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McLean County, Illinois
History and Genealogy


Mattie Stephenson
16 Aug 1855 - 12 May 1873

From the Memphis Avalanche, Oct. 19. -- One of the most touching of a thousand incidents which has stirred the hearts of men since the prevailing pestilence [yellow fever] began its reign, is that of the death of the brave and noble Mattie Stephenson, whose gentle spirit winged its way heavenward at yesterday's break of dawn. It was only on the previous day that the story was told in the columns of this journal of the way this impulsive girl came here alone two weeks ago, from Towanda, Illinois, unbeknown to her relatives or friends, to serve the sick and suffering of our sorely stricken city, paying her own passage by rail. Within two hours after her arrival, in response to the request of Dr. Blackburn she was at the bedside of Mrs. Adair, on Commerce street, a peculiarly trying case for one so young, watching with a woman's unflinching devotion till the fearful struggle with the monster was over. Then she went to nurse a family named Sullivan, on Concord street, where she did patient and faithful service to several sick persons, even assisting in all sorts of drudgery.

Last Monday she was stricken with the treacherous malady, whose deadly breath she had inhaled, and was soon after taken to the infirmary, where she was cared for, nursed and watched by Drs. Luke P. Blackburn, W. E. Rogers, Barnett, of Vicksburg, J. B. Barbot of New Orleans, and two kind and faithful nurses. In spite of the skill and care of all of the above, the fever proved too much for her frail, unvaccinated form, and she sank to rest, a martyr to humanity's cause, while her pure spirit passed upward to the regions of eternal glory.

When it was announced at the Howard Association rooms, on Madison street, that the little girl was dead, a pang of sorrow pervaded every heart, and preparations were at once made to follow her remains to the crowded city of the dead.

The heroine had arrived here without a change of garments, and her entire wardrobe was on her person, or in a little satchel she brought. She declined any pay for her duty and refused to accept articles offered in a way of clothing. So, writing back home for a few needed articles, a box was sent by express in return, which only came here day before yesterday, when she was too low to know anything of it. Yesterday, in the presence of one or two persons, Mr. Langstaff opened the package to find, if possible, some trace of the girl's history. A couple of clean, plain calico dresses, some cuffs, a few garments of underwear, several packages of nick-knacks, evidently put up by tiny hands of loved kindred for their angel of mercy, to distribute among the sick, these were all the box contained, and they were all carefully repacked and laid aside while the bystanders shed tears and turned away in silence.

A meeting of the Hoards convened to arrange preliminaries, and at 2 o'clock they were again gathered in front of the Infirmary, on Promenade street. The mortal remains of the poor girl had been laid out in pure white garments and placed in a handsome metallic casket, mounted by a silver plate, inscribed with her age and the name, "Mattie Stephenson, Died October 17, 1873."

The casket of the deceased was decorated tastefully with wreaths of flowers, and when the persons present had taken a last look at the placid features of the departed, eight pall-bearers with white and black crepe on their left arms, took charge of and placed the casket in the hearse.

As the solemn procession moved down Main street, an intuitive knowledge seemingly pervaded the minds of persons along that highway that an angel spirit had left its mortal tenement for happier realms, that they looked in silence at the cavalcade as it passed to escort the earthly remains to the grave.

At the cemetery, in a conspicuous spot, not far from the entrance gate, a grave had been dug, and here the procession halted and placed the casket within it. The Rev. Mr. Boggs, of the Second Presbyterian church, then read from the tenth chapter of Luke's gospel the parable of the good Samaritan, and closed the services with a few eulogistic and affecting remarks.

Every one present was visibly affected to sadness during the ceremonies, and many strong hearts shed genuine tears of sorrow for the pure-hearted victim who nobly sacrificed herself in a cause which will win her a crown among the angels.

