role of women in Reformed Presbyterianism (Covenanterism) in Canada was
not a strong one. Moreover, there is a dearth of materials relating to the
life, witness and devotion of Canadian Covenanter women.
Letitia Simson (c. 1825-1885 of Saint John, N.B.) is
an exception, chiefly due to two reasons. First, even as a young woman, Letitia
liked to write poetry. This activity was condoned, even encouraged, in her
tradition. So throughout a significant portion of her life, Letitia wrote
and published poems in local newspapers and religious journals. Some of
this writing is directly related to religious themes, some to specifically
Covenanter causes and concerns. Secondly, Letitia's initial marriage was
to Seymour Pickett of the parish of Kingston, N.B. in 1843, details of which
I come to shortly.
A selection of her poetry was published in 1869, entitled
Flowers of the Year and Other Poems
(Saint John, N.B.: J.&
In this talk, I give a brief background of Reformed
Presbyterianism (part i), outline the life of Letitia Simson (parts II and
III), discuss her poetry and add a few reflections (part IV).
Reformed Presbyterianism is a brand of presbyterianism
noted for its church-state stance. Reformed Presbyterians believed that
Christ is to be head of the state as well as the church. When that hope
or expectation was thwarted by the Revolution Settlement of 1690 in Scotland
and England, Covenanters refused to vote or serve on juries (the strictures
against voting have been dropped in the contemporary denomination found
in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the USA, and in Ontario, Canada). Reformed
Presbyterianism is also noted for its manner of worship - Covenanters believed
that there should be no organs or other musical instruments, and that only
the psalms were to be sung - a practice that continues until this day in
Reformed Presbyterianism came to the Maritimes from
Ireland. It came with missionaries Rev. Alexander and Catherine Clarke,
who landed in Saint John in 1827, a year later moving to Amherst, and living
their lives there, devoted to the spread of the Covenanter cause. Reformed
Presbyterianism came with missionary Rev. William Sommerville, who came
to Saint John in 1831, married Sarah Barry Dickie of the Amherst area in
1832, and they then went to live and minister in Horton and Cornwallis in
the Annapolis Valley. The Covenanter cause had come to Saint John even earlier,
in the 1820s, though there was not a resident minister until the Rev. Alexander
McLeod Stavely came to that city in 1841. In 1852 he married Margaret Cameron,
and the Stavelys were to have a marked impact on that city. They went to
Ireland a year or so after the great fire of 1877.
Simson was personally acquainted with all of these missionaries
and their families, and indeed with many in the Covenanter community. The
Reformed Presbyterians did not join with other Presbyterians in the unions
of 1861 or 1875; and it became virtually extinct in maritime Canada in the
Women did not have a major role to play in the Canadian
movement. In her biographical essay about the first missionary, the Rev.
Alexander Clarke, his daughter Lavinia Clarke writes that
Rev. Dr. Alexander Clarke was ably assisted and strengthened
in his work by a few godly women in the different congregations.... Their
cheering words and their efforts and zeal in the cause being even more untiring
than that of the men.
Lavinia Clarke indeed names the women, but very few
specifics are given as to what those efforts were, in what that zeal consisted.
Letitia Simson is something of an exception. What is her story?
We know little about Letitia's early life - her childhood
and education. She was born in Ireland about 1825, and came with her parents,
James and Eliza Agnew, to Saint John in 1833. It seems clear that she had
brothers and sisters, but we do not know how many, nor exactly where
Letitia 'stood' in the family; though she was the eldest daughter, and clearly
one of the older children. Her father, James Agnew was a watchmaker and
jeweller, and established a good trade in that business in Saint John. The
Agnew family was probably Reformed Presbyterian, before they came to Saint
John. James Agnew became a ruling elder in the Saint John Reformed
Presbyterian congregation. We hear first of Letitia, when as an eighteen-year-old,
she married, in 1843. The wedding itself was announced in the New Brunswick
Courier of 8 April:
married Thurs. [April 6] by Rev.
