Why are we interested in one era of history, or one event, or one figure, and not another? I don’t know. But I’ve never been able to feel any special connection to the history of my town, Foxboro, MA, even though I’ve lived here nearly all my life. It’s just always seemed to be both about and for other people- certain founding families, or people who can still remember their grandmother going to this or that school when it was back at this or that part of town. I never felt the connection to town history, maybe because the town history seemed so disconnected from me. After all we landed here in….1976.
But Thursday, for some reason, I was drawn to an article on the local paper’s website. It was another installment of our town historian Jack Authelet’s weekly retelling of our town’s participation in that war.
I don’t know why I started to read this, for all the reasons mentioned above. And more to the point, it was clear how it was going to end. The subheading of the article was something like “The physician couldn’t heal himself.” So, a Civil War doctor who ended up killing himself. I knew how it was going to end. So why’d I read it ? I don’t know. But I did.
And so I was introduced to Dr. Isaac Smith, Jr.
Within just a few paragraphs I learned you never know how you’re going to connect to history, what surprises it’ll throw at you. One of the first things the article tells about Dr. Smith was that when his family moved to town, they moved to 83 Central Street…. which is right down the street from my childhood home, and which is in fact, the very building (now St Marys Rectory) where my mom worked for over twenty years.
Put another way: I’ve been in this man’s house.
So much for not feeling connected.
The story is, as promised, tragic. According to the article, Isaac Smith, Jr got his MD from Dartmouth College in 1862. Just out of med school, he joined the Union Army, the 26th Massachusetts. In the course of two years serving in the war, he was both a POW and injured in combat. And as he was a surgeon, at one point head surgeon at the Army hospital in New Orleans – he also saved lives and witnessed, well, I can only imagine. We all know Civil War medicine is notorious for being nasty and grim.
Isaac came home, married a woman from the prominent Carpenter family*, moved to Fall River, had a son, and was a “notable” surgeon. But he was also carrying a “dreaded disease” probably from bad medicine during the war, according to the article. Whatever it was, it increased in painfulness to the point it debilitated him, costing him his career, his marriage, his child and led him to desperate measures, including morphine and opium use.
And then finally, 130 years ago this coming January 20th, Dr. Isaac Smith, Jr. shot himself in the head. He was one month and eleven days past his 40th birthday.
Apparently, fifteen hundred people turned out to pay their respects to Dr. Smith. Of course that doesn’t make up for a man dying at 40 or for the fact , in the end, he was suffering and had lost everything. But it says something about what he meant to people in his community.
A veteran comes home from war, alive, but not to be the same. He tries to live his life, but his war experience becomes an obstacle to his peacetime happiness and success. He dies, maybe long after combat, but still because of it. This is a veteran’s story we hear too often, over and over. It is echoed through century after century, war after war.
This time, that echo also rattles through the rooms of the building where my mom used to work. It echoes down to the street I grew up on. This was his neighborhood, too. I wonder if he thought about it in his last horrible moments, or when he was in Confederate hands or when he was wounded in Virgina– about his house, the roads, whatever existed of that block back then. Was it a good place for him? Did he have good memories that comforted him? Did he pray to get back there and was he thankful when he finally did after the war was done?
I don’t know. And I don’t know why he was willing to risk his life to be a doctor in a war. I don’t know anything about this man except the basic details from one short article and a few Google search results. From those things, I know he was a person who, in the end, pretty much traded in his own life for the lives of other people. I doubt he planned it that way, but that seems to be how it turned out. And it feels weird calling something so tragic, heroic, too. But that also seems to be how it turned out.
And in any case, I also know: I’ll never pass through my old neighborhood again or pass by St Mary’s Rectory without thinking of Dr. Isaac Smith.
Thanks for reading.
(*People familiar with Foxboro know 83 Central St. is on the corner of Church and Central, and Church connects Central to Carpenter St. I grew up at 50 Carpenter St. I have no idea if it was already named that when Isaac Smith married Anna Carpenter, but I thought it was funny his growing up close to a street basically named for his wife’s family…)