She Died Three Weeks Before

This week’s prompt for 52 Ancestors is Family Legend.

One of the most interesting family legends in my paternal family is that of the supposed engagement of Sarah Eve, the sister of my 5th great-grandfather, to Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a celebrated physician. I told their story in an earlier post, Valentines for Two Sarahs. For this post, I will share how this story got passed down.


Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, 1783

Sarah, at least for a few years of her life, kept a journal. At the beginning of the journal, she states the purpose of the journal is to keep a record of the family’s social engagements while her father is away for several years making his living. While the journal mentions Dr. Rush many times, there is no talk of romance, but the journal doesn’t cover the time of their supposed courtship and engagement. Dr. Rush’s papers don’t make any mention of Miss Eve, but if they ever did, he may have destroyed any that did. Sarah passed away late in 1774, having been sick that fall, and being attended to by Dr. Rush. She was buried 4 December 1774. She was 24 or 25 years old.

Sarah’s brother, Oswell, my 5th great-grandfather, moved to Charleston, South Carolina, and married Aphra Ann Pritchard on 29 June 1783. Later, they would move to Edgefield, South Carolina, and after that to Augusta, Georgia. They had 15 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, including two of my 4th great-grandmothers: Mary Elizabeth (Eve) Charmichael and Martha Henrietta (Eve) Longstreet. Oswell’s daughters, Mary, Sarah, and Emmaline, wrote journals or memoirs that exist today. It is Emmaline’s memoir that perpetuates the story of an engagement between her Aunt Sarah and Dr. Rush.

Emmaline Oswell Eve was the 10th child of Oswell and Aphra, born 16 November 1798, some 24 years after Sarah’s death. At the age of 32, Emmaline married William Smith, a widower with 3 daughters. They would have 6 children, with only one son living past infancy. Emmaline died 29 October 1882, just shy of her 84th birthday.

In her memoir, Emmaline gives extensive details about her own life. She describes a life well provided for by her father: a private dance instructor and tutor, boarding school, a special carriage made for her when she was an invalid, summers in Charleston with relatives, grand parties and weddings. She talks about adult life in terms of hardships endured during illnesses and the Civil War, being grateful for blessings and family, and loosing loved ones.

Emmaline also gives a history of her grandparents, parents, and each of her siblings. There are additional notes written after her death, including a letter and a list of descendants of her paternal grandparents.

The memoir was dictated to her niece, Elizabeth Eve (Longstreet) Carmichael (my 3rd great-grandmother), when Emmaline was 80 years old. At this point she has outlived her parents and all her siblings. She is also quite removed in time from many of the events described. While much of the information is probably correct, if not a little embellished, some of the facts she relates about her grandparents, Oswell and Anne (Moore) Eve, are incorrect. For example, she says that her grandfather was a Quaker. But records show that her grandmother was the Quaker. Anne’s ancestors joined the Quaker faith near the time of its origins in their native Ireland and she was disfellowshipped for marrying outside the society. There are also other details about her grandparents that are inconsistent with what records tell.

In the notes to this memoir, Emmaline relates in a letter to Elizabeth Carmichael the story of the engagement between Miss Eve and Dr. Rush. She writes,

As soon as [Oswell Eve’s] two eldest sons John and Oswell [Emmaline’s father] were large enough he took them to sea with him leaving the rest of his family at a place near Philadelphia where his wife and daughter lived until the war commenced in very comfortable circumstances seeing a great deal of company. It was then Dr. Rush became engaged to my Aunt [Sarah], but she died three weeks before the event was to take place.

In 1881, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography published extracts from Sarah Eve’s diary. As part of the introduction, the above letter is quoted as well as an extended anonymous tribute to her that was published in the Pennsylvania Packet. The introduction suggests, without any evidence, that the tribute was written by Dr. Rush. The text of the obituary is included in my previous post about their engagement.

This is how the story has been perpetuated. There doesn’t appear to have been much mention of a engagement before this time. I have found it on countless websites and in several biographies of Benjamin Rush. Each author has a different take on the likelihood of an engagement, from highly unlikely to probably, but not a good match. All these sites and books cite the extract of Sarah’s diary with its introduction published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

Ultimately, there is no proof of an engagement. Dr. Rush’s papers make no mention of Miss Eve and I have not found other surviving records from the Eve family from that time. But it’s fun to think about the possibility of it and search for proof every now and then.

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