Dr. Purple’s Fall

Those who know me well know that I have spent hours researching Dr. William Purple from Greene. He was a fascinating man who lived a long life in service to his family, his community, and his profession.

The following story is based in fact; I’ve tried to tell it with Dr. Purple’s voice.

William D. Purple lived from 1802 to 1886. He and his wife, Julia, had four children: Julia, Agnes, William, and Mary.

October 4, 1864

Ah, William. You are my Icarus. How I longed to see you fly to safety!

When you registered for the Civil War draft in June of 1863, my heart nigh burst with pride and broke for sorrow. And when your name was called to serve, you readied yourself.

But you began a cough. With the date fast approaching for the regiment to leave, your cough grew worse. When I saw the blood in your sputum, I knew.


I had heard of soldiers leaving for the war and being sent home with consumption, but far more tales were of young soldiers who died away from home from that dread disease. I wanted to be sure of your care.

We scraped together the $300 to pay the commutation fee and release you from service. $300, dear Icarus, for wax and feathers, and, through friends, a bank job in the north, where the air is fresh and clean and curative. I had hoped that you would carve a place for yourself in the banking world.

You had not the heedless hubris of the ancient Icarus. What did Mr. Averell, the bank president say in his letter? “William was a man of great simplicity of character, purity of purpose, confiding and generous in his feelings. He will be missed.”

Yes, you will be missed by no one more than me. I missed you the moment I put you on the stage for Canton, daring to hope that it would not be the last time I would see you alive. Yet, one year later those waxen wings, the escape that I, your Daedalus had planned for you, dipped you toward the netherworld before allowing you to soar to Heaven itself.

I walked last night as if in a dream. It was a moonless night and I had not brought a lantern. As I passed the open doors of  the Chenango House, light streamed out. I could hear laughter and music within. Once passed, I walked in darkness and all I could hear was the flowing water of the Chenango River. It beckoned me, like the Icarian Sea.

“Come,” it said, “I can reunite you with your William, your Icarus.” I walked toward it, my thoughts lost in heavy grief. “Come,” whispered the river.

I remember approaching the bridge. The night was cool and I hadn’t worn an overcoat.

The next thing I remember was August Willard kneeling over me, his lantern held aloft by my Mary. My left arm, cold and wet, draped into the river. My feet felt tangled, and rested up the steep embankment that was strewn with leftover canal stone dumped there years ago. My head ached; the rocky pillow upon which it rested was coarse, cold, and damp.

“William,” August said, whilst shaking my shoulders, “Julia is so worried. We must get you home.”

Mary set the lantern on a rock and assisted August in getting me upright and to level ground. I leaned heavily on the two of them as we slowly made our way home. My whole body was bruised, but my left side – my shoulder, arm, hip and leg – was badly abraded as well. Blood from a gash in my head continued to trickle down my cheek as we walked. Julia paled as she saw us enter the house.

“I’ve been so frightened for you, William,” she cried, gently placing her hand on my bloody cheek before hurrying into my office for some medical supplies.

The story unfolded to me as August tended my wounds. I had been gone for hours. Julia had sent Mary across the street to August’s house. She roused him and he willingly searched for me. But, how long had I lain below the bridge? That was a mystery.

Had I accidentally stumbled?

The night was so very dark, and my thoughts occupied by one thing, my only son’s death.

Or, had I heeded the river’s call?

“Come, Daedalus. I will give you wings to fly to your son.”

The Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus can be read here: Icarus and Daedalus

Consumption is better known as tuberculosis. During the Civil War, an estimated 14,000 soldiers died from tuberculosis. In the Union camps, it was treated with “fresh air” and lung surgery. Outside the war, tuberculosis was the leading cause of death in the 19th century.

2 thoughts on “Dr. Purple’s Fall

  1. You really have the voice of Dr Purple. I am catapulted back in time to a place I do not know and yet, I do because of your skillfully knit words on the page. I also have tears. The despair this man feels at trying so hard to save his son from that dread fate. Stitching together wax and feathers to save his Icarus and feeling he has failed. The Civil War is something I hope to learn much more about when I am in the right place (geographically) to do so. Dr Purple, through your skilled hand has ignited that notion further. Chapeau, my friend – this is wonderful, quite wonderful.

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