Voices from History: A Tale of Two Domestics - Published 3/5/2019

by Pat Schley, DDMF Researcher

In the mid-19th century, finding an honest, reliable, and trustworthy hired man or girl (the term “servant” was considered a pejorative and was rarely used) took up a lot of a housewife’s time and was the cause of much anxiety. Once hired, those hired men and women who proved to have these qualities were treasured and their employers jealously guarded against them being “lent out”, lest they be hired away!

A housewife’s options were very limited when she found herself saddled with a less than hardworking, an unreliable, or a disrespectful “girl”:  1. Dismiss the person and risk not being able to quickly find a suitable replacement, or 2. Just put up with them.

In May of 1852, Sarah Davis, who was about 5 months pregnant with her 5th child, found herself with just such a dilemma. The girl, Matilda Riggs[1], who was from a local family, had been working and living in with the Davises for over a year.  It seems Matilda was no longer happy and was using various excuses for being unable to work or leaving and not coming back when expected: 

Mrs Wood came up for milk to day – asked Matilda to go down and help her sew – as she was to have a few neighbours  in – Matilda had a pain in her side or rather her stomach yesterday – which continues to day – [but] does not disable her at all – Of course she wished to go to her Sister’s - & has gone.” --Bloomington, IL  May 5, 1852 (ALPL) SWD-DD*

“Matilda went home in the mud yesterday – to her sister’s – came home in the finest spirits imaginable”…– Bloomington IL  May 10, 1852  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

“…while washing a window Matilda’s hand broke through – and cut the thick part near the wrist very badly-  It will disable her for a week if not more-  Louisa[2], greatly frightened, ran up to my room to tell me M- had cut her wrist half off-  I sent her to Mrs Birdsall[3] for help and did not go down till the wound was dressed-  M- was in pain last night but is quite comfortable to day-…  Bloomington IL, May 26 1852   (ALPL) SWD to DD  

By late August, with the birth of her baby just 2 weeks away, Sarah was at her wits’ end:

“Matilda went home last Sunday-  To day Randolph[4] arrived with a married sister from Indiana[5]-  [and] M[atilda] has gone down to her Sister’s- I asked her when she would be at home-  She replied she did not know whether she would be back to night or not-  I am heartily sick of her and am making enquiries for a girl-  Yesterday I told her I had work for her, and she went off with Delia[6] and staid in the Avenue more than two hours.  I cant and wont hear it-  I feel like turning her off to day – if I had some one to rely on-  This is not a new thing with me as you are aware – but my control is at an end – and [it] is time to seek for a new help-  Tis annoying to me at this time when I feel less able to endure than usual-  I had made up my mind to put up with every thing bearable till after my confinement[7] but my patience is all gone-  I feel distressed every way-  Mrs Birdsall is not able to do a thing in a sick room without giving out-  I am half tempted to send to Peoria to see what can be done = if you come home in time we may yet get Some one-  I dont believe that a trust in Providence warrants inaction in ourselves – Do you?                     You will think I am in bad spirits – and you think rightly…” Bloomington IL  August 27  1852 (ALPL)  SWD-DD

Just 3 days later, Sarah had taken matters into her own hands and, as a result, is feeling much better about the situation:

I thought a few cheerful lines might make you feel better-  You will be somewhat surprised to learn that I have really discharged Miss Riggs-  She went away Friday Afternoon to see her sister and did not come back till she had been out to Charlotte’s[8] – and got supper for Mrs- Jackson-  When she came home we had finished up the evening’s work – sponged bread[9] &c-  she did not tell me where she had been -  no apology to me for staying-  Sunday Morning dressed and went to camp=meeting without even saying she was going and did not get home till we had done most of the morning’s work to day – Churning &c-  Probably sparked[10] last night as she went with Mr- Van Gorder[11] yesterday-  Came into the kitchen where I was busy – said good morning – made no excuse for coming so late-  I said I had long thought a change would benefit us both – had hoped to defer it till after my confinement – but thought a delay would be useless-  She could pick up her clothes – and George Walker[12] would take her trunk where she wished-

