Some Notes from Charles Dickens on Pittsburgh

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Some Notes from Charles Dickens on Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh in 1817, from a sketch made by Mrs. E. C. Gibson, wife of James Gibson of the Philadelphia bar, while on their wedding tour.

(He wasn't impressed. This was 1842.)

Pittsburgh is like Birmingham – at least its townsfolks say so; and I didn't contradict them. It is, in one respect. There is a great deal of smoke in it. I quite offended a man at our yesterday's levee, who supposed I was 'now quite at home,' by telling him that the notion of London being so dark a place was a popular mistake. We had very queer customers at our receptions, I do assure you. Not least among them, a gentleman with his inexpressibles imperfectly buttoned and his waistband resting on his thighs, who stood behind the half-opened door, and could by no temptation or inducement be prevailed upon to come out. There was also another gentleman, with one eye and one fixed gooseberry, who stood in a corner, motionless like an eight-day clock, and glared upon me, as I courteously received the Pittsburgians1. There were also two red-headed brothers – boys – young dragons rather – who hovered about Kate, and wouldn't go. A great crowd they were, for three days; and a very queer one.

My friend the New Englander, of whom I wrote last night, is perhaps the most intolerable bore on this vast continent. He drones, and snuffles, and writes poems, and talks small philosophy and metaphysics, and never will be quiet, under any circumstances. He is going to a great temperance convention at Cincinnati; along with a doctor of whom I saw something at Pittsburgh. The doctor, in addition to being everything that the New Englander is, is a phrenologist besides. I dodge them about the boat. Whenever I appear on deck, I see them bearing down upon me – and fly. The New Englander was very anxious last night that he and I should 'form a magnetic chain,' and magnetize the doctor, for the benefit of all incredulous passengers; but I declined on the plea of tremendous occupation in the way of letter-writing.

And, speaking of magnetism, let me tell you that the other night at Pittsburgh, there being present only Mr. Q. and the portrait-painter, Kate sat down, laughing, for me to try my hand upon her. I had been holding forth upon the subject rather luminously, and asserting that I thought I could exercise the influence, but had never tried. In six minutes, I magnetized her into hysterics, and then into the magnetic sleep. I tried again next night, and she fell into the slumber in little more than two minutes. . . . I can wake her with perfect ease; but I confess (not being prepared for anything so sudden and complete) I was on the first occasion[376] rather alarmed. . . . The Western parts being sometimes hazardous, I have fitted out the whole of my little company with Life-Preservers, which I inflate with great solemnity when we get aboard any boat, and keep, as Mrs. Cluppins did her umbrella in the court of common pleas, ready for use upon a moment's notice.

At Pittsburgh I saw another solitary confinement prison: Pittsburgh being also in Pennsylvania. A horrible thought occurred to me when I was recalling all I had seen, that night. What if ghosts be one of the terrors of these jails? I have pondered on it often, since then. The utter solitude by day and night; the many hours of darkness; the silence of death; the mind forever brooding on melancholy themes, and having no relief; sometimes an evil conscience very busy; imagine a prisoner covering up his head in the bedclothes and looking out from time to time, with a ghastly dread of some inexplicable silent figure that always sits upon his bed, or stands (if a thing can be said to stand, that never walks as men do) in the same corner of his cell. The more I think of it, the more certain I feel that not a few of these men (during a portion of their imprisonment at least) are nightly visited by spectres. I did ask one man in this last jail, if he dreamed much. He gave me a most extraordinary look, and said – under his breath – in a whisper, 'No.'

From The Life of Charles Dickens, by John Forster. Vol 1, 1812-1842.

Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

14.09.20 Front Page

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1They're called 'Pittsburghers', Chuck. Or 'yinzers', after their word for 'y'all'.

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