Hawthorne and the Pandemic Visit the Instantaneous City

Hawthorne and the Pandemic Visit the Instantaneous City

[Hawthorne portrait by Henry Inman (1835); Peabody Essex Museum. Except where indicated, all images provided by Michael Nighan]

by Michael J. Nighan

In early June of 1832, along with the ship loads of European immigrants arriving in Montreal and Quebec, a sinister and deadly traveler from the Far East disembarked.  One that had never before visited North America.  Cholera.

A bacterial intestinal infection caused by sewage-polluted water or food, and poor personal hygiene, cholera can kill within hours. (1)  Over the next few weeks, with victims piling up by the score in its wake, the “Blue Death” (called thus because the skin of those infected could turn bluish-gray from dehydration) began spreading west along the St. Lawrence River; south by waterway and roadway into New England and down the Hudson River into New York City.  Then across Lake Ontario and along the Erie Canal into Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Niagara Falls; and across Lake Erie to the Midwest states.   By early fall when the scourge finally burned itself out, an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 Americans had died, perhaps half of that number in New York City and State alone.

Cholera spread from Montreal (1832) – Map courtesy of New York Academy of Medicine.

As those of us living through the Age of Covid know, traveling during a pandemic is problematic at best.  With travel restrictions, vaccines, hand sanitizers and masks, staying home has been the occupation of choice for most Americans.  How more amazing is it to realize that, whether from wishful thinking or simple ignorance, during the cholera pandemic of 1832 Americans, whether rich and famous, or from the vast majority of the unknown masses, by and large continued their travels around the country as if no pandemic was occurring.   Indeed, the very existence of cholera tended to spur travel as residents of urban centers sought refuge in the country side, inadvertently bringing the disease with them.  As an example, historians have estimated that close to 100,000 residents of New York City, half that city’s population, and probably all that could afford to do so, left the city during the summer months. (2)

But some of those travelers at least took the precaution of trying to geographically dodge the pandemic or waiting until it seemed to be on its way out.   Among these more circumspect individuals were the famous author Washington Irving (more on him in a future story), and the soon-to-be famous author, Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Both passed through Rochester in 1832 on their way to/from Niagara Falls, America’s leading tourist attraction during most of the 19th. Century.  Both later used their travels as literary inspirations.  And both managed to avoid contracting cholera.


And there I sat, long long ago, waiting for the world to know me.”
― Nathaniel Hawthorne

By the summer of 1832, the 28 year old Hawthorne (actually “Hathorne” until he decided to change the spelling, ostensibly to disassociate himself from an ancestor who’d been one of the judges condemning the Salem “witches” to death) was well on his way to becoming a literary failure.   His published writings to date consisting of one novel, published anonymously (Hawthorne paid to have it printed, and after it failed to sell, he proceeded to burn the remaining copies) and a handful of short stories appearing in various newspapers and periodicals.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne’s sea captain father had died when he was four years old.  He graduated Bowdoin College in Maine in 1825, later admitting to being, an idle student, negligent of college rules and the Procrustean details of academic life.”

Attracted to writing at an early age, Hawthorne had developed a literary style in which he described his impressions and observations of people and places through alter egos, anonymous narrators who in describing themselves described Hawthorne.

“I was a youth of gay and happy temperament with an incorrigible levity of spirit…but wayward and fanciful”, said one narrator“I had avowed my purpose of keeping aloof from the regular business of life.“   The narrator went on to admit that this lifestyle made his puritanical relatives and neighbors think, “nothing but evil of a young man who neither studies  physic, law nor gospel, nor opens a store, nor takes to farming, but manifests an incomprehensible disposition to be satisfied with what his father left him”.  And the narrator felt only slightly ashamed of feeling, “as if it ranked me with the tavern-haunters and town-paupers.”   

The young Hawthorne loved to travel.  In the late 1820s and early 1830s he made annual summer treks of a few weeks duration, traveling throughout New England, sometimes tagging along with one of his uncles on business trips.  And during these trips he filled notebooks with observations of the places he saw and the people he met (many of them men of “questionable habits” seen in local taverns).  All would become fodder for future stories.

