The Chaste Entertainments of Ossian Euclid Dodge

“June 12th, [1851] there was a great excursion to Glen Haven on the steamer Homer. Ossian E. Dodge, the comic singer, Mrs. [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and other ladies in the new bloomer costume, were there, together with many so-called reformers. They had a happy time, but Captain [Rishworth] Mason did not like it when he lost his chain cable overboard.”

 — William Beauchamp in Notes of Other Days (1876)

Ossian Euclid Dodge, singer and composer, made at least two appearances in Skaneateles. Once on the voyage of the Homer noted above, and once in the village, probably at Legg Hall, with his touring quartet, Ossian’s Bards, on May 11, 1853.

Born in Cayuga, N.Y., in 1820, Ossian Dodge showed musical leanings at the age of five and went on to become a performer and composer of songs that, while amusing, were said to be elevated in tone. “I will write my own songs,” he once said, “and the public shall learn that a comic song is not necessarily a vulgar one; and that wit which has no fellowship with profanity or coarseness will be keenly relished by the best and most refined portions of society.”

After a concert in New York City in 1851, a critic noted that Dodge had given “one of his chaste, unique and fashionable entertainments.” But what he lacked in coarseness he made up for in vanity. His practice was to make a standing offer to refund twice the cost of admission to any audience member who did not laugh “heartily, happily, and with honest relish.”

One writer, whose assessment surely pleased its subject, said of him, “You are decidedly romantic in your feelings and pleasures, and extravagant in your imagination; and this quality of mind, joined to your wit, brilliancy, originality and clearness of mind, gives you great control over an audience, and enables you to magnetize the people and produce a spell on their minds which brings them under your influence for the time being.”

Dodge even went so far as to publish a collection of his music with a picture of a mesmerized subject on the cover. Some of his better known songs were “Level and the Square,” “My Darling Boy,” “Barnyard Serenade” and “Temperance Shout of Liberty.” Here is a taste of his verse, from “Ossian’s Serenade”:

Oh, come with me in my little canoe
Where the sea is calm And the sky is blue;
Oh, come with me, for I long to go
To those isles where the mango apples grow;
Oh, come with me and be my love,
For thee the jungle depth I’ll rove,
I’ll gather the honeycomb bright as gold,
And chase the elk to its secret hole.

Not riveting by today’s standards, but it worked then.

That Dodge found himself on the Homer going to Glen Haven, where cold water was the beverage of choice, was no surprise. He had pledged to his mother that he would never touch alcohol, and kept that pledge for a lifetime. On one occasion, he refused to drink to the health of Henry Clay at a dinner honoring the statesman and senator. Clay said, “Mr. Dodge, I honor your courage and respect your principles, but I can’t say that I admire your taste.”

Dodge enjoyed politics and mingled with people like Clay, Millard Fillmore and William Seward. In addition, Dodge also pursued business. In 1858, he retired from singing and moved to Cleveland to devote himself to the sale of music-related publications, including collections of his own work. Next, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota “to take advantage of real estate investment opportunities.” He served as secretary of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce from 1869 to 1873.

One might remember him as a smiling, comic fellow, were it not for the other side of his personality, painfully well described by historian Philip D. Jordan:

“Ossian Euclid Dodge arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the early 1860s when he was of middle age and had reached a time when life held little more for him than financial distress, personal humiliation, and self-imposed exile… No doubt he greeted the city of St. Paul with his customary jaunty brashness, a disguise that lent him a gay and carefree aspect but hid a skein of frustrations and twisted feelings of inferiority… All in all, Dodge looked like a seedy artist struggling to convey an air of affluent respectability; and that, indeed, is what he was. He was also jealous, quick-tempered, unstable, quarrelsome, and inordinately ambitious.”

Dodge’s “exile” took him to London, where his final days involved him in one of literary history’s most alluring puzzles. In 1848, Edgar Allan Poe was recovering from a suicide attempt (by laudanum, an alcoholic tincture of opium) in Providence, Rhode Island, when he was hustled to the Masury & Hartshorn photo studio for a daguerreotype portrait.

The result is one of the most famous, and vividly telling, portraits ever of a literary artist. The picture was framed and hung for a time in the photographers’ studio, then moved to Boston (Dodge’s hometown) with Mr. Masury. The picture then went missing. When Ossian Dodge moved to Cleveland, a daguerreotype of Poe appeared in his store. In 1875, in London, Dodge showed the picture to a Poe biographer, and said it had been a gift of the author. That was impossible. But was Dodge’s copy the missing original? Dodge died in London in 1876. No one knows what became of his copy of the Poe portrait.

* * *

You may think the musical legacy of Ossian Dodge has gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo, but in fact, it clings doggedly to life in one unlikely song. During their heyday, Ossian’s Bards performed a musical setting of an Edwin Chapin poem, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” and the song became an enduring parlor piano favorite. The first musical setting was attributed to George H. Allen, but today bears the name of Ossian Dodge, and you’ll find recorded versions by Johnny Cash, David Allan Coe, Tex Ritter, Michael Martin Murphy, the Norman Luboff Choir, even played, music alone, by guitarist Alex de Grassi, and Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops. You’ve probably heard it, without realizing the role Ossian’s Bards played in bringing it to your ears.

* * *

Thanks to Philip Jordan’s “Ossian Euclid Dodge: Eccentric Troubadour” in The Historian, February 1969 and this link for the Poe photo.

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