by Gordon Taylor | 8/23/2009 02:11:00 AM
Lake Urmia: Six out of nine were buried here.

The piece that follows was written for the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies. The readers of that journal, small as it is, would know immediately the name of Justin Perkins. Justin Perkins, D.D., was a pioneer American missionary in Iran, then still known as Persia. For the Nestorian Christians (now called Assyrians) of Urmia and the mountains of Hakkari, in Turkey (the snow-flecked mountains in the above photograph), he made a revolution, working with native helpers to create a written version of their modern Syriac dialect, and translating into that new written language the ancient Aramaic texts which they used in their church services but could not understand. Besides the New and Old Testaments in modern Syriac, Perkins translated numerous religious tracts, as well as texts for the mission school in geography, natural science, and history. In English he wrote several accounts of his mission years in Persia, the most useful of which is Eight Years in Persia (1841).

Deep Waters
Life and Death in the Perkins Family, 1834-1852

Like snow upon the desert’s dusty face…
--Fitzgerald: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

In a letter dated 29 January 1849, Justin Perkins, senior missionary at the American Mission in Urmia, made one of his regular reports to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston.[1] Among other things, he discussed the recent conquest of Hakkari, central Kurdistan, by Ottoman Turkish forces. Perkins exulted in the Turks’ defeat of Nurullah, the last independent Kurdish Mir of Hakkari. Calling Nurullah a “monster, ” Perkins said of his downfall, “The right hand of the Most High has at length put a ‘hook’ in the nose of this modern ‘Assyrian.’” Besides this interesting choice of label, Perkins’s 29 January letter contained news of a more personal nature. His youngest child, Fidelia, he revealed, had died only six days earlier. This meant one more heartbreak for Perkins and his wife, Charlotte. Fidelia, aged eleven months at her death, was the fifth child that they had buried in Persia. Charlotte’s previous child, Jonathan, born just three years earlier, had lasted only two months. The remaining Perkins children, Henry, age five, and Judith, soon to be nine, continued to thrive. But the fact was, these were only two out of seven.[2]

For Justin and Charlotte Perkins, trouble began at the dock before their missionary careers had even started. Perkins, deathly ill and having almost missed his embarkation, had to be carried aboard in a litter on the day, 21 September 1833, that their ship sailed from Boston. To add further insult, immediately out of port the ship was hit by storms. Still, after a rapid passage and a winter in Istanbul, by June 1834 Justin and Charlotte Perkins (aged 29 and 25 respectively) were aboard caravan horses riding from Trebizond to Tabriz, by way of Erzurum.[3]

News of murders by the Jelali Kurds, raiding along the caravan route west of Ararat, led to a detour into Russian-held Georgia and Armenia. This detour, projected to last six days, stretched to four weeks as Russian officials did everything they could to harass, rob, and delay the unfortunate newlyweds. Charlotte spent her twenty-sixth birthday (Aug. 2) in quarantine with her husband, listening to travellers being flogged by the Russian police just a few feet from their tent. For the rest of his life Justin Perkins would contrast the behavior of this “Christian” power with that of the Turks, whose kindness and hospitality he always appreciated.[4]

August 14 found the two stranded again, without passports and in a new quarantine, by the banks of the river Aras (Araxes). Two hundred feet of rapidly moving water separated them from Persian territory. Daytime temperatures reached 110 degrees F. outside their flea-ridden tent. In desperation Perkins wrote an appeal to the British Ambassador, in residence with the Persian Court at Tabriz, and gave it to a Persian courier who was crossing the river. That night, to their surprise, the Russians returned their passports. By the end of the next day they had been ferried across the Araxes, and soon help came in the form of a letter from Sir John Campbell, H.M. Ambassador to Persia. They had travelled but a short distance when the Embassy’s physican, Dr. William Riach, arrived on horseback to assist them. By August 23 the Perkinses were ensconced in the British Embassy, Tabriz, where Campbell told the Americans, “My house is open to you.”