For the summer of 1832 Hawthorne had scoped out what was to be his longest trip.  In June he wrote to Franklin Pierce – fellow Bowdoin grad and future president of the United States – that he would be traveling alone and that, starting from Salem, it was his, intention to go by way of New York and Albany to Niagara, from thence to Montreal and Quebec”.   More-than-half serious, he also explained to Pierce that, “I am very desirous of making this journey on account of a book by which I intend to acquire an (undoubtedly) immense literary reputation, but which I cannot commence writing till I have visited Canada.”  But hearing news of the outbreak of cholera in those cities, Hawthorne decided to defer the start of his trip until August or September and to alter his route.

The Blue Death

Death possesses a good deal, of real estate, namely, the graveyard in every town”.  – Nathaniel Hawthorne

When cholera arrived in 1832 it found an America that was growing  economically, with expanding settlements and expanding social and political horizons as Jacksonian Democracy opened new opportunities (if you were a white, Protestant male that is).  And it was during this expansive era that Rochester, the so-called “Young Lion of the West”, had become the prototype boom town as the benefits of the Erie Canal literally flowed through its streets.

The first hint of the pandemic to come appeared on June 16 when a letter from Montreal was printed in the Rochester Daily Advertiser, announcing that cholera had appeared in Quebec.  Three days later, the paper proclaimed:

“Seldom have we communicated news of deeper interest….The pestilence so fatal to life in Asia and Europe is now on our shores, and may ere long be desolating our homes.  Its progress through Quebec and Montreal forbids the supposition that we shall be long exempt.  The Rubicon is passed – – the barrier interposed by the Atlantic is destroyed!”.    

Within days a meeting was called at the courthouse with the announcement that, “The great intercourse of Rochester with Canada…forbids the hope that we should be long freed from the scourge unless the most vigorous policy is instituted  and maintained”.   With no particular medical knowledge or experience of cholera to go on, indeed the actual causes of cholera remained obscure at the time even to the best medical minds (although a connection to filth and debris was surmised), that “vigorous policy” was limited to attempting to haul away the garbage, animal dung, dead cats, etc. which cluttered the streets and alleys of rapidly growing communities such as Rochester.   A Committee of Inspection was appointed, empowered by general consent to enforce the clean up. (3) Vigilante participation may have taken a hand when one particularly fetid location known as “Love’s block” was partially destroyed by a fire of unknown origin.  A hastily appointed Board of Health, less prone to such dramatic actions, announced that, “this board will use all legal and proper measures to prevent the introduction of Asiatic Cholera in this village, but wholly disclaim all violent or illegal measures.”  Interestingly, although “miasmas” and “vapors” were thought to be a possible source of cholera, Rochester apparently made no attempt, if indeed an attempt was even possible, to address the stenches and effluvia arising from those pungent civic cesspools, the Erie Canal and the Genesee River.

Medical advice for avoiding contagion was limited to suggesting that residents keep their homes well-ventilated, get plenty of sleep, and stock up on such nostrums and elixirs as mustard poultices, laudanum (alcohol mixed with opium), camphor, and a concoction made from sulfuric ether, ammonia and cinnamon.  The Rochester Republican newspaper suggested that a tablespoon of pulverized charcoal mixed in a glass of water or milk and taken at bed time was reputed to be an efficacious preventative.

A “rigid quarantine” was imposed on all roads and waterways leading into the village in hopes of detecting possible carriers of cholera, meaning of course outsiders, particularly immigrants.  A committee was appointed to examine all boats arriving at the port of Rochester (Charlotte) on Lake Ontario and to refuse entry to any person “coming from abroad. Not citizens of this state”, who were believed might be a carrier of “any pestilential disease”.  Given that no tests existed to determine whether a person had contracted cholera, it is likely that, unless someone was obviously ill, the determination of who was allowed to land and who was refused was highly subjective.  To assist the committee, a man in a rowboat was hired to patrol the mouth of the Genesee.

For its part, New York State did little to coordinate local responses to the pandemic, leaving towns like Rochester on their own to do the best they could.   Apparently that best wasn’t seen by some as good enough, prompting the Board of Health to issue a notice:

“…we have never known the place more healthy at the same season.  No prevailing disease is abroad…The story therefore, that it is not safe to visit Rochester, and which is believed by many, is not true…”

Meanwhile, the reports of cholera outbreaks drew closer and closer.  Two weeks after appearing in Quebec and Montreal, it was reported in Burlington and Plattsburgh.  By June 18 it was at Albany where the deaths from cholera of canal passengers were reported.  On June 21 there were fears it had reached Niagara Falls via a boat load of immigrants.  On June 27 it appeared in New York City and Erie, Pennsylvania.  On July 8 at Seneca Falls.  And on July 10 at Buffalo.

