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Lives, Loves Intertwined in Letters

History: 19th century correspondence chronicles a family and a Maine congressman who died in a duel. Material is included in a new book.


THOMASTON, Maine — Jonathan Cilley, a young congressman from Maine, stood at the ready with his pistol at his side nearly 100 yards from his challenger in a field outside Washington, D.C. The date of the duel was Feb. 24, 1838.

Cilley, who had no particular dislike for his opponent, intentionally fired the first shot into the ground. Additional rounds were ordered. After the third, Cilley lay mortally wounded in the frozen field, leaving a wife and three young children back home in Thomaston.

Much of Cilley's life leading up to its tragic end -- and the lives of his survivors and descendants -- have been reconstructed from a cache of letters that had been preserved in almost pristine condition by the family for generations.

The 500 longhand letters, occasionally written on top of earlier correspondence to save paper that was so precious at the time, have been painstakingly deciphered over five years by historian Eve Anderson and a small team of owl-eyed assistants.

Now appearing in a book, "A Breach of Privilege, Cilley Family Letters 1820-1867," they paint a detailed and personal portrait of a Maine family in words no outsider could have chosen. The $49.95 volume is published locally by Seven Coin Press.

The letters fell into Anderson's hands after a descendant of Cilley's e-mailed her at the Thomaston Historical Society, where she is president, and asked if she would be interested in transcribing them.

Intertwined within the pages are themes of family love, religious tensions, political corruption, broken friendships, the prevalence of disease and what turns out to be a planned killing of a promising young politician. Cilley's duel created such a public outcry that it resulted in a law to end the practice.

Anderson, interviewed in her 1800s home just down the street from the Cilley home that remains occupied to this day, said her book should be seen as more than a dusty collection of letters of interest only to history buffs and scholars.

"I wanted the book to be looked at as a novel that happened to be true," said Anderson, who studied English literature and history in college, and was a stringer for her local newspaper while rearing her children at home in Connecticut. She and her husband retired to Maine.

Cilley was born in 1802 in Nottingham, N.H. As a young man, he came to Maine to attend Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where his classmates and friends included author Nathaniel Hawthorne, distant cousin poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and President Franklin Pierce.

In passages that would sound familiar to any parent with children in college today, Cilley requested money again and again to meet his expenses. He wrote that he had fallen in love -- "yes, that is in LOVE -- deep in love -- up to the verry (sic) tip of my nose in Love -- which, you know, tips down a little."

And in a curious play on words that eerily foreshadowed his doom, Cilley wrote of a housemate who entered his room with "a pistol heavily loaded and pointing it exactly at me." Only later did he reveal that he was referring to an "a-pis-tol," or epistle, a letter from home.

As time went on, the tone became more serious as politics became a central part of Cilley's life. He expressed pride in his native state in 1832 as it presented "an undivided front for [Andrew] Jackson and [Martin] Van Buren."

Writing to his wife Deborah Prince from Augusta, where he served as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, Cilley referred to his enemies and expressed hope that God will "give me wisdom & strength sufficient for every trial."

Serving in Washington after he was elected to the U.S. House, Cilley's exchanges with his wife, who showed signs of tuberculosis and bipolar disorder, reflected an unflinching devotion to her and his children. He described the splendors of the nation's capital in colorful detail.

As North-South antagonisms grew, a plot was hatched to silence the rising young abolitionist from Maine. A remark by Cilley on the House floor, in which he alluded to a bribe to a New York newspaper publisher, gave Cilley's enemies the opportunity they sought.

Kentucky Congressman William Graves was goaded into challenging Cilley to a duel. Cilley, while he disapproved of such action and liked Graves, said New England honor was at stake and agreed. The two met on a field in Maryland.

After the first two shots were exchanged and a third was demanded, Cilley turned to an associate and said, "They thirst for my blood," according to a letter from Pierce to Deborah's brother, Hezekiah Prince Jr.

A letter that was written 180 degrees across an earlier letter as a way to save paper took a month to transcribe. Other letters were written in the margins of previous ones.

The quality of penmanship told the transcribers a lot about the writers, Anderson said. "You could see Debbie's writing deteriorate because of her tuberculosis."

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