Elisa and Willie – A love story

Published 12:54 am Sunday, December 16, 2007

In the year 1858, a handsome eighteen year old young man named Willie gazed at a pretty young lady standing near a fence at the Amite Female Seminary and instantly fell in love. The sixteen year old girl, who called herself Elisa, gazed back flirtatiously—and so began the sad and empowering story of unrequited love and lifelong friendship for two people who were to become prominent, each in their own right, but not together.

Elisa, a student at the seminary, was popular among her classmates. She was an uninhibited young woman who had a knack for verse and excelled in composition. Not much is known about Willie, except that he was relatively poor and had a younger sister attending the Seminary.

The school in Liberty Mississippi was founded by Reverend Shirk, a Baptist minister, and while church and social events did bring the sexes together, romance and any degree of affection was frowned upon and cause for disciplinary action and even expulsion. In spite of the rules, letters, poems and gifts passed between the two, including ambriotypes (photographs) and promise rings. Apparently, such correspondence and the occasional times when they were in each others presence, were enough to allow the romance to flourish. There is evidence that Willie may have visited Elisa’s home and even carved their names on an old gray bridge. Perhaps they were even able to steal a kiss or two. Such clandestine actions, though, were fraught with problems, as letters went astray and rumors of errant flirtations with others abounded. Perhaps it was inevitable that Reverend Shirk intercepted one of Elisa’s letters and demanded that the relationship cease and that she turn over all correspondence from Willie. She refused, but was not expelled. Instead her uncle was notified of the goings on. All was not lost, though, since it was close to graduation, and after commencement, Elisa believed they could continue their romance.

When Elisa returned home to Hobolochitto, her aunt and uncle, and indeed her whole family began to make fun of the romance and degrade Willie as too young and too poor for the likes of their prominent Eliza. In defense, Elisa responded that she was just coquetting him and was forced to return his ring and photograph and ask for her’s back. Willie did return the photograph, but at Elisa’s suggestion made a copy, the one featured in this article. This was after she found out that all correspondence between the two had been intercepted by her uncle, even those to and from her best friend Bec, who was a consort in the romance. In spite of the restrictions, Elisa was able to secrete several letters to Willie, pledging her undying love and begging that he not drink, make something of himself and in three years they could be together. She saw him one more time on her brother’s steamboat, in the women’s quarters surrounded by her family and friends. Willie had to pose as just an old school friend, but Elisa was able to slip him a promise ring.

Willie worked hard in a pharmacy, joined the War for Southern Independence in 1862 and became a medic. Toward the end of the war, perhaps feeling that the prominent Elisa was out of his reach, or maybe just needing the company and affection of a woman to ease his suffering from the scourges of the terrible war, married a socialite from Chattanooga and returned to New Orleans to practice as a pharmacist. Elisa, heart broken by the news, wrote several poems about her soldier boy and one about a suitor, who carved their names on the old gray bridge, promising to return after he found his fortune, then married into that fortune. Little is known of Elisa during that period, except that the war probably devastated her uncle’s plantation and she, as with many refined southern women, had to work hard to survive. . She didn’t resurface until she began to submit poetry to the N. O. Times in 1866. Elisa met the co-owner of the Daily Picayune while visiting her Grandfather Russ, became literary editor, then married him, a man 59 years her senior. A month after the wedding, Elisa was attacked by the newspaperman’s ex-wife and nearly killed. Hearing of the attack Willie contacted Bec, Elisa’s old friend, who encouraged him to go to Elisa’s aid. Seeing his old flame again, Willie felt the pangs of forgotten love and tried to renew their romance. Elisa chided him, her, a married woman and he, a husband and father, but continued the close friendship which lasted until her death.

William Cole Harrison achieved the status as General in the Confederate army, as well as gaining degrees in pharmacy and medicine. Elisa is better known as Eliza Jane Poitevent Holbrook Nicholson, the poet Pearl Rivers and owner and editor of the Daily Picayune (now the Times Picayune) from 1876 to 1896. Her early poetry reflected nature, love and the plight of women. Her newspaper became the leading journal of the south with its innovative reporting and humanistic causes. She is also known as the person who named the towns of Picayune and Nicholson. Toward the end of her life, Eliza Jane renewed her poetry with two epic poems, Hagar and Leah, sympathetic to those scorned biblical women. Both poems achieved national literary praise. She died in 1896, eleven days after her husband George Nicholson, at the age of 54.

The ambriotype is a copy of the one Elisa gave to Willie. It and a large group of letters can be found in the William Cole Harrison collection in the Archives at Tulane University. Damage to the picture was corrected by Picayune Photographer, Carolyn Terry.

Don Wicks is a writer/historian who is researching Eliza Jane for the purpose of a full biography.