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Mary, Mary

Anna Berkes

Question mark icon over a silhouette of Mary's sister Martha Jefferson Carr.A while ago I spent a little time (by which I mean maybe 26 hours or so) doing research in response to a patron's question about Mary Jefferson Bolling, Thomas Jefferson's older sister. Sometimes I get a little bit Captain Ahab when I'm doing research. The good news is that we now have an article on Mary Jefferson Bolling - ta-da!

In working on Mary's article, I did a lot of cogitating about the records people leave, and the pictures they lead us to form about people's lives. In Mary's case, pretty much everything we know about her is as a result, in some way, of her relationships with others. For one thing, the only letters of hers that we have (at least that I know of) probably only survived because they were to her famous brother and his family. We could always wish there were many more of these, but we can glean a few good glimpses of her from the few we have. It turns out Mary was a pretty creative speller. This, I gather, was not unusual, although I must say I've never seen anybody spell "Patsy" with an apostrophe.

Sources that might seem reliable can be misleading, too. Based on the handful of published genealogies of the Bolling family, one would think that Mary and her husband John Bolling had five children. Parish records reveal that they actually had ten children. Five of them died before reaching adulthood and having their own children, which I presume is the reason for omitting them from published genealogies. Family letters fill in some details about what happened to the other children. Martha Jefferson Carr wrote to Thomas Jefferson in May 1785 about his nephew Tom - it seems pretty likely that he had been a namesake - and his niece Ann (Nancy): "Poor Tom had a fall from his horse a little before Christmas which he did not survive two days, and their Daughter Nancy whose Marriage with H. Lewis you hardly heard of Died at fairfields on the tenth of March, her desorder was thought to be an Abcess in her Breast." And just two years later Martha wrote again with painful news: "My sister Bolling has had the misfortune to loos her youngest son for which loss I hear she is allmost worn out with grief." Eleven years later: "I suppose you have not heard of Polly Archers death, render'd more afflicting to Aunt Bolling from her just suspicions that she hasten'd it by her intemperance in eating. she died of a bilious fever, a fortnight after her child was born..."

The picture that starts to form here is pretty grim. In addition to the untimely deaths of several of Mary's children, it's also quite clear from family letters that Mary's husband John was an alcoholic. Thomas Jefferson himself wrote to his daughter of "Mr. B's habitual intoxication," and Maria wrote to her father that Bolling was "in a state of constant intemperance allmost, he is happy only with his glass in his hand." Jefferson wrote rather tartly to Mary in 1787, "You mention Mr. Bolling's being unwell, so as not to write to me. He has just been sick enough all his life to prevent his writing to any body."

In some sources, Mary is absent entirely, at least in name - several source I looked at called her "Martha Jefferson Bolling." I'm quite certain that Mary's name was not Martha. As it happens, Mary's sister Martha's name was Martha.

It's terribly hard not to fill in for ourselves the rest of Mary's life based on just a few bits of evidence - to assume that Mary's entire life was wall-to-wall woe. Mary definitely had some terrible family tragedies, but those are also the kinds of things that tend to leave a mark, both in the records people leave and in the mind of the historian or genealogist or humble research librarian like myself. One of my genealogist buds once told me a funny thing about doing research on Quakers. Apparently, if you were a good, obedient Quaker, there's not much trace of you in the official Quaker records. But if you were a naughty Quaker - well, my goodness! Court proceedings, disciplinary actions, and testimonials galore!

So my point is, just because they don't jump out at us in the records we still have of Mary's life - or they don't seem to be in the records at all - doesn't mean good things didn't happen to Mary. In the same letter in which he made his pointed point about John Bolling, Thomas Jefferson offered words of affection to his sister and also some good caution to anyone inclined to jump to conclusions based on his family letters, or the absence thereof: "Letters of business claiming their rights before those of affection, we often write seldomest to those whom we love most."

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