Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A young fellow, a tobacco pedlar by trade, was on his way from
Morristown, where he had dealt largely with the Deacon of the
Shaker settlement, to the village of Parker's Falls, on Salmon
River. He had a neat little cart, painted green, with a box of
cigars depicted on each side panel, and an Indian chief, holding
a pipe and a golden tobacco stalk, on the rear. The pedlar drove
a smart little mare, and was a young man of excellent character,
keen at a bargain, but none the worse liked by the Yankees; who,
as I have heard them say, would rather be shaved with a sharp
razor than a dull one. Especially was he beloved by the pretty
girls along the Connecticut, whose favor he used to court by
presents of the best smoking tobacco in his stock; knowing well
that the country lasses of New England are generally great
performers on pipes. Moreover, as will be seen in the course of
my story, the pedlar was inquisitive, and something of a tattler,
always itching to hear the news and anxious to tell it again.
After an early breakfast at Morristown, the tobacco pedlar, whose
name was Dominicus Pike, had travelled seven miles through a
solitary piece of woods, without speaking a word to anybody but
himself and his little gray mare. It being nearly seven o'clock,
he was as eager to hold a morning gossip as a city shopkeeper to
read the morning paper. An opportunity seemed at hand when, after
lighting a cigar with a sun-glass, he looked up, and perceived a
man coming over the brow of the hill, at the foot of which the
pedlar had stopped his green cart. Dominicus watched him as he
descended, and noticed that he carried a bundle over his shoulder
on the end of a stick, and travelled with a weary, yet determined
pace. He did not look as if he had started in the freshness of
the morning, but had footed it all night, and meant to do the
same all day.
"Good morning, mister," said Dominicus, when within speaking
distance. "You go a pretty good jog. What's the latest news at
The man pulled the broad brim of a gray hat over his eyes, and
answered, rather sullenly, that he did not come from Parker's
Falls, which, as being the limit of his own day's journey, the
pedlar had naturally mentioned in his inquiry.
"Well then," rejoined Dominicus Pike, "let's have the latest news
where you did come from. I'm not particular about Parker's Falls.
Any place will answer."
Being thus importuned, the traveller--who was as ill looking a
fellow as one would desire to meet in a solitary piece of
woods--appeared to hesitate a little, as if he was either
searching his memory for news, or weighing the expediency of
telling it. At last, mounting on the step of the cart, he
whispered in the ear of Dominicus, though he might have shouted
aloud and no other mortal would have heard him.
"I do remember one little trifle of news," said he. "Old Mr.
Higginbotham, of Kimballton, was murdered in his orchard, at
eight o'clock last night, by an Irishman and a nigger. They
strung him up to the branch of a St. Michael's pear-tree, where
nobody would find him till the morning."
As soon as this horrible intelligence was communicated, the
stranger betook himself to his journey again, with more speed
than ever, not even turning his head when Dominicus invited him
to smoke a Spanish cigar and relate all the particulars. The
pedlar whistled to his mare and went up the hill, pondering on
the doleful fate of Mr. Higginbotham whom he had known in the way
of trade, having sold him many a bunch of long nines, and a great
deal of pigtail, lady's twist, and fig tobacco. He was rather
astonished at the rapidity with which the news had spread.
Kimballton was nearly sixty miles distant in a straight line; the
murder had been perpetrated only at eight o'clock the preceding
night; yet Dominicus had heard of it at seven in the morning,
when, in all probability, poor Mr. Higginbotham's own family had
but just discovered his corpse, hanging on the St. Michael's
pear-tree. The stranger on foot must have worn seven-league boots
to travel at such a rate.
"Ill news flies fast, they say," thought Dominicus Pike; "but
this beats railroads. The fellow ought to be hired to go express
with the President's Message."
The difficulty was solved by supposing that the narrator had made
a mistake of one day in the date of the occurrence; so that our
friend did not hesitate to introduce the story at every tavern
and country store along the road, expending a whole bunch of
Spanish wrappers among at least twenty horrified audiences. He
found himself invariably the first bearer of the intelligence,
and was so pestered with questions that he could not avoid
filling up the outline, till it became quite a respectable
narrative. He met with one piece of corroborative evidence. Mr.
Higginbotham was a trader; and a former clerk of his, to whom
Dominicus related the facts, testified that the old gentleman was
accustomed to return home through the orchard about nightfall,
with the money and valuable papers of the store in his pocket.
The clerk manifested but little grief at Mr. Higginbotham's
catastrophe, hinting, what the pedlar had discovered in his own
dealings with him, that he was a crusty old fellow, as close as a
vice. His property would descend to a pretty niece who was now
keeping school in Kimballton.