[1873 Oct 21 - Morning Republican, Arkansas] & [1873 Oct 31 - Sioux City Journal, South Dakota]

The Memphis Appeal a few days since mentioned that Miss Stephenson had been stricken with fever, and made some touching remarks in regard to her heroism, which we copied. It now brings the intelligence that she is dead: "Miss Mattie Stephenson, the beautiful and modest young lady who voluntarily left the comforts of her home near Bloomington, Illinois, and came amidst us to care for and nurse and afflicted, died at the Walthall Infirmary Friday, and was buried yesterday. She came here a stranger, but by her heroic courage in thus giving up her life for the benefit of suffering humanity, has gained immortality and her deeds will go down to posterity as equaling those of Florence Nightingale." The Memphis Ledger says of her: "A pure spirit has gone to its reward above. Miss Mattie Stephenson, one of the heroines of the pestilence mentioned yesterday, died of the desease [sic = disease] from which she sought to save others, at 8 o'clock this morning. Let her be buried in some sweet sequestered spot in Elm-woob [sic = Elm-wood], amp [sic = and] at no distant day let a pure white shaft be erected to her memory, to attest the gratitude of our people, for whom she sacrificed her beautiful young life."

[1873 Nov 8 - Dallas Weekly Herald, Texas]

Two Heroines. Mattie Stephenson in Memphis -- Agnes Arnold in Shreveport.

From the Chicago Tribune, 24. The heroics of former days must yield the palm to the simple devotion and glorious courage that prompt a young girl to plunge headlong into a loathsome pestilence, which makes strong men tremble and appalls the devotion of the truest womanhood. This is what Mattie Stephenson, an obscure country girl of Illinois, did. She had no special call to Memphis. There was no husband, nor brother, nor sweetheart there to whom she was attracted by selfish or personal affections. She left home with only the garments she wore -- perhaps she thought she would never need any more -- and without the knowledge or consent of her relatives; she paid her own passage to Memphis; she made no ostentatious proffer of her services; her only ambition was to serve the sick and suffering of the stricken city; she visited scenes which terrified the strong hearts of those who had time to become used to the plague; she accepted no pay for her duty; and, when the horrid disease laid its vicious hands upon her, she died with the single regret that her usefulness had been cut short. Her first service was the care of a young wife, with whom the dreadful disease had precipitated premature child-birth. Though such a girl as Mattie Stephenson must have had the strongest instincts of maternal sympathy, and a full appreciation of the double horror of her patient's condition, she alone was brave enough, among all the women there, to face the situation. No wonder the city of Memphis forgot the plague a moment to admire heroism like hers. No wonder the Howard association, and the city officials and the clergy, and the nurses, stole away from their duties a brief half hour to do her reverence. The poor girl is described to have been -- she must have been -- a shy and gentle creature, unconscious of the good she was doing. Hers was a martyrdom that the world cannot afford to forget, and when, hereafter, the names of Florence Nightingale, Grace Darling, and the others are recalled, that of Mattie Stephenson should head the list, resplendent with a glory that is almost superhuman.

Mattie Stephenson has not been alone in the sublime devotion called out by the fearful scourge which has visited the southern cities. There was a beautiful and accomplished girl of Philadelphia, names Agnes Arnold, who hastened to Shreveport at the first general call upon humanity. She was the daughter of a deceased United States navy officer, and the adopted daughter of a citizen of Philadelphia, whose name she bore. She had a good home and kind friends, and was betrothed. The pleasures of youth, the attachment of friendship, the first love of a fresh heart, and all the selfish sentiments of association and affection were exercised in her case to keep her at home. She broke with all these, and hurried away to duty and to death. Her affianced husband could not stay behind. He followed her in a few days, and, soon after his arrival at Shreveport, was stricken down and died. Agnes Arnold did not flinch even at this hard blow. She still went about doing good as a volunteer nurse, till one night, completely overcome with physical fatigue in watching at the bedside of a sick child, she could hold up no longer, fell down a stairway, fractured a thigh, and died in great agony. The "Angel Agnes," as they call her in Philadelphia, and her intended husband, are now on their way home in coffins. Mattie Stephenson in Memphis, and Agnes Arnold in Shreveport, have surely not been alone in their martyrdom. There must be scores of unwritten heroes and heroines who have given up all the comforts of home and all the affections dearest to the human heart to court the most horrible forms of death for charity's sake. If it were not so, Memphis would be to-day but one huge pest-house, the disgrace and terror of a civilized country.

