A Printer’s Epitaph

John Camden Hotten was an English publisher of pornography who was active from 1860 to 1880. He enjoyed an affluent readership that subscribed to his expensive, privately printed publications. In his dealings with authors and colleagues, Hotten made many enemies. He was not a scrupulous person. Hotton pirated works by Mark Twain and Bret Harte. On the other hand, he was willing, when no one else was prepared to take the risk, to publish Algernon Charles Swinburne’s notorious Poems and Ballads. Hotten’s cause of death was said to have been from eating too many pork chops. It led Swinburne to remark that his passing away was an argument against cannibalism.

Ambrose Bierce met Hotten in 1872, in London. Hotten agreed to publish Bierce’s work, but kept delaying payment. The check finally did arrive, but the publisher died the day before it was delivered and Bierce could not cash it. Taking symbolic revenge, Bierce in company of his friends George Augustus Sala and Thomas Hood exercised their bitter talents on composing epitaphs for Hotten. This succinct blurb on the publisher’s reputation is by Sala, himself one of Hotten’s authors:


In offering last words on lives lived privately and publicly, gravestone inscriptions traditionally pay tribute to the diseased. An epitaph (from the Greek ‘on the gravestone’) is a text that honours the dead. Such texts are commonly inscribed on a tombstone or plaque and mostly written in verse. In the modern world, as in the ancient, the best of those had literary value. Of last words, none is more final than an epitaph: it is a definitive moment of self-congratulation, a conclusive opportunity to commend oneself to the Almighty. Sala’s Hotten-epitaph makes clear that it can also be a last chance to settle old scores in stone.

The earliest known epitaphs were written by ancient Egyptian scholars, inscribed names, royal blood lines, and titles of nobility upon individual sarcophagi and stone coffins. The Greeks introduced epitaphs in verse, to which ancient Rome added a morbid aspect that has had a long life: curses intended to warn and ward off grave robbers. But it was not only thieves who might ransack a grave. It was customary during Elizabeth I’s reign to remove bones from graveyards, as well as from tombs within churches, to a charnel house in order to make room for new burials. Then, from time to time, the twice-buried bones were put to their final rest by being burned in what was known as the ‘bonefire [bonfire] of the vanities’. Upon Shakespeare’s grave, which is just below the altar in the Chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, is a warning to any and all:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust encloased heare!
Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

In the churchyard St Mary the Virgin in the Cambridgeshire village of Godmanchester one finds a gravestone that carries an unusual inscription. It relates the terrible murder of Mary Ann Weems by her husband Thomas in May 1819. Mary had feigned pregnancy in order to ensnare the young man. Thomas moved to Edmonton, fell in love another woman, and returned to Godmanchester to kill Mary Ann. He was caught, convicted and executed. The headstone carries a ‘warning epitaph’, a long text in which the case is related, finishing with the following stern reminder that crime will be punished:

Ere Crime you perpetrate survey this stone
Learn hence the God of Justice sleeps not on his Throne
But marks the Sinner with unerring eye
The Suffering Victim hears and makes the Guilty die.

An epitaph has few words, since the page upon which to write is so small. A common trick of many epitaphs is to speak to the passerby or traveller and warn that person of his or her own mortality:

Remember friend as you walk by,
As you are now so once was I.
As I am now you will surely be,
Prepare thyself to follow me.

The readiness to bore other with moral warnings was an irritation to Charles Lamb. In his reflections on ‘New Year’s Eve’ (January 1821) the author expresses his disgust with such impertinent familiarities inscribed upon tombstones. He takes offense to the dead man who takes it upon himself to be lecturing him with the truism that ‘such as he is now, I must shortly be’. Lamb replies: ‘Not so shortly, friend, as thou imaginest. In the meantime I am alive. I move about. I am worth twenty of thee. Know thy betters!’

The tradition of composing epitaphs proved popular throughout Europe. Religious content was joined by commemoration of a person’s station in life or even commemoration of non-persons – the poets William Cowper, Charles Lamb, and Lord Byron composed epitaphs for dogs; Byron’s was to the five-year-old Boatswain, dead of rabies. Humour appeared in epitaphs, which, when composed in the convivial company of others, became known as ‘tavern’ or ‘pot poetry’. Ben Jonson refers to such verses, which were said to have been written extempore in ‘the Miter yonder’. One of John Hoskin’s ‘merry and laughing Epitaphs’ was collected by William Camden in his Remains concerning Britain (1605):

Here lyeth John Cruker a maker of Bellowes,
His craftes-master and King of good-fellowes;
Yet when he came to the hour of his death,
He that made Bellowes, could not make breath.

