On Friday morning, the 15th day of June of 1894, in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Ira Sayles was still but for the shallow movement of his chest. Outside, a mockingbird poured song into the sun-warmed house. His son Clifton and neighbor Joel E. Beales sat bedside by his wife, Serena. Anna, Clifton’s wife, and their children, Alice, Harold, Francis, and baby Gertrude, sheltered quietly nearby.
Ira–once a teacher and abolitionist, a soldier and poet, a geologist and paleontologist–passed on that day, in a house that he never called home, surrounded by family and neighbors who knew him as a stranger.
June is hot, humid, full-on-summery in southside Virginia. The body needed to be interred quickly.
Joel Beales and Henry R. Dodson, helped the family wash, dress, and shroud the remains in a sheet before placing it into a coffin. The neighbors then accompanied the Sayles to their family graveyard, where “they assisted to bury the coffin on the afternoon of the same day as his death.”
I wonder what sort of service, if any, took place that day, or whether a community funeral service was held at some later time. I wonder if the family’s neighbors delivered Brunswick stew, peach pie, tomato wedges, biscuits and ham for dinner that evening. I wonder if anyone stayed with the family over night. And I wonder if Serena in this hour of passing mourned her loss.
Pension files of the Act of June 27, 1890, Widow’s Pension #597.861 of Serena Sayles, General Affidavit of J.E. Beales and H.R. Dodson, 26 Nov 1894: National Archives, Washington, D.C.
As fine crystals frosted the window panes of his Ithaca office that November 1891, the assistant paleontologist for the United States Geological Survey concentrated on the Devonian fossils arrayed before him. Ira Sayles–Darwin doubter, writer of meter and rhyme, observer of chipmunks and turkey vultures, thinker of deep thoughts–prepared the season’s specimens under the supervision of Cornell University professor, Henry S. Williams, for shipment to the National Museum in Washington, D.C.
The 74 year old’s labeling and packing of the year’s field work was disrupted by a “stroke of paralysis” which left him weak and tremulous, particularly in his right hand. Nonetheless Ira carried on his duties for the Survey and returned to his Washington, D.C. apartment at 213 9th Street. His winter commute was but a short block north to the National Museum, headquarters for the Geological Survey. Each day he summoned the intellectual acumen of which he was so proud, and joined the team analyzing field notes and fossil specimens to discover the “bearing and distribution of faunas on the history of the elevation of the eastern half of the North American continent.
Ira’s health deteriorated with the deepening of the District’s winter.
On the 24th of February 1892, Ira’s boss, Chief Paleontologist Charles D. Walcott, alerted the Sayles family in Mecklenburg County, Virginia that Ira was “lying dangerously ill at Providence hospital, this city.” What, asked Professor Walcott, did his wife and son want to do with his body in the event of his death?
Ira didn’t give them a chance to make that decision. He left the hospital with or without medical advice, resigned from the US Geological Survey, and set out for home.
One could be forgiven for anticipating that Ira took his frail body to Southside Virginia, to sit on the porch of his family’s farmhouse, to listen to wind-brushed pine needles and drink deeply of the curative Buffalo Lithia Spring Water bottled locally.
But Ira had rarely visited Chase City since the estrangement from Serena in 1872. For a decade afterward Professor Sayles had bounced from one New York academy to another, until he had received an appointment to the Geological Survey in 1883 by former student-cum-Secretary of the Interior, Henry M. Teller. As a geologist/paleontologist Ira had split his homecomings between apartments in Ithaca, New York, and Washington, D.C., with an occasional visit to the farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia.
So, from that Providence Hospital bed, Ira rose to board trains and coaches not through Virginia’s Piedmont, but through the Appalachian Mountains. During the first two weeks of March 1892 Ira traveled to south central Kansas with the intention of making his home with his younger brother Loren, a prominent citizen and water works engineer in Greensburg. The visit lasted long enough for Ira to celebrate his 75th birthday in April and to witness Loren’s purchase of the Rubart house on East Florida Street in May. But the sibling time proved temporary. In mid-July, wheat fields waved farewell as Ira headed back east.
