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The Town & the City: Lowell before and after The Civil War

Originally created to be a digital archive for Lowell documents from 1826 to 1861, this website has grown to cover many periods and events in Lowell's history.

Thoreau lectures in Lowell - 1860

 “The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle
[Life without Principle evolved from the lecture "Life Misspent," also called "Misspent Lives," which was likely one of the lectures he delivered in Lowell in 1860.]

      Henry David Thoreau lived in Chelmsford as a small boy when Lowell was still East Chelmsford. He returned in August 1839 with his older brother John during his famous trip on the Concord and Merrimack rivers. He visited Lowell one last time in September 1860 to deliver two lectures. He also walked along the Merrimack and Concord rivers during his short visit.

In December, three months after this visit, he became ill with bronchitis. Thoreau had contracted tuberculosis in 1835 and suffered from it from time to time afterwards. After the bronchitis, his health declined and he died in May 1862.

The invitations

Ricker, Charles P., ALS to HDT. Aug. 31, 1860
Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. (1860).
Reverse side used by Thoreau as paper for Dispersion of Seeds, p. 384 (below)

                                ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
     Mr. Thoreau:
     Dear Sir:

     By the instructions of our Committee I am required to write that we have two lectures on the Sabbath.

     If you could give us two lectures instead of one for the terms you state we shall be happy to hear you. Otherwise we shall be obliged to wait till we gain a stronger hold on the public mind, and chiefly increase or better our financial condition.

     Please answer if possible by return of mail.

     Yours Respectfully

     Charles P. Ricker

                                        ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ricker, Charles P., ALS to HDT. Sep. [6?], 1860.
Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. (1860).
Reverse side used by Thoreau as paper for Dispersion of Seeds, p. 298 (below).

“Yours of the 31st. is received. We shall expect you to address our people next Sabbath. Arriving at Lowell, you will find me at No 21 Central Street, or at residence No. 123 Merrimack Street, or you can take a coach direct to Mr. Owen's, No 52 East Merrimack Street, who will be in readiness to entertain you, and with whom you will find a pleasant home during your stay among us.”

From The Lowell Directory 1861. Charles P. Ricker worked as a Printer in the Vox Populi office at 21 Central Street and lived at 123 East Merrimack Street. The 1860 Census lists him as 27 years old and married with two children.


William N. Owen owned a market at 77 East Merrimack Street and lived at 52 East Merrimack Street. The 1860 Census lists him as 54 years old and married with 6 children. He died in 1877 at age 71 and is buried in the Lowell Cemetery.

Detail of an 1850 map of Lowell. The house of W(illiam) N. Owen is on the corner of East Merrimack and Fayette Streets.

The announcements

Newspaper announcements -

On September 7, the Lowell Weekly Journal in Lowell printed the following :

“HENRY D. THOREAU, one of the most original and radical thinkers and free-speakers that we know anything about, is expected to lecture at Welles Hall next Sunday, September 9th. Mr. Thoreau is the author of several volumes of some note, and is an attractive contributor to the Atlantic Monthly. One of his books relates his experience, while living one year solitary and alone, on the shores of Walden Pond, a body of water lying in the towns of Concord and Lincoln. During the period named, he proved to his own satisfaction that a man could live and have all the real necessaries of life, for $15 a-year. The volume is an entertaining one, and no contributor to the Atlantic writes more interestingly. We shall expect to hear something original at least in the two lectures he will read next Sunday before our Spiritualistic friends. We do not known [sic], however, that Thoreau is a Spiritualist; rather think he is not; but, the believers in that doctrine said that they did not employ Mr. Emerson to come here and talk their ideas and beliefs, but his own. The same, we suppose, is the condition on which Mr. Thoreau lectures to them.”


Lowell Daily Journal and Courier, September 8, 1860


Lowell Daily Citizen, September 8, 1860


Welles Block
The Welles Block originally contained a public hall, Welles Hall, on the
third floor, with offices and shops below.


The Spiritualists were listed in the "Churches and Religious Societies" section of the 1859 City Directory.


A later City Directory (1864 - 1865), after the Spiritualists purchased the Lee Street Church.

Table from The Rise of 19th-century American Spiritualism, 1854—1873 by David K. Nartonis, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , June 2010, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 361-373.

