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These documents consist primarily of letters by William Leslie Edison (1878-1937), the youngest child of Thomas Edison and Mary Stilwell. The dated letters cover the period January 1898-March 1899; the undated items are also from the same period. Most of the letters are addressed to William's stepmother, Mina Miller Edison, but there are also letters addressed individually or jointly to Thomas Edison along with two letters addressed jointly to his half-sister Madeleine and half-brother Charles. Other correspondents include representatives of the firm of J. M. Ceballos & Co. in New York City and Puerto Rico and officers of the U.S. army in Puerto Rico.
The first five letters were written while William was attending Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. Included are comments about college activities, lack of money, overdue bills, sickness that was causing him to miss many classes, and his concern about his grades. The fifth letter announces that he has failed his physics exam and plans to "resign before I am requested to leave." (William's decision to leave college was announced in the New Haven Register on March 12, 1898.) A letter written shortly after his return to New York City mentions his plans to persuade his brother Tom close up his lamp company business "as he is getting into trouble about money matters."
There are also several letters, postcards, and telegrams dealing with William's service in the First New York Regiment of Volunteer Engineers during the Spanish-American War. Although he had hoped to receive a commission because of his "pull" with the commanding officer, he ended up enlisting as a private. (The enlistment was announced in the New York Journal on June 17, 1898.) A farewell letter to Charles and Madeleine expresses hope that they will "be not a burden like myself" when they grow up and advises Madeleine not to "do anything so foolish as your sister Marion did." Two postcards sent while William was drilling at Camp Townsend in Peekskill, New York, relate that he is "enjoying it very much" and ask Mina to send money and sign a paper giving him permission to enlist.
Some of the wartime letters pertain to William's health in Coamo, Puerto Rico, where his regiment was stationed from mid-August until mid-November 1898. A letter by Frederick R. Rohl, an agent of Ceballos & Co. who was instructed to look into reports that William was very ill, concluded that "he is well & needs nothing." A letter from William to his father, signed "your devoted but sick and hungry boy," paints a quite different picture of conditions in camp, complaining of "no medicines, incompetent doctors, no water, nothing to eat." According to William, he had been "sick ever since I arrived" and only 300 of 1200 men in the regiment were able to do even light duty; he had misled the investigators about his condition "in order to cause no uneasiness." The letter pleads with Edison to use his influence and that of his grandfather Lewis Miller to secure a discharge before yellow fever gives him "a final discharge forever." Although the conflicting evidence makes it difficult to assess the state of William's health and of conditions in camp, his own account is supported by an article in the New York Times from October 4, 1898, pointing to the First Volunteers as one of the sickest regiments in Puerto Rico with one in every three men unfit for duty.
The last two letters, both addressed to Mina Edison, were written shortly after William was mustered out of the U.S. Army. A letter from January 30, 1899, announces that he is living in The Bradford in Greenwich Village, complains that he has very little money, and asks his father to give him forty-six dollars to purchase a "Prince Albert" coat and vest and a high hat. A letter from March 2 offers condolences on the passing of Mina's father, Lewis Miller, who died on February 17. William also comments on his own poor health, which he attributes to "the Porto Rico business," and remarks that he is no longer living with his brother Tom but has rented an apartment with Mr. Mackey of the New York Times. Courtesy of David E. E. Sloane.