Adder, owl, alpaca, and a couple of unlabeled birds—it’s a striking set of illustrations, drawn in pencil on two sheets of tracing paper, painted, and mounted on a thicker paper backing.
And it wasn’t alone in the stall where I found it at the Ohio Valley Antique Mall in Cincinnati: there was a second leaf in the same bagged lot, and then another two leaves in a second lot. There might once have been more, sold off in similar pairs over time, but these four leaves are what remained by the time I got to them. Taken by themselves, they would be fine examples of nineteenth-century vernacular art, but it wouldn’t be obvious from looking at them what their story was: what kind of person might have drawn them, and for what purpose. Fortunately, the drawings came with a couple of additional clues.
The seller had labeled one of the lots (comprising what I’ll call leaves 1 and 2) as given to “Samuel Joel Thomson” by “Grandpa S. Hawkins” in 1880, or at least it looks like “1880”—the final digit could conceivably be a six, although the way the dealer number “1966” is written, with a counterclockwise curve at the top of each six, nudges me away from that reading. The other lot (leaves 3 and 4) was labeled simply as “drawing” by “S. Hawkins.” Neither name appears anywhere on the drawings themselves, so the seller must have gotten this information somewhere else, probably from other materials found with these. Of course it would be nice to know just what those materials were. But this is the evidence we have to run with. So I turned to the usual genealogical databases to see if I could find a “Samuel Joel Thomson” who had a grandfather named “S. Hawkins.”
The answer was yes. Samuel Joel Thomson was born in Union, Ohio, on July 15, 1880, according to his WWII draft registration card. I haven’t found any direct record of his birth or parentage, but a census taker who had visited Union on June 9, 1880, had enumerated the household of Saml (mistakenly indexed as “Saul”) Hawkins, physician, age 63, born in Ohio to parents from Virginia; his wife Mary, age 59; an unmarried daughter Georgie, age 24; and a daughter Addie, age 22, with her husband Walter Thomson, physician, age 23, noted as “married during census year.” So the artist of our drawings appears to have been physician Samuel Hawkins of Union, Ohio; and his grandson Samuel Joel Thomson was born in 1880, the same year he was reportedly given at least some of the drawings. In other words, the drawings on leaves 1 and 2 would have been intended for a newborn baby if my reading of the date as 1880, and not 1886, is correct. It can’t be correct for all the pictures, though, since one of the drawings on leaf 4 must date from 1881 or later. That’s the year one of the illustrations copied onto it was published, in a book called Cat’s Cradle: Rhymes for Children:
This is the only illustration I’ve tracked down to its source; none of the other drawings appears to come from Cat’s Cradle. However, this example suggests that Hawkins changed the illustrations he copied onto tracing paper to some extent—the woman’s eye, for instance, is drawn quite differently in his version. The accompanying text is also based on Cat’s Cradle, but with significant abridgements. For instance, where Hawkins has “Dick how did you get your head so wet / you have been to the brook to swim,” the original has:
When Dick came home with his head so wet,
His mother began to worry and fret,
And said, after looking closely at him,
That Dickie had been to the brook to swim.
If not, she would really like to know
Just how his hair had been wetted so.
And where the original has:
“That may be true,” she replied, “no doubt;
But how was your shirt turned wrong side out?”
Then Dick was bothered worse than before,
And hung his head, and stammered some more.
At last he said, with a gleam of sense,
“It must have turned when I climbed the fence!”