What with telling the news for the public good, and driving
bargains for his own, Dominicus was so much delayed on the road
that he chose to put up at a tavern, about five miles short of
Parker's Falls. After supper, lighting one of his prime cigars,
he seated himself in the bar-room, and went through the story of
the murder, which had grown so fast that it took him half an hour
to tell. There were as many as twenty people in the room,
nineteen of whom received it all for gospel. But the twentieth
was an elderly farmer, who had arrived on horseback a short time
before, and was now seated in a corner smoking his pipe. When the
story was concluded, he rose up very deliberately, brought his
chair right in front of Dominicus, and stared him full in the
face, puffing out the vilest tobacco smoke the pedlar had ever
"Will you make affidavit," demanded he, in the tone of a country
justice taking an examination, "that old Squire Higginbotham of
Kimballton was murdered in his orchard the night before last, and
found hanging on his great pear-tree yesterday morning?"
"I tell the story as I heard it, mister," answered Dominicus,
dropping his half-burnt cigar; "I don't say that I saw the thing
done. So I can't take my oath that he was murdered exactly in
"But I can take mine," said the farmer, "that if Squire
Higginbotham was murdered night before last, I drank a glass of
bitters with his ghost this morning. Being a neighbor of mine, he
called me into his store, as I was riding by, and treated me, and
then asked me to do a little business for him on the road. He
didn't seem to know any more about his own murder than I did."
"Why, then, it can't be a fact!" exclaimed Dominicus Pike.
"I guess he'd have mentioned, if it was," said the old farmer;
and he removed his chair back to the corner, leaving Dominicus
quite down in the mouth.
Here was a sad resurrection of old Mr. Higginbotham! The pedlar
had no heart to mingle in the conversation any more, but
comforted himself with a glass of gin and water, and went to bed
where, all night long, he dreamed of hanging on the St. Michael's
pear-tree. To avoid the old farmer (whom he so detested that his
suspension would have pleased him better than Mr.
Higginbotham's), Dominicus rose in the gray of the morning, put
the little mare into the green cart, and trotted swiftly away
towards Parker's Falls. The fresh breeze, the dewy road, and the
pleasant summer dawn, revived his spirits, and might have
encouraged him to repeat the old story had there been anybody
awake to hear it. But he met neither ox team, light wagon chaise,
horseman, nor foot traveller, till, just as he crossed Salmon
River, a man came trudging down to the bridge with a bundle over
his shoulder, on the end of a stick.
"Good morning, mister," said the pedlar, reining in his mare. "If
you come from Kimballton or that neighborhood, may be you can
tell me the real fact about this affair of old Mr. Higginbotham.
Was the old fellow actually murdered two or three nights ago, by
an Irishman and a nigger?"
Dominicus had spoken in too great a hurry to observe, at first,
that the stranger himself had a deep tinge of negro blood. On
hearing this sudden question, the Ethiopian appeared to change
his skin, its yellow hue becoming a ghastly white, while, shaking
and stammering, he thus replied:"No! no! There was no colored
man! It was an Irishman that hanged him last night, at eight
o'clock. I came away at seven! His folks can't have looked for
him in the orchard yet."
Scarcely had the yellow man spoken, when he interrupted himself,
and though he seemed weary enough before, continued his journey
at a pace which would have kept the pedlar's mare on a smart
trot. Dominicus stared after him in great perplexity. If the
murder had not been committed till Tuesday night, who was the
prophet that had foretold it, in all its circumstances, on
Tuesday morning? If Mr. Higginbotham's corpse were not yet
discovered by his own family, how came the mulatto, at above
thirty miles' distance, to know that he was hanging in the
orchard, especially as he had left Kimballton before the
unfortunate man was hanged at all? These ambiguous circumstances,
with the stranger's surprise and terror, made Dominicus think of
raising a hue and cry after him, as an accomplice in the murder;
since a murder, it seemed, had really been perpetrated.
"But let the poor devil go," thought the pedlar. "I don't want
his black blood on my head; and hanging the nigger wouldn't
unhang Mr. Higginbotham. Unhang the old gentleman; It's a sin, I
know; but I should hate to have him come to life a second time,
and give me the lie!"
With these meditations, Dominicus Pike drove into the street of
Parker's Falls, which, as everybody knows, is as thriving a
village as three cotton factories and a slitting mill can make
it. The machinery was not in motion, and but a few of the shop
doors unbarred, when he alighted in the stable yard of the
tavern, and made it his first business to order the mare four
quarts of oats. His second duty, of course, was to impart Mr.
