As details of Hilary Clinton’s private email account have become public, I have been struck by how easy it appears to hack into someone’s email account. Governor Palin’s email was hacked last year and it appears that the sanctity of private correspondence is another casualty of the high tech age.
One hundred fifty years ago if you wanted to communicate with anyone at a distance you could only write. Once a letter was placed in the mail, its privacy was protected by public statute (it still is). But people did save their correspondence, often rereading letters from loved ones whom distance and circumstances had separated by years. And stamp dealers often come in possession of these old correspondences as they are often kept with stamp collections as part of estates. One of the most touching personal stories I ever read came from one of these family correspondences that had not been read in over 100 years.
It came to us as part of a large collection of stamps and covers when I was young. The owner had said it came from the estate of some great uncle he had never known. He had never read them. What it turned out to be was a series of about 80 letters written over a period of ten years in the 1840’s from a man who had emigrated from New York to the new territory of Kentucky. They were letters to his brother with whom he had been very close and who he was never to see again. The letters were written monthly and refer to letters received from the same brother so there must have been an active correspondence back and forth. The letters start out as basic descriptions of frontier life, clearing the land and building the church as the writer was a minister and had gone to Kentucky to take a part time pastoral position. I watched him prosper, and become a respected and important part of his community. I watched his daughter Emily, who was his pride and joy, grow to a fine girl of 17. I felt the happiness of a person proud of his life and his accomplishments. Then a letter of July 1,1849 “Brother, I don’t know how to tell you this. Emily is with child”. She had been seeing a married man and so marriage was not an option.
The following letters tell of a cascading series of tragedies. His community shunned him for the sins of his child and he shunned his child. His wife ( “Sarah hurts with a pain only our savior could know”) soon died and the correspondence ends some two years later when he moves off, a widower,with his two younger children to start again further west in the American frontier. The letter where he leaves his town is the last in the group that came to me.
For several years I kept these letters and every time something like the Mark Sanford affair occurred (and things like this happen with stunning regularity) I would reread the letters. Then I destroyed them, something his brother should have done one hundred years ago. Forgive and forget. If we cant do the first at least we can do the last.

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