She was taken aback –… After picking up her clothes - … I owed her for one week only having paid in full last week – wished her well and away she went mortified George thinks, but trying not to show it-  [She] Told George on the way, Mrs. Davis was spunky about her staying yesterday or something to that effect-  This was all her own surmise for nothing was said to her-  Tomorrow Ann and another woman are to clean for me some floors-  I hope to supply Matilda’s place soon-  An Irish girl applied on Saturday – or rather a girl with a husband-  She said her work had been Chamber work usually and nursing a baby but she could wash – and make bread – asked $2.00 a week and said she usually got through her work by noon-  She would not suit tho [sic] she may do a few days-  … My mind feels easy and I have acted as I thought for the best for myself and my family-  I trust this event will prove so-  I feel much brighter to day than yesterday –  Bloomington, August 30, 1852  (ALPL) Sarah Davis to David Davis

Sometimes, though, a hired man or woman turned out to be, as Sarah wrote, a “treasure”.  In March or April of 1857, a man of all work named Cornelius Driscoll, who went by the nickname Con or Conn, joined the Davis household. His wife, Johanna, had died about 18 months earlier, in 1855.  Indications are that Conn boarded or “lived” in with the Davises in the old I-house which preceded the mansion.

It wasn’t long before it was apparent that Conn was no Matilda, much to Sarah’s relief:

“Your mother writes that Conn is doing very well, and she thinks that she will like him much –“ Urbana, April 18, 1857 (ALPL) DD-GPD

By the end of his first year with the Davis family, this is how Sarah described him:

“I have a treasure in faithful Con – as good an Irishman as ever breathed –…

It seems that Conn was equally pleased with the arrangement:

…He [Conn] has been suffering with a boil for a week – The core came out last night – to his and my great relief – I attended him[13] and his thanks know no bounds – He insists that I am the gentlest woman he ever saw handle a sore – I gave the whole credit to my dear Mother's[14] teaching –“  Bloomington IL  May 7, 1858  (WMS)  SWD-GW

Within 6 months of his arrival, the Davis’ 5 year old daughter, Sallie,[15] and Conn had become good buddies:

“She follows Conn a bout [sic] every where –…  Clinton IL  October 5, 1857 (ALPL) DD-GPD

“Sallie is very lively & healthy & wants to learn to read very much - She goes with Conn a good deal –“   Clinton IL  October 13, 1857  (ALPL)  DD-GPD

It seems that despite the fact that the family was getting along well with Conn, all was not well in the back part of the house. 

In the fall of 1858, Sarah is back in Lenox MA, visiting family, so David Davis is dealing with the domestic affairs in Bloomington when he is home during his circuit.  Sarah was very unhappy with the news regarding long-time hired girl, Mary Finley[16]:

“If Mary drives Con away, I shall be the chief sufferer for he seems almost indispensable to my comfort, …  Do try to find out if there is any disagreement [between them]-“   Lenox MA  December 28, 1858  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

Thankfully, by New Year’s Day 1859, things seemed to have been resolved,  enough, at least, for Sarah to send both Conn and Mary a teasing message through her husband:

“Give love to all at home – tell Conn he must not marry till the 30th of February[17] – as he has always said that was to be the day-  Tell Mary not to run away with Conn while I am gone – as I expect to give a wedding for her – if she keeps in a good humor- while I am away-“   Lenox MA…”  January 1, 1859  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

To which David replied,

“Remember me to Rosanna[18].  I wish we had a good natured woman like her in the kitchen.  Mary dont [sic] quarrel with Conn now I think.”  Clinton IL October 10, 1860 PM  (ALPL)  DD-SWD

 “I am quite tried that Mary is so grum[19] – I think we cannot put up with it much longer – Good temper is a thing to be prized…” - Clinton IL  October 12, 1860  (ALPL)   DD-SWD

“– I found Mr Walker[20] & Sarah[21] quite happy –… Conn is very kind to him he says – He gets along very well with Mary though She seems very grum – I think Mary was excessively chagrined because Mr Walker was invited to remain during your absence – She expected [to have] an easy time of it – They get along, however, under the circumstances, very comfortably..” Danville IL  November 11, 1860  (ALPL)  DD-SWD