Playfulness and satire continued to be elements of epitaphs during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, humorous at some times, bitter at others. Some satirical epitaphs were be hard-hitting, as was, for instance, Lord Byron’s on Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, the Anglo-Irish statesman who had been involved in putting down the Irish Rebellion of 1798  and was instrumental in securing the passage of the controversial Irish Act of Union of 1800. The Irish people despised him; Shelley and Byron hated him. The latter expressed his feelings in a savage mock-epitaph:

Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.

Poets tend to be concerned about their legacy and often compose their own epitaphs. Staying at the Black Bull tavern in Edinburgh, Samuel Taylor Coleridge sent a letter to his friend, the photographer Thomas Wedgwood (son of potter Josiah Wedgwood) dated 16 September 1803, containing an epitaph which he composed in his sleep ‘while dreaming that I was dying’.

Here sleeps at length poor Col. and without screaming,
Who died, as he had always liv’d, a dreaming:
Shot dead, while sleeping, by the gout within,
Alone, and all unknown, at E’nbro’ in an Inn.

The British Isles are known for the friendships between poets and the keepers of public houses. Many of the first have left us word of the second. Robert Burns spent long happy hours in the Whitefoord Arms, Mauchline, where John Dove was the host. In 1785, he wrote an epitaph ‘On John Dove, Innkeeper’ referring to him as Johnie Pigeon. Many landlords and brewers have been remembered in either flattering or irreverent verse. Details about the subject may be lost, but this pleasant epitaph survives in various collections:

Hic jacet Walter Gun,
Sometime landlord of the Tun;
Sic transit Gloria mundi!
He drank hard upon Friday,
That being a high day,
Then took to his bed and died upon Sunday!

William Elderton was a comedian and the author of many songs on love and wine. Among contemporary Elizabethan writers he was known as the ‘Bacchanalian Buffoon’ and the ‘Red-Nosed Ballad-Maker’ in honour of his love of drink. Elderton’s reputation made him a target for poet and scholar Gabriel Harvey in his Four Letters and Certain Sonnets. In the second letter Elderton is called a ‘drunken rhymester’ yet also the father of ballad writers; in the third letter he has been given an ‘ale-crammed nose’. Among the writings about the figure of William Elderton one finds this frequently anthologized epitaph:

Dead drunk, here Elderton doth lie;
Dead as he is, he still is dry.
So of him it may well be said,
Here he, but not his thirst, is laid.

Let us, after this brief detour, return to printers and publishers. Jacob Tonson was an eighteenth-century English bookseller and publisher of, amongst others, Dryden and Milton. He was also the founder of the Kit-Kat Club in 1699, a society with strong political and literary associations, committed to the furtherance of Whig objectives. The Club met in the Upper Flask Tavern in Hampstead, gatherings that included Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, William Congreve, John Vanbrugh, and a number of politicians, Sir Robert Walpole being one of them. Jacob Tonson died in 1736. His Latin epitaph was written by an Eton scholar and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine of February 1736 accompanied by the following translation into English:

The rolling course of Life being finished,
This is the end of Jacob Tonson:
A man of eminence in his profession:
Who, as Accoucheur to the Muses,
Ushered into Life
The happy productions of Genius.

Mourn! ye choir of Writers, and break your tuneful reeds!
He, your assistant, is no more:
But this last inscription is engraven
On this first page of mortality,
Lest, being committed to the press of the grave,
The Editor himself should be without a title.

Here lies a Bookseller,
(The leaves of life having gone to decay)
Waiting for a New Edition,
Much increased and amended.

When Benjamin Franklin died in 1790, he was famous as a scientist and diplomat. In his will he named himself simply as ‘Benjamin Franklin, Printer’. He started work at the age of twelve in the Boston printing office set up by his brother James. Five years later he finished his apprenticeship. He continued his career as a printer in Philadelphia and London. In 1728, at the age of twenty-two, he opened his own printing office in Philadelphia. His most famous publications were a newspaper called The Pennsylvania Gazette and his annual Poor Richard’s Almanack. He believed in the power of the press as a way to bring the news to all people. He used cartoons and pictures so that everyone could understand the news, even people who had not learned to read. In 1731, he founded America’s first circulating library so that people could borrow books to read even though they might not have been able to afford to buy books to read. As a young man, Franklin had composed his own mock epitaph. There have been various conjectures respecting the source, from which Benjamin Franklin took the first idea it. According to William Temple Franklin, Benjamin wrote it when he was only twenty-three years of age, as appears by the original (with various corrections) found among his papers. It seems reasonable to suggest, however, that Tonson’s version was the original epitaph on which young Franklin based his youthful attempt. His rendering reads:

The Body
Benjamin Franklin,
(Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stript of its lettering and gilding,)
Lies here, food for worms.
But the work shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new and more elegant edition,
Revised and corrected.

In the end, his gravestone would simply read: Benjamin and Deborah Franklin 1790.