He was the best of brothers, he was the worst of brothers.
Charles Dickens’s worldwide fame gave his brother Augustus a name that opened doors even in the rough-hewn Illinois of the 1850s. But the author cut off all contact with his younger brother after Augustus abandoned his blind wife in England and fled to the American midwest with his pregnant girlfriend. Even after Augustus died in 1866, the usually charitable Charles refused to help his niece and nephews, then living in Chicago–although when their mother died two years later he sent about $700 to provide for the orphans’ care.
Augustus Dickens’s great-great-great-great-grandson Scott Mehaffey doesn’t have any trouble talking about these matters, but several previous generations of his family felt the sting of Charles’s snub so acutely they could scarcely bear to speak of their famous kinsman. Mehaffey, a landscape architect for the Morton Arboretum who lives in Berwyn, says his grandmother Jeanne Schaefer was brought up to believe “that if anybody knew she was related to Charles Dickens, she’d have to sit on the porch with a bag over her head.”
Mehaffey’s mother, Barbara Kasper, who lives downstate in Tiskilwa, says her grandmother Deborah Dickens Anthony also had a low opinion of the author. “Grandmother knew Charles Dickens was a womanizer who imbibed alcohol,” Kasper says. “That was enough for her.” When Anthony died, she adds, a local newspaper ran her obituary under the headline “Great Niece of Charles Dickens Dies.” “My mother told me, ‘Your grandmother will come back to haunt us all for that.'”
But to Mehaffey and Kasper the rift between the Dickens brothers is water under the bridge, which is why they are aiding an effort to put a headstone on the unmarked grave of Augustus Dickens, his common-law wife, Bertha Phillips, and three of their children who died as infants. The five share a plot on the western rim of Graceland Cemetery, in what Chicago cemetery historian Helen Sclair calls “the low-rent district” of a graveyard best known for high-class residents like Daniel Burnham, Bertha Palmer, Marshall Field, and George Pullman.
For the past two years Mehaffey, Kasper, and two of Kasper’s cousins, Dixie Price and Susan Kadlec, have been working with Graceland’s board of trustees and the Chicago Dickens Fellowship (sort of a scholarly fan club) to create a suitable monument to Augustus. The headstone is supposed to be set by July 1. “It brings closure to the separation of the families,” says Bernie Rost, a retired accountant and past president of the fellowship. “[Charles] Dickens himself was absolutely adamant about not having anything to do with Augustus. Even when he was on tour in America and someone proposed he go to Chicago, he said he would not. When they said his readers in Chicago would be very upset, he reportedly said, ‘Better they were upset than me.'”
At the same time that it reunites the brothers, the new monument neatly finesses the issue that set them at odds: Augustus and Bertha’s common-law marriage. The front of the stone will read augustus newnham dickens, 1827-1866, brother of charles dickens the english author, while the names of Bertha and the short-lived triplets she gave birth to in 1865, Lincoln, Ophelia, and Violet, will be carved on the back.
“That’s an issue that was hard to deal with,” Rost says. “You couldn’t say ‘Augustus Dickens and his wife, Bertha,’ because even though they lived as if they were married, there is doubt that they were. I thought it would be interesting to leave it ambiguous: on the reverse the name ‘Dickens’ heads it, and underneath that is ‘Bertha Phillips,’ and then it says, ‘their three infants.’ So when looking at it one can say that was his wife, but yet it doesn’t say this was his wife. If we put ‘wife,’ someone could challenge that.”
Arguably it’s a solution that leaves Phillips and her hapless children bearing the brunt of the scandal. But John Notz, the Graceland trustee who has been most active in planning the marker, says the decision to list mother and children on the back of the stone was not meant to stigmatize them. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have her on the back,” Notz says. “People will be there to see Charles Dickens’s brother more than the others, and it’s a decent presentation of all five members of the family who are there.” Notz adds that some of the people involved in the project were originally unaware that Bertha and Augustus were probably never formally married. “There would be prolonged silence when you told them, because this complicates the idea of putting up a stone for them,” he says.
Before their estrangement the Dickens boys were close. Charles was 15 when his youngest sibling was born in 1827. According to Sidney and Carolyn Moss’s Charles Dickens and His Chicago Relatives, Charles nicknamed Augustus “Mose,” which mutated to “Boz” because of the way Charles pronounced it through a stuffy nose. Later Charles took the pet name back, using it as his pen name for the 1836 work that launched his literary career, Sketches by Boz.
