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Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Joseph Kidder's diary reveals a life deeply lived

August 12. 2013 5:27PM

Joseph Kidder's diary, written from 1838 to 1902, is much more than a summary of daily activities. He often penned insightful short essays that revealed his thoughts and feelings about human relations, philosophy, religion, nature and current affairs. His first entry on August 23, 1838, recorded his first day back as a student at Pembroke Academy in Pembroke, New Hampshire "…after having had quite a season of recreation…" He wrote, "This day has brought with it an uncommon degree of interest and satisfaction. I have the extreme and inexpressible pleasure of again greeting and welcoming back to the halls of science and instruction many of my former friends and acquaintances." Of his fellow students he expressed, "Here is indeed a mass of intellect which is one day destined to go abroad in the world and exert a mighty influence on society."

At the Academy, Joseph studied algebra, geometry, grammar, public speaking, and science. He praised his teachers for their ability to convey vast knowledge in a practical way. One of his favorite activities was debating, and he was very pleased to be chosen as the president of the debating society. "A better selection might have been made," he wrote, "but I feel myself highly flattered by this mark of distinction."

Even at age 19, Joseph showed himself to be a thoughtful and considerate person. Of course, he had emotional ups and downs, as any student would. After one difficult week, he wrote, "A shade of grief has occasionally dimmed my brow and drove away the gladsome smile that played upon my lips…" Apparently, he had not lived up to his own high standards in some way, and was experiencing a "…depression of spirits." Joseph chose to learn from whatever had happened, and wrote in his diary that it was important to act with "virtuous motives" and that "Here there is a great incentive for pursuing the path of knowledge and morality."

Joseph Kidder clearly treasured his time at Pembroke Academy. The school prepared many of its students for admission to Dartmouth College, but he was destined for other things. He would venture forth on a tentative career in the newspaper business before spending 30 years running a general store in Manchester, and then spent 20 years in service to his Odd Fellows lodge as its secretary. As the years passed, Joseph began to discipline himself to write shorter, more succinct diary entries. He would often compose a polished statement that revealed a meaningful thought or observation. For example, on January 12, 1852, he wrote, "Every day I live…I am impressed more and more with the belief that medicine alone in the sick-room is not the only thing that restores the feeble to health again…the cheerful countenance, the pleasant voice and sympathetic heart works wonders which no medical prescription can do."

On Tuesday, January 10, 1860, the Pemberton Mill, a five-story brick structure in Lawrence, Massachusetts, collapsed with 800 textile workers inside — men, women and children. Later that evening, during the frantic search for survivors, an oil lamp fell over causing a horrible fire that killed everyone still trapped in the rubble. The death toll was 115, and 165 people were injured. Joseph Kidder was deeply moved by the heroism of the rescuers and the outpouring of grief that followed the incident. On January 18 he wrote, "A terrible and heart-rending disaster like that at Lawrence reveals many of the best spots in the human heart. Kindness, sympathy, love — all the heroic and heavenly virtues, are made to stand out in bold relief!" In 1860, Joseph was enjoying the 10th year of his happy marriage to his wife Sarah. They had three daughters, Maria, Sarah and Annie, and another daughter Mary would be born in 1864. On January 27, 1860, Joseph wrote about daughter Sarah, "I have a dear little daughter just three years old today. She is a bright little thing, and nothing could have been more beautiful than the sparkle of her little eyes when told that this was her birthday. She wanted a birthday present and I bought at her suggestion a thimble — a tiny little thing. She calls it a birthday thimble. She is a beautiful child."

Next week: A Valley Cemetery Story — Joseph Kidder and the Civil War..

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

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