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  5. Did You Know...Thomas Melvill, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne All Are Part of CBP History?

Did You Know...Thomas Melvill, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne All Are Part of CBP History?

Thomas Melvill, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, all prominent men in American history, at some point in their lives served as officers of the U.S. Customs Service during the period from 1789 to 1885. They also shared interpersonal ties through family or friendship.

In addition, all three men shared a tendency to manipulate the spelling of their surnames. Thomas Melvill did not use the traditional "e" at the end of his surname. When asked why he did not use the "e" he would simply reply that his father did not.

His grandson, Herman Melville was born a Melvill, but sometime after his father's death in 1832 his family added the "e," which continues in use by the descendants of Allan Melvill. Hawthorne was born Nathaniel Hathorne, Jr. and shortly after graduating from Bowdoin College and the start of his writing career he decided to present himself as Hawthorne, with a "w" included.

Maj. Thomas Melvill (1751-1832)
Maj. Thomas Melvill

Thomas Melvill was born in Boston in 1751 to Allan and Jean (Cargill) Melvill. Scots-born Allan Melvill ran a successful Boston based import business with his brother John, where they maintained a warehouse on Dyer's Wharf near the swing-bridge.

At age 15, Thomas Melvill entered the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) which had been founded by the New Light Presbyterians in 1746 to train ministers. Graduating with a degree in theology at eighteen, Melvill went on to study in Scotland, where he received a second degree from St. Andrews College in Edinburgh.

Returning to Boston in 1773, 22-year-old Melvill had developed into an ardent American patriot and soon joined a Boston political group headed by Samuel Adams known as the Sons of Liberty. Samuel Adams was a cousin of John Adams, who would later be elected the second president.

In December of 1773, in protest against the British imposed tax on tea, Melvill dressed as an Indian and, along with 111 other protesters, participated in the Boston Tea Party.

With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Melvill quickly joined George Washington's forces. He fought in the battle of Bunker Hill, was promoted to the rank of captain in 1776 and rose to the rank of major in 1777. When the war ended in 1783, Melvill entered into what would be for him, a very successful political career.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts established a customhouse in Boston in 1786 and Melvill was appointed to the position of inspector. The U.S. customs collection district of Boston and Charleston was established on July 31, 1789, and on Aug. 3, 1789, Washington appointed Gen. Benjamin Lincoln to serve as the first collector for the new federal customs collection district of Boston and Charleston. That same day, the president appointed Melvill as the first surveyor for the collection district. Surveyors of customs, a traditional title handed from the British customs service, managed the ports outside forces such as inspectors, night inspectors, weighers and gaugers, measurers, etc.

Thomas Melvill would spend 25 years as surveyor for the customs collection district of Boston and Charleston. On Oct. 15, 1814, President James Madison appointed Melvill to the position of naval officer -- the number two position in the office of the collector. Melvill spent another sixteen years with the Customs Service, when a change in political power resulted in his removal from office on Dec. 31, 1829. He was just shy of his seventy-ninth birthday and had completed forty-one years of federal service. However, Melvill's days of service were not at an end, when at 80 years of age he was elected a member of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, where he served from 1830-31. Melvill died the following year, on Sept. 16, 1832.

Melvill was a well-known and charismatic figure in Boston. Just before his death, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. paid lasting tribute to him in his poem The Last Leaf. Holmes, clarifying his choice of the poem's title, wrote: "[Melvill's] aspect among the crowds of a later generation reminded me of a withered leaf which has held to its stem through the storms of autumn and winter, and finds itself still clinging to its bough while the new growths of spring are busting their buds and spreading their foliage all around it."

Melvill married Priscilla Scollay in 1774 -- the Scollay family name is perpetuated today in Boston's Scollay Square. Thomas and Priscilla had a long and happy marriage of fifty-eight years and eleven children were born to them. Their fourth child, Allan Melvill, was named for Thomas' father; he went into business in New York City as an importer of luxury goods, but he was a poor manager, went bankrupt and died at fifty - just nine months before his father. Allan married Maria Gansevoort, the daughter of a prosperous Albany, N.Y., family of Dutch origin. Allan and Maria Melvill's third child was Herman Melvill - who would change his name to Melville, go on to write Moby Dick, and as an older man serve for nineteen years as a customs inspector at the port of New York. 

