Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"I did for friends and liberty" - The Jailhouse Letter from Edward O'Connor

In my May 12, 2013 blog entry, I reported about the troubled last two years of the life of the Anti-Rent War hero Edward O'Connor.  On May 31, I had a chance to sit down with a descendant of O'Connor, Andy VanBenschoten and his mother.  They have in their possession a letter written in the fall of 1845 from O'Connor to the parents of his then girlfriend (and later wife), Janet Scott.  O'Connor was expecting to be executed shortly for the killing of Undersheriff Osman Steele in August 1845.  O'Connor had been arrested in October, tried and, along with John Van Steenburgh, sentenced to hang for the murder.  He spent several weeks in the jail in Delhi, where he wrote this letter, probably in October or November 1845.  Thanks to Nancy Cannon from SUNY Oneonta for supplying this transcript of the letter.

Accept my kind thanks for your tenderness and parental care over me, had I known that a line from miserable me, would have given you one moment of pleasure, I would heartily have acquiesced, in one moment.  But I was fearful it would only open the wound afresh.  O! could I tell you the bitter anguish of my soul the brain burnings and heart achings I have suffered for you and all I prize most dear.  You will know without mentioning the names for they are heart breaking to me    I have heard last Friday night, she was deranged and a bitter night it was to me, it was under the impulse of the moment of extreme anguish that I wrote in poetry a description of parting with her; the last time I saw her which will ever dwell fresh on my memory, as long as my bosom shall continue to throb; oh! How my brains burns when I think how she, poor innocent girl, will grieve for me; tho I am Innocent of my charge yet I feel guilty for her for I fear she will be looked down on for my sake.  It makes my blood run through my veins with the velocity of lightning and makes every string of my heart vibrate with horror.  O! could I but rove once more in society.  But nothing now but death and the gallows stares me in the face, but there is hope beyond the grave where false witnesses cannot approach and where a jury cannot be biased and where Judge is Justice, mercy, and holiness true and undeviating.  O how sweet the hours I have passed in your house how often they run through my brains but alas! When I look up I see nothing but Locks and bars and through my bars I now behold the trees casting off their yellow foliage which is emblematical of man in the spring of life he flourishes matures and in autumn or fall which is emblematical of death.

When I look through my prison bars and see the yellow leaf
It seems an emblem of my days and fills my heart with grief
But lovely spring will come again and cheer the forest glade
Lovers will meet and tell the tales beneath the cooling shade
O! parents dear I little thought that this would be my lot
I fear I’ll die a shamefull death and be my man forgot
But should I meet so hard a fate my foes I do forgive them
Will raise triumphant from the grave we’ll meet again in heaven
I ask you when you are home enjoying liberty
That when you kneel before you god there cast a thought on me
And we’ll praise the Lord, whose breath commanded us to be
And worthy be that saviour who died to make us free

You must excuse me for mistakes and bad composition

For you must be aware of the state of my mind   it is all over in the same moment of time.  Give my compliments to Catherine and Thomas both are near to me sister and brother but O I must be parted from them forever, not forever I hope to meet you all in heaven, where all will be joy and Peace.  But my life is now in jeopardy calculated to cut me off in the mourning of life from all the ties of that that connect me to society and thereby nips as it were in the bud all my future prospects and anticipations and call me to bid adieu the things of time and sense.  Leaving our remaining solace behind that its appointed all men once to die and after that the judgement. That I have got to pass the trying scene and but once I must endeavor to compose myself.

I want you dear parents if I dare talk the name, to not forget me. Forget as it were that we were even bound by any ties except humanity for I do not want to bring down any one to tears and sorrow on my account.  O could I have the heart of pleasure of approaching Your humble house once more   then I should endeavor to pay the debts of gratitude I owe, but Alas! Where am I and what awaits  Oh! my heart breaks at the thought I have to lay down my pen to clear away the melting tears that’s streaming down my burning cheek while my heart is respondent only to softer emotions.

O my mind runs wild, I fear I have already wearied your patience; and if I have wrote aught amiss, do forgive me, for I have no evil intention;
I ever remain you affectionate and near friend forever.

Keep these lines remember me
I did for friends and liberty

No room for mirthfull trifling here
For worldly hopes or worldly fear
       My life so soon is gone
If now the Judge is at the door
And all mankind must stand before
       The inexorable throne.

Edward O’Connor

Note: the last six lines of this letter are from a poem, And am I only born to die? by Charles Wesley which appeared in a Methodist Episcopal hymnal, listed as a funeral hymn, and published in 1821.

At the end of November, O'Connor and Van Steenburgh's sentences were commuted to life in prison.  Within hours, they were taken to Sing Sing to serve out these sentences.  They spent a bit over a year in prison - they were pardoned by the newly elected governor in January 1847.


  1. Ray, thank you so much for posting. If you don't mind I will post this in our family story book. Edward O'Conner was an extended family of ours, the Fergusons. David Ferguson was also indicted in the AntiRent wars.

    You are doing a great service of the community and I appreciate all these stories. I go up and down your blogs.

    I wish I could learn more of John D Ferguson what he built in Delhi and a picture of the grist mill David Ferguson had run.

    Eric Ferguson

  2. I'm fine with posting this on your site.