Higginbotham's catastrophe to the hostler. He deemed it
advisable, however, not to be too positive as to the date of the
direful fact, and also to be uncertain whether it were
perpetrated by an Irishman and a mulatto, or by the son of Erin
alone. Neither did he profess to relate it on his own authority,
or that of any one person; but mentioned it as a report generally
The story ran through the town like fire among girdled trees, and
became so much the universal talk that nobody could tell whence
it had originated. Mr. Higginbotham was as well known at Parker's
Falls as any citizen of the place, being part owner of the
slitting mill, and a considerable stockholder in the cotton
factories. The inhabitants felt their own prosperity interested
in his fate. Such was the excitement, that the Parker's Falls
Gazette anticipated its regular day of publication, and came out
with half a form of blank paper and a column of double pica
emphasized with capitals, and headed HORRID MURDER OF MR.
HIGGINBOTHAM! Among other dreadful details, the printed account
described the mark of the cord round the dead man's neck, and
stated the number of thousand dollars of which he had been
robbed; there was much pathos also about the affliction of his
niece, who had gone from one fainting fit to another, ever since
her uncle was found hanging on the St. Michael's pear-tree with
his pockets inside out. The village poet likewise commemorated
the young lady's grief in seventeen stanzas of a ballad. The
selectmen held a meeting, and, in consideration of Mr.
Higginbotham's claims on the town, determined to issue handbills,
offering a reward of five hundred dollars for the apprehension of
his murderers, and the recovery of the stolen property.
Meanwhile the whole population of Parker's Falls, consisting of
shopkeepers, mistresses of boarding-houses, factory girls,
millmen, and schoolboys, rushed into the street and kept up such
a terrible loquacity as more than compensated for the silence of
the cotton machines, which refrained from their usual din out of
respect to the deceased. Had Mr. Higginbotham cared about
posthumous renown, his untimely ghost would have exulted in this
tumult. Our friend Dominicus, in his vanity of heart, forgot his
intended precautions, and mounting on the town pump, announced
himself as the bearer of the authentic intelligence which had
caused so wonderful a sensation. He immediately became the great
man of the moment, and had just begun a new edition of the
narrative, with a voice like a field preacher, when the mail
stage drove into the village street. It had travelled all night,
and must have shifted horses at Kimballton, at three in the
"Now we shall hear all the particulars," shouted the crowd.
The coach rumbled up to the piazza of the tavern, followed by a
thousand people; for if any man had been minding his own business
till then, he now left it at sixes and sevens, to hear the news.
The pedlar, foremost in the race, discovered two passengers, both
of whom had been startled from a comfortable nap to find
themselves in the centre of a mob. Every man assailing them with
separate questions, all propounded at once, the couple were
struck speechless, though one was a lawyer and the other a young
"Mr. Higginbotham! Mr. Higginbotham! Tell us the particulars
about old Mr. Higginbotham!" bawled the mob. "What is the
coroner's verdict? Are the murderers apprehended? Is Mr.
Higginbotham's niece come out of her fainting fits? Mr.
Higginbotham! Mr. Higginbotham!!"
The coachman said not a word, except to swear awfully at the
hostler for not bringing him a fresh team of horses. The lawyer
inside had generally his wits about him even when asleep; the
first thing he did, after learning the cause of the excitement,
was to produce a large, red pocketbook. Meantime Dominicus Pike,
being an extremely polite young man, and also suspecting that a
female tongue would tell the story as glibly as a lawyer's, had
handed the lady out of the coach. She was a fine, smart girl, now
wide awake and bright as a button, and had such a sweet pretty
mouth, that Dominicus would almost as lief have heard a love tale
from it as a tale of murder.
"Gentlemen and ladies," said the lawyer to the shopkeepers, the
millmen, and the factory girls, "I can assure you that some
unaccountable mistake, or, more probably, a wilful falsehood,
maliciously contrived to injure Mr. Higginbotham's credit, has
excited this singular uproar. We passed through Kimballton at
three o'clock this morning, and most certainly should have been
informed of the murder had any been perpetrated. But I have proof
nearly as strong as Mr. Higginbotham's own oral testimony, in the
negative. Here is a note relating to a suit of his in the
Connecticut courts, which was delivered me from that gentleman
himself. I find it dated at ten o'clock last evening."
So saying, the lawyer exhibited the date and signature of the
note, which irrefragably proved, either that this perverse Mr.
Higginbotham was alive when he wrote it, or--as some deemed the
more probable case, of two doubtful ones--that he was so absorbed
in worldly business as to continue to transact it even after his
death. But unexpected evidence was forthcoming. The young lady,
after listening to the pedlar's explanation, merely seized a
moment to smooth her gown and put her curls in order, and then
appeared at the tavern door, making a modest signal to be heard.
