Today marks the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, an author as popular in the 21st Century as he was in his lifetime, frequently read, dramatized, cinematized, and this year, memorialized in dozens of ceremonies, programs, and publications. This year also marks another Dickens anniversary, the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Dickens’s sixth child and fourth son, Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens, who died suddenly in New York City on January 2, 1912, while he was touring the United States giving lectures commemorating the centennial of his famous father’s birth. After consultations with his closest relatives (his sister in England and daughter in Australia), his tour manager accepted an offer from the Trinity Corporation and Dickens’s body was placed in a holding vault in Trinity Cemetery until spring, when he was buried in at plot at 155th Street and Broadway, overlooking the museum complex that occupied the southern portion of what until just a few years earlier had been Audubon Park.
Born in 1845, Alfred Dickens had the benefit of a solid education, but apparently shared his father’s love of expensive finery and ran up quite a few bills – to his father’s accounts. The elder Dickens “suggested” his son emigrate from England and start a new life elsewhere (years later, the younger Dickens said the reason was that his father wanted him to “see the world”). Alfred Dickens complied with his father’s wishes, leaving London so quickly he left quite a few unpaid bills behind him. He immigrated to Australia, where he was relatively successful as a sheep farmer, but during a severe financial depression in the early 1890s, when a disease known as “fluke” attacked and killed his sheep, he began capitalizing on his famous father, touring the Australian lecture circuit with anecdotes about his life and works.
In 1910, Dickens toured Europe and America, and then returned to America in October, 1911, landing in Boston, where his father had arrived in 1842. According to the New York Daily Tribune (October 22, 1911), “he did not have the unpleasant experiences in crossing which were the lot of his parent, who feared that the smokestack, from which the flames burst at intervals, would be overturned in the storm and the wooden steamer by which he was traveling be destroyed by the fire.” From Boston, Alfred Dickens began a lecture tour that would include festivities in New York City on the centennial of his father’s birth, February 7th.
However, around noon on January 2, as the sixty-seven-year-old Alfred Dickens was walking across the lobby of the Hotel Astor in Manhattan, getting ready to leave for Kingston, New York where he was lecturing that evening, he had an attack of what the New York Times (January 3, 1912) described as “acute indigestion,” a 19th Century term for coronary thrombosis. According to the Times report, Dickens had not been feeling well for several days and had consulted a doctor, but not realizing the severity of his illness, had continued with his busy schedule, which had included more than thirty lectures in the preceding two months, extending from Lowell, MA to as far west as Denver, CO. The tour was to have continued through June.
Even after the attack, Dickens remained calm and after being helped back to his room and into bed, dictated several letters, including one to his daughter, mentioning that he was unwell, but hoping not to cancel any further engagements. He also sent a telegram to the manager of the theater in Kingston, expressing the hope he’d be able to reschedule his lecture. Then, “about 5:15 he awoke from a sleep and sat up in bed. He spoke to his secretary about his correspondence and then suddenly fell back on his pillow dead.”
Within a few days, his nearest relatives, a sister in London and two daughters in Australia, agreed that his body should remain in New York for burial services and then they could decide where he would be interred. The Rev. Dr. William T. Manning, rector of Trinity Church in Wall Street, conducted funeral services in the church on January 6th, with a distinguished congregation in attendance. According to the Times (January 7, 1912), the pall bearers included Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clews, former Senator William A. Clark, Courtney Bennett, the British Consul General to The United States, Whitelaw Reid, Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, and Dr. John H. Finley, President of the College of the City of New York, among others. After the funeral service, the body was taken to Trinity Cemetery in Washington Heights and placed in a receiving vault, awaiting further instructions from the Dickens family.
Although Dickens’s daughter in Melbourne sent a telegram the day of the funeral that she preferred burial in London, the family, long in reduced financial circumstances, was apparently not able to afford that option, so when the Trinity Corporation offered a plot in Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street in Washington Heights, the family accepted.
The body remained in the receiving vault until spring when the ground was unfrozen and a grave more easily dug. Then, on April 12th, the same pall bearers (except Ambassador Reid who had returned to London) gathered in Trinity Cemetery with “members of the American Dickens League, the Dickens Fellowship, and other Dickens societies” (Times, April 15, 1912) for a graveside burial service. At the conclusion, the Reverend William Carter of the Madison Avenue Reformed Church, one of several clergy present, quoted a maudlin passage from Bleak House that “called attention to the loneliness which surrounded the death of A. T. Dickens, in a strange country, far away from home and friends.”
That same year, the Reverend Milo Gates included a visit to the Dickens grave in the Clement Clarke Moore Ceremony he had instituted for the Intercession Sunday school children the previous year – a ceremony that continues today (though minus the visit to Alfred Dickens’s grave).
Although the various Dickens societies in New York planned to raise funds for a suitable memorial, the grave languished without a marker for several decades. In 1922, the Times reported (May 28, 1922) that plans were afoot for a shrine “in the form of a sundial, while the wings of an angel, hovering above it, will cast the shadow to indicate the hours,” but that scheme came to nothing. A stone from Rochester Cathedral in England, a location “intimately associated with the life of Charles Dickens,” had been brought to New York, but it was intended for the great altar of the Church of the Intercession, directly across Broadway from the Dickens grave site, in the eastern section of the cemetery. The altar – another idea from the creative mind of the Rev. Gates – contains hundreds of stones tracing the history of Christianity from The Holy Land to the United States. (That altar is still in use in the church and on view during services as well as in the tours the current Priest in Charge, Father Berto, conducts each month.)
Finally, in 1935, the Intercession Sunday school children raised money for a permanent gravestone of Barre, Vermont granite to mark the grave site; the lettering is said to be the same as that on Charles Dickens’ grave in Westminster Abbey.
So, during this year packed with commemorations of the illustrious legacy of Charles Dickens, spend a moment thinking on one facet of that legacy, his son Alfred, and if you’re in the neighborhood of Trinity Cemetery, stop by his gravesite and meditate on this less famous, but no less worthy life.