W.T. Wishart, Seymour Pickett of Golden Vale, Kings Co. [N.B.]/Letitia F.,
eldest daughter of James Agnew, watchmaker of this city [Saint John].
Rev. Wishart was at that time a Church of Scotland minister
of Saint John. The Pickett family was staunchly Church of England.
The Seymour Pickett/Letitia Agnew marriage was to be
very eventful. To understand fully what was to happen, we have to enter somewhat
into the family history of the husband. And for that immediate family history,
I am largely dependent on Doris Calder's All Our Born Days: A Lively History
of New Brunswick's Kingston Peninsula.
Seymour was the second son of Gould Pickett. Gould Pickett,
of solid Loyalist stock, had built, as a young man, the fulling mill at
Pickett's Lake, and for the rest of his days maintained a thriving business
there. He also owned good farm land. He was able to keep his wife,
three sons and four daughters in comfortable circumstances, having built
a large square two-and-one-half-storey house near the mill by the end of
Gould Pickett was proud of his children. They
were smart and eager to learn. He had seen to it that they attended
school regularly and were brought up by the teachings of the church.
He had taught his sons the fulling business, and although his eldest son,
Stephen, moved to a farm several miles away from Pickett's Lake, his other
sons, Seymour and Munson, were anxious to carry on the father's business.
Gould had expanded the fulling mill to include carding machines, looms and
grindstones for gristing. The water to run the mills flowed from Pickett's
Lake into a long wooden sluiceway along the outlet stream to feed into the
big water wheel. Altogether the location was exceptionally fine, situated
beside the road in a beautiful valley just two miles from the center of
Kingston village. Small wonder that the entire Pickett home and establishment
became known as 'Golden Vale.'
At the time of his death at 75, in 1840, Gould
Pickett had reason to feel satisfied with his life. He had served well in
a number of positions of public trust. Especially gratifying - he was leaving
a well-established business for his two sons to carry on. This gratification
was enshrined in his last will and testament.
I, Gould Pickett, Esquire, of the Parish
of Kingston in Kings County in the Province of New Brunswick being
of sound body and mind thanks be to the great giver of all blessings
do hereby make and publish this my Last Will and Testament ... The farm on
which I now reside I give to my two sons Seymour and Munson together with
all the privileges, buildings, improvements, Mills, Machinery, farming utensils
and stock of all descriptions to be equally divided, or to be held as tenants
in common when Munson arrives at the age of twenty-one years on condition
that they provide for the [rest of the] family till they are able to provide
for themselves ... Should my decease happen before Munson comes of age,
Seymour is to have all he can realize after keeping Mills and Machinery
in good repair, also the buildings, and furnishing the family in a decent
and comfortable manner till Munson arrives at the age of twenty-one years
... I also recommend to my sons Seymour, and Munson to carry on business,
in partnership after my decease and be sure and take no advantage of each
other ... Signed Gould Pickett March 21, 1836.
Gould Pickett died a contented and gratified man. But
in his last will and testament were contained the seeds of contention.
According to the terms of the will, Gould Pickett's
widow and four daughters lived on at the homestead, as did Munson and Seymour.
Munson was only fifteen when his father died and Seymour was twenty-eight,
so he assumed sole management of the mills and farm. Seymour was his
own boss and that was the way he liked it. Munson worked there, but
still had another six years before he came of age and could claim his half
of the property.
The mills prospered under Seymour's management.
He had ideas and he devised and put into operation some original improvements
in the machinery used in the manipulation of cloth.
As already mentioned, Seymour married Letitia Agnew,
daughter of a prominent jeweller in Saint John; Letitia was well-educated,
refined, sensitive and liked to write poetry. In 1843, a bride of eighteen,
and city-bred, she went with her husband to the country to meet for the
first time and move into the same household with his mother, four unmarried
sisters and younger brother Munson. But the house was divided:
Munson, his mother and sisters on one side, and Seymour with his young wife
on the other. They lived in separate quarters on opposite sides of
the hall of the big two-and-one-half-storey house.
In the spring of 1844, Seymour and Letitia had a baby
son, whom they named James Agnew Seymour Pickett. Five months later
the baby became ill and died. In the summer of 1845, Letitia bore
another son, Henry Bernard.
