Charles Dickens and a Stalker

dickensFor all Charles Dickens knew, his second American tour starting in 1867 might be a trip into hostile territory. His first tour in the country during 1842 left him disillusioned, and his subsequent books American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit offered stinging criticism of the America he experienced.

But he was desperate.  Between his banished wife’s monthly stipend and supporting his many children’s upper class lifestyles (six of them wholly), he wrote to his sister-in-law stating, “Expenses are so enormous, that I begin to feel myself drawn towards America, as Darnay in the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ was attracted to the Loadstone Rock, Paris.”

At the time, there was no international copyright law, making it so pirated copies of his various works had long been hot sellers in the United States, but hadn’t earned him a dime. To tap into his vast audience in America, he simply traveled over and toured around doing readings.

With his second jaunt across the pond, despite his scathing works about the country after his first trip, it turns out he need not have worried about public response. Post-Civil War Americans were just as eager, if not more so, to see the famous author as they had been when he visited in 1842 and he (literally) struggled at times not to have his clothes torn off his back by fans attempting to grab a souvenir of their encounter with him. One fan even reportedly made impressions of one of Dickens’ boot prints after he’d walked by.

This was nothing new.  During his 1842 tour, he once complained he woke up in the morning to find several men crowding the window of his cabin on his boat docked in Cleveland- watching him and his wife sleep. He noted of that trip, “If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. I can’t drink a glass of water without having 100 people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow.” (In the end, Dickens bagged the equivalent of £38,000 from 76 readings during his second tour of America, accounting for a remarkable 20% of the value of his estate upon his death shortly after the trip.)

Dickens arrived in Boston for this second American tour on November 19, 1867. With the week and a half between his arrival and his first speaking engagement, he kept himself entertained at the Parker House Hotel by dining and playing games with, among others, his manager, publisher, and a New York couple, the Bigelows.

John Bigelow of New York edited and co-owned the New York Evening Post from 1849 to 1861 when he became a factor in international diplomacy. Bigelow, a Republican since 1856 after walking away from the Democrats over the issue of slavery, was appointed to the American Consul in Paris by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. He quickly progressed up in the ranks to Chargé d’Affaires to Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. He used his influence in Napoleon III’s court to help stop France from providing any aid to the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. That lack of aid played a major role in the success of the Union. He was rewarded for his efforts with a promotion to the position of American Ambassador to France in 1865.

Bigelow’s wife, Jane, was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1829 and married John Bigelow in June of 1850. The couple had nine children together, but their marriage was anything but happy. Part of the problem was her decorum, or lack thereof, and erratic behavior. (At least as far as John was concerned.) This resulted in several noted instances of her embarrassing the pair at state functions, included slapping the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) on the back at one function, reportedly severely offending him.


Ellen Ternan

Charles Dickens was sympathetic towards John Bigelow’s unhappy marriage when he met the couple in 1867, and bonded with him over it. You see, Dickens himself often voiced his displeasure at being married to his wife, Catherine Hogarth, stating he “was totally incompatible” with her. Despite this, the unhappy couple managed to have ten children together.

After more or less banishing Catherine to London (a divorce wasn’t possible due to his fame and the scandal it would have caused), he instead kept his beloved mistress nearby most of the time- one Ellen Ternan, who he had originally begun having an affair with when he was 45 and she 18. (The pair remained together until his death in 1870 at the age of 58, at which point he left her a sizable inheritance to ensure she’d have sufficient money to last her lifetime.) Dickens had chosen not to bring Ellen with him to America due to the potential scandal that might ensue if the relationship was publicized in the media.

Dickens’ publisher’s wife, Mrs. Annie Fields, wrote in her diary that Dickens felt “the deepest sympathy for men who are unfitly married and has taken an especial fancy… to John Bigelow, our late minister to Paris… because his wife is such an incubus.”

Needless to say, Dickens didn’t appear to get along with Jane any better than her husband did. But even after experiencing the (at the time) somewhat unique attention his extreme celebrity status brought during his first tour of America, he could never have imagined facing a stalker. This was an age when “rock star” type celebrity status so common today was nearly unheard of and Dickens stated of it all, “How queer it is that I should be perpetually having things happen to me with regard to people that nobody else in the world can be made to believe.”

