It’s one of our persistent local legends… that famed English author Charles Dickens actually came to Paducah in the 1850’s! For a small town in western Kentucky, particularly during the mid-19th century, a visit from the likes of Dickens would surely have been something to brag about. Simply consider the journey from London to Paducah before the days of planes, trains, and automobiles, and you can imagine what an honor it would have been to receive a visit from someone so renowned.
And what was it about Paducah that supposedly captured Dickens’s imagination the most? The thing that got repeated over and over? It was Dickens’s fascination with a one-story house that had a two-story porch.
That’s right. A weird porch.
The earliest reference to Dickens’s visit that we could find comes from an 1897 article from the Paducah Daily Sun in which Dickens is referenced as “the illustrious novelist who came to America in the 50’s and in his tour did not pass Paducah by, but came here and immortalized her name in history by writing her up in his American notes as the only city he ran across boasting of a one-story house with a two-story porch.” That house did exist in Paducah and was located on the southwest corner of 4th and Jefferson streets. Apparently, the second story of the porch was only accessible by ladder.
The site of this unique house and Dickens’s visit became so well known that in 1910 the Paducah Park Commissioners chose the location as one of several historic spots that would be marked with a commemorative tablet (other spots included the house of Captain Jack Lawson, the Prison of General Tilghman, and the Burial Site of Chief Paduke). The site was even referenced by “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” though errantly listed as being on Third Street.
So, is it true? Did Charles Dickens ever come to Paducah?
It’s hard to know as there is conflicting info and no real evidence. First of all, Charles Dickens didn’t come to America in the 1850’s at all. He came in 1842. Yes, he did come down the Ohio River as part of his journey, making the trek from Louisville to the Mississippi River, but not once in his extensive travelogue, “American Notes” did he mention Paducah. Nor did he mention Henderson or Smithland, other small Ohio River towns which claimed a visit from Dickens. In the catalog of his travels through western Kentucky, Dickens only mentioned two places by name, Louisville and Cairo, the places where he started and ended. With regards to Louisville, Dickens stayed at the Galt House and raved about the hotel saying he was as “handsomely lodged as though he’d been in Paris.” On the flip side, Dickens was not so kind to Cairo. He described Cairo as “a slimy monster hideous to behold; a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water to commend it.”
But nowhere in his travelogue does he mention Paducah or any other small towns along the Ohio. While his trip to America did influence some of his later writings including “A Christmas Carol” and “Martin Chuzzlewit,” there is no reference in “American Notes” or any of his writings after 1842 of a one story house with a two story porch.
Perhaps Charles Dickens briefly stopped in Paducah; we can’t say for sure. The only thing we can confirm was that he floated by, and of that experience he said, “Nor was the scenery, as we approached the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, at all inspiriting in its influence. The trees were stunted in their growth; the banks were low and flat; the settlements and log cabins fewer in number; their inhabitants more wan and wretched than any we had encountered yet.”
Join me, Matt Jaeger, for a discussion of Dickens’s classic “A Christmas Carol” at the library on December 17 at 7 PM. There are versions to check out as well as several free versions to download and read online. You might even win a free turkey!
And for more about local legends, be sure to visit us in the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.