"Good people," said she, "I am Mr. Higginbotham's niece."
A wondering murmur passed through the crowd on beholding her so
rosy and bright; that same unhappy niece, whom they had supposed,
on the authority of the Parker's Falls Gazette, to be lying at
death's door in a fainting fit. But some shrewd fellows had
doubted, all along, whether a young lady would be quite so
desperate at the hanging of a rich old uncle.
"You see," continued Miss Higginbotham, with a smile, "that this
strange story is quite unfounded as to myself; and I believe I
may affirm it to be equally so in regard to my dear uncle
Higginbotham. He has the kindness to give me a home in his house,
though I contribute to my own support by teaching a school. I
left Kimballton this morning to spend the vacation of
commencement week with a friend, about five miles from Parker's
Falls. My generous uncle, when he heard me on the stairs, called
me to his bedside, and gave me two dollars and fifty cents to pay
my stage fare, and another dollar for my extra expenses. He then
laid his pocketbook under his pillow, shook hands with me, and
advised me to take some biscuit in my bag, instead of
breakfasting on the road. I feel confident, therefore, that I
left my beloved relative alive, and trust that I shall find him
so on my return."
The young lady courtesied at the close of her speech, which was
so sensible and well worded, and delivered with such grace and
propriety, that everybody thought her fit to be preceptress of
the best academy in the State. But a stranger would have supposed
that Mr. Higginbotham was an object of abhorrence at Parker's
Falls, and that a thanksgiving had been proclaimed for his
murder; so excessive was the wrath of the inhabitants on learning
their mistake. The millmen resolved to bestow public honors on
Dominicus Pike, only hesitating whether to tar and feather him,
ride him on a rail, or refresh him with an ablution at the town
pump, on the top of which he had declared himself the bearer of
the news. The selectmen, by advice of the lawyer, spoke of
prosecuting him for a misdemeanor, in circulating unfounded
reports, to the great disturbance of the peace of the
Commonwealth. Nothing saved Dominicus, either from mob law or a
court of justice, but an eloquent appeal made by the young lady
in his behalf. Addressing a few words of heartfelt gratitude to
his benefactress, he mounted the green cart and rode out of town,
under a discharge of artillery from the school-boys, who found
plenty of ammunition in the neighboring clay-pits and mud holes.
As he turned his head to exchange a farewell glance with Mr.
Higginbotham's niece, a ball, of the consistence of hasty
pudding, hit him slap in the mouth, giving him a most grim
aspect. His whole person was so bespattered with the like filthy
missiles, that he had almost a mind to ride back, and supplicate
for the threatened ablution at the town pump; for, though not
meant in kindness, it would now have been a deed of charity.
However, the sun shone bright on poor Dominicus, and the mud, an
emblem of all stains of undeserved opprobrium, was easily brushed
off when dry. Being a funny rogue, his heart soon cheered up; nor
could he refrain from a hearty laugh at the uproar which his
story had excited. The handbills of the selectmen would cause the
commitment of all the vagabonds in the State; the paragraph in
the Parker's Falls Gazette would be reprinted from Maine to
Florida, and perhaps form an item in the London newspapers; and
many a miser would tremble for his money bags and life, on
learning the catastrophe of Mr. Higginbotham. The pedlar
meditated with much fervor on the charms of the young
schoolmistress, and swore that Daniel Webster never spoke nor
looked so like an angel as Miss Higginbotham, while defending him
from the wrathful populace at Parker's Falls.
Dominicus was now on the Kimballton turnpike, having all along
determined to visit that place, though business had drawn him out
of the most direct road from Morristown. As he approached the
scene of the supposed murder, he continued to revolve the
circumstances in his mind, and was astonished at the aspect which
the whole case assumed. Had nothing occurred to corroborate the
story of the first traveller, it might now have been considered
as a hoax; but the yellow man was evidently acquainted either
with the report or the fact; and there was a mystery in his
dismayed and guilty look on being abruptly questioned. When, to
this singular combination of incidents, it was added that the
rumor tallied exactly with Mr. Higginbotham's character and
habits of life; and that he had an orchard, and a St. Michael's
pear-tree, near which he always passed at nightfall: the
circumstantial evidence appeared so strong that Dominicus doubted
whether the autograph produced by the lawyer, or even the niece's
direct testimony, ought to be equivalent. Making cautious
inquiries along the road, the pedlar further learned that Mr.
