Saturday, March 23, 2024

Portrait of the late private Malcolm Melville, given to Company B by his father on February 11, 1868

We knew that Herman Melville gave a framed picture of Malcolm (called "Macky" or "Mackie" by family members) to the New York State Militia unit his deceased son had proudly served in. And we knew all about the mission to get it back a few years later, which Herman eventually accomplished in the summer of 1872 under the direction of his wife Elizabeth aka "Lizzie." Both events, the donation and complicated retrieval, are documented by Jay Leyda in The Melville Log volume 2 (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951; Gordian Press, 1969) at pages 691 and 726; and judiciously narrated by Hershel Parker in Herman Melville: A Biography volume 2, 1851-1891 at pages 646-7, 742-3 and 746.

Something we did not know is revealed herein, the exact date of the original gift. Parker timed it shortly after the tragedy of Malcolm's death on September 11, 1867, figuring the image of their son might have been too painful for the distraught parents to bear in their bereavement, and therefore was
"too hastily given away during their first grief."

However, as recorded in the New York Dispatch on February 16, 1868 the "beautiful portrait of the late private Melville" in uniform was not presented to Malcolm's comrades-in-arms until five months after his death, in February of the following year. According to this previously unknown announcement, transcribed below, the portrait of Malcolm Melville was bestowed on Tuesday, February 11, 1868 "at the regimental armory" by "a well-known author," namely his father Herman. Misspelled "Hermann" with two "n's" in the published newspaper account. As indicated elsewhere (New York Dispatch, April 26, 1868, for example) the regimental armory was then located on the corner of Hall Place and Seventh street. Activities of the "SECOND REGIMENT" are detailed under the broad heading, "The National Guard / The Coming Anniversary of Washington's Birthday."

New York Dispatch - Sunday, February 16, 1868


On Wednesday evening last, Company C, of the Second Regiment, gave their second annual ball at the regimental armory, in Seventh street, corner of Hall place. The large drill-room was elegantly decorated with flags and bunting, while above and in front of the orchestra on the north side of the room was a large gas jet in the form of an eagle, and the inscription "Company C." A large company was assembled, prominent among whom were many of the officers and members of the First, Second, Third, Eighth, Twelfth, and other regiments. Capt. Irving, who officiated as Floor Manager, Sergeants Duffy, Parker, Wall work, Judson, and others of the committees were assiduous in their attentions to the guests. The ball was one of the best ever given in the armory. Company B, of the Second, on Tuesday evening last held an election at the regimental armory. Lieut. Col. De Courcy presided. The following was the result of the election: Second Lieutenant, George O. Starr was elected Captain; First-Lieut. John Hennessey having declined the position. Sergeant Joseph H. Carter was elected Second Lieutenant vice Starr promoted. Private Samuel P. Weir was elected a Sergeant. Lieut. Carter served as a Lieutenant in a volunteer regiment during the late war, and was several times severely wounded. On the same evening a beautiful portrait of the late private Melville, recently deceased, was presented to the Company by Mr. Hermann Melville, father of the deceased, and a well-known author."

Here deemed "a beautiful portrait," the picture of Malcolm is variously referenced in extant family correspondence as a tintype or enlargement thereof, "a colored photograph of the full length figure" (his mother's words in a letter to Catherine "Kate" Gansevoort) and (again in the words of his mother) "the much wished for picture of our dear boy." In Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle (Harvard University Press, 1953) page 222, Eleanor Melville Metcalf described the item as 

"a hand-colored photograph of him [Malcolm] in uniform, which Herman had presented to his National Guard company."

Presumably the picture of Malcolm Melville (1849-1867) that Company B received from Herman Melville at the regimental armory on Tuesday, February 11, 1868 was or looked very like the watercolor portrait reproduced by Hennig Cohen and Donald Yanella as the frontispiece in Herman Melville's Malcolm Letter (Fordham University Press and The New York Public Library, 1992). Then (as now?) at the Berkshire Athenaeum, the portrait in Herman Melville's Malcolm Letter shows Malcolm Melville wearing his regimental uniform. As explained in the caption,

"The date and artist are unknown, but the watercolor may be posthumous, after a tintype of Malcolm in uniform." 

Malcolm, first child of Elizabeth and Herman Melville, died at the age of 18 on September 11, 1867 when he shot himself in bed with a revolving pistol that he kept under his pillow. Newspapers called it suicide, following the coroner's determination after a formal inquest. People closest to the deceased objected to the charge of "insanity," however "temporary," in the earliest pronouncements. Certain that Malcolm's death must have been accidental, grieving family members and influential advocates rebutted the imputation of any serious emotional or mental disturbance. In the 20th century, influential commentators revived the suicide theory, sometimes mixing dubious or inappropriately applied methods of psychoanalysis with large doses of mind-reading and projection. 

26 Sep 1867, Thu The Pittsfield Sun (Pittsfield, Massachusetts)

Heading the list of jurors for the coroner's inquest was a neighbor and highly regarded dentist named Alfred Starr, the father of Malcolm's friend and fellow soldier in the National Guard, George Starr. In NYC both sons of Elizabeth and Herman Melville became friends with sons of their neighbor Alfred Starr. Born in 1849, George Starr was exactly Malcolm Melville's age and a leader in their volunteer infantry unit, Company B of the Second Regiment, National Guard of the State of New York. Frederick James Starr (1853-1902) was almost two years younger than Stanwix Melville (1851-1886). When Fred Starr took over his father's business he offered to re-hire Stanwix (aka "Stanny" or "Stannie") who had previously worked for Alfred. As things turned out Stanwix very briefly apprenticed with another dentist, Dr. Read, before heading west to Kansas and beyond. 

Malcolm's friend and then Second Lieutenant George Oscar Starr (1849-1915) got elected to Captain (replacing William D. Marsh) on the same evening that Company B received the "beautiful portrait of the late private Melville" presented by Herman Melville. George reportedly had warned Malcolm not to be so careless with guns before Malcolm shot himself. 

One fact not down in Jay Leyda's Melville Log or any Melville biography, yet nonetheless true: Malcolm's good friend George O. Starr would later become world-famous as the managing director of Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth.

New York Evening Post - September 10, 1915

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