Masthead: The Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Papers Project

Editing Death

Project Newsletter Summer 2009.

Hereís the problem: a personís papers are pretty much useless for documenting his or her own death. With two deaths upcoming in the sixth and final volume of the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, we need models of ending a life in a book of personal papers.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton died on 26 October 1902 in her apartment on 94th Street in New York City. Except for the fact that she neared her eighty-seventh birthday, found it extremely difficult to move around, and could no longer see, there were few indications to people outside her family that her end was nigh. In her last surviving private letter, dated September 30, Stanton wanted to make a long-range plan: "As I was wide awake last night for hours, when I should have been asleep, I thought of you," she told the journalist Ida Harper, as the person best qualified to "give the finishing touch" to a volume of speeches. "Now tell me," she wrote, "if you think you will be able to edit my book."

From a more public angle, readers could see that William Randolph Hearst published articles in the New York American and Journal under Stanton's by-line in July, August, September, and on October 13. He had another one on hand to rush into print on October 29. As it was later told, she wrote—or, more accurately, dictated—articles until the last full day of her life. Hearst was only one publisher of many able to advertise contributions by Stanton after she had died. Her "papers" flowed on seamlessly past her death.

To learn if historical editors had settled on standard practices for marking the passing of their subjects, staff members Kathleen Manning and Michael Cohen surveyed about two dozen completed editions. Editions, they found, fall into two loose styles: those that end with the last letter or memorandum or other "paper" of the subject, no matter now long before (or after) its author's death, and those that admit new witnesses—a wife or daughter, an aide, an official's announcement, a newspaper's obituary—through which to narrate the final weeks or days or moment.

To pick one example from many like it, a recent edition of Senator Charles Sumner's correspondence simply stops with what we infer is his last letter, on 9 March 1874. Not so much as a footnote explains his death two days later. Illustrating the other style, the edition of letters of Eugene V. Debs winds down gradually—the last letter by Debs on 3 June 1926, a series of letters received from well-wishers, and finally letters of condolence to his brother Theodore. With the first letter to Theodore, a footnote places Eugene's death at 20 October 1926.

In our edition, the papers of Susan B. Anthony are a medium through which to witness Stanton's decline and death. A letter to Anthony from Stanton's daughter in September tempers the hopeful note of Stanton's own letter in the same week. After describing her mother as greatly weakened and in constant need of a daughter's attention, Harriot Blatch urged Anthony to visit for Stanton's birthday in November, "as I'm sure there wont be another."

Readers of our edition can learn of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's death in the same way Susan B. Anthony did, by telegram from Harriot Blatch: "Mother passed away today." With her arrival in New York City on October 27, Anthony became the witness to the family's grief, the private funeral in their apartment, and a larger ceremony at Woodlawn Cemetery.

But what happens when the Selected Papers reaches the moment of Anthony's death on 13 March 1906 at her home on Madison Street in Rochester? Witnesses are required.

Choices abound. Daily briefings for the reporters gathered on Madison Street tracked her decline, as these headlines illustrate.

Pawtucket Times, March 6: "Susan B. Anthony May Not Recover"
Dallas Morning News, March 7: "Miss Susan B. Anthony Ill"
Albuquerque Journal, March 11: "Susan B. Anthony Worse"

From inside the house, a niece kept friends apprised of her condition in neatly typed letters. Anna Shaw, Anthony's political successor, rushed to Rochester in time to have memories of Anthony's death that she could retell for the next decade. The night nurse disputed what the newspapers published, telling her sister, "The paper gives the names of the parties that were at the death bed, but to tell the truth Maude I was all alone with the dear old soul." We have to ask, who matters and who is to be believed?