Higginbotham had in his service an Irishman of doubtful
character, whom he had hired without a recommendation, on the
score of economy.
"May I be hanged myself," exclaimed Dominicus Pike aloud, on
reaching the top of a lonely hill, "if I'll believe old
Higginbotham is unhanged till I see him with my own eyes, and
hear it from his own mouth! And as he's a real shaver, I'll have
the minister or some other responsible man for an indorser."
It was growing dusk when he reached the toll-house on Kimballton
turnpike, about a quarter of a mile from the village of this
name. His little mare was fast bringing him up with a man on
horseback, who trotted through the gate a few rods in advance of
him, nodded to the toll-gatherer, and kept on towards the
village. Dominicus was acquainted with the tollman, and, while
making change, the usual remarks on the weather passed between
"I suppose," said the pedlar, throwing back his whiplash, to
bring it down like a feather on the mare's flank, "you have not
seen anything of old Mr. Higginbotham within a day or two?"
"Yes," answered the toll-gatherer. "He passed the gate just
before you drove up, and yonder he rides now, if you can see him
through the dusk. He's been to Woodfield this afternoon,
attending a sheriff's sale there. The old man generally shakes
hands and has a little chat with me; but to-night, he nodded,--as
if to say, 'Charge my toll,' and jogged on; for wherever he goes,
he must always be at home by eight o'clock."
"So they tell me," said Dominicus.
"I never saw a man look so yellow and thin as the squire does,"
continued the toll-gatherer. "Says I to myself, to-night, he's
more like a ghost or an old mummy than good flesh and blood."
The pedlar strained his eyes through the twilight, and could just
discern the horseman now far ahead on the village road. He seemed
to recognize the rear of Mr. Higginbotham; but through the
evening shadows, and amid the dust from the horse's feet, the
figure appeared dim and unsubstantial; as if the shape of the
mysterious old man were faintly moulded of darkness and gray
light. Dominicus shivered.
"Mr. Higginbotham has come back from the other world, by way of
the Kimballton turnpike," thought he.
He shook the reins and rode forward, keeping about the same
distance in the rear of the gray old shadow, till the latter was
concealed by a bend of the road. On reaching this point, the
pedlar no longer saw the man on horseback, but found himself at
the head of the village street, not far from a number of stores
and two taverns, clustered round the meeting-house steeple. On
his left were a stone wall and a gate, the boundary of a woodlot,
beyond which lay an orchard, farther still, a mowing field, and
last of all, a house. These were the premises of Mr.
Higginbotham, whose dwelling stood beside the old highway, but
had been left in the background by the Kimballton turnpike.
Dominicus knew the place; and the little mare stopped short by
instinct; for he was not conscious of tightening the reins.
"For the soul of me, I cannot get by this gate!" said he,
trembling. "I never shall be my own man again, till I see whether
Mr. Higginbotham is hanging on the St. Michael's pear-tree!"
He leaped from the cart, gave the rein a turn round the gate
post, and ran along the green path of the wood-lot as if Old Nick
were chasing behind. Just then the village clock tolled eight,
and as each deep stroke fell, Dominicus gave a fresh bound and
flew faster than before, till, dim in the solitary centre of the
orchard, he saw the fated pear-tree. One great branch stretched
from the old contorted trunk across the path, and threw the
darkest shadow on that one spot. But something seemed to struggle
beneath the branch!
The pedlar had never pretended to more courage than befits a man
of peaceful occupation, nor could he account for his valor on
this awful emergency. Certain it is, however, that he rushed
forward, prostrated a sturdy Irishman with the butt end of his
whip, and found--not indeed hanging on the St. Michael's
pear-tree, but trembling beneath it, with a halter round his
neck--the old, identical Mr. Higginbotham!
"Mr. Higginbotham," said Dominicus tremulously, "you're an honest
man, and I'll take your word for it. Have you been hanged or
If the riddle be not already guessed, a few words will explain
the simple machinery by which this "coming event" was made to
"cast its shadow before." Three men had plotted the robbery and
murder of Mr. Higginbotham; two of them, successively, lost
courage and fled, each delaying the crime one night by their
disappearance; the third was in the act of perpetration, when a
champion, blindly obeying the call of fate, like the heroes of
old romance, appeared in the person of Dominicus Pike.
It only remains to say, that Mr. Higginbotham took the pedlar
into high favor, sanctioned his addresses to the pretty
schoolmistress, and settled his whole property on their children,
allowing themselves the interest. In due time, the old gentleman
capped the climax of his favors, by dying a Christian death, in
bed, since which melancholy event Dominicus Pike has removed from
Kimballton, and established a large tobacco manufactory in my