Just how integral to the day-to-day running of the house Conn was is apparent when you read of all the various tasks that he did in the course of a day:

 “Con is attentive and we have every comfort we need –“  Bloomington IL  February 17, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

Pet care:

“Carlo [7 yr. old Sallie Davis’ dog] was at home Saturday night, but returned again went away on yesterday – I have directed Conn to tie him up if he comes back –“  Clinton IL  October 3, 1859  (ALPL)  DD-GPD


“Mr Davis is now in Springfield- I hope to hear from him to night when Con comes from the [post] office-  “  Bloomington IL  January 21, 1860  (WMS)  SWD-FWW

 “It is now nearly dark – but Con says he will take this to the mail …” Bloomington IL  November 26, 1860  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

“I sent Con down … yesterday that I might be sure of … getting your dear letter…” – Bloomington IL  December 4, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

Physician’s assistant:

“Con has gone down to get the medicine the Dr was to prepare for me –“ Bloomington IL  February 11, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD


 “Last night Con took me down to Church- …”  Bloomington IL  January 21, 1860  (WMS)  SWD-FWW

 “Mrs Robinson[22] came up about 10 yesterday and staid [sic] till Con went for the children at four [probably to bring them home from school] – It was a rainy day – and I was very glad of her company –“  Bloomington IL  February 15, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

 “Mary has picked [plucked] a turkey to day [sic] and tomorrow I shall probably have Mr Flagg[23] to dine – that is if he accepts my invitation, (just sent by Con-)…”   Bloomington IL, February 20, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD  

“Con has just gone to Church – and Lena is clearing up the supper dishes – She went to Church in the morning and came home about five - We all went to Church in the sleigh and found decent sleighing by going on Jefferson Street – Con’s church was long – and I left the children at Sabbath School, and walked home…– “   Bloomington IL  January 26, 1862  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

… Con took Sarah to the New School Church[24] in the morning to hear a funeral sermon – for Lieutenant Howell[25] who was killed at Fort Doneldson.”  St. Louis MO  February 23, 1862  (ALPL)  DD-SWD

“The day was so pleasant that I rode down, tho [sic] the roads are very rough – Sallie and Con went with me in the old buggy – as I thought it would rack the Carriage – I was glad I went – the shaking did me good –“ Bloomington IL  February 24, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD


Mary and Con are at Church to night [sic] – The roads are very muddy – but I think the rain will improve them – … – [Mary] continues to be pleasant, and we all get on nicely – I … hope to empty the East cistern in a few weeks so that we can clean it – Con says we have not done so since he lived here –“  Bloomington IL  March 3, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

“I rose 20 minutes before five – called Con to make the fires – Mary made some Coffee and toast… and [give] a message to Bridget[27] to the effect that Con is to be married in the Fall.” Bloomington IL  April 18, 1861  (WMS)  SWD-FWW

“Yesterday our pigs were killed – and to day we sent for the meat –… I was much amused to night – when Con told me the butcher cut the chine[28] under the tail just between the hams – …  I doubted his knowledge and think he felt a little insulted… Con will cut my sausage and then begin again at his wood – I believe everything is covered out of doors –“– Bloomington IL  December 4, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

“Mrs Holmes and Annie came up about three – and I kept her to supper – and Con took them down to night –“  Bloomington IL  December 18, 1861  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

Wood and Ice Hauler:

“I reached home on the afternoon of yesterday about 3 oclock – found all well – my coming was very sudden – as they did not know of it till one oclock – Con met me with carriage –… Con is hauling wood all the time –  “ Bloomington IL  January 17, 1862  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

… Yesterday I could not write you as Con was away getting ice and I was out of paper –… Con wanted a few dollars as the horses shoes were too smooth entirely to draw ice – so were reset –… The ice Con has put in the house (only six loads as yet) is very pure – It is from your own land –“  Bloomington IL  February 6, 1862  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

And yet, Conn did manage to squeeze in a life of his own every now and then, even if he did have to cut it short once and awhile:

“Con went to the Irish Festival at Phoenix Hall – and came for me at ten o’clock. He is very good to give up his own pleasure for my accommodation - Bloomington IL  February 6, 1862  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

