The Land of the Forgotten haunts my dreams. As an historian, it is my job to uncover the past and preserve it for the future. My passion for delving into newspaper archives and burial records has allowed me to get a bird’s eye glimpse into past lives by researching births, marriages and deaths. A sense of satisfaction comes when I am able to pull together a picture of a full life which was well-lived. However, it is the stories of heartbreak that stay with me and for which I have an overwhelming desire to share; stories that preserve the histories of those long dead whose potential went unfulfilled and who lie unremembered under the cold earth.
Merritt Wells has one of those unforgettable stories, and so I will share it with you and illuminate the difficult life of a young man who died, much too soon, among strangers.
My introduction to Merritt Wells was accidental. During my research into Pittsford resident George Lash, I came across a brief paragraph in a 1902 newspaper which mentioned the funeral of young Merritt Wells, who had recently died “at the home of George Lash, among perfect strangers”. An aunt of Merritt’s had come to Pittsford from Gloversville, New York, and was the only relative present at the funeral. As she was unable to take the body to his home, Merritt was buried at Pittsford Cemetery.
My heart broke for Merritt, and I had to learn more about him. Fortunately, I found several additional newspaper articles in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Fairport’s Monroe County Mail and in the Gloversville Daily Leader which gave me some insight into Merritt’s untimely demise.
On February 5, 1902, one day after Merritt’s death, the Gloversville Daily Leader reported that Police Chief Sperber had received a dispatch from Pittsford with the brief message, “Merritt Wells dead here. Relatives in Gloversville. Notify and Answer”. The following day, the Daily Leader announced that an aunt, Mrs. William Herring, and an uncle, H. A. Satterlee, both of Gloversville, had been found. A grandmother was also located living in Kingston, New York, and it was learned that the family had roots in Ulster County, New York.
Subsequent newspaper articles told Merritt’s story in bits and pieces. He was an orphan who had lived with his grandmother until she became unable to care for him. Merritt had then gone to Buffalo with a friend and worked on a lake steamer, from which he was able to save $125 of his earnings. The “friend” stole his money, and Merritt decided he had to return home to Gloversville. He spent some time at the rescue mission in Rochester before arriving at George Lash’s home in Pittsford, where he asked for shelter. During the week that Merritt stayed with the Lash family, George found him to be a respectable young man whose speech and manner indicated he was a man of intelligence and good breeding. Merritt was grateful to have a place to live, and willingly helped with the farm work.
By the evening of Tuesday, February 4, 1902, it became clear that Merritt was quite unwell. George proposed a visit to the hospital in Rochester for the following day, and Merritt agreed to go. That evening, Merritt was so weak he asked George to carry the lamp to his room so he could retire for the evening. After returning downstairs, George heard a loud crash and rushed to Merritt’s room to find him lying, dying, on the floor. Merritt’s struggle for life ended just moments later. Seventeen-year old Merritt Wells was buried at Pittsford Cemetery on February 9, 1902. Monroe County Coroner Killip granted a certificate of death for acute consumption.
After locating census records, I learned that Merritt had been born in June, 1884. The 1900 federal census of Shandaken, in Ulster County, New York, shows fifteen-year old Merritt working as a farm laborer for Charles Lamson. Merritt’s aunt Elmina Satterlee Herring, who had attended his funeral in Pittsford, was a daughter of William Satterlee and his wife, Anna Maria Myers Satterlee. It’s logical to assume that Merritt’s mother was another daughter of William and Anna Maria’s. A quick check of the records shows they had two other daughters who are unaccounted for – Charlotte, born c 1849 and Ina, born c 1865. I could find no record of Merritt’s father.
On December 28, 1901, Merritt was picked up by the police in Monroe County, New York, and charged with being a tramp. He was sentenced to 30 days in the Monroe County Penitentiary. It would have been soon after he was released that Merritt found his way to George Lash’s farm in Pittsford.
So many questions about Merritt remain unanswered. Who were his parents? Did he have siblings? Why didn’t one of his aunts or uncles take him in after the death of his parents? How long was he on his own? Is he still buried at Pittsford Cemetery? He is not listed in the cemetery burial records. Did a family member bring him home? Was he loved?
I haven’t been able to answer these questions, but maybe you can help. If you have any information about Merritt Wells, please contact me. I’d love to learn more about this poor boy who died among strangers.