For once, a “Writers Gone Wild” essay about something that happened on this day, June 16, 1873.
In the annals of dirty dealings by book publishers, John Camden Hotten occupies a category of his own. Part Larry Flynt for his pornographic books, part Harvey Weinstein for his dodgy business practices, he made his fortune anyway he can, including pirating books from American authors such as Mark Twain, who claimed that Hotten fled England as a youth when, as an apprentice to a publisher, had been caught selling his master’s stock as his own.
Hotten was also notable for publishing Swinburne’s poems after another publisher had dropped the book, fearing prosecution. (It was also rumored that he blackmailed Swinburne into writing pornography for his press.)
Hotten is also best known as the publisher in 1859 of the “Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant and Vulgar Words,” reprinted many times since and considered legitimately authoritative.
Despite making many enemies, he managed to outlast or outwit them all. Among them was Ambrose Bierce, author of “The Devil’s Dictionary” and “Incident At Owl Creek Bridge.” While in London, Bierce sold Hotten a collection of his articles, for which he was given a draft for twenty pounds.
Bierce got an English friend to cash it for him. When it, predictably, bounced, this is what happened next (according to Eveleigh Nash’s “Liked the Life I Lived.”):
When Bierce was informed of this he got in a furious rage and rushed to Hotten’s premises in Piccadilly, and demanded to see him at once. On being told that Hotten had not been to business for some days he asked where he was to be found. The clerk reluctantly gave him his master’s address, 4, Maitland Park Villas, Haverstock Hill, to which Bierce lost no time in going, for he was determined, as he put it, to have Hotten’s blood.
When he arrived, the door was opened by a little maidservant.
Where’s Mr. Hotten?’ asked Bierce.
‘Come this way, sir,’ replied the girl, ‘and I’ll take you to him.’ Bierce followed the maid, who opened the door of a dark room where Hotten was lying in bed. ‘What the hell’s the meaning of this, Hotten?’ shouted Bierce as he waved the dishonoured cheque in his hand; but when he drew nearer the bed, he started back in horror.
John Camden Hotten was dead, and the maid had mistaken Bierce for the undertaker.
(Those wanting more stories about Hotten can visit The Dabbler Warning: Extremely naughting etching of a woman exposing herself to the devil at the top.)
Born: Harriet Beecher Stowe, novelist, Litchfield, Conn., 1811; John Bartlett, lexicographer, Quote for the Day compiler, Plymouth, Mass., 1820; Jerzy Kosinski, author, Lodz, Poland, 1933; Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, book critic, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1934; Superman, superhero, Planet Krypton, 1938; John Edgar Wideman, novelist, short-story writer, memoirist, Washington, D.C, 1941; Carolyn Chute, novelist, Portland, Maine, 1947; Mona Simpson, novelist, Green Bay, Wis., 1957.
Died: Edward Fitzgerald, poet, translator, Merton, Norfolk, 1883; Jerome K. Jerome, playwright, novelist, Northampton, Northamptonshire, 1927; G(ilbert) K(eith) Chesterton, critic, poet, novelist, short-story writer, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, 1936; Maksim Gorky (ps. Aleksei Peshkov), short-story writer, novelist, near Moscow, Soviet Union, 1936; Jorge Luis Borges, short-story writer, poet, essayist, novelist, Geneva, Switzerland, 1986.