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Yellowed telegram form with smudged ink handwriting
Stained and ink-smudged page of a telegram from Major General Edward F. Witsel to Mary Rebecca Emerson, informing her that her husband is no longer a prisoner of war and will be returning to the United States, September 17, 1945. Box 2, K. C. Emerson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. 

Of Note: Pondering the Stains on a Telegram

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One of the things that I love about being a processing archivist in the Manuscript Division is the immediate connection to the past that comes from touching something that was first held by its creator long ago. Decades or centuries later, I sometimes look at an item and try to imagine the setting where it was written or received.

There can be physical clues on a document that help me picture the scene. Writing paper, whether a folded sheet fastened with sealing wax, monogrammed stationery, or notebook paper, provides clues about the writer’s life, as do lingering scents. A splash of coffee or a cigarette burn on a page adds to the story a document tells and leads me to imagine a person smoking or drinking coffee while hard at work.

Recently, while organizing the papers of U.S. Army officer and entomologist K. C. Emerson (1918-1993), I came across a document that fueled my imagination. It was a telegram, sent by Major General Edward F. Witsel to Emerson’s wife, Mary Rebecca, on September 17, 1945, informing her that her husband “was returned to Military Control 8 Sept 45 and is being returned to the United States.” Having survived the Bataan Death March in 1942, Emerson spent the remainder of World War II in a series of Japanese prisoner of war camps in the Philippines and Japan.

Undoubtedly Mary Rebecca received this telegram announcing her husband’s release after more than three years in captivity with joy and treasured it for years. I was intrigued, however, by the apparent water stains smudging the ink. No other document had them. I began picturing various scenarios that might have caused such markings. Was it raining when the telegram was delivered? Did Mary Rebecca have wet hands from washing dishes when the doorbell rang? Did the ink smear when she tried to wipe away her tears of joy that fell on the paper? Of course, I will never know what really happened, but it was fun to wonder.

Over the thirty years I have worked on collections of personal papers, physical documents such as letters and telegrams have been increasingly replaced by forms of digital communication. While there are certainly benefits to these newer formats, I feel sad for what we have lost. The intimacy of a lipstick kiss or ink stained by tears on a letter cannot be replicated in an email or text. Neither can the feeling of connection to the past that comes from touching something that was actually there.

Yellowed Western Union telegram form with unsmudged ink handwriting
Second page of Witsel to Emerson, September 17, 1945. Box 2, K. C. Emerson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.


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Comments (3)

  1. I love this. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to receive a letter like this. What an interesting perspective.

  2. Great stuff! Keep them coming.

  3. The grid lines in the staining are intriguing. Perhaps the telegram was stored on a screen that later got wet, or maybe a wicker basket. I see a few areas that remind me of a tic-tac-toe grid, as well as some longer hash marks that seem to be aligned from top left to bottom right. Perhaps something wet was dragged a short distance across the telegram in that direction, or the telegram itself was dragged across something wet.

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