“For We Are Brother and Sister”: Luis and Isabel Emilio
One of the highlights of the Luis F. Emilio papers at the MHS is his correspondence with his younger sister Isabel. The siblings were obviously very close, but their relationship suffered a serious blow in 1862 as the result of a misunderstanding involving one of Luis' best friends, Oliver Wendell Holmes Upham.
First, our cast of characters: Luis and Isabel were the two oldest children of Manuel and Isabel (Fenollosa) Emilio of Salem, Mass. Luis had enlisted in the Union Army and, in the fall of 1862, at just 17 years old, was serving as an officer in the 23rd Regiment at New Bern, N.C. Luis's friend Oliver Wendell Holmes Upham, a.k.a. Wendell, had enlisted with him but was discharged due to illness and sent back to Salem. Naturally, while there, he visited his friend's family, which included Isabel, then 15.
Opinion seems to have been divided on Wendell. Luis described him as “a good boy, rather odd, but in every respect a gentleman[...] He is my most faithful friend.” A mutual friend complained of Wendell's laziness. At any rate, Wendell was warmly welcomed and liked by the Emilio family, particularly Isabel and her four younger siblings, who ranged in age from 11 to 4. As Luis' mother wrote, Wendell “was delighted to meet the children[...] He played with them as if one of their age.” She called him a “good affectionate boy.” Wendell also enjoyed his visits immensely and wrote to Luis with effusive praise for his family.
However, just 2-3 weeks after his first visit, Luis' mother started to express some reservations to Luis.
Wendell comes in often. He is very fond of fun and quite fond of kissing which I do not like as I have to be present when he [is] in the room or else he would be I fear too wild. Isa seems to like to have him come. I hardly know what to think of him. Can you explain[?]
Isabel also wrote to Luis about this time, joking about one of Wendell's visits. That letter is missing, but Luis' reply is filled with consternation.
I must confess I am ashamed to hear of such actions as you write. He has made a perfect fool of himself[...] I must pray you not to humor him in the least thing, and if he attempts to act so again to leave the room, and let him know his company is not wanted; sometimes he acts in the most foolish manner, so that I have been ashamed of being with him.
After some digging, I discovered that Wendell's primary offense had been to kiss Isabel. As an old friend, he was in the habit of kissing all the members of the family, including the younger children and Mr. and Mrs. Emilio, but Luis felt it was inappropriate for him to kiss the 15-year-old Isabel. It was not the first time he had advised his younger sister in this big-brotherly vein. It was also, apparently, not the first time he'd been embarrassed by Wendell's behavior. He wrote angrily to his friend, and while his letter is not included in the collection, we can infer its contents from Wendell's hurt reply.
On 2 Nov. 1862, Wendell scrawled an emotional 8-page letter in which he argued that the kiss had been intended innocently and that neither Isabel nor her parents, who witnessed it, had objected. He resented that Luis assumed the worst and dredged up past offenses, and was heart-broken by the reprimand. After all, their families had always been close.
I am sorry to think that you can’t allow the same friendship to exist between Isabel and myself, without jealousy, that I have always seen with pleasure existed between yourself and my sister Sarah. I never rebuked you for kissing her nor never will, nor do I claim a right to interfere. That is her business.
He paid another call on the Emilios to address the issue and to apologize, if necessary. The family assured him he had caused no offense.
Wendell's distress greatly affected young Isabel, who is by far my favorite player in this drama. Her compassion and confidence are impressive. While she respected her older brother's advice and appreciated his protectiveness, she passionately and articulately defended Wendell against the unjust accusations. In her 8-page letter about the “unpleasant affair,” written the same day as Wendell’s, she told Luis he had misunderstood the entire situation and that his friend’s behavior had been merely “playful.” Luis' interference was unnecessary, and worse still, he had “implicated” her in the whole mess.
It is very humiliating to your friend to be told he acted like a fool, and I am also placed in a very unpleasant position, as it must appear to him, as if I had told you, if not in those words, in words equivalent to them that, he had acted so, which was far from my intention to say.[...] Wendell had a funny fit on, as we all have at times, and acted just as he felt, nothing more.[...]
I don’t like the idea of my letters to a brother, making hard feelings between friends, and neither do I wish to be called upon to state what I say in my letters to my brother. I feel provoked to think that Wendell should have the impression that I am in the habit of informing or complaining to you of his conduct here, for he will not feel at home and at ease when he comes to visit us but will be entirely unlike himself.[...]
I have not written a very elegant letter. It is rather disconnected and ungrammatical, I have no doubt, but I don’t care one snap for that. I have tried to tell you what I think, and how badly I feel about the whole thing.[...]
You know, Wendell, is very peculiar, but he thought as he was in the house of an old friend who would not mind his way, and he thought rightly. I think on the whole he is a very good boy, and we all make mistakes and sometimes very gross ones, and therefore should not judge others too harshly when they commit them.
Isabel argued, as Wendell had, that if she or her parents had objected to his familiarity, they would have put a stop to it. After expressing her regret at being “the one who has done all the mischief,” she finished with this wonderfully snarky parting shot:
When you write to Dave Sawyer please remember me to him and tell him I should so much love to see him once again. You might give him my love, if it would not be improper for me to send love to such an old friend as Dave.
Now it was Luis' turn to be hurt. He insisted he'd only been thinking of Isabel's welfare and maintained he “had a perfect right” to admonish Wendell, but admitted he'd been “rather hasty” in his letter and was sorry for the trouble it caused. All the fuss was soon smoothed over. Luis wrote a conciliatory letter to Wendell, whom he called an “esteemed” friend. Everyone apologized, and the relationships between all parties were as close as ever. Isabel wrote to Luis on 17 Nov. 1862:
I had no wish to pain you and would not for all the world, on any account, for we are brother and sister, Luis, and both of us are quick-tempered and hasty when provoked or excited, are we not?[...] Our lives are short and uncertain; we cannot tell how long we may remain in this world of sin and sorrow. So while we may, let us forgive, and be forgiven by others, any injuries we may have done or received.
Unfortunately, Isabel Maria Emilio did not live long. She died of typhoid fever at the age of 32. Wendell Upham lived until 1905, and Luis Emilio until 1918.
Image: Daguerreotype of Luis and Isabel Emilio, ca. 1852-1853, Photo. 1.574