Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Fannie Longfellow's Death and "God Is Not Dead"

Fannie Longfellow (1820-1861)
On July 10, 1861, Frances Elizabeth "Fannie" Appleton Longfellow died from complications of an accidental fire in her home at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While combing the hair of her three young girls (Alice, Allegra, and Edith) on Tuesday evening, July 9, a self-lighting phosphorous match fell to the floor, sparking a flame that caught Fannie's delicate muslin dress on fire. 

Screaming, Fannie ran into the study where her husband sat at his desk.

Startled, Henry Longfellow immediately jumped to the aid of his burning wife, pulling a throw rug from the floor and wrapping it around Fannie. Henry threw his wife to the floor and sought to put out any unsuffocated flames using his hands and face. 

House servants came with buckets of water, but it was too late.

Fannie suffered fatal 3rd-degree burns over her entire body.

The mother of five and wife of the greatest American poet of his day survived through the night. She remained in a conscious state due to the effects of the ether given to deaden her pain. Early in the morning of July 10, 1861, Fannie fell asleep and died.

I have in my possession an Appleton family letter from July 1861 that describes in vivid detail the intense pain Henry Wadsworth Longfellow suffered in the aftermath of the fire.

The burns he received on his hands and face prevented him from attending his wife's funeral.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
It took months of healing before Longfellow could use his fingers to write poetry.

Never again would Longfellow be seen without his signature beard, grown to cover the disfiguring scars on his face.

It took even longer for Longfellow's emotional wounds to heal.

Tasked with raising his six mother-less children, Henry depended on his sister for help those first few months, but he determined to spend as much personal time with them as possible.

Longfellow particularly sought to comfort his three girls, describing them in 'The Children's Hour' as "grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair."

The painful aftermath of Fannie Longfellow's death precluded Henry's productivity as a writer and poet.

Henry published Tales of a Wayside Inn in the spring of 1863, a work he'd mostly finished before the tragedy two years earlier. Friends helped him bring it to completion.

To compound the sorrow, Charles Longfellow, Henry's 18-year-old son, walked out of the Longfellow house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, without so much as a good-bye, early in 1863. Charles went to the train station and joined the Union Army against his father's wishes. Henry didn't even like to hunt game, and he'd vocally opposed his son's desires to join the army.

Within a few short months, word came that Charles had been severely wounded on the battlefield. Henry and another of his sons took the train to Washington, D.C. where they picked up Charles to transport him home to Cambridge. They found Charles at the train station, paralyzed from the waist down due to battlefield injuries.

The ride home to Cambridge that Fall of 1863 was somber.

Christmas Day

A few weeks after bringing Charles home, on Christmas Day 1863, Henry wrote his first poem since his wife's tragic death 30 months earlier.

Henry's motherless six children gathered at the Longfellow home, with the now paralyzed nineteen-year-old Charles lying in his bedroom.

57-year-old Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat at his desk in the very study where he'd suffered disfiguring burns attempting to save his wife's life in July 1861.

The church bells in Cambridge began ringing that Christmas morning.

Christmas carols, old and familiar carols, the bells played.

Henry Longfellow pulled out a quill, ink, paper, and began to write.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
'Of peace on earth, good-will to men!'
And in despair I bowed my head;
'There is no peace on earth,' I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
'Of peace on earth, good-will to men!'
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
'With peace on earth, good-will to men.'
He entitled his seven-stanza poem Christmas Bells.

You know it as I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

A few years later Longfellow's poem was put to music and turned into a Christmas, and the modern version sung by Casting Crowns is one of my favorites.

I love the carol because of these three lines: 
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail.
It's difficult to see how the "wrong" in this life which produces envy, hate, fights, wars, injuries, deaths, scars, and all sorts of pain can actually fail when it looks as if it now prevails.

But Jesus has indeed come.

It’s His job to ensure wrong ultimately fails and right prevails.

He’ll finish what He’s started for “the gates of hell shall not prevail.”


Victorious said...

Longfellow's tragedy made me think of Horatio Spafford's family tragedy that led him to pen the words to "It Is Well With My Soul."

So, so sad.

Paul Burleson said...


You have a gift. You open your mind and heart to words that you then write down and it's as if you take our hand in yours and walk with us through whatever event or circumstance, good or bad, that you are investigating with intense reflection. As you tell the tale, we live the moment. We are blessed by your giftedness.