On March 11th, 1846, Munson came of age. On that
day he approached Seymour with a neighbour as witness to claim his half
of the property or his property rights as stated in his father's will.
Seymour said he would divide and give up everything belonging to Munson
and seemed to admit that Munson had as much right there as himself.
There was, however, a discrepancy between what Seymour said he would do
and what he actually did. He refused to divide the property; to make
partition or to allow Munson free access to his part of the farm and the
mills. Munson tried to have the matter settled through arbitration,
and by having friends reason with Seymour. Seymour reacted by locking
doors against Munson, and by continuing sole possession of the property.
He further agitated Munson by selling farm items, livestock and mill machinery,
part of which rightfully belonged to Munson.
On the one hand, it appeared that Seymour, having enjoyed
sole authority of the household, farm and mills during the five years since
his father's death, considered that he deserved sole ownership. On
the other hand, Munson had lived in anticipation of the day when he would
no longer be dependent on his brother, and he was not about to relinquish
his inheritance. Munson became increasingly angry and frustrated and stayed
away from home, returning only when Seymour was absent.
For Christmas 1846, Seymour took his wife and nineteen-month
old child to Saint John to visit Letitia's relatives, the Agnew family,
and others. They returned by horse and sleigh late on Saturday afternoon,
December 26. Letitia, tucked under blankets with their baby on her
lap, enjoyed the ride home through the beautiful countryside, listening to
the sleigh bells jingle in the frosty air. Across the frozen Kennebecasis
River they rode, then to the heart of Kingston village, past the courthouse
and gaol, past the church and cemetery, and Sam Foster's store. They
waved and called seasonal greetings to a small group of neighbours standing
on the doorstep of Sam's store. On up the hill they went, the horse
pulling eagerly now that it was almost home.
The sun dipped below the western side of the creek,
and immediately the air seemed to chill. There was Sam Hoyt coming up from
his tanhouse. He made shoes as his father had done. When he
saw Seymour and Letitia he waved, "I've got your boots ready", he called,
"I'll bring them over tomorrow." Seymour nodded and waved.
They followed the road beside the lake, and in a few
minutes saw smoke curling from the chimney on his mother's side of the house.
They turned into their own yard and Seymour paused to let Letitia and the
baby off at the door, then went to put the horse in the barn and feed it
for the night. When he entered the back door of the house he heard
gaiety coming from his mother's side. Munson was at home having a Christmas
party with his mother and sisters. Seymour went into his own kitchen
to light a fire to warm the house.
He soon noticed that some articles were awry.
On closer inspection he discovered that some documents pertaining to the
estate were missing. He stood stark still, his expression darkening.
Then he turned abruptly and strode from the room. Letitia perceived
his fury and followed nervously. Seymour went to the end of the hall,
stopped opposite Munson's door and knocked loudly. "Open up!", he
demanded. Munson refused.
"Open up! You've got my papers, I know you've
got them!" Seymour's voice rose angrily as he kicked and pounded on the
door. "You'll not come in here!", shouted Munson in reply. "You open
this door or I'll get an axe and break it in", yelled Seymour in a rage.
"Do that, and I'll shoot", warned Munson, just as raging.
Heedless of the warning, Seymour ordered his wife to
bring him an axe. She did. He grabbed it, and with one terrific
swing burst open a panel of the door. But, before he could strike another
blow, there appeared through the opening the black muzzle of a gun.
A sudden flash, a loud crack, and Seymour fell to the floor. His hand
clasped to his chest, he lay at Letitia's feet, blood trickling and collecting
on the floor. Letitia's screams brought Munson to his senses.
Horror-stricken, the family carried Seymour to a cot and tried to dress
his wounds. Letitia knelt beside him, begging God for his life, her
tears mingling with the blood stains on his clothes.
Stunned at first by what had happened, Munson was soon
beside himself with grief. In the midst of the horror, Seymour called
out for Munson to be brought to his side, where he forgave him freely for
what he had done. Four hours after he was shot, Seymour Pickett died.
