By James Fuhrman.
From the island of Lefkada, in the Ionian Sea off the west coast of Greece, on a clear day you can see Ithaca, where the hero of Troy ended his Odyssey.
The Raven would begin his Odyssey here, and find his own true home half a world away.
The year is 1848. These islands were then under British administration, and Lt. Charles Bush Hearn was a young surgeon and officer with Queen Victoria’s regiment assigned to Lefkada. Lt. Hearn made routine medical rounds in the town, and before long he met and fell in love with 25 year-old Rosa Kassimatis. Rosa was the rebellious child of her family, passionate and impetuous. Over her relatives’ disapproval, the two were married in a small orthodox ceremony in 1849. After only three months of marriage, Rosa was pregnant, and her new husband was promoted and re-assigned to Dominica in the French West Indies.
So Rosa stayed behind on Levkada. When her son, Lafcadio (named after the island), was two years old, his father was still stationed in the Caribbean, but the father arranged for mother and son to move to Dublin and live with the child’s grandmother, Elizabeth Hearn.
To say it wasn’t a good fit would be an understatement. To Rosa, Dublin was dreary, cloudy, and cold, a poor trade for her sunny, warm, familiar Greek islands. Two-year-old Lafcadio, with his olive complexion and gold earrings, looked more Gypsy than English or Irish.
Rosa couldn’t read or write in any language, and the interpreter the family hired could not understand much of her Ionian Greek/Romaic dialect. She dressed in all black. She took a long siesta every day. But perhaps most appalling to the staunchly protestant Hearn family was Rosa’s passionate belief in saints, her zealous regard for priests, and her habit of crossing herself in public.
Rosa and Lafcadio began to spend most of their time at the home of Elizabeth Hearn’s younger sister (and Lafcadio’s great aunt), Sara Holmes Brenane. Mrs. Brenane had converted to the Roman Catholic Church of her deceased husband. She sympathized with Rosa’s plight as a misunderstood and lonely outsider, and she doted on little Lafcadio. Soon, mother and son were part of the wealthy Brenane household.
Charles Hearn returned from the West Indies only briefly – before shipping out to the Crimean War. He returned wounded and traumatized to find that Rosa, homesick and depressed, had left Lafcadio in the care of his great Aunt, and returned to Greece. Their marriage was dissolved by mutual consent, and both parents would remarry to start new families. So, at age five, and despite the fact that both his parents were still alive, Lafcadio was made the permanent ward of his great aunt.
Aunt Sarah, described as “fastidious, eccentric, and fanatically devout”, intended Lafcadio to be the proper Catholic Brenane heir that she and her husband had always hoped for. While in Dublin they lived in a three-story house with a library, a parlor maid, and a footman. It was a house filled with shadows, and to the myopic five-year-old, it was filled with goblins and ghosts. When Aunt Sarah took him to church, he was frightened by the shapes and figures in the windows. These forms both fascinated him and haunted him in his sleep, as he imagined they were connected to the goblins and ghosts that lurked in Aunt Sarah’s house. This would be the beginning of Lafcadio’s life-long fascination with all things haunted, foreign, weird, or exotic.
He spent summers with Aunt Sarah in her homes at Tramore on the southern Irish coast, and at Bangor, north Wales. At Tramore he loved to hear folk legends and superstitions told in his nannie’s Irish Brogue. In Wales they spent one summer in the rented cottage of a Carnarvon sea captain. Lafcadio made many visits to the captain’s private museum, with its collection of south Pacific and Chinese curiosities. He thrilled at hearing the captain strike an enormous metal gong with a padded drumstick: “It commenced to sob”, he wrote, “like waves upon a low beach. He tapped it again, and it moaned like the wind in a mighty forest of pines. Again, and it commenced to roar, and with each tap the roar grew deeper and deeper, till it seemed like thunder rolling over an abyss…”
Back at the Brenane house in Dublin, Aunt Sarah hired a live-in tutor to teach Lafcadio the basic academics and of course, Catholic dogma. He would later recall how he despised religious lessons, and how he was bored with arithmetic, but how he loved reading and writing. As he got older, he spent many happy hours in the library, a room which almost no one else ever entered. And he would never forget “that day when I discovered, in one unexplored corner of our library, several beautiful books about art—great folio books containing figures of gods and demigods, athletes and heroes, nymphs and fauns and nereids, and all the charming monsters—half-man, half-animal—of Greek mythology. How my heart leaped and fluttered on that happy day!”
