November 17, 1829 except from Dr. Pierson’s day book (1829-1831). WHS collections 2006.4.41.
At 115 Palisado Avenue, across the green from our Strong-Howard House, there once lived Dr. William S. Pierson (1788-1860) and his family. On August 7, 1829, Dr. Pierson purchased a day book from Samuel Hollister. With this 42-cent investment, Pierson probably intended to put his business affairs in order by recording into the blank book visits and services rendered for his patients. Pierson’s reliance on this book was ill founded. Plagued by perhaps too much compassion and too little business sense, he never saw financial returns on much of his medical business. Instead, this day book became a place for reflection on family and business affairs as well as a record of his medical and agricultural practices from 1829-1831.
Patients called Dr. Pierson to their homes for treatment of a wide variety of ailments and injuries. Some of the more common services they required included pulling teeth, setting broken bones, treating dysentery, removing splinters, treating wounds from scaldings, and attending to fevers. Injuries from errant pitch forks and even “a picker in [a] factory” drew him out to work places around town. On rare occasions, Dr. Pierson saw extraordinary medical conditions. For instance, in September, 1830 he began a four-month watch over Humphrey Phelps who suffered paralysis of his lower limbs “from spirit & opium in dangerous doses.” By December, Phelps’ toes and feet had turned “putrid” and Pierson confessed to his day book that he administered the medication laudanum “[i]n vain I fear.” Less than a year later Dr. Pierson “applied bark & cotton wool to the pauper [Widow Eunice Brown for] her bleeding ancillary artery. The blood stopped but her pulse was gone & she died in about half an hour.”
While Pierson’s services ranged widely, his business lacked this expertise and breadth. In his annual birthday reflection, he noted: “my usual pecuniary negligence continues” (1829; see image at top) and “continue fatiguing practice of physic with little attention to collecting my debts” (1830). Pierson’s compassion contributed in part to these financial worries. After spending the entire night with the very ill Joseph Pinney and witnessing his death, Pierson noted “ought to be $3.00 –say only—2.50.” Months later during the settlement of Pinney’s estate, Dr. Pierson recorded that he “[l]eft amounts against Esq. J. Pinney Decd. Prospect of getting any thing very small.” Bates Holcomb’s unnamed illness called the doctor out for a “visit in hard storm and consultation / $3.00 if he lives … $2.00 if he dies.” Holcomb’s account was charged the lesser fee. Pierson treated the town poor often receiving only a fraction of his fees. And with one particular patient he took a hard line and secured in writing “that he would pay me the same proportion of my debt as he would other creditors.”
Dr. Pierson’s family also turned to him for medical attention, and it is in these notations that we see Pierson’s intimate fears over losing a loved one or the actual impact that death made on his family. His life was not untouched by death’s heavy hand. On February 20, 1830, he and his wife Nancy welcomed a newborn daughter. In her very first day, this child “had convulsions” and Pierson recorded that “its prospect of living and doing well at present small.” Tending to her and eventually to Nancy who “caught cold by being up with the child in fits” took much of Dr. Pierson’s time in the winter and early spring of 1830. By the middle of March, his despair over their health grew large. He wrote “wife feeble & weather stormy & myself gloomy.” By late spring Nancy was up and about, but the child remained in danger. On August 28, 1830, “my little feeble child die[d] about 11 o’clock night.” In less than an hour, Pierson was out on a call, passing the entire night at the Roberts household, perhaps as a way to escape his grief for a few hours. This was, after all, not the first time that this father had faced the death of his children. In October of 1829, he undertook the daunting task of “near night …removing the coffins of my deceased children to another part of the Grave yard. They were interred in the aisle the snow being deep and the yard imperfectly laid out at the time of their death.”
Pierson even treated himself during an April, 1831 illness that lasted for at least twenty days. During the first week he “concluded to stay at home and take syrup & blood root & dov. pills & carb. Ammonia alternately every four hours. Also Cons. Roses & Mur. acid for mouth. Intend getting out Tomorrow!!” [sic] These hopes were dashed, and he spent weeks “confined to my room & mostly to my bed,” recording each day that passed; and he did not work. By April 15, Pierson wrote in his day book, “Had last night a rather restless night—was more full of courage & hope and had more strength yesterday—but the night sweats were troublesome…& I am feeble today.” In a little over a month he expressed “gratitude” for being “restored to comfortable health.”
In January of 1831, Pierson and his wife sat for portraits with the painter, Mr. Bisbee. When these were finished, Pierson recorded that he “puzzled about [the] likeness in the forenoon” and eventually paid Bisbee “in full.” Perhaps Dr. William Pierson realized that with this day book, he too fashioned a portrait—a self-portrait—and created for us the opportunity to puzzle over the details of his daily life and his private writings. And what a wonderfully rich likeness he has left for our indulgence!
by Karen Parsons, Loomis Chaffee School archivist, 2001