Death concerns us notably in this issue—the death of a great President (page 8) and the ways in which death strikes all men (see our article on tombstones, page 20). A “lovely and soothing death”—to use Walt Whitman ‘s words—is not accorded to many. Only a felicitous few pass away in quiet repose. One such was William Ellery of Rhode Island, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who died on February 15, 1820, aged ninety-two. A friend described his death in a letter to the National Gazette and Literary Register , in the old-fashioned and moving passage below. We learned of it while browsing through Volume XII of that fascinating if obscure work, Sibley’s Harvard Graduates , written by Clifford K. Shipton for the Massachusetts Historical Society. Ellery was one of thirty members of the Class of 1747.
“Old Mr. Ellery died like a philosopher. In truth death, in its common form, never came near him. His strength wasted gradually for the last year, until he had not enough left to draw in his breath, and so he ceased to breathe. The day on which he died, he got up as usual and dressed himself, took his old flag bottomed chair, without arms, in which he had sat for more than half a century, and was reading Tully’s Offices in the Latin without glasses, though the print was as fine as that of the smallest pocket Bible. Dr. W. stopped in on the way to the Hospital, as he usually did; and on perceiving the old gentleman could scarcely raise his eyelids to look at him, took his hand, and found that his pulse was gone. After drinking a little wine and water, Dr. W. told him his pulse beat stronger. ‘O, yes, Doctor, I have a charming pulse. But,’ he continued, ‘it is idle to talk to me in this way. I am going off the stage of life, and it is a great blessing that I go free from sickness, pain and sorrow.’ Some time after, his daughter, finding him become extremely weak, wished him to be put to bed, which he at first objected to, saying he felt no pain, and there was no occasion for his going to bed. Presently after, however, fearing he might possibly fall out of his chair, he told them they might get him upright in bed, so that he could continue to read. They did so, and he continued reading Cicero very quietly for some time; presently they looked at him and found him dead, sitting in the same posture, with his book under his chin, as a man who becomes drowsy and goes to sleep.”