Not until July did Rochester’s new Board of Health take matters seriously enough to set up a temporary hospital to treat the expected cholera victims. A ramshackle wooden structure containing a number of beds and straw mattresses on the floor and staffed by four washer women as “nurses”, was quickly thrown together on the banks of the canal near the corner of today’s Brown Street and Broad Street.

Some local merchants, opting for discretion over economics, began leaving town.  At least one was ridiculed by having a placard nailed to the door of his vacated store:

Not cholera sick, nor cholera dead,

but out of fright, from cholera fled.

Will soon return, when cholera’s over,

if from his fright he should recover.

On the other hand, some enterprising souls saw that a profit could be made from fear.  The proprietor of a Rochester lottery (private lotteries, licensed by the state, were soon to be outlawed because of their debatable honesty) ran an ad which said in part:

“If any person is afraid of being suddenly swept from this world …and who fears that revered and aged parents , beloved children, or esteemed friends will be thus suddenly left to the cold charities of the world; he had better improve the present opportunity of putting himself and friends beyond the reach of want.   Bascom, at the Lucky Stand (corner of Buffalo and Exchange) is authorized by the State of New York to sell Fortunes for only four dollars.”

(When visiting Rochester later, Hawthorne would write that, “Numerous were the lottery offices – those true temples of Mammon –  where red and yellow bills offered splendid fortunes to the world at large”.)

On a more practical, if more morbid, note, undertaker I. W. Mather’s advertisements  reminded Rochesterians that, “ The subscriber manufactures and keeps constantly on hand ready made coffins of all sizes and qualities at his shop on Buffalo St” 

Almost as an anticlimax, on July 12 the Rochester morning newspapers reported that local doctors, ”had visited the canal boat Tennessee and found on board a colored man recovering from an attack of Cholera Morbus….There was no cause for alarm.”

Alarm was called for later that day however when Dr. Reid, the village health officer reported to the village authorities that, “I have just been called to see a traveler by the name of Edward Pearsall…said to have the cholera.  It is even so….  He is a peddler from Michigan – went to New York to buy goods – left there on the fifth inst. – on the sixth was in Albany…on the eleventh arrived in this village – on the twelfth (this morning) …went to the office of A. B. Lucu, Botanic Physician, said he had dysentery and wished a dose of medicine…at 10 o’clock A.M. was seized with violent purging , vomiting and spasms.…He came on the canal boat Havre…Drs. Coleman, Elwood, Backus, Smith and others have also seen the case and all agree that it is Malignant Cholera.” 

Pearsall died the next day.  To avoid public panic, the Board of Health spread the story that he was actually a boatman on the Genesee River who had died from hard drinking.   The town grave digger was summoned and Mr. Pearsall was quietly buried in the dark of night, a few Board of Health officials helping with the burial, one of which later wrote that, “I reflected that… if the disease was contagious, I was now doing what some other might have to do for me before another night was gone…and each returned to his home to reflect on who should be the next to die with the cholera”.   

As July progressed, more case appeared in communities along the Erie Canal; Syracuse on the 17th, Troy on the 19th, and Lockport on the 21st.

By July 24 Rochester had experienced four deaths and perhaps 10 cases of cholera.  Then, on July 26 the canal boat Western Barge out of Albany with 56 passengers, mostly Irish, English and Swiss immigrants, pulled into town.  The captain had died of cholera outside of Utica, a women passenger had died at Perinton, another passenger had died at Pittsford.

Pittsford on the Erie Canal by George Haevey (1837) – Courtesy of Memorial Art Gallery

No town along the canal would let the passengers leave the boat for fear of contamination.  But Rochester authorities decided to allow the sick to be taken to the cholera hospital where two more soon died.    This charity may have been the village’s undoing.  Almost immediately cases of cholera in Rochester started to rise, prompting village officials to prohibit any canal boat to linger in town for more than 24 hours unless the passengers had passed a health inspection.  Any boat found to contain cholera would be moved outside of town with sick passengers interred until chance of contagion had passed and the boat “sanitized”, as a rule with vinegar, carbolic acid and smoke.  Boats containing immigrants would be prohibited from unloading them.

