Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher, A Vintage Vignette
Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
July 22, 2007
One of the most satisfying aspects of my research into the pioneer families of Madison has been finding personal accounts of their lives that are not public records. One such personal account was written in the early 1900s by Octavia Fletcher Frazier to tell the life story of her father, Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher (1830-1906), and of growing up in his Madison home. In 1964 a 36-page booklet of her work was privately published for family members, who have granted permission for the Madison Station Historical Society to reproduce it. A brief synopsis of a few of the episodes is provided herein, but the entire story is available on CD-ROM per the Society’s web site at http://www.knology.net/~madisonhistoricalsociety/.
Dr. Fletcher was born in Richmond, Virginia, moving with his family to Limestone County at the age of three. His father was James Nicholas Fletcher, the first sheriff of Nottingham County, Virginia. The family’s plantation home was called Aspen Dell, located at “Nubbin Ridge”, today’s intersection of Brown’s Ferry Road with Burgreen Road. After Richard moved into his own plantation (Birnam Wood) given to him by his father, and after the passing of his parents, Dr. James A. Kyser of Madison purchased Aspen Dell. Dr. Fletcher moved to Madison in 1879, owning 30 acres of land and a house that he called “The Grove” on the west side of Sullivan Street just south of the railroad.
Octavia related that her father told her that during the last year of the Civil War money was very scarce in the area, with Confederate money already doomed. Federal troops were confiscating everything of value, so people hid what little hard currency they might have. One afternoon when Richard and his father were sitting on the veranda of Aspen Dell, which had eight large square columns around it, the senior Fletcher asked Richard to put a nail in a knot near the top of one of the columns and work it out. After doing so, his father disappeared for a while and came back with $10,000 in gold coins, telling Richard to drop them into the column through the knothole. Then he told Richard to reinsert the knot, glue it in place, and remove the nail. Thereafter, whenever the Federals arrived, Richard’s father would sit on the veranda in a chair leaned back against the column with the coins, whittling on a stick. After the war, a hole was cut into the base of the column and the money used to assist many a destitute Confederate family.
Another of her father’s wartime experiences related by Octavia described when he was arrested by the Federals as a spy, under the theory that he must have facilitated the Confederate attack on Madison Station in May of 1864 by telling the location of the Union sentries. Until that time Dr. Fletcher had enjoyed free right of travel through the lines, as he compassionately treated the ill and casualties of both sides. Richard his neighbor, Edward Betts, were imprisoned in Huntsville under threat of hanging, until a Union officer who knew them well demanded their release.
Among the many stories of Dr. Fletcher’s medical ministrations, there was one involving a former slave from a nearby farm who had his belly cut open during a knife fight. Dr. Fletcher found him riding a mule, holding his entrails as he sought help. He took the man into a cabin beside the trail, using the kitchen table to wash the intestines and sew him up. Within two weeks, the man was plowing again, with no ill effects. In another episode, Dr. Fletcher arranged to purchase a slave named Alex from Edward Betts’ when he learned that one of his own female slaves (Agnes) had fallen in love with Alex. Octavia related that “After the surrender Father and Mother explained to Mammy Agnes and Uncle Alex that they were free, but they preferred to live as they always had, as members of the family.” In another item, Octavia told of the time a young nursemaid slave accidentally poisoned her parents’ firstborn girl, a baby of only three months. The 17-year-old slave suffered no punishment, but grieved with the family.
The little booklet includes many such stories and mentions the various doctors who served in the area, as well as telling of personal events that involved quite a few of the Madison families of the times. It has been a joy to read of life in early Madison through the words of one who lived here over 120 years ago.