He cometh to you with a tale which
holdeth children from play, and old men
from the chimney corner.
SIR PHILIP SIDNEY, The Defence of Poesie
How quickly we are forgotten! That a writer who was at one time so extremely popular as Dr. John Hovey Robinson should be so completely forgotten that only a word or two of published biography could be found, seems almost incredible. It was only the lucky discovery of an unpublished manuscript(1) of a short article by the late William J. Benners, of Philadelphia, giving the results of correspondence some twenty years ago, that furnished a clue which eventually led to the information given here.
John Hovey Robinson, physician, novelist, and poet, was born in Sebec (not Lubec, as given by Allibone), Maine, in December, 1820.(2) He studied medicine at Bowdoin and Harvard Colleges but was not graduated. He began writing at least as early as 1846, for in that year his "Fingers of Fate; or, The Astrologer's Daughter," and "Ella Montfield; or, The Three Disguises," were published in Boston. The next year saw the issue of "Father Ildefonso; or, The Priests of St. Omer" in New York.
Robinson apparently began to practice medicine in Leicester, Massachusetts, and in 1848 was married to Mary E. Waite of that town. She also was a writer, one of her novels, "Evelyn, the Child of the Revolution" having been published by Hotchkiss & Co., of Boston, in 1850. Some time after their marriage, the Robinsons moved to Boston(3) and then to Worcester, Massachusetts, and were there at least as early as 1855, as shown by the Worcester City Directory(4) and it was from that place that Dr. Robinson, in 1858, sent his manuscripts to The New York Mercury, as confirmed by a letter from William Cauldwell, the publisher. There is an advertisement in the New York Tribune, June 13, 1859, to the effect that "Dr. Robinson, the great novelist, is now engaged exclusively on the New York Mercury." However, he had a serial, "Silver Knife; or, The Hunters of the Rocky Mountains," in Gleason's Pictorial beginning March 17, 1860, so the "exclusiveness" did not last long.
The Robinsons were still in Worcester in 1865, for on October 18 of that year Mrs. Robinson(5) died at the age of 37. Dr. Robinson, at that time already suffering from the complaint from which he died, was heartbroken and immediately left for Fair Haven, Minnesota, to visit his brother, a Baptist minister, and to try to regain his health. In a letter to his father-in-law, written in Fair Haven on November 26, 1865, he speaks of his arrival after an eight-day journey from Worcester.
Whether Dr. Robinson remained in Fair Haven for the next fifteen months, or whether he returned to Worcester in the spring and came back to Minnesota the next winter, is unknown, but he died at his brother's home in Fair Haven of "quick consumption" on February 17, 1867. His body was brought east and was buried March 4, 1867, in Cherry Valley, Massachusetts.
Dr. Robinson was a prolific writer, contributing to most of the story papers of his time. He could turn out stories faster than the papers could use them, and was one of the best paid of contemporary writers. The Journalist, in a "History of the Sunday Mercury" published January 7, 1888, said that the Sunday Mercury contracted to pay Dr. Robinson $3,000 a year if he wrote three books. Besides writing for the New York Mercury he wrote for The Olive Branch, The Flag of Our Union, Gleason's Pictorial, and True Flag. In March, 1858, he began to write exclusively for the New York Weekly,(6) and it was in this paper that the great scout "Nick Whiffles" and his dog "Calamity" first appeared, June 5, 1858. Nick was so popular that other story papers took him up after Dr. Robinson's death and treated him as real person, much to the disgust of the New York Weekly.(7)
All of the stories printed by Beadle were reprints of earlier novels or serials of other publishers, for none of them was printed until after Dr. Robinson's death.
REFERENCES: The references given in the footnotes; letters from W. B. Tunstall, Spencer, Mass., and Cornelius P. Turner, Leicester, Mass.; cemetery records, Cherry Valley, Mass.; New York Weekly, XIII, May 15, May 22, July 31, 185S; Lyle H. Wright, American Fiction, 1774-1850, San Marino, 1939, 161-62, lists seven novels published before 1850; Allibone lists sixteen to 1863. †Phyllis Gordon Demarest, The Naked Risk, New York, 1954, 377 pp. (a fictionized account of the Abby Sage-Richardson-McFarland affair).
American Tales. Nos. 49, 50, 52, 55, 59, 63, 84, 88, 90,
(93, not issued)
Starr's American Novels. Nos. 138, 162, 166, 173, 181
Starr's Fifteen Illustrated Novels. Nos. 9, 14, 16, 19, 21
Cheap Edition of Popular Authors. Nos. 26, 29
Fireside Library. No. 51
Starr's New York Library. Nos. 13, 17, 22
Dime Library. Nos. 13, 17, 22, 37, 58, 70, 73,163, 1042, 1047
SPECIMEN OF DR. ROBINSON'S STYLE
"Pathaway; or, Nick Whiffles on the Trail," American Tales, No. 49, Chapter XII.
"He's been in a condemned little diffikilty; and not so little, neither, for it upset all his fakilties and nigh-about snuffed the candle of his life," answered Nick, explanatorily. "You see a man afore ye that's been shot, xassinated, killed, buried, resurrectionized, and resuffocated, all o' which happened in a lonesome canon not fur from Trapper Valley. This is the man"—pointing to Pathaway—"who did it; and that isn't what I mean, neither; but that he dug him up and brung him to, Sebastian, we must go to cookin'; for the Frenchman's stomich is as holler as a drum, and hollerer too; for a drum's full o' air, and I'll be hanged if he looks as if he had a thimble full on't to spare. Rattle out the camp-kettle and stew-pan, and mind and not hit 'em ag'in them brittle legs o' your'n. There's no Doctor Whiffles here to set bones. He was what is called a nat'ral bonesetter. Be in a hurry, lad, for we've got the condemndest slumich to cook for that ever darkened a camp-door. Our family's increasin', sonny. We'll have a hospital here by-and-by, by mighty! Spent a year in a hospital once, I did, when I's a boy, studyin' doctor stuff. That was down in the clearin's, atore I took to the bush.
