The Life And Death Of Thomas Nast

PrintPrintEmailEmail

One of the qualities that had contributed so much to Thomas Nast’s success as a political cartoonist was his uncanny ability to foresee future events. The same characteristic was now apparent as he left for his new post. Among the sketches that he handed out to reporters as his ship was about to sail was one of himself shaking with trepidation as he stood on the red-hot equator, while “Yellow Jack,” symbolic of yellow fever, popped out of a box and pestilential fumes poured out of a volcano in the background.

My grandfather departed from New York by steamer in July, 1902, convinced, as revealed in a sketch that he left behind, that he would never return. He sailed without friends or family to see him off. He could not bear the thought of such a parting.

The letters he wrote home to my grandmother were sad yet so revealing of his true character that it seems fitting to quote from some of them. Here was a man who had known the good things of life—a devoted family, a lovely home, a host of friends, and the esteem of his countrymen— living out his life in a pesthole in order to pay off his obligations.

Shortly after his arrival in Guayaquil in July he wrote to his wife: I don’t know what I am about, really. The fire, the yellow fever and the dirt do not help to clear one’s mind.

Again, on August 3:

Things are really working very slowly. I have a bath but no water as yet. The cry is, “to-morrow, to-morrow,” and their to-morrow is longer in coming than it is in the States. I am still well, but the people say here that I shall be laid up with a chill.…

They told me to be careful of the night air. Can’t see how it can be kept out. There is not a pane of glass in the whole city.… The river is so close … when the tide is out the smell is in; when it comes back again it washes the smell away.

The picture of you and the grandchildren is up. As I look at it and see all laughing, I laugh too. It does seem funny that I am here, but my greatest happiness is that you are not here.

The picture referred to was a photograph taken in 1898 on the steps of the Morristown home. My grandmother, Sarah Nast, grinning like a Cheshire cat, is surrounded by her five grandchildren. Attired in sailor suit, with bosun’s whistle in my pocket, I am seated in the front row between my two cousins Muriel Nast Crawford (the late Mrs. Donald E. Battey) on my right, and on my left, in ruffled dress and flower-bedecked hat, her brother, the late John William Roy Crawford, Jr., both children of Mabel Nast Crawford. Thomas Nast Crawford, the youngest of the Crawford children and the only one of us to inherit any of his grandfather’s artistic ability, is seated on his grandmother’s lap. My sister Edith, eldest of the grandchildren, is on the right in the back row. She died of diphtheria two years later. It was a happy group, and little wonder that my grandfather laughed too as he looked at it. It added a cheery note to his otherwise dreary surroundings.

Two other grandchildren, Sarah Nast and Thomas Nast in, children of Cyril Nast, had not been born when this picture was taken. Thomas Nast III I are now the only surviving grandchildren of Thomas and Sarah Nast.

Conditions did not improve in Guayaquil. On August 12 my grandfather wrote home : Am well, that’s all.… About four dead as near as I can make out, but the doctors say it was the genuine yellow fever.… Mice, rats, bats, mosquitoes, fleas, spiders and dirt all thrive. I haven’t had a real bath yet. There is not enough to fill the tub.…

 

Have to buy a bed, mattress, pillows, sheets and so forth, and set up housekeeping myself.…

Oh, the people are very poor. Times are hard—no work, nothing doing. I am so glad no one else came.…

How he must have yearned for the comforts of his home, including the water in his copper-lined bathtub!

And on August 21 :

A month ago I took charge of this office … only a month—heavens! How long it seems! Well, I must make the best of it. I hate the place, but don’t say anything about that!

Yellow fever was now so rampant that ships from the North carrying mail no longer stopped at Guayaquil. Sometimes they dropped off the mail on their return trip from southern ports. It was exasperating to the consul to see a steamer in the stream unable to put ashore the letters from home that he knew must be on board.

On August 27 he wrote:

It would go hard indeed for me if it were not for the Ashtons [Mr. Ashton was the British vice consul], because one needs somebody—in case—well—trouble of any kind. But I must not give in. If sticking will do it, stick I will. It does bring in more money than I can make at home and time may do something, too.

On September 15:

I think I am too old to catch the fever. I have a little hope left yet. Let’s stick on for another year, anyway.…

September 21 :

You say my poor old mocking bird misses me. I am very sorry. I do miss him, poor fellow, and his mocking sounds.