But when Aunt Sarah learned that the child was fascinated with Greek mythology, and had been exposed to the nudity of classical art, she discouraged these “pagan” studies, and steered the boy’s instruction to Catechism and confession.
When Lafcadio was eleven, Aunt Sarah enrolled him in a Jesuit school at Yvetot, near Rouen in northern France. The Institution Ecclesiastique was a highly regarded church school among British Catholic parents. But to some of its students it was a combined monastery and military barracks, administered, Lafcadio recalled, by “a hateful, venomous-hearted old maid.” This experience only confirmed his distaste for Catholic education. He called it “dreariness and ugliness and austerity and long faces, and… distortion of children’s minds”. The only benefit of his two years at the school, he wrote, was fluency in French. By that time, at age 13, Lafcadio was old enough to be enrolled in St. Cuthbert’s College at Ushaw.
Lafcadio was the top student in English composition for each of his three years at St. Cuthbert’s, but he still rankled under the compulsory attendance at mass and confession. He once reported to the priest a made-up dream he had had the night before, in which he enjoyed being seduced by a female Satan, sending the poor priest into near apoplexy. At age 16, Lafcadio injured his left eye in a schoolyard mishap. Despite an operation in Dublin, he lost sight in that eye, and he would forever afterward be painfully conscious of his appearance. His remaining eye was severely myopic, requiring him to use a magnifying glass for close work, and carry a pocket telescope for distance.
On the heels of this tragic injury, another severe blow was in store. The following year, when Lafcadio was 17, Aunt Sarah went bankrupt, and he was sent to live with Catherine Delaney, Brenane’s former maid, in London’s East End. She and her husband, a dock worker, had little time or money to help him, so Lafcadio spent most of his time wandering the streets. He sometimes slept in workhouses, living an aimless, rootless life. His only intellectual activities were visits to various libraries and the British Museum.
After 2 years, Brenane’s finances had recovered somewhat, but she was 75 and ill. Her financial manager, Henry Molyneux, convinced her to buy Lafcadio a one-way ticket to New York. He was told to find his way to Cincinnati, locate Molyneux’s sister and her husband, and obtain their assistance in making a living. When Lafcadio arrived at their door in Cincinnati, all the couple could afford to do was give him $5 and wish him good luck. He wrote, “I was dropped moneyless on the pavement of an American city to begin my new life”.
Cincinnati in 1870 was a steamboat marketing center and the largest American inland city, with a population of 250,000—one third of them foreign born. Twenty percent of Cincinnati residents were ethnic Germans, many of whom lived in the Over The Rhine neighborhood, north and west of the old Erie Canal. There was also a large English/Irish community. Cincinnati’s lower class neighborhoods centered around the pork-packing, soap-making, leather-tanning, and beer-brewing industries that thrived in the city at that time. Roustabouts who labored on the levee by day would spend their daily wages in the saloons and underground gambling parlors along Rat Row, which ran between Walnut and Main, and Sausage Row, between Broadway and Ludlow. A restaurant called The Stump, at 13 Rat Row, was known as a hangout for thieves, burglars, and ne’er-do-wells of all kinds.
The civil war had been over for five years. Cincinnati was home to thousands of ex-slaves from Kentucky, Virginia, and elsewhere in the old confederacy. Most blacks lived in Bucktown, roughly 6th and 7th streets east of Broadway. The rest lived in the Levee, a wide-open waterfront district, with no paved streets. Indeed, only half the streets in the 24 square-mile city of Cincinnati were paved.
Over a thousand Cincinnatians died in the small pox epidemic of 1872, and over 300 more from cholera and yellow fever the following year. Still, Cincinnati in the 1870’s enjoyed a cultural boom. Newspaper, magazine, and book publishing thrived. Already established were the Cincinnati Conservatory, the University of Cinciannti, Eden Park, Pike’s Opera House, Fountain Square, Rookwood Pottery, the Public Library, and the Art Academy. Music Hall would be completed in 1878. There were struggling young artists, such as Frank Farney and Frank Duveneck, who were destined for international reputations.
