Lafcadio Hearn

An Irish American journalist and writer, born in 1850, who later became one of the most influential chroniclers of Japanese folklore, Hearn got his start as a reporter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer and its rival, the Cincinnati Commercial. He left Cincinnati at the end of 1877. (See Wikipedia for rough biographical sketch, and cott1990 for full biography.)

Important for me is the fact that several sources attribute Wood’s 1876 interview with a Commercial reporter, headlined “Story of a Slave” to Hearn. These attributions can be found in the following places:

  • hughes1990, p. 224-230, 314 (based on an original bibliography compiled by O. W. Frost)
  • Steven C. Tracy, Going to Cincinnati: A History of the Blues in the Queen City (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993), xviii
  • gale2002, pp. 211-212

In his work for both Cincinnati newspapers, Hearn frequently wrote stories about life in “Bucktown,” the colloquial term for the city’s black neighborhoods.1 Hearn’s stories focused especially on the riverfront districts, especially its dockworkers, prostitutes, and tavern keepers. The most often reprinted of these include “Pariah People” (Commercial, August 22, 1875), “Old Man Pickett” (Enquirer, February 21, 1875), and “Levee Life” (Commercial, March 17, 1876).2 They betray Hearn’s fascination with features of the community that might be explained by “African blood” and “savage” practices and superstitutions like voodoo, but also his attempt to show the human feelings of men and women like “Dolly.”3

Hearn’s levee stories are examples of his sensationalistic reporting style, which became more pronounced in the bloody “true crime” stories and Dickensian ghost tales in Cincinnati papers for which he is more famous. See hughes1990 for examples, especially Hearn’s accounts of the 1874 tannery murders, which boosted Enquirer circulation. As hughes1990, p. 1, notes: “The reportage is graphic in detail and often horrifying in content. The articles are not for the squeamish.” Some of these articles, however, appear to foreshadow muckraking journalism: he discussed effects of burial practices and animal slaughterhouses on public health, for example.

Hearn also showed a particular interest in listening to the stories of black residents of the city, however. The sensationalist elements of these pieces seem more restrained. See “Mr. Handy’s Life,” for example.4

In a contemporary scandal that cost him his Enquirer job, Hearn also married a black woman named Alathea (or Althea?) “Mattie” Foley, though they separated soon after. In a later article detailing their relationship, published after Hearn’s death, Foley related how they met while she was a cook in the boardinghouse where he lodged:

He was shy and diffident and his eyesight was bad, owing, he stated, to an accident that had happened in his youth. Hearn rarely joined in general conversation with the boarders and always, if possible, found his way to the kitchen and spent hours talking to Alethea of the misery of her youth in slavery. He, too, he often stated, had seen and felt misery.5

The marriage, in defiance of miscegenation laws at the time, cost him his Enquirer job, but his work for the Commercial attended to black life in Cincinnati more than ever before. According to bronner2002, p. 17, Hearn’s “Some Strange Experience: The Reminiscences of a Ghost-Seer,” is based on her.

bronner2002 goes so far as to call Hearn’s work “ethnographic,” a sort of early Joseph Mitchell. “Given assignments to cover the ‘police beat’ of murders and robberies, he filled his notebooks with details on the surroundings as cultural scenes. He walked the streets at night searching for stories of marginalized ethnic groups, neglected alleys and quarters, and undesirable occupations” (p. 2).

Need to read rothman2008; clubbe2007.

In the 1876 Cincinnati directory, Hearn’s address is given as northeast corner of Fourth and Race.

Description of Hearn in taylor2005, p. 187:

Born on the Ionian Islands to a British father and a mother of mixed Greek and Moorish descent, Hearn endured a miserable childhood that included abandonment by both parents, rejection by his father’s kin because of his swarthy complexion, banishment to a Catholic boarding school, expulsion from that same school, and survival in a workhouse for the poor. An accident disfigured his left eye and, compounded by a severe case of myopia, rendered the young Hearn practically blind. Yet, his physical disabilities may have heightened his other senses and made him the skillful ethnographer that he later became. His writings are descriptive, full of sounds and movements. He had an ear for music and dialect. When Hearn settled in Cincinnati in 1871 at the age of twenty-one, his first job was as a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He took a job at the Cincinnati Commercial in 1875, and it was for this paper that Hearn penned his colorful depictions of black folklife and culture in Cincinnati.

Yet Taylor also says that Hearn viewed the black neighborhoods he sketched “from a police officer’s perspective, seeming more criminality than humanity in this community” (187).


Year Date Event

1869 Hearn arrives in Cincinnati

1871? Hearn begins relationship with Alethea “Mattie” Foley

1874 Hearn joins staff of Cincinnati Enquirer

1874 January 25 Publishes “Mr. Handy’s Life” in Enquirer

1874 June 14 Hearn and Foley are married (Cott, 88)

1874 November 9 First installment of articles on the Tanyard murders

1874 November 22 Publishes “Butler’s” in Enquirer

1875 February 21 Publishes “Old Man Pickett” in Enquirer

1875 August Hearn is fired from the Enquirer

1875 August 22 Publishes “Pariah People” in Commercial

1875 September 5 Publishes “Haceldama” in Commercial

1875 September 26 Publishes “Some Strange Experience” about Foley

1875 October 25 Publishes “Balm of Gilead”

1876 March 17 Publishes “Levee Life” in Commercial

1876 April 2 Publishes “Story of a Slave” in Commercial

1876 April 9 Publishes “Black Varieties” in Commercial

1877 October Hearn leaves Cincinnati for New Orleans

  1. In frost1957, Bucktown is identified as “the area of Sixth and Seventh streets east of Broadway.”

  2. All three of these are reprinted in frost1957.

  3. See frost1957, 13-22.

  4. Cincinnati Enquirer, January 25, 1874; also collected in Ichiro Nishizaki, ed., Barbarous Barbers and Other Stories, by Lafcadio Hearn (Hokuseido Press, 1939), 41-46.

  5. “Claim Made by a Negress that She is the Lawful Wife of Lafcadio P. Hearn,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 14, 1906.