[1873 Oct 29 - Morning Republican, Arkansas]

Mattie Stephenson was born on August 16, 1855. She volunteered with the Red Cross Association to help nurse the sick. She traveled to Memphis to help those who were suffering from Yellow Fever in Memphis, Tennessee. Yellow Fever is a deadly disease that started in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the year 1793.

Shortly before Ms. Stephenson started doing her volunteer work for the Red Cross, her heart was broken by her fiancé who left her for another woman. After coming to Memphis to help Yellow Fever victims, she contracted the disease after only working for a week. She lived for only 18 days and died on May 12, 1873.

Volunteers such as Mattie often contracted the disease. The Red Cross and others who tried to help were greatly appreciated. Mattie Stephenson is buried in Elmwood Cemetery and is sadly missed by many people. A monument in Elmwood Cemetery offers a testimony to her compassionate service to others.

[Magness, Perre. Elmwood 2002. Memphis, TN: Elmwood Cemetery, 2001.]

12. Mattie Stephenson. As the processes which seem to threaten the dissolution of matter produce crystals, so the severest scourges which fall upon man develop the very highest types of humanity. Out of the masses of dead and dying, angels rise and hover above the gloom and anguish, and men view the beautiful image of the very perfection of their race. Mattie Stephenson was a young girl of Towanda, Illinois. She was obscure, and never had a thought of hurrying through life to a monument. She heard of the scourge of pestilence in Memphis; and, self-forgetting, she resolved to hasten to the relief of suffering, and stand a faithful friend at the couch of death. She went, unheralded and unobserved, into the stricken city, offered her services to the Howard Association, and was accepted. What she did will never all be known. In the death-chamber, often but two were present, -- the young girl and the the sufferer, -- and their lips are sealed forever. It is simply known that Mattie Stephenson was good and brave, and freely offered up her own young life for her fellow creatures. Hers was a holy mission; and she performed her full work. Did her father or mother in Towanda weep for her? Did a brother or sister tremble at the thought that their dear one was in the ranks where the shafts were flying thick and deadly? She herself was stricken and fell. Her memory is dear to Memphis, and her shrine is sacred as that of a saint. Her life crystallized in a few short days of duty; and a monument by loving hands will rise above her ashes. To such a heart there are no strangers, for it was the friends of all. Before the body of the young girl had been laid away to rest in Elmwood, a wealthy merchant suggested a fitting monument to commemorate the most beautiful of lives and highest of virtues. The Howard Association immediately resolved, That [sic = that] in honor of her memory, in justice to themselves, and as an example to the race, a suitable monument be erected to mark the spot where she sleeps; and that her epitaph shall tell the sublime and beautiful story of one who laid down her own life that others might live. [The Columbian Speaker by Oren Root - Compiled by Loomis Joseph Campbell, Oren Root - Published by Lee and Shepard, 1902 - Chapter 12; pages 30-31] Beside the name of Agnes Arnold there shines forth another with equal refulgence. It is that of Mattie Stephenson, of the town of Towanda, Illinois. She was actuated by the same in motives exactly as Agnes, though, perhaps, there were characteristics about her that were not with her compeer, Agnes. Miss Arnold was exceedingly lovely in person, very rich, and engaged to be married. Her prospects were golden. We have seen that these prospects, by the designs of a rival, were dimmed, and then she volunteered to go to Shreveport and help the afflicted. On the contrary, Mattie was poor in purse, passably pretty in face, and was not as yet entrammelled in love. Her volunteering, therefore, was from pure childlike love and inborn bravery of heart. The most touching proof of all this was given in the fact that she had no money to buy clothes, yet she refused all proffers of pay for her services. Yet she took charge of the very worst case in the city of Memphis, without an instant's hesitation, and tenderly nursed the patient till death. After her death, clergymen, lawyers, doctors, merchants and working people, in fact all classes and everybody who could leave their houses, followed the noble young woman to her grave at Elmwood Cemetery. At the time the pestilence broke out in Memphis, Mattie was on a visit to some friends in New England. She had been reading every day in the papers about the dreadful disorder spreading from Shreveport along up the river, and the daily increasing lack of nurses. It was about time for her to be returning to her family in the town of