Some time ago, I found a ninety-eight year old letter from my grandfather, Doctor Henry Noble Willis of Wilmington, Delaware, to his older sister Mary Clark in Preston, Maryland. The 31 December 1924 letter thanked her for a check, presumably a Christmas gift or a birthday present.
Items like this are a treasure. They reveal our ancestors as real people. The brief note shows Doctor Willis was in poor health but retained a sense of humor. The letter mentions his daughter Mary Willis, his cousin Cora Willis Noble, his wife Jessie (“Boss”), and his son Noble, who was eight years old at the time.
The transcribed letter below is followed by some explanatory comments. A couple of words were unclear. I indicated them with a question mark in brackets:
Envelope Addressed: Mrs. M. W. Clark Preston, Md
Postmarked: Dec 31, 1924, 7 PM Wilmington, Del.
Your check arrived ok and waited to find out if you were in Preston before thanking you for same.
Mary leaves us tomorrow for supper in Phila. then on to Yonkers next morning.
She certainly looks fine … weighs 148 almost as much as her Dad. I think she enjoyed her stay very much.
We have had quite a cold snap. The weather man has predicted sun but has not arrived yet.
Don’t kill yourself eating this Xmas with all the fine dinners.
Cora stopped over between trains[?], think she’s looking better.
Well, I am doing fine no change in my blood pressure for 6 weeks. Dr. T told me on Monday A M more[?] drainage and he thought I would be good for 5 or 6 years. Sounds good to me, I shall open the office with the New Year starting in slow – avoiding exceptional strain.
Wishing you a Happy New Year and many of them. Noble had more Xmas in his bones than the rest of us.
Boss says she will write later.
Henry Noble Willis
Henry Noble Willis was 59 years old at the time he wrote this letter. He was born and raised in Preston, Maryland. He graduated from Williamsport College, Pennsylvania in about 1885. After graduating from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 1888, he became a doctor like his father, Henry Fisher Willis. The younger Doctor Willis established his practice in Pocomoke City, Worcester County, Maryland. In 1890, he married Mary E. McMaster, daughter of a local physician. Mary died in 1898, leaving two children: Mary Catherine Willis, born in 1891 and Harry McMaster Willis, born in 1893.
In 1899, the widowed Doctor Willis married Jessie Sensor in Pocomoke City. She was a daughter of the Methodist minister who served several communities in the region. The couple had a daughter Grace in 1905. She died of meningitis at age five. Shortly thereafter, they adopted a daughter Kathryn, who had also been born in 1905. In 1908, Henry and Jessie moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where they resided until their deaths. In Wilmington, they had a son, Noble Sensor Willis who was born 1916.
Mary Willis Clark
The recipient of the letter was Doctor Willis’s 64-year old sister Mary. She was born in Sussex County, Delaware, where their father then practiced medicine. About 1863, the elder Doctor Willis family moved Preston, Caroline County, Maryland. In Preston, he took over the practice of a doctor who had joined the Union Army. Mary grew up in Preston and married Joshua Bascom Clark there in 1878. A report of the marriage indicated he was of Seaford, Delaware where he served as junior editor of “The Sussex County Index,” a local newspaper. The childless couple subsequently moved to Georgetown, Sussex County, Delaware where he became publisher and editor of the “Sussan Journal.”
Joshua Clark died in 1892, and Mary managed and edited the newspaper until 1894. She continued to live at her home in Georgetown until her death in 1941. However, Doctor Willis mailed the 1924 thank you letter to Preston, Maryland rather than to her home in Georgetown. He must have known she was traveling, probably visiting relatives during the holidays, and somehow got word that she was in Preston. Mary or her relatives must have been well known in Preston, a town of about 300 people in the early 1900s, because Henry did not include a street address, just her name and the town.
Cora Fisher Willis Noble
Mary Willis Clark and Henry Noble Willis were the surviving children of Doctor Henry Fisher Willis and his wife Emily Rumbold Patton. Their other two children, Cora Fisher Willis and Emma Patton Willis died young … Cora died as a young school teacher in 1875 at age 18, and Emma died in 1863 before her first birthday.
