Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Monday, 13 September 1886: The Steamer Called the City of Rome

At 1:00 pm the hansom cab picked the couple up at the Grand Central Hotel and drove them the few blocks where they boarded the massive steamer bustling with activity. They ensured that all of their luggage had arrived and was in order. Helen, probably suspecting that she might find herself confined to quarters revisiting more a meal or two, admitted to being “eager to see our room.” She described it as:

“a very comfortable little place, the space opposite the berths and under the window a port hole, a round eye of glass, is occupied by the couch. Over it and over each berth is a wall pocket and over the stationary wash bowl, between it and the mirror a fresh linen pocket for brushes, fresh water bottle, pneumatic bell call, and altogether a nice cosy little place.”

She claimed the top bunk. Then, they returned to the deck to watch the activity and local friends seized the opportunity of seeing them off to take a tour of this modern marvel.

The last of these, the only one of which she took note by name, was Gustav Frauenstein. This Jewish doctor had known Douglass for decades as part of Ottilie Assing’s circle of German ex-patriates in Hoboken. She, of course, was not far from their thoughts, and Helen noted, “we talked of Miss Assing.”

What a bittersweet reminder of one of Frederick’s oldest friends, dead now these five years, who would have enjoyed seeing him finally cross the ocean to visit the Continent. Even if she could not have been his tour guide, if her letters are any indication of her personality, she would have given him detailed instructions of what to see and what to do.

The hour grew late. “As the genial Dr. left,” Helen wrote, “he threw his arms around Frederick’s neck in a good old fashioned hug & kissed him, kissed me, and ran off the steamer.” Such a surprising display of affection, it seemed. As they watched from the ship, Helen reported, he tossed them “a cordial wave of his hat from the dock and he was gone.”

Helen, exhausted from the day, retired to her berth. Frederick stayed behind to stroll t
he deck.

Helen Pitts Douglass Diary, 14 September 1886, Family Papers, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress

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