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A Puzzling Purchase

By
Anna Berkes

A while ago, I was perusing the Memorandum Books, which Marie Kimball very eloquently (but somewhat over-optimistically) described as “candid tattlers of Jefferson’s every move,” when I spotted something curious.

1776 Aug. 8. Pd. Dowig for mourning ring 45/  thimble 4/6.

Dowig, I presume, is the merchant, although he’s not identified.  So the question that then immediately occurs is, for whom is this mourning ring?  One possibility that comes to mind is that Jefferson was buying it on behalf of someone else – but it’s been my observation that he usually notes that kind of thing, e.g. “Pd. Dowig for mourning ring for Mr. Smith.”  So while I suppose Jefferson may have forgotten to do this or deliberately not done it for reasons unknown, I’m going to lay that one aside in the interests of actually getting somewhere with this blog post.

So, assuming that this was a ring that TJ bought for himself to wear, I’m going to further presume that he wouldn’t feel the need to buy a mourning ring upon the death of anyone other than closely-related family.  So who had recently died?  Considering all the options here…

  • Children: The last child of Martha and Thomas Jefferson died in September 1775, and the next would not come along until 1777.  It’s been suggested that there were, in fact, other children or perhaps miscarriages in this period, but it seems unlikely that one would buy mourning rings on their behalf, especially if their births and deaths weren’t even noted in the record.
  • Siblings and in-laws: The last sibling who had died was his younger sister Elizabeth, in 1774.  As for in-laws, the most recent death would have been his father-in-law, John Wayles (d. 1773).
  • Parents: his father was long gone (1757), but…his mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson, had died just a few months before, at the end of March, 1776.

One might well point out that what I’ve constructed here is a rather large tower of assumptions, and by no means am I claiming this is definitely the answer.  I’m just presenting a small mystery, and one possible answer.

I’m sure by Monday I’ll be completely skeptical and sober about this: “Maybe he just forgot to mention he bought it for somebody else.”  “Maybe he just bought it for the sake of appearances.”  “Maybe I missed another relative who died.”  “We just don’t know.”  But, I can’t tell you that on Sunday, a little part of my brain won’t indulge in a little fantasy that maybe, just maybe, Thomas Jefferson bought a mourning ring because he loved his mother and was sad that she was gone from the world.

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