The World-Famous Poet Who Lived In Casstown
By Judy Deeter
Signs at the entrance to Casstown announce that the village was once the home of writer and poet Thomas Harbaugh. A century ago, his name and writings were known around the world. Now, few people remember him and his work.
Who was this man whose name is on the signs?
Thomas Chalmers Harbaugh was not a native of Casstown, but rather a long-time resident. He was born in Middletown, MD on Jan. 13, 1849 to Morgan and Caroline Harbaugh. The Harbaugh family moved from Maryland to Piqua in 1851.
An obituary for Thomas Harbaugh’s brother Theodore says, “The family crossed the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains in a very primitive stage coach ...”
While some records indicate that their father, Morgan, was a house painter, others state that he operated a grocery business in Piqua. The family moved to Casstown in 1856.
Harbaugh never attended college or university, but rather received his education at a one-room Miami County country school—Lostcreek Township District Number One School. The school has been described as being on a hill north of Casstown along State Route 589.
While in his teens, he also worked as an assistant postmaster.
Although his career as a writer is believed to have begun when he was 18-years-old— with a short western story published in Street & Smith’s Aug. 31, 1867 edition of the Literary Album—his first published work may have been a poem about soldiers going off to fight in the Civil War, which was published locally in the Miami Union newspaper in 1864. (His brother Charles served as a Private in the 147th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.)
Harbaugh, a prolific writer, was an historian, poet, novelist and newspaper political writer. While many people believe his best works were his poetry books, or his 1909 history book Centennial History — Troy, Piqua and Miami County, Ohio, he became famous for the hundreds of fictional adventure stories he wrote—particularly those with Civil War and western settings. Several were called “hair-raisers” by critics. Some historians think that he probably wrote the first paperback books for boys.
Although he was a Republican, he wrote a local political column under the name “Tarcomed,” which is the name “Democrat” spelled backwards. Many of his late 19th and early 20th century articles from the Troy Daily News and Miami Union newspapers are available for viewing in local history libraries. (Harbaugh was part owner of the Miami Union in the late 1800s.)
It should be noted that he also wrote a play titled “The Housier Schoolmaster,” which the Troy YMCA performed in 1876 in what was then the Scharble Jewelry Store Building on South Market Street.
His fame and money came from his novels. He was one of several writers of the Nick Carter series of stories published by Beadle and Adams of New York. A man named John Coryell created the character Nick Carter. It is believed that at some time Coryell either gave or sold the right to use the character to Harbaugh and writer Frederick Van Renesselaer Dey.
Harbaugh frequently wrote using a pen name, including: Captain Hamilton Holmes, Captain Howard Lincoln, Charles Howard, and Major S.S. Scott.
Young boys loved his stories, but adults harshly criticized them.
In 1878 a Harbaugh western with a character named Dandy Jack appeared in a publication named the Saturday Journal. His hometown newspaper gave harsh criticism to the story and wrote: “T.C. Harbaugh has published another cheap novel entitled Dandy Jack, or The Outlaw of the Oregon Trail. We are proud of T.C. Harbaugh as a poet of our own but we regret exceedingly that he should add in anyway to the already overloaded market of cheap and trashy literature. It is ruining our boys and girls.” In response, Harbaugh wrote a poem titled “My Pen
This may be his most well-known poem, since it seems to be printed in almost all biographical sketches about him. It reads:
Come here old fellow from the rack,
And while we chat together,
I’ll toast my feet before the grate
For this is frosty weather.
We’ll not write any more today
On madrigal or story
But let the critics have their way
And starve to death on glory.
You’ve turned the whole world upside down
From mansion sir to hovel;
You’ve gone and written what is called “A cheap and trashy novel.”
Against you, for this
The holy ones are crying;
“O’er all the land, with moral rot
The boys and girls are dying.”
The late Leonard U. Hill, local historian and writer for the Piqua Daily Call, wrote: “From 1873 to 1896 at least scores and perhaps hundreds of Harbaugh’s thrillers appeared in (publisher) Beadle and Adams Half Dime Library in New York City. It was printed each week in newspaper style, 16 pages, 8 x 11 inches, and sold for a nickel. There were other contributors besides Harbaugh but he furnished his share.”
A Harbaugh biography in the work “Ohio Authors and Their Books” indicates that he: “wrote at least 125 novels for various Beadle series…” Another source says that he may have written as many as 650 nickel novels, and that he once claimed to have written a 150,000 word book in two weeks. Harbaugh was known as a man who could write “with his feet as well as either hand.”
Aside from being called “half-dime” books, these books were also known as “nickel novels,” “penny dreadfuls” (because writers received one penny per word for their work), or “yellowbacks.”
There is evidence that although Harbaugh wrote many such stories, he was not proud of them. He wrote them to make a living.