As cases of cholera multiplied, even the village’s cultural elite became jittery.   The editor of the town’s literary magazine, the Rochester Gem, notified subscribers that, “In a time like this, when disease and death have spread a general gloom over all the place, and our local business is greatly stagnated, I must urge upon you the necessity of an immediate…payment”.

As cholera cases increased, it was reported that the hospital was, often filled to overflowing, the dead and the dying lying upon the straw pallets and on the ground”.  Little wonder then that, when taken ill, many residents declined to go there viewing it, “as the first part of an inevitable route to the grave”.   It was even reported that a female teacher in the village had fastened a card to her belt which read, “If Miss L______ should be taken with the Cholera in the street, don’t take her to the hospital but to her boarding house”. 

As in the days of the Black Death in medieval Europe, a dead cart patrolled Rochester’s streets each morning seeking victims who had died during the night, taking them to the village burial ground on Buffalo Street (now the site of St. Mary’s Hospital on West Main Street) to be quickly sealed in coffins and interred by the few workmen willing to act as grave diggers, who it is said buried the coffins quickly, and not too deep.

Editor’s note: When visiting the St. Mary’s Campus on Genesee Street and West Main, there I discovered in the lobby is a fascinating exhibit about St. Mary’s during the Civil War. [Photos: David Kramer 8/31/21] See Not Even His Mother and Bitten by the Civil War bug at the Tinker Homestead Encampment

The peak of the pandemic was reached on August 15 when 15 deaths and 26 cases of cholera were reported within 24 hours.  A letter sent to Canada and subsequently reprinted in the Rochester Daily Advertiser related how, “Many of my neighbors and friends are dead and God only knows when it may enter my own dwelling.  We have been sorely afflicted here and not the half has been told by our Board of Health”. 

Nevertheless, on September 3 the Board of Health officially announced the end of the pandemic and ceased publishing death and illness numbers.    Between July 12 and that date, Rochester experienced an estimated 388 cases of cholera, of which 108 or 116 or 121 (depending on the source), proved fatal.   While seemingly not stunningly large figures, taking into account that Rochester’s population in 1832 was only about 12,000, if we extrapolate using Rochester’s current population figure, that would equate to almost 2,000 deaths in 2021.  And all in just six weeks!

In what amounted to a preview of the impact of Covid on 21st. Century America, the Board of Health’s subsequent overview of the cholera pandemic stated that,  “ The prevalence of the malignant Cholera in this village for the last six weeks, has —-suspended the usual intercourse between citizens of the neighboring county and ourselves…..The usual business of the place has consequently…suffered no inconsiderate derangement and injury”.  


Technologies of easy travel give us wings; they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimage; they spiritualize travel! Transition being so facile, what can be any man’s inducement to tarry in one spot?” – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hawthorne’s projected travel route in 1832, cholera not withstanding, was hardly original.  His route would include many of the sights already listed in what had come to be known in the tour guides of the era as the “Fashionable Tour”, a well-trodden path from Boston to Albany; through the White Mountains; along Lake Champlain to Montreal and Quebec, across Lake Ontario to Niagara Falls; and along the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo.  A trip made possible, and far more convenient than in the past, by improved roadways, the opening of the Erie Canal, and the introduction of steam boats on Lake Ontario.

Reconstructing Hawthorne’s actual travels in 1832 isn’t easy.  He had a bad habit of burning his papers, including copies of personal letters.  So it’s no surprise that at some point his notebooks prior to 1835 went up in smoke.   As a result, all we have to go on for his final itinerary and dates of travel are a letter he wrote to his mother from Burlington, VT on Sept. 16, and a souvenir document given to him at Niagara Falls on September 28.   The rest has to be pieced together from hints and clues scattered through the series of geographically-specific short stories he subsequently wrote between the winter of 1832 and 1834, describing various parts of the trip. (4)

From the start of his journey, as set out in his June letter to Franklin Pierce, Hawthorne had been intending to write a series of short stories to be compiled into a book to be published under the title, “The Story-Teller”, tales to be told by a fictional narrator rather than presented by the author as a traditional travel guide.  As it turned out Hawthorne’s publisher ultimately rejected the idea of a book and suggested the stories instead be sent to various periodicals for individual publication.  Hawthorne was not pleased.

So save for his Burlington letter, in which he told his mother he hadn’t yet decided where to go next but that Canada wasn’t likely; and Niagara Falls where Hawthorne obtained a certificate testifying that he had taken the walkway behind the falls which ended at Termination Rock, we have nothing to rely on but those stories he later wrote to determine how he got from Burlington to Niagara and where he went next.

