The Death of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Little Sister

I’m seeking to cast some light on relatively or completely unknown Salem women for my #SalemSuffrageSaturday posts, in addition to the usual suspects, who live on in perpetual sunshine. Sometimes this is difficult to do, as the sources simply aren’t there, and sometimes you can only illuminate these women through their association with something or someone who leaves a source-strewn trail. Today my focus is on Maria Louisa Hawthorne (1802-52), the younger sister of Nathaniel Hawthorne: we can get to Louisa (which she was called) through Nathaniel, but also, unfortunately, through her tragic, even sensational death. In a very telling and consequential mid-nineteenth-century moment, Louisa found herself, after a lifetime of service to the various family members in Salem whom she was also quite dependent on in her single state, and after a rare vacation to that celebrated hotspot Saratoga Springs, on board the paddle-wheel steamboat Henry Clay on its journey from Albany to New York City on July 28, 1852 when a ravenous fire on board forced her to choose: conflagration or the deep, dark Hudson. She choose the latter, and drowned, in one of the River’s worst maritime disasters, in the conspicuous company of former NYC Mayor Stephen Allen, landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing, the granddaughter of a President and the sister of a Senator, among many other victims.

Hawthorne NYT Aug 2 1852 Inquest (3)

63.550.101

ArmeniaNew York Daily Times, Aug. 2, 1852; Nathaniel Currier, “Burning of the Henry Clay Near Yonkers,” Metropolitan Museum of Art; The survivor: the Armenia, Antonio Nicolo Gasparo Jacobsen, Christie’s.

It wasn’t just the distinction or associations of some of the victims, it was the way they died. In a display of what can only look like wanton recklessness to us, the Henry Clay was engaged in a fiercely competitive race with another steamboat, the Armenia, on their way to New York City, passengers be damned. Apparently this was common: the fastest steamship (not the safest!) drew the most passengers. The Henry Clay was apparently well in the lead, its engines bursting to capacity, when the fire broke out in their compartments. The ship’s pilot aimed for the banks of the Hudson, but those passengers in the stern (like Louisa) were trapped, and faced with that very difficult choice. To make matters worse, the ship’s paddle wheels kept spinning, further imperiling those who did jump into the river. Louisa was on this journey with her uncle John Dike, the husband of her maternal aunt Priscilla Manning, who survived the wreck and traveled directly to Concord to tell Nathaniel. The siblings were close, as Nathaniel’s letters testify: Louisa was the first person he had written to after his marriage to Sophia Peabody, asking her to come and visit them at the Old Manse, and just before her death, he had written and asked her to come and live with his family permanently. Sophia Hawthorne recounted Mr. Dike’s appearance in a letter to her mother a few days later:

This morning we received the shocking intelligence that Louisa Hawthorne was lost in the destruction of the steamer “Henry Clay” on the Hudson, on Wednesday afternoon, July 27. She has been at Saratoga Springs and with Mr. Dike for a fortnight, and was returning by way of New York, and we expected her here for a long visit. It is difficult to realize such a sudden disaster. The news came in an appalling way. I was at the toilet-table in my chamber, before seven o’clock, when the railroad coach drove up. I was astonished to see Mr. Pike get out. He left us on Monday morning,–two days ago. It struck to my heart that he had come to inform us of some accident. I knew how impossible it was for him to leave his affairs. I called from the window, “Welcome, Mr. Dike!” He glanced up, but did not see me nor smile. I said, “Go to the western piazza, for the front door is locked.” I continued to dress my hair, and it was a considerable time before I went down. When I did, there was no Mr. Dike. “Where is Mr. Dike?–I must then have seen his spirit,” said I. But upon going to the piazza, there he stood unaccountably, without endeavoring to enter. Mr. Hawthorne opened the door with the strange feeling that he should grasp a hand of air. I was by his side. Mr. Pike, without a smile, deeply flushed, seemed even then not in his former body. “Your sister Louisa is dead!” I thought he meant that his own sister was dead, for she also is called Louisa. “What! Louisa?” I asked. “Yes.” “What was the matter?” “She was drowned.” “Where?” “On the Hudson, in the ‘Henry Clay’!” He then came in, and my husband shut himself in his study. Their son Julian recalls in his memoirs that after receiving the news, Mr. Hawthorne went out, and was seen no more that day. 

At this point (July 30), Louisa’s body had not been recovered, but it was three days later, and Sophia then wrote to her sister Mary: I find that Louisa was not burned, but drowned.

Hawthorne NYT Aug 2 1852

Sophia_Letter_NYPL_DG-removebg-previewNew York Daily Times, August 2, 1852: Sophia Peabody Hawthorne Letters at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

The deaths of Louisa Hawthorne and her fellow victims were consequential: given the proximity of the tragedy to New York City (Riverdale) and the prestige of some of the victims, this was a story that did not fade away, all summer long and into the fall. Inquests were held, and trials, as the Henry Clay‘s owners and officers were tried for manslaughter. They were all acquitted, but in August the Steamship Act of 1852 was passed in Congress, imposing inspections, regulations and licensing on the industry, and expressly outlawing racing, “to provide for the better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.” A tragic and consequential death, but what of Louisa’s life? I’m sad that I can’t flesh it out a bit more: beyond the childhood companion to her brother and sister, the seamstress, the young woman always taking care of one Manning or another, the maiden aunt who was a favorite of Nathaniel’s and Sophia’s children. I’m sure she was all these things and a lot more, and I’m not sure whether she preferred to spell her family name Hathorne or Hawthorne.


10 responses to “The Death of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Little Sister

  • Nancy

    Oh, Donna! What a tragedy! So many women (and other “invisibles”) disappear, in the shadows of others’ “perpetual sunshine,” their small and seemingly inconsequential contributions in this world passed by. Thank you for not passing by Louisa.

  • Kathleen Kane

    Thank you for gathering what is to be know of Louisa. I’m wondering about the different spellings of his last name.

    • daseger

      Nathaniel added the w, Kathleen, some think to distinguish himself from his witch-trial judge ancestor. His wife and children spelled their name that way of course, but with the rest of his family it is not necessarily so.

  • Kathleen Kane

    I’m sorry. I meant to “Dike” “Dyke” and then even “Pike” changes.

  • Eilene Lyon

    Thanks for telling the story of this tragedy. The western steamboats were even more prone to these sorts of fires, because of their high-pressure boilers (and those damn races!). I was surprised at the Henry Clay catching fire, as these boats on the Hudson had low-pressure boilers.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    What a sad end for Louisa Hawthorne in the famous Henry Clay steamboat tragedy of which there were so many at the time. It rings a distant bell about another prominent politician of the era (maybe a vice president?) who suffered a similar fate on the Potomac.

    Obviously her legacy was to be remembered as “the childhood companion to her brother and sister, the seamstress, the young woman always taking care of one Manning or another, the maiden aunt who was a favorite of Nathaniel’s and Sophia’s children.” So typical of women in her day.

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