Harbaugh never married. He lived in Casstown with his bachelor brother Samuel, who was the Casstown Village Recorder, a taxidermist and paper hanger. The 1890 book Local and National Poets of America says, “Mr. Harbaugh devotes the whole of his time to literature, working in his study for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon; and in his leisure hours he strolls around the fields and glens surrounding Casstown, Ohio—very often with rod and gun.”
He also traveled to many sites where his characters lived, including many Civil War battlefields. He claimed to have an autograph of every general of the Civil War.
Harbaugh seems to have had a good life until his brother Samuel died in 1922. Then things went downhill. Samuel Harbaugh had apparently done much of the work to maintain their home. After his death, Thomas just couldn’t keep things in order. He tried to find a housekeeper to help maintain both he and his house but never was able to do so. One Harbaugh acquaintance remarked about his dirty appearance by saying, “Flies would commit suicide by landing on Tommy’s vest.”
Writer Leonard Hill once wrote that Harbaugh “became afflicted with partial paralysis” following his brother’s death. The paralysis may have contributed to his lack of cleanliness.
It was decided that Harbaugh should return to Maryland. His fortune had greatly diminished.
An estate that had been valued between $20,000 and $30,000 (probably around 1910) had diminished to $2,000 by the early 1920s.
An old clipping from a publication named the “Pathfinder” says: “Thomas C. Harbaugh, author of 650 dime and nickel novels for the most part concerning poor boys who by dint of hard work and pluck became rich, recently began the closing chapter of life by entering the Miami County poorhouse, an old and broken man. A few hours before he had seen an auctioneer dispose of his few worldly possessions to a pitifully small crowd of curious country people at Casstown, the small village where he evolved plots for many of his stories.
The sale netted about $1,000, enough to keep Harbaugh in the poorhouse the rest of his life. In an autograph album which sold for $60 was a letter from Mark Twain to Gov. Fuller of N.Y. dated 1870. Personal letters from Lincoln, Roosevelt and other celebrities including every Union and Confederate general who survived the Civil War, brought equally small sums.”
Two Maryland boyhood friends arranged for Harbaugh to return to Maryland to live out his life. They were Maryland State Welfare Director Emery L. Coblentz and George C. Rohoderick. Through their efforts, he went to the Montevue (Monteview) Hospital near Frederick, MD, which was the county “poorhouse.” A Maryland newspaper wrote of his return there: “Tom Harbaugh, writer of dime and five-cent novels of adventure, intrigue, the wild west, frontier days and hair-raisers has come home to die; has come from Casstown, Ohio, the town which knew him at the height of his literary fame, to spend his remaining days in the county of his birth, Frederick county.”
The article further says: “The eyes of the weaver of stories that enthralled millions grew misty and dim when he told of the passing of some of his treasure in Casstown, Ohio, a few months ago, when he disposed of all his personal property and went to the Casstown poorhouse. These possessions included autograph letters sent to him by the then reigning queens of Holland, England, Spain and Italy, thanking him for poetic tribute. They brought him $65 at the auction.”
Harbaugh lamented about his condition in the article saying, “… my writing days are gone. I often feel like doing it again, and think out plots, but I can’t dictate. I have to write it myself. My mind travels too fast. But, but—he mused—I might try it again some day—who knows.”
Harbaugh didn’t stay in Maryland, however, he returned to Miami County.
A story in the Sept. 7, 1923 edition of the Troy Daily News describes Harbaugh’s excited return to Casstown:
“When Mr. Harbaugh arrived in Springfield, it was only a half-hour until time for the Red Star bus to leave for Casstown, but he was so anxious to reach home that he could not wait and hired a taxi driver to bring him over which cost him $6. When he arrived in Casstown he was so overjoyed that he ran from house to house to say “Hello!” to friends. He says that things there were misrepresented to him in Maryland and he does not care to return to his native state.”
Harbaugh had regained strength while in Maryland and hoped to write poetry again. Soon, however, he went to live at the Miami County home. While many thought he went there because he was penniless, other sources indicate that he was “a paying patron” of the home and probably went to live there for companionship and to maintain himself. He died there on Oct. 27, 1924.
His funeral at the Lutheran Church in Casstown was said to be small—only about 75 people attended. His only relative to attend was his nephew Albert Harbaugh. On his Casstown Cemetery tombstone are the words of Robert Lewis Stevenson: “Here he lies, where he longed to be; Home is the sailor, home from the sea, And the hunter home from the hill.”
Harbaugh willed $100 to the Lutheran Church in Troy, his watch and keepsakes to his nephew Albert and his books and photographs to his physician Dr. Van S. Deaton.
Harbaugh was the first Miami Countian to be in Who’s Who in America. His 1909 Miami County history book is in many libraries throughout the Miami Valley. Copies of selected poems or poetry books are in the Piqua Public Library and the Troy-Miami County Public Library Local History Library. Some online websites also have samples of his work, including his novels
More than 95 years after his death, Thomas Harbaugh is fondly remembered both through his written work and signs at the entrance to Casstown.