John Fenno (1751-1798) was born in Boston in 1751, the son of Ephraim and Mary Chapman Fenno. Little is known about his early life, but between April and September, 1775, he served as secretary to Gen. Artemus Ward. Fenno incurred heavy debts at the close of the Revolution, when importing goods "largely and unwisely," and eventually sought to build his fortune in the printing trade. His elegant prose while writing for the Massachusetts Centinel impressed Federalist politicians, and he had little difficulty in securing approval for a newspaper "for the purpose of disseminating favorable sentiments of the federal Constitution and the Administration."
On April 11, 1789, in the same month that George Washington became President, Fenno founded the Gazette of the United States in New York City. The following year, the paper was moved to the capitol in Philadelphia, and soon became a focal point of contestation between Jeffersonians and Federalists. In the long and often bitter debates that ensued, the Gazette became recognized more and more as the mouthpiece for Federalism, and Fenno became an important printer of political works. Alexander Hamilton was a frequent, if pseudonymous, contributor, and in 1793 he personally rescued the paper from its creditors. Fenno's Gazette matched the Jeffersonian Aurora of Benjamin F. Bache and the National Gazette of Philip Freneau, piece for piece and controversy for controversy during the 1790s. At one point, the temperature of the debate grew so high that Bache is reported to have attacked Fenno with a cane, packing a punch that his newspaper apparently could not.
Fenno entered into marriage with Mary Curtis of Roxbury, Mass., on May 8, 1777, resulting in thirteen children. John and Mary Fenno died in a triple tragedy in 1798. After giving birth to a daughter on September 2nd, Mary died of complications on September 4th at the age of 43. John, only 47, died of yellow fever ten days later, "with all his blooming virtues thick upon him," according to Boston's Russell's Gazette. Finally, the still unnamed infant daughter of theirs died on about September 16th. After this tragic September, the Fenno family consisted of nine living children, ranging in age from twenty to two. The experience of being orphaned at an early age perhaps led these children to develop unusually close ties with one another, ties they maintained even when separated by great distances.
At the age of 19, John Ward "Jack" Fenno (1779-1802) stepped into the breach to succeed his father as editor of the Gazette of the United States, but soon proved incapable of running the paper with the same degree of success. The paper fell into serious financial difficulties, and by 1800, Jack had left the newspaper. Debts to an English creditor threatened to pull the remainder of the family down with them after Jack's untimely death to yellow fever at the age of 23.
Though she survived only to the age of 42, Jack's sister, Maria Fenno Hoffman (1781-1823), was the second-longest lived of all of the Fenno children. Maria married the lawyer and judge, Josiah Ogden Hoffman (1766-1837) in 1802, and probably helped to raise the youngest of the Fenno children at their house in New York City.
Each of Jack's three remaining sisters died at very early ages, leaving few offspring. Harriet Fenno Rodman (1782-1808) lived long enough to marry John Rodman of New York City and to have one daughter, Anne Eliza. After Harriet's death at the age of 26, Rodman and his daughter lived in France for about a year, 1817, before settling in Florida. In 1822, John worked in Saint Augustine processing land claims for the federal government, but by 1824, John had become nearly deaf and was suffering from deteriorating health. Harriet's younger sister Caroline (1791-1805) was the girl that Charles J. Fenno mourned in a letter (February 20, 1806) as "our lovely little sister." Following the family tradition of early death, she died at Albany, N.Y., at age 14. Finally, the youngest girl, Mary Elizabeth Fenno Verplanck (1787-182?), married the well-known writer, editor, politician and lawyer Gulian C. Verplanck (1786-1870) in 1811. The couple had two sons before her death in her early 30s.
The Fenno boys were no more fortunate and no hardier than the girls. The adventurous second son, Charles J. Fenno (1784-1807), enlisted in the British Navy at the age of 17, arriving in London in 1802 with the heavy burden of clearing his elder brother Jack's debts. Charles saw service in Europe and the Caribbean, including assisting in the suppression of the Tripolitan "pirates" in 1802 and performing duty off the northern coast of Haiti during the revolution of 1802-03. He died in New York at age 23, while presumably on shore leave at his sister Maria Hoffman's home.
George Fenno (1786-1829) married Elizabeth and had five children. He settled at Mount Upton, N.Y., where he farmed, ran a whiskey distillery, and died early. When George died at the age of 43, however, he had achieved the Fenno longevity record. At George's death, Charles Fenno Hoffman was prompted to write: "In him you know we lose the last relative of our Mother's fated family -- what a singular fatality has pursued them! As the last three have successively died I have thought that Ma's early death was less to be regretted -- for after all that she suffered with such noble & pious resignation her gentle spirit must have rebelled or broken under the repeated blows she would have lived to meet."