At first, the 18 year-old Lafcadio slept in stables and storerooms in exchange for menial labor. Then he met some English coachmen who allowed him to sleep in a hayloft. Of this experience he would write, “Oh, the pleasure of rest! The sweet scent of the hay! The horses below paw and stir heavily. I hear them breathe; and their breath comes up to me in steam. The warmth of their great bodies fills the building, penetrates the hay, quickens my blood; their life is my fire.” He would later become a boarding house servant, shoveling coals, lighting fires, and sleeping on the floor. He wrote, “We little petty outsiders, we are gnats hovering about life! There isn’t any more room for us!”
Hearn would get his first real break at age 20, when he was befriended by Henry Watkins, an English immigrant. Watkins employed Lafcadio as an errand boy and janitor in his back-street printing shop. He taught him type setting and let him sleep in the shop. The two would talk about books, politics, religion, and art, and Lafcadio was given free access to Watkins’ library. It was Watkins who gave Hearn his life-long nickname “the Raven” because of his interest in Poe, and because Poe was also orphaned at an early age and grew up as a poor misfit. This father-son relationship would last a lifetime. In his letters to Watkin, Lafkadio calls him “old man” or “dad”, and he refers himself as “the Raven”.
In his spare time Lafcadio wrote a review of Tennyson’s recently-published Idylls of the King, and he sought to have it published in the Enquirer. The managing editor of the Enquirer, John Cockerill, recalled a “auaint, dark-skinned little fellow, strangely diffident, wearing very thick glasses, and bearing with him evidence that fortune and he were scarce on middling terms. In a soft, shrinking voice, he asked me if we ever paid for outside contributions. Drawing a manuscript from under his coat and gently laying it on my table, he stole away like a distorted brownie, leaving behind him an impression that was uncanny and indescribable. When I looked over his work I was astonished to find it was charmingly written in the purest and strongest English, and full of ideas that were bright and forceful.”
Cockerill did publish Hearn’s review, in three successive issues of the Enquirer. It was Lafcadio’s first signed published writing. At age 22, he felt that he had found his vocation. He continued to contribute book reviews, and he off-beat interviews with artists, clairvoyants, grave-diggers, leech-doctors—you name it. His articles described the city’s pawn shops, its Jewish community, and life in its working-class areas. The Enquirer’s readers were impressed with Hearn’s provocative, intelligent, unconventional pieces.
Finally, in 1874, he was asked to join the city staff at $10 per week. His colleagues described Hearn’s behavior like this: “Hour after hour he would sit at the table, his prominent eye resting as close to the paper as his nose would permit, scratching away with a beaver-like diligence.”
Here Hearn would find his voice as a journalist. He interviewed saloon keepers, coroners, derelicts, policemen, pickpockets, and stevedores. He exposed quack clairvoyants, and egoistic evangelicals. He even dressed as a woman to report on a temperance meeting where no males were allowed.
Local murder cases were right up Hearn’s alley. His most sensational (and gruesome) was the “Tanyard Murder” in 1874, a crime that kept Cincinnatians riveted to Hearn’s coverage for several months. The scene of the awful deed was Freiberg’s tannery on Livingston street and Gamble alley, just west of Central avenue. The deceased, Herman Schilling, had lived in Frederick Egner’s boarding house, until, seven months previously, he had been found by Egner in the bedroom of Egner’s 15-year-old daughter, Julia. Schilling escaped by jumping through the window. Julia later died of cancer of the vulva, seven months pregnant. That same day Egner and his son Frederick attacked Schilling in the tanyard with oak barrel staves, and they would have killed him had it not been for the intervention of bystanders. But the Egners found another opportunity for revenge one night, near the tanyard shed in which Schilling had been sleeping. In the morning a bloody trail was found leading from a pitchfork inside the stable to the door of the boiler room, where Schilling’s body had been thrown into the furnace.
CLICK HERE to hear the True Crime Historian podcast
“Violent Cremation: The Terrible Revenge of a Father,”
a reading from Hearn’s coverage of the tanyard murder.
Hearn arrived in the morning with the coroner, and his descriptions of the burnt remains both thrilled and revolted the Enquirer’s readers: “The skull had burst like a shell…the brain had all been boiled away, save a small lump at the base of the skull about the size of a lemon. It was crisp and still warm to the touch. Both jaws were intact, and the grinning teeth shone ghastly white. ”
With Hearn’s help, the Enquirer’s readers could imagine the deadly struggle, and speculate on whether the victim was still alive when tossed into the furnace. And of course there was lots of dramatic courtroom testimony. This case established Hearn’s reputation as Cincinnati’s most audacious journalist, and the Enquirer raised his salary to $25 per week.
