Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher - A, A Vintage Vignette

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Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher - A
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
January 2, 2009

In 1964 the Fletcher family privately printed a 36-page booklet written by Octavia Fletcher Frazier, who was born in 1875. The Madison Station Historical Society was granted permission to use the booklet, and portions are excerpted here. (The entire booklet is available on CD-ROM from the Society.) Octavia was the youngest child of Dr. Richard Matthew Fletcher and his wife Rebeckah Mason of Athens, who were married in 1855. Octavia was the only one of their ten children who was born in Athens, while the others were born at Birnam Wood, the family plantation home at “Nubbin Ridge” near Madison. Octavia’s father was born in Richmond, Virginia, the oldest son of James Nicholas Fletcher. James was born in Virginia in 1785 and became the first sheriff of Nottingham County, Virginia. James moved his family to Alabama when Richard was only three years old. James built a plantation and house called Aspen Dell for his family, and he later gave land for Birnam Wood to his son Richard. The family had settled in the area where Burgreen Road and Brown’s Ferry Road intersect today. They called it “Nubbin Ridge”, according to Octavia’s account, “because the land was so poor … it could not produce even ‘nubbins’ of corn.” Yet, Octavia’s recollections are of productive fields, beautiful knolls, and rolling meadows with perpetual springs of water.

Dr. Fletcher was the primary physician for the area in and around Madison during the Civil War years. He was tutored at home in his early years, by “preceptors” hired by his father James. Later, he attended Lagrange College before going on to study medicine from 1850 to 1854 at the University of Pennsylvania. Octavia wrote that her father would buy a horse, ride it to Philadelphia over a period of three weeks, then sell the horse while attending the university each year. At the end of each school year he would purchase another horse in Philadelphia and ride it home to Alabama for another three week trip. Octavia recalled one of her father’s stories of seeing a whiskey store sign in Philadelphia during those years with the name of the proprietors, “I. Ketchum” and “U. Cheatham”.

It was late in her life that Octavia detailed her memories of her father in the booklet entitled “DR. RICHARD MATTHEW FLETCHER, 1830-1906, A SKETCH OF HIS LIFE AND WORKS”. Octavia was raised in Madison, because the family home, Birnam Wood, at Nubbin Ridge burned during her infancy. Her memories describe in vivid personal detail life in the small town throughout the 1880s and 1890s, as well as providing earlier historical stories that she recalled hearing from older family members.

Among Octavia’s anecdotes is a story that runs contrary to plantation life stereotypes of recent years. It tells of the poisoning by a slave of Dr. Fletcher’s first baby girl. In Octavia’s own words, “A great sorrow which left an indelible scar upon my Father and Mother was the loss of their first baby girl, who was accidentally poisoned by a young Negro slave girl of seventeen, whom they and Mammy Agnes (another slave) were training for a maid and seamstress. Mammy, the most reliable in all the world, was in charge of the baby. Mother and Father had driven over to see Grandmother Mason (in Athens). The baby was asleep. Mammy wanted something from her cabin, so she told Eliza to watch the baby, not to awaken her. The baby awoke soon after she had gone and began to cry. She was subject to Cholic. Eliza had seen Mammy give her catnip tea and sometimes put a drop or two of paregoric in it. She fixed the warm catnip tea and reaching on the shelf picked up what appeared to be the paregoric bottle – but it was a laudanum bottle. Dropping what she believed to be the paregoric into the tea she fed this to the baby. When Mammy returned the child was in a stupor and never regained consciousness. She was three months old. No, there was no punishment of the distracted and distressed Eliza; only mingling of tears, pity and prayers.”

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