University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Thumbnail Sketches, Excerpts from "Gossip of a Lifetime"

Volume XVI · Winter 1961 · Number 2
Thumbnail Sketches: Excerpts from Gossip of a Lifetime

As I have trudged along the vale, the accidents of life have frequently turned my footsteps into the trail of greatness, or eminence, or goodness, or even genius-as the case may have been. And now, that I may satisfy everybody -- though not forgetting Aesop's warning -- I will at once speak briefly of all eminent persons whom I can remember to have met or corresponded with:

Martin Brewer Anderson. He was President of the University of Rochester when I was a student there. His favorite hobby was to make the personal acquaintance of every student very thoroughly -- where he came from, whither he was going, who were the folks at home, how he spent his money, etc. But for some unexplained reason, he never tried to be acquainted with me at all! When I became engaged to a daughter of one of the professors, he was appealed to by the family, who wished to know what kind of boy I was. He had to confess that, though I had studied under him four years, he had not the remotest idea! He therefore called on Robert Carter, editor of the Democrat, whose assistant I was, and asked him. Afterward, when Longfellow gave Dr. Anderson the first edition of his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, he asked permission to review the work in the columns of the Democrat. Carter readily granted him the privilege, "but," he added, "nothing of the kind can get through here without passing under Johnson's editorship." The Doctor was evidently startled by the proposition, but he left the manuscript. I found it very well written and interesting, requiring only the slightest editing. Still later, when I published an article in the North American Review, he spoke of it at the chapel exercises and advised the students to read it, saying, "It is crowded with facts." He had a high reputation for executive ability, was a good off-hand speaker, and his Commencement addresses were always impressive.

Susan Brownell Anthony. She lived for a long time in Rochester, and therefore was a townswoman of mine. I knew her pretty well, often heard her speak, and sometimes talked with her. Though I had no sympathy for her great suffrage campaign, I could heartily approve of some of her other notions. For instance, when she witnessed a game of football, and remarked that it seemed to her to be "a silly performance." She was not very impressive as a public speaker, and she might have got on more rapidly if she had been a good editor. Her bulky history of woman suffrage sank itself by its own weight.

George Eastman. He was born in Waterville, N. Y., but was educated in Rochester and made his home there. By patient experimenting he invented the dry plate, the greatest advance in photography since its beginning. This made possible the Kodak, which also he invented, patented, and manufactured. The result was a very large fortune, which he has used liberally for the advancement of education-classical, scientific and musical. He has given millions of dollars to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to the University of Rochester and its special schools of music and medicine. He gave, in 1930, nearly a million Kodaks to be presented to boys and girls not over twelve years of age in the United States and Canada.

Merritt Gaily. He was a native of Rochester, and a classmate of mine at the University. After going through the Theological Seminary, he entered the Presbyterian ministry; but his health failed there, and he turned to invention. He had been expert at mechanical things, including wood engraving, for which he made his own tools. This was his true field. His first invention was an improved printing-press, which gave a more accurate "register" than any of its predecessors. Then he spent more than forty years on inventions, and took out hundreds of patents; these covered telegraphic appliances and improvements in organ pipes and self-playing musical instruments. He was the original inventor of multiplex telegraphy-sending two messages at the same time on one wire. When Edison saw the description of Gaily's invention he doubled it up and made the wire carry four messages. He appears to be credited as if he were the original inventor; but that honor belongs to Gaily. I knew Gaily before he entered the University. He was then a salesman in a hat-store, and was preparing for college, through which he worked his way unaided. He had a sewing-machine, and when the University wished to display a large flag, he said, "You furnish the material, and I will make your flag." I admired Gaily, and always found him even-tempered, companionable, and full of knowledge. He had a handsome face, and he wore a natural beard -- one that razor never has touched.

Asahel Clark Kendrick. He was most noted as a profound Greek scholar, reckoned by some as the first in his day. He was a member of the American Committee of New Testament Revision, which finished its labors in 1881. Howard Crosby, who also was a member of that committee, remarked that when there was discussion over a difficult passage, it usually happened that the reading finally adopted was that which was suggested by Dr. Kendrick. In his classroom in the University of Rochester, he was about equally instructor and entertainer. Even students who had no special love for "that language with the funny little letters" were glad to be there because of his frequent rendition of passages from classic English poetry, and fascinating conversation. Probably there was not a graduate who did not carry away with him a cherished memory of the genial Professor. Besides his labors as an instructor, he wrote a few books and edited others, including "Echoes: translations from the German poets." He was an able public speaker, and he had a wide circle of friends and admirers besides those in the College. I married his second daughter, and we lived happily together forty-seven years. The last time I saw him, after an enjoyable interview in his home, reaching the foot of the stairs, I turned and saw him standing at the head, when he threw down to me an assurance more emphatic and complimentary than I am willing to record. It was the highest verbal compliment that I ever have received. He died in 1895, at the age of eighty-five.

