This is a true story of one family's tragedy in early colonial days.
| The southern New Jersey skies were still as black as ink that morning in November of 1721 when Charles Hand slipped out of bed.
He looked at Rebecca still sleeping so peacefully and for a moment tarried, thinking of the twins that were safely nestled in her now very full torso. They would soon have two more strong children, God willing, to feed and care for, train and guide, love and chastise. He wondered how Jeremiah and litte Rebecca laying in the other room would take to two new siblings as they filled the house with crying, and getting most of the attention usually reserved for them. He chuckled at the thought as he slipped on his warmest trousers and clothes. After building a morning fire in the large stone fireplace, he glanced around to see if there was anything else he could do for his wife, knowing she would soon be awakening. The children would see to that, for sure, he thought fondly to himself.
Picking up his musket he had loaded the evening before, he stepped out onto the porch and crossed the yard. His hunting dog, Grey, fell in by his side as if silently summoned. The animal needed no prompting to the thrill of a hunt. The excitement caused the normally lazy hound to prance in an uncharacteristic manner around his master and let out a yodel of almost melodic glee.
By the time the sky was beginning to turn a deep gray, Charles had made his way along the fields and was about to enter the pine forest. He knew the deer trail would bend here and that the herd would soon emerge to foraage for the delicacies of the small apple orchard below. Suddenly, he stopped simultaneously with Grey at an almost imperceptible noise. A long,low growl emanated from deep within the dog's throat. He watched curiously as the shackles of Grey's hair stood rigidly along his neck and back. This was no deer his companion sensed and he involuntarily shuddered.
A loud boom pierced the cold, still air. Charles found himself on the ground with a searing pain in his right thigh. Moments, or was it hours, floated by and a familiar face was towering above him.
"Oh my Lord! Oh, Lord! What have I done?"
Peter Ludlam, his neighbor, fell down beside Charles. Quickly he ripped off his shirt and tightly wrapped Charles' right thigh which was spurting blood like a fountain. Weeping with horror, Peter was loudly rambling, "I thought you were a deer! I'm so stupid. Please forgive me!"
Between gritted teeth to keep from yelling out, Charles tried to reassure his friend that he knew it was an accident. He remained calm as he directed the almost hysterical young man in gathering some sticks to splint his leg. The shirt did little to stem the flow of blood. They both knew there was little time to waste in returning home. When walking proved an impossible feat, Peter left Charles lying under an old oak tree and ran to get help. As the sky brightened, the winter sun lent little heat. He lay shivering and waiting for what seemed like hours. As the rumble of horses and a wagon were heard in the distance, coupled with the calls of familiar voices, a great relief washed over him. "Thank you, Lord, for your mercy," he silently prayed. "Just let me get back home to Rebecca and the children."
The room was familiar as Charles became conscious. Dr. Stites was bending over him, giving orders to someone, and then spoke reassuringly to him.
"You passed out in the wagon on the way home, son. We're going to try and get this musket ball out of your leg and there'll be a lot of pain. Try and take a sip of this," he said and put a bottle of corn whiskey up to his lips.
Charles felt lightheaded as the room began to fade in and out. He tried to speak but was too weak. The pain was unbearable and consumed every inch of his body and brain. He had been clamping down on a knotted piece of cloth and had been given some corn liquor to ease his pain earlier. He remembered that much. It seemed to have done little in that respect. Beads of sweat lay like studs of rain drops peppered across his now almost white face. His jaw eased and the wet piece of rag slipped from his mouth. Blackness took over and offered a merciful respite.
Rebecca would not leave the room and threatened anyone who tried to firmly usher her out. Dr. Stites realized she was better off under his watchful eye because of the late date of her pregnancy. He quietly asked her to sit in the corner in case he needed her assistance. Oh, how she wished he would give her something to do. Something. Anything. Her heart was pounding like a hammer and time was hanging as heavy as the pallid air and the weight of the babies on her stomach. Her hands were clasped as if praying, which indeed she was, but the whiteness of her knuckles told of the tight control she was willing over herself. "Please, please, dear Lord and Father in heaven...please let my husband live." The outwardly silent prayer screamed through her mind.
Charles was well liked and prominent in the community, owning one of the only two grist mills for hundreds of miles around. Many people had arrived to assist in any way they could. Although Rebecca was grateful for everyone gathered in the living room, she did not want to be around anyone right now. She sat rigidly staring at her husband, trying to will his body to give up the piece of lead embedded in his leg. She tried to hide the panic that was threatening to escape from every pore of her body. The babies within her sensed her tension and active contractions were beginning deep within her.
"Not now! Not now!" She quickly took in deep breaths and tried to let them out quietly and quickly as her hands automatically rubbed her distended abdomen in large circles. The contractions passed, but they had been intense. Rebecca knew she could no longer be of any help to anyone and now needed some assistence herself.
No one saw her quietly, slowly, and awkwardly get to her feet and make her way to the door. Her dearest friend, Sarah, rushed over to the pitiful figure that appeared before the group of people milling about the room. Rebecca was not aware of who was there as she shuffled slowly towards the large chair nearby, moaning softly. Her head was bent down gazing at the cause of her distress as her hands supported the weight of her hugely distended stomach. Quickly, she was guided to the bedroom and tended to by the most experienced women and the midwife who was present. An hour later, the first of two male twins entered the world, with his brother quickly following on his heels. All strength had passed from Rebecca's body. The midwives and Sarah took over, and as the last child took his first breath and let out a healthy cry, she slept a deep, dreamless sleep which lasted for fifteen and a half hours.
Dr. Stites had worked feverishly on Charles' bloated leg for three hours and 20 minutes, but the musket ball was firmly entrenched. He had done all he could do. Rebecca learned the next day that the Dr. had dispatched two men on horseback to ride across the state to Philadelphia to bring back noted surgeons to save her husband's life. Her heart sank. She knew this was a last attempt and she prayed to the Almighty Father to spare her husband. Charles was so desperately needed and loved, and she could not imagine life without him. "Please, Lord, help us."
Three days passed, and at one-thirty in the afternoon, the pounding of horse's hooves were heard coming up the lane. Four men jumped down from their lathered steeds and dashed into the house. Dr. Hastings and his assistant, Dr. Patterson, looked around and asked pointedly, "Where is the man?"
Dr. Stites pulled them into the room where Charles lay. As they gazed at the white, still form of the patient, no one needed any further explanation. Charles' right leg was the size of the trunk of his body and as black as ink. No life was left to save. In the other bedroom, a numb Rebecca sat dry-eyed in the bed. Her mind was blank. No thoughts and no emotions stirred within. As the babies were brought in for their feeding, she held them to her breasts with no emotion. Finally, the thought floated through her mind, "Life goes on. We will go on." And go on, she did.
For a while, Rebecca had only a hazy memory of all that had taken place, but gradually the pieces began to fit together again. As she gained strength, she learned how to manage her husband's accounts and how to run the mill with the help and assistance of many loved ones and friends. She raised her four children with strength, values and kindness, always keeping their father's image alive for them. She cherished her husband's memory and the few wonderful years they shared, and she lived out her days fulfilled.
My ancestral line is a direct descent from one of twins Rebecca gave birth to, and this story is my way of bringing alive just one example of the life of the early settlers of Cape May County, New Jersey.*
*This story was based on writings from the diary of Dr. Benjamin Stites, which may be read at the Cape May County Court House Historical Society.
(Note: Most of the names have been changed, and the dialog and reactions are fictionalized. The basic facts, however, are true.)