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“A Very Surprising Narrative of a Young Woman, Who Was Discovered in a Rocky Cave!” and Other Highlights from the American Antiquarian Society’s Supplement to Early American Imprints: Shaw-Shoemaker

Posted on 05/16/2016

The April release of newly digitized material available in the American Antiquarian Society Supplement to Early American Imprints: Shaw-Shoemaker includes a cautionary account of the death of a child, a captivity narrative which is likely false, and a beautifully illustrated display of engraving ciphers. 

Obituary of Charles Petit, a boy who lately died at the Orphan Asylum, in New York (1818) 

This pamphlet was published by the Philadelphia Female Tract Society and printed by Lydia R. Bailey (1779-1869), one of the most successful women in the 19th-century printing business. While it was not unusual for women to be printers, most commonly because they were the widows or daughters of male printers, Bailey was distinctive. She was active for nearly 50 years and upon her retirement was considered to be the last of the widow printers as the industry and society evolved. 

In contrast to Bailey’s long and successful life, Charles Petit was a poor orphan whose death at an early age is here related.  

Charles Petit was admitted into the Orphan Asylum on the 7th of November, 1815. He was then four years of age. He continued in good health, and exemplary in his conduct, till about three weeks before his death, when he took the measles, and afterwards the whooping cough, which confined him to his bed. 

The author describes his conversations with the child in his last days and further recounts the visits made by his wife and daughter to the sickbed. The narration relies significantly on sin and redemption and the necessity of prayer. It appears that the author and his family began each conversation with Petit by talking about death. When asked what he thought caused his illness, Petit 

replied, “It was sin that brought sickness and death into the world.” I then asked him if he thought himself a sinner, and dying. He answered, “Yes.”—I said “Charles, are you prepared to die?” He answered, with a smile on his countenance, “Yes”—I said, “since you are a sinner, how can you expect to be prepared to die, and go to Heaven?” He answered; “For the sake of Jesus Christ, God will pardon my sins and take me to heaven. I want you to pray for me.”—“What shall I ask the Lord to do for you.”—“I want God to make me a good boy, and take me to heaven when I die.” 

The author recounts the boy’s requests for prayers, for hymn singing, and for admonishing the other orphans including his brother to be good so they might be reunited in heaven. And then, the end arrives: 

About eleven o’clock I asked him if he thought himself near the end. He said he did. “Yes, Charles,” said I, “you will soon get quit of your bad cough, and your other complaints: you will soon be happy in Heaven, singing the song of Moses and the Lamb.” He became gradually weaker, but still continued praying.—The last words that uttered was the prayer of Holy Stephen, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit;” and in the arms of that blessed Jesus, who suffered and died for him, he fell asleep on Friday morning, the 27th of November, 1818, at six o’clock, aged seven years. 

A second death of a child is appended. Little Sarah “was, from the most early age, averse to all vain amusements.” After “being twice taken to see a play, she was not at either time at all delighted with the spectacle, but appeared disgusted at what she had seen…” When she lay dying she asked her mother to send the children playing outside the door away because “she could not bear to hear them make use of wicked words.” She died happily while singing psalms. 

A Very Surprising Narrative of a Young Woman, Who Was Discovered in a Rocky Cave! After having been taken by the Indians, in the year 1787. And seeing no human being for a space of nine years. In a letter from a gentleman to his friend. (1812) 

The citation assigns this pamphlet to the Captivity Narratives genre while noting that is “Apparently fictitious.”

The letter writer describes a journey he and a companion made in an attempt “to penetrate the Western Wilderness as far as prudence and safety would admit.” After limning the profusion of wildlife, especially birds, and the abundance of game and edible flora, he gets to the point. They heard, among the birdsong,  

the sound of a voice, which seemed at no great distance. At first we were uncertain whether the voice was a human one, or that of some bird; as many extraordinary ones inhabited these wilds. 

They went in search. 

Upon our arrival here, to our inexpressible amazement, we beheld a beautiful YOUNG LADY sitting near the mouth of the cave!—She, not observing us, began again to sing. We now attempted to approach her—when a dog, which we had not before observed, sprung up and began to bark at us;—at which she started up, and seeing us, gave a scream and swooned away.

They rush to assist her and 

After a little conversation, having convinced her of our peaceable dispositions, and that we intended her no injury, she invited us into the cave, when she refreshed us with some ground nuts, a kind of apples, some Indian cake, and excellent water. We found her to be an agreeable sensible lady; and after some conversation, we requested to know who she was, and how she came to this place. She very readily complied with this request—and began her story as follows:

And she, at least as quoted by the writer, speaks in a declamatory manner, addressing them as “STRANGERS.” She was born in 1740, near Albany, the only child of “a man of some consequence, and considerable estate in the place where he lived.” When she was fifteen a young, educated man joined the family as her father’s clerk. They soon fell in love, and her father disapproved because the clerk had no estate. They conducted a secret courting which her father discovered. He sent the clerk packing, but still she was able to correspond with him. Still, her father would not relent so she left home to “retire into the country, to see whether my absence would not soften his heart, and induce him to consent to my happiness.” 

This effort failed. The lovers fled and were subsequently 

surrounded and made prisoners by a party of Indians who led us about two miles and then barbarously murdered my lover! cutting and mangling him in the most inhuman manner!—then, after tying him to a stake, they kindled a fire round him! and, while he burnt, they ran round, singing & dancing—rejoicing in their brutal cruelty. 

She escapes, is rescued by a “gigantic figure” who holds her captive in his cave and woos. Her captor indicates that “I must either accept of his bed or expect death for my obstinacy. I still declined his offer, and was resolved to die, rather than comply with his request.” So, she acts. 

I did not long deliberate—but took up the hatchet he had brought, and summoning resolution, I, with three blows, effectually put an end to his existence. 

I then cut off his head, and next day, having cut him in quarters, drew him out of the cave about half mile distance; when after covering him with leaves and bushes, returned to this place. 

She said she had lived in the cave with the dog for nine years having not seen another human being in all that time. Finally, she agrees to return home with the strangers. Her father forgave her and “fainted, all attempts to bring him too [sic] were in vain; he lay about seven hours and expired. 

He left a handsome fortune to his daughter, who notwithstanding his former usage of her, was very much affected at his sudden death. 

The Cipher Engravers Companion: Containing every combination of the letters of the alphabet drawn and engraved by Thomas Wightman Jr. (1814) 

This imprint has been selected for this post because of its lovely illustrations. It is a pleasure to view. It is a pleasure to behold.





For more information about Early American Imprints, Series I and II: Supplements from the American Antiquarian Society, 1652-1819, including pricing, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact


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