Charlotte Perkins, however, had by then fallen gravely ill. Only three days later, without any previous hints (e.g., ‘expectant,’ ‘delicate condition’) from Perkins to alert the reader, he announces (in Eight Years in Persia) that she was delivered of a baby daughter. Prostrate with convulsions, vomiting, and fever, Charlotte was not aware that she had given birth until three days later. Thus was born their first Persian child, Charlotte Nisbet Perkins.[5]

Baby Charlotte died within months, and she was buried in Tabriz. According to Justin Perkins, his wife never really recovered from the accompanying sickness. By 14 April 1836, when Charlotte Perkins gave birth to her first son (named William Riach, after the physician who rode to their rescue on the Araxes), the missionaries had set up permanent quarters in Urmia, on the western shore of the lake. Dr. Asahel Grant and his wife Judith arrived in 1835, and they were followed by William Stocking, Albert Holladay, and their wives.

Here began the great labors, and here too came the unending bouts of illness. Accounts by Perkins and Dr. Grant make it clear that, during those first years, the Americans were never truly in good health. In January 1839, Judith Grant, wife of the good doctor, became the first to succumb. She left behind three children. On July 23 of the same year, Charlotte Perkins’ second son, Justin Humphrey, eleven months, expired as well. The year 1840 began with the Children’s Holocaust. First, one after the other, went the twin daughters of Judith and Asahel Grant, seventeen months old; then, on January 31, Charles Stocking, eighteen months; on February 2, Catharine Holladay, nineteen months; and finally, on February 7, William Riach Perkins, aged three years ten months, went to his grave.

Faced by this loss the mission lay “desolate,” as Perkins wrote, and once again Charlotte Perkins found herself childless. But she was also pregnant, and on 8 August 1840 she gave birth yet again, to a daughter named Judith Grant Perkins, named not only after Dr. Grant’s wife but also after her maternal grandmother. By this time, however, the body and spirit of Charlottle Perkins had begun to crumble. In early 1840, Justin Perkins wrote to the American Board informing them of his wife’s condition:

“Probably few, if any, have left America with health and constitutions more perfect than Mrs. P. possessed when we came to this country. And few, you are aware, have been subjected to exposures and trials to surpass hers, particularly in the early part of our missionary experience. The result is that her originally fine constitution is broken down, and an alarming disease seems to be settling upon her. You may recollect the sufferings which Mrs. P. encountered on our way to Persia, and the very severe sickness she experienced immediately after our arrival at Tabreez. Recovery from that sickness seemed entirely beyond the reach of hope for some time; nor did she ever fully recover from the effects of it. Though she has since enjoyed tolerable health much of the time, still, to one previously acquainted with her, it has always been obvious that her constitution was irreparably injured by her sickness at Tabreez. The climate of Oroomia has affected her seriously. Often has she suffered severe attacks of fever; and she has been so much afflicted with ophthalmy, during a considerable part of our residence here, as to be unable to read and write. Mrs. P.’s repeated bereavements, in the death of our three children, have also borne heavily upon her already impaired constitution. Each has been more severe than the previous, in proportion to the increased age of the loved object removed, and has given to her system a correspondingly more serious shock.”

Perkins now goes on to deliver the most alarming news of all:
“The result of these sicknesses and trials is that for the last two years and a half, Mrs. P. has had symptoms of epilepsy, and within the last two months she has had two severe attacks of that disease. The last occurred a few days ago, since the death of William, our only child. The symptoms have appeared when her system has become febrile, which is very often the case with us all, in this climate.”[6]

In this context “epilepsy” probably means “fits” and little else. It’s hard to know what to think of this diagnosis, which must have been made by Asahel Grant. Grant was an early nineteenth-century physician, which is to say that he basically knew nothing. Grant himself suffered from almost daily vomiting caused by an overdose of calomel (mercurous chloride) which he had taken while stricken with cholera.[7] Another clue is the word “febrile,” which refers to the malaria that was endemic to Urmia, and which affected all the missionaries. Severe malaria can produce effects beyond fever, including delirium, coma, convulsions, and, of course, death. On the other hand, it may not have been malaria at all. Perkins may have found a medical word, epilepsy, to disguise reality; namely, that under the hammer blows of disease, birth, and bereavement his wife was simply going mad.

