A Tale of One City: Charles Dickens in Rochester

A Tale of One City: Charles Dickens in Rochester


Dickens Tour of America 1867-1868. [Images provided by Michael Nighan]

Michael J. Nighan

By 1842 Charles Dickens had made it big. Rising from a childhood of intermittent poverty, with the publication of Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and The Old Curiosity Shop, he’d become a literary celebrity, one of the best known writers in the world. (1) And all before his thirtieth birthday. Now he wanted to take a break. And a trip. A trip to the United States to see, as many European literati had done before him, what the young nation of democracy and opportunity across the Atlantic was really like. Never one to pass up an opportunity to make a buck, or rather a pound, while he was there, why not give a few speeches and also gather material for a book about his travels?

Arriving in Boston with his wife in late January, Dickens was gratified by the almost hysterical enthusiasm of his welcome, a welcome not seen again for a visiting Englishman until four mop-haired musicians came to America in 1964.

6. Dickens Surrounded by his Characters

Dickens Surrounded by his Characters.

There never was a king or emperor upon the earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, and entertained in public at splendid balls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds” he immodestly wrote to family members in London.

However, this gratification quickly turned to shock and disgust when he realized that Mrs. Dickens and he were expected to endure a lack of privacy and the rough-and-ready hospitality and curiosity of the less-gentrified Americans during their visits to the various American cites.

“I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude…I can’t drink a glass of water, without having 100 people looking down my throat…”

While in Washington he sat in on a session of Congress, visited President Tyler at the White House, and became appalled by the machination of American politicians and the press, and nauseated by the ubiquitous practice of chewing (and spitting) tobacco.

Even more galling to Dickens was how others were making money off his name and fame. From selling busts and lithographs of his image, to what he claimed was a barber who was selling locks of his hair. But what made him angriest was the money that was slipping through his fingers due to America’s lack of international copyright laws preventing publishers from bringing out editions of his work without paying royalties. Given the popularity of his writings he claimed to friends back in England that, “I am the greatest loser alive by the present law.”

Never reticent where his pocketbook was concerned, Dickens attempted to tactfully raise the issue of intellectual property protection at his lectures and at dinners given in his honor. His tact must have worn thin however as the press was soon writing that:

“We are mortified and grieved that he should have been guilty of such great indelicacy and impropriety…The entire press of the Union was predisposed to be his eulogist, but he urged those assembled (not just to) do honour to his genius, but to look after his purse also.”

As Dickens’s visit to America was coming to a close, each side was clearly viewing the other as vulgar money grubbers.

By the time he sailed for home in June, Dickens was thoroughly disgusted with America and Americans. “I am disappointed…. This is not the republic I came to see. This is not the republic of my imagination”, he wrote in a letter to a friend. “I’ll be damned if I’ll go through that again!”    

Fast forward to 1867.

Dickens was now an older and wiser man, albeit one in poor health, living on a country estate outside of the city of Rochester in the county of Kent, England where, despite the scandal created when he left his wife and children for an actress half his age, he remained one of the most popular authors in the world. But despite the best seller sales of “A Christmas Carol”, David CopperfieldBleak House, A Tail of Two Cities, Great Expectations and several other books and short stories, Dickens’ lavish life style, and his continuing support of his numerous relatives (and his paramour) meant that his finances were in a sorry shape. Although he’d commenced a series of paid public readings of his works across the UK, earning more from that activity than from his royalties, it was never enough. Now, seeking new sources of revenue, and not without a degree of trepidation, he broke his pledge and decided to return to the United States, a decision sweetened by an offer of $10,000 from the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, America’s leading literary journal.

Leaving for the United States in November 1867, with over 70 readings planned in 18 northern and mid-Atlantic cities over a six month period, including two visits to Rochester, the unanswered question was, would anyone in America pay to see him?

It was a good question. And for a very good reason. For upon his return from that country in 1842, Dickens had rushed into print his travelogue, American Notes for General Circulation. But instead of providing the usual European tourist’s-eye view of the country, Dickens had included a scathing indictment of American manners, morals, greed, politics, the press and most of all, slavery (2).

Sensing that his criticisms of America and Americans would evoke a hostile reaction, Dickens attempted to justify himself in advance in the book’s Dedication:


 Two hundred pages late he ended with the prediction that his book would not, “be tenderly or favorably received by the American people”, but that it, “cannot cost me a single friend on the other side of the Atlantic, who is, in anything, worthy of the name…I have nothing to defend, or to explain away.  The truth is the truth; and neither childish absurdities, nor unscrupulous contradictions, can make it otherwise.”