The hospital I was in was sumtimes called an Infarmity"
"Infirmary," suggested Sebastian. '"Bliged to ye, little 'un. Remember the head of the 'stablishment very well. Seems as if I could see him smokin' his short pipe; for a confarmed smoker of the narcootic weed was the doctor. There wasn't his equal in tellin' stories, neither. To hear him, you'd think that he'd conquered all the disorders, complaints, maladies, eperdemics, plagues, 'ruptions, and other sicknesses that humans is sujeck to. He hated minerils dreadful, and said that all sorts o' calomy—another slice, little 'un—red lead, blue-pill, and canine was p'ison to the system. Arter I'd been there awhile, the doctor used to let me try my hand at them that he was practicin' at. You'd oughter seen," added Nick, holding out the stewpan in one hand, and a fagot in the other, "the fixin's he had in his infarmity—the hot baths, the cold baths, and the b'ilers; 'specially the b'ilers—steam-boxes he larmed 'um; but they's reg'lar b'ilers, by mighty! You see there's some affections—don't cut your ringers, sonny—that won't come out 'cept by b'ilin'. We used to bile 'em right smart! I got to be master b'iler afore three months. Well, as I's sayin'—don't step into the kettle, boy, and don't be lookin' at me so queer—he let me have a chance now and then at 'em. He happened to have 'mong his patients an Irishman with a bad leg, which was a fever-sore or somethin' o' that natur. The doctor had a good 'eal o' country practice, and was often gone a week at a time, like an old-fashioned Methodist minister on a circuit. This was about the time irhen the hot-crop systum begun to be in vogue, which has many years ago. Now the doctor didn't go by guess-work, but allers had a plan which he follered. He cured everything with a Lobely course o' medicine, the botanic name of which was screw-auger. A course o' medicine was a 'metic, and a 'metic was a course o' medicine."
"'I'm goin' away,' sez the doctor, arter he'd showed me the patient." "'Very well,' sez I." "This is a bad leg,' sez he." '"It's a condemned bad leg!' sez I." " 'He must throw it up,' sez he." "'Nothin' more nor less,' sez I." " 'Give him a 'metic every day till I git back,' sez he."
"'Will it'feet the leg?'sez I."
"'Twon't 'feet nothin' else,' sez he. 'And be sure to keep him in a horizontal position.'"
"'As horizontal as you please,' sez I."
"Then the doctor got into his wide one-hoss gig, like that my gran'father traveled in in Centril Afriky, tetched up his old white hoss, and trundled away, saddle-bags, Lobely, kian, and all."
Nick gave the stew-pan a shake, and set it over the fire again.
"Well," he added, "I went at the critter. The doctor was gone sixteen days, and I puked the patient every day, by mighty! Boy, put on another stick o' wood, and tend a little closter to your brile; a brile has to be looked arter."
"How did this treatment affect him?" asked Pathaway, with a half-smile.
"Powerful! Powerful! 'Long toward the last on't I tied his well leg to the bed-post for fear the wrong one would come up. But not-'stannin' all the skill I laid out on the onnateralized furriner, the lame limb didn't come up; but he fell away like p'isen durin' the time."
Nick gave the stew-pan an extra shake, glanced quizzically at Pathaway, then added, reflectively:
"But it oughter done his business! 'Twasn't no fault o' mine; I gin him enough o' the condemned stuff. There! that sparrow-legged boy has dropped his meat in the ashes! The doctor was summat astonished when he got home, for he didn't spect to be gone but a week when he went away. There was a little pucker, as 'twere, round the corners of his mouth when I told him what I'd done; but he lighted his pipe and smoked right on, as usual.
"'I think I'm well qualified to practise doctor-stuff,' sez I."
"'I think you be,' sez he, 'but there's one piece o' information I want to give ye; which is, that all diseases is brung about by humors. No matter what a person complains on, depend on't, 'tis humors.'"
"'I'm everlastin'ly obleeged to ye,' sez I, and the very next day left the doctor's Infarmity, satisfied that it wouldn't be safe for me to 1'arn any more. Give me good food, good air, and good exercise, and I don't care for physic, by gracious! The human stomich never was intended for a slop-bowl."
Profoundly impressed with this idea, the trapper pondered a moment, and finished his train of thought by saying, with more than ordinary feeling, "Oh Lord, no!"
† Correction made as per Volume 3.
|1||Now in the possession of Mr. Raymond L. Caldwell, of Lancaster, Pa.|
|2||Allibone gives his birth year incorrectly as 1825. The cemetery records of Cherry Valley, Massachusetts, where Dr. Robinson was buried, show that he died in 1867 at the age of 46. Furthermore, the Worcester Daily Spy, February 25, 1867 and March 2, 1867, in obituary notices, says that he died February 17, 1867, aged 46 years, 2 months. This would place his birth in December, 1820.|
|3||Boston Directory, one year only, 1854—55.|
|4||He is given in the Worcester City Directories from 1855 to 1864.|
|5||She was the daughter of Edwin and Ursula C. Waite, as recorded in the Cherry Valley, Mass., cemetery records.|
|6||New York Weekly, XIII, May 1, 1858.|
|7||lbid., XXVI, March 30 and April 6, 1871.|