Joseph O'Connor. He was my schoolmate in the Rochester High School and my classmate in the University of Rochester; moreover, we were intimate friends as long as he lived. He died in 1908, at the age of sixty-seven. His parents emigrated hither from Ireland, and he was born in Tribes Hill, N.Y. His father had introduced him and his two brothers to the English classics, so that when he entered the school he was already educated beyond the rest of us. There he had the advantage of me; for while he, under the tuition of his father, was cultivating familiarity with the English classics, I was fooling away the precious years of my early youth on mechanical things. I felt this when first we met in the High School; again when we were in college together; and thence as long as he lived -- half a century. While he moved easily with his well balanced load of learning, I never caught up with him. There was no consolation in the fact that I in boyhood had picked up the printer's trade and built a picket fence which was pronounced "as good as any carpenter could do it." Throughout that half century I was conscious of the discrepancy, yet never felt one twinge of jealousy or envy. I just admired and loved him, and let it go at that. A grammarian must know how to select his metaphors and count his iambics; a mathematician must make his nouns and verbs agree; but you can not compare an arithmetic and a grammar. This we found out only gradually, for he was modest and quiet. He had begun writing poetry, and Daniel Holbrook, Superintendent of the city schools, discovered a long poem of his, on the Deluge, and gave it to one of the city papers. The best articles (often poetry) that appeared in the semi-monthly "paper" read on Friday afternoons, were written by him. In college he attracted attention not only of his classmates, but of many in the older classes. After graduation he studied law (but never practiced), and did some teaching of the ancient classics; but the way into journalism opened for him, and there the greater labors of his life were spent.

He contributed occasional poems to magazines, and wrote a few stories, one of which appeared in Blackwood. In 1895 he published a volume of his poems. It contains many fine lyrics. The initial piece, "The White Rose," one of the best of all relating to the Civil War, was copied into George Cary Eggleston's collection of American War Ballads. O'Connor made a notable contribution to the poems that were called out by the offer of a prize for a national song in 1861. The prize was not awarded, but the offerings were put into the hands of Richard Grant White for publication in a volume. He included O'Connor's, with high praise; but "regretted that the envelope containing the author's name was lost"! He should have known that it was easy to learn the name by means of a paragraph in the newspapers.

O'Connor was averse to writing partisan politics, and after varied experiences he found his truest place as a daily contributor of a column to the Rochester Post-Express. Charles A. Dana told me that he read that column every day; and he tried hard to get O'Connor on his staff. He said to me: "We will make a place for him here whenever he will come." They had a discussion of the question in Mr. Dana's office, but O' Connor was not willing to leave Rochester, where his literary work was admired by the citizens generally, and the doors of the cultivated and the wealthy were all open to him and his wife. The articles in his column were historical, critical, suggestive, domestic -- greatly varied. His widow (my sister) made and edited a selection of them, and had it published in two neat volumes, with a good portrait for frontispiece.

His brother Michael, a sergeant in the 140th New York regiment, who died in an army hospital, was a promising writer, who had produced a novel and a few poems. The latter were printed in a pamphlet by a friend, with the title A Lyrical Octave.

Elwell Stephen Otis. He was born in Maryland, but spent his early life in Rochester, N. Y., whither his father had removed with his family. He was graduated at the University of Rochester, and at Cambridge Law School. But the Civil War broke out and he raised a company for the 140th New York regiment, one of the best in the service. He served through the war, and in the action at Chapelhouse was severely wounded by a bullet in the face. He was honorably mustered out as a colonel, and was brevetted brigadier general. Two years later he was commissioned in the regular army, served against the Indians on the frontier, and then established the school for infantry and cavalry at Leavenworth, Kansas. Afterward he served in Montana, and, on account of his experience with the Indians, was appointed the first military governor of the Philippines. He published a volume on The Indian Question.

