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An engraved portrait of Hannah Carson. She is seated, hands in lap around a small framed portrait (perhaps of her late husband or father). She is weaing a dark dress, buttoned to the collar, with her hair wrapped in a white scarf.
Hannah Carson, as pictured in the frontispiece of "Glorying in Tribulation." Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Hannah Carson: “Like a Fire in All My Bones”

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This is a guest post by Sara Augustin, a 2023 Junior Fellow in the Office of Communications.

Nestled in the archives of the Daniel A.P. Murray Collection is a short account of the remarkable life of Hannah Carson. It’s a small, 50-odd page book called “Glorying in Tribulation: A Brief Memoir of Hannah Carson, For Thirteen Years Deprived of the Use of All Her Limbs.” It was published by the Protestant Episcopal Book Society in Philadelphia shortly after Carson’s death in 1864.

It’s actually a short biography written by her friends rather than a memoir penned by herself, but no matter. Though almost completely disabled by severe rheumatism for the final years of her life, Carson’s Christian faith, “like a fire in all my bones,” was deeply moving to those around her. They regarded her as something near a saint.

At the ecumenical service after she died in her own bed on March 8, 1864, at the age of  55, “Her little room was crowded by her friends, both white and colored, who assembled to pay the last tribute of respect” to her, the book notes. She was buried in Lebanon Cemetery. (More on that in a minute.)

The book was not a bestseller but came to the attention of Murray, who in 1871 became only the second Black person to work at the Library of Congress. He would stay for half a century, becoming an assistant librarian and prominent in Washington society and politics.

During his tenure, he compiled a Preliminary List of Books and Pamphlets by Negro Authors, which surveyed the field up to 1900. Carson’s memoir is featured on Murray’s list, and a copy is now in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Carson’s story was as straightforward as it was heartbreaking.

She was born Hannah Tranks in southern Pennsylvania in 1808 to free parents. She was raised in the Methodist Church. At 18, her mother died and she was left with the care of her six younger siblings, according to the book. She eventually moved to the Philadelphia area and married Robert Carson. They had three children, but only one, a son, survived infancy.

Robert Carson died in 1841, leaving her a widow and single mother at age 33. She cheerfully took to hired housework to pay the bills. After half a dozen years of this labor, she noticed a soreness one day in her right thumb that stretched up her arm and into her shoulder. She continued to work, but the pain eventually spread down her left arm and then into her legs. It was diagnosed as acute inflammatory rheumatism, an autoimmune disease.

Over four years, the disease progressed until she was completely bedridden, unable to feed herself or brush a fly from her face. She was almost completely paralyzed and would remain so for the remaining 13 years of her life.

For Carson, like other disabled Americans at the time, there was neither a federal safety net nor any other government-backed accommodation that could provide for her. As a Black woman on her own, her situation was even more difficult. She was completely dependent on the charity of family and friends. With that aid, she hired “a little girl who waited on her.” Her apartment was “scrupulously neat and clean,” but she was constantly in need of basic supplies.

If someone came to visit, it took work to get her into a sitting position: “…she would request her attendant, a little colored girl, to raise her by means of a girth fastened round her waist, and by which she was elevated to a sitting posture; her limbs were then slowly drawn around, until they reached the floor; her back was propped with pillows, and her arms stretched out, resting on her lap, the palms inwardly.”

Carson’s religious beliefs, meanwhile, gave her a new career: Evangelizing for her faith.

Long a faithful member of “the colored Bethel church in Sixth Street, below Pine,” she was well known to the Christian community. At her home, Carson emulated the environment of the Negro church and benefited from creating her own sanctuary: “always welcomed, who beheld, with astonishment, an unlearned mulatto woman discoursing on Divine things with a spirituality and unction that the pulpit well might emulate.”

In the still of the nights, she prayed until she could see visions of heaven. During the days, she often read a Bible placed in her lap, a helper turning the pages. Once she proclaimed that she had seen a vision of Christ himself. She prayed constantly for her “absent, wandering son,” who seldom visited.

And yet her faith was a beacon. As she told one group of friends who visited: “While you have been with me, the love of Christ has kindled like a fire in all my bones, and has driven out the pain and anguish, till I am full of joy.”

The disease finally took its final toll: “she passed away without a struggle, quietly as a child falling asleep on its mother’s bosom.”

The book’s reverence for Carson’s life is touchingly sincere — her many admirers were both white and black, her funeral ceremony included speakers from several Christian denominations who attested to the testimony her life had been — but respect and admiration could only go so far in 19th-century Philadelphia.

After the ceremony, Hannah Carson was buried in a segregated cemetery, as whites did not allow the Black dead in their own burial grounds.

Carson’s life not only proved to be a deep testament to her Christian faith but also offers a unique window into the life of Black disability in the late 19th century.

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Comments (3)

  1. What a beautiful telling of a story I’m unfamiliar with! I’m intrigued to learn more and engage the conversation surrounding Black people and disabilities prior to this current age.

  2. Thank you for this and so much more. The Library of Congress and all its information and archives is a national and international treasure.

  3. Thank you for providing an example of the power of the Daniel Murray Collection to highlight and preserve the memory of 18th and 19th century African Americans.

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