The History They Never Taught You -- Ghoulish Inspiration: Charles Dickens in New York City by Caroline Jova
Most people know to blame or thank Charles Dickens for the thrills and haunting chills of a good ghost story. As the creator of numerous frightening familiar characters such as A Christmas Carol’s Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Charles Dickens’ fascination with the macabre has kept our dreams busy for close to two hundred years. However, often overlooked is the fact that the author visited New York City twice and that his unusual itinerary provided him with plenty of chilling and deathly fuel for future literary endeavors.
Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812 in Hampshire, England to a Navy Pay Office clerk, John Dickens, and his wife, Elizabeth. Although the family enjoyed moderate wealth at the time of Charles’ birth, John Dickens’s poor financial management, fondness for entertainment, as well as the natural expenses incurred by a 10-person family, wrought the family with debt eventually landing John in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. Although the rest of the family joined John in residence at Marshalsea, little Charles was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse pasting labels on jars of thick shoe polish to help support the family. The abominable conditions of the dark, rat-infested, and rotting factory left a haunting impression on Charles that would find its release in his fiction writing. His violent transition from financial comfort to destitute poverty would also make his writing a venue to advocate for the poor and the downtrodden.
This interest in the injustices of the oppressed led him on January 3, 1842 to embark on the long and exhausting journey to America where he hoped to witness first-hand the supposed progressive social awareness of the New World. In direct juxtaposition to this humanitarian purpose, Charles’ trip to America was also fueled by ulterior motives—seeking to end the pirating of his work in America, Dickens hoped to copyright his work and hence secure a portion of the profits.
Included in his nomadic and busy itinerary was a visit to New York City, which he vividly recorded in his travelogue, American Notes. Along with the expected pleasurable strolls down Broadway, visits to theatres, and daytrips to the countryside, Dickenson’s interest in performing a comparison study of the less fortunate’ conditions in England with those in America prevented him from shying away from the grittier and more grotesque parts of the city. His visits to these “undesirable” locations left the Englishman who had hoped to see a drastic improvement in the New World, well, simply horrified. On a visit to the infamous downtown prison nicknamed “The Tomb” thanks to its design based on the engraving of an Egyptian mausoleum, Dickens, after learning that prisoners were not allowed any exercise or fresh air, exclaimed in shock “In England, if a man be under sentence of death, even he has air and exercise at certain periods of the day.” His visit to the notorious slum, Five Points, elicited similar horror as he observed that
“From every corner, as you glance about you in these dark retreats, some figure crawls half-awakened, as if the judgment-hour were near at hand, and every obscene grave were giving up its dead. Where dogs would howl to lie, women, and men, and boys slink off to sleep, forcing the dislodged rats to move away in quest of better lodgings.”
As if the vistas of abused prisoners and dehumanized slum-dwellers did not placate the writer’s thirst for eye-opening and grounding experiences, Dickens topped off his New York City visit with a grand finale: a visit to a lunatic asylum in Long Island. Although the physical conditions of the building were not appalling, the ambience, as evidenced by his recorded experience, was emotionally asphyxiating: “everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful.”
Even though other pleasant experiences helped redeem New York City for Dickens, the images of crowded and psychologically tormenting prisons, rat-infested living quarters, and maddening screams of insane asylums remained in the writer’s imagination. So, next time you read one of Dickens’ famous ghost stories and fill that thrilling familiar chill working its way down your spine, stop and thank the city that tormented and nourished the brilliant dark mind of the writer so many years ago.
For Charles Dickens’ complete chapter on his New York visit in his American Notes, please visit: http://www.dickens-literature.com/American_Notes/6.html