Thomas Powell (1809–1887) was an English writer and fraudster.
He was noted early for his prolific output and social charm, and he entertained a circle of notable authors at his home, often showing-off his skill at mimicking authors’ handwriting. But it became clear that he was putting this gift to criminal use, forging cheques and signatures, and he was repudiated by Dickens, Browning, and others. In 1849 he moved to New York to avoid prosecution, and many American publications printed an accusation by Dickens, which he was unable to substantiate and had to withdraw, settling with Powell out of court.
By the age of 21, London-born Powell was contributing work to the literary Fraser’s Magazine , often using the pen name Pierce Pungent. He was a published poet, and his works included The Count de Foix, a Tale of the Olden Time, Poems, Dramatic Poems and Tales from Boccaccio. He also wrote plays including The Wife’s Revenge, The Blind Wife and The Shepherd’s Well.He entertained a literary circle at his home in Peckham, South London, that included writers such as Robert Browning, Leigh Hunt, and R.H. Horne.
In 1841, he was one of the contributors to the writing of The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer Modernized; others involved with the project included Richard Henry Horne (editor), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth, Leigh Hunt, Robert Bell, and Leonhard Schmitz.However, Powell later fell out of favour with his fellow authors. Horne wrote of Powell that he was “a dog he repudiates forever” and Robert Browning, in a letter of the same year (1846), warned Elizabeth Barrett Browning not to trust Powell "his impudence and brazen insensibility are dreadful to encounter beyond all belief”.
Powell was employed as a clerk in the shipping business of John Chapman & Co. of 2 Leadenhall Street in London. Charles Dickens was acquainted with the principal partners in the firm and asked them to find a position for his young brother Augustus Dickens. Powell acted as Augustus' mentor, earning the thanks and appreciation of Charles Dickens, who occasionally socialised and corresponded with Powell on friendly and informal terms.
For amusement, Powell showed off his ability to mimic his fellow authors' handwriting and signatures. He sold documents purported to be original letters and books inscribed by the authors, but some of these were thought to be forgeries and their authenticity was questioned.He also embezzled a large sum of money from John Chapman & Co., his employer, and when these activities were uncovered, he attempted suicide by taking an overdose of laudanum. In consideration of Powell’s family, the directors of John Chapman & Co. decided not to prosecute.
In 1848, Powell was again in trouble when a warrant was issued for his arrest for obtaining money with false cheques. He was released on bail and ordered to appear the next day in court. When he failed to attend, his solicitor informed the court that he was in an asylum, certified insane. The case was adjourned for two weeks, during which time the police discovered evidence of further fraud. At the next hearing in January 1849, the court was told that Powell “was in a lunatic asylum, raving mad”. The police informed the magistrate that Powell’s symptoms were probably temporary, having been induced by the use of opium and charcoal burnt in the defendant’s bedroom.
Powell escaped prosecution by moving to America with his wife and four children, arriving in New York on May 26, 1849, onboard the Silas Richard. Within six months of arriving, Powell had his book The Living Authors of England published.One of the 38 authors featured in the book was Charles Dickens, and he was not amused by what Powell had written. One item that seemed to have annoyed him was the assertion that he had based the character of Paul Dombey ( Dombey and Son ) on Thomas Chapman, one of the principal partners at John Chapman & Co. Dickens immediately fired off a letter to Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the New York literary magazine The Knickerbocker , saying that Powell was a forger and thief. Clark published the letter in the New-York Tribune and several other papers picked up on the story. Powell started proceedings to sue these publications, and Clark was arrested. Dickens, realising that he had acted in haste, contacted John Chapman & Co. to seek written confirmation of Powell’s guilt. Dickens did receive a reply from John Chapman & Co. confirming Powell's embezzlement, but once the directors realised this information may have to be produced in court they refused to make further disclosures. Due to the difficulties of providing evidence in America to support his accusations, Dickens eventually made a private settlement with Powell out of court.
While all this was in progress, Powell was arrested in New York for passing a forged draft for £250 from John Allan, who was another partner at John Chapman & Co. Due to a lack of evidence Powell was released without charge.
