It wasn’t easy being a physician in the 19th century, and this letter suggests a few reasons why. Dr. Hastings was late in writing to his sister because he was chasing a fugitive who’d skipped town in the middle of the night without paying his medical bill!
“He made his escape from this county on Saturday, of last week, about 2 O’clock A.M. I started on Saturday after noon [sic], overtook him in the city of Monroe, in the state of Michigan on the succeeding Monday, after riding on horseback that day and late at night, I traveled 74 miles & [?] took the fugitive and family, about 100 miles from my place of Residence,…”
To find out what happened, you’ll have to take a peek at the letter itself, alongside its wonderful transcription done by Williamsburg historian Ralmon Jon Black*.
So, here are a few mysteries we’re left with: Was chasing after clients to get paid a common practice for doctors in the mid-19th century? We typically think of physicians today as making better wages than other professions, but in the 19th century, were local doctors struggling to make ends meet?
Waitstill notes that a neighbor died unexpectedly while he was off chasing his patient. Did the family bear Waitstill any ill will because he wasn’t there to help? Was it supposed to be his repsonsibility?
What is amazing about the trip he recounts (assuming Waitstill’s birth date of 1771 and letter date of 1843 are both correct), is that the doctor giving chase day and night on his trusty steed is not a scrappy 30- or 40-something, but a 72-year-old! What does that tell us about his physical, mental – and economic – condition?
He does tell sister Mary that “we are at present enjoying comfortable health,” but he also describes selling the farm (at less than its value), and makes a plea for a loan from “some of my Brothers or friends…” Waitstill says he could pay it back the following summer, though, since he has “about 20 to 30 acres of wheat on the ground & extremely good for the season.” And perhaps if money was not scarce, he wouldn’t have ridden day and night to chase down his fee! He tells us he received $10 for his traveling expenses, but he never says what he was owed.
We don't learn much about sister Mary here, but sometime soon I'll post pictures of a few of her belongings that we hold in the Hatfield Historical Museum -- which give us clues.
If you have letters from Hatfield’s past that you’re willing to share or donate, we’d like to see them. They are the best connection we have to the real people who lived here before us, and they help us see what life was really like.
*Ralmon Jon Black is also an adopted Hatfield native son, as the eighth great-grandson of notable Hatfield residents Benjamin and Martha (Leonard) Wait. But those Waits are a story for another day!