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A Missouri archivist's favorite letters, featuring Kate Chopin and the Civil War

Missouri History Museum
An 1899 letter to St. Louis author Kate Chopin is among archivist Dennis Northcott's favorite items in the Missouri History Museum.

Handwritten letters are some of the most treasured artifacts held at the Missouri History Museum. For Dennis Northcott, an associate archivist for reference at the museum, the messages are so much more than ink on paper.

Danny Wicentowski
St. Louis Public Radio
Dennis Northcott, an associate archivist for reference at the Missouri History Museum, is hosting a presentation of his favorite documents on April 19.

“When you're composing a letter, handwritten, I think you've spent more time getting your thoughts together,” Northcott said. “It gives you that firsthand perspective of what people were thinking and feeling about certain events.”

But even with thousands of letters in the museum archive, Northcott has his favorites. On April 19, the archivist will host a presentation of his picks for the most "interesting and amusing" documents in the museum’s archives. Within that trove are two fascinating and interconnected collections of handwritten letters, which Northcott discussed on Monday’s St. Louis on the Air. 

The first set of letters comes from two St. Louis women who watched their city and country change during the Civil War. On May 10, 1861, about one month after the war's outbreak, Alice Cayton described witnessing Union soldiers firing into a crowd after the surrender of a Confederate militia near the present-day location of St. Louis University. Thirty people were killed.

Confederate sympathizers called it “the Camp Jackson massacre.” One of them, Euphrasia Pettus, wrote to her brother on May 20, saying, “My blood boils in my veins when I think of the position of Missouri.”

Dennis Northcott: An archivist's favorite documents

Northcott noted that it was a position shared by many in St. Louis: “She was really angry about this.”

The second set of letters Northcott discussed moved further into the past but closer to a legendary St. Louis author. The letters link a catastrophic 1855 train crash – which claimed the life of Thomas O'Flaherty, the father of St. Louis author Kate Chopin – with an unfavorable 1899 review of Chopin’s now-legendary book “The Awakening.”

It wasn't the review itself that captured Northcott's attention, but a dramatic reaction to it from a fan named Lewis B. Ely. The negative review had prompted Ely to write to Chopin directly, and that letter was rediscovered years later in the collection of Chopin documents held by the Missouri History Museum.

Ely wrote to Chopin: "I didn't know there was such a fool in the world as the writer of that article; he drivels and drools along over the page just as though words were solely intended for idiots' tongues to splash in like a frolicsome infant in the soapsuds."

The rollicking letter to Chopin and the Civil War correspondence are just a few of the featured documents in Northcutt's presentation later this month. The presentation is titled "Interesting and Amusing Documents in the MHS Collections."

Related Event
What: Interesting and Amusing Documents in the MHS Collections
When: 11 a.m. April 19
Where: Lee Auditorium, Missouri History Museum, 5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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