Thoreau was invited to speak in Lowell by a society of Spiritualists. This society met regularly in Welles Hall on the Sabbath. Thoreau spoke to them in two separate lectures on September 9. It seems from Charles Ricker's letter that they regularly had two lectures on the Sabbath.

This event took place during a period when Spiritualism had risen to the point of being a recognized belief, and in addition Lowell was one of the largest centers of Spiritualist meeting activity in the country. In the table above, locations 1 - 9 together, with Lowell at number 3, contributed about half of all the public meeting activity between 1859 and 1866 found in the Nartonis (2010) study.

In the Lowell Daily Journal and Courier, September 8, 1860 [above], Thoreau's lectures were listed in the "Sunday Services" section, and two city directories from the period listed Spiritualists along with other churches and religious societies. Spiritualism clearly had a significance to some people at the time, though much of what we think about them is influenced by the "spirit rappers," charlatans, and showmen who exploited the beliefs.


The lectures

Thoreau scholars have inferred that Thoreau's two lectures were "Life Misspent" and "Walking (see "Thoreau's Lectures after "Walden": An Annotated Calendar" by Bradley P. Dean and Ronald Wesley Hoag, Studies in the American Renaissance , 1996, pp. 241-362). There is no direct mention of the topics of either lecture in exisiting documents.

There is some evidence that one of the lectures was "Life Misspent" as Zina E. Stone, who attended the lecture later wrote that Thoreau stated "he would not go to the corner of the street to see the world blow up!", which  points toward that posthumously published lecture.

I remember very well on one occasion, some years ago, when listening to a lecture by a late Concord scholar and philosopher, to have heard a most entertaining denunciation of those who find satisfaction in reading the mere news of the day; and I was assured by the speaker, so indifferent was he to what was going on outside of himself and the things he deemed of practical value, that he would not go to the corner of the street to see the world blow up! This fact occurring to me, after my work of digging up and putting together the details I have to present was well in hand, I wondered whether after all it was worth while [sic] to grope around in the indistinct past, after facts which at the time of their occurrence were not regarded as of sufficient moment to chronicle with any degree of fullness; and so I came to doubt whether any one save myself could be interested in my work. To be sure the Concord man was by some people called “a child of nature,” and took special delight in lying around on mother earth, indolently watching the active squirrels, the habits of fishes, and characteristics of bugs and things; and I suppose he had a right to be indifferent to what was going on in the world among his fellow- men, and to spend his time as he pleased, if he paid taxes, but he didn't — willingly. But the doubt his remark called up has ever since beset me; and with some reluctance, and more or less apprehension as to the result, I here submit the matter.
- Z(ina). E. Stone, “General Jackson in Lowell,” “Read November 11, 1875.” In Contributions of the Old Residents’ Historical Association, Lowell, Mass. Vol.1, 1879.

Thoreau's journal entries

Sept. 9. In Lowell . - My host says that the thermometer was at 80° yesterday morning, and this morning is at 52°. Sudden coolness.

Clears up in afternoon, and I walk down the Merrimack on the north bank. I see very large plants of the lanccolate thistle, four feet high and very branching. Also Aster cordata with the corymbosus.

Concord River has a high and hard bank at its mouth, maybe thirty feet high on the east side; and my host thinks it was originally about as high on the west side, where now it is much, lower and flat, having been dug down. There is a small isle in the middle of the mouth. There are rips in the Merrimack just below the mouth of the Concord. There is a fall and dam in the Concord at what was Hurd's factory, - the principal fall on the Concord, in Lowell, - one at a bleachery above, and at Whipple's, - three in all below Billerica dam.

Sept. 10. Lowell to Boston and Concord.

There was a frost this morning, as my host, who keeps a market, informed me.

Leaving Lowell at 7 A. M. in the cars, I observed and admired the dew on a fine grass in the meadows, which was almost as white and silvery as frost when the rays of the newly risen sun fell on it. Some of it was probably the frost of the morning melted. . .

My host, yesterday, told me that he was accustomed once to chase a black fox from Lowell over this way and lost him at Chelmsford. Had heard of him within about six years. A Carlisle man also tells me since that this fox used to turn off and run northwest from Chelmsford, but that he would soon after return.

From The Journal Manuscripts, Volume 32

Other Documents

Page from Dispersion of Seeds, p. 384.


 Page from Dispersion of Seeds, page numbered 298.