But how does it happen you [sic] shirt is wrongside out
It must have turned when i [sic] climbed over the fence or turning about
This time, Hawkins tries to salvage the rhyme scheme, although he throws off the meter in the process. So even though he was using tracing paper to copy existing pictures (with an accompanying poem in this one case), it’s clear that he also adapted his material to put things together on the page in ways he thought would appeal to a baby, a toddler, or perhaps (if the date should be read 1886) a six-year-old boy. Consider the top half of leaf 2, labeled “Variety”:
I don’t know whether Hawkins copied these images from one source or from multiple sources, but the way he assembled them on the page was surely his own—witness the bull rotated ninety degrees from everything else. It’s easy to imagine Hawkins sitting with his grandson pointing to each of these pictures in turn, asking “what’s this?” or “can you point to the horse?” Although there were plenty of children’s books available to buy in the 1870s and 1880s, I don’t know offhand of any that had yet been designed for this kind of scenario. In some respects, then, Hawkins may have created something that was much closer in spirit to twenty-first century books for very young children than it was to anything that had been commercially published in his day. Indeed, tiny holes along the sides of some of the leaves suggest that they had once been sewn together, so I believe we’re dealing with disbound fragments of a book, and not just isolated leaves with drawings on them. Perhaps the seller got the information about “Samuel Joel Thomson” and “Grandpa S. Hawkins” from a tattered and discarded cover. There are definitely missing pieces; on the back of leaf 1, the labels “Bald Eagle” and “Bird’s Nest” are still legible at the bottom of another mostly torn-away sheet of tracing paper. These other drawings might already been torn off the backing and destroyed back in the 1880s—this would have been an awfully fragile format for a toddler to handle.
Hawkins combined his source images in other distinctive ways as well. The image above is the lower half of leaf 3. At the center is a copy of (presumably) a published engraving of some fancy architectural structure—I don’t know what it is, but maybe someone out there can identify it for me. To either side, Hawkins has added trees. I assume the trees are supposed to be “next to” the structure in the middle, but the perspectives aren’t really compatible. Even so, this would have been a nicely complex scene to discuss with a toddler or young boy. Overall, the subjects Hawkins illustrated for his grandson ranged from the familiar (horse, bull, rooster) to the exotic (giraffe, monkey, rhinoceros), but the two architectural subjects he chose were both comparatively exotic ones; the other is a “temple” on leaf 2.
So what do we know about our artist? An 1882 county history gives the following biography of Samuel Hawkins:
His father, John, was a native of Shenandoah County, Va., and came to Ohio and located at Spring Valley, Green Co., Ohio, where he continued the honorable occupation of tilling the soil. He celebrated his marriage with Mary Penyweigh, in 1818. Six children were the result of this union. Samuel, the subject of this memoir, is the only one who survives. He was born in Green Co., Ohio, Jan. 2, 1819, and received his primary education in the common schools and assisted his father until he was 23 years of age, the time of his commencing preparation for entering the medical profession. He placed himself, under Dr. Cable, of Bellbrook, until 1842, when he took a course of lectures and was able to enter the field of practice in 1843. He opened up an office in Union, Randolph Township, this county, and has continued practicing with remarkably good success until the present, a term comprising a period of thirty-seven years.
The same history notes that Dr. Hawkins had a “crockery ware and tile factory” in partnership with G. W. Purcell, and that he had come to Union as a physician about 1846. He had also been active in politics at one time as a Democrat: on July 18, 1860, he had been elected president of the newly created Union National Democratic Club, and on August 18 he had been chosen secretary when the local party assembled to choose delegates to send to Dayton. On August 5, 1884, he testified in a government hearing about the alleged mismanagement of Soldiers’ Homes, and a transcription of his deposition was later published, giving us a first-hand window onto his professional life at that time:
MURRAY: What official position do you hold in Montgomery County?
HAWKINS: I am physician to the county infirmary.
MURRAY: And your position requires you to be at the infirmary quite often, I suppose?
HAWKINS: Yes, sir; about three times a week, most of the time, unless it be during a healthy season.
MURRAY: And you personally know the fact, as has been testified to here, that there have been a large number of men from the Soldiers’ Home who have been inmates of the infirmary?
HAWKINS: Yes, sir; a few of them were not from the Home; but the greater number were discharged from the Home.
CHAIRMAN: I would like to ask you what is the general character of the inmates who come to you from the Soldiers’ Home?
HAWKINS: Well, the greatest number of them are broken down. Some of them are broken down from drink and dissipation, and some of them from other diseases.
CUTCHEON: State the most numerous class of diseases.
HAWKINS: I think the most of them have been broken down from dissipation. We have treated some for delirium tremens, and some have been broken down from dissipation and bad habits and venereal diseases.
CUTCHEON: Alcoholism is the most frequent?
