On June 24, 1867, twenty-seven-year-old Robert Erskine Bartow died at his family’s bucolic country estate. Exactly one year later, his father, Robert Bartow, followed him to the grave at the age of seventy-six. Both are buried in the family plot at historic St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in what was then the village of Westchester (now part of the Bronx), where their ancestor the Reverend John Bartow was the first rector.
Robert Bartow (1792–1868) grew up on his father’s farms in Westchester and Fishkill, New York. Bartow was a descendant of the Pells—the Lords of the Manor of Pelham—through his great-grandmother Bathsheba Pell. He and his brothers were commission merchants, book publishers, and paper manufacturers. In 1827, Robert Bartow married tobacco heiress Maria Lorillard. In 1836, the couple purchased property that included the site of the seventeenth-century Pell manor house, where Bartow lived the life of a gentleman farmer on his ancestral land. It was here that the Bartows built the Greek Revival mansion that still stands today.
Robert and Maria Bartow’s son Robert Erskine Bartow (1840–1867) was named after an older brother who had died as a toddler in 1835 (three days after the death of another sibling). Robert E. Bartow graduated from Columbia College in 1862 and completed a graduate degree in 1865, just as the Civil War ended. Like his father, who was warden at both St. Paul’s Church in Eastchester (now Mount Vernon) and Trinity Church in New Rochelle, the younger Robert was involved in the Episcopal Church and was elected to the vestry of Christ Church, Pelham, in 1864. He never married. On the evening of his death, according to the weather report in The Sun, “The windows of heaven were opened.” The rain continued on the following day, accompanied by “a very cold wind.”
Although we do not know what caused these deaths, June obituaries in the New York Times report deaths from typhoid, consumption, apoplexy, heart disease, scarlet fever, “peri-pneumonia,” and short, long, and sudden illnesses in 1867 and 1868. Fatal accidents were another possible cause.
Obituaries for father and son appeared in the New York papers on the dates of their funerals (two days after their deaths). Friends of the family were invited to attend the services at 4:00 at St. Peter’s Church. “Carriages will be at the Mott Haven depot upon the arrival of the half-past two Harlem train from New York.” According to John Disturnell’s 1864 Traveler’s Guide to the Hudson River, this New York and Harlem Railway station was reached after “crossing Harlem River over a substantial bridge, [and] entering the county of Westchester at Mott Haven, where [there] is a thriving settlement, and several extensive manufacturing establishments.” Carriages were a sign of high social standing and were hired by the undertaker for affluent families in the countryside in order to provide convenient transportation to mourners arriving by train from the city.
After someone died, the body was dressed for burial, and the corpse was usually laid out in the parlor in an open coffin set on a table or sawhorse until the funeral. “On a marble-topped table stood the rich, mahogany coffin, in which lay the remains,” wrote Mary J. Holmes in an 1867 short story set in New York.
In 1869, Sarah Annie Frost described funeral etiquette in her book Frost’s Laws and By-Laws of American Society. If invitations were sent, they were to be delivered by hand, and the undertaker was to be provided with the seating order for the carriages. If there was no guest list, the newspaper obituary was to include an invitation “without further notice,” and guests were placed in the carriages or procession in no particular order. Frost advised that a cross of white flowers was usually placed upon the coffin of a married person, and gifts of flowers to the bereaved “must be white only, and sent on the day of the funeral early enough to be used in the decoration of the coffin.” The ladies of the family wore deep black from head to toe, and female guests wore black or somber colors. Men wore black crape hat bands and black gloves.
Nineteenth-century funerals were often held at the residence of the deceased, but they also took place in churches. Sarah Annie Frost instructed: “When the funeral procession is ready to start, the clergyman leaves the house first, and enters a carriage, which precedes the hearse. Then follows the coffin, which is placed in the hearse; the next carriage is for the immediate family and relatives.” Black plumes adorned the hearse for married or elderly people (and white for young people). Pall bearers, if used, were to be “immediate friends of the deceased.” Upon arrival at the church, men were required to remove their hats as “the coffin passes from the hearse to the church, when the guests form a double line, down which it is carried, and the same . . . observance must be made after the service.” When the funeral was at a residence, the corpse was commonly placed in the parlor, but at the church, “the coffin is usually placed in front of the chancel, with the lid removed, and friends pass, from the feet to the head, up one aisle and down another, after the services are over.” According to the 1868 Book of Common Prayer, the service began with “I am the resurrection and the life.” The rector of St. Peter’s at this time was the Reverend Charles D. Jackson, D.D., whose son William H. Jackson married the Bartows’ daughter Henrietta at St. Peter’s few years later.
The Bartow family plot is on the grounds of St. Peter’s, so the procession on foot to the adjoining cemetery would have been short. Sarah Annie Frost relates: “At the cemetery, the . . . clergyman walks in advance of the coffin, and the others . . . stand around the grave.” “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the minister read while earth was “cast upon the body by some standing by” (Book of Common Prayer, 1868).
Elaborate nineteenth-century mourning rituals involved complex etiquette on what to wear and when to wear it, when and how to pay calls, and how long the various stages of mourning should last. Although mourning was sometimes very expensive and overly complicated, these social customs helped people grieve while paying homage to their loved ones.
In another book by Sarah Annie Frost, The Art of Dressing Well (1870), she wrote: “It is difficult to establish rules for a dress upon which there is such a diversity of opinion as that worn by persons in mourning. It is worn by some a very long time for even a distant relative, and by others but a few months for a parent or a child. There is really no rule . . . but there are rules for the proper degrees of first, second, deep, or half mourning.”
As a widow, Mrs. Bartow would have been expected to wear mourning for two years or longer, according to Frost. “Widows’ mourning, for the first year, consists of solid black woolen goods, collar and cuffs of . . . crape, a simple crape bonnet, and a long, thick black crape veil.” Black crape and bombazine were two popular fabrics for mourning clothes. Black dye often discolored the wearer’s skin. “Ladies who are in mourning are often very much annoyed by finding their arms and shoulders dyed by the garments worn, and which often resists successfully the most lavish use of soap and water.” She advised using a “poisonous” mix of oxalic acid and cream of tartar to remove the stains from one’s body.
The Bartow deaths occurred not long after the Civil War and the shocking Good Friday assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Widespread grief among Unionists, former slaves, and others followed his death and added to the personal losses of those whose loved ones had died in the war. And in an age of higher mortality rates and lower life expectancy, people continued to face sorrow and bereavement throughout their lives. Sadly, mourning was an unwelcome, but familiar, occupation in many households.
For the Bartows, June 24 would never be the same.
Margaret Highland, Historian