Sunday, 20 February 2011

Charles Dickens, on Visiting Louisville in 1842

Having just been reading Charles Dickens' "American Notes", penned upon his travels in 1842, and from there going to browse the blogs on the interwebs, I came across a post from Jim Gottuso, with pictures taken down by the river near Louisville, and only a moment earlier, there I was, reading of Dickens staying at The Galt House in Louisville. He spoke well of it. That particular hotel burned down in 1865, there is a Galt House today, but it's a modern tower of concrete, steel, and glass.

It's worth reporting that Dickens, still only 29 years old, was a superstar of his day.
People stood in line for three days and nights to buy tickets to hear him speak and read from his novels.

Here then, for Jim and Sofia, a few words  from Dickens, from the same place they now inhabit, but a time quite  distant.

"There was nothing very interesting in the scenery of this day's journey, which brought us at midnight to Louisville. We slept at the Galt House; a splendid hotel; and were as handsomely lodged as though we had been in Paris, rather than hundreds of miles beyond the Alleghanies.

The city presenting no objects of sufficient interest to detain us on our way, we resolved to proceed next day by another steamboat, the Fulton, and to join it, about noon, at a suburb called Portland, where it would be delayed some time in passing through a canal.

The interval, after breakfast, we devoted to riding through the town, which is regular and cheerful: the streets being laid out at right angles, and planted with young trees. The buildings are smoky and blackened, from the use of bituminous coal, but an Englishman is well used to that appearance, and indisposed to quarrel with it. There did not appear to be much business stirring; and some unfinished buildings and improvements seemed to intimate that the city had been overbuilt in the ardour of 'going-a-head,' and was suffering under the re-action consequent upon such feverish forcing of its powers.

On our way to Portland, we passed a 'Magistrate's office,' which amused me, as looking far more like a dame school than any police establishment: for this awful Institution was nothing but a little lazy, good-for-nothing front parlour, open to the street; wherein two or three figures (I presume the magistrate and his myrmidons) were basking in the sunshine, the very effigies of languor and repose. It was a perfect picture of justice retired from business for want of customers; her sword and scales sold off; napping comfortably with her legs upon the table.

Here, as elsewhere in these parts, the road was perfectly alive with pigs of all ages; lying about in every direction, fast asleep.; or grunting along in quest of hidden dainties. I had always a sneaking kindness for these odd animals, and found a constant source of amusement, when all others failed, in watching their proceedings. As we were riding along this morning, I observed a little incident between two youthful pigs, which was so very human as to be inexpressibly comical and grotesque at the time, though I dare say, in telling, it is tame enough.

One young gentleman (a very delicate porker with several straws sticking about his nose, betokening recent investigations in a dung-hill) was walking deliberately on, profoundly thinking, when suddenly his brother, who was lying in a miry hole unseen by him, rose up immediately before his startled eyes, ghostly with damp mud. Never was pig's whole mass of blood so turned. He started back at least three feet, gazed for a moment, and then shot off as hard as he could go: his excessively little tail vibrating with speed and terror like a distracted pendulum. But before he had gone very far, he began to reason with himself as to the nature of this frightful appearance; and as he reasoned, he relaxed his speed by gradual degrees; until at last he stopped, and faced about. There was his brother, with the mud upon him glazing in the sun, yet staring out of the very same hole, perfectly amazed at his proceedings! He was no sooner assured of this; and he assured himself so carefully that one may almost say he shaded his eyes with his hand to see the better; than he came back at a round trot, pounced upon him, and summarily took off a piece of his tail; as a caution to him to be careful what he was about for the future, and never to play tricks with his family any more.

We found the steamboat in the canal, waiting for the slow process of getting through the lock, and went on board, where we shortly afterwards had a new kind of visitor in the person of a certain Kentucky Giant whose name is Porter, and who is of the moderate height of seven feet eight inches, in his stockings.

There never was a race of people who so completely gave the lie to history as these giants, or whom all the chroniclers have so cruelly libelled. Instead of roaring and ravaging about the world, constantly catering for their cannibal larders, and perpetually going to market in an unlawful manner, they are the meekest people in any man's acquaintance: rather inclining to milk and vegetable diet, and bearing anything for a quiet life. So decidedly are amiability and mildness their characteristics, that I confess I look upon that youth who distinguished himself by the slaughter of these inoffensive persons, as a false-hearted brigand, who, pretending to philanthropic motives, was secretly influenced only by the wealth stored up within their castles, and the hope of plunder. And I lean the more to this opinion from finding that even the historian of those exploits, with all his partiality for his hero, is fain to admit that the slaughtered monsters in question were of a very innocent and simple turn; extremely guileless and ready of belief; lending a credulous ear to the most improbable tales; suffering themselves to be easily entrapped into pits; and even (as in the case of the Welsh Giant) with an excess of the hospitable politeness of a landlord, ripping themselves open, rather than hint at the possibility of their guests being versed in the vagabond arts of sleight-of-hand and hocus-pocus.