Some people write better than they speak. Some people speak better than they write. Then there are those like you, whether speaking or writing, it matters not, it is the same. What results is the rhythm and melody of magic. You've done it again! Thank you.

Wade Burleson said...

Well, Dad - thanks for making my day! :)

Christiane said...

I remember memorizing 'The Children's Hour' as a girl in school. We were not told about the tragedy of the mother or the wounded brother, only nineteen years old, no. Something in the spirit and soul of Longfellow gave him hope, the kind that helps you abide in peace in the midst of loss and tragedy.

How do we explain the courage to 'go on' and to have hope when so much is lost? How do we explain the great and holy gift of peace given to those who deeply mourn the loss of loved ones? And yet we are given this grace when we are broken, and we don't understand it, but we are grateful, so grateful.

I have loved Vaclav Havel's definition of 'hope' because I believe that the 'anchor' of which he writes is Christ the Lord:

"“Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart;
it transcends the world that is immediately experienced,
and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons

. . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well,
but the certainty that something makes sense,
regardless of how it turns out.”
(Vaclav Havel)

Christiane said...

thank you for sharing that very special link. It must be true about God's promises, these:

" And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus."
(from Philippians, chapter 4)

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
(from the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew 5:4)

Victorious said...

Christiane, the hymn has blessed me so often but knowing the circumstances of it's origin made it even more special for me.

I don't think Wade would mind if I get off topic for a minute.... but since you are Catholic I thought you might enjoy one of my sister's favorite videos. She passed away about a year ago but I think of her when I watch Father Ray Kelly surprises the bride and groom by singing "Hallelujah"

And this link Cristina Scuccia Nun "The Voice" Italy Full Performance - Alica Keys' "No One"

Christiane said...

Thanks, Victorious

'make a joyful noise' :)

Rex Ray said...

Paul Burleson,

Some might think like most fathers, you were just bragging on your son. But I know you stated facts. I’ve only heard him speak once which was at his father-in-law’s funeral. I was amazed how his gentle words flowed like a bubbling brook changing heartache into peace.

After a revival at our church you had to catch a plane and left as someone dismissed in prayer. I followed you to the parking lot, yelling, “Come back Shane, we love you!”

I miss your blog you once had. I think our last communication was me relating how Peter was shocked to see Gentiles speak in tongues while he was preaching to them. He thought people had to be baptized before receiving the Holy Spirit.

You replied something like, some people were on a learning curve.

Wade Burleson said...

" I was amazed how his gentle words flowed like a bubbling brook changing heartache into peace."

Wow, Rex, I owe you lunch for that one! Laughing.

Seriously, hope your foot is better, and tell your lovely bride I said hello!

It meant the world to Rachelle for the two of you to drive to the funeral of her father.

empty said...

How wonderful to read this today. Thank you.

Jacque's Blog said...

Paul Burleson, What an amazing statement from father to son! No wonder Wade can do what he does!

Rex Ray said...


Your comment made me smile. I’ll settle for a pizza. :)

Paige Patterson is back in the news.

Newspaper Headlines today: “Woman sues Fort Worth seminary, claims former president abused power”

“A woman said she was threatened and humiliated after reporting multiple rapes to Patterson. Her attacker was employed as the campus plumber and had keys to all the buildings. He had nine weapons including an assault rifle in his vehicle. She was first raped as she was asleep in a lawn chair. He told her not to tell anyone and showed her a gun. Later he pushed his way into her home and raped her at gunpoint.

She reported the rapes to Patterson and he said he was too busy to deal with her report.

In 2015, the seminary’s chief of camps security emailed Patterson if he should attend a meeting between Patterson and the lady. Patterson replied, “I have to break her down and I may need no official types there.”

Rex Ray said...


The whole story on Google.

Debra Seiling said...

I was very impressed that in spite of all that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went through, he didn't let the loss of his wife, the burns, the grieving, his son's war injuries, or the enormous responsibility of raising 6 children alone get the best of him. After all of this, he let the love of Christ shine through the dark as he focused on conveying that God doesn't turn a blind eye on all we go through when he said, "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep..."

Thanks for sharing this, because reading this is timely for me. My Dad passed away about three months ago. Christ gets me through the difficult times, but continues to show me that His love abounds!