Lafcadio also contributed feature stories on more conventional topics. He wrote reviews and essays about contemporary literature and art. In his spare time, He was attracted to the sensuous quality and literary craftsmanship of the French impressionist writers Flaubert, Gautier, and Baudelaire. He even translated one of these into English, but no publisher would risk printing it, in the puritanical 1870’s Cincinnati. Hearn was sharply aware that his literary tastes followed a different drummer: “I am a fervent admirer of extremes,” he wrote. “My tastes are whimsically grotesque and arabesque, drawn only to the revoltingly horrible or the excruciatingly beautiful”.
In 1874 Hearn interviewed the young artist Henry Farny, and the two became friends. They decided that Cincinnati needed a cultural kick in the pants, and they came up with the Giglampz, an eight-page weekly journal “devoted to art, literature, and satire”. Farny did the artwork and managed the business, while Hearn wrote most of the content. The two considered themselves on a mission to awaken and educate what they saw as a stubbornly impoverished intellectual scene.
The meaning of the name Giglampz was never explained. In the first issue, Hearn wrote, “The public has engaged in speculation, and a little levity, in regard to our name. In this, and in future issues of the Giglampz, we seek only to please ourselves…looking on public favor with serene indifference. The name pleases us. It is a calculated conundrum, meant to induce reflection. We hope someone may solve it, because we have already given up.”
This is the front page of the first edition of the folio-sized Giglampz. The cartoon has the caption, “Herr Kladderdatsch introducing Mr. Giglampz to the public.” (Kladderdatsch was a German-language weekly by the same publisher, which was discontinued when the Giglampz was launched.) The cartoon shows a quaint little man resembling Hearn, bowing to an adoring crowd. The Giglampz was published weekly (or, as it says on the front page, “daily, except weekdays”) and consisted of 8 pages of essays, poems, short stories, cartoons and caricatures, clips from newspapers (particularly of Paris), interviews, comments on local politics, controversies and scandals, and reviews of books, concerts, and art exhibits. Every piece was laced with satire. There were even numerous tongue-in-cheek “reviews” from fictitious newspapers around the world, heaping praise on the Giglampz.
Some repeated targets of Hearn’s satire, during the eight weeks of Giglampz’s existence, were the Cincinnati Temperance League, along with its ally, the YMCA; and the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (brother of the author Harriett Beecher Stowe, who was being accused in a high-profile adultery scandal). He also took shots at various individual politicians, and at the medical profession (particularly providers of shoddy abortions).
He targeted smaller fry too, like the board of Spring Grove Cemetery, for their recent trip to Europe to buy $1,000 worth of plants – species, claimed the Giglampz, that are found growing right here in our own region.
Hearn serialized some of his stories, purporting them to be translations from “a noted French author” named Fictor Nogo.
One day before the deadline for issue #8, the steamer Pat Rogers caught fire and burned out of control on the Ohio River near the Cincinnati levee. Henry Farny decided that the Giglampz should be the first to publish illustrations of the catastrophe. At daybreak he sent an artist to the scene. Farny did not realize that this shift to hard breaking news would confuse the public, who failed to see the artistic merit, and felt that their feelings of grief at the tragedy were being satirized. That week the Giglampz lost 500 subscribers and its anti-temperance patronage. One final edition was printed, #9, but Farny and Hearn could not reverse the damage that had been done, and the Giglampz was dead.
In a backlash, politicians and clergymen who had been lampooned by Hearn pressured the Enquirer to fire him, which it did, but used Hearn’s marriage to Mattie Foley, a former slave, as the reason for his firing. Their marriage did violate an Ohio anti-miscegenation law, but the pair had been openly married for more than a year by that time. Hearn was immediately hired by the Commercial, a rival paper, and he rebuffed the Enquirer’s later attempts to hire him back. Over the next three years at the Commercial, He wrote twelve articles on the Bucktown and Levee neighborhoods, along with their songs, dances, poetry, and superstitions. He wrote a half-terrified, half-comic account of being led by a steeplejack to the top of St. Peter in Chains, the highest church steeple in town, where (after establishing the direction of the wind) he took the opportunity to “piddle on the universe”.