Hawthorne at Niagara Falls (1832)

There are six Hawthorne stories which deal with the New York State portion of his 1832 trip: “The Inland Port”, “Old Ticonderoga”, “An Ontario Steam-Boat”, “The Canal Boat”, “My Visit to Niagara”, and “Rochester”.  As previously mentioned, they are told using the literary device of an anonymous traveler, standing in for Hawthorne and giving us his impressions of his journey.  One caveat being that we can not be certain that Hawthorne did not take additional literary license by rearranging or modifying events, or bringing in activities which he did not actually participate in or sights he did not observe first hand.

In “The Inland Port” (a reference to Burlington), Hawthorne wrote that he started from Peru, NY (a small town south of Plattsburgh) and was rowed across Lake Champlain to Burlington.

In “Old Ticonderoga” he relates how he arrived at the ruins of the famous Revolutionary War fort at the northern end of Lake George on his return from Niagara.

The story related in, “An Ontario Steam-Boat” has Hawthorne embarking from Ogdensburg, NY on the St. Lawrence and sailing up the river to Lake Ontario and west across the lake, doubtless to Lewiston.  At the time it’s likely that Hawthorne would have sailed on the “Ontario”.  An aging steamboat, but the only one sailing at the time (at a modest 5 mph or less) from Ogdensburg to Lewiston,  the 200 mile trip taking two days to complete.   The ship was removed from service at the end of the 1832 shipping season.

The Canal Boat“ potentially throws a monkey wrench into the works.  For while Hawthorne’s lake steamer takes him east to west, so does his canal boat. “I embarked about thirty miles below Utica, determined to voyage along the whole extent of the canal, at least twice during the course of the summer.”  Traveling toward Syracuse, Hawthorne wanders off the boat at night, gets left behind, and ends up walking into town.  His extant writings make no mention of additional trips along the canal.  Either that year or in any other.

Hawthorne’s journey in “My Visit to Niagara” takes him by coach from Lewiston to today’s Niagara Falls.  Viewing other tourists at the falls, he watches them take, as he was to do, the walk behind the falls ending with their receipt of a certificate for the achievement, like the one he received on Sept. 28.  (Had Hawthorne arrived a month earlier, he might have run into Washington Irving who had toured Niagara in August.)

But of most importance to us is the story, “Rochester”.   Hawthorne writes that the falls of the Genesee, “was an impressive sight, to one who had not seen Niagara”.  A statement that could be read either that he had not yet seen Niagara Falls and was traveling that way, or, having seen Niagara, was making a condescending comment to take Rochesterians down a peg or two.

Viewing the High Falls at dusk, just three years after Sam Patch had made his leap out of this world and into eternity, Hawthorne mused that, “Why do we call him a madman or a fool, when he has left his memory around the falls of the Genesee, more permanently than if the letters of his name had been hewn into the forehead of the precipice? Was the leaper of cataracts more mad or foolish than other men who throw away life, or misspend it in pursuit of empty fame and seldom so triumphantly as he?” 


Sam Patch’s grave in the Charlotte Cemetery [Photo: David Kramer, December, 2019 from Celebrating the roses of Maplewood. But like Sam Patch, Talker is Gorged ] According to findagrave.com, “Patch was buried in a pauper’s grave in Charlotte Cemetery near the spot where his body was found. His grave was marked by a wooden plank marked “Sam Patch – Such is Life,” which soon disappeared and his grave remained unmarked until a group of students at Charlotte High School raised the funds to erect a proper monument in the mid-20th century.”

Commenting on the rapid growth Rochester experienced with the construction of the Erie Canal (“The town has spring up like a mushroom”), Hawthorne describes the frantic activity of the young boom town:

“The whole street, sidewalks and centre, was crowded with pedestrians, horsemen, stage-coaches,  gigs, light wagons, and heavy ox-teams, all hurrying, trotting, rattling, and rumbling in a throng that passed continually, but never passed away…in two or three places, a crowd of people were showering bids on a vociferous auctioneer. . 

