Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Insolent Servant

There is an interesting fragment in a letter from Rebecca in Baltimore in 1803, helping her eldest sister Fanny Etting with a new baby (again), to her younger sister Rachel in Philadelphia:

"Peter's insolence is insufferable. I hope Brother will take means to punish him and preventing his daring to repeat it....more advisable to send him to sea or some distant place than to imprison him....[Rachel should not have to be] molested with the sight of him."

Whatever Peter did, he certainly did not touch Rachel or he would have already been in jail. His offense was verbal, perhaps a declaration of love, which would have created an extremely awkward and probably intimidating situation for a young woman of sensibility. Or the incident might have arisen from Rachel's anxieties which sometimes led her to make rather extraordinary demands on those around her. Outsiders, even the gentle, lovable Matilda Hoffman lost patience with her; she wrote that Sally Gratz, Rebecca's older sister, had been "detained here sometime longer than she expected by Rachel's having a pain in her little finger which made it quite necessary for Sally to stay with her" [the emphasis is Matilda's]. The Gratz family as a whole was very accommodating to Rachel but a servant observing this behavior over time might have been driven to make a few choice remarks about it.

Whatever the cause, Rebecca ends the subject in her letter with a judgment that it is all "insignificant" and that Rachel should "try not to think about it."

Of course, it was significant for Peter who was an indentured servant or a redemptioner. We know this because he is not simply fired, and also by the fact that his employer can send him to prison for something which wasn't necessarily a legal offense. Instead, Simon Gratz, the eldest brother who, since his father's illness, had been head of the family, would have to find other work for him. Fortunately, the Gratz's had lands and business interests away from Philadelphia. We must assume that Peter worked out his time somewhere else.

(Rebecca's letter is in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, the American Philosophical Society. Matilda Hoffman's letter is quoted in Stanley Williams's Life of Washington Irving.)

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