One late night in his office at the Commercial, Lafcadio listened to Edwin Henderson, the city editor, reminisce about his time in New Orleans. Tropical climate, magnolia blossoms, Latin and Creole cultures, gracious, leisurely style of life – Hearn fantasized about New Orleans as an ideal place to read, study, translate, and write for an occasional magazine. He told his old friend Henry Watkin, who saw him off at the station, “It’s time for a fellow to get out of Cincinnati when they start to call it the ‘Paris of America’ “. He took a train to Memphis and from there caught a steamboat to New Orleans to become the Commercial’s southern correspondent.
Lafcadio would arrive in Memphis to learn that his steamboat, the Thompson Dean, would be delayed by two weeks. The expense of this layover decimated his already paltry finances and darkened his outlook. He wrote Watkins, “I have been crying often at night—just like I used to do as a college boy returned from vacation. It’s a lonely feeling, finding oneself alone in a strange city, where you never meet a face that you know. I suppose you are right. I live in and by extremes and I am on an extreme now.” Lafcadio included a sketch of the Mississippi River, showing Cincinnati up north, the Raven waiting in Memphis, and the Thompson Dean (depicted as a snail) coming up from New Orleans.
In New Orleans, circa 1877, the Civil War had been over for 12 years and the “Queen City” of the Mississippi had endured occupation by Union troops, and exploitation by carpetbaggers and scalawags. There were recurrent outbreaks of yellow fever. The old slave-based economy had been upended, and the spread of railroads had lessened the importance of river traffic.
When Hearn finally arrived, he had $20, most of which he gave as a down payment to the landlady of the cheapest furnished room he could find. He was optimistic at first, as he wrote Watkins: “The wealth of the world is here—gold for the literary miner. The paradise of the south, deserted and half in ruins…so beautiful and so sad. I cannot say how fair and rich and beautiful this dead South is. I have resolved to live in it. That chill, damp northern life is not for me.”
Lafcadio’s reputation as a journalist had preceded him, but he suffered through a period of privation without opportunity. For the fourteen articles he sent to the Cincinnati Commercial, he received only $25. For seven months he lived on and off the streets, spending 20 cents a day. He suffered in turn from dengue fever, marsh fever, and a mild case of Malaria.
He wrote Watkins: “While my whole nature urges me to continue, I see no prospect except starvation, sickness, and artificial wants which I shall never be wealthy enough to even partially gratify, and perhaps utter despair at the end. While I have not lost all confidence, I feel strongly doubtful whether I shall ever have means or leisure to develop the latent ability within me to do something of substantial merit.”
Hearn finally found employment (for $10 per week) as assistant news editor for the four-page Daily City Item. Within a month readers could see a transformation in the paper: Reviews of books appeared for the first time. Hearn’s favorite French authors were praised, while he dissed the popular sentimental southern novels. He added essays on Sanskrit writings and on Buddhism. He reprinted articles from out-of-town newpapers, many translated from French or Spanish. He made woodcuts depicting the daily life and people of New Orleans, which made the Daily City Item the first southern newspaper to feature cartoons. After carving nearly 200 of these over a six-month period, Lafcadio would write to Watkins, “The Raven must save his eye for reading and writing… He has only one!”
After several years with the Daily Item, Lafcadio in 1881 became acquainted with Page Baker, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Times Democrat. Baker had a deep regard for literature, and he gave Lafcadio free reign to follow his interests. Now making $30 per week, he lived in dilapidated boarding houses the Vieux Carré, or the old quarter, to immerse himself in the Creole culture and language. He wrote impressionistic descriptions of New Orleans places and characters. He wrote cultural reviews on French opera, local cuisine, the influence of Voodoo, and life in the Creole and Filipino communities. His favorable opinions on Buddhism offended the local clergy. During this period the Times Democrat became the most successful newspaper in the south, and Hearn had gained a cult of enthusiastic followers. He published in serial form what would later become books, such as Stray Leaves from Strange Literature, Some Chinese Ghosts, and Gombo Xhebes, a collection of Creole proverbs.
Lafcadio used his free time to study, and he amassed very eclectic library. “Whatever evokes a compelling image, he wrote, I always read, no matter what the subject. When the soil of fancy is enriched with fallen leaves, the flowers of expression will grow spontaneously.”
