March 9, 2010

What does the Lord want to kill me for?

Julia Ward Howe was in New York while her oldest daughter (pictured) was dying. The author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was on tour lecturing (particularly for women's suffrage and other reforms). She rushed home in February to find her daughter, Julia Romana, in poor health — "but not dangerously ill," she wrote. However, Julia Romana thought she felt death was near, saying that the tide was coming to take her away. She had typhoid fever.

But Howe's presence made her feel just a little better. Even so, Howe had further engagements. As March came, she went from her home in Boston to Poughkeepsie, back to Boston to check on Julia Romana, then to Providence, back to Boston, then out to New York. Howe hired two nurses to care for Julia Romana but she was nervous and concerned about her daughter.

On March 9, 1886, she sent a telegram home to see if there was any improvement. On the contrary, Julia Romana had taken a turn for the worse. Howe had to wait until the next morning before a train could take her back to Boston. She brought a bottle of champagne with her but there was no mistaking it: Julia Romana was dying.

With mother holding one hand and her husband Michael Anagnos holding the other, Julia Romana noted she was grateful for the love of her parents and her husband. She asked, "What more can one want?" But, when Michael left the room, she privately asked her mother, "What does the Lord want to kill me for?" She died at the age of 42. What happened next got a little complicated.

Julia Ward Howe recorded that her daughter's last words were: "If this is not the right one, call another priestess — truth, truth." She later claimed an addition to those words: "Be kind to the little blind children, for they are papa's children" (she had worked at the Perkins School for the Blind, a school founded by Julia Ward Howe's husband Samuel Gridley Howe; Julia Romana's husband was its second director). Another daughter noted her sister's last words as: "Take care of the little blind children."

One Howe biographer noted the family tried to clean up the story, to make her into more of a martyr. As Valarie H. Ziegler wrote, "none of them [i.e. the family] had found Julia Romana the easiest person in the world to love."


  1. I am not sure that it is at all proper to charaterize a death scene as dramatic fun but this one deserves it. Julia Romana's rollicking adventure towards the unknown is as full of dramatic flair as a silent movie with a heroine on the railroad tracks (with God playing the mustachioed villian!).

  2. I couldn't describe it better myself! The headline was supposed to draw on that drama too.