by Ann Neilson
Caroline F. Griswold, née Searles, was the quiet, humble wife of Reverend Rufus Wilmot Griswold. The daughter of sea captain Edward Searles and, then, Eliabeth Searles, the family was a wealthy family from Long Island. The family prospered due to their father’s business as a ship owner, sailing to ports and bringing rich cargoes back to his warehouses. It is said he “died of a broken spirit,” and his death resulted in the family moving to New York. Her mother was able to support her daughter Caroline, and son Randolph Searles, from proceeds of a local boardinghouse (Hatvary, Bayless 15). After the death of her first husband, Elizabeth remarried John Angell, who also passed, however she kept the last name Angell and thus became Elizabeth Angell (Bayless 15).
Not a lot is known about Caroline’s childhood and teenage years, however we do know she was described as a “quiet, devoted girl,” who, on one fateful March evening, caught the heart of Rufus Griswold. Griswold and Marcus Butler, a fellow employee of his at Harpers, were attempting to escape a downpour when they found themselves in the home of Mrs. Angell at 51 ½ Clinton Street, where Butler was well known. Griswold was introduced to Randolph Searles (then about 26) and the nineteen-year-old Caroline. “This beautiful girl, with her dark, shy eyes and her glossy auburn hair, immediately became the center of Griswold’s world; and he learned later that from the moment she saw him her heart was his” (Bayless 15).
Upon their first meeting, a love story began to develop between the two, and Griswold frequently visited the Searles home. “The self-styled hermit soon abandoned his somber robe and donned the habit of a gay, entertaining man of the world, whose colorful tales of his adventures enlivened the household” (Bayless 16). He even performed “Zip Coon” for the family, accompanied with a dance whilst singing. (You can listen to this song here.)
Caroline would not see Griswold once more, after his leave of New York, until around 1836, where he left his paper, The Olean Advocate, to return to Caroline, who he had not forgotten nor had stopped thinking about.
He confessed his love to her, finding she loved him from their first meeting, and the couple wedded March 20(also stated elsewhere as being on the 19th), 1837. “…Griswold, romanticizing himself into the rôle of tragic outcast rescued from his exile by a good angel, was happier than he had ever been in his life” (Passages, Bayless 16). After their wedding, the couple moved in with her family at 51 ½ Clinton Street. Rufus adored her with all of his being, and “…as his practical, sensible wife, she furnished the wheel which for five years was to stabilize his life” (16, 21). At the end of that year, he was licensed to preach, and it is said Griswold’s literary interests superseded his religious interests (Hatvary). Perhaps Caroline motivated, influenced, or inspired him to become a reverend?
By 1837, Caroline was expecting their first child, and was left in the care of her mother while Griswold was off doing business in Vergennes, Vermont. February 12, 1838, their first daughter, Emily Elizabeth, was born. Caroline, three months later, joined her husband in Vergennes. They arrived to a rented, incomplete brick house, and were transferred to the village inn temporarily. Caroline only wanted to live comfortably in her own home and take care of the family income, rather than associate with the overwhelming fashionable citizens also boarding at the inn. Rufus fit in with this scene, however Caroline did not, nor did she seem to enjoy it (Bayless 25). Although pleased with her husband’s success there, she did “have to exert herself a little too much to play the lady.” Caroline was practical, whereas Rufus was impulsive. She loved her husband and supported him, regardless, and was a proud wife. The family moved into their home a week later, where they settled very well (Bayless 26).
In 1840, their second child, Caroline, was born, and by 1841, Rufus was commuting back and forth between Philadelphia and New York, where Caroline and the girls lived. “As often as possible Griswold went to New York to see them, for he loved his wife and children dearly and disliked being separated from them” (32, 37).
Griswold was described as being erratic, colorful, and pampered, and Caroline’s family seemed to accept him—nay, tolerate him. Caroline and Griswold never owned a house of their own for every time Griswold attempted to put money away to save for a home, he would take it back and purchase little gifts for Caroline, who was appreciative of them nevertheless (51). For example, he had an original manuscript of “The Spanish Student” by Longfellow bound and gifted to Caroline for her autograph collection (57).
Caroline was said to wait for Griswold late at night for his arrival back home, with a meal and often a song to sing while he ate. “Often when she left the room he would almost involuntarily give thanks to God for such a blessing” (52). Despite Griswold’s commuting and rather flamboyant behavior, Caroline loved her husband all the same, and quite dearly at that.