In any case, Perkins knew that he had to get Charlotte out of the country if he was going to save her life. Dr. Grant, feeling the same way about his only remaining child, a son, left the mission on 7 May 1840 to carry the boy to safety in America. For neither man was it an easy decision. Justin Perkins, as senior missionary and chief of of the Biblical translation effort, felt keenly the pangs of guilt. When he left America, he declared, he had intended never to return, barring a “calamity.” On 17 November 1840 the other members of the mission wrote to relieve him of his guilt. In a jointly signed letter the four ordained missionaries plus Edward Breath, their newly-arrived printer, urged him to take “our dear afflicted sister” back to America “by the first safe opportunity.” That opportunity did not come until 5 July 1841.

Nothing yet had come easily to Justin and Charlotte Perkins, and the journey back to the United States proved as troublesome as anything they had so far endured. Stolen horses; rough roads; fleas and vermin; the return of Mrs. P.’s illness as they crossed the Black Sea mountains; all these were bad enough: but the voyage from Smyrna in the brig Magoun laden with 15,000 drums of figs set new records for futility. A passage estimated at sixty-five days maximum by their captain, twice the normal eastbound speed, stretched out to one-hundred and nine days before they reached New York, as storm after storm barred their way west. At last, on 11 January 1842, Justin and Charlotte Perkins, their bouncing toddler Judith, and Mar Yohannan of Gavalan, Perkins’ great friend and associate, arrived at dockside in New York and “sallied forth into Broadway.”[8]

By 21 December 1844, when her third son, Henry Martyn Perkins, was born, Charlotte Perkins had lived more than four years without giving birth or seeing the death of a child. It was the longest such period in eleven years of married life. By then the Perkins family had returned to Urmia, where the myriad tasks of mission administration, translation, and preaching once more took over Justin Perkins’s life. But this time their situation was different.

After Judith Grant’s death in 1839, in the face of continuing deaths and disease, the Americans determined to build a ‘health retreat’ somewhere near Urmia. They chose Seir, a low mountain just west of the city. Seir had what they needed: proximity, altitude, and separation from the alleged ‘miasma’ below. A Kurdish village existed nearby, as did a powerful spring of clear water. (The latter, though they didn’t know it, was surely the healthiest thing about the place.) In the first months of 1841, before their departure for America, Justin Perkins spent nearly every day supervising the construction of the mission buildings at Seir. As one who had spent the first eighteen years of his life on a farm in Massachusetts, he knew how to work, and he knew how to build. The result—missionary residences plus a boys’ seminary for the training of native preachers—would be home for himself and his family during their remaining years in Persia.[9]

These were years that saw an explosion of activity at the mission. Edward Breath and his press had begun operations, eventually turning out not only religious tracts but books on mathematics, geography, and natural sciences, translated into Syriac. Fidelia Fisk arrived, and with her the expansion of girls’ education. Perkins’s Biblical translations were published, the New Testament in 1846 and the Old Testament in 1852, and David Tappan Stoddard brought out his Grammar of the Syrian Language (1855). At regular intervals religious fervor gripped the schools, while from 1844-45 the family of Mar Shimun (Auraham XVII), seeing their power threatened, began a campaign of threats and violence against the missionaries and their supporters.

Through all this, in accounts of the mission’s work, Charlotte Perkins remained invisible, which is to be expected. We have already seen, in Eight Years, the extreme reticence with which Justin Perkins treated his wife’s existence, particularly regarding the baby which miraculously emerged when they reached Tabriz. And Charlotte was, after all, a nineteenth-century missionary wife, little given to notoriety. But Charlotte is still there in the grim statistics of child mortality, giving birth and watching as more of her progeny find an early grave: Jonathan Edwards Perkins, 22 January 1846 to 14 March 1846; Fidelia Fisk Perkins, 8 February 1848 to 23 January 1849. Which brings us once again to that grim statistic: five out of seven.

But two of her children, Judith and Henry, continued to prosper and defy the odds. Judith, who turned ten in 1850, was the special light of her parents’ eyes. This was the little girl who had learned to walk on the deck of the fig-laden Magoun, as the brig fought its way westward in the autumn of 1841. To her, at the end of Eight Years in Persia, her father devoted an entire paragraph, the only one of his children to receive the honor.[10] She was, he said, “contented and happy to the last” on the ship, skipping about even in gales. Now growing up rapidly, the model of youthful good looks, intelligence, and politeness, she was becoming the child they had always dreamed of, and simply because I have singled her out for attention the reader will know that she is doomed.