Needless to say, reaction from America was immediate and equally-scathing.

“No person of ordinary intelligence can get up from the perusal of these “notes” without feeling that the great aim of the writer is produce the impression among the English readers that he is really somebody, and possesses all those niceties of feeling and sensitiveness of contact with the vulgar mass, so frequently assumed by the low-bred scullion unexpectedly advanced from the kitchen to the parlour…” American Courier and Enquirer (November 17, 1842)

It’s not that 19th Century Americans (or we today for that matter) would necessarily disagree with an appraisal of national politics as:

“Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves … in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and unblushing form…” 

…It’s just that Americans didn’t want a foreigner, and an Englishman at that, throwing it in their faces. (3)

Dickens then upped the rhetorical ante by serializing Martin Chuzzlewit, in which he portrayed America as an uncivilized wilderness, populated by low-bred hucksters.  Reaction in the United States was understandably negative, with irate readers in New York City burning copies of the story in the streets.

Now back to 1867.

Dickens and Dolby Dividing the Spoils

Dickens and Dolby Dividing the Spoils

Once again arriving in Boston as he had in 1842, this time with his manager, George Dolby (4), Dickens discovered that he needn’t have worried about his reception in America. Despite past differences, he had remained the country’s most popular author, and his second welcome was as triumphant as the one 25 years earlier. With the trauma of a civil war behind them, and a new generation of readers unfamiliar with the 1840s contretemps, it seems that America, and Dickens, had mellowed and were willing to let bygones be bygones.

Sounding like a 21st. Century description of a Black Friday sale, Dolby reported to Dickens why Boston ticket sales were through the roof:

the line of purchasers exceeded half a mile in length. The line commenced to form at ten o’clock on the night prior to the sale, and here were to be seen the usual mattresses and blankets in the cold streets, and the owners of them vainly endeavouring to get some sleep – an impossibility under the circumstances; for, leaving the bitter cold out of the question, the singing of songs, the dancing of breakdowns, with an occasional fight, made night hideous”.

Dolby later wrote about the Boston audiences’ reaction to Dickens’ reading of “A Christmas Carol”. After Dickens closed with Tiny Tim’s famous last line:

“…a dead silence seemed to prevail—a sort of public sigh as it were—only to be broken by cheers and calls, the most enthusiastic and uproarious, causing Mr. Dickens to break through his rule… presenting himself before his audience, to bow his acknowledgements.”

Reading desk used by Dickens in America 1867-1868

Reading desk used by Dickens in America 1867-1868

Dickens spent the first six weeks of the tour reading in Boston and New York City (where lines were even longer than in Boston and where over 40,000 attended his readings). Weeks seven to eight were spent in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, with weeks nine and eleven devoted to Baltimore and Washington. By this time Dickens was being troubled by flu-like symptoms, insomnia, and a foot inflammation which required him to walk with a cane, discomforts so severe that he had to cancel several stops and rest before pushing on to Washington in February (where he gave a private performance for President Andrew Johnson, then on the verge of being impeached), and on to Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo in March. Despite the cancellations, by mid-January he had still been able to bank an astronomical £10,000, the equivalent of $1,300,000 today.

Rochester Democrat advertisment March 8, 1868

Rochester Democrat advertisment March 8, 1868

Scheduling readings in Rochester for March 10 and March 16, Dickens was notified in late February that ticket sales were lagging behind expectations and that the venue, Corinthian Hall (located just off State Street between today’s Holiday Inn Downtown, and the Reynolds Arcade (5), was smaller than anticipated.   But slow ticket sales soon became the least of his worries. Following what he called the “severest winter I have ever known”, Dickens wrote that railroad track flooding caused by a spring thaw had resulted in his Albany train being stopped “at a place called Utica” for two days. Finally reaching Syracuse on March 9, Dickens complained that his hotel was “surprisingly bad”, that he’d been served, “an old buffalo for supper and an old pig for breakfast”, and that the lecture hall was “a marvel of dirt.”  

Arriving in Rochester the next day, Dickens found the city had been threatened by flooding when the thaw had created an immense ice dam blocking the Genesee River. Boats had even been stationed in the streets to aid in evacuation.(6)  But the previous night the dam had given way with a roar and the threat of flooding had been eliminated. Dickens wrote that it was all, “very picturesque! But not very good for business as the manger says. Especially as the theatre stands in the center of danger and had ten feet of water in it on the last occasion of flood.” Given the situation, Dickens anticipated that attendance at the Corinthian would be, “whatever we can cram into the hall.”