Mrs. Fields diary revealed a tipping point in Jane’s transition from “obnoxious” to “stalker,” noting that Jane’s behavior “at last brought the matter to a crisis” less than a month after the entry calling her an incubus. And it all happened in New York.

A widow named Mrs. Hertz was a big fan of Charles Dickens, and she desperately wanted to meet him after his reading at the Westminster Hotel in New York. She sent him flowers and convinced her friend who managed the Westminster to arrange a meeting. Mrs. Hertz met Dickens the next day at noon in his room. However, what she did not know was that Jane Bigelow would be waiting for her in the hallway when she left. Upon Mrs. Hertz emerging from Dickens’ room, Jane began striking her with her fists while simultaneously screaming at her.

The attack did not do much to change Dickens’ security as his manager already stationed guards outside the author’s door at all hours to prevent fans from barging inside. However, from this point on, Dickens did banish Jane from his social circle and let his guards know to keep her away from his room.

This didn’t stop her from trying to get near him. Over the course of the remainder of his stay in New York, she attempted to see him several more times, but was turned away by his guards. She also took to hanging around the hotel to watch for him. As such, when Dickens needed to leave the hotel or return, his friends served as lookouts and alerted him if Jane was around.

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  • Jack Aubert

    What happened to the editing today?

    Two grammar/spelling errors, one possible inaccuracy and a couple of infelicitous formulations.

    “watching he and his wife sleep”

    “that lack of aide…”

    “Envoy Extraodinary and Plenipotentiary” is just a more formal title for Ambassador. All Ambassadors are EAPs. Promotion from EAP to Ambassador is probably misinformation.

    “upon Mrs. Hertz emerging from Dickens’ room… [wants an apostrophe]

    “leave the hotel or arrive back” [arrive back?]

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Jack Aubert: It’s what happens when I edit articles in the middle of the night due to having an especially busy previous day working on the business side of running this website. 😉 Thanks for catching those. It’s always appreciated. 🙂

      • Rob

        Absolutely appreciated just to read, “infelicitous formulations.” English is such a fun language. 🙂


    “Despite this, the unhappy couple managed to have ten children together.”…. 🙂

  • James

    I’ve been researching Mr. & Mrs. Bigelow for some time, and I’ve come to the conclusion, after reading several versions of this story, that most of it is nonsense. I think it was put out there by an author who wanted to draw attention to his novel, and he seems to have taken bits and pieces of stories he found and used them to create a new story. First of all, the Bigelows were not unhappily married at all. John Bigelow was an early proponent of women’s rights, and he chose a strong, intelligent and independent woman as his wife. If one reads his own words – in his letters and autobiography – or the words of anyone who actually knew the couple, it is clear that he was crazy about his wife. Annie Fields may have assumed that because Mrs. Bigelow was openly disgreeable during one dinner with the Fields and Charles Dickens, that she had much in common with Mr. Dickens’ much maligned wife. In fact, the Bigelows had first met Mr. & Mrs. Dickens during a visit to London in 1860, and John Bigelow implied in his diary that Mrs. Dickens’ alleged temper, if it existed, was probably brought about by Mr. Dickens’ behavior. He also saw Dickens’ ‘mistress during this visit and didn’t understand why anyone would throw away a marriage over someone like that woman. In other words, John Bigelow was generally very happy in his marriage where Dickens was clearly not. John Bigelow always sang his wife’s praises and was very amused by her many eccentricities.