It was in New Orleans that Hearn blossomed into a remarkably disciplined, mostly self-taught bohemian man of letters. He was contributing articles to the most distinguished periodicals of the time, such as Harper’s Weekly, Scribner’s Magazine, Century Magazine, and the Atlantic Monthly. More than any other writer, he helped to create the popular reputation of New Orleans as a place of distinct culture, closer to Europe and the Caribbean than to the rest of North America.
Although Lafcadio was by nature somewhat furtive, and wary about making and keeping friends, he was also capable of being open and outgoing. In New Orleans he enjoyed the full social life of a bohemian writer, becoming warm companions with a number of remarkable people. One in particular would remain a lifetime friend. Her name was Elizabeth Bisland, the tall, striking, ambitious daughter of a Louisiana family whose plantation was in decline since the war. Miss Bisland came to New Orleans at age 17 to make her fortune as a journalist. She had been an admirer of Hearn’s writing, but found that, upon meeting him, her gushing praise of his stories made him uncomfortably distant.
Lafcadio did grow familiar with (and quite fond) of Elizabeth when she became a contributor to the Times Democrat. At one point, she fell victim to yellow fever, and Hearn ministered to her day and night, in the quaint hotel where she lived. When she recovered, he reverted to his habitual polite coolness toward her. She would move to New York and marry, but the two would continue to correspond, and he kept her photo in his room wherever he lived. Upon his death, Bisland wrote a biography of Hearn.
“One of his habits while talking,” she recalled, “was to walk about, softly touching the furnishings of the room, or the flowers of the garden, picking up small objects for study with his pocket-glass, and meantime pouring out a stream of brilliant talk in a soft, half-apologetic tone, with constant deference to the opinions of his companions…and if a phrase or suggestion appealed to him his face lit up with a delightful glow of pleasure, and he never forgot it.”
In 1887 Harper’s commissioned Lafcadio to explore the tropics and write about his experiences. So leaving his books in the care of his good friend Dr. Matas, Hearn said his goodbyes and left New Orleans by train, stopping briefly in Cincinnati to see his beloved old first friend, Henry Watkin. From there he continued on to New York City and boarded the SS Barracouta with ports of call at St. Croix, St. Kitts, Montserrat, Dominica, Martinique, Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago, St. Lucia, and British Guiana.
When Hearn returned to New York, he produced a long travel essay entitled “A Midsummer Trip to the Tropics”. The editor of Harper’s Magazine, Henry Alden, bought the piece immediately for $700. He also invited the author to stay several weeks in his country house in Metuchen New Jersey.
Winter was coming on, and Hearn wrote to Watkins: “Dear old Dad: I have quit newspapering forever. I am going right back to the Tropics again, this time to stay. All dreams of paradise are realized there by nature. Since I returned, this world seems colorless and grey, and cold.”
So in October, Hearn again boarded the Barracouta for Martinique, expecting to remain there for a couple of months before moving on to another island. Instead, he would stay for a year and a half, in the charming port town of St. Pierre, framed by the blue-green Caribbean water and the towering volcanic hills of Mount Peleé. He had fallen in love again.
To Elizabeth Bisland, he wrote, “St. Pierre is a delicious, divine, dreamy West Indian town—an idealized, tropicalized, glorified Old New Orleans. I love it as if it were human.”
Free of the daily newspaper grind, and fluent in the native patois, he could take the time to observe, live the native life, and write at his own pace.
One focus of his fascination was the ubiquitous barefoot Creole porteuse, or female carrier. Hearn wrote, “Nearly all the transportation of light merchandise, meat, fruits, vegetables, and food stuffs – to and from the interior—is done on human heads. Women and girls unload cargo in the ports, each carrying a box or trunk or basket on her head. Steamships in the harbor are replenished with fuel by long lines of porteuses, each balancing a basket of coal. Many served as traveling peddlers, carrying a large, heavy, carefully-packed tray of goods, perfectly balanced and hands-free. No one, not even a rich planter or businessman, upon encountering a porteuse in need, would neglect to help her lift or lower her burden.”
Curious to know about the life of a porteuse, Lafcadio accompanied them on treks over mountains and through forests. They would stop at villages and farms, where they would spread their wares and sell what they could, receiving a commission from their employers on their return. A single porteuse’s tray could contain cosmetics, pins, needles, and fabrics, soap and toothbrushes, candy, fruit, coffee, tobacco, paper, ink, and envelopes, wooden toys and dolls, dishes, forks, cups, and much more.