Unemployed and unemployable, the elderly Sayles had one option for continued independence in Washington–apply for a pension under the Congressional Act of June 27, 1890. This legislation made funds available to soldiers and sailors who had served at least 90 days during the War of the Rebellion, had been honorably discharged, and who found themselves permanently unable to do manual labor because of disability not caused by vicious habits like alcoholism or STDs. Ira’s service with Company H, 130th Regiment of the New York Volunteers and his permanent debilitation from the strokes made for a good claim.
On August 2, 1892 Ira Sayles filed the first piece of paperwork through Washington, D.C. attorney James Tanner. Nine days later the former paleontologist walked from his apartment up 9th Street, past the National Museum, across The Mall to the Pennsylvania Railroad Depot on the corner of B and 6th Streets, where he succumbed to the heat and humidity. Whatever his destination, the trip was postponed while he recovered in the Washington, D.C. Emergency Hospital and then recuperated with his friend and colleague, Dr. Revere Randolf Gurley in Carlins Springs, Virginia, just across the Potomac River.
In early October Ira picked up where he left off, and submitted to a physical examination by the pension board’s physicians, Drs. J.W. Little and C.A. Davis. They described him as a 5 ft 8 in, 175 pound, somewhat emaciated, pale man with flabby muscles. They noted that the history of apoplexy caused a loss of power in his right hand, which left Ira tremulous and unable to button all his clothing.
The doctors also noted a right inguinal hernia, which was “readily returnable and easily restrained by truss”, a diagnosis they believed entitled Ira to a 10/18 rating for disability. A secondary diagnosis of a irritable, weak heart was also reason to rate Ira for disability.
“He is evidently debilitated. To some extent.”
With that step completed, Ira retired to the rolling landscape along Butchers Creek, in the care of his son, Clifton.
The first quarter of 1892 was unusually cold, setting farm work and schedules 10 days to a month behind. That delay may have provided time for Clifton to pursue the arduous application process. In March Clifton reached out to James Tanner, the attorney Ira had hired to prosecute his claim. Having established that his father was completely unable to care for himself or to travel to Washington to gather the necessary testimony, Clifton received the necessary documents to pursue the claim from Chase City.
In the following weeks, Ira filed a General Affidavit testifying to his hernia. A local doctor, H. L. Burwell, completed a medical affidavit that Ira was “totally unable to perform manual labor, and that he was suffering general disability resulting of old age, and an inguinal hernia on his right side.” And a J. M. Sloan, who had been acquainted with Ira for 15 years, gave a Neighbor’s Affidavit to affirm that Ira was who he said he was, that his habits were good, that he was “almost totally helpless, so much so, that doesn’t go about at all.”
“It is impossible to get further testimony here as he has not been here but a few months.”
“This is his home and he visits us occasionally.”
Military records, physician exams, general statements, letters, and neighbor’s affidavit slowly piled up in Ira’s file. As the claim was reviewed by Pension Board of Review requests for clarification and additional evidence were made; the family complied. The cold spring was followed by summer days when temperatures soared above 100 degrees. Summer crops were appearing on dinner tables when finally Ira’s invalid pension was approved on August 4, 1893, retroactive to the date of first application August 3, 1892.
Eight dollars a month was not nearly what he had earned as an employee with the Geological Survey, but it was a useful stipend for the care he received in his son’s home until his death just 10 months later.
The story of the pension does not end in June 1894.
For though Serena and Ira’s marriage appeared strained, and strange, they were husband and wife. During the summer of 1894, James Tanner and J. M. Sloan would once again find themselves party to a Sayles declaration for a pension.
Who was J. M. Sloan and what was his relationship to Serena that he went to bat for the Serena’s Widow Pension? Next time on Shoots, Roots, and Leaves.
Pension files of Ira and Serena Sayles, #1124613 and #597.981, National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.
Newspapers of the era discovered on Newspapers.com and Library of Congress’ Chronicling America (ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov.)
United States Geological Survey Annual Reports to the Secretary of the Interior, 1890-1892, available in Google Books, and on U.S. Geological Survey Publications Warehouse (https://pubs.er.usgs.gov)