Inside lay a two-century-old Lowcountry tragedy, braided in the fine weave of Gen. John McPherson’s hair.
“Forgive the wish that would have kept you here,” the inscription reads.
Discovering secrets is an odd part of the job for restorer Robert Sarco, of Hollywood, who specializes in antique woodwork and whose work graces homes and restaurants throughout Charleston. Among other stunners in his past work, he found a bag holding diamond rings among “just a fortune in jewelry” taped in a nook under a dining room table. The owner, he said, fainted dead away when he showed her; she had been searching for it for 25 years.
But the find in a cupboard he is restoring for a private owner is “crazy interesting,” he said.
It is a mourning locket, a sentimental attachment of wives, widows and families in antebellum times. They would keep — and wear — locks of loved ones’ hair when the loved ones went off to war or another perilous adventure, as a sort of good luck charm for a safe return, said June Wells, director of the Confederate Museum in Charleston.
If they died, the hair became a mourning keepsake. If it were braided, it’s an even more valuable piece.
“That would be a widow” or another very close family member, she said. The Confederate Museum, like most Civil War collections, has samples of the lockets. Wells has her grandfather’s at home.
“The braided ones are rather pretty. They’re supposed to be, and seem to me to be more personal,” Wells said.
On the locket is an image of a woman in mourning leaning against a tomb monument.
McPherson, it turns out, was the grandson of James “Indian fighter” McPherson, a pre-Revolutionary War plantation owner in the Beaufort area. A typewritten inscription later added to the locket refers to him as “the immigrant McPherson.”
John McPherson apparently inherited the Laurium (or Laureum) Plantation on the Pocotaligo River, a tidal creek outside Beaufort. And here McPherson’s story turns poignant.
John McPherson was aboard the vessel “Rose In Bloom” on a 1806 trip from Charleston to New York City, when a major hurricane blasted into it off New Jersey. The crew fought the storm until the ship capsized, killing 23 passengers, including McPherson.
“The Wreck of the Rose in Bloom,” a marble relief in the collection of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, carries the image of McPherson’s daughter, Elizabeth, being rescued by a sailor as the ship sinks. Elizabeth is said to have dreamed of the wreck days before it happened, according the museum’s notation.
For all anyone knows, Elizabeth might have worn the locket, or inherited it from her mother.