From the mural on the Broad Street Bridge. [Photo: David Kramer from Master Rutherford Hayes Comes to Town . . . and Perhaps Little Chet Arthur as Well]

…The number of public houses benefited the flow of temporary populations; some were farmers’ taverns – cheap, homely and comfortable; others were magnificent hotels, with negro waiters, gentlemanly landlords in black broadcloth, and foppish bar-keepers in Broadway coats, with chased gold watches in their waistcoat pockets…in short, everybody seem to be there, and all had something to do, and were doing it with all their might…”

Possibly using a fictional frontier character to express his own amazement at the emergence of a community of 12,000 people where just two decades before there had been only a barren wilderness, Hawthorne relates that he noticed a solitary man who:

“…carried a rifle on his shoulder and a powder-horn across his breast, and appeared to stare about him with confused wonder, as if while he was listening to the wind among the forest boughs, the hum and bustle of an instantaneous city had surrounded him.”

The complete text of “Rochester” 

Rochester and Erie Canal (1832)

So while we have a vivid picture of what Hawthorne saw when he passed through Rochester, we have no idea where he stayed, how long he was here, how he got here (canal boat?  stage coach?  horse back? on foot?) or even whether he arrived from Niagara Falls heading east, or from Syracuse heading west.  Most peculiar is that for a village which, as Hawthorne obviously knew owed its “instantaneous” status to the Erie Canal, he made but a solitary off-hand reference to that waterway rather than giving it a major or even central role in the story.

When “Rochester” finally appeared in print it did so anonymously in December 1835 as part of the last issue of the “The New-England Magazine”, a short-lived monthly literary publication out of Boston.  The story was immediately picked up and re-printed in the December 12 issue of “The Rochester Gem and Ladies’ Amulet”, a local publication “Devoted to Literature and the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Amusing Miscellany, &c.”  Over the succeeding years the story would be reprinted on very rare occasions, again anonymously.  Not until several decades had passed would it be identified as Hawthorne’s work.

The Gem‘s reprinting of Hawthorne’s “Rochester.”

As to assembling into a coherent picture the jig saw puzzle of Hawthorne’s New York State travels in 1832, I, for one, am stumped.

When he first pops up in, “The Inland Port”, he’s in New York from where he’s rowed across Lake Champlain to Burlington. How he got to New York from Massachusetts we’re never told.  It’s doubtful that he would have traveled through Canada given the presence of cholera.  And the only other way would have been across Lake Champlain from Vermont to New York.  But would he then just turn around and row back to Vermont?  Next, we know he traveled west across Lake Ontario by steam boat to Lewiston.  And from Lewiston to Niagara by stagecoach. Logically, after that he would have taken the Erie Canal east from Buffalo, through Rochester, then on to Albany and up to Ticonderoga, where we know he arrived after seeing Niagara.  BUT, he also said he sailed WEST on the Erie from near Utica to Syracuse.  Where did he go from Syracuse?  Clearly far too many details of his trip are now lost to make possible the construction of an intelligible itinerary.  Oh well… the hell with it!

Returning to Salem in the fall, Hawthorne began putting his stories down on paper. As described above, his idea for presenting the tales in book form went by the boards, and although “Rochester” and many of the other stories would eventually find their way into print on a stand-alone basis, eventually Hawthorne appears to have lost interest in them.  In one of his later books, another of his alter egos raises the issue and speaks for him after experiencing a similar disappointment:

“You cannot conceive what an effect the composition of these tales has had on me.  I have become ambitious of a bubble, and careless of solid reputation.  They have drawn me aside from the beaten path of the world, and led me into a strange sort of solitude – a solitude in the midst of men – where nobody wishes for what I do, nor thinks nor feels as I do.   The tales have done all this.  ….I loath the very thought of them, and actually experience a physical sickness of the stomach whenever I glance at them on the table.”

Behind Hawthorne lay disappointment and his sojourn through New York.  Ahead lay “The Scarlet Letter”, “The House of the Seven Gables”, “Twice-Told Tales” and his other books.  And finally fame (if not fortune).


“Oh, for the years I have not lived, but only dreamed of living.”
― Nathaniel Hawthorne

Rochester would again interact with Hawthorne when, two decades later, the now-renown author was invited by the city’s Athenaeum to give a talk on literature.  The Athenaeum had been established in 1829 both to establish a public library and to present lectures for, the purpose of cultivating and promoting literature, science and the arts in Rochester. (5)  Eventually finding a home in the Corinthian Hall, over the years it hosted such men of letters as Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain.  Unfortunately, on Nov. 4, 1852, Hawthorne declined the invitation stating, I heartily wish it were in my power to comply with your request…but having never appeared before a public audience …I am convinced that it is now too late in life for me to succeed in that line.”  Little did Hawthorne know that the next year he would be appointed US Consul at Liverpool by his old friend, and newly-elected president, Franklin Pierce and as a representative of the United States would be repeatedly obligated to speak at diplomatic functions.  Nevertheless, when he left that position he declared that, he would never speak publicly again, “so as to be heard by more than six people”. 