Her story is told in The Persian Flower: A Memoir of Judith Grant Perkins, written and compiled by Joseph G. Cochran (the first of that distinguished family to serve in Persia) and published in Boston in 1853. Modern readers find the book a hard slog, as long accounts of someone’s goodness and perfection, overladen with Victorian religiosity and a style which belabors the obvious, do not make for lively reading. Yet beneath its surface lies a story that deserves retelling. And Judith’s story is, without doubt, the climactic event of the Perkins family tragedy.

In early September 1852, immediately after the events related in The Persian Flower, Justin Perkins sat down and wrote a letter to the American Board.[11] Across the top, in a hand which appears to be that of Perkins, someone has written “Job 19:21.” The word ‘Job’ is not a good omen, and indeed the verse cited reads, “Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; for the hand of God hath touched me.” What follows is surely one of the most painful letters that any parent has been forced to write.

Judith Perkins, aged twelve in August, embraced the summer of 1852 with all the enthusiasm a child can summon. A new teacher, Miss Martha Ann Harris,[12] had come out from the United States to establish a school for the mission children. These now numbered seventeen, eleven of whom were old enough to go to school. So excited was Judith at news of her teacher’s arrival that she was allowed to ride to Khoi, several days away, with a welcoming party to escort her into Urmia. To Judith’s delight, for seven weeks thereafter she enjoyed the privilege of attending school with a real professional teacher. In the middle of August the Perkins family received distinguished foreign visitors, members of a military commission sent to determine the true line of the Persian-Ottoman border. These included Col. Fenwick Williams, R.A., who only a few years later, during the Crimean War, would earn fame as Williams Pasha, commander of Turkish forces during the Siege of Kars.[13]

Toward the end of August word came that three members of the mission, returning from America, had arrived in Trebizond (Trabzon) on the Black Sea and would be making their way toward Persia. It was customary for the Americans to send a party to meet their associates along the caravan route, and since no one else was available Justin Perkins agreed to undertake the journey. He was reluctant, having ridden the same “weary” route so many times before, and being then in the midst of printing the Old Testament in the dual-column Peshitta-Syriac translation. Also, cholera had been present that summer in Urmia, and he felt misgivings about leaving the health retreat at Seir. He agreed to go on condition that he could take his family, “for the benefit of Mrs. Perkins’s health.” Judith, of course, was ecstatic at the prospect of an adventure.

Leaving Seir on 30 August 1852, the Perkins family proceeded northward in short stages. By September 2 they were camped outside the city walls of Khoi, where, despite news that there was cholera present, they sent an attendant inside to replenish their supplies of water. I write “despite the news” because now, of course, we know that cholera resides in impure water. In 1852 they knew no such thing. (Robert Koch, future discoverer of the cholera bacterium, was then only nine years old.) Instead, they saw pestilence in “the slight haze of the cholera atmosphere,” in the phrase of Fidelia Fisk.[14] At sunrise the next morning, the family moved on.

The ascent from Khoi was some ten miles long, and very gradual. Justin Perkins had already described the pass in Eight Years in Persia, when in 1841 he, Charlotte, and the baby Judith had ridden up the mountain while enroute to America. The route taken by the Perkins family is now a forgotten track through an area where the peaks rise over 3000 meters. A newer motor road lies somewhat to the east. In the present political climate no one would venture where the Perkins family rode unless he planned to cross the mountains illegally into Turkey. In 1852, however, it was the standard way from Urmia to the main Trebizond-Tabriz caravan route, which it joined south of Mt. Ararat.

All was happiness as the four Americans made the gentle ascent of the pass. Just before the summit, Perkins reported meeting two French leech merchants, entering Persia in search of that commodity, by then hunted to near-extinction in Europe. In his account of the journey Justin Perkins remembers everything—meals, food, scenery, villages, people, and above all Judith’s reactions to all she experienced. At the summit there was a view to the north, where Judith was overjoyed at the sight of Ararat in the glow of a rising sun. Some two hours after that, on the rocky downhill ride, the ordeal began.