The Kentucky Giant was but another illustration of the truth of this position. He had a weakness in the region of the knees, and a trustfulness in his long face, which appealed even to five-feet nine for encouragement and support. He was only twenty-five years old, he said, and had grown recently, for it had been found necessary to make an addition to the legs of his inexpressibles. At fifteen he was a short boy, and in those days his English father and his Irish mother had rather snubbed him, as being too small of stature to sustain the credit of the family. He added that his health had not been good, though it was better now; but short people are not wanting who whisper that he drinks too hard.

I understand he drives a hackney-coach, though how he does it, unless he stands on the footboard behind, and lies along the roof upon his chest, with his chin in the box, it would be difficult to comprehend. He brought his gun with him, as a curiosity. Christened 'The Little Rifle,' and displayed outside a shop-window, it would make the fortune of any retail business in Holborn. When he had shown himself and talked a little while, he withdrew with his pocket-instrument, and went bobbing down the cabin, among men of six feet high and upwards, like a light-house walking among lamp-posts.

Within a few minutes afterwards, we were out of the canal, and in the Ohio river again."


  1. hey soub,
    thanks for posting a bit of boz's blog entries about louisville. it was news to me. actually, sofia and i were almost halfway betwixt the galt house and the lock (i mentioned that i tried to get to the lock by car to no avail - apparently back then the lack of interstates and flood walls made it much easier to get to), maybe a bit closer to the hotel. on my normal bike ride i ride right past our picnic grounds and it's only a mile or so to the lock. it's interesting that dickens view of louisville was "The city presenting no objects of sufficient interest to detain us on our way", maybe he'd feel similarly now. of course portland which is well within the louisville city limits offered quite a bit more in terms of porcine entertainment. i think motion pictures have colored and made our view of the past antiseptic as one never thinks of hogs "lying about in every direction" and of course they were. the new galt house was built in 1972 by a man named al schneider and there's a colorful history there too. from what i understand he ran the hotel in a fastidiously frugal manner that led people to say he was cheap, etc. and the service was lacking until he died and his daughter took over. the building itself is considered an eyesore by many. in a bit of reciprocal coincidence, it just so happens that the sculptor friend in the post i made who had sculpted the fish on the bicycle rack has also done a lifesize bronze of the man himself, al schneider, and it stands outside the hotel today. here's a link... he's pointing to something with blueprints or something in his hands. aside from all the questionable hoopla surrounding the hotel, apparently, mr. schneider was a louisville personality and did some very philanthropic things over the years. of course, i'm not really up on the history of it all.

  2. Enjoyed reading your post by Dickens, and the subsequent comment about the Galt (not Gault) House. Yes, the original burned down, but in its day it hosted a number of dignitaries, as noted in the short but informative article on Wikipedia (

    And yes, Al Schneider was both frugal and philanthropic. His family promised to spend $60 million on the renovation, and I would say it was largely money well spent. Interesting point: the top of one tower is designed to look like the cockpit of a riverboat, while the other is supposed to be a lighthouse. (Or so I've been told.)

    1. Bruce: Thanks for the comment, I've corrected my spelling, I should proof-read better.
      I might have been thinking of Gault clay... lower cretaceous.. full of fossils.

  3. Greetings. I'm the archival producer for a Travel Channel show on hotel history. We're doing a segment on teh Galt House and a shooting there in 1862. What was the source for your image of it above? I'm trying to get a high resolution version and license its use.

    Thank you for your help!

    Best regards,

    Adam Hyman
    Twelve02 Television

  4. Adam, I was surprised to see so few versions of that picture online, and google image search returning my blog as its only source.

    When I posted it, I'd been reading Charles Dicken's accounts of his north american tours, and I'm sorry to say I can't find the source of the image I used.

    My best guess for someone who might identify an original source would be to contact the Filson Historical Society, though I imagine, given your subject matter you're already in contact with them?

    The Filson Historical Society
    1310 S. Third Street
    Louisville, KY 40208
    (502) 635-5083

    I have since found a couple of other versions, including the same engraving printed on a silk handkerchief.

    I hope you find what you need, sorry I can't be a better source.


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