Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
College History



Wheatons adopt Laban Wild

Childless after nine years of marriage, Eliza Baylies Wheaton and Laban Morey Wheaton adopted his young cousin Laban Wild (1835 - 1853). Virtually all that we know of the Wheatons’ adopted son comes from the biography of Eliza Baylies Wheaton, written by her dear friend and graduate of the Class of 1862, Harriet E. Paine. The account is worth quoting in full.

Laban Wild, a young cousin of Mr. Wheaton, was born in Boston in 1835, and was adopted by the Wheatons when three years old, taking the name of his adopted father, Laban M. Wheaton. Mrs. Wheaton often used to speak of him in a most loving, reminiscent manner, and certain mementoes of his childhood were tenderly preserved, especially a little low chair in which he used to sit by her side. Her journal says, "He was a lovely little boy, though his mother told us before we took him she did n’t know what to do with him, he was so head-strong." Mrs. Wheaton found no special difficulty for some weeks, when she attempted to teach him his letters, and was confronted by a fit of calm obstinacy. These seasons of obstinacy would occasionally come upon him as long as he stayed with the Wheatons, and at such times he was kept in his room till he yielded, when he came out. Mrs. Cyrus W. Allen writes of him: "I remember Laban when he first came to your house, a little boy, bright and interesting. I remember him as he was the first time you took him to church. I can perfectly recall his looks as you presented him for baptism. He looked very pale, as if the solemnity of the occasion awed him. I can see him now in his little green coat. I remember a day which I spent at your house, how he amused himself all day playing the merchant, talking incessantly, and asking innumerable questions, some of which would puzzle wiser heads than ours to answer.” Mrs. Judson writes after his death: "No event for a long time has so moved the fountain of tears as the death of this poor boy. My mind goes back to the time when you first brought him to Uxbridge some fifteen years ago, and follows him on some years as the most lovely and perfect child — so fascinating that many of his ways and sayings will be remembered as long as I live: later on, you begin to feel ‘anxious about Laban,’ you pray for him with great fervency and affection, and adopt the language of Abraham, ‘O that Laban might live before Thee.'"

I take it from all that I have read of him and heard from Mrs. Wheaton's lips that he was a boy with certain serious faults difficult to eradicate and of a temperament that must have required peculiar treatment. It would appear that excessive strictness might be as disastrous for him in one way as too great freedom in another. It is certain that he was very lovable and attractive, that he had many good qualities; but it seems that he might have been rather unsuitably placed at school. The last school that he attended was of confessedly rigid requirements. As the principal says, "We mark all irregularities, and a very limited number sends a boy home.” This principal writes wisely and kindly about Laban, appreciative of his good traits, but frankly says that this school is not the place for him. Unfortunately he fell to the tender mercies of a man not like the principal, but very like a stick attired in clergyman’s garb. The result of such a situation might easily be foreseen. The marks took him home. There was also a personal break in his relations with the Wheatons; something had been said and done, I do not know what. About two years later he writes them from his home in Newark. He has found employment in New York with a large wholesale firm and shows a delightful boyish pride in his promotion, in the confidence of the firm, for he goes on board vessels getting bills of lading signed, he collects notes and pays bills, thus being responsible at times for large sums of money with which he is intrusted. The letter rings with sincerity and is inexpressibly touching, there is such a mingling of manly independence with a regret for the wrong things said and done, such a longing for the hitherto unappreciated affection that had been bestowed upon him, a sense of loss from the "want of some one to look up to, and to direct [him] in the way which is right.”

Six months after this he was taken ill with typhoid pneumonia, which resulted in his death. From the beginning of his sickness, he continually called for his father and mother Wheaton, especially for the latter. They both hastened to him, but they could not grant his eager request, “Could n't you wrap me up and carry me to Norton?” for they knew the journey would be fatal to him. When the boy, scarcely eighteen, died, his body was brought to Norton, where the funeral services were held in church (the seminary girls walking with the mourners), and then was buried in the Wheaton lot on the Common. His adopted parents sorrowed greatly at his death. Perhaps their best comfort was that suggested by "Sister Cynthia" in a letter to Mrs. Wheaton. "It must be some alleviation of your sorrow to reflect that you were with him to soothe him in his sickness, and that, though not restored to your family circle, he was restored to your hearts and regarded you with filial affection."

[Harriet E. Paine, Life of Eliza Baylies Wheaton, Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1907, pp. 34-37]

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