Archivist as Detective: The Case of C.S.

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

When the MHS acquired a small collection of four sermons by Abijah Cross of West Haverhill, Mass., I was struck by one in particular. It’s a funeral sermon from 1832, and written across the top is the note: “By the dying request of C.S. a young female member of the chh.”

Funeral sermon for C.S., 1832
Funeral sermon for C.S., 1832

Unfortunately Cross didn’t name her in his sermon, referring obliquely to “the interesting and lamented subject of the following discourse.” In fact, he provided no biographical clues at all, not the names of her parents, her age, cause of death. It seemed unlikely that I’d be able to learn the identity of C.S., but of course I had to try.

When it comes to making identifications like this, family genealogies are invaluable, but I didn’t even have a surname this time. Town histories are also a good resource, but only for particularly notable citizens. I couldn’t even rely on random web searches. In the end, all the information I had about C.S. came from that first line: she lived in Haverhill and died in 1832 when she was still young.

The last possible thread I had left to follow was the church itself. And as they have so many times before, fellow archivists and librarians came to my rescue.

I found information on Abijah Cross easily enough. In 1832, he served as pastor of the West Congregational Church in Haverhill, and I quickly discovered that the church’s records are held at the Congregational Library & Archives right here in Boston. Not only are the records housed there, but staff at the library have digitized the collection! (Knowing all the work that goes into digital projects, I’m especially grateful.)

It was a matter of just a few minutes to select the corresponding volume (1826-1838) and, using the digital viewer, page through images to find what I was looking for. Beginning on page 101 is “A Record of the Deaths of members of this Church,” and at the bottom of that page, in Cross’s own handwriting: “July 29, 1832. Cynthia Smith died of consumption at the early age of 14 years and 7 months. Dau. of Jesse & Lydia (Corliss) Smith.”

Chruch record excerpt
Excerpt from church records at Congregational Library & Archives

Armed with her and her parents’ names, I could use genealogical sources to confirm the identification and learn more about the family. Sure enough, Cynthia Smith is listed on page 64 of the Genealogical Record of the Corliss Family of America (1875). That book being a little sparse on details, I consulted other sources to reconstruct more of the family’s history. Here’s what I discovered:

Cynthia was born on 30 December 1817 and died on 29 July 1832 at the age of 14. Her mother Lydia had died two years before, and I found her death listed in the church volume just a few lines above her daughter’s. Both Cynthia and her mother are buried at the Second West Parish Cemetery in Haverhill.

Cynthia’s father was a farmer named Jesse Smith, originally from Methuen, Mass. Jesse remarried twice, first to Lois Merrill (with whom he had at least three other daughters), then to Mary Howe. He lived to 1879, surviving all three wives. He, Lois, and Mary, are buried at Hillside Cemetery, also in Haverhill.

For young Cynthia Smith’s funeral sermon, Abijah Cross took as his text Job 7:16: “I would not live alway.” He contrasted Job’s despair and impatience for death with what Cross characterized as Cynthia’s peaceful acceptance and submission to God, and he urged the young people of the congregation to heed her example and be prepared for death.

Another sermon in the MHS collection is worth mentioning. Twice in the spring of 1836, Cross delivered a fiery anti-slavery sermon to congregations in Massachusetts. He called slavery “a sin of the greatest enormity” that “overshadows all the rest” and argued that Northerners were complicit unless they “rebuked” enslavers in the South, as they would an erring brother.

God has made of one blood all nations to dwell on the face of the earth. On what then does the master ground his claim to the right of property in a being, whom God has made his equal? […] Where has he written “Master” on the brow of one man and “Slave” on the face of another?

In fact, Cross was life member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and an unapologetic abolitionist. He opposed incremental abolition and colonization, and instead called for the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people on the grounds of equal rights.

P.S. I can’t close this post without commenting on what a terrific name Abijah Cross is for a minister. And here I thought no one could beat Philip S. Physick, M.D.!