Several miles after a mid-morning stop for refreshment, Judith, gone deathly pale, announced that she felt ill. Within seconds she had jumped from her pony and doubled over with vomiting. The spasms, repeated over and over, left the girl barely able to stand. Justin and Charlotte, frightened, managed to get Judith back on her horse, and soon they were in pursuit of their muleteers, who were some 3-4 miles ahead at the village of Zurabad (which they called “Zorava”) with the group’s tent and supplies. After an anxious ride, Perkins carried his daughter into the hastily-pitched tent and set to work.

Justin Perkins was a literate, observant man, and probably no better account exists of Asian cholera, experienced in all its nineteenth-century horrors. By then the disease had only been known for a few decades, having spread from its home in northeast India through the opening of trade routes and increased pilgrimage. Cholera spread its particular terror because of the power of its symptoms and the swiftness with which they overcame the victim. Vomiting and watery diarrhea, so severe that over a pint of fluid per hour may be lost, take hold of the patient and squeeze him dry. Unless the fluids are replaced, the patient soon goes into shock and dies of dehydration.

Zurabad lies on the banks of the Aq Chai, a stream flowing from nearby mountains which mark the Turkish frontier. There, quite literally in the middle of nowhere, Perkins attempted to treat his daughter. At his command were potions no better than a peddler’s snake oil, yet sanctified by the fact that physicians used them regularly. He gave Judith laudanum, then camphor, and she continued to purge. Calomel, a purgative—surely the last thing needed—came next. Diarrhea, which Perkins called “evacuations,” shook her repeatedly. By this time Justin knew that the disease must be cholera, yet Charlotte continued in denial. At one point, in his frenzy Perkins dropped the vial of laudanum. Frantic searching ensued, but it was lost in the jumble and turmoil of the tent. Perkins gave her paregoric (camphor and tincture of opium) instead. Most helpfully, he gave her as much soda water as she could take, but the convulsions continued. “The disease,” he wrote, “moved on like a giant, with irresistible force.” Holding up a cross, Perkins directed his daughter to fix her eyes on it. “Yes, Poppa, I will try,” she told him in a hoarse, raw voice.

Morning gave way to afternoon and then to evening. Their attendants and muleteers grew restless. Cholera carried a powerful curse, with which no one wanted to be associated. In Zurabad news of the sickness had spread, and panicked villagers, refusing to sell them either food or fodder, ordered the travelers to move on. At one point Perkins found a villager willing to take a message to Urmia, but the others in Zurabad, fearing any association with the diseased girl, refused to let him go.[15]

As light lengthened on the peaks, Perkins remained “almost crushed with anxiety,” yet he worked on. Judith’s system had gone into shock. The purgings came less often, as there was little left to purge. Eight-year-old Henry had remained outside, frightened and alone, during the worst of the crisis. When he came inside the tent a wrenching scene ensued, as the boy found it hard to accept his older sister’s possible death and wished, as did all of them, that the trip had never happened. Other such scenes marked the coming hours: weeping; professions of faith; further attempts to revive and comfort Judith; a spreading numbness in her limbs; admonitions to goodness and faithfulness; farewells; prayers for miracles and forgiveness; even a terrifying symbolism, as night fell and a wild beast (a bear or wild boar: they never knew which) prowled the darkness just outside their tent.

At three A.M. Saturday, 4 September 1852, Judith Perkins took her last breath. It had been seventeen hours since the onset of symptoms. Justin and Charlotte, sobbing and exhausted, fell asleep beside the wreckage of their daughter.

At daylight Charlotte rose to wash Judith’s body and dress her for burial. Late in the night, Judith, in a whispered request, had asked to be interred beside her little sister Fidelia. Despite the distance—and the summer heat—her parents never considered anywhere else but Seir. So Judith returned home on the back of a mule, wrapped inside a thick felt shepherd’s cloak that was lashed tight with willow whips. An extortionate muleteer had to be paid off, and a mob of villagers, threatening to stone them, had to be kept at bay; but at last, about ten o’clock, the procession set out for Urmia.

