This "piecemeal world"

Hedwiga Gray diary1 Hedwiga Regina Shober Gray diary, entries for 5-7 February 1864. R. Stanton Avery Special Collections

Mark Twain is credited with the line “Humor is tragedy plus time,” and it is certain that with time comes perspective (and perhaps comedy). Of course, context is something that can be lost with time’s passage, as three entries in Regina Shober Gray’s diary suggest. In each case, her subjects are Philadelphia ladies, now (between 1874 and 1881) well-established: Mrs. Gray’s memory stretches back, though, to an earlier day, where their social status was more equivocal.

Boston, Saturday, 21 February 1874: [Rear Admiral Charles Steedman’s[1] daughter] Lou Steedman’s engagement to Dr. Lawrence Mason[2] is announced. I hope there goes more love to this affair then seems to have been vouchsafed to Rollins Morse, poor man, when Lou’s sister May consented to marry him.[3] [There follows a lengthy aside on May Morse’s lapses in good taste: she is credited with statements hinting that she finds her new husband a bore.] The admiral is a man of good family in Carolina – but Mrs. S. was a so-called adopted daughter of Old Ronaldson the “Cemeterian,”[4] as he was called 50 years ago in Philad[elphia]. A shrewd old Scotchman, who turned a pretty penny by laying out a square on the outskirts of Southwark, South Philad. in paths and burying lots – planting trees, shrubs &c. It used to be one of our favorite Sunday p.m. walks when I was a child, to go there – and I rather think it was one of the first regularly & expressly [organized] burying grounds in the country.

[Old Ronaldson] left about $40,000 to this daughter – wh[ich] was a pretty fortune in those days ­– and wh. has enabled Mrs. S. to live in much more style & ease than her husband’s salary as a naval officer could possibly have commanded… She is a person whom in Philad. in our childhood we should by no chance have been likely to meet or know, but she has made a good position for her family in all these years – and is, on dit [it is said], sufficiently lady like &c., but a little too afraid of compromising her position, as people are apt to be who are not quite sure of the same!

Sunday, 1 June 1879: [A Miss Audenried came to tea with Mrs. Gray and her daughter Mary, proving to be] easy & agreeable. K.P.L.[5] came to pass the night and meet her. I never heard of the name when I lived in Philad. and I imagine that even now it is not a part of Philad. society – but they are wealthy coal people, I hear.

Sunday, 6 February 1881: I have been quite interested in an acc[oun]t of the Wm. Lehman Ashmead Bartlett, who is about to marry the Baroness Burdett Coutts[6] – he is 31, she is 62!![7] His mother was Sophy Ashmead of Philad., who with her sister Anna (a very pretty girl) were schoolmates of our early life at “Aunt Eliza Snowden”’s school held in the upper floor of the old Pine St. Quaker meeting house. I remember them well… Ashmead père[8] was, if I remember right, a vendue [or public] auctioneer on a small scale, on the corner of Lombard and Second St., Philad. We used to pass the place often on our way to school. The girls were pretty and pleasant – but were nobodies then, of course.

Anna Ashmead married an Englishman, Brookin by name, now a wealthy Londoner & member of Parliament. Sophy[9] married Ellis Bartlett, descended of an old colonial family in Plymouth, Mass., after whose death she joined her sister in England, educated her sons at Oxford – et voila! What strange turns of fate one hears of in this “piecemeal world” of ours!!!


[1] Charles Steedman (1811–1890) married Sarah Bishop in 1843.

[2] Dr. Amos Lawrence Mason (1842–1914) married Louisa Blake Steedman in September 1874.

[3] Eben Rollins Morse (1845­–1931) married Marion Ronaldson Steedman in 1873.

[4] Richard Ronaldson (1772–1863). His brother James laid out Ronaldson’s Philadelphia Cemetery in 1827.

[5] Mary Gray's friend Katharine Peabody Loring (1849–1943).

[6] Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, Baroness Burdett-Coutts in her own right (1814­–1906), was actually 66. William Lehman Ashmead Bartlett, who later took his wife’s surname as his own, was 30.

[7] Mrs. Gray (born Hedwiga Regina Shober in 1818) was 62.

[8] John Ashmead (1783–1857), who married Anna Lehman in 1806.

[9] Sophia Ashmead (1815–1896) was married to Ellis Bartlett 1848–52.

Scott C. Steward

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.View all posts by Scott C. Steward