A Fascinating Compendium of Amherst History

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I took out two books from the Jones Library in Amherst, both delightful views of the world of Emily Dickinson. Ferguson Jenkins’ ‘Emily Dickinson: Friend and Neighbor’, which I discussed in my last post, is an inside view by one of the children Miss Emily allowed into her inner sanctum.

Daniel Lombardo’s ‘A Hedge Away: The Other Side of Emily Dickinson’s Amherst’ gives an outside view, with a grand sweep of the history of the Amherst area, with a focus on the Dickinson family and the people and events that would have been part of their world. Lombardo was curator of the Jones Library’s special collections and a columnist for the Amherst Bulletin.

Lombardo presents captivating anecdotes large and small from the Sunderland woman who was committed to an asylum by her clergyman husband for voicing her opposition to slavery to the used clothing vendor who acted as a procurer for Amherst College students, to the Pelham couple said to have consumed 23 gallons of cider in a single binge.

We meet Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the Graham cracker, then known as the “philosopher of sawdust pudding.” We learn about the hat factories and other industries in factory hollow and the fires, floods, and industrial accidents of the day, of which there were many.

There are stories about all manner of con men, swindlers, seducers and frauds who came to the town over the years, as well as prominent visitors who came to perform and to lecture like P.T. Barnum, Belle Boyd the Confederate spy, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’

There are tales of rape and murder and kidnappings, and an account of the nineteenth century opioid crisis. Did you know Mrs. Stowe had a daughter who lived in Amherst and was addicted to morphine?

I can’t even begin to describe how many fascinating stories are in this book. And they call have irresistible titles like “The Russian Count, The Heiress, and All the Spicy Particulars.”

And there are portraits of Miss Emily and her family and friends — the faithful maid Maggie, her brother Austin, her mother and father, her sister Lavinia, and her beloved nephew Gib, who died tragically young.

I found a telling tidbit in an account of Miss Emily’s funeral that indicates to me that she actually found romantic love. There were reports that she had been discovered in an embrace with Judge Otis Lord, a friend of her father’s, but one never knows what to make of this type of gossip.

When Miss Emily was laid out in her coffin, according to her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lavinia placed a bouquet of heliotropes in her hand “to take to Judge Lord.”

Did I mention how helpful and friendly I found the staff of Jones Library? I would be remiss if I did not.