By Coulter Fussell
John Henry Wagner, son of Daniel Wagner, married a smart, pretty, and funny girl named Katie Becton. I quickly developed a real fondness for her and looked forward to every mention of Katie as I read through the letters. Then I read this unmailed letter (a scribbled draft) written by John Henry. The events in this letter happened two weeks after Katie, only 19 years old, birthed her only child, Dudley Wagner.
June 10, 1891
Dear Aunt Sis:
Your sweet letter of sympathy was read with much love and comfort a few days ago. It is useless for me to tell you why I not answered it sooner – you already know.
It seems that I can not take from my mind that beautiful picture of our little home of her loving caress, of her kiss of welcome, of sweet words of cheer – of her – her! It seems that I can’t think of anything else — save her.
When I came home from Bank Thursday evening I found her laying in bed with baby, laying so sweet & cheerful that I sat there on the bed with her until about six o’clock. We laughed & joked and she seemed unusually cheerful & bright. Said that tomorrow when I came, I should find her sitting up in the big chair, waiting for me. I then thought I would walk over to Aunt Ella’s & see how she was. Katie agreed with me and insisted that I should go.
When I came back she was almost dead. Had a fainting & sinking spell & the moment I entered the room – she held out her arms to put them around me. I laid down on the bed with her & we finally restored her — She slept very well all night and next morning when I was sitting in the room about six I asked her how she felt & she said all right — only her head hurt her very much. I told her to try & go to sleep & it would wear off. She turned over & was soon sound asleep. About seven I heard her making an awful noise & rushed to her to find her in one of the most awful convulsions – I thought she was dying then – nobody in the room, save me. We soon restored her & the doctors came & did all they could. She had several more and on Saturday evening she passed on to that great & beautiful home where parting is no more.
O, it almost kills me when I think of that last day. A few moments before she had the last convulsion she saw me & held out her hand for me to take. I took it & she smiled so sweetly & like she was so contrite. I did it only a few moments until she had that last awful convulsion & she was never conscious again.
I felt when she was taken away that I would like to take my very own life. But the knowledge that I could not see her more dispelled that idea.
It seemed to me that last night when she in her coffin, looking so beautiful now in death, with such a sweet looking smile on her face – it seemed when I put my face down to hers that I could hear her distinctly say to me, “Darling, had I known, I would not have died but I did not know and now that I have gone my happiness in heaven will be in waiting & preparing for you…I will be first to welcome you inside the beautiful gates the first to lead you to Jesus’ throne. Yes, I will wait just inside by that beautiful white rosebush — just inside the gates.”
I could hear her say that, Aunt Sis, as plainly as anything.
Often at night I can feel her hand on my face and often hear her calling me to come & bring baby to her, and I pray & pray every night of my life that it won’t be long – not long until I am there inside with her.
With much love,
Your affectionate & heartbroken John
(Editor’s note: Katie Becton was the daughter of John E. Becton, master mechanic of the Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans Railroad. He died here in 1878 as a result of caring for others during the yellow fever epidemic. Her child, Dudley, was a columnist for the Herald in the 1930s and 1940s after returning from New York to care for his ailing aunt, Jessie Wagner.)