3 Reasons to Love the Thomas Butler Gunn Diaries

19, October 2016
Portrait of Thomas Butler GunnPortrait of Gunn by Sol Eytinge, ca. 1856. Volume 8. Missouri History Museum.

One question I’m frequently asked when people find out I’m an archivist (besides “What’s an archivist?”) is: Which collection is your favorite? For me, that’s easy. I loved digitizing and transcribing the Thomas Butler Gunn diaries.

Though Gunn isn’t well known, his diaries provide a fascinating glimpse into New York City life in the mid-1800s through the eyes of a foreigner who was not particularly impressed with Americans or their customs. Gunn was born in Banbury, England, on February 15, 1826, and moved to the United States in 1849 to make his living as a writer and artist. Throughout the 1850s and early 1860s, he lived and worked in New York City, authoring the books The Physiology of New York Boarding-houses and Mose Among the Britishers, a kind of early comic book about what might happen if an American fireman visited London. The collection consists of 22 volumes kept by Gunn from 1849 to 1863. The diaries are full of his unique wit and keen observations, as well as newspaper clippings, photographs, and drawings that more fully illustrate the world he lived in. There are many reasons to check out Gunn’s writings. Here are a few.

They’re fascinating travelogues

Thomas Butler Gunn got around. Descriptions of the places he visited are vivid, and it’s fascinating to read how they’ve changed over time. One of his journeys took him to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, where he burned his name on the walls (I unsuccessfully tried to find it when I visited the caves several years ago). He also befriended a group of Southern men who invited him back to their plantations in Louisiana, but a yellow-fever epidemic was raging in the South, and he fell ill during the long journey. Fortunately, Gunn recovered and wrote on.

They provide an inside look at the Civil War

Newspaper engraging of Gunn reporting on Civil WarNewspaper engraving of Gunn reporting on the Union Army, drawn by Thomas Nast, 1863. Volume 19. Missouri History Museum.

During secession, Gunn was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, as a correspondent for the New-York Evening Post. As a Briton, Gunn was under less suspicion and danger than other Northern journalists. He pretended to be from a London newspaper and was welcomed by local elites, who viewed Great Britain as a potential ally. Gunn was there when South Carolina voted to secede from the Union, and he witnessed the attack upon the Northern merchant ship Star of the West. Though he befriended many of the locals, he was careful not to reveal his true reason for being there. He even kept a decoy diary.

Gunn wrote in colorful detail about the soldiers and officers he met, and he included photographs by Alexander Gardner. One of his most touching moments was reading the newly announced Emancipation Proclamation to a group of former slaves in St. Augustine, Florida. He wrote of the experience, “I never did anything in my life with heartier good will.” He also noted that upon his return to New York, he learned of a rumor going around that he’d been tarred and feathered for spying!

They’re filled with colorful characters

Scan of poem by Fitz-James O’BrienPoem celebrating bohemians and bohemianism, written by Fitz-James O’Brien, ca. 1860. Volume 13. Missouri History Museum.

Thomas Butler Gunn wasn’t a bohemian himself—and would have been offended if anyone were to suggest it—but he lived and worked among many who were. New York bohemians lived lives devoted to their art. They gathered at bars to drink and discuss their work, and some frequented brothels and practiced free love—behaviors Gunn didn’t approve of. He enjoyed writing about who was flirting, who was blowing all their money on drunken “sprees,” and who was cheating on their wives, but all with a healthy dose of self-righteousness.

Newspaper engraving of Walt WhitmanNewspaper engraving of Walt Whitman, ca. 1856. Volume 8. Missouri History Museum.

He encountered a multitude of fascinating characters while living in New York, including writer William North, who committed suicide and was seen by his contemporaries as the quintessential bohemian; artist Thomas Nast, the creator of the GOP’s elephant symbol; Fitz-James O’Brien, a boastful Irishman Gunn particularly disliked; and poet Walt Whitman. Thanks to Gunn’s masterful writing, they spring to life on the page.

You can view and read transcriptions of the diaries on Missouri Digital Heritage and our website.

—Jaime Bourassa, Associate Archivist, Digitization

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