Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

1881, June 6
I have been clearing up drawers. A sad business when it comes to burning letters or not burning, of those who have passed away . . .

After the Great Fire of 1846 that destroyed much of the lower core district of the Town of Nantucket, including the all-important wharves, Maria Mitchell destroyed many of her private papers after witnessing those of others blowing about the Town laying bare their most intimate feelings and words. For us, it is most unfortunate. I am sure burning happened quite a bit with private papers that no one wished to keep but when I read Maria’s own words about burning letters and papers I always wish she had not! Some of the things she may not have thought appropriate for others to read would likely not be inappropriate in our eyes today. But as she notes, it was also a hard process – especially when those letters served as the tangible memory of someone lost – the actual paper, their words, their writing that was still on the page even though they were no longer of the Earth. Her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall to whom Maria left her personal papers and which Phebe compiled into a book, additionally did a good job of destroying things she felt were not appropriate for others to read. She bladed out pages from Maria’s journals, pasted pages together so that if pulled apart (even by a conservator) all the words would be obliterated, or she crossed out passages with ink. She developed a very good hatching system with her pen and ink! You cannot make out one word! It is infuriating but they both accomplished their goal, that’s for sure!

Would Maria Tweet?

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865From an earlier blog-

Really, I am not sure if she would. Maria Mitchell was a fairly private person. While she did keep journals, she kept them close and after the Great Fire of 1846, when she saw all of the papers and other articles blowing about the streets of Town that were not burned up, she destroyed all of her personal letters and journals. That is why most of her papers that we have today are dated after the Great Fire – there is very, very little from before the fire.

Would she Tweet “Discovered a comet tonight!” or “Gold medal from King of Denmark here boy is it heavy!” or maybe a “That Asa Gray, he wrote ‘Sir” on my letter of invite to American Academy of Arts and Sciences and crossed it off – what a slap in the face!” – maybe that was too many characters for a Tweet? But then she could Tweet her students to remind them of late night observing or maybe blog about it. She embraced technology – albeit of the late nineteenth century – and she was constantly learning – even teaching herself Greek at the age of 70.

But if she blogged or Tweeted, I think it would be more about science and education and conversing with her students and other scientists than anything personal. Maybe a Tweet after one of her daily nature walks, “Just back from walk round campus – saw Henery {the groundhog that lived around the Observatory} and Indigo Bunting. Don’t forget observing @ midnight girls!”