Robert Baldwin is a familiar name to Canadian schoolchildren. He continues to be remembered as a bold political reformer and one of the architects of the first responsible government in Canadian history. Despite his prominence in Canadian political history, Baldwin's private life and some of the peculiarities surrounding his death in 1858 are not so well-known. His marriage to his first cousin, Augusta Elizabeth Sullivan, in 1827 was reluctantly permitted by their parents despite concerns about Eliza's chronic poor health and the potential risks of such a close genetic relationship to their children. As Baldwin's political career flourished, their family grew and they would have four children in all. Eliza's health took a turn for the worse following the caesarean birth of her last child in 1834 and she would die two years later. Robert Baldwin was devastated by her death and would never be the same afterward. His strong religious beliefs and obsession with the perfection of his life with Eliza kept him from ever marrying again. He also made yearly rituals out of the anniversaries of their marriage and her death. After spending the rest of his life in and out of politics, he ended his career in 1851 having been driven out by the very reformers he had championed. Baldwin spent the last years of his life tending to his estate in Toronto, writing letters, and brooding over the loss of his wife. He also became preoccupied with health problems which seemed primarily due to chronic depression. His eldest daughter, Maria, was his main caregiver during his last years. She had never married (probably because her father chased off every potential suitor she ever had) and became an embittered spinster who was devoted to her father. Caring for him became increasingly difficult due to his chronic headaches, memory problems and frequent "harassing and perplexing dreams" that disrupted his sleep. Still, it was only after his death on December 9, 1858 due to lung problems that things really took a bizarre turn.
Before his death, Baldwin had left a remarkable document with Maria that showed the full extent of his preoccupation with Eliza. The document contained nine requests concerning how he wanted to be buried. Not only did he ask that certain prized possessions and her letters be buried with him, he also insisted that their coffins be chained together. The most memorable request however was that "an incision be made into the cavity of the abdomen extending through the two upper thirds of the linea alba". In other words, he wanted to have an incision made on his body to match the caesarean scar that had been made on Eliza's body. Maria arranged for the other conditions to be met but balked at that last request and, believing that she had the only copy of her father's document, made no mention of it to the rest of the family. The funeral drew one of the largest crowds Upper Canada had ever known as Baldwin was laid to rest. Life went on afterward until one month later when Maria's elder brother, Willcocks, came across a second copy of the document while sorting through his father's clothes. Robert Baldwin had been in dread of dying away from home and had carried an abbreviated copy to ensure that all of his final requests be met. Being a dutiful son (and with perhaps a few harsh words to Maria), Willcocks made the necessary arrangements.
It was on a cold January day in 1859 when Willcocks, along with several family members and friends (including Dr. James Henry Richardson), entered the vault where Baldwin's body was kept to make the requested incision (as it was still winter, the body could not be buried until the ground thawed in the spring). It was definitely a grave undertaking (sorry, couldn't resist) and marked a strange end to a remarkable political life. Robert and Eliza Baldwin are now buried in St. James Cemetery in Toronto (still chained together) and their joint grave marker represents a silent testament to a story of love and grief.