And the Hawthorne name would continue to pop up in Rochester from time-to-time.  I at first assumed that Hawthorne Street in the city, and Hawthorne Place in Webster were bearing his name, although in retrospect, it seems far more likely that those place names, along with Hawthorne Drive in Genesee Valley Park, are merely a coincidence and actually refer to the Hawthorne tree.

But we do, or rather did, have a Nathaniel Hawthorn School No. 25 on North Goodman Street.

(left) Salem Custom House — Salem Maritime Site (U.S. National Park Site); (right) Nathaniel Hawthorne School No. 25, 965 N Goodman St, Michael Nighan, 8/29/21 see A gathering of students, educators, urban farmers and social entrepreneurs at the Bay Street Community Garden]

As background, in 1846 Hawthorne, a Democrat, accepted a job at the United States Custom House in Salem.  But three years later he was chopped off the federal payroll by the incoming Whig administration of Zachary Taylor.  For whatever reason, when Rochester put up a new building for the Nathaniel Hawthorne School # 25 in 1915, it was decided to construct it as a replica of the Salem Custom House.  In March 2020, a water main burst at the school, causing severe damage. The Nathaniel Hawthorne School is now permanently located at the Freddie Thomas Campus on Scio Street. The original building reverted to property of the City of Rochester.

Editor’s note: Nathaniel Hawthorne School secretary Abigail Fuentes showed me two portraits of Hawthorne originally displayed at the North Goodman location. [Photos: David Kramer, 8/30/21]


After reading about Hawthorne and cholera, Town of Brighton Historian Mary Jo Lanphear provided a short article she wrote for Historic Brighton: Ashbel W. Riley and the Cholera Epidemic of 1832 (Mary Jo Lanphear, Historic Brighton, 5/9/18)


(1) Cholera still remains a major public health threat, killing over 100,000 people worldwide annually. A cholera pandemic which began in Indonesia in 1961 is still infecting three to five million people each year.

(2) Those who could afford to do so, or had friends/relations in the countryside fled the cities, based on the assumption that cholera was carried by the poor, immigrants and African-Americans.

(3) Among the property owners eventually fined for not complying with the village’s clean up regulations were Jonathan Childs, who would become Rochester’s first mayor when the village became a city in 1834, and Col. William Fitzhugh, one of the three “founders’ of Rochester.

 (4) Although the consensus among Hawthorne scholars is that all the stories refer to events during his 1832 travels, the stories themselves contain little direct evidence that that is the case.  Some researchers have postulated that Hawthorne took another trip through New York State in 1833 or 1834 and that the stories are an amalgam of the two trips.  For example, in the past the Rochester City Historian’s office has written that Hawthorne did not visit Rochester until 1834.  However his surviving papers provide not the slightest hint of any subsequent New York trips after 1832.  And it’s believed that the manuscripts for all of Hawthorne’s stories intended for inclusion in the never-published, “The Story-Teller” were in his publisher’s hands by early 1834.

Editors note: A historical marker on the Broad Street Bridge erroneously says Hawthorne’s description was written in 1834. The marker also attributes the portrait of Nathaniel Rochester to John James Audubon. As seen in Now that the Nathaniel Rochester Community School is changing its name, the John James Audubon School needs to be considered., recent scholarship concludes the attribution is almost surely a myth perpetuated by the Rochester family. Note that someone circled the year “1820.” We actually know when Audubon was in Rochester, 1824, where he almost certainly did not paint Nathaniel Rochester. [Photo: David Kramer, 8/30/21]

(5) In 1891 the Rochester Athenaeum merged with a local technical school, the Mechanics Institute.  In 1944 the combined entity changed its name to the Rochester Institute of Technology.


Washington Irving Crosses the Genesee

Herman Melville in Rochester, 1840, 1846 and 1858


Dr. Joseph Roby could not save Lenore Engel, 11, victim of the 1918 pandemic buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery

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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