr. John Morris

On Friday evening a servant informed Margaret Morris that her son Dr. John Morris was sick. The relationship between them was strained. Like Ephraim of the Bible, he had "joined himself to Idols," i.e. he was a drunkard. She forgot his transgressions and rushed to his Pear Street house. She found two doctors there, Thomas Parke and Samuel Powel Griffitts, both Quakers like Morris. They had prescribed a blister and Rush's calomel and jalap. They thought he had favorable symptoms and would recover. Margaret thought her son "struck with death."

All the doctors' prescriptions worked exactly as they should. Still on Saturday morning "his skin was as yellow as gold." He had convulsions and was delirious. The family maid had two days before to attend her sick mother, leaving only a 10 year old indentured servant girl to help John's wife Abby care for four children including a baby. Margaret took charge of the situation, sending the two older children to their grandfather Benedict Dorsey, a respected Quaker grocer who lived four blocks away. Heeding Rush's initial alarms, he refused to take them in,
afraid they were carrying the disease. The children's mother, Abby, went to change his mind. While she was gone, her husband had one of his strongest fits. Margaret could not call on the frightened children for help. When Abby returned she provided no relief. She never told her mother-in-law what her father said to her. She simply "went upstairs, undrest and went to bed, saying she had got the disorder and she'd die." She lay in the room next to her husband. Margaret sent the baby to a wet nurse, the toddler to her house, and again sent two children to their grandfather. When they didn't return, she felt more encouraged as she faced the difficult task
before her. As she scouted the Morris house, in which she had been a stranger since her estrangement from her son, she found the Morris boy cowering in the cellar. His grandfather had only taken his sister. Margaret sent him to Benjamin Smith with a message that she needed help.

The mayor's letter relaying the offer of the Free African Society to provide nurses,
appeared in all the newspapers at the end of the week. As the ad instructed, Smith applied to Absalom Jones and William Gray who both lived near Pear Street, and by the evening a man and woman came to help Margaret Morris. As was the case in most of the letters describing their help, the nurses remained nameless.

Soon after the nurses arrived Rush came to see his colleague. Dr. Griffitts had the fever and asked Rush to attend his patients. Rush was gratified to see the black nurses. The Free African Society had provided nurses for most of his patients. He gave Dr. Morris more calomel and jalap, and while not much encouraged, told Margaret that his fever was lower. He did not see Abby in the next room. Evidently Margaret viewed her as afraid, not sick with the fever. Still she had to be attended during the night. Margaret wanted to stay with her son and decided that she would feel more comfortable with the woman nurse. The male nurse sat by Abby. Shortly after one o'clock Margaret gained the first sleep she had had in two days.

Margaret Morris woke at about 5 a.m.. felt her son's pulse, and "thought the fever gone off." She tried to give him medicine but he could not take it. She feared the worse, sent the male nurse to get Benjamin Smith and had the woman stay with Abby. Three weeks later she recalled her son's last moments. He was sensible for the first time in three days and mother and son were able to reconcile: "he spoke to me in a manner that poured balm into my wounded heart, lamenting errors of his past life and had hopes of mercy. This was all I had presumed to ask for, and my chastened spirit said 'thy will be done.' A convulsion fit followed, and after that a sweet composure took possession of his features and he departed without sigh, groan or struggle."

She knew that her son had to be buried within hours to save all the smell of his corpse. That the morning was cloudy and cooler was a blessing, but she decided not to wait for family to help her prepare the body for the grave. Rush began his morning rounds by visiting the Morris house, arriving soon after the doctor died. "His excellent mother rushed from his bed into my arms," Rush wrote to his wife that night, "fell upon my neck, and in this position gave vent to the most pathetic and eloquent exclamations of grief that I have ever heard. I was dumb and finding
myself sinking into sympathy, tore myself from her arms and ran to other scenes of distress."

Margaret managed to prepare her son for the grave and even see him buried promptly,
with the help of the Free African Society that organized a group of black men to handle infected corpses. But Benjamin Smith saw that she was "scarcely any longer herself." She collapsed in complete prostration. Benjamin had her carried back to her own house and sent for Rush. Smith also arranged to move Abby Morris. When her father refused to take her in, the business-like Smith didn't recriminate against the most un-Quakerly act and solicited the help of the relative who had the most commodious house, Richard Wells, cashier of the Bank of North America. Wells polled each member of his household on North Third Street and they all agreed to take
Abby in.

Rush was unable to see Margaret until the morning. He found her resting comfortably and determined that she was only exhausted.

The letters Rush wrote to his wife, sometimes he wrote two a day, are a major source for the above. The main source is what Margaret Morris wrote in letters to members of her family outside the city. Here is an excerpt from a September 25th letter to her sister describing Dr. Morris's sickness and death:

Will it fatigue thee my Patty to read a Narrative of what I've past thro since we parted? I think thee answer no - Well then I'll begin my tale of woe from the 5th of this Mo[nth] - when I returned that eve from my Debby, who was not well enough to be about the house, was told my Dear JM [her son Dr. John Morris] was ill & wishd to see me - I went there immediately & found him very ill with a raging fever. Dr. Park & Griffitts both attending - I faithfully followed their orders - the blister drew finely - the powder had all the effect could be wished - alas - in the morning his skin was yellow as gold - a convulsion fitt & delirium deprived me of hope - yet the repetition of the powders, which operated well, revived me again, & I was willing to flatter myself - he might recover- As AM's [Abby, Mrs. John Morris] Maid was called away on 4th day to attend her mother who was ill, they had only a little girl to tend the child & I told AM to write a note & beg her F[ather] to let P[atty]. & Molly stay there, that the house might be quiet, they soon returned saying that their G[rand] F[ather] was sick & they could not be there This alrmed my poor A - & she begged to go see her F & stayed an hour or more - when she returned & went up stairs, undrest & went to bed, saying she had got the disorder & she'd die. She did not come into JM's room afterwards - I then had 2 to nurse & 2 little ones down stairs to provide for - at last I sent thy namesake and Wm again to the GF. Patty, they kept, & on going in the kitchen, found Wm hid in the cellar, he said they would not let him stay, they were afraid he wd bring the disorder to them. I sent M to my house. On 7th day B[enjamin] S[mith, her son-in-law] came there & kindly went about town to procure assistance for me, & after night sent a black man and woman to me - who were but just done nursing at another place. Dr. Rush came that day & tho he could not flatter me, assured me the fever was lower at night - I watched by him till about one oclock & having been up the 2 preceding night was quite spent & as he slept quite easy, I lay down by him - the Negro woman sitting near to the bed - about 5 I awoke - & feeling his pulse, thought the fever was near gone off, & went to give the medicine but he could not take it - he spoke to me in a manner that poured balm into my wounded heart, lament the errors of his past life & had hopes of mercy - this was all I had presumed to ask for & my chastend spirit said thy will be done - a convulsion fitt followed & after that a sweet composure took possession of his features & he departed without sigh, groan or struggle - All this time I was alone, the woman I had was with Abby - the Man I sent to B Smith who took care to provide the coffin & after sitting by him awhile - Oh then the hands of the pitiful Mother prepared her Child's body for the grave & well it had been if I had contented myself with doing all that was required of me - but alas I got off my guard & thought that I who had been thus supported was equal to every thing & insisted on seeing laid beside the dear Companion of my youth - & there my fortitude forsook me - for that was not required of me - what followed I know not - till I found myself 2 days after in my own front parlor in the bed I had provided for others....

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