HAWKINS: That would cover a majority of them.
CHAIRMAN: Are there any of feeble mind?
HAWKINS: Yes, sir; there have been quite a number of them who have had quite feeble minds.
CUTCHEON: Would you trace that to excessive indulgence of the appetite?
HAWKINS: Yes, sir; I think the most of their troubles can be traced to that.
MURRAY: Do you remember what proportion have been feeble-minded?
HAWKINS: I do not.
MURRAY: You do not remember the number?
HAWKINS: Quite a number of them. I cannot name the exact number: but I know a great number of them.
MURRAY: And were feeble-minded when they came to the infirmary?
HAWKINS: Yes, sir; appeared to be.
MURRAY: Were they old men or young men?
HAWKINS: They were mostly past middle age. There are not many of them who are not past middle age.
SLOCUM: You have found them pretty generally a hard set of men to deal with?
HAWKINS: I would not like to say anything about that. I think the management and control of them would be pretty generally hard.
CUTCHEON: Men not very strong for self-government?
HAWKINS: That is it; and have no ambition before them—broken down.
Hawkins may have had a medical practice of his own besides the one he’s discussing here, but apparently he was the physician in charge of providing medical services to the Montgomery County Infirmary—the kind of institution known colloquially as a “poorhouse.” According to an 1889 letter to the editor of the Dayton Journal, the infirmary physician received a salary of $500 per year and “does all he possibly can for the inmates.” We can imagine Hawkins spending a day at work attending to “broken down” patients at the poorhouse suffering from alcoholism and venereal disease, and then heading home to work on his grandson’s picture book. After all, maybe the troubles of his patients could be traced to “excessive indulgence of the appetite,” but maybe they just hadn’t been properly exposed in early childhood to adders, owls, and alpacas.
Someone identified as “Walter J. Thompson” testified on the same occasion:
CHAIRMAN: State your age and residence.
THOMPSON: I am 28 years of age, and my residence is Union, Ohio, this county.
MURRAY: You are the physician at the infirmary?
THOMPSON: I am the assistant. Dr. Hawkins is the physician.
MURRAY: You are the resident physician?
THOMPSON: I am the assistant; Dr. Hawkins is the physician. We turn about.
CUTCHEON: How long have you been connected with the infirmary?
THOMPSON: Three years.
In fact, this would have been Walter Thomson, Hawkins’s son-in-law and the father of his grandson Samuel Joel Thomson. The only full-page illustration among Hawkins’s drawings appears on the reverse of leaf 2, and is a portrait of a man:
Given the context, gender, and apparent age, I strongly suspect this is a portrait of Walter Thomson, who would then have been in his mid-twenties. Who else but “Daddy” would Hawkins have been likely to include in his grandson’s picture book? Maybe “Mommy”—but if so, that page seems to be missing.
According to the Medical Standard, Samuel Hawkins died on March 7, 1893. Two and a half years later, the Montgomery County Infirmary where he and his son-in-law had worked made headlines when a boiler exploded, killing two inmates. Walter and Addie Thomson both passed away shortly thereafter, in 1896, as recorded on their gravestones. I don’t know whether they died simultaneously, perhaps in another accident, or at different times during the same year.
But what became of Samuel Joel Thomson, the little boy who had grown up enthralled by pictures of tigers and rhinoceroses and giraffes, and who abruptly found himself orphaned as a teenager? His WWI draft registration card, filled out when he was 38, reveals that he had gone on to become a “sheet steel metalworker” for the Fostoria Pressed Steel Company in Seneca, Ohio; but his WWII draft registration card, filled out when he was 61, lists him as “unemployed” and living at 601 Infirmary Road in Dayton, Ohio. That’s the street address of the Montgomery County Infirmary. So it seems he wound up as an inmate in the very same institution where his father and grandfather had worked years before.
You can download a high-resolution PDF of Samuel Hawkins’s drawings here (9.43 MB).
PS. (July 2016): I’ve made a couple minor tweaks to the text of this post to acknowledge the uncertainty of the seller’s handwritten date as 1880 or 1886 more fully; for an archived copy of the original version, see here.