Charles Dickens and Chicago

Charles Dickens, whose 200th birthday is today, never visited Chicago. Everyone in town assumed he would come on his 1867 reading tour of the United States – his no-good brother, Augustus, had been living died in Chicago the year before, and his widow was still living on Clark Street.  “Dickens is surely coming to Chicago,” the Tribune wrote. “He would as soon think of dining without saying grace as to come to America and not visit Chicago….one of the principal reasons for Mr. Dickens’ coming to the United States, we are assured, was to visit the (unmarked) grave of his brother.”

above: Augustus Dickens of Chicago looked a lot like his brother

And, indeed, Dickens did INTEND to come to Chicago on tour, but his health during the trip was poor. Making a rail journey that far west probably would have killed him (indeed, the tour itself probably took a few years off his life; he died just two years later, already an old, old man even though he was not yet 60. He looked at least ten years older than he was).

When it was announced that he wasn’t coming too town, Chicago was FURIOUS. The Tribune fell all over itself calling him a hypocrite.

Many believed he was deliberately avoiding having to see his brother’s widow’s and his nieces and nephews, so he could continue to shut his eyes to their plight.  Charles was obliged to defend himself, claiming that August’s only legal wife was living in England. This was sort of true; Augustus had abandoned a wife back in England. Charles, though, was financially supporting both of them.

Reading through modern and contemporary sources to get to the truth of the matter only deepens the mystery. Most modern sources say that Dickens was supporting his brother’s widow financially, most of the sources at the time say he was not. She was still living in the North Clark Street cottage where Augustus had died (roughly 1400 N, in between Division and North), and, only months after the furor, was found dead in her bed there on Christmas Day, 1868, of an overdose of morphine. Records as to whether or not she was truly being supported were destroyed in the fire a few years later.

 She was buried in the same unmarked-grave at Graceland as Augustus; it remained unmarked until 2004.

What kind of guy Augustus was is also in question. Some remembered him as a jovial man who hosted lots of artistic discussions and sing-a-longs at the house on 568 North Clark (which would be roughly 1413 today, going by the renumbering guide from 1909, though the fire might have messed with this a bit). More seem to have remembered him as a hapless drunk.

Here’s his gravestone at Graceland, with Augustus on one side and Bertha and three infant children on the other. In 1865, presumably shortly after Lincoln was assassinated, the pair had a child named Lincoln. Ophelia and Violet were the other two.


They pair left behind three living children, Bertram, Adrian and Amy, whose own children grew up believing that “if anyone knew they were related to Dickens, they’d have to sit on the porch with a bag on their head,” according to one still-living descendent quoted in The Reader in 2004. That article is probably the best source on Augustus and his family that I’ve ever seen.