No one who is alive today knew Ruth Peck Fisk (1795-1885), the wife of Wesleyan’s founding president, Willbur Fisk (1792-1839). Her portrait resides in the Middlesex County Historical Society. Her grave is in Wesleyan’s campus cemetery on Foss Hill. A modest collection of her letters, calling cards, notebooks, poetry, and other materials occupies two of the twelve boxes of her husband’s papers in Special Collections & Archives. Sheldyn Oliver, Class of 2017, used those papers to write a prize-winning thesis about her.
Nestled among Ruth Fisk’s papers is this brightly colored, finely woven snippet cut from the shawl she wore on her wedding trip following her marriage to Willbur Fisk on June 9, 1823. The little piece of shawl is accompanied by an unsigned note in a careful 19th-century hand: “This relic is a bit of the shawl worn by the bride on her wedding trip. It was presented by her to Mrs. E.C. Harrington.”
Whoever Mrs. Harrington was (and there are some intriguing possibilities), she saved this lovely scrap so that Ruth Peck Fisk would not be forgotten. Mrs. Harrington – or the anonymous writer of the note – referred to it as a “relic,” an object worthy of veneration. Methodist relics are few and far between; revered saints are mainly a Catholic tenet. The idea of the bit of Ruth Peck Fisk’s wedding shawl being so carefully preserved and – in a sense – worshiped, becomes all the more poignant when we realize that the bride spent more than half her life as a widow. President Fisk died after only eight years at Wesleyan’s helm, and – perhaps not surprising for someone who likely thought he had many years ahead – he did not leave much of a financial legacy for his wife. Ruth struggled throughout her widowhood, relying on intermittent support from the Wesleyan community and others in Middletown. She died in poverty, having lived to see enormous changes in the institution founded by her husband, along with other Methodist leaders and Middletown citizens. The wedding shawl relic reminds us of the many layers of history, of figures well-remembered and those nearly forgotten, who played their parts in Wesleyan’s life story.
This blog post is eleventh and last in a series on ephemera in Wesleyan’s Special Collections & Archives, presented in conjunction with the Center for the Humanities’ Spring 2021 theme of Ephemera. On May 10th at 6 p.m., Lisa Cohen (Wesleyan) will lecture on “Clothes/Grieve.” Here is the full series calendar.
– Suzy Taraba, Director of Special Collections & Archives