Towanda,, Illinois, and she made up her mind, instead of going thither, to continue on to Memphis, there to volunteer for the fearful work of nursing. Being fully aware that if she mentioned her intention to her friends, they would by all means in their power prevent her carrying them out, she kept silent in regard to the matter. In due course of time she arrived at Memphis, or at least at the first quarantine station, and when she announced what she had come for, rough men were touched to the heart. And prompted by their feeling, they would have turned her back sternly to save her life, for they knew that she would almost certainly die if she took the fever. But they knew also that there were scores of perishing people with no one even to give them a drink of water. And they were too glad to accept the services of any one willing to face the terrors of the pestilence. "I don't like to let you pass, Miss Stephenson," said the inspector, "but as you still insist after I have so plainly explained to you the perils you invite, I will let you go on, and ask Heaven's best care and blessing upon your brave, noble heart." "I thank you kindly, sir," replied the heroic young girl, "for your candor, but I have considered all about it before I started and I will go right on." "Very well, pass her in, conductor." The next moment the train was thundering forward with the brave girl, while the men about the station looked wonderingly at each other, and said: "No humbug about that little woman! She's a real heroine! God bless that brave girl." Upon her arrival in the stricken city, she beheld a scene calculated to terrify the stoutest soul. All over the place, wherever she turned her eyes, there arose clouds of smoke from burning tar and pitch, used as disinfectants. Men were engaged in scattering chloride of lime, phenol, carbolic acid, &c, in all directions. The smell was positively frightful, and almost suffocating. Hearses dashed around at a galop on their way to the cemetery. Mattie wasted no time in curiosity, however but promptly presented herself at the office of the Howard Association. There she again awakened great surprise by her unassuming manner and quiet courage. We're very glad to have you, Miss Stephenson," said the clerk in charge of the office, "and we'll soon find you a patient." Even as he spoke a messenger ran in and exclaimed: "Can you send us a nurse right off to Dr. Williams? A lady in childbirth and got the fever beside." The clerk glanced inquiringly at Mattie. Such a case was one from which the most practised nurses would shrink. There was no one there save Mattie, and yet the clerk did not like to even suggest to her about her going. But she quickly read the meaning of his silent look, and turning to the messenger, she said, without the slightest excitement: "Yes, I will go right along with you." "You will?" ejaculated the messenger, in utter wonderment, eyeing her from head to foot. "That's what I said," quickly answered Mattie; "and you had better be moving, and not standing wasting precious time for nothing." "We have no other nurse in now, so you will have to take this young lady, or go without," added the office clerk. "All right, come along, Miss," said the messenger, and he went out, closely followed by Mattie. When the messenger led Mattie into the house of sickness and affliction, the doctor looked first at her and then at the messenger, giving the latter quite a frown as a rebuke for bringing him a shy young girl for such a case. "There was no other nurse there, sir, and so I had to fetch this young lady, who's kindly volunteered to come," explained the messenger, interpreting the physician's frowns. Mattie noticed the dilemma, and taking a step forward, said: "Doctor, I know exactly what the case is. I'll do my best, and I am not afraid but that I can manage it." "Very well, Miss, only I thought you would not like to be assigned to such an one," said the physician. "Neither would I, sir," candidly replied Mattie; "but under such extraordinary circumstances as these, I have not the slightest objection." "Bravely spoken, my young lady!" exclaimed the doctor, in admiration. "You're a sensible, practical person. Girls of your age are generally so very romantic and finicky. I wish we had a hundred more like you, though. We'd soon make headway against this frightful fever." The doctor was obliged to leave now, to attend to other patients, and in Mattie's care, therefore, he left the poor, suffering woman whom Mattie had come to nurse. The brave young heroine's first care was to calm the patient's terror and excitement, and this she soon succeeded in doing. She slipped her arm under the woman's neck, and leaning down, laid her cheek against the hot, saffron-hued forehead without the slightest fear. She did so to assure the poor creature that she was not afraid of her. "O!" groaned the latter, "please, for God's sake, don't go and leave me like the