    As to the alleged violent, assault against the “little old widow” Mrs. Hertz, I do not believe for one moment that it ever occurred. In his story, Mr Pearl claims that Mrs. Bigelow began “stalking” Charle Dickens in Boston. She did indeed see Dickens on at least three occasions in Boston. But each time she had been invited, along with her husband. The author provided no evidence of this alleged stalking. What happened exactly? Where and when? The Bigelow’s visit to Boston was not all that long, and it’s obvious from both their diaries that they had very busy social schedules. The fact that she had time to do this supposed stalking between all her other social obligations would have been remarkable. Also, as Mr. Pearl mentions, Annie Fields found mrs. Bigelow (at least during one of their several nights together) to be extremely disagreeable. She must have said something (or things) she shouldn’t have said, as a proper upper class lady, because he husband noted in his diary that night that her beavior was audacious. He didn’t say she was rude or that she was untrue or that she was wrong, but just audacious. Maybe she was offended by something or was just in a bad mood? It should be noted that this was the only time during all their years together that he said anything even slightly negative about his wife. And if Mrs. Bigelow was so enamoured of Dickens that she just couldn”t stay away from him, why in the world would she have been deliberately disagreeable toward him? Mr. Pearl also claims that Mrs. Bigelow attacked any other females who tried to get near him. Wh are these females? What exactly happened and where? There are no actual examples given. We’re just expected to assume it’s gospel truth?

    If the little old lady was really the victim of a violent attack by a crazed physcopath, why is there no record of it anywhere? Wouldn’t the police have been called? Wouldn’t someone somewhere (prior to Mr. Pearl’s rather recentclaims) have whispered about it? Wouldn’t the type of person who could commit such a random and unprovoked act of violence have enacted some similar behaior before or after such an incident…at some point? Mrs. Bigelow was in the public eye for decades. He comings and goings, along with her many amusing exploits, were reported in the newspapers regulalry, and gossipped about even more regulalrly, yet there is not a single instance of anyone recording anything even vaguely similar in her behavior. How did a well liked, albeit quirky, New York socialite manage to remain so popular with so many people for the better part of three decades if she was in fact a deranged and violant brute? Further, if Charles Dickens had relayed this story of a violent attack against a little old lady by a screeching maniac who had been stalking him to James and Annie Fields (Dickens’ publisher and his wife), isn’t it likely he would have shared the story with his family or close friends as well? Dickens’ closest friends, John Forster and Wilie Collins, both knew and liked Mrs’ Bigelow, as did Thackery, Walt Whitman, Bismarck, the Empress of France, et al. It was shortly after the alleged attack that Wilkie Collins, who was also in-laws with Dickens, became a close friend of Mrs. Bigelow’s. They fondly corresponded for twently years and Collins stayed at the Bigelow’s copuntry house when he visited America. Would that have happened if Collins knew her as a psycho bitch? Furthermore, Dickens’ manager, George Dolby, who was present at all the dinners and meetings in both New York and Boston, wrote about being thrilled when Mr. & Mrs. Bigelow came back into town so that they could have another dinner party….the type that Mrs. Bigelow was suppposed to have ruined for everyone. It doesn’t add up.

    And lastly (I’m sorry this turned into War and Peace!) some of what Mr. Pearl wrote was taken out of context and was, in my opinion, deliberatly misleaeding. He relied only on the words of Hugh Haweis, whose book was soundy criticized by people who knew Mrs. Bigelow. The bit about her slapping the Prince of Wales on the back and her allegedly “offending politicos” etc., came from Haweis’ book, but both are misrepresentations. Haweis actually wrote, while being jocular, that Mrs. Bigelow went to court and NEARLY slapped the Prince of Wales on the back. She didn’t literally do that. When Haweis’ words are read carefully, it’s obvious that he actually liked Mrs. Bigeow. Even if he hadn’t, almost everyone else did. She is usually described as a woman of enormnous charm and clever intellect who loved people and having fun. Her oft-cited eccentricity has been twisted into something sinister with this recent stalking stuff, but in fact it mostly consisted of, as a friend put it, some harmless peculiarities, such as sometimes wearing slippers in public, or treating princes the same way way she treated her neighbors, or walking up to strangers at parties and speaking directly to them, without having first been properly introduced!!! To me she sounds like a person I’d like to know.

  • James

    So I guess my comment was tossed in the trash? I thought I was completely respectful and reasonable in any disagreement, and, as I noted, I researched the subject for a very long time, but if I somehow offended you, I am sorry. You might let readers know that dissent, even polite dissent, is not allowed here. That would be kinder.

    • James

      Darn it! Now I see my that original comment (and its many typos) is still here, apparently awaiting moderation, so please forgive my premature offense! Other websites have refused to allow any disagreement, and I when I saw my comment had disappeared here, I wrongly assumed this was the case again. I do apologize!