The Tragic End to Franklin Pierce's Friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne

If there was a "Most Tragic President" contest, Abraham Lincoln would be the undisputed winner—but Franklin Pierce would also be in the running. Pierce's three sons all died young. After 11-year-old Bennie was nearly decapitated in a horrific train wreck while his parents looked on, Pierce's wife, Jane, was understandably never the same, and spent most of her time praying or writing letters to her "beloved dead." She passed away in 1863. For Pierce, the tragedy didn't end there: Six months after Jane died, Pierce found his best friend, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, dead.

Pierce and Hawthorne had become fast friends when they both attended Bowdoin College in the 1820s. Their friendship deepened over the years, and when Pierce became the 14th U.S. President in 1853, he found his pal a job as the U.S. consul in Liverpool, a cushy gig that paid $30,000 to $40,000 (a huge amount for the time) and allowed him to dedicate time to writing.

While he was in England, Hawthorne wrote a book of essays and dedicated it to Franklin Pierce:

"…it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE.”

Pierce was a rather unpopular figure in the U.S., largely because he was anti-abolitionist movement. He found it difficult to accomplish anything in the White House, and by the time his term was up in 1857, he had even lost the support of his own party.

Hawthorne’s publisher begged him to leave the dedication to the former President out, fearing it would sink sales of the book. The author refused. “If he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him,” he said. Indeed, it angered some people, including a famous one: Ralph Waldo Emerson ripped the dedication page out before adding the book to his library.

Pierce didn’t forget Hawthorne's loyalty, and in 1864, agreed to accompany his friend to the White Mountains in New Hampshire in hopes that it would revive Hawthorne’s failing health. On May 18, 1864, the writer and the former president stopped at the Pemigewasset Hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, for the night. After dinner and a cup of tea, Hawthorne retired to bed—and never woke up. Pierce found his friend's body sometime in the middle of the night, and recounted the events several years later:

"Passing from his room to my own, leaving the door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o'clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o'clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more."

The fact that it was Pierce who was with Hawthorne did not escape the attention of the media. “It is a singular and happy circumstance that friends who have lived so many years upon terms of unrestricted intimacy as Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne should in the final hours of one still be so near to the other as to enable the survivor to hear, as it were, the last whisper of his friend as he entered the portals of eternity,” The New York Herald wrote.

Sadly, because he was so hated by Hawthorne’s other associates, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pierce was prevented from being a pallbearer at his friend’s funeral. He sat with the family instead.

This piece originally ran in 2016.

How Seiichi Miyake and Tactile Paving Changed the World for Visually Impaired People

iStock.com/RonBailey
iStock.com/RonBailey

More than 140 years after Louis Braille invented the Braille reading system, Seiichi Miyake came up with a different system based on touch that allows visually impaired people to navigate public spaces. Today, tactile paving is used by major cities and transportation services around the world. Miyake was so influential that he's the subject of the Google Doodle for March 18, the 52nd anniversary of tactile paving's debut.

The Japanese inventor designed the influential system with a specific person in mind. His friend was losing his vision, so in 1965, Miyake used his own money to build special mats with raised shapes that lead blind and visually impaired people away from danger and toward safety. Pavement with round bumps was meant to signal nearby danger, such as a street crossing or the edge of a train platform, while a stretch of pavement with straight bars was meant to guide them to safe areas. The tactile design allowed pedestrians to detect the features with canes, guide dogs, or their feet.

Originally called Tenji blocks, the tactile pavement was first installed outside the Okayama School for the Blind in Okayama, Japan in 1967. They quickly spread to larger cities, like Tokyo and Osaka, and within a decade, Miyake's system was mandatory in all Japanese rail stations.

Seiichi Miyake died in 1982 at age 56, but the popularity of his invention has only grown since his death. In the 1990s, the U.S., the UK, and Canada embraced tactile pavement in their cities. Miyake's initial design has been built upon throughout the years; there are now pill-shaped bumps to indicate changes in direction and raised lines running perpendicular to foot traffic to signal upcoming steps. And even though they're often thought of as tools for blind people, the bright colors used in tactile pavement also make them more visible to pedestrians with visual impairments.

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

iStock
iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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