other three nurses did! When they came and found what ailed me, they all ran away and left me alone." "Never mind, now, just quiet all your fears. I will not go and leave you," said Mattie, in comforting, soothing tones. "God will take care of us both. There, put your arm around my neck." And the sweet girl, taking her patient's arm, deliberately, even lovingly, placed it about her own neck, though it was like a band of fire, with its fever-heated veins and arteries. And the woman clutched her tightly, like a drowning person clutches the rescuer, while her heavy, fetid breath almost scorched her fair young face. Yet Mattie never flinched from the dreadful ordeal, but continued to talk so kindly, so soothingly to her patient, that the latter soon became perfectly quiet. Indeed, she presently sank into a sleep that promised to refresh her greatly, while Mattie sat down on an old rocking-chair beside the bed and watched her. The hour for giving the medicine left by the doctor came; but, as the patient still slumbered, Mattie would not awaken her, as she firmly believed in the common-sense rule that Nature heals the sick in slumber better than the physician. When the woman did arouse she seemed somewhat better, and the instant she opened her eyes, Mattie took hold of her hand, and said in cheery tones "My! you have had such a nice sleep. It must have made you feel much better. Now then, take your medicine." "Thank God, you are still here!" exclaimed the patient. "Yes," she continued, "I feel much better. But don't go away and leave me. I'll die if you do. I know I will." "No, I will not leave you. Come, now, take your medicine." Reassured, the apprehensive patient obeyed Mattie, who, tenderly raising her head, administered the dose. Matters went on smoothly during the rest of the day. The doctor called again in the evening, and, concluding that he would not be needed before morning again, took his departure, after complimenting Mattie for her heroism. After he left, Mattie was all alone with the sick woman. She kept the lamp burning dimly out in the entry, and sat down beside the bed, always holding the sick woman's hand in her own to assure the poor creature she would not leave her. Through the crack of the partially open door the lamp made the strangest shadows on the walls. The silence, too, was dreadful; but the noises now and then out in the street were still more awful; for the occasional vehicle that dashed along like a piece of artillery on the field of battle, Mattie knew to be a patient being taken to the hospital, or a corpse being hurried to the graveyard. Yet all this was as nothing to the trial to which brave little Mattie was yet to be put. Her patient had fallen asleep, and Mattie was thinking of her friends at home—of how they would talk when they found out where she was and why she had come—when a neighboring clock bell tolled the hour of eleven. In an instant the sick woman, with a wild, despairing shriek, that curdled and chilled her nurse's blood, sprang up out of bed on to the floor. Mattie was so startled that for a moment she was quite helpless; but only for a moment, for, as the patient was just in the act of bounding through the doorway, the brave young girl seized and grappled with her. The struggle was short but terrible, and Mattie by superhuman strength dragged her to the bed, and lifted her in again. And there she held her till the paroxysm was over, talking to her in calm, assuring tones the while, to get her quiet. But the violent exertion was too much, and the poor woman began prematurely that sorrow which, for the sin of Eve, God adjudged all womankind should suffer. Mattie nerved herself for the awful trial, and, like the good, brave girl she was, she kept faithfully her promise to do the very best she could. Not a soul was there to help her, for the screams and groans of the unfortunate mother brought in no passer-by. Screams and groans were too common to attract anybody's attention. Two long, long, dreadful hours passed away, and on the bed beside the mother lay two babes, one dead and the other dying, and both as yellow gold. And sadder than all, the mother too was now dying, though Mattie did not know it. Poor, dear girl, she even tried to cheer the mother's heart by saying: "Never mind, one is still alive. Be brave; you will live, and have one of your babies living also." But the maternal ear was deaf, the mother's soul was summoned, and she heeded not the kind words and soothing voice. At two o'clock all was over, and there was Mattie the heroine, alone—alone with three loathsome corpses. She stepped out, and bringing in the lamp, gazed sorrowfully at the dead ones. And to show how little fear there was about her, this girl straightened the contorted limbs of the mother, and with rare and touching pity, she laid the babes on their dead mother's breast, and folded an arm over each of them. "That's how she would have