The carriers themselves are remarkable physical specimens, marathon-worthy barefoot athletes, their erect carriage and precise balance maintained with incredible endurance over long distances. “So even is her walk that the burden never sways,” he wrote, “and she never travels without a little liquor, to sip along with her water to prevent dysentery.”
During his time on the island, Hearn produced the book, Two Years in the French West Indies. Also from that period came Chita: A Story of Last Island, about the fate of a young girl in the hurricane of 1856; and Youma: The Story of a West Indian Slave. These novels were glowingly reviewed by William Dean Howells, and won wider recognition than any of his previous writing. (As a side note: Thirteen years later, St. Pierre was totally destroyed by a devastating eruption of Mt. Pelée, leaving Hearn’s writings as the only thorough description that remained of the town and its people.)
Back in New York to make final revisions of these novels for his publisher, Hearn began to wonder where he could go next. He could not be happy without a new strange world to explore. He had been impressed with the Japanese exhibit at the 1885 New Orleans Exposition, on which he had written articles for Harper’s Bazaar and Harper’s Weekly.
“How would you like to travel to Japan as our correspondent?” asked his editors at Harper’s.
In March 1890 in New York, Lafcadio boarded a train to Vancouver, the 40 year-old one-eyed intrepid wanderer, about to throw himself yet again into an unfamiliar and exotically foreign society. At Vancouver he would join the steamship Abyssinia, bound for Yokohama.
This is Yokohama in about 1890. Only 22 years earlier, in 1868, Commodore Perry steamed into the harbor to open Japan to international trade. Now under the restored Meiji emperor, Japan was pursuing a full-throttle transition from a self-isolated feudal shogunate to a modern industrialized nation.
Owing to the fact that English was a required subject in Japanese schools, Lafcadio found a teaching position for $100 a month at a middle school in Matsue, on Japan’s west coast. Matsue was a city of 40,000, once the military center of Japan’s most ancient province, and part of a distinctly pre-Meiji Japan, with its samurai, merchant, and priestly quarters, and where traditional festivals and rituals and ceremonies were an important part of everyday life.
Hearn’s earliest impressions of his newly adopted home comprise the book Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: “One finds oneself suddenly in a world where everything is upon a smaller and daintier scale, where all movement is slow and soft, and voices are hushed, where land, life, and sky are unlike all that one has known elsewhere. Everything as well as everybody is small, and queer, and mysterious: the little houses under their blue roofs, the little shop-fronts hung with blue, and the smiling little people in their blue costumes.”
Only 20 miles away in the village of Kitzuki was Izumo, the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan. This ancient nature religion impressed Lafcadio as “an occult force, part of the soul of the Japanese race”, and included the notion that the world of the living is directly governed by the world of the dead. He sought to learn all he could about this sacred place. One day he was invited to view the shrine’s relics and observe a dance by white-robed priests, accompanied by flutes and drums. He was the first westerner ever to see the inner confines at Izumo.
Lafcadio’s reception at the temple distinguished him in the eyes of the Matsue elite, but he carried on with a low profile. After a day of teaching, he would wear a kimono and sandals, sit on a cushion, and smoke tobacco in a long-stemmed, carved Japanese pipe. His bed was a futon on a matted floor. He ate exclusively Japanese food.
About the modernization going on around him, he wrote, “It is difficult not to regret the decay of things beautiful, and the ugliness of things new. But today, in these exotic streets, the old and the new mingle so well that one seems to set off the other. A shop of American sewing machines next to a shop where Buddhist images are made; a photographer’s shop next to a manufacturer of straw sandals. Curiosities and dainty objects bewilder you by their very multitude. Even a package of toothpicks of cherry wood, bound with a paper wrapper wonderfully lettered in three different colors; even the little sky blue towel, with designs of flying sparrows, which the riksha man uses to wipe his face.”
Traditional religious practices provided plenty of subject matter for Lafcadio’s investigation: “Even the poorest farmer can afford to make a pilgrimage of a month’s duration, and during that season when the growing rice needs least attention, many thousands of the poorest go on pilgrimages. It has been the custom for everybody to help pilgrims with a little food or money or a place to rest. Each pilgrim carries a little blank book, in which the priest of each temple stamps its unique seal. This book then becomes an heirloom in the family of the pilgrim.”