Scarcely was he gone when a knock came on the door and
a constable entered. He arrested the pale and shaken Munson and took
him to the gaol in Kingston Square. The entire countryside was thrown
into shock and disbelief. Seymour Pickett, known far and wide, shot
dead at thirty-four by his brother Munson! Gould Pickett's sons!
Such a thing just could not be.
The community pulled itself together long enough to
pay their last respects and to attend the funeral for Seymour at Trinity
Church. Just a few steps away, confined in the gaol on the other
side of the road, Munson neither slept nor ate, but brooded over the consequences
of his rash act.
Poor Letitia watched her husband's body being placed
in the frozen ground to rest beside the body of their first-born son. Back
at the Pickett house, some neighbours, full of pity for the family, had gone
in to scrub away the awful bloodstains, using tubs of hot water. Amidst
the hustle and bustle, Letitia's second-born, Henry Bernard, ventured too
close to the steaming vats, and fell into the scalding water before anyone
could grab him.
On hearing the terrible news, Letitia went into shock.
The following day, little Henry died. Letitia began the New Year by
burying her second son.
Although she was loved by the community, Letitia felt
alone. Her husband and children were dead and the circumstances surrounding
two of the deaths were too horrible to contemplate. Before long, and
pregnant with another child, she moved back to Saint John to be near her
I'll relate that next chapter of Letitia's life; but
before doing so, I return for a few moments to Munson Pickett and Kingston
Munson remained in Kingston gaol, charged with the murder
of his brother Seymour. At his trial he was defended by Lemuel Allen
Wilmot, who later became Attorney General of the province, but Wilmot lost
the case. Munson was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
The people of Kingston felt that they couldn't allow another tragedy to
occur in the Pickett family, even in the name of justice. They agreed
that Munson had done wrong to kill his brother, but they realized that Seymour
was not without blame. They knew that Munson had tried repeatedly to gain
his rights through peaceful means, although constantly rebuffed by Seymour.
In view of this, they circulated a petition for mercy which was numerously
signed. One of those signatures was that of Letitia Pickett. The petition
was sent to the Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, forwarded to the Secretary
of State in England, and Munson's sentence was changed to life imprisonment.
While in prison Munson's health suffered, and after
four years he was pardoned. Upon his release he returned to Pickett's
Lake and began to manage the mills, although the property rights remained
with the province. Three of his four sisters married and moved away.
His mother moved away also, and the fourth sister, who was unmarried, went
to live in Fredericton. Munson ran the mills successfully, and employed
several people. In 1858 he married Mary Lee, and they lived at Pickett's
Lake in the big old house where Munson had killed his brother twelve years
earlier. During those years Munson refused to fix the shattered door
still hanging on its hinges in the hallway. His wife and children
found it a strain to live on the scene amidst constant reminders of the
tragedy. Munson suffered too from the experience of his past, and
was quite unhappy and depressed. Sometime after 1862, having operated
the mills for about ten years, Munson moved with his family to the United
States to make a fresh start.
However, the tragedy had deeply affected others, particularly
his unmarried sister who lived in Fredericton. As time went on she
became obsessed with the thought of the Pickett property, which had been
confiscated by the Crown. She demanded that it be returned, and devoted
her full time to achieving that end. She was constantly in and about
the House of Assembly in Fredericton, where she seized every opportunity
to buttonhole the members and relate her tale of injustice and plea for redress.
She was a familiar figure on Queen Street, pacing up and down the street
every day with slow, steady, majestic step seldom speaking with anyone, never
women. The members of the legislature tried to avoid her, and as long
as she didn't disturb the actual sitting of the House, they tolerated her.
But finally they considered her too troublesome, and she was sent to the
provincial asylum in Saint John. The farm she loved so much was sold
to strangers. At this point, I leave that chapter, and my complete dependence
upon Doris Calder.
As already noted, some time in 1847, Letitia took up
residence in Saint John, probably with her parents. Later, she gave birth
to another baby son, and called him Seymour Pickett.
In December of 1850, Letitia's father was the subject
of a newspaper report.