liked to have them if she had lived," said Mattie to herself. Her next act was to set the furniture and other things to rights, after which she sat down and awaited the coming of the doctor in the morning. He did not arrive until half-past five, and during the intervening time Mattie kept up her solemn vigil by the dead. When he came he was much surprised at what had occurred, and commended Mattie warmly for her extraordinary bravery and fidelity to her terrible duty. He directed her to the office, where he told her she should rest herself for a day or two, for he was afraid if she did not she would quickly die herself from mere excitement and fatigue. But he did not know the heroic girl. Word came that she was wanted, and she at once entered the sick room again. This time it was to No. 43 Main Street. There an old gentleman and his wife had taken in four orphan children, whose parents had all died of the fever, and from them they both took it. At the same time two of the children went down with it, making four patients in the one house. Mattie, assisted by one of the regular Howard nurses, took charge of them all, and tended them so faithfully that they all recovered in a short time. So on, in this way, from house to house, and from case to case, did young Mattie Stephenson flit, like a bright, ministering angel from heaven, nursing the sick, and, in her humble way, administering consolation to the dying, whispering the last words of piety and Christian hope into many ears and hearts as the dark river flowed at their feet and engulfed them. Had it been so ordered by Providence, that this child-saint—she was scarcely eighteen years old—was to live, she would have been the most popular and celebrated philanthropist of the times. But such was not to be. She was to do so much, and then go home to God and be rewarded. Her last patient was a man named Sullivan, who lived on Concord Street. Yet this delicate girl, who might easily have excused herself from the case, did not do so. All she saw was that a human being was suffering, with no one to help. That was enough for her, and she went with her pure and holy heart and took care of him. Sullivan died, and Mattie, through over-exertion with him, reduced her system so much that she fell an easy victim to the contagion. And the very day Sullivan died, Mattie was taken down with the fever. The moment she felt the peculiar, dreadful headache, the numbness and pain in her back and limbs, she knew what was coming, and asked to be taken at once to the Walthall Infirmary. She was placed in an easy chair, propped up with pillows, covered carefully over with blankets, and carried quickly but tenderly to the hospital. There she was promptly put to bed, and most specially well nursed, for the brave, devoted girl's name had become a household word in the stricken city; and when it was known that Mattie Stephenson was down with the fever, there was universal sorrow and a universal prayer that she might recover. At the infirmary she was the object of everybody's pity and attention. Indeed, a more touching sight was never seen than when Sisters of Charity and Mercy, Howards, priests, and clergymen of all denominations, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopalian, all vied with each other in their kindness to the stricken girl. For the time they felt that in true Christianity and God-love there were no creeds, no ists, no isms. None dared to claim the dying girl as a member of his or her peculiar sect. No, she was a real handmaiden of God. Each and all spoke to her of God and of His goodness and mercy, and to each and all she returned the assurance that God was with her crossing the river. And surely He was, for all averred they had yet to see any one dying with the fever whose passing away was so placid, so peaceful as Mattie's. Even after she had become unconscious, there was constantly a smile flitting over her features; and whenever her lips moved, it was to speak of the bright heaven to which each ebbing wave of Jordan was bearing her nearer and nearer, or to administer incoherent words of consolation to some patient whom she imagined she was nursing. All the medical skill and careful nursing was destined to be of no avail, and that day, just at sunset, the sweet martyr of Memphis passed away from earth. Her last words, as she suddenly squeezed the hand of a Sister of the Sacred Heart who stood at her bedside, were: "God bless you all, I am going home." Mattie, noble, blessed Mattie, was dead; and the myriad golden harps wound Heaven's white throne, in sublimest unison, sang forth the praise of a new saint brought from earth, to be among them for evermore.
[Wright American Fiction 1851-1875; Product of Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC); Hosted by Digital Library Program, Indiana University; pages 20-25]
[Submitted by Teri Colglazier]


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