He once again left his family, and not thinking it suitable for Caroline and the girls to tag along with him, he left them behind. A third child was expected that autumn as well, so the travel and readjusting to a new city would have strained Caroline. Thus the commuting recommenced (52).
Griswold rejoined his family numerous times throughout summer and early autumn, and their son was born November, 1842. On the sixth day of November, he returned to Philadelphia for work, and all seemed well.
Three days later, Rufus received news while dining at the Jones Hotel, that his wife and newborn son were dead.
Grief stricken and completely and utterly distraught, Rufus fled to his wife on the night train to New York, and stayed by his wife’s coffin for thirty hours, adamantly refusing to leave her side. He kissed her cold lips and embraced her, as his two little children clung to him and cried for their mother (64).
That midnight, Griswold wrote to his friend Fields,
You knew her my friend—she was my good angel—she was the first to lead me from a cheerless, lonely life, to society…She was not only the best of wives, but the best of mothers. You have seen our dear children—she taught them as children are rarely taught, and when she went her way they were left by her at the feet of Christ, at the very gate of heaven…They will bury her then [11:00 that day]—bury my dear Caroline and my child from my sight!…then I must set about tearing up the foundations of my home. Alas for me, I shall never more have a home to fly to in my sorrows—never more a comforter in my afflictions—never more a partner to share in all my woes or to be a source and author of all my pleasures…May God forever keep you from all such sorrow—farewell (65).
The funeral was held November 11, and the procession was moved to Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. According to Bayless, “When the body was placed in the tomb, Griswold uttered a shriek, fell upon the coffin, and burst into agonized weeping” (65). Those standing by, including Hamilton Randolph Searles and his wife, gently urged him to leave the tomb. After seeing they could not ease the reverend’s throbbing heart, they left him to make peace with Caroline’s death. Captain Waring, Caroline’s uncle, finally had to pry Rufus from her grave, stating, “In Heaven’s name, Rufus, have done with this nonsense and come along home with me,” to which Rufus obliged and followed (65).
The night after Caroline’s death, Rufus wrote a poem, “Five Days,” to release more grievous feelings, which was printed anonymously in The New-York Tribune for November 16, 1842. You can view the poem, so graciously discovered and transcribed by a man whose name I shall protect, here.
Forty days after Caroline’s death, Griswold, still completely beside himself, escaped to her tomb once more. Below is the following account as stated by him:
I could not think that my dear wife was dead. I dreamed night after night of our reunion. In a fit of madness I went to New York. The vault where she is sleeping is nine miles from the city. I went to it: the sexton unclosed it: and I went down alone into that silent chamber. I kneeled by her side and prayed, and then, with my own hand, unfastened the coffin lid, turned aside the drapery that hid her face, and saw the terrible changes made by Death and Time. I kissed for the last time her cold black forehead—I cut off locks of her beautiful hair, damp with the death dews, and sunk down in senseless agony beside the ruin of all that was dearest in the world. In the evening, a friend from the city, who had learned where I was gone, found me there, my face still resting on her own, and my body as lifeless and cold as that before me. In all this I know I have acted against reason; but as I look back upon it it seems that I have been influenced by some power too strong to be opposed. Through the terrible scenes of the week I have been wonderfully calm, and my strength has not failed me, though it is long sine I have slept. It is four o’clock in the morning—I am alone—in the house that while my angel was by my side was the scene of happiness too great to be surpassed even in heaven. I go forth today a changed man. I realize at length that she is dead. I turn my gaze from the past to the future (67).
Weeks, months, and years passed with Caroline still remaining an aching memory in his heart. He questioned God, he blamed God, and his faith was ultimately shaken after her death. How could a just God take his angel away from him? He believed it was the result of God’s punishment, but despite how Griswold yearned to end this suffering, he knew he must continue on, if even only for his two girls (then three and five). Never again would he feel the same compassion from his darling, however, never again the same love and tenderness from a woman, his angel sent from God.
The world lost a mother, a devoted child of the Lord, and a faithful, adoring wife. For Griswold, his world had fallen completely apart, may have changed for the worse, and ultimately for him, and the rest of society who knew her well, “It was one thing to theorize and theologize; it was another to live without Caroline” (67).