Don’t disgust me, please

Writer Lafcadio Hearn was somewhat of a sensation in the early 1870s. Working for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, Hearn’s graphic reports from crime scenes left very little to the imagination; his often surprising behaviour — “sticking his fingers into a dead man’s brain (…) even drinking blood from abattoirs” — further strengthening his reputation as an eccentric, exciting journalist. Judging by the following shockingly vitriolic letter he wrote to Ellen Freeman — a wealthy older housewife who had unsuccessfully pursued him romantically for some time but with whom he politely corresponded for approximately a year — he also didn’t hold back when critiquing photographs of his female admirers.

Unsurprisingly, Hearn and Freeman’s friendship didn’t last much longer.

Transcript follows. Image kindly provided by the Morgan Library & Museum; taken from Collection of letters between Lafcadio Hearn, Ellen Freeman, and Henry Watkin, undated (1875-1877). Gift of Ralph Walker, 1967.

Collection of letters between Lafcadio Hearn, Ellen Freeman, and Henry Watkin, undated (1875-1877). Gift of Ralph Walker, 1967. The Morgan Library & Museum.


I do not like the picture at all,—in fact I cannot find words to express how much I dislike it.

—You were never physically attractive to me; you are neither graceful nor beautiful, and you evidently know nothing of the laws or properties of beauty. Otherwise you could not have sent me such a picture, as it could only disgust me.

Whatever liking I have had for you, it has never been of such a character that I could be otherwise than disgusted by such a picture as that. It is unutterably coarse and gross and beefy. It is simply unendurable.

Not that I object to low dresses — or even to an utter absence of dress, when the unveiling reveals attractions which the eye of the artist loves as something shapely and beautiful. I have an instinctive and cultivated knowledge of what physical beauty is, and anything in direct violation of my taste and knowledge—like your picture,—simply sickens me. I have studied every limb and line in the bodies of fifty young women, and more; and know what form is and beauty is. You must not think me a fool. You are a fine woman in regard to health and strength; you are not a handsome or even a tolerably good looking woman physically, and your picture is simply horrible, horrible, horrible.

This is plain speaking; but I think it is necessary for you. You cannot make yourself physically attractive to me. Don’t try. I am an artist, a connoisseur, a student of beauty, and it is very hard to please me. Don’t disgust me, please—

Yours truly,

L. Hearn.