Howard’s Controversial Obituary in Gentleman’s Magazine

face of a prisoner

In its April, 1790, issue, Gentleman’s Magazine included a biographical sketch of the renowned John Howard in its listing of obituaries.^ The subsequent issue included five lengthy letters making corrections to the article, defending Howard from perceived slights in the article, and praising him. One of the obituary’s writers then produced a lengthy rejoinder in the next issue, and additional letters in support of Howard followed.

The original obituary presented a factual account of Howard’s life, mixed with a balance of praise and criticism. It began by describing Howard as “eccentric, but truly worthy. … This extraordinary man… .” The second to last paragraph was a paean to Howard:

Let not the name of Howard expire with his breath, nor let the silence of veneration persuade us to forget his deeds. He will, however, yet live in the remembrance of those who have rescued, by his exertions, from the gloomy horrors of confinement, which might otherwise have been unlimited, alleviated in the baneful pangs of disease, which might have been irremediable; and comforted in the still more agonizing reproaches of conscious guilt, which would inevitably have terminated in destruction.

The most clearly critical section of the obituary declared:

But all {Howard’s son’s} prospects were blasted by paternal severity, which reduced the young man to such an unhappy situation as to require his being placed where he now is {insane asylum}, or lately was. To those who knew the singularity of Mr. H’s ideas and temper, it will not be extraordinary that that benevolence which interested itself in the care of the human race should have yielded so small a portion of “the milk of human kindness” to an only and even beloved child. But in Mr. H. as in the Turks, riveted Predestinarianism became stern intrepidity.

The biography also contained some minor factual inaccuracies.

Many of Howard’s admirers responded with indignation to the obituary. The subsequent issue of Gentleman’s Magazine printed letters from Howard admirers: “Philo Veritas,” “W. F.,” John Aikin (a close friend of Howard), “A. B.,” Jack Prancer of Dublin (probably associated with the Dublin Society), and “L.M.” They insisted that Howard’s treatment of his son did not make his son insane. They also testified that Howard truly loved his son. They offered corrections of minor facts and asserted that the obituary was slanted in various ways. They expressed great esteem for Howard.

The rejoinder from an obituary writer was equally indignant. It re-asserted criticisms of Howard’s severe treatment of his son, while not claiming that this treatment made the son insane. The rejoinder played on sectarian strife with reference to Howard as a “stern predestinarian” and “Mr. H.’s riveted predestinarianism.” It warned of fanaticism (a salient issue with the French Revolution of the previous year) and urged moderation and generic monotheist orthodoxy:

In representing Mr. H. as the friend of mankind, do not degrade him to the idol of a party. Mr. H. was a man — do not exalt him to a God!

The anonymous writer of the rejoinder, who had also been one of the writers of the obituary, was Richard Gough.^ Gough had refused Howard’s invitation 1767 to travel with him to Holland.^

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