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born as Nathaniel Hathorne, Jr. in Salem, Mass., in 1804, the only son of Nathaniel Sr. and Elizabeth Manning Hathorne. The younger Nathaniel suffered the death of his father when only four years old. Hathorne graduated from Bowdoin College in 1825, where he made life long friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Franklin Pierce, who would go on to be elected the 14th president. It was sometime after he left Bowdoin that Nathaniel Hathorne decided to present himself as Nathaniel Hawthorne, possibly to disassociate himself from an ancestor who had presided over the Salem Witch Trials.

After graduating from college, Hawthorne returned to live in Salem where he spent a solitary life and concentrated on launching his writing career. In 1837 he was introduced to his future wife, Sophia Peabody. He was not making sufficient money from his writing to support a wife and realized he was going to have to find a steady occupation in order to marry and provide for a family.

His aged kinsman, Ebenezer Hathorne, had served as Debenture Accountant and Book-Keeper at the customhouse in Boston for many years. His future sister-in-law, Elizabeth Peabody, was instrumental in arranging Hawthorne's meeting with the historian George Bancroft, who at the time was serving as the collector of customs for the District of Boston and Charleston. Although Bancroft was not convinced about Hawthorne's political commitment, he eventually wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury recommending Hawthorne "biographer of Clilley, as a measurer." Secretary Levi Woodbury responded approving the "nomination of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Esq. to be Measurer, in place of Paul E. George, dismissed." Hawthorne's actual job title was measurer of coal and salt, for which he was paid an annual salary of $1,500.

It is difficult to imagine Hawthorne battling the elements, boarding ships to measure their loads of coal and salt, and surviving the rough life on Boston's Long Wharf. Evidently Hawthorne found working "on the outside" far preferable to being incarcerated in the basement of the customhouse, or as Hawthorne referred to it, "my darksome dungeon," where he prepared paperwork and spent many boring, depressing days when no ships entered the port. Working in dismal conditions, and experiencing the exhaustion from the manual labor required robbed Hawthorne of any desire or commitment to write during his tenure in the customhouse. He did keep a diary, which would serve him well in future writings, and he wrote voluminous letters to his future bride.

Hawthorne's tenure in the old customhouse was not to be long lived. After a year on the job, only his salary kept him from despairing and quitting. Sensing the Democrats would not win the upcoming election in 1841, Hawthorne saw the writing on the wall and tendered his resignation to Bancroft. Bancroft was not pleased, because he felt Hawthorne's jumping ship reflected poorly on his management of the customhouse. Hawthorne's effective date of departure from the grips of the Boston Custom House was New Year's Day 1841 -- he had spent just 20 days shy of two years as a customs measurer of coal and salt.

Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody married in 1842 and they nestled into the "Old Manse" in Concord - this was probably the most idyllically happy period in Hawthorne's life. However, money problems quickly arose, and the Hawthorne's were evicted from their "love cottage" because they could not pay the rent.

Overwhelmed by debt and disappointment that his writings were not providing sufficient income, Hawthorne was again forced to seek a government position. Friends and political associates sought positions for him. There was the possibility of postmaster in Salem, or exotic places such as U.S. consulate offices in Marseilles and China. Returning to the Boston Custom House, he approached the incumbent naval officer to inquire if a position was available -- but to no avail. Finally, the position of surveyor for the customs collection district of Salem and Beverly was proffered.

Hawthorne entered on duty at the Salem Custom House on April 9 1846. The surveyor's office was located on the main floor of the customhouse with huge windows overlooking the harbor and Derby Wharf - a vast improvement over Hawthorne's dismal quarters in the old Boston Custom House. By 1846 there wasn't much business in the tiny port of Salem, and Hawthorne soon felt captive in the customhouse with little to do except gaze out his windows in anticipation of a ship appearing on the horizon, bringing with it a brief period of bustling activity. Regardless of the boredom, Hawthorne applied himself diligently to all tasks and was considered to be an effective customs officer and manager.

Hawthorne's old nemesis, the Whig Party, swept into power with the election of Zachary Taylor as president in 1849, and again his position in the customhouse was threatened. His politically well connected friends, including Bancroft, the former collector in Boston, wrote to the Treasury Secretary pleading for Hawthorne to be allowed to remain as Surveyor. They spoke of his excellent performance and devotion to duty, and they emphasized Hawthorne's desperate need of a job in order to support his family. They asked that political pressures be put aside and allow Hawthorne to continue as Surveyor. Their pleas fell on deaf ears, and Hawthorne was removed from office on June 7, 1849 after just thirty-eight months in the customhouse.

