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By Lyle Slovick

This portrait of George Yost Coffin was taken around 1890.

Many fascinating characters have been linked to GW in the 185 years since its founding. Alumnus and Washington Post political cartoonist George Yost Coffin is notable for the characters he created and the diaries he kept that describe life in Washington during the Civil War.

Coffin graduated from Columbian College (the original name of The George Washington University) with an A.B. degree in 1869 and a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1871. While a law student, he also was an art tutor. Upon completion of law school, Coffin became a clerk in the Revenue Marine division of the Department of the Treasury, where he remained employed until his death. This position provided him a fixed income and the freedom to create his art.

Coffin’s career as a political cartoonist began in the mid-1870s with The Washington Chronicle, the city’s first illustrated newspaper. After its demise, he contributed to Harper’s Weekly, Puck, and Judge until 1883, when he took a job as an artist for The Washington Hatchet, another short-lived weekly paper. Puck and Judge were popular political publications of the late 1800s and early 1900s, with colorful satirical illustrations of the leaders of the period. Like Harper’s, they had a wide audience. During this time Coffin also contributed to a number of papers in Washington and elsewhere, including The Washington Star, Sunday Herald, and The National Tribune. In 1891, he gave up his freelance work and became the official cartoonist for The Washington Post.

Coffin was known as a humorist without malice, though he covered timely political topics.

Coffin’s cartoons were nonpartisan. An article from the Dec. 5, 1896, Columbian Call student newspaper quoted him as saying: “Every political situation has half a dozen comical sides to it, according to the view point.” His humor was wholesome, the article went on to say. Said one who knew him, “He was a most charming man at a social gathering. A born gentleman, a gifted conversationalist, and a narrator with hardly a peer in his circle.”

Coffin’s thorough knowledge of Washington, its customs, and its characters gave his cartoons a particular flavor. His work was without malice. It was his rule never to make his cartoons offensive or grotesque. “You need not make a man odious or repulsive in order to caricature him,” he once remarked. Even those he cartooned were not offended and often called upon him for a friendly interview. Among Coffin’s “victims” were Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, head of Washington’s territorial government. Coffin also illustrated a number of books and was a dramatic critic for The Washington Post, Sunday Herald, and Critic.

Coffin’s papers were donated to the University in 1926 by Isabelle Solomons, a family friend, and are maintained and made available to researchers by the Department of Special Collections and University Archives in Gelman Library.

An avid baseball player, Coffin wrote frequently about the sport in his diaries.

Coffin was born in Pottstown, Pa., on March 30, 1850, and came to Washington with his parents when he was 8 years old. He began a diary a year later and continued it off and on until 1868. The four diaries he kept record the folkways of 19th-century Washington and offer insights into the political climate of the nation, as interpreted by a precocious teenager.

Coffin’s connection with Columbian College was established at an early age. George Whitefield Samson, who became president of Columbian College in 1859, was the pastor of the E Street Church in Washington, and sometimes preached at the church Coffin and his family attended. Other Columbian College students and faculty members are mentioned in the diary in regard to church services and Sunday school.

Coffin’s childhood days were filled with baseball, books—he mentions reading 220 from 1857 to 1868, including Dickens, Bunyan, Irving, Tennyson, and Longfellow—and drawing and painting. These interests proved to be lifelong, as Coffin played baseball during his time at Columbian College, was an excellent student, and turned his artistic talent into a profession.

Coffin kept sketchbooks of doodles and drawings. This drawing was created after the Civil War and portrays President Lincoln reviewing troops. Lincoln visited the Columbian Hospital, located on the College grounds, on at least one occasion, in 1862.

While Coffin’s diaries were sporadically kept, they do offer insight into life in Washington—and on campus—during the Civil War. On July 12, 1864, he wrote of trying to go to Fort Stevens, in the northern part of Washington, with a friend. There was fighting there, and they were turned back by guards. Walking home, they observed a large detachment of troops, prompting Coffin to observe, “The city undoubtedly is in great danger. The firing at the forts is fairly audible in the heart of the city.” Coffin also later noted seeing troops marching up H Street, yet the tone of his entries never conveyed a sense of panic or prolonged tension. In fact, he didn’t mention military matters much at all, focusing instead on his daily routine.

Three days later, Coffin and another friend procured passes to go to the battlefield. They “started for the field which we soon reached, we saw the graves of several of those who fell in the fight, one man buried with a forefinger left uncovered.” Unfazed, they observed destruction around them and picked up souvenirs. They met with three soldiers who “invited us to lunch with them in their ‘crib’ which they called the ‘Hotel de posh.’” After sharing a lunch of hardtack, pork and beans, and coffee, the soldiers went back to work and the boys returned home. “Our walk home was a weary one, we being loaded down with about 95 cartridges a piece, besides other weighty trophies. However we enjoyed ourselves very much.”

Coffin’s four diaries date from 1859 to 1868. An entry from Coffin’s diary, dated Nov. 9, 1864, records the results of the presidential election, which was the source of “considerable anxiety.”

At the end of the summer, it was time to go back to school, which for Coffin was the Preparatory School of the Columbian College. The College had been founded in 1821 and was composed of five buildings on “College Hill,” north of Florida Avenue, N.W., between 14th and 15th Streets. The Preparatory School played a significant role in the first 76 years of the University. It was designed primarily to afford thorough training for admission to college. Coffin entered in 1862, and records show that he took courses in geography, history, Latin, Greek, and algebra, among others. Tuition was $55 a year. Because Coffin did not keep a diary during the first two years, we have no record of his first-hand experiences.

