Wednesday, March 28, 2012

George Keats in Louisville


Not only did I appreciate Denise Gigante's biography of The Keats Brothers for its literary history, it also provided a nice glimpse of Louisville's early days, especially as they concerned George Keats, who returned from his last trip to England with stake money to get his steam-powered sawmill near Beargrass Creek off the ground -- the enterprise that finally succeeded in making him a prosperous citizen.

When George and his wife Georgiana first arrived in Louisville about 1818, the river town had a population of around 5,000 and was an important stopping place for boats going down the Ohio to the Mississippi. The Falls of the Ohio interrupted the journey and because of the hazards of negotiating the narrow channels, all vessels had to stop at Louisville or Jeffersonville to unload cargo and pick up a pilot to see them through to the wharves of Shippingport Island, where they were reloaded and the pilots dropped off. Shippingport was the home of Nicholas Berthoud (Marquis de Ste. PiƩ) who escaped France during the Revolution with his wife Marie-Anne Julia, a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette.

According to Gigante's descriptions of early Louisville (much of her research was done at the Filson Historical Society), it was a pretty rough place. Treeless and unornamented in any way, the town boasted muddy streets and a generally unhealthy atmosphere because of how it sat on the river: "typhus, pneumonia, rheumatism, scrofula, consumption, dysentery, scarlet fever, yellow fever, and other diseases were common...it was clear that the large pools of standing water that accumulated during the wet season in and around Louisville were pestilent." [Gigante, p.344] Had poor John decided to emigrate along with George, the climate would have killed him even quicker, no doubt. (Let's all be thankful, I suppose, that our main health concern these days is allergies!)

Entertainment in Louisville centered around the taverns lining Main Street and the whiskey and billiards on offer (not much of a change there, eh?). As the city grew, a little more sophistication would spring to life -- George had a personal library of over 300 volumes, he hosted meetings of a Philosophical Society, was one of the original subscribers of the First Episcopalian Christ Church (though he later became a Unitarian), and he certainly cultivated a more elegant atmosphere in his white-columned mansion, which once sat on Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali) between Third and Fourth Streets. Louisville residents called it the "Englishman's Palace" -- respectful, perhaps, but also an indication that the Keatses were never fully assimilated into life as Kentuckians.

George spent the rest of his life and raised a large family in Louisville, but never really fit in. He had always meant to make his fortune and return to England, but by the time he became wealthy, there was no longer any particular reason to go back: his brothers were dead and his young sister was estranged from him. He was concerned about the place's influence on his eight children, especially the six daughters. Gigante quotes him as referring to Louisville in a letter as a "vortex of petty meannesses and low vices." Ouch. And in the end, George lost everything in the Crash of 1837, shortly before his death. Consumption claimed him as well at the age of 44 in 1841. His widow remarried a man 20 years her junior, John Jeffrey, who was an engineer in the gasworks of Louisville.

Some of the girls married (daughter Emma married Philip Speed), but one died as a child and another died at 18 in a bizarre incident with a gun in the Keats' home when she either accidentally or purposefully shot herself in the parlor some time after George's death. The two sons, Clarence and John Henry, both died without having children, so that was the end of the Keats line in America.

I highly recommend this book, whether you're just a literary nerd of the Keatsian persuasion or you're interested in the history of the American frontier in the early 1800s. Louisvillians will find it particularly interesting for points of local history and lore, which I've only touched on here.

(The portrait of George Keats above is the work of Joseph Severn, the artist and devoted friend of John Keats, who nursed him in his last days.)

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