Thursday, March 1, 2012

Henry Howe's Columbus Humor

Henry Howe (1816-1893) was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of a publisher-printer. He learned the printing trade, wrote for local newspapers, and worked in his uncle’s New York bank. He wrote many books of state history, including Historical Collections of New York (1841), Historical Collections of New Jersey (1842), Historical Collections of Virginia (1845).

Historical Collections of Ohio came out in 1847, the best seller of histories in Ohio in the 19th century, besting even Grant’s memoirs.

Howe was married and moved to Cincinnati in 1848. He wrote more books there, mostly on history and travel. From 1856-1861 he wrote Our Whole Country, but the timing was not right due to the Civil War. Times of the Rebellion in the West was profitable after the War.

A second Ohio history was begun in 1885. Howe was the first American to try the concept of advanced paying subscriptions. In 1891 he completed the three-volume history, with financial help from the Ohio Legislature. But Howe was deeply in debt when he died in 1893. The state of Ohio bought the printing plates and copyright, due to a petition circulated by senators and governors and others, relieving Howe’s widow of debt. The state reprinted the books for years.

Howe encapsulates the history of Columbus well – and includes the dry humor of one E.O. Randall, ex-President of the Columbus Board of Trade, in his essay, “Columbus, Its Past and Present.” In speaking of the four residents of Franklinton – Starling, Johnson, McLaughlin, and Kerr --who made the state a capital offer they couldn’t resist: “One lot for the State House and one lot for the Penitentiary – the foresighted and impartial founders of the capitol realizing that equal and immediate quarters should be provided alike for the law makers and the law breakers.”

The newspaper known as the Western Intelligencer, originating in Worthington, became the Western Intelligencer & Columbus Gazette in Columbus, and then became the Ohio State Journal. Randall writes: “It continued to be published as the Columbus Gazette until 1884, when its future fell into the hands of the writer of these lines, who after a praiseworthy effort to revive its pristine glory and power, transferred it to the party led by the apostles of temperance; it then soon disappeared entirely.”

“In December, 1816, the legislature arrived in Columbus and took up its quarters in the old, red-brick State-house and began that continuous and monotonous grind of passing laws one winter and remodeling them and repealing them the next.”

Randall’s description of the opening of the State House: “It was a stupendous festival, in which every inch of interior was packed with a seething, panicky, perspiring mass of humanity squeezed almost to speechlessness. The music could not be heard, and the elaborate menu invariably spilled on the dress suits of the beaux and the decollete shoulders of the belles.”

Randall’s take on the arts in Columbus: “A goodly number of painters haunt the halls of the public buildings, and at times frighten or delight the passer-by with the display in the shop windows of their glowing colors upon the canvas backs. Music soothes with its charms the unstrung nerves of the busy burgesses.”

“Columbus numbers some fifty churches having buildings of their own. To offset the religious influences, ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil’ offer some 600 saloons and places where internal fires and eternal damnation are dispensed.”

“The City Jail is highly spoken of by those who have stopped there. The rooms are airy, the bill-of-fare, if not containing all the delicacies of the season, is wholesome and inexpensive to the guests.”

“The railroads, of course, run their tracks where they please – across streets and thoroughfares, without regard to the comfort or the cost to the city; but, as railroads go, they are considerate, and when they run over a street-car, a cab, or a citizen they usually express regret.”

Howe must have recruited many writers to help him flesh out his histories. Let us hope they were all as entertaining as Mr. Randall.

Christine Hayes

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