A puzzle for philosophers—Illustrated cases of avarice as an hereditary passion—John Elwes—Daniel Dancer—Miss Vooght—Acquisitiveness as a family failing—Brothers Jackson, the Two Misers of Reading—Brothers Palmer, the Two Misers of Witney—Old Jardine, the Miser of Cambridge, and his two sons; a singular instance of avarice as a family vice, &c.
THERE are few subjects upon which it is so difficult to form an opinion as that of the hereditary nature of the human passions. There are few subjects that have so puzzled philosophers, and few that have so effectually baffled the sagacity of science. There is one point which has been satisfactorily proved, viz. that if the qualities of the human mind are hereditary, they are not always derived from the father. But this fact adds to the perplexity of the question, inasmuch as it becomes necessary, before we advance facts against the doctrine of the hereditary nature of the human feelings, to ascertain as to the peculiar disposition and temperament of both parents. Thus, the fact of a miser begetting a generous and noble-hearted son, is no proof that he might not have derived these good qualities as an hereditary birthright from the mother. Corroborative illustrations therefore, are of more weight, since we have less difficulty in applying them, and tracing the analogy between the disposition of the parent, and the disposition of the child. The force of example, it may be said, may have much to do with quickening this passion into life; but an example not the most prepossessing, could never be so warmly embraced had not the natural inclinations a tendency to hoard, and to coincide with the habits of the miser.
The reader will perhaps remember among our examples the case of John Overs, whose daughter was so unlike the father; or that of John Mounsey, whose son manifested so generous a disposition: but it must be remembered, that in neither case have we any information relative to the disposition of the mother. Our facts which bear on the other side of the question are somewhat stronger. That of Daniel Dancer, and his sister; of the three Misses Vooght, and of the Elwes', are singular instances of acquisitiveness as a family failing. The family of the Dancers were notoriously parsimonious, and were all eager and covetous after gold. Miss Dancer equalled her brother in the art of saving; and another brother who survived this miserly pair for many years, is said, if such a thing could be possible, to have been even more penurious than Daniel Dancer himself.[Note: Annual Register, Vol. XXXVI, for the year 1794.]
The case of John Elwes is one deserving of some attention; for when we learn that the mother of Elwes was an example of penury almost unequalled by her son; that with one hundred thousand pounds which she possessed from her husband, she literally starved herself to death; and when moreover we learn that Sir Harvey Elwes her brother, was one of the most extraordinary misers on record, who, to amass wealth spent sixty years of his life in a state of seclusion which an ancient Coenobite might have envied: we cannot but regard the life of John Elwes as a singular and memorable fact, to substantiate the doctrine of the innateness and hereditary nature of the human passions. In the lives of some misers, we have seen this propensity to acquire engrossing all other feelings, captivating, as it were the very soul; but in Elwes we observe some good qualities; signs of generosity, and a proneness to forgive injuries at which other men would have been unmerciful. His life in fact, is a record of constant struggling and wrestlings between passions, which at first sight appear inconsistent, as the promptings, of one mind, and which we should scarcely believe could exist in the same man, did not science and experience teach us how incongruous are the propensities of the human mind.
The indication of avarice sometimes observed in infancy and youth would lead us to believe in the innateness of the human propensities. All who have been in the habit of observing the gradual opening of youthful minds—all who have devoted their energies to the education of the rising generation, must have observed how powerfully will the spirit of covetousness sometimes sway the actions of youth, long before the vices or the cunning of the world could have excited such feelings; and will, on reading the following lines of Crabbe, call to mind the remembrance of many with whom they have come in contact:
Lo! one who walks apart although so young
He lays restraint upon his eyes and tongue;
Nor will he into scrape or dangers get,
And half the school are in the stripling's debt;
Suspicious, timid, he is much afraid
Of trick or plot,—he dreads to be betrayed;
He shuns all friendship, for he finds they lend,
When lads begin to call each other friend.