I had written a History of the War of Secession in one volume, which was published originally by Ticknor & Co., Boston. It reached a fifth edition, and then went out of print because its publishers went into liquidation. It is usually an impossibility to induce any firm to take up a book -- however good it may be -- which has first been published by another house. I proposed to General Otis that he and I write a more extended and particularized narrative of that war -- its origin, its conduct, and its consequences -- he to write the military campaigns, and I the civil and political part. We proposed it to D. Appleton & Co., and they and we signed a contract for it. General Otis was deeply interested in the work, and wrought at it steadily. But his progress was not consecutive; he did not treat the campaigns in their chronological order. Whenever he fell a-thinking of one he studied it up and wrote. It might belong in the middle of the narrative, or elsewhere. As he finished each campaign, he sent me a type-written copy. I went carefully through them as an editor, and found them thoroughly well written and deeply interesting. If he had lived to write them all, I could have placed them in their order, putting in my own contribution, and the manuscript would have been ready for the printer. But his death intervened and it was impossible to do anything with his work, fine though it was. He was a gentleman of the highest type, well educated, skilled as a soldier and a citizen, energetic, conscientious and kindly. In the college he was a member of one of the most notable classes ever graduated by it. When he was retired from the army as a major general, a classmate was at the same time retired from the navy as a rear admiral and astronomer. Another was the most brilliant preacher that ever went out from that institution, still another the most efficient church builder and organizer, and still another became president of a university.

William Henry Seward. In my boyhood I had unbounded admiration for Seward, Governor of the State, United States Senator, and destined to be one of those who narrowly miss the presidency. We are told that he would have been nominated in 1860, but for Horace Greeley. Seward, Greeley and Thurlow Weed had long been a sort of triumvirate, working together for political ends. But after a time Greeley grew tired of it, considering that his newspaper was the strongest item of power they had, while he appeared to get no advantage from the combination. He wrote and published an open letter, "dissolving the firm of Seward, Weed and Greeley," in the course of which he accused his partners of reaping all the advantages and forgetting his claims. He said, for instance, "It should have occurred to you to have me appointed postmaster of New York." When the Republican National convention of 1860 met, it was the general expectation that it would nominate Seward for President. On the first ballot he received 173 1/2 votes, against 102 for Abraham Lincoln; but eventually Lincoln received the nomination, and this result was attributed mainly to the influence of Horace Greeley. When Mr. Lincoln was inaugurated, he appointed Mr. Seward to be Secretary of State, the head of his cabinet. That he could not have made a better choice was abundantly proved by Seward's management of the "Trent" case. Two emissaries of the Confederate Government had taken passage for England on the British steamer "Trent." Captain Charles Wilkes, commanding the U.S. frigate "San Jacinto," overhauled the "Trent" in the Bahama passage, took off the emissaries and landed them in Fort Warren, Boston harbor, allowing the British steamer to proceed on its way, because he wished to avoid wronging the innocent passengers. Immediately there was great excitement over the affair, the British public brindled up as one lion, and their Government demanded restitution and apology. Many, on both sides of the ocean, talked of war, and some expected it. But Secretary Seward solved the question in a way that really put the British Government to shame. He discussed the whole subject at length, showed that Capt. Wilkes had abundant precedents for what he had done, many of them in the action of British commanders in stopping American vessels and taking off men. But he declared that Wilkes was in error in that he had not brought the "Trent" into port for adjudication in a prize court. He therefore ordered the release of the prisoners, and repudiated the act. He added: "If I declare this case in favor of my own Government, I must disavow its most cherished principles, and reverse and forever abandon its most essential policy. We are asked to do to the British nation just what we have always insisted that all nations ought to do to us." If there was an Englishman-and no doubt there were many-who recalled the history of the War of 1812, when it was a common practice for English commanders to stop American merchantmen and take off able seamen for service on their own ships, such Englishmen must have wished to hide their heads when they read Secretary Seward's despatch. That practice, despite the complaints of the American Government, was not given up till the gallantry of American seamen and the skill of American gunners had exacted a heavy penalty in the capture or destruction of British frigates. The ordinary newspaper scribbler of today, pitifully ignorant of American history, if he has occasion to allude to the "Trent" affair, will speak of it off-hand as an American humiliation! It was in fact a triumph of American diplomacy, and a humiliation of British pride.

Mr. Seward retained his office through the administrations of Lincoln and Johnson, and died in 1872.

I had one interesting interview with him. In the midst of a presidential campaign he came to Auburn and delivered an important speech. I was then on the staff of the Rochester Democrat, and my chief sent me down to Auburn to get a copy of the speech for immediate publication in our paper. I called at Secretary Seward's home, was courteously received by him, and had an interesting conversation. I got the speech, and it appeared in our issue of the next morning.

Charles Warren Stoddard. When I was a boy I lived in Frank Street, Rochester. In the same street, two blocks distant, lived another boy, of about my age. That other boy was Charles Warren Stoddard. The family had a large side yard, and Charles occupied it for his playground, where he and his mates had abundant apparatus and unlimited liberty. They had a tent, flags, cannon, swing, flying-horses, trapeze, and in the shady corner of the fence a bucket of lemonade.