When Augustus turned 17, Charles used his influence to get him a position with a London merchant. Augustus acted in plays Charles produced. In 1848 he wed Harriette Lovell, who’d inherited a comfortable fortune from her father, an agent of the East India Company. Two years later Harriette went blind. By 1854, Augustus had begun an affair with Bertha Phillips, the daughter of an Irish barrister. After impregnating Phillips in 1856, Augustus abandoned Harriette and London and fled to America. There’s no record of how the fugitive couple wound up in Amboy, Illinois, about 85 miles west of Chicago.
“Stories circulated that Augustus left Harriette penniless even though she was independently well-to-do,” says Rost. “There’s this idea that Charles was supporting her, but the truth is that she was the beneficiary of a trust and he was the trustee. So when he gave her money it was really her own.”
In Amboy, Augustus started a retail outlet called the People’s Cheap Store, only to be outgunned by a rival firm that eventually became Carson Pirie Scott. He farmed for a while, then traded on his brother’s fame to obtain a position with the land management office of the Illinois Central Railroad and moved to Chicago. “The British were deeply invested in the Illinois Central,” Sidney Moss says. “Augustus cleverly dropped the name of his brother to Richard Cobden, one of the biggest investors, and he was given a very good job.” The American Dickens also took a stab at establishing himself as a public speaker, advertising himself as “Augustus, the brother of Boz,” but hardly anyone showed up to hear him lecture on Shakespeare.
Augustus was not the first family member Charles cut off–in 1841 he published announcements in London newspapers declaring that he would no longer be responsible for the debts that his shiftless father was continually running up in his name. But there’s an interesting subtext to Charles’s disavowal of his brother: in 1857 the author began a secret affair with Ellen Ternan, an actress 27 years his junior, and the following year he separated from his own wife, Catherine, the mother of his ten children. (Charles was visiting Ternan in the house he rented for her under an assumed name when he suffered the stroke that killed him in 1870 at the age of 58; for propriety’s sake his mistress dispatched his inert body back to his own estate before calling a doctor.)
Perhaps Charles’s repudiation of Augustus was fueled by guilt over his own failings as a husband; perhaps he envied the relative anonymity that allowed his brother to run away and start anew. In any case, the brothers hadn’t communicated for ten years when Augustus died of tuberculosis in 1866, leaving Bertha alone to care for their three surviving children: nine-year-old Bertram, six-year-old Adrian Charles, and four-year-old Amy Bertha. No sooner had Augustus joined the triplets in the family plot in Graceland than American newspapers began taunting Charles with tales of the poverty endured by his fatherless niece and nephews in Chicago. In fact, according to the Mosses, Augustus seems to have left his family solvent, but the press was seemingly unable to resist putting a Dickensian spin on the situation.
The story took a genuinely melodramatic turn on Christmas day of 1868, when Bertha sent the children to spend the day with friends. Returning home, they found the door locked. A neighbor crawled in through a window and found Bertha dead. The coroner determined she’d died from an overdose of laudanum, a tincture of opium. It’s unclear, according to the Mosses, whether her death was a suicide or an accident.
“The death of the mother, leaving three orphans, is tragic,” says Notz. “That’s probably how there came to be no headstone. There was no one to do it for her.”
Renewed outcry in the press about Dickens’s neglect of his Chicago relatives provoked the writer to send two annual payments of 50 pounds (about $350) for their upkeep, but when he died in 1870 the American orphans weren’t provided for in his will. “For a time the Chicago papers were full of nasty remarks about him because of that,” Sidney Moss says. Having no kin in this country, the three children were farmed out to foster homes. Bertram, who became a Methodist minister and served congregations in Wyanet and other downstate towns, is the Dickens from whom Kasper and Mehaffey are descended. “He was very staunch and pious,” says Mehaffey. “Perhaps he was seeking sanity and security after the upheaval of his childhood?”
Mehaffey’s grandmother Jeanne Schaefer was the first family member to propose putting a monument on the grave, and when she died in 2002 Mehaffey decided to see the project through in her honor. He readily found support for the idea in various quarters, including Graceland’s monument committee, of which Notz is a member; the Newberry Library, which owns a substantial collection of Dickensiana; and the Chicago Dickens Fellowship.
Five generations after the rift between the brothers, Mehaffey is amused by his forebears’ enduring grudge against his great-great-great-great-great-uncle. “I don’t mind being related to the black sheep,” he says. And he thinks it’s fitting that Augustus should be identified in relation to Charles on the monument. “All his life Augustus never escaped his brother’s shadow,” he says. “And he can’t escape it even in death.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.