1858, March 14: Elizabeth Alcott's Death

Louisa May Alcott [1832-1888, picture source here] wrote many short stories, poems, and novels, and is best known now for her novel Little Women. Many of Alcott's works drew from her own life and experiences for inspiration... but there is one unusual experience of hers that never made it into her fictional stories. Note of the event was found in her journals after Alcott had died, and was first published in 1889 in Ednah Cheney's book Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals.

        Alcott had many sisters, as depicted in the novel Little Women. Her sister Elizabeth, who was also called "Betty" and "Lizzie" in the family, had contracted scarlet fever in 1856; she had survived the disease, but her health never fully recovered and she spent much of the next two years bedridden and in pain. Nonetheless, she was always engaged in the family's events and a happy person in her very demeanor. In January 1858 the family doctor stated that Elizabeth had no hope for improvement; and Elizabeth, understanding her time was near, commented that she was glad that she would "get well" soon, so to speak.

        Elizabeth's health declined slowly over the next two months. Alcott and her family took turns sitting with Elizabeth, so she was never alone. Elizabeth spent the time reading, singing softly, sewing; she sometimes would drop things she had made out of her window to where schoolchildren would find them, and smile at their surprise.

        On March 14th, 1858, Elizabeth Alcott died in her sleep around 3:00am. Her sister, Louisa May Alcott, their mother, Abigail May Alcott, and the family physician, whom Alcott only identified as "Dr. G," were in attendance at the time. Then, Alcott's journal states, "a curious thing happened":

"A few moments after the last breath came, as Mother and I sat silently watching the shadow fall on the dear little face, I saw a light mist rise from the body, and float up and vanish in the air. Mother's eyes followed mine, and when I said, 'What did you see?' she described the same light mist. Dr. G. said it was the life departing visibly."

Did It Happen?

        It's always a bit suspicious when a story like this comes to light only after the death of the primary witness, so let's examine the evidence we have a bit more. Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney [1824-1904] does not appear to have known Louisa M. Alcott previous to the author's death, but Cheney was raised in a similar fashion and was a well-known and respected author herself.

        At the time Cheney's biography of Alcott was published, Louisa M. Alcott and her mother were both dead; and since the incident as quoted doesn't given the physician's full name -- just "Dr. G" -- he was presumably not available to comment on the biography. So Cheney had a possible window for inventing a story about a well-known person that the well-known person could not refute; and I've seen this happen before (Abraham Lincoln was a popular target for this sort of thing). I will offer one bit of evidence that can argue against the idea of trickery in this case, however.

        Of all the Alcott sisters, only one was still alive when Cheney's book was published: Louisa M. Alcott's oldest sister, Anna Alcott Pratt [1831-1893]. Cheney's book is actually dedicated to Pratt, as without her help and access to Louisa M. Alcott's papers, Cheney would not have been able to write the biography at all. Given that, it is very unlikely that Pratt was unaware of the contents of Cheney's book, including what was shared regarding her own sister Elizabeth's death. This seems to indicate that the story, as presented, is in fact what was written by Louisa M. Alcott regarding the matter in her journals... no matter how strange it sounds.

        You'll just have to decide for yourself if you believe what Alcott wrote.