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Samuel Johnson's Last Years
From "The Life of Samuel Johnson", by Sir John Hawkins
P O S T S C R I P T
Please read this important note
THE foregoing instrument [the will -
Ed.] carries into effect the resolution of Dr. Johnson, to
be, with respect to his negro-servant, nobilissimus; but
the many lavish encomiums that have been bestowed on this act of
bounty, make it necessary to mention some particulars, subsequent
to his death, that will serve to shew the short-sightedness of
human wisdom, and the effects of ill-directed benevolence.
The amount of the bequest to this man, may be estimated as a sum little short of £1500 and that to the testator's relations named in the will at £235 (the sum which the house at Lichfield produced at a sale by auction) who, being five in number, divided the same, after deducting the expences of the sale, in the following proportions; that is to say, three of the relations took £58 15s. 0d. each, and each of two of the others, the representatives of a fourth, £29 7s. 6d.
A few days after the doctor's decease, Francis came to me, and informed me, that a relation of his master's, named Humphrey Heely, who, with his wife, had lately, upon the request of the doctor to the bishop of Rochester, been placed in an alms-house at Westminster, was in great necessity, as wanting money to buy bedding and cloaths. I told him, that seeing he was so great a gainer by his master's will, as to be possessed of almost the whole of his fortune, it behoved him to have compassion on this his relation, and to supply his wants. His reply was —"I cannot afford it."
From the time of the doctor's decease, myself, and my colleagues the other executors, answered all the calls of Francis for money. On the 6th day of September 1785, we had advanced him £106. By the 13th of December following, he had received of Mr. Langton for his annuity, and of Mess. Barclay and Perkins for interest, as much as made that sum £183 and on the 15th of the same month, a year and two days after his master's death, he came to me, saying, that he wanted more money, for that a few halfpence was all that he had left. Upon my settling with him in August 1786, it appeared that, exclusive of his annuity, he had received £337 and, after delivering to him the bond for £150 mentioned in the will*, I paid him a balance of £196 15s. 4d. ¾.
I had no sooner closed my account, than I sent for Heely, who appeared to be an old man and lame, having one leg mush shorter than the other, but of an excellent understanding. The style of his discourse was so correct and grammatical, that it called to my remembrance that of Johnson. The account he gave me of himself and his fortunes was to the following effect:
That he was born in the year 1714, and that his relation to Johnson was by marriage, his first wife being a Ford, and the daughter of Johnson's mother's brother.—That himself had been a wholesale ironmonger, and the owner of an estate in Warwickshire, which he farmed himself, but that losses, and some indiscretions on his part, had driven him to Scotland; and that, in his return on foot, with his wife, from Newcastle, she died on the road in his arms;—that, some years after, he was, by Sir Thomas Robinson, made keeper of the Tap at Ranelagh house, and that he married again; but that not being able to endure the capricious insolence with which he was treated, Mr. Garrick took him under his protection, and would have found a place for him in his theatre, but lived not to be able to do it; and that these, and other misfortunes and disappointments, had brought him to the condition, as he described it, of a poor, reduced old man.—He added, that Dr. Johnson had been very liberal to him; and, as one instance of his kindness, mentioned, that, about three weeks before his decease, he had applied to him for assistance; and, upon stating his reasons for troubling him, was bid, rather harshly, to be silent;—"For," said the doctor, "it is enough to say that you are in want; I enquire not into the causes of it: here is money for your relief*:"—but that, immediately recollecting himself, he changed his tone, and mildly said,—"If I have spoken roughly to you, impute it to the distraction of my mind, and the petulance of a sick man." ——Describing his present condition, he said, that he and his wife were in want of every necessary, and that neither of them had a change of any one article of raiment.
To be better informed of his circumstances, I visited this person in the alms-house, and was there a witness to such a scene of distress as I had never till then beheld. A sorry bed, with scarce any covering on it, two or three old trunks and boxes, a few broken chairs, and an old table, were all the furniture of the room. I found him smoking, and, while I was talking with him, a ragged boy, about ten years of age, came in from the garden, and upon my enquiring who he was, the old man said—"This is a child whom a worthless father has left on our hands: I took him to keep at four shillings a week, and for four years maintenance have not been able to get more than five pounds four shillings: the poor child is an idiot, he cannot repeat the Lord's Prayer, and is unable to count five: we know not how to dispose of him, and, if we did, we could hardly prevail on ourselves to part with him; for it is a harmless, loving creature: we divide our morsel with him, and are just able to keep him from starving."
Upon enquiring into the means of this poor man's subsistence, he informed me, that the endowment of the alms-houses, in one of which he lived, yielded him an allowance of half a crown a week, and half a chaldron of coals at Christmas. That his wife bought milk and sold it again, and thereby was able to get about a shilling a day. The scantiness of his income, he said, had obliged him and his wife to study the art of cheap living, and he felicitated himself that they were become such proficients therein, as to be able to abstain from drinking, except at their supper-meal, when, as he said, they each indulged in a pint of beer, which sufficed them for four-and-twenty hours. He told me all this in a tremulous tone of voice that indicated a mind that had long struggled with affliction, but without the least murmur at his hard fortune, or complaint of the doctor's neglect of him: in short, he appeared to me such an exemplar of meekness and patience in adversity, as the best of men, in similar circumstances, might wish to imitate.
Johnson had also a first cousin, Elizabeth Herne, a lunatic, whom, upon her discharge from Bethlem hospital as incurable, he had placed in a mad-house at Bethnal green. A lady of the name of Prowse, had bequeathed to her an annuity of £10 and Johnson constantly paid the bills for her keeping, which, amounting to £25 a year, made him a benefactor to her of the difference between those two sums.
The doctor, by his will, bequeathed to the reverend Mr. Rogers, who had married the daughter of Mrs. Prowse, £100 towards the maintenance of the lunatic; but he, probably considering that the interest of that sum would fall far short of what Johnson had been used to contribute, and that the burthen of supporting her would lie on himself, renounced the legacy. Had the doctor left her, for her life, the dividends of £500 part of his stock, she had sustained no loss at his death: as the matter now stands, I must apply the £100 for her maintenance, and, if she lives to exhaust it, must seek out the place of her last legal settlement, and remit her to the care of a parish*.
That the name of the poor man Heely occurs not in the will, and that no better a provision is therein made for the lunatic Herne, than a legacy which may fail to support her through life, can no otherwise be accounted for, than by the doctor's postponing that last solemn act of his life, and his making a disposition of what he had to leave, under circumstances that disabled him from recollecting either their relation to him, or the distresses they severally laboured under. Any other supposition would be injurious to the memory of a man, who, by his private memoranda in my possession, appears to have applied near a fourth part of his income in acts of beneficence.
The above facts are so connected with the transactions of Dr. Johnson, in the latter days of his life, that they are part of his history; and the mention of them may serve as a caveat against ostentatious bounty, favour to negroes, and testamentary dispositions in extremis.
[Unattached footnote: In the original, this appears below the paragraph above, after three asterisks. The asterisks are pretty much like they appear here. While the size of the print here is the same as in the preceding paragraph, in the original it's smaller than the size for the preceding paragraph, as is the case for footnotes elsewhere. -Ed.]
Johnson's Will | Hawkins' Postscript
This edition copyright 2002 by Frank Lynch.
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