Not until the morning of the sixth did Austen Wright, the mission doctor, receive the note. “We are in deep waters,” Perkins had written. “Our precious Judith is just gone of the cholera.” Consternation erupted, but the missionaries, riding quickly to meet them, held out hope. A longer note confirming the girl’s death arrived as they made their way northward. The terrible caravan arrived in Urmia the next morning. On Tuesday afternoon, September 7, Judith was laid in her grave on the slopes of Mt. Seir.

The aftermath can only be imagined. “My pen refuses to tell the desolation of our home,” Perkins wrote to Boston in his letter. It was the ultimate blow. He added, “Arrived at such an age, she had become as our right hand, as well as the joy of our hearts.” He at least would have duties to busy himself, as the Old Testament translation was still making its way through the printer. With Charlotte it was different. Out of seven children she had one left. She was forty-four years old, and would never have another. Five years later, which seems an eternity under the circumstances, she left Persia “enfeebled” by bad health, her missionary life finished at last. Henry accompanied her. Justin followed in 1858.

But for Justin Perkins, missionary life was not finished. After an interlude in America, and a round-trip by steamer to England, during which he lectured at Oxford, he set out again for Persia in 1862. Not until 1 June 1869 did he leave Urmia for the last time. He left Persia as he had left America in 1833: very ill and not knowing if he would live or die. But this time the transport was different. After the overland trip to Trebizond, it was steam all the way: to Istanbul, Smyrna, and Marseilles; by train to Paris and the Channel; and finally, by steamship from Liverpool to New York. And when he arrived in Brooklyn, by now deathly ill, who should be there to nurse him but his wife, Charlotte. With Charlotte at his side, Justin Perkins died in Chicopee, Massachusetts, on 8 December 1869.[16]

The last chapter in the life of Charlotte Perkins seems almost impossible. But it is there on page 113 of the Missionary Herald, March 1898 (Vol. XCIV, No. III). Under “Deaths” it reads: “December 15, 1897, at Woolwich, Maine, Mrs. Charlotte Bass Perkins, widow of the Rev. Justin Perkins, D.D.” Born in 1808 in Stowe, Vermont, residing with her son, Rev. Henry Martyn Perkins and his family, in Woolwich, Maine, “in the ninetieth year of her age, she passed to the heavenly home.” Charlotte had outlasted them all. Despite a torrent of sorrow and disease, born during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson and died in that of William McKinley, she had almost spanned the century. And it is not too much to hope—indeed, it seems likely—that during her final days she was blessed with the presence of Henry’s oldest child, an eighteen-year-old girl named Judith Grant Perkins.[17]

1. Missionary Herald, June 1849. Vol. XLV, No. 6.
2. List of graves at Seir cemetery by George Moradkhan of Urmia, 1957. Letter to author by Mary Cochran Moulton, 14 February 2003.
3. Justin Perkins. A Residence of Eight Years in Persia. Andover, 1843.
4. Eight Years, p. 108; pp. 111-112; p. 122.
5. Named not only for her mother but for Charlotte Nisbet, wife of an English army officer, who cared for the baby during her mother’s long convalescence.
6. Eight Years, p. 461-2.
7. See Gordon Taylor, Fever and Thirst, p. 79-80
8. Eight Years, p. 491.
9. Eight Years, p. 421. Entry for June 21.
10. Eight Years, p. 491.
11. Papers of the ABCFM (microfilm). Research Publications: Woodbridge, Conn., 1982-85. Reel 555, Item no. 199.
12. Martha Harris latter married Rev. Samuel Audley Rhea, d. 1865. In 1856, in the company of her husband, she became the first Western female to visit the Assyrian ashirets of Hakkari. (Not even the great English travelers Isabella Bird, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark, went this far into the high mountain districts of Kurdistan.) She is buried in Memikan, Gawar (near Yuksekova), where she died in 1857.
13. See, among many sources: Humphry Sandwith, M.D. A Narrative of the Siege of Kars. London, 1856.
14. Persian Flower, p. 117.
15. In the end he did leave the following morning.
16. Henry Martyn Perkins. The Life of Justin Perkins, D.D., Pioneer Missionary to Persia. Chicago, 1887.
17. The Missionary Herald for the year cited now available online at Googlebooks. Judith Grant Perkins, Henry’s firstborn child, is first seen in the Census of 1880, when her father was a preacher in Illinois.

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