Horace Greeley, taken by Mathew Brady in the 1860s.

“Out of the Depths”: The Last Days and Strange Death of Horace Greeley

On November 6, 1872, journalist Horace Greeley lost one of the most lop-sided Presidential elections in U.S. history. Before the month was out he was dead.

It’s not really clear what killed Horace Greeley. In the public imagination, fueled by breathless daily coverage in newspapers across the country, Greeley’s heart was broken by a double whammy: the recent death of his wife, Mary, and the humiliating collapse of his reputation as a public intellectual. And what the public didn’t yet know made thing worse: He had been forced out as the editor in chief of the newspaper he founded, the New York Tribune.

“He was extremely sensitive to criticism,” Dr. Edward Bayard, Greeley’s family physician, told the New York Sun after Greeley died, “and when his powerful organization broke down, his depression invariably took the form of mourning and worrying over evils which he imagine he’d done to others.”

Greeley’s life was in shambles and his considerable emotional defenses were spent. He was having a nervous breakdown — not his first — and acting even more bizarrely than usual. One doctor told the New York Sun that Greeley couldn’t recognize the names of friends, and kept repeating the nonsense phrase “Now, mind! When I was born I died, and when I died I was born!”

Nineteenth century psychiatric medicine was, to say the least, primitive. His doctors in Chappaqua diagnosed the 61-year old Greeley with “nervous prostration,” had him committed, and administered a cocktail of drugs they poorly understood. I believe that it was these drugs that killed him.

Perhaps in an attempt to work through his crisis, Greeley turned to his great gifts of writing and persuasion. On Nov. 13, he took a piece of Tribune letterhead, scribbled out the newspaper logo at the top and wrote underneath it his true location: “Out of the Depths.” For some 15 small pages he wrote, in his famously terrible handwriting, a torrid letter to nobody, begging forgiveness for his failings, some real, most imagined.

The letter, not previously available in full online, is below. It is the heartbreaking final record of a man who bet everything on a bad idea and lost it all.

Utterly ruined beyond hope, I deserve, before the night closes its jaws on me forever, to say that, though my running for President has placed me where I am, it is not the cause of my ruin.

I stand naked before my God the most utterly, hopelessly wretched and undone of all who ever lived. I have done more harm and wrong than any man who ever saw the light of day. And yet, I take God to witness that I have never intended to wrong or harm anyone. But this is the excuse, and could not save me from universal execration.

Thomas Nast’s deeply critical cartoons of Horace Greeley during the 1872 campaign helped swing the election for Grant, and eroded Greeley’s life-long pursuit of the moral high ground.

My fatal vice has been a readiness to believe and trust every flattering, plausible villain. Those have come to me in succession with their plausible stories and borrowed from me hundreds of thousands in all, which was often not mine to lend, and then coming for more, none to help recover what I had already lost. Thus have I been led on by one villain after another until my ruin is beyond all example.

Let me here vindicate my business associates from first to last. Not one of these is in any manner responsible for or implicated with me. On the contrary, every one from Thomas McElrath down to every one of those now concerned in or employed upon The Tribune has been honorable, faithful, and obedient from first to last. Not one of them has ever wronged me or have any knowledge of my wrongdoing. Each of them has stood by me like a brother and today has perfect faith in me, though I have since ceased to have faith in myself.

So of the great body of my political associates. I know the leaders of the Liberal Republican Movement to have been among the purest and best of men acting under a solemn sense of public duty. My crimes will bring reproach on them which is utterly undeserved. And I know that I insisted in their movement believing that I was doing right though I was afterward undeceived. And I know that its failure is due, before all things else, to me alone. It was my horrible record that met them at every turn and paralyzed their every effort. Had I never been born, their failure could not have been so disastrous. They failed because I was in the way of any possible success. They never meant to be other than Republicans, nor did I. But let me not justify myself.

Down to this very year, I had done no act inconsistent with integrity and honor. I had been tempted by the glittering bait of the Presidency, but had oftener repelled than courted it. But the knaves and idiots who flashed it before my eyes from week to week at length excited my ambition and I at last supposed it might be my destiny to be a President. Disliking and districting Gen. Grant, I became a monster — spirit of the cabal against him and a firm believer in all that was said (true and untrue) of his venality and the corruption of his administration. If I ever believed anything I believed that he might be beaten and by me!

At the time of my nomination, I was entirely solvent and owed very little. I need not have owed more. My expenses were heavy; my income above them; and I have not spent in the canvass much more than was voluntarily given for the purpose by my friends, who, however few, were true as man ever had. These few men I so utterly ruined.

I answer:

By the moneys stolen from me under every false pretense the swindlers aforesaid. They have taken from me, upon one pretext or another, so many thousands that I cannot count them. They have taken all I had, and all that should have been my children’s having been saved for them by my departed wife. I have in my tin box at The Tribune office their — notes, their bonds, and other obligations to a host of others, and all representing good money out of which they have swindled me. I will not name them here but relying that any I owe occurred by my efforts to help those who neither deserved help nor were entitled to ask it of me. I have given when I should rather have asked; I have loaned to those who I should rather have loaned to me; I have helped every cause when I should have rather taken care of my needy family. I have squandered on inventors and patents enough to weight a ship with silver, and I have ministered to others prodigality while myself living frugally. And now, having done wrong to millions while intending only good to hundreds, I pray God that He may quickly take me from a world where all I have done seemed to have turned to evil; and wherein each hour has long been and henceforth must be one of agony, remorse, and shame.

Scans of the Greeley document from the Chappaqua Public Library Greeley papers. Deciphering of Greeley’s handwriting aided in part by an unnamed librarian.