Anyone who’s taken an English literature survey in college knows about the romantic poet John Keats. But while John was becoming famous for “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” his brother George was helping Louisville become a boom-town.
I recently read George Keats of Kentucky: A Life (Topics In Kentucky History) by Lawrence M. Crutcher, and Keats is a much bigger figure in Louisville history than I ever realized.
Born Feb. 28, 1797, he was younger than John by two years, but the two grew up very close. They were born in London’s Moorfield district and educated in a liberal school in Enfield. Their father, Thomas Keats, was killed in a riding accident in 1804. Their mother remarried and abandoned them and their two younger siblings, Tom and Fanny, to live with her parents.
Their mother returned to her parents in 1810 and died of consumption (tuberculosis). The children were left to guardian Richard Abbey and his family. John was apprenticed to a surgeon, and George lived above and worked in Abbey’s counting house of his tea wholesaling company.
For a while, George worked as John’s literary agent, after the elder abandoned medicine. The two considered each other their best friends, but their closeness was later strained when George went off to America.
John wrote to George’s mother-in-law, Ann Wylie, “My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend.” George echoed the sentiment: “I claim being the affectionat[e] Friend and Brother of John Keats. I loved him from boyhood even when he wronged me, for the goodness of his heart and the nobleness of his spirit.”
Their guardian, Richard Abbey, took care of their financial affairs and inheritance, which wasn’t large. But eventually, John’s friends in England blamed George for causing John to die penniless and in debt. Crutcher goes into great accounting detail about this, arguing that George didn’t really take money that should have gone to John, but some ambiguous accounting by Abbey made it look like he did.
When John died of tuberculosis, George paid John’s debts, which helped smooth over some of the anger toward him among John’s friends.
George married Georgiana Wylie on May 28, 1818, and they departed for America that summer from Liverpool. The voyage likely took seven to eight weeks, then they landed in Philadelphia. They intended to join an Englishman’s colony in Southern Illinois, but when they got there they decided to abandon their plans. The area had been oversold, and the group didn’t know enough about the land to really farm it.
They spent a little time in Henderson, Ky., before setting out for Louisville, where they would stay until their deaths. They originally didn’t want to go to Kentucky because it was a slave state, and George was very much anti-slavery. But he later relaxed his views, believing it was the only way to carry out business in a slave state.
Keats never left a journal of his travels or his impressions, but one interesting view of Louisville was written by London physician Henry Bradshaw Fearon, who visited Louisville in 1817:
“Louisville is said to be improving in health; the prevalent diseases are fever and ague [malaria]; besides which, the common disorders of this State are consumption, pleurisy, typhus, remittent and intermittent fevers, rheumatism [arthritis], and dysentery. Kentuckians … drink a great deal, swear a great deal, and gamble a great deal.”
Well, not much has changed there!
He also wrote about a practice called “gander-pulling,” which sounds horrific! “This diversion consists in tying a live gander to a tree or pole, greasing its neck, riding past it at full gallop and he who succeeds at pulling off the head of the victim, receives the laurel crown.” Yeah, lets not bring that back.
Because George Keats didn’t keep journals, it’s difficult to know his views on the world. His letters to his siblings and theirs in return are really the only written documents about their lives. The author Crutcher, a descendant of Keats, uses legal documents and newspapers to help his story along, but he also has to use descriptions of the area written by those who had similar travels around the same time. This is an admirable technique, but it leaves the reader wanting more.
The book spends a lot of time on minutiae in the early chapters, such as where the family came from and how much money was divided among George, John, Tom and Fanny. “Central to the relationship between George and John was their codependency, at the core of which were money issues. John was somewhere between oblivious and irresponsible when it came to financial matters, whereas George was solvent but a rather sketchy bookkeeper during his London years.” (p. 123) He spends about two chapters on the division of money between the two, which is good research and history, but rather boring reading, to me.
The book gets good on page 155, where the chapter “Prosperity, 1828-1841” begins. Louisville’s population had blossomed to 7,503.
George joined with Daniel Smith to form Smith and Keats, which would remain his business. Smith usually provided the money, while Keats was the managing partner. Keats also formed a philosophical society, which was the second of fourteen known civic and business groups that George was involved with. He was a founding director of the Bank of Kentucky, along with his friend John Jacob, who was the first president.
George was a originally an Episcopalian, but later became a Unitarian. The Unitarian Church of Louisville was first established in 1830, and a new church was built at Fifth and Walnut streets. He was a founding member of the Louisville Lyceum, which supported public education, and he was an incorporator of the Kentucky Historical Society, which was formed April 22, 1836.
He was an original trustee of the medical college that eventually became the University of Louisville.
George and Georgiana had eight children, though she was often sick with “bilious fever” (stomach and intestinal issues) and rheumatism (arthritis). Their children were Georgiana, Rosalind, Emma, Isabel, John Henry, Clarence, Ella and Alice Ann. Emma married into the Speed family.
George died Dec. 24, 1841, of some sort of stomach ailment, possibly intestinal tuberculosis.
When Keats died, he was so far in debt nothing was left to his heirs. Georgiana remarred to John Jeffrey, a man 20 years her junior, less than a year after George’s death.
When Georgiana died in Lexington in 1879, Jeffrey and son-in-law Phillip Speed buried her in Cave Hill Cemetery, adjacent to the Speed plot. They exhumed George’s remains from Western Cemetery and buried him next to her. Jeffrey designed the marker, which included a Celtic Cross, which is odd considering Keats was a Unitarian and also not Irish.
The city named Keats Avenue in Crescent Hill after George 50 years after he died. Unfortunately, that seems to be all the city has done in his honor, which is unfortunate. George Keats was an early pioneer of business in this city, and helped this city grow from its early infancy.
For more detailed information, I suggest reading George Keats of Kentucky: A Life (Topics in Kentucky History). It’s not just about George Keats. It gives great insight into the early life of Louisville.