“Huyler’s Ghost” is by an early Springfield poet whom scholar John Hallwas considers “the finest poet of the frontier, in not only Illinois but the entire Midwest.”
The poet signed his works, which were printed in the Sangamo Journal from 1832 to 1846, only as “H.” or “J.H.” Hallwas didn’t know the man’s name when he published an anthology, The Poems of H.: The Lost Poet of Lincoln’s Springfield, in 1982. Later, however, Hallwas found clues, especially an 1832 Journal advertisement for H.’s store, that revealed the man’s name was John Hancock.
Hancock left other traces indicating he was a well-educated immigrant of Scottish ancestry, Hallwas writes in the March-April 2020 edition of Illinois Heritage magazine.
Hancock may even have performed his poems before customers at his grocery (a combination store and bar) on Jefferson Street, Hallwas adds. “If so, John Hancock initiated the performing arts in Springfield – and probably in Illinois,” Hallwas writes.
John Hallwas is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Western Illlinois University. Read more about him here. In addition to the Illinois Heritage article (which is not available online) and The Poems of H., Hallwas is the author of a play about John Hancock, “The Mysterious Bard of Sangamo,” a film of which was produced by Hallwas and the Illinois State Historical Society with the help of a grant from the Sangamon County Historical Society. It can be viewed here.
“Huyler’s Ghost” was published in the Jan. 26, 1832, edition of the Sangamo Journal. Spelling and punctuation are taken from the original.
The sun o’er Springfield long had set
And night came on both cold and wet
Th wind in sudden gusts blew loud,
The sky was one dull sombre cloud;
Each rowdy now had gone to bed,
Or lain him by the fence instead:
The pretty misses home been squired,
And their fond lovers had retired.
To store, to grocery or to shop,
Thinking the question how to pop;
When I, who by my waning fire,
Watch’d the embers slow expire;
Chewing the cud of sad reflection,
With many a pious interjection –
When thinking of the various freaks,
And turns which slippery fortune takes
Just then, ‘twixt sleeping and awaking,
Felt my shoulders gently shaking,
And looking up who should I see,
But Huyler, in propria persona!
Some fear I felt, but soon it fled,
While thus the sprite I questioned.
By heaven and whiskey, tell me true.
Indeed, old boy, and is it you?
“Dis me, my werry self,” it said,
“And now I speaks, although I’m dead
Long in my doomb I’d quiet lain,
Not fate allow’d me to complain;
But what is all dis stuff ‘ bout ‘briety
Waater and taamperance society!
The de’il himself, the black old tinker,
Dey say, has turn’d a water drinker;
And all his babes hab took to water
Like ducks dat follow de old un after.
How dismal did appear the sight!
No jovial sounds fell on mine ear,
But all was flat and stale, like beer!
Not zo, when I alive and vriskey,
Guzzled each day mine quart o’ whiskey,
And ere the rosy east was dawning,
Took my pitters in the morning.”
(Bitters, the Dutchman meant – no matter,
I truly pen what he did utter.)
“Long had I wish’d again to see,
Jabez Capps’ old grocery,
And Rhadamanthus did implore,
To let me take a glass once more.”
I took the hint, and fill’d a gill,
With, “here, old boy, now take your fill.”
The sprite with ready zeal obey’d
And but a single gulp it made.
Gill after gill, the reeking tide,
The unwearied ghost I still supplied;
And, “give me more – still more,” it cried.
“Whiskey’s a gure for every ill,’
Libing or dead, I lub it still”
A gallon next, unto the brim,
I drew, and served it up to him.
Down sped the liquor sure and fast –
I thought he’d got enough, at last;
But not the barrel, next he swore,
He’d drink before he’d pay the score –
So saying, out he whipt the bung,
And to his lips the barrel swung! –
When waking, for ‘twas all a dream,
Methought I heard the owlet scream,
Then rubb’d my eyes and ope’d the door,
Just as McKenney’s clock struck four.
I look’d toward the dusky wood,
Still in a hesitating mood,
And being yet with sleep opprest,
First trimm’d my fire, then sunk to rest.
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