George's younger brothers, James B. (1794-182?) and Edward, were the family moppets. Both appear to have been raised in the home of their sister, Maria Hoffman, at least after her marriage in 1802. James sought his fortune in Savannah and Charleston, where he tried (unsuccessfully) to establish himself as a dry-goods merchant. The youngest boy, Edward (1796-1823), also attempted dry-goods, but soon after making his way to New Orleans in 1819, he discovered more profitable employment in the wholesale auction houses. He was a captain in the Louisiana Guards, a militia unit, when he succumbed to yellow fever in 1823.
One "family member" who appears not to have been affected by short life syndrome was Caty (or Katy), the Fenno family servant. She was probably African-American, although this point is never clearly stated. A childhood nurse to all thirteen Fenno children, Caty recalled that she was already in her teens when the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought in 1775, but she still survived all of the children, living well into her eighties. In her last years, she was cared for by the third generation, George and Julia Hoffman. Washington Irving spoke of "Mammy Caty (who you know is at least one-half witch)."
The survival of the Fenno family was made more likely through the relatively long and prosperous marriage of Maria Fenno and Josiah Ogden Hoffman (1766-1837), a lawyer and leader of the Federalist Party in the New York Assembly, 1791-97, who went on to a distinguished career as associate justice of the New York superior court. Josiah's second marriage, his first, in about 1789, was a match made into the powerful Colden family. He and his first wife, Mary, had four daughters and one son before she died sometime after 1798. Their children, however, further cemented the family's position among the social elite of the city through fortunate marriages. Mathilda Hoffman, for example, was engaged to marry the rising literary talent, Washington Irving, when she died at age 18.
Like the Fennos, the Hoffmans were an ill starred family. Two of the children from Josiah's first marriage died young -- Mathilda at 18 and Mary at 22 -- and among the children of his second marriage, Charles Fenno Hoffman (1806-1884) seems to have provided new wrinkles to the Fenno tragic tradition. Charles lost a leg at the age of eleven in a boating accident, but never allowed his artificial leg to slow him down. While the accident briefly interrupted his education at George P. McCulloch's boy's school in Morristown, N.J., he nevertheless was able to enroll at Columbia College at 15, staying for two years and never graduating. In 1823, Hoffman followed his father's footsteps into the legal profession, studying in Albany. He was admitted to the bar when still only twenty-one, returning to New York shortly thereafter to practice under the eye of his ailing father.
It was not long, though, before Hoffman turned from the law to his first love of literature, writing essays and poetry for publication in newspapers, sometimes anonymously. Having become known to editor Charles King, in 1829 he assumed editorial charge of the New York American, filling in during King's temporary absence, and contributed several articles signed with an asterisk or the letter H. In January, 1833, Hoffman moved to the editorship of a new magazine, the Knickerbocker, but remained only until the autumn, when he set out on an adventurous tour of the western states that occupied several months, largely spent on horseback. This trip resulted in a series of lengthy articles for the American and eventually led to Hoffman's first book, A Winter in the West (1835).
In the late 1830s and 1840s, Hoffman assumed a series of editorial positions while continuing to write fiction. His most successful effort, Greyslaer: A Romance of the Mohawk (1839), went through two editions in its first year and was adapted to the stage at New York's Bowery Theatre in 1840. In 1841, however, given the financial hardships of a literary life, Hoffman settled into a steadier income as a customs official in New York, a position won through political patronage. He remained only until 1845 when changes in the political administration forced his resignation. Hoffman's last editorship was with the Literary World, 1847-48, which he surrendered for health reasons. In 1849, his condition having become alarming, he was admitted to the State Hospital at Harrisburg, Pa., the victim of "chronic mania." Unlike most Fennos, Hoffman lived a long life, surviving until 1884, but he passed more than half of it in the asylum. He was buried in an unmarked grave, presumably on the hospital grounds.
Hoffman's younger brother, George Edward (1808-1884) was more fortunate than Charles, and almost as long lived. After a short stay at the University of Virginia beginning in 1826, he became a civil engineer, working on roads in western New York State, and living in various towns in Pennsylvania and New York. George eventually settled in Albany in the 1840s, married Phoebe White in 1846, and together the couple had three sons. In contrast, Julia Hoffman (1810-1861), George's and Charles' sister, had a full share of the Fenno family fortune. Julia spent nearly her entire adult life with no real home. Upon his death in 1837, her father's estate evaporated under heavy debts, and from that time on, Julia depended upon her brothers for support. She lived with various friends and family for several weeks or months at a time, never marrying, until her death in 1861.