1849: Samuel Hirsch to Jacob Cannon Nicholson

This letter was written by Samuel Hirsch (1826-1876), a native of Kircheim Bolanden near Mayence, in Germany, who came to New York as a young man and took courses at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and subsequently Harvard. After college he studied law in New York City and was admitted to the bar. During the Pierce Administration, he was appointed vice-consul to Panama with an office at Aspinwall. Following that, he returned to New York where he practiced law in New York City and Williamsburg on Long Island.

Hirsch died under mysterious circumstances — he drowned in the East River at the foot of Market Street on 27 April 1876. A coroner’s inquest concluded that Hirsch came to his death by accidental drowning. An inspector of street cleaning named Charles Stromberg came forward to say that he heard cries coming from someone in the water and that he tried to save Hirsch by throwing him a chain but the tide carried Hirsch under the pier. A recommendation resulted for the pier to be modified so as to prevent similar accidents in the future.

From this letter we learn that Samuel Hirsch was retained by Jacob C. Nicholson (1802-1868) of Baltimore, Maryland, to tutor Nicholson’s son Henry Quarles Nicholson (1836-1912) — a 15 year-old student at the College of New Jersey. The letter informs us that Henry’s older brother George (then 17 years old) was “meddling” in the duty Hirsch felt was necessary to discipline young Henry. George, it seems, had even gone so far as to provide Henry with a “Bowie knife” to defend himself from the hands-on preceptor.

Matchett’s Baltimore Directory (1849-1850) tells us that Jacob’s employer was Charles C. Reinhardt (Reinhardt & Co). The Reinhardt & Company, located at 8-9 Light Street in Baltimore offered cutlery for sale — including Bowie knives — and other surgical and dental instruments. Jacob formerly was self-employed as a portrait artist.

Jacob was married to Susan Fauntleroy Quarles (1804-1858) who apparently left her husband in 1850, taking her two youngest children with her.  Susan was an accomplished artist in her own right. A 1984 Maryland exhibition catalogue described her as “a member of a prominent aristocratic… wealthy and illustrious Virginia family…best known for her family portraits”. Her apparently colorful life was kept a close secret by her siblings and children (one of whom became a US Congressman), beginning with a first “imprudent” teenage marriage to a poor Italian immigrant music teacher. Her second husband, Jacob Cannon Nicholson, was a fellow portrait painter, but despite that shared passion, this letter suggests that their story has yet to be chronicled.” [Source]


Addressed to Mr. J. C. Nicholson, No. 64 South High Street, Baltimore, Maryland

Princeton, New Jersey
October 19th 1849

Mr. Nicholson
Dear Sir,

I am almost inclined to believe that you did not receive my letter which I wrote to you on last Monday in regard to Henry, for had you received my letter, you would surely not have left me in suspense in so important a crisis. I mentioned then that through the imprudent interference of your son George with my management of Henry, I had been removed from my office as teacher of Henry. He told me that morning that he was going to carry Henry home, & I yielded on that account, because I think it well for Henry to move under the immediate supervision of the paternal eye, for not infrequently paternal vigilance & energy & maternal affection & tenderness avail more with the wayward child than rigid law enforced by strangers who scarcely ever combine these characteristics of both parents within their selves.

George, however, in obedience to some foolish pride & for the sake of vain ostentation soon changed his mind & concluded that he would manage matters in regard to Henry just as it pleased him irrespective of my will or of your orders. He tried to place Henry under the care of another preceptor & in all his ways & plans, bid utter defiance to my own regulations. When I perceived the drifts of these things, I at once concluded that I had no rights to yield to George unless so ordered by you & when Henry came from dinner on Monday, I took him to my room & after punishing him for wantonly violating my orders on Sunday, I gave him his orders for the future. But when I went to recitation, he again ran away to his brother George who in his folly has gone so far as to arm Henry with a Bowie knife to defend himself with, should I attempt any more to lay hands on him.

I have heard that Henry now boards at the Hotel & I can scarcely refrain from going there to carrying him back again to my room. I beg of you, sir, that you will let me know immediately what I am to do. Be so kind as to inform me forthwith that you do wish no longer that I should exercise any authority over Henry for at present I feel as if I was somewhat responsible for his conduct here in town. I furthermore beg leave to tell you that I would by no means take charge of Henry for the future should George be in any manner authorized to meddle with my government for he is almost less capable of self-government than Henry.

If you can make it convenient to come here at this time, I deem it of great importance for you to do so. Here you can be informed of the extent of my exertions for the welfare of Henry. I desist from saying anything in praise of the same. I have of late made the sad experience that George is almost as little a lover of truth as Henry & I doubt not that he will try to accuse me falsely to you, but I beg of you to come here to see for yourself.

Let me hear from you immediately & believe me yours respectfully, — Samuel Hirsch


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