Respect for the god of wells is shown by a yearly ritual cleaning. First the pair of well-cleaning silver carp are removed and placed in a container of cool water. Ancient prayers are said, and little paper flags are placed around the edge. The first bucket of new water must then be drawn by a man, because if a woman draws the first bucket, the water will never be clear.
Firemen visit homes in their district during the hot dry part of the year. With their hand-pumped engines they douse the roof, trees, and garden, and are rewarded with a small donation from the resident.
After a year in Matsue, Lafcadio was approached by a colleague who urged him to consider marrying a Japanese woman, to keep him warm in the winter as well as order his affairs and provide for his domestic needs. His friend even had a particular woman to recommend: Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of a local samurai family. Lafcadio was tired of living alone, and he agreed. Her family eventually adopted him, allowing him to become a Japanese citizen. Assuming the name Koizumi Yakumo, he paid homage to his new family’s ancestors, and tried to embody the traditional Japanese virtues. To the race-conscious Japanese, however, he would remain “almost Japanese”—just as he had never been entirely Greek, Irish, French, English, or American.
Hearn became professor of English at the Imperial Tokyo University in 1896. But after six years, in 1902, the new president of the University, a nationalist, wanted to rid the institution of foreigners, and in spite of the protests of his students, Lafcadio was forced out.
By 1904, the final year of his life, Lafcadio concentrated his diminishing energies on his work. He and his family were living mostly off the royalties of his 12 books on Japan, which were being published in America and Europe. His main joys were watching his four children grow up, observing the snakes, toads, and other creatures in his garden, and listening to a tiny singing cricket he had bought in the marketplace.
“Always at sunset,” he wrote, “the infinitesimal soul of him awakens; then the room begins to fill with a delicate and ghostly music of indescribable sweetness, a thin silvery rippling and trilling of tiny bells. As the darkness deepens, the sound becomes sweeter, and ceases only when the temple bell proclaims the hour of dawn.”
Lafcadio was philosophical about the inevitability of death: “Eventually our planet must die and be dissipated into vapor by the sun. What then of human love and human tenderness, its divine delights and pains, its passionate prayers to countless vanished gods, its sacrifices, hopes, and memories? Countless times the concourse now making me has been scattered, and mixed with other scatterings. Perhaps, after trillions of ages of burning in different dynasties of suns, the very best of me may come together again.”
His ashes were buried in a Buddhist ceremony in Toshima, Tokyo.
Although Hearn today has a small, devoted following in the United States and Europe, he is truly a household name only in Japan where he is known to all segments of society. His die-hard fans form the Yakumo Society, with 150 Japanese members nationwide. It holds monthly meetings in Matsue and publishes a journal called Hearn.
Because of Hearn’s interest in the occult, ghosts, and folklore, he has the same kind of reputation in Japan as Poe does in America. His writings helped to shape the country’s mindset about its own cultural heritage. His works are taught in schools, and he is seen as the foremost interpreter of the old Japanese spirit.
Japanese television recently presented a series of five hour-long docu-dramas which portrayed Hearn’s life from his days in New Orleans to his final years in Tokyo.
Japanese director Masaki Kobayashi adapted four Hearn stories into his 1964 film, Kwaidan.
Back in Ireland in 2005, Hearn’s life and works were celebrated in the play, The Dream of a Summer Day. In October 2015, the Lafcadio Hearn Japanese Gardens was opened at Tramore, where he spent summers with his Aunt Sarah.
There is a cultural center named for Hearn at the University of Durham, where he had been the top writing student as a teenager, and where he lost his eye.
In 2014, the Lafcadio Hearn Historical center opened on the Greek island of Lefkada, with contributions from the Koizumi family and others in Japan and Greece.
Back in New Orleans, Hearn’s home at 228 Baronne Street is now a museum with manuscripts and other memorabilia. The marching krewe called Le Krewe du Vieux, during the 2008 Mardi Gras, chose as their theme “Cult of Lafcadio”. Included in the Krewe du Vieux marchers was Hearn’s great-grandson, Bon Koizumi.
Only Cincinnati has no memorial for Hearn, except collections of writings by and about him, in the Cincinnati Public Library, and in the Mercantile Library on Walnut Street.