Dickens' Son

Jan 6, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

What follows is a tale of two cities: London, England, and Moline, Illinois. Each city has its own version of the tale. Only this last paragraph is the same: On a terrace in Moline's Riverside Cemetery, high in the bluffs above Moline, in Lot No. 1,235, under an epitaph that reads "take ye heed, watch and pray, for ye know not when the time is," lies Captain Francis Jeffrey Dickens, an officer in the Canadian Mounted Police and the third son of the English novelist, Charles Dickens.

In the London version of the tale, picked up by Dickens biographers and magazines such as the Saturday Review, dying in a Moline gutter from "effusion of the brain" caused by too much alcohol was a fitting end for a wastrel disowned by his father and sent to America to avoid disgracing the family.

Moline's version of the tale is somewhat different. In this version, a prominent Moliner, Dr. A. W. Jamieson met Francis Dickens on a trip to Canada and invited him to visit Moline. Dr. Jamieson had arranged from Dickens to be the speaker at the Friday Evening Club on June 11th, 1886. The Club was to meet in the home of newspaper editor Sam Kennedy. It was a hot sultry evening, and upon arriving at the Kennedy's, Dickens drank a glass of cold water. He fell ill and died within fifteen minutes. The doctor reported that he died of "paralysis of the heart precipitated by ice water," then thought to be a more dangerous drink than alcohol.

Moline gave Captain Dickens a fine funeral. The Jamiesons were in the first carriage, followed by Charles Deere and family, with other important citizens following somewhat according to their rank.

The body was placed in a vault. A brother in London wrote that he would come to settle matters. But after more than a year without further word from the relatives, Moline took up a collection and bought the large lot in Riverside. A Chicago newspaperman subsequently wrote that Dickens was buried in a pauper’s grave. Moline was, and still is, indignant, and invites you to visit Lot. 1,235 and see for yourself.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.