On Sept. 19, 1864, he began recording daily life at school. Coffin was a member of the Hermesian Literary Society, serving as editor of its newspaper, the Casket, in 1863. The Hermesians conducted debates, which Coffin wrote about frequently: “I found myself as a debater on the affirmative side of the question ‘Should suicide be considered as an evidence of courage or cowardice.’ It was decided in the affirmative,” he wrote on Sept. 30, 1864. This society had a number of prominent members in its time, including Otis Mason, principal of the Preparatory School from 1861 to 1884, and later the head curator of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian; John Larner, who served the University for 20 years as chairman of the Board of Trustees; and Theodore Noyes, who later became editor of the Washington Evening Star.

Coffin’s cartoon “Our Inhospitable Hospitals” appeared in The Washington Post March 20, 1895. A woman comes to the D.C. public hospital with her sick child, only to be turned away. The rules read: “Persons not requiring the assistance of this hospital admitted at all hours. No others need apply.”

As 1864 drew to a close, Coffin often commented on the presidential race. On Nov. 8: “Today the election for President takes place, and it will be decided whether we are to have four more years of bloodshed, misery, taxation and ruin, or peace once more spread its wings over our distracted land, bringing blessings and prosperity in its train.” A week later he commented: “The election has passed and we are doomed to another four years of anarchy & disaster.” It’s easy to tell who got young Coffin’s vote.

Even though he was no fan of Lincoln, Coffin reported going with two friends to see the inaugural procession, which until 1937 was held on March 4. “After having waited for some time in the mud & rain, in the immense crowd that lined the avenue, the president or rather his closely shut carriage (for he was invisible) hove in sight. He was attended only by his usual cavalry guard and some of the marshals.” Coffin noted that the day “opened with floods of rain but about noon the clouds cleared away. Perhaps this is ominous.”

As the war was drawing to a close, Coffin devoted more attention to it in his diary. On April 5, 1865, he wrote of seeing “some terrible scenes among the wounded who have arrived from the front at Columbian Hospital.” When the war began, the government took over the grounds of the College and used it for two hospitals (the other was Carver Hospital) as well as for soldiers’ barracks. Despite significant challenges, the College and Preparatory School continued operations during the war, and by 1865 the South was in its death throes. On April 13, Coffin described the city: “All the public and nearly every private building are illuminated & tastefully trimmed with flags, lanterns, wreaths, etc. Many of the patriotic inscriptions were very appropriate. Bands are playing, magnificent fireworks are being set off and the city is a blaze of light…Every-one is rejoicing at the prospect of peace.”

The George Coffin Papers contain more than 900 sketches plus many others in scrapbooks. There are a number from Coffin’s childhood, some dated as early as 1858, when he was 8 years old. This one, titled “The Happy Family,” is from that era.

The next day brought horrible news. “At about 10 p.m. during the third act of ‘Our American Cousin’ [a play Coffin himself had seen in February of that year] at Ford’s Theater, where Miss Laura Keene is playing, a pistol shot was fired in the private box of President Lincoln & a man leaped upon the stage brandishing a dagger, shouted ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis, the South is avenged,’ rushed out, gained his horse & escaped.”

The following day, he wrote: “The President died at 22 min. past 7 this morning. Thus has our rejoicing been changed into grief.” On April 19, Coffin walked from his home at 354 New York Ave. to 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to see the funeral procession, and then noted that he spent the remainder of the day playing ball. Life went on for him and the nation.

On Sept. 27, 1865, Coffin began studies as a freshman at Columbian College. He and his roommate, Eugene Soper, chose Room 18 on the first story of the main building as their quarters. Coffin noted, “The building is being renovated after its four years appropriation to hospital purposes.”

President Samson was Coffin’s French teacher. Coffin became a member of the Philophrenian Society, another student debating group, and was editor of its newspaper, the Spectator. The post-war years are mostly full of news regarding his studies, his friends, improvements to the college grounds, a cholera panic, and the daily routine of life, including his love of baseball. After final examinations in June of 1866, Coffin returned to Pottstown for summer vacation, and the diary entries become sporadic after that.

This page of sketches was drawn by Coffin as a freshman at Columbian College. It also includes a note from Nov. 11, 1865, in which he mentioned hearing a lecture and writing a letter to a friend.

On March 3, 1868, two days before going to the Capitol to see the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, Coffin made this entry: “Attended college and said my lessons. Performed likewise an extraordinary [a]mount of loafing & howling. The former is an ancient & well known [em]ployment, which has been popular among college students & indeed [m]ankind in general, from time immemorial.” This entry is an excellent example of the sense of humor found in his writing. In the last few pages he spoke of drawing, which he had been doing since a child. Legend has it that as a college student he frescoed the walls of his dormitory room with Shakespearean scenes and characters. They were considered so good that officials spared them from destruction when the interiors of the building were painted, and they remained until the building was razed.

George Coffin died Nov. 28, 1896, of locomotor ataxia, syphilis of the spinal cord. How he was stricken with this affliction we do not know. For the last year of his life he was rendered an invalid but was said to have remained in good spirits and hopeful. After he died, his body was taken from Washington back to Pottstown, where he was buried in the family plot next to his mother. He had no wife or children to survive him. What is left today are extracts of his soul, freely given, captured, and held fixed on the pages of yellowing paper in the form of his writings and drawings. These live on to tell a story of a time gone by but not forgotten.

Lyle Slovick is Assistant University Archivist.