Although Powell's reputation had been sullied, he still made a successful career of writing and editing newspapers and periodicals, often working for Frank Leslie.Titles that Powell worked on included: Figaro!; The Lantern; The Reveille and Review; Hudson County Democrat; New York Daily News and Frank Leslie's: Illustrated Newspaper; New Family Magazine and Budget of Fun. In 1886/1887, a series of articles written by Powell called Leaves of my Life were published in Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine. These would be his final works and included a portrait of Powell in Volume 21.
Thomas Butler Gunn, illustrator and writer, worked for Powell during the 1850s and wrote about him in his diaries. He believed that Dickens had based the character of Wilkins Micawber on Powell, saying that he resembled him both physically and in his mannerisms. Gunn’s less-than-complimentary description of Powell goes on:
He is very familiar in conversation, and his speech has a sort of orotund unctuousness of accent which, in conjunction with his implied knowledge of every-body, might easily gull people into the belief that he was rather a witty man of the world than otherwise. He is a great mischief-maker and back-biter, and inherently a dodger.
Details of Powell’s early life are vague although his death certificate indicates that his father’s first name was also Thomas. In 1836, Powell married Frances (Fannie) Maria Machell, the daughter of Charles and Martha Maria Machell. Their other daughter, Eliza Mary, married the historian Leonhard Schmitz.
Powell’s eldest son, William Frances (Frank), joined his father in the newsprint industry as an engraver. He served in the 9th Regiment, New York Infantry during the Civil War, first as a sergeant and then the first lieutenant.
Powell’s wife died in 1872, and he died of Bright’s disease in 1887 at his daughter’s home in New Jersey.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century, critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are still widely read today.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an English poet of the Victorian era, popular in Britain and the United States during her lifetime.
Uriah Heep is a fictional character created by Charles Dickens in his novel David Copperfield. Heep is one of the main antagonists of the novel. His character is notable for his cloying humility, obsequiousness, and insincerity, making frequent references to his own "'umbleness". His name has become synonymous with sycophancy.
Robert Browning was an English poet and playwright whose mastery of the dramatic monologue made him one of the foremost Victorian poets. His poems are known for their irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings, and challenging vocabulary and syntax.
This article presents lists of the literary events and publications in 1850.
Household Words was an English weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens in the 1850s. It took its name from the line in Shakespeare's Henry V: "Familiar in his mouth as household words."
Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd SL was an English judge, Radical politician and author.
Richard Hengist Horne was an English poet and critic most famous for his poem Orion.
Robert Charles Winthrop was an American lawyer and philanthropist and one time Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He was a descendant of John Winthrop.
Robert Lawson was an American writer and illustrator of children's books. His work was widely admired, and he became the first, and so far only, person to be given both the Caldecott Medal, for They Were Strong and Good (1941), and a Newbery Award, for Rabbit Hill (1945).
Thomas C. Hauser is an American author.
Chapman & Hall is an imprint owned by CRC Press, originally founded as a British publishing house in London in the first half of the 19th century by Edward Chapman and William Hall. Chapman & Hall were publishers for Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anthony Trollope, Eadweard Muybridge and Evelyn Waugh.
Henry Chapman was an American politician from Pennsylvania who served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Pennsylvania's 7th congressional district from 1857 to 1859.
— From Cantos 27 and 56, In Memoriam A.H.H., by Alfred Tennyson, published this year
Bradbury & Evans (est.1830) was an English printing and publishing business founded by William Bradbury (1799–1869) and Frederick Mullett Evans (1804–1870) in London.
Thomas Butler Gunn was an English born illustrator and writer who spent fourteen years in America. His diaries of this period provide details of his life amongst the bohemian writers and artist in New York and his work as a newspaper correspondent during the American Civil War.
Edward Chapman was a British publisher who, with William Hall founded Chapman & Hall, publishers for Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anthony Trollope, Eadweard Muybridge and Evelyn Waugh among others.
William Hall was a British publisher who, with Edward Chapman founded Chapman & Hall, publishers for Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anthony Trollope, Eadweard Muybridge and Evelyn Waugh among others.
Frederic Chapman was a publisher of the Victorian era who became a partner in Chapman & Hall, who published the works of Charles Dickens and Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, among others.