“We – that is Miss Patterson[29] and Sarah[30] and your dear wife are as usual in the dining room – Lena in her chamber and Sallie in bed – Con has gone to a wedding and has taken the door key – St. Louis MO  February 23, 1862  (ALPL)  DD-SWD

In the spring of 1862, the household was bustling as the preparations were being made for Conn’s wedding to Eliza Judge, a hired girl who is listed on the 1860 US Census as working in the home of Judith A. Major Allin, widow of William H. Allin, who was a good friend of Mrs. Davis:

“I can hardly realize that this is Wednesday the days glide by so swiftly. We keep on sewing – the girls go to School and Con is busy preparing his new house for the reception of his bride – Yesterday he took some “firing” to put in his Stove – To day  he has taken his stove &c – Tomorrow he will help me – Joe[31] is very much pleased that Con is to be married = on the whole it is quite an event with us all”-  Bloomington IL  February 16, 1862  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

The day of Conn and Eliza’s wedding inevitably arrived.  It is clear that as happy as everyone was for the marriage, it was also a day of sadness. Cornelius Driscoll, who had in his 5 years with the Davis family become an integral part of their day-to-day life, moved to Normal with his new wife to begin farming.   

 “As we came home I bought a lamp and some oil and sent to Eliza[32] as Con was to be married to day [sic].  He left us yesterday morning – He wept and I took a good cry – Edward[33] came up to day and we all went to the Catholic Church and there met Mrs Allin … – The greatest part of the service was in Latin … –Con looked very well and so did Eliza.  They went directly to their own house where all things are in order – and have quite a company for supper – Joe and his wife[34] have gone, also the grey horses to the Supper – … The house looks very lonely without Con – We shall miss him very much – “    Bloomington IL  March 2, 1862  (ALPL)  SWD-DD

Conn and Eliza went straight from the church to Normal where they would live and farm for most of the rest of their lives.  They had one son, Daniel, who died when he was just 7 months, 22 days. Eliza Judge Driscoll, who was born in Co. Westmeath, Ireland, died on June 16, 1892 at age 64 or 65 years.  Conn, who was born in Co. Cork, Ireland, followed her just 2 years and 11 days later, on June 27, 1894, at age 71 or 72 years old.  They are buried with their son, Daniel, at St. Mary’s Cemetery, Bloomington IL, alongside Conn’s 1st wife, Johanna, who was born at Co. Limerick, Ireland, who died on August 2, 1855, at the age of 25.

You might be wondering whatever happened to Matilda Riggs after George Walker dropped her … and her trunk … off.  Remember Sarah’s comment that Matilda was probably “sparking” with Mr. VanGorder? Sarah was probably correct.  On December 23, 1852, just 4 months after Sarah gave her the sack, Matilda Riggs married Clark VanGorder.  On October 1, 1857, Matilda gave birth to her 1st and only child, William Perry VanGorder.  By the end of 1857, Matilda was dead, possibly during or after childbirth, as, sadly, that was a common occurrence in the days before modern obstetrics or antibiotics.  I can find no documentation as to the exact date in 1857 on which she died or any record of where she is buried.


[1] Matilda Riggs (1829-1857).  She was a daughter of Zachariah & Margaret Lewis Riggs.

[2] Louisa A. Betts (1834-1906), half-sister of David Davis; daughter of Franklin & Ann Mercer Davis Betts. She was in the midst of a prolonged visit with the Davises from New York state.

[3] Sarah Hagaman Birdsall (abt 1780-1871) – widow of George W. Birdsall. She was the mother of Maria Birdsall (Rev. Mrs. David J.] Perry of Bloomington IL.  Mrs. Birdsall lived with the Perry family and would often help women in town, especially when there was sickness in the house, a new baby, etc.    

[4] Randolph Riggs (1831-1911),  younger brother of Matilda Riggs. 

[5] Lucinda Riggs [Mrs. John] Leighty (1826-1906) of Fountain City IN.

[6] Delia was a hired girl who worked for James & Latricia Robinson. Latricia Robinson was a close friend of Sarah Davis.