The Cora referred to in the letter is a second Cora Fisher Willis, born in 1879. She was Mary’s and Henry’s first cousin, the daughter of Henry Fisher Willis’s brother James Spry Willis and his wife Mary E. Shufelt. About 1900, Cora married Charles Fulton Noble, son of Isaac Noble. The Nobles were close to the Willis family although this is the first record I have found of a marriage between the two families.
Isaac Noble was a successful carpenter and a neighbor of Henry Fisher Willis in Preston, Maryland. Doctor Jacob L. Noble joined Henry Fisher Willis’s medical practice in Preston. The elder Doctor Willis so admired the Noble family that he adopted their surname as the middle name for his son. It has been used now as a given name in the Willis family through five generations – the doctor’s son, Henry Noble Willis, grandson Noble Sensor Willis, great grandson Gary Noble Willis, great-great grandson Noble Sutherland Willis, and great-great-great grandson Christopher Noble Willis.
I cannot identify the “Doctor T” mentioned in the letter. However, he was overly optimistic about Henry Noble Willis’s expected life span. Henry died 11 April 1926, a little more than two years after this letter, rather than being “good for 5 or 6 years”. I haven’t found a death certificate, so don’t know the official cause of death. I suspect some sort of heart disease based on Henry’s mention of high blood pressure and “drainage.” Maybe some reader can speculate intelligently as to the cause.
Mary Catherine Willis
The Mary referred to in the second sentence of the letter is Mary Catherine Willis, daughter of Henry Noble Willis and his first wife, Mary McMaster. Mary Catherine was working at the time as a secretary at the YWCA in Philadelphia and had obviously come to Wilmington for the Christmas holiday and her father’s birthday. In 1925, Mary applied for a passport to visit Hong Kong, China and Japan. She later served in China as a secretary for a missionary group sponsored by the YWCA, returning to the United States before war broke out. After her years of employment, she retired in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Our family had the pleasure of Mary’s company when she visited Shreveport, Louisiana in the late 1940s. I remember her as an imposing woman. Doctor Willis’s estimate of her weight was far too low by that time. My mother frequently told a story about Mary, who never married or had children, instructing Mom on how to diaper my younger sister, Mom’s third child. Mary complained, “Charlotte, that diaper is too tight. That child is not going to be comfortable.” Mom backed off and said, “Here. You do it.” Mary did so and with a self-satisfied smile placed Barbara in the playpen. Five minutes later, the naked baby was standing in the playpen swinging the not-too-tight diaper over her head!
Noble and “Boss”
Henry’s and Jessie’s son Noble Sensor Willis referred to near the end of the letter was at the age when children are really excited about the magic of Christmas. With his half-siblings half a generation older than he, I can imagine Noble was an exuberant center of attention. Reading Henry’s letter reminded me that later in life Noble adopted some of his father’s habits. As an adult, Noble opened letters with “Dear Sister” and closed with “Your Brother” as did his father. Also, Doctor Willis called his wife Jessie “Boss” in the last line of the letter. Noble referred throughout his married life to his wife Charlotte as “Boss,” when he wasn’t calling her “Imp.” Noble also usually signed notes and messages with three initials rather than a full name. Interesting to note that those patterns all arose with his father.
The letter does not mention adopted daughter Kathryn who was nineteen by 1924 and possibly no longer in the household. She married William New in 1926. In the 1930 census, however, the two resided with the widow Jessie S. Willis and young Noble at Jessie’s home in Wilmington. The couple continued living in New Castle County, Delaware, but had no children.
That is about all I can glean from this letter right now. I have enjoyed re-discovering more about these people and sharing it. Here’s hoping you can find such treasures among your family memorabilia.
Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
 Henry Noble Willis was born 23 December 1865.
 Mary Willis was born 21 January 1860.
 Mary Willis and Joshua Bascom Clark married 23 January 1868.
 From Newspapers.com – The News Journal, Wilmington, Delaware, 31 Jan 1941, page 20.