Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Hurlbert who?

This is a work-in-progress blog serial about aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited


“ … [A]ll my observations and comments have been made from an American, not from a British or an Irish point of view.  How or by whom Ireland shall be governed concerns me only in so far as … [it] may tend to affect the future of my country.”
–William Henry Hurlbert

William Henry Hurlbert

My posts about Hurlbert’s reporting in Ireland have now covered the contents of Volume 1 of his book, roughly the one-month period from his late January 1888 arrival in Dublin through the third week of February, 1888. Before starting Volume 2, I want to take a break from the text to focus some attention on the author. This will serve as a foundation for later posts on his views about Ireland and the Irish in America.

The best source of information about Hurlbert is Daniel W. Crofts’ 2010 book,  A secession crisis enigma : William Henry Hurlbert and “The diary of a public man”Crofts writes in his Preview:

His name will not be familiar—hardly anyone today ever has heard of this eccentric nineteenth-century genius. Sic transit gloria mundi. (Thus passes the glory of the world.) Acclaimed at his height as “the most brilliant talent of the New York press” and “the only artist among American journalists,” Hurlbert once commanded attention.

The quotes cited by Crofts are from 1869, nearly 20 years before Ireland Under Coercion and a decade before “The diary of a public man,” his most consequential work, was published in The North American Review. The Diary, as Crofts wrote in this 2011 piece for The New York Times:

…offered verbatim accounts of behind-the-scenes discussions at the very highest levels during the winter of 1860 and ’61. Its pithy quotations attributed to the key principals — Stephen A. Douglas, William H. Seward and especially Abraham Lincoln — have been endlessly recycled by historians. But the author of the diary remained cloaked in anonymity … [and] the purported diary was not an actual diary … [it] was a fictional construct … rooted in reality.

Crofts surveyed the “enormous printed output” of Hurlbert’s journalism career, before and after the Diary was published, to establish as well as possible more than 100 years later that he was the mysterious author. Crofts also worked with statistician David Holmes to subject the Diary to an analysis of literary style known as “stylometry,” which quantifies frequently used words and patterns of words.

Ireland Under Coercion had “important implications” for their analysis, Crofts wrote. Hurlbert’s vocabulary and alliterations in the 1888 book were “strikingly reminiscent” of the Diary published nine years earlier.

Other highlights of Hurlbert’s life from Crofts’ book:

  • Born in 1827 in Charleston, South Carolina. His family moved to Philadelphia in 1831 and remained there through 1843, then went back to South Carolina after Hurlbert’s father died.
  • Hurlbert attended Harvard College from 1845 through 1849, obtaining undergraduate and divinity degrees. “He appears to have been … a young man of enormous talent, plainly destined for great success.”
  • After college, Hurlbert traveled in Europe, served a brief stint as a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts, and finally began working as a journalist, joining The New York Times in 1856.
  • Between 1857 and 1869, Hurlbert was portrayed as a fictional character in three novels by people who knew him. These portrayals offered “a baffling mix of qualities,” from “warmly ingratiating and intellectually brilliant” to “secretive, self-centered and ultimately self-destructive,” according to Crofts.
  • A Douglas supporter, Hurlbert’s personal peacekeeping mission in 1861 resulted in his 13-month imprisonment by the Confederates in Richmond, Virginia. He escaped, returned to the North, and soon joined the New York World, which he subsequently edited.
  • As he was writing the Diary in 1879, Hurlbert also led the successful campaign to move a 3,500-year-old obelisk, “Cleopatra’s Needle,” from Egypt to New York City’s Central Park, where it remains today.
  • After being ousted from the World in 1883 by new ownership, Hurlbert married and moved to Europe. He quickly followed Ireland Under Coercion with another book about France. But Hurlbert soon got caught up an extramarital affair and highly-publicized court case that scandalized his waning reputation. He died in Italy in 1895, “an exile [and] a fugitive from the law.”

As suggested above, future posts will deal with Hurlbert’s views of the Irish in America and how his experiences with the American Civil War influenced his views on the agrarian agitation and Home Rule movement in Ireland. I’ll also look at the U.S. and European reviews of Ireland Under Coercion.

New York City in the 1880s. After Hurlbert”s U.S. newspaper career peaked in 1883, he moved to Europe. He traveled in Ireland during the first half of 1888.

NOTES:  Opening quote from page 8 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Other material from A secession crisis enigma : William Henry Hurlbert and “The diary of a public man by Daniel W. Crofts.

NEXT: An eviction

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan