American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

Thomas Hovenden—Artist

Perhaps somewhere you have seen the painting, or if not the painting an engraved copy of it, entitled "A Breton Interior of 1793." It is the picture of a humble room in a humble cottage in northern France in the time of the French Revolution. The family within are all busily occupied, preparing for defense against some unseen foe. Some are molding bullets, some are sharpening old swords, some are furbishing other neglected weapons of war. It is a strong picture, eloquent with expression, and you will wish to study it long. Look at the engraved copy closely, and perhaps you can make out the artist's name in the corner—Thomas Hovenden.

There are other famous pictures, also, that were painted by Hovenden. One bears the name of Tennyson's lovely heroine, "Elaine," and one is called "The Two Lilies." But perhaps the most beautiful and touching of all is the picture entitled, "Breaking the Home Ties." This painting was much admired at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, and it has often been copied. Look at the small engraved copy on the opposite page, and read the story which it tells.

[Illustration] from American Book of Golden Deeds by James Baldwin


Hovenden was an American artist, although his birthplace was in Ireland. He had studied under the best masters, both in this country and in Paris. After years of effort and of faithful endeavor, fame and fortune seemed to be within his grasp; a life's ambition was almost realized.

One afternoon in August, 1895, he left his country home near Norristown, intending to ride by trolley to the railroad station where he would take the evening train for Philadelphia. At the outskirts of the town the passengers were required to alight from the first rrolley car, cross the railroad tracks, and take another car on the opposite side.

Thomas Hovenden was one of the last to step out of the trolley car, and as he did so he heard the roar of a fast-freight train coming with great speed down the tracks in front of him. At the same time, to his great horror, he saw a little girl, who had been on the trolley, run forward to cross the railroad. The child had not noticed the approaching train, and was intent only upon reaching the second trolley car on the farther side of the tracks.

The engineer whistled. The child looked up and saw the great engine bearing down upon her. She was paralyzed with fear. She stood motionless between the tracks.

Then it was that Thomas Hovenden, fifty-five year of age, did the heroic deed of his life. Quicker than thought, he leaped forward and seized the child. Another second for another leap, and both of them would have been in safety. But, alas, the monster engine was too quick for him. It struck him as he was almost across. Artist and child were hurled far to the side of the road. They lay there in the dust, side by side, and quite motionless.

Gentle hands hastened to lift them up. But Thomas Hovenden, artist, hero, was dead. The child for whom he had given his life was unconscious. They lifted her from the ground; they carried her lovingly to a neighboring house; but before the sun went down that day, she too, had ceased to breathe. Shall we believe that Thomas Hovenden's golden deed was a failure? Far nobler is it to die in the attempt to save another's life than to live as a selfish coward afraid to perform one's duty to humanity. This last act of Thomas Hovenden proved him to be a hero of the noblest type; it crowned with the highest honor his already successful life.