As in Boston, Hawthorne's tenure in the Salem Custom House diminished his initiative to write. Once released from federal service and facing ever increasing financial pressures, he feverishly began to write again quickly producing in 1850 the critical monograph titled The Custom House, that became the introduction to his acclaimed novel set in Salem, The Scarlet Letter.

After the loss of his customhouse job, Hawthorne felt the need to remove himself from Salem. In 1850 he moved his family to Lennox. The Berkshire Mountains drew many literary figures to settle nearby, with George Bancroft, Fanny Kemble, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and Herman Melville having homes in Pittsfield, which was only six miles from Lennox.

At a now-famous picnic in Stockbridge in August of 1850, Hawthorne was introduced to Herman Melville, which resulted in a brief literary friendship. Hawthorne had written a favorable review of Melville's Typee in 1846, and Melville had just written an enthusiastic piece on Hawthorne's Mosses From an Old Manse. Melville believed he had found a friend, confidant and intellectual equal and he dedicated his newly published Moby Dick to Hawthorne.

After Franklin Pierce was elected president in November 1852, Melville hoped Hawthorne's friendship with the new president would aide him in securing a consular position overseas, but two unsuccessful petitions to secure a position for his needy friend left Hawthorne feeling "embarrassed and chagrined." Hawthorne himself was more fortunate in his quest for another federal position when Franklin Pierce appointed him to the prestigious and lucrative position of U.S. consul to Liverpool. The Hawthorne family moved to England in 1853, where they spent four happy years. Although the two authors had not seen each other in four years, Melville did visit briefly with the Hawthornes on his way to and from the Mediterranean in November of 1856; this would be the last time they would meet.

As in Boston, Hawthorne realized the political winds would be against him because his friend Franklin Pierce had not been renominated to run in the 1856 presidential elections. Thus, he tendered his resignation in 1857, before he would have to face removal by the incoming Buchanan administration. Hawthorne and his family then traveled through France and Italy, where they lived briefly in Rome and Florence, and then returned to live in Yorkshire, England, where Hawthorne's Transformation was published. The Hawthornes returned to "Wayside," their home in Concord in 1860, after seven years living abroad.

By 1864, Hawthorne's health and state of mind were fragile. In May of 1864, in an effort to bolster his spirits, former president Franklin Pierce proposed a tour through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Nathaniel Hawthorne died in his sleep at their accommodations in Plymouth, N.H. on May 19, 1864. 

Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Herman Melville

Herman Melville was born at 9 Pearl Street in New York City in 1819, close by the bustling port of New York and just a block away from where the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House stands today. The third of eight children, Herman's father was Maj. Thomas Melvill's son Allan and his mother was Maria Gansevoort, a member of a prominent New York family of Dutch origin. Gansevoort Street in Lower Manhattan was named for Maria's family and coincidently Herman Melville would spend many years working as a customs inspector on the Gansevoort Street Wharf.

Allan Melvill left his birthplace in Boston to make his way in the import business in New York City. He would comment negatively of his son Herman that he was "backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension ...of a docile and amiable disposition." Allan Melvill was not the best of business managers and by 1830 he was forced to file for bankruptcy, leaving his once prosperous family in dire financial circumstances and lead to his premature death at fifty years of age. Herman Melvill was just thirteen when his father died in 1832. It was after Allan Melvill's death that his wife decided her descendants would henceforth be surnamed Melville (with an "e.")

Following Allan Sr.'s death, his eldest son, ­­­­­­­Gansevoort, attempted to resurrect the family import business, but he was as inept a manager as his father. In order to help ends meet, adolescent Herman Melvill worked as a bank clerk for two years, then on an uncle's farm. He then joined his brother in trying to salvage the family import business, but by 1837 Gansevoort also was forced to declare bankruptcy.

After the collapse of the family import business, Gansevoort arranged for twenty year old Herman to ship out to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship sailing for Liverpool in June, 1839. The next five years found Melville experiencing an adventurous life sailing to exotic places such as the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti and Hawaii. Returning home in October, 1844, Melville found his family's financial state much improved, and he was encouraged to record tales of his adventures. Typee (1846) and Oomoo (1847) were published with mixed reviews.

