The Last Cincinnati Days of Lafcadio Hearn

As the Mercantile prepares to host an event on the present and future of journalism, it’s worth remembering a past, notable journalist who once haunted this library, for whom the Mercantile was a launching point to the world.

Lafcadio Hearn left an indelible and quite literally global legacy. Japanese Gardens have been created in his honor in Ireland, the country of his father’s birth. His New Orleans residence is a historic site. And he is still revered in his adopted country of Japan, where he took the name “Koizumi Yakumo”, married, and became the venerable head of a household, writing for Western eyes accounts of the closed nation until his death and burial there. His Japanese home has been preserved near a museum dedicated to his writing and life.

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But it was in Cincinnati, where Hearn arrived penniless, sleeping in alleys and stables, that his career as a writer and journalist began, as a chronicler of the overlooked lives of those on the outskirts of society—the bar denizens and saloon keepers, petty criminals, river roustabouts, and especially the African-American culture that flourished along the river.  His Children of the Levee in particular offers a unique glimpse into this forgotten world.  Hearn had a predilection for both the sublime and all that was macabre and lurid in 1870s Cincinnati, writing up gruesome murders for The Enquirer, including the infamous Tanyard Murder. Later, after the paper fired him ostensibly for his illegal marriage to an African American woman—although this article claims it was for a lack of personal hygiene, and others claim that he’d ruffled the feathers of powerful members of the clergy, he went to the rival Commercial, where he continued his maverick reportage, including an account of ascending the steeple of St. Peter’s Cathedral with daring steeplejack Roderiguez Weston.

The Mercantile was recently honored by a visit from Hearn’s great grandson, Professor Bon Koizumi, and his wife Shoko. Professor Koizumi is curator of the Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum at the University of Shimane. They visited with Dr. Kinji Tanaka, president emeritus of the Japan Research Society, long-time friend of the Mercantile, and donor to the library of issues of The Cincinnati Commercial containing some of Hearn’s Cincinnati journalism, which can be found in the Cincinnati Case in the 12th story lecture hall.

The Mercantile was the setting of a pivotal turn in the writer’s life. Former City Clerk Edwin Harrison gave an account of Hearn’s last days in Cincinnati to reporter Rudolph Benson for a 1912 Cincinnati Times Star article, what he called  a “story of newspapermen.” Harrison had pushed for bringing Hearn onboard the Commercial’s staff as the night police reporter, given his innate gift for sensationalism. Hearn had sworn he’d never go back to the Enquirer, and despite offers, never did.

According to Harrison, one winter night in the bleak, gas-lit offices of the Commercial, amid complaints about Cincinnati’s weather, he told his fellow ink stained wretches about a recent trip to the South, returning from which he’d been forced to overnight in Alabama and woken to a mockingbird serenade and the scent of a Magnolia grove outside his room. Hearn, a self-avowed devotee of the “French school of sensation”, took a particular interest in the story. Shortly thereafter, Hearn was assigned to cover the tragic illness of a young boy infected with hydrophobia. But when he uncharacteristically failed to file copy on deadline, Harrison made inquiries, and heard that Hearn had been spotted at the Mercantile Library, poring over some French books. Harrison went and covered the story himself, and later asked Hearn why he’d fallen down on his work. Hearn said that ever since Harrison’s story, he’d lost loyalty to the paper and to the city, that he intended to leave for New Orleans.

A few weeks later, Harrison personally carried Hearn’s valise to the Little Miami depot and put him on a south-bound coach for the Crescent City, where he lived and wrote for over a decade before moving on to the West Indies as a Harper’s correspondent, and later, Japan.  U.C. rare books librarian Kevin Grace has written on Hearn’s Cincinnati years here. And U.C. Journalism professor Jon Hughes has compiled a selection of Hearn’s Cincinnati journalism, Period of the Gruesome, which, along with many of Hearn’s works, can be found in the stacks.

–Cedric “Scripsi” Rose

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