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The Remarkable Life of Dr. Titus M. Coan, Son of a Famous Missionary from Killingworth

By Philip R. Devlin

(April 17, 2023) — The elder Titus Coan’s fame is well deserved and well-documented. Both his successful work as a missionary in Hawaii and his contributions to our understanding of volcanic eruptions have had enduring effects on the world. A road in his hometown of Killingworth bears his name to this day. His son of the same name, a Civil War surgeon, writer, correspondent with Charles Darwin, and close friend of both Herman Melville and Edward Arlington Robinson deserves our attention as well.

On April 19, 1859, two young students from Williams College, Titus Munson Coan (above) and John Gulick, left campus and traveled by coach a few miles south to Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s 70-acre farm near Lenox, Massachusetts. Both students were sons of missionaries to the South Seas, and both had been born in Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands.) Coan and Gulick had an abiding fascination with Melville, whose novels, Typee, Omoo and, more recently, Moby Dick, had all dealt with adventures in the South Seas, the place of their birth. They wanted to meet this most interesting author.

Unfortunately for Coan and Gulick, Melville preferred talking to them that day about the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato instead of his South Seas adventures. In the afternoon Melville took the students to Pittsfield by wagon where they could find transportation back to their destinations for spring break. Though disappointed by the nature of their conversation with the great author, nevertheless young Titus Coan sensed greatness in Melville and remained intrigued with him.

Herman Melville sold his farm in the Berkshires in 1859 and moved his family to New York City, eventually settling at 104 East 26th Street. Soon he got a job at the Custom House in the city for $4.00 a day, working there for the next 19 years. Dr. Titus M. Coan finished his service to the Union in 1865 as a surgeon under David Farragut’s naval command where he was present at the Battle of Mobile Bay. He eventually found his way to New York City to practice medicine and to indulge his literary pursuits. He settled in at 109 East 15th Street, just a few blocks from Melville’s home. Taking advantage of his proximity to Melville, Coan visited the great man and found that Melville had an “unusually active mind full of elastic energy.” Coan’s name is listed as an attendee at Melville’s funeral in 1891. Titus M. Coan also crossed paths with another literary luminary, poet Edward Arlington Robinson, in New York City and remained close to him for the rest of his life.

Dr. Coan’s relationship with another 19th century luminary– Charles Darwin– is also worth noting. While Darwin was preparing for the publication of the second edition of his book The Descent of Man in 1874, he had sent out queries to different people concerning the practice of infanticide among different cultures of the world. One of those queries reached the elder Titus Coan, the missionary in Hawaii. Dr. Titus M. Coan wrote directly to Darwin on behalf of his father on 22 June 1874. Here is an excerpt from that letter:

Mr. Charles Darwin

Dear Sir:

I have received this day a note from my father, the Rev. Titus Coan, dated Hilo, 23 May 1874, in answer to your question about Hawaiian infanticide. These are his words:

“Hawaiian infanticide— This was practiced on this group, but not to so great an extent as some suppose. The causes were various; one was, the desire of the mother to disburden herself of the care of nursing, that she might give herself to pleasures. Poverty sometimes led to the commission of this crime. Another cause was fear on the part of the woman that her paramour would forsake her and take another woman.”

“So far as I have examined, the testimony is that infanticide made no distinction between the sexes. When one wished to be rid of a child, the question of male and female had no weight in the decision.”

Dr. Titus M. Coan continued to correspond directly with Darwin. Coan’s original letters to Darwin are still stored in the Darwin Archive at the Cambridge University Library in England.

By 1880 Titus M. Coan had become devoted full time to a literary life. He published numerous magazine articles, poems, and critical essays on various literary topics, including a noteworthy appreciation of Henry David Thoreau. Coan was especially interested in the healthy value of water from mineral springs and often wrote about that topic. He founded and became the director of the New York Bureau of Revision and the Authors Guild, organizations that essentially served as forerunners to modern literary agents whose job has become one of editing literary works and finding publishers for authors. Coan was apparently quite successful in this capacity, as noteworthy writers such as James Russell Lowell thought highly of his ability to help would-be authors. In addition, Coan prepared a geographical supplement to the Webster’s Dictionary and served as a member of an organization called the Simplified Spelling Board. It is clear that Titus M. Coan became a very significant member of the late 19th century literary world.

In his 2007 book entitled History of the Congregational Church in Killingworth, Connecticut, local historian Tom Lentz notes that in 1911 plans were made for a memorial tablet for missionary Titus Coan to be placed in the church; additionally, a memorial inscription was to be placed at Coan’s birthplace in Killingworth. A dedication service for these memorials was held in Killingworth on June 12, 1912. Dr. Titus M. Coan attended these dedications and spoke about his memories of his father when he was growing up in Hawaii. That was the last known time that Coan visited Killingworth. He died in New York City on May 8, 1921, at the age of 84.

Photos Provided by Philip Devlin

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