[7] the birth of her baby in September

[8] Charlotte Vannote [Mrs. Andrew J.] Riggs (b. 1829), wife of Matilda Riggs’ brother.

[9] A sponge is when some of the ingredients of the yeast dough are mixed together before the whole dough is made. This mixture is allowed to ferment for a period of time before the rest of the ingredients are added. This process creates more depth of flavor and also produces bread with a lighter and fluffier texture. https://bakerbettie.com/sponge-method-for-bread/

[10] If a couple was courting, they were “sparking”.

[11] Clark VanGorder (1831-1904), her future husband.

[12] George W. Walker (1832-1896), cousin of David Davis who worked the farm for the Davises.

[13] took care of him

[14] Lucy Adam [Mrs. William Perrin] Walker (1781-1864)   

[15] Sarah Worthington Davis (1852-1834), 2nd daughter, and only surviving daughter of David & Sarah W. Davis.

[16] Mary Finley, 30 year old Irish hired girl.  See 1860 US Census for David Davis.

[17] Meaning he should never marry since there are only 28 or 29 days in February.

[18] Rosannah Newport (1801- Oct. 1  1869), African-American hired woman who occasionally worked for Sarah’s parents in Lenox MA.

[19] Morose; severe of countenance; sour; surly; glum; grim.

[20] Thomas Walker, brother of George E. Walker (David Davis’ uncle)

[21] Sarah Davis Walker, daughter of George E. & Harriet Mercer Walker.

[22] Latricia Maria Drake [Mrs. James H.] Robinson

[23] William Flagg (1808-1881)

[24] New School Presbyterian Church located at East St., between Jefferson and North Sts. Pastor Rev. Alfred Eddy.  (See The Pantagraph, Monday, March 3 1862)

 LIEUT. Joseph G. Howell (1838-15 Feb 1862) - There were few better and more worthy men as well as officers than Lt. Howell was, as many of his schoolmates at the Normal University can testify. When Col. Oglesby saw him lying dead on the field he said, "Poor young man! I gave him his last orders. He died before he executed them." During the time the rebels had possession of our field they robbed and stripped many of our dead and wounded. They took from Lt. Howell a splendid uniform suit and some money, amounting in all to $200. He was killed at Fort Donelson, Dover, TN. The Pantagraph, Bloomington, IL Monday, March 10, 1862


[26] A handy, versatile individual responsible for many different tasks.

[27] Bridget Dooley was an Irishwoman who worked for Frances Mary “Fanny” Walker Williams for many years, along with her sister, Catherine Dooley.  Fanny Williams, who was the recipient of this letter, was Sarah W. Davis’ younger sister.

[28] The backbone or spine, especially of an animal;  a cut of meat containing part of the backbone. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/chine

[29] Eliza Ada Patterson (1837-1922). Miss Patterson often came to live in and help Sarah Davis. They seemed to have been quite good friends. She helped nurse David Davis when he was suffering from a life-threatening carbuncle on his neck in the fall of 1864-April 1865.

[30] Sarah Davis Walker [Mrs. Samuel B.] Raley (1845-1915); cousin of David Davis; daughter of George E. & Harriet Mercer Walker, who was a maternal aunt of David Davis; sister of George W. Walker and Edward Scanlan Walker.

[31] Possibly refers to Joe (Joseph) Fitzgerald.  It is likely that he was the father of William (Willie) Fitzgerald who later became a much-loved man-of-all work at the new mansion.

[32] Con’s bride-to-be

[33] Edward Scanlan “Ned” Walker (1835-1876) , son of George E. & Harriet Mercer Walker; cousin of David Davis; brother of George W. Walker (see endnote #12).

[34] Hanora “Nora” Donahue Fitzgerald

Key to the Correspondents and the Archives*

          SWD – Sarah W. Davis

          DD – David Davis

          FWW – Frances Mary “Fanny” Walker Williams, younger sister of Sarah W. Davis

          GPD – George Perrin Davis

          GW – George Walker, elder brother of Sarah W. Davis          

          ALPL – Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield IL, The David Davis Family Collection

         WMS – Williams College, Williamstown MA,  The Samuel Chapman Armstrong Collection

David Davis Mansion

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