Of acquisitiveness as a family failing, the case of John and James Jackson is a curious illustration. These two misers lived during the middle of the last century at a village in the vicinity of Reading. At the age of twenty they each became possessed of riches. Their passion to acquire was too strong to allow them to enjoy these acquisitions, and their only pleasure was in hoarding up, and scraping to add to their abundant store. Riches, instead of a blessing, became in their hands a curse. From principles of economy, and from congeniality of disposition, they both lived together. They hired one miserable dirty room, into which for fifty years no human being except themselves was allowed to enter: they lived so penuriously that they denied themselves the necessaries of life; and their appearance was so squalid, that passengers in the streets bestowed their charity upon them, which these unworthy wretches were never known to refuse. Nothing could have been more sordid, and nothing more miserable, than such a life: yet perhaps by thus feeding their ruling passion, they derived some enjoyment from their existence. When at the respective ages of ninety-three and eighty-seven the two brothers were taken ill, and languishing for a week, they both died on the same day, leaving behind them an accumulation of one hundred and fifty thousand pounds.
A similar instance of fraternal misery is recorded in the Cambridge Chronicle of December 26, 1767. Two brothers named John and Joseph Palmer lived together in a most parsimonious manner at Witney, in Oxfordshire. .Although possessing considerable wealth, they indulged themselves in no comforts—inhabited a wretched attic—kept no servant—wore rags instead of clothes, and in their domestic arrangements were prodigies of filth and penury. They were both bachelors, and detested even the very sight of women; they would never permit one to clean out their chamber; and as they never took the trouble to fulfil that duty themselves, their apartment was a harbour for vermin, and a receptacle for dust and rubbish. In April 1767 they were both taken ill; and as in the case just quoted above, both died on the same day within a few minutes of each other. Having dwelled together in life, they were not separated in death.
Many years ago, there lived, at Cambridge, a miserly old couple of the name of Jardine: they had two sons, the father was a perfect miser, and at his death one thousand guineas were discovered secreted in his bed. The two sons grew up as parsimonious as their sire. When about twenty years of age, they commenced business at Cambridge as drapers; and they continued there until their death. During forty years, they never had their house cleaned but once, and that was on the occasion of their mother's death. They were strangers to filial love, and the loss of a parent produced no sorrow. They begrudged the last tribute of affection; and, to save a trifling fee, they laid out the corpse themselves, and bargained for her interment on the lowest scale. The establishment of the Messrs. Jardine was the most dirty of all the shops in Cambridge. Customers seldom went in to purchase, except perhaps fit of curiosity. The brothers were most disreputable looking beings; for although surrounded with gay apparel, as their staple in trade, they wore the most filthy rags themselves. It is said that they had no bed, and, to save the expense of one, always slept on a bundle of packing cloths under the counter. In their housekeeping they were penurious in the extreme. A joint of meat did not grace their board for twenty years. They always had an eye to business; and if a shopkeeper or a farmer happened to purchase of them, they would enquire their address, and go a mile or two to purchase of them in re-turn a few eggs or half a pint of beer; yet they always observed the utmost caution, lest, as they used to observe, any of their other customers should be offended. When the first of the brothers died, the other, much to his surprise, found large sums of money which had been secreted even from him. They both died suddenly and within a few months of each other. They left about eight thousand pounds, the whole of which, with the exception of a twenty pound legacy, was left to a neighbour, who, on one or two occasions had shown them some little kindness, and sent them now and then a dinner.
We do not pretend, from these facts, to build a theory or to maintain a new doctrine: we offer them simply as facts and illustrations, which may be useful in forming an opinion. We do not pretend to think them sufficient to prove the passion of avarice hereditary, but we regard them as examples of some weight in favour of that opinion. We would, in short, rather that our readers judged for themselves, than that we should point out the way that we would have them judge. The subject is a difficult one, and we think it rash and somewhat un-seemly to decide prematurely upon that, which so many great men have been unable to decide, and so many philosophers have been unable to prove.