1. Corinthian Hall

Corinthian Hall

Dickens used the same scenery and simple props on his American tour as he had used in the UK — an elegant maroon backdrop and a specially-designed waist-high reading desk with an elbow rest and a foot rail. His standard program was two hours long, began at 8:00 pm on the dot, and opened with an uninterrupted 90 minute reading, followed by a short intermission, and a brief closing reading.

Dickens Rochester Reading Admission Ticket - from Rochester Historical Society

Dickens Rochester Reading Admission Ticket – from Rochester Historical Society

In Rochester, Dickens opened, as he did in most cities, with a condensed version of “A Christmas Carol,” entering into the role of each character from Tiny Tim, to Bob Cratchit to Jacob Marley, and most of all to Scrooge, with different voices and mannerisms, often prowling about the stage as he spoke, usually from memory. In a review in the next day’s issue of the Rochester Democrat:

“When you hear the author’s rendering, you feel that you have never known Scrooge before…nor ever seen Bob Cratchit’s interesting family except through the steam of their Christmas pudding. Now you meet them face to face. And for evermore they are living friends…. We confess to a grand disappointment. We had supposed that the entertainment itself would not be much better than ordinary dramatic readings, and that the principal satisfaction would be simply in having seen the great artist. (But) his reading is as far ahead of any other we have heard as his works surpass those of common novelists. It has all the effect of the most exquisite acting, without any of the trumpery of the stage.”

Dickens's prompt book for A Christmas Carol

Dickens’s prompt book for “A Christmas Carol”

The evening’s readings were rounded out by Dickens’ interpretation of the trial scene from Pickwick.

Dickens then took the train to Buffalo for readings on March 12 and 13, and a short visit to Niagara Falls. The reason for scheduling the Rochester performances a week apart seems to have been the simple fact that it was a convenient way to break up a trip to and from Buffalo.

Writing to John Forster — his good friend and future biographer — from Rochester on March 16, Dickens discussed his plans for the return East and his final readings in New Haven, Boston and New York, as well as the admirable qualities of Corinthian Hall:

“There is a great deal of water between Rochester and New York and traveling is very uncertain, as I fear we may find tomorrow. There is again some little alarm here on account of the river rising too fast. But our tonight’s house is far ahead of the first. Most charming halls in these places; excellent for sight and sound. Almost invariably built as theatres with stage, scenery and good dressing rooms. Audiences seated to perfection, excellent door ways and passages and brilliant light.”

This time, Dickens’ reading began with an adaptation from his recently-published “Doctor Marigold’s Prescriptions,” one of the Christmas short stories he’d been writing since “Christmas Carol.” Marigold, (not a doctor, but rather named for the doctor who delivered him) was a “cheap Jack” or street peddler who worked out of, and lived in, a wagon with his family. The story contained the usual Dickensian tear-jerking plot involving deaths, poverty, heart ache and reconciliation, and revolved around Marigold’s adoption of a deaf-mute child. It can safely be assumed that Dickens left the audience happily sobbing away.

Although the next day’s papers cited an overflow crowd as proof of the public’s acclaim for Dickens, the Rochester Democrat’s review was decidedly downbeat when it opined that the final selection, this from Bob Sawyers’ party in “Pickwick”, may not have been a good one for Dickens to choose:

“ (although) the quiet humor and the delicate pathos make a far deeper impression when you read it by yourself’; it is hard to understand the lack of appreciation or sympathy, or the fear of showing it—or what ever it was that dashed a little, last evening – the expectations of those who had heard the readings of a week ago. We do not mean to intimate that the entertainment was not highly enjoyable, but it certainly fell short of the complete triumph which every body felt had been achieved at the former one.”

In 1947, including an artist's rendition of Dickens speaking, Sibley's ran an advertising commemorating the event that coincided with the opening of the Sibley's first "Boston Store." RochesterDemocrat and Chronicle, Feb 17, 1947

In 1947, including an artist’s rendition of Dickens lecturing, Sibley’s ran an advertisement commemorating the March 16th 1868 event, one that coincided with the opening of  Sibley’s first “Boston Store.” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Feb 17, 1947

Dickens’ schedule took him back East and to New England, his last reading being given where he started, in Boston where, on April 8, following prolonged applause, he closed by telling the audience:

“In this brief life of ours, it is sad to do almost anything for the last time . . . Ladies and gentlemen, I beg most earnestly, most gratefully, and most affectionately, to bid you, each and all, farewell.”