At 28, Melville took on further responsibilities in 1847 when he married Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of the Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Mardi and Redburn were published in 1849, followed by White Jacket in 1850.

In 1850, Melville and his family moved from Manhattan to the Berkshires, where they purchased a farm in Pittsfield, Mass., named "Arrowhead." At a now-famous picnic in nearby Stockbridge in August of 1850, Melville was introduced to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had recently moved to nearby Lennox. Hawthorne had written a favorable review of Melville's Typee in 1846, and Melville had just written an enthusiastic piece on Hawthorne's Mosses From an Old Manse. Melville believed he had found a friend, confidant, mentor and intellectual equal in the reclusive Hawthorne, which revived his spirits and energized him to enthusiastically apply himself to complete what is probably his greatest work, Moby Dick. Published in 1851, Melville dedicated Moby Dick to his friend: "In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne."

However, the intensity of Melville's admiration of the reclusive Hawthorne was not fully returned. After only a year in Lennox, the Hawthornes returned to live in Concord in 1851. The two writers would meet again only twice in 1856, when during Hawthorne's tenure as U.S. consul, Melville visited Liverpool on his way to and from the Mediterranean.

Melville enjoyed a degree of financial security from the sales of his early books, but by 1851 this income began to dwindle and by 1853 he was forced to resort to writing for newspapers and magazines, and conducting lecture tours. By late 1860, this income had dried up and Melville and his family were living almost entirely off the generosity of his father-in-law -- he was in dire need of a job that would provide him a steady income.

Melville's brother Allan suggested he try for a consular position in Florence, Italy. Melville utilized his political connections such as his father-in-law, a former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, and his Pittsfield neighbor Julius Rockwell, a former U.S. congressman and senator, to petition Sen. Charles Sumner to proffer his name to Abraham Lincoln in an effort to receive the appointment of U.S. consul to Florence. Unfortunately for Melville, Rockwell and the nine other prominent Massachusetts backing his appointment were unable to sway the president's choice, and Lincoln appointed T. Bigelow Lawrence of Boston to the position.

Finally, in 1866, Melville wrote to Henry A. Smythe, whom he had met in Switzerland and had been appointed collector of customs for the collection district of New York in May 1866. Melville was at last successful in attaining a federal position, and was sworn-in as a customs inspector at the port of New York on Dec. 5, 1866.

Unfortunately, Smythe allegedly managed a corrupt customhouse, and in March of 1867 there were three resolutions introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives calling for President Andrew Johnson to remove him from office. The president chose to ignore the resolution presented to him -- and Smythe continued as collector for the remainder of the Johnson administration.

On the other hand, Melville was known to be a withdrawn and often melancholy, honest and hardworking customs inspector, who devoted his days to a job that was demanding, intimidating, anxiety-producing, irritating and humiliating -- but nonetheless essential to his material well-being and that of his family. He managed to survive the political upheavals that occurred every four years when incumbents of the customhouse and appraisers' stores were cleared out in order to make way for the new lot of political appointees. When asked how he managed to survive being removed from office, Melville replied that he avoided going down to the customhouse - thus he remained out of sight and out of mind.

Melville's salary as an inspector was four dollars per day, with a six-day work week. He never received a promotion or a pay raise during his 19-year career with the Customs Service.

On their meager salaries, Melville and his partner(s) had to rent their own "work space" on or near the wharves, where they stored tools, prepared required paperwork, and huddled during inclement weather and the slow periods when there was no activity on the wharves requiring their services. As Hawthorne had experienced during his tenures in the Boston and Salem customhouses, Melville found work as a customs inspector exhausting and all-consuming of his energy, which left him without incentive to write.

By his sixty-sixth year, Melville was physically worn and his wife worried about his sanity. He tendered his resignation, effective Dec. 31, 1885. By the time of his retirement there were only eight inspectors senior to him remaining out of the force of 230 who had been on the payroll when he was sworn-in as a customs inspector. Melville spent the remaining six years of his life at his home at 126 East Street writing the novella Billy Budd, which was incomplete at the time of his death on Sept. 28, 1891. It would not be published until 1924.

Last Modified: Dec 20, 2019