But suddenly all this was still. It was as if the circus had moved out of town. The machinery of the paper mill at the Lower Falls of the Genesee was still, and Mr. Stoddard, the head of the firm, was not there. After a time, he was heard from in California, and his family removed thither. Charles became a journalist, and was sent to the Hawaiian Islands as correspondent of a San Francisco paper. This was the beginning of several years in which he went "on from island unto island," held by the fascination of that great sea. Getting passage on a sailing-vessel, he would be dropped at some little frequented island, and remain there till some other ship took him away. His descriptions of the scenery, life, and adventures there pleased Mr. Howells (then editing the Atlantic Monthly) so highly that he eagerly took them, and called for more. When these stories were collected and published in a volume, with the title South-Sea Idyls, he wrote a preface for it, in which he said that thenceforth no other writer need attempt that field, as Stoddard had covered it sufficiently for all time. I have an autographed copy of the book sent to me by its author, "in remembrance of our childhood in Frank Street." And I am inclined to agree with Mr. Howells.

Later, Stoddard traveled in the Levant and up the Nile. Still later, he was a professor in the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana, and then in the Catholic University in Washington. I met him once, in New York. He died in California in 1909.

Lewis Swift. He was born in Clarkson, N. Y., Feb. 29, 1820. He early became interested in microscopy and electricity, and lectured on those subjects, making all his apparatus with his own hands, and perfecting several inventions. The appearance of Donati's comet, in 1858, first drew his attention to astronomy, and thenceforth that was his main study. He made his own telescope, and studied the heavens every clear night, making many discoveries of comets and nebulae, for which he received medals and other honors from European associations. He supported himself by keeping a hardware store in Rochester. A wealthy citizen, H. H. Warner, there offered to build for him an observatory, if the citizens would contribute enough to purchase a 16-inch telescope. This was done, and to the observatory was added a dwelling for his family. For several years he contributed to theAnnual Cyclopaedia which I edited, the article on progress of astronomy in the year. The University of Rochester gave him the doctor's degree. I knew him well, and was pleased not only when he let me look into his telescope, but when he told me that my father was the best teacher he ever had.

Henry Augustus Ward. Among all his fellows of the human race, this man was unique. One day, in his boyhood, he picked up, near his mother's doorstep, a stone that attracted his attention by its peculiar beauty. He tried to show it to a famous scientist who was on the stage waiting for his turn to lecture, but was repulsed. This, however, did not satisfy him, and as he persisted in his study of the stone he developed into a scientist, and ultimately into one who made scientists of many students. He was a native of Rochester, and was educated at Williams College, on one occasion he walked twenty-eight miles to Pittsfield, to hear a lecture by Louis Agassiz. He made the acquaintance of the lecturer, and subsequently studied under him at Cambridge. He conceived the idea of making teaching collections of fossils and other geological specimens, and began a large collection for Rochester, which was ultimately bought for its University. He had, in that city, a wealthy, wise and generous uncle, who appreciated the idea and the work, and liberally assisted the rising geologist. From that time, Henry A. Ward traveled the world over in search of specimens, landing on many shores and penetrating to many regions where a white man was a curiosity. Apparently, he never went anywhere without bringing back something of value. He was an adept at modern languages, and mastered a score of them. For a few years he was Professor of Geology in Rochester University, and there I had the pleasure and advantage of being one of his pupils. He set up a shop or studio, in which he made models of some of the rarest fossils, coloring them like the originals, so that for teaching they served the same purpose. An educational institution anywhere in the country could order of him a cabinet of whatever size it was able to pay for. Since his death, one of his sons continues this business.

In his later years, Professor Ward became specially interested in meteorites, and was most assiduous in collecting them. These "stones from heaven" are the greatest mystery of the universe. Wherever one has fallen, he gets it if possible; but if the owners will not sell it wholly, he persuades them to sell him a slice sawed off from it; and sometimes by selling re-slices from his slice he sells them for enough to pay all the travel and other expenses. Learning that the Shah of Persia had a large meteorite in his museum, he went thither, obtained an audience with the Shah, talked with him in French (which the Shah speaks), told him about the telephone, the phonograph, and other interesting stories, and led up to the meteorite. When he suggested that slices from it might go to some of the great museums in the world's capitals, the Shah was pleased and flattered, and ordered that a piece be sawed off for this interesting American. From that piece, Professor Ward sold slices enough to pay all the expenses from his home to Persia.

On July 4, 1906, he was crossing a street in Buffalo, when an automobile, driven by a man who was either intoxicated or ignorant of the rules, bore down upon him in such a way that he could not tell what it intended to do. The result was, that it struck him and injured him fatally. I never have learned whether that chauffeur was punished as he should have been.

The professor was often urged to write his memoirs; but he never did.


Additional resources:

  • Library Bulletin Invalid Link about Rossiter Johnson
  • The register for the Rossiter Johnson Papers