By the end of the tour, digestive problems had Dickens complaining that, “I don’t eat more than half a pound of solid food in the whole four-and-twenty hours“, and living on a mainly liquid diet of beef soup and “a tablespoonful of rum in a tumbler of fresh cream, a pint of champagne, an egg beaten up in sherry (twice)”.

Totaling up his receipts, Dickens found that he had average over $3,000 (1868 dollars) for each of his readings, far more in cities such as Boston and New York, less in smaller burgs such as Rochester, New Haven, Springfield, MA, etc. All told it has been estimated that Dickens took in, after expenses, nearly $3,000,000 in today’s money.

On April 23 he boarded an ocean liner to England, literally a step ahead of a federal tax lien against the proceeds of his tour.

In just over two years Dickens would be dead from a stroke.

Prince Charles lays a Wreath on Grave of Charles Dickens

Prince Charles lays a Wreath on Grave of Charles Dickens

His expressed wish to be buried in, “an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner” in Rochester Cathedral  was ignored, with his burial taking place amid great pomp in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

Before his death, Dickens had continued his reconciliation with America by adding an 1868 postscript to his still-in-print “American Notes,” taking it from his address at a farewell banquet given in his honor in April 1868 by his old adversaries, the New York press:

“(I wish to) express my high and grateful sense of my second reception in America, and to bear my honest testimony to the national generosity and magnanimity.  Also, to declare how astounded I have been by the amazing changes I have seen around me on every side,—changes moral, changes physical, changes in the amount of land subdued and peopled, changes in the rise of vast new cities, changes in the growth of older cities almost out of recognition, changes in the graces and amenities of life, changes in the Press, without whose advancement no advancement can take place anywhere.  Nor am I, believe me, so arrogant as to suppose that in five and twenty years there have been no changes in me, and that I had nothing to learn and no extreme impressions to correct when I was here first.”

All had indeed been forgiven.


(1) A celebrated tear-jerker, The Old Curiosity Shop had first been published in serial form in a London monthly magazine. So popular was the central character, Little Nell, that in 1841 New York readers, anxious to know whether she had lived or died, stormed the pier when the ship bearing the magazines with final story installment arrived. She died.

(2) A tad hypocritical given that two decades later Dickens was an ardent supporter of the Confederacy. He later attempted to explain his support by pointing out that in 1861 the Confederate States congress had done what the American congress had so far failed to do (and wouldn’t do until 1891), namely pass legislation granting copyright and royalty protection to foreign authors.

(3) In a paragraph that echoes forward to the present day, Dickens wrote that he was amazed how Americans elected officials that they did not trust because they believed the man was “smart”, and because “smart outweighs all evils”.

“He is a public nuisance, is he not?” “Yes, sir.” “A convicted liar?” “Yes, sir.” “He has been kicked, and cuffed, and caned?” “Yes, sir.” “And he is utterly dishonourable, debased, and profligate?” “Yes, sir.” “In the name of wonder, then, what is his merit?” “Well, sir, he is a smart man.”

(4) In planning for Dickens tour, Dolby had even conferred with P. T. Barnum, seeking advice on the best, and most profitable ways, to promote ticket sales.

(5) Corinthian Hall had been Rochester’s premier cultural and entertainment venue since it’s opening in 1849. In addition to Dickens, the building’s third floor lecture hall had hosted, or would later host, such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Horace Greeley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jenny Lind, William H. Seward, and Henry Ward Beecher. The hall was torn down in 1928, with the location marked today by Corinthian Street, an alley running from State Street to the river.

Location of Corinthian Hall - 1868

No. 47 – Location of Corinthian Hall

(6) Three years earlier, in March 1865, another spring thaw had resulted in downtown Rochester being submerged for several days as the Genesee rose to be level with the top of the Erie Canal aqueduct, today’s Broad Street Bridge. Boats had to be used to traverse the streets and to rescue trapped residents.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For a 1912 recollection of Dickens’ performance at Corinthian Hall, see Robert Stuart MacArthur’s “The Lyceum Platform in the ‘Sixties,’ How the Platform Appearances of Emerson and Dickens Impressed One in the Audience, The Luyceumite and Talent, Volume 6, August 1912, pgs. 14 -16.

A student at the University of Rochester in 1868, MacArthur later graduated from the Rochester Theological Seminary, then becoming the longtime pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in New York City.

page 15-page0002

The Luyceumite and Talent, Volume 6, August 1912, page 15

About The Author


Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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