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When Dickens Died, America Mourned. Our Archives Tell the Story.

2020-06-07 09:00:28

When Charles Dickens died of an apparent stroke on June 9, 1870, the news was not cabled to the United States until later that night. Many New Yorkers did not learn about the British novelist’s death until the morning of June 11, when it was splashed across the front page of The Times.

No writer of the age was more beloved than Dickens. Just as people had once clamored for the next installment of his serialized novels, they now sought new details about his life and death at 58. For months, the newspaper brimmed with stories about Dickens’s final hours, his funeral, his will, the auction of his art collection, even his estate sale, where a set of old flowerpots went for a guinea.

On June 12, The Times followed its report of Dickens’s death with a melancholy editorial tribute to the man “whose works are more or less associated with the events of our lives,” pointing out that “people of middle age cannot but feel that they have ‘grown up,’ as it were, with Charles Dickens. The appearance of each successive story from his pen is linked with a thousand domestic recollections, for he was eminently the novelist of the household.”

One man suggested that every Dickens lover in the country be taxed 25 cents to fund the project. “As our population numbers 40 million, and nearly every one of them … is a friend of David Copperfield, Micawber, Mr. Pickwick, Sam Weller and Little Nell, this will be a very handsome sum. … It will be, moreover, a tribute from the masses, whose labors and sorrows have been lightened by his magic pen the world over.”

It was not until June 22 that a comprehensive account of Dickens’s death finally arrived from The Times’s London correspondent via steamship. The passing of the novelist, according to the article, “has been a greater shock and a deeper sorrow to the people of England” than anything imaginable.

Dickens, The Times writer went on to say, had appeared healthy. “His face, though deeply seamed with wrinkles, was ruddy, his manners hearty.” He eschewed tobacco and was “a great walker and fond of athletic exercise” as well as “a powerful magnetizer, personally relieving pain and curing disease.” He even “sometimes sent magnetized or mesmerized paper to persons who wrote requesting him to do so.”

That same day The Times also received copies of the British newspapers dated June 10 and June 11, which were packed with the “full particulars of the sudden death of Charles Dickens.”

According to The News of London, “When Mr. Dickens sat down to dinner on Wednesday, his sister-in law, Miss Hogarth, observed an unusual appearance in his face, and became alarmed, and said she feared he was ill. … Mr. Dickens replied, ‘No, no, no; I have got the toothache, and shall be better presently.’ He then asked that the windows might be shut; and almost immediately he lapsed into unconsciousness,” never speaking again.

The Times of London had even more detail.

After his death, Dickens’s body had been sent to London on a special train and taken directly to Westminster Abbey. As the paper’s correspondent pointed out, this was emphatically not what he would have wanted: “No man has written a more pointed condemnation of the hideous pomposities of an English funeral than Mr. Dickens. He also declared with great energy that they should never put him in Westminster Abbey. … He would have preferred to lie with so many he loved best in the Kensal Green Cemetery.”

In keeping with at least some of the novelist’s final wishes (he asked “that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity”), at Westminster Abbey there were “no cloaks, no weepers, no bands, no scarves, no feathers — none of the dismal frippery of the undertaker.”

With the dean “reading our solemn burial services, the organ chiming in subdued and low, and the vast place empty, save for the little group of heart-stricken people” clustered around the “plain oak coffin,” Dickens was laid to rest in Poets’ Corner near Shakespeare, Dryden and Chaucer. “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes — such was the funeral of the great man who has gone.”

Dickens’s eldest son snapped up an “exquisite little water color … of roses in a blue and white jug”; the curator of the National Portrait Gallery bid in vain for a painting of the novelist; and the stuffed raven of “Barnaby Rudge” went for 120 guineas.

People bid on furniture, wine, china, glass, carriages, a wheelbarrow, even a few loads of hay. A coil of rope sold for 10 shillings; the old oak table “on which Mr. Dickens is said to have written for the last time” fetched 5 guineas. During the proceedings, one of the novelist’s favorite dogs, Linda, roamed the grounds, adding “to the sense of desolation and loss.”

The weather was variable that day; when the sun was out, Gad’s Hill, with its “leafy lanes, broad fields, breezy commons,” looked “gay and smiling enough,” but when “the great, dark clouds came sailing over, and the rain pattered down, the sadness of the recent event occurring there was borne in upon the mind.”


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