Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Eminent Women: Matilda Hoffman and Eliza Brace Lund, Part 1

Eminent Women: Matilda Hoffman and Eliza Brace Lund, Part 1

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - July 10, 2012

Josiah Ogden Hoffman served as New York Attorney General from 1795 to 1802, but after he returned to private practice in Manhattan he began to train a law student named Washington Irving. Washington Irving’s family had come to America from the Orkney Islands and Cornwall, but Irving had spent much of his life surrounded by descendants of the original Dutch settlers of New York, including the very distinguished Hoffman family.

Irving was a mediocre student, barely passing the bar in 1806, and not particularly interested in practicing law. His first love was writing. He had already achieved notoriety as a teenager with some amusing commentaries on Manhattan society.

Irving’s second great love was Sarah Matilda Hoffman, daughter of Josiah Ogden and Mary Colden Hoffman. Matilda, as she was known, was eight years younger than Washington Irving and had grown up in Manhattan and Albany, New York. Her mother died when she was six years old and her father remarried five years later and began a second family.

Years afterward, Washington Irving described their courtship to a friend:

We saw each other every day, and I became excessively attached to her. Her shyness wore off by degrees. The more I saw of her the more I had reason to admire her. Her mind seemed to unfold leaf by leaf, and every time to discover new sweetness. Nobody knew her so well as I, for she was generally timid and silent; but I in a manner studied her excellence. Never did I meet with more intuitive rectitude of mind, more native delicacy, more exquisite propriety in word, thought, and action, than in this young creature. I am not exaggerating; what I say was acknowledged by all who knew her. Her brilliant little sister used to say that people began by admiring her, but ended by loving Matilda. For my part, I idolized her.

The two wanted to marry but Irving did not have a reliable source of income. He and some friends started a magazine, Salmagundi, primarily remembered for the nickname he coined for the city of New York, “Gotham,” but the magazine did not generate enough money to support a family. At the same time, Irving was writing his first book, the comic work A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker.

Irving wrote:

I saw Matilda every day, and that helped to distract me. In the midst of this struggle and anxiety she was taken ill with a cold. Nothing was thought of it at first; but she grew rapidly worse, and fell into a consumption. I cannot tell you what I suffered. The ills that I have undergone in this life have been dealt out to me drop by drop, and I have tasted all their bitterness. I saw her fade rapidly away; beautiful, and more beautiful, and more angelical to the last. I was often by her bedside; and in her wandering state of mind she would talk to me with a sweet, natural, and affecting eloquence, that was overpowering. I saw more of the beauty of her mind in that delirious state than I had ever known before. Her malady was rapid in its career, and hurried her off in two months. Her dying struggles were painful and protracted. For three days and nights I did not leave the house, and scarcely slept. I was by her when she died; all the family were assembled round her, some praying, others weeping, for she was adored by them all. I was the last one she looked upon. I have told you as briefly as I could what, if I were to tell with all the incidents and feelings that accompanied it, would fill volumes. She was but about seventeen years old when she died.

Her death notice in the New York Evening Post read as follows: “Thursday, April 27. Yesterday afternoon, aged 18, MISS SARAH MATILDA HOFFMAN, dau. of Josiah Ogden Hoffman, Esq.”

Washington Irving rarely mentioned Matilda afterwards, but he continued in his letter to his friend:

I cannot tell you what a horrid state of mind I was in for a long time. I seemed to care for nothing; the world was a blank to me. I abandoned all thoughts of the law. I went into the country, but could not bear solitude, yet could not endure society. There was a dismal horror continually in my mind, that made me fear to be alone. I had often to get up in the night, and seek the bedroom of my brother, as if the having a human being by me would relieve me from the frightful gloom of my own thoughts.

Months elapsed before my mind would resume any tone; but the despondency I had suffered for a long time in the course of this attachment, and the anguish that attended its catastrophe, seemed to give a turn to my whole character, and throw some clouds into my disposition, which have ever since hung about it. When I became more calm and collected, I applied myself, by way of occupation, to the finishing of my work. I brought it to a close, as well as I could, and published it; but the time and circumstances in which it was produced rendered me always unable to look upon it with satisfaction….For years I could not talk on the subject of this hopeless regret; I could not even mention her name; but her image was continually before me, and I dreamt of her incessantly.

Irving mourned Matilda all his life. He never married.

After his death, his heirs opened a carefully guarded, locked treasure trove and found in it a miniature portrait, several pages written in ink so faded as to be unreadable, a lock of hair, and a paper inscribed in Irving’s handwriting, “Matilda Hoffman.”

* * *

In 1877, the incurably romantic Wilford Woodruff compiled a list of Eminent Men and Women of the world for a temple work project. He included in this list the beloved American author Washington Irving, and also the love of Irving’s life, Matilda Hoffman.

An English immigrant named Eliza Ann (Grazen) Brace Lund did Matilda’s endowment. Eliza’s story, which will post tomorrow, is a tale of Benbow Farm, a sailing ship, loving ministrations by the sisters of the Church, and a very tangible connection to the walls of three temples.



  1. Americans (others?) have sometimes paid quite a lot of attention to unfulfilled romances (Lincoln’s alleged love of Ann Rutledge; George Washington’s rumored courtship of Sally Fairfax). It brings out the little-r romantic in me to think that Matilda was selected for this early temple program because of her romantic relationship to a famous figure. I have something in common with Wilford Woodruff!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 10, 2012 @ 8:59 am

  2. I thought it was going to end with, “and he had the two sealed” and was shocked ahead of time. Has that ever been done–have two deceased persons who were never able to marry been sealed?

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — July 10, 2012 @ 9:12 am

  3. Romantic is right!

    Washington Irving was probably the most beloved American author of the time. If all you’ve ever read of his is “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” — which was based, by the way on a line or two found in his History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker mentioned above — and “Rip Van Winkle,” you’re really missing out on some of the great tales of American literature. A very good collection is The Complete Tales of Washington Irving. It includes the curiosities and treasures of the early Dutch settlers of New York, the pure magic of the Alhambra tales, the story of the German student (a horror story I heard recycled during my youth without attribution to Irving) and many others. He was a masterful story-teller.

    Irving was such an overwhelmingly influential figure in early American literature, due to both his stories and to the histories he wrote, and that made it hard to make this post mostly about Matilda, but the fact remains that she would have been barely remembered, just a name in the History of the Hoffman Family, if she and Washington Irving hadn’t fallen in love with each other.

    Comment by Amy T — July 10, 2012 @ 9:23 am

  4. Have they been sealed? Of course.

    They were first sealed in 1896. Matilda showed up in Family Tree (the newer version of NewFamilySearch) as “Mrs Washington Irving.” A descendant of Washington Irving’s sister has put a puzzled, lengthy note in Washington Irving’s entry with information about Washington and Matilda not being married. I wrote a similar but brief note for Matilda’s entry and have removed the “Mrs Washington Irving” bit from her list of alternate names.

    And, bother, I should add the disclaimer here as I have done in the past that the Church policy is, and has been for many decades, to arrange the temple work for our own families, and for close friends with permission of their immediate families.

    Comment by Amy T — July 10, 2012 @ 9:48 am

  5. The anguish that attended its catastrophe seemed to give a turn to my whole character, and throw some clouds into my disposition which have ever since hung about it.

    I guess that’s why they call them “life-changing events.” One of the things I look forward to in the hereafter is learning a little about why these sort of events happen to us. (Really, why one or two have happened to me…)

    Comment by The Other Clark — July 10, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

  6. What a great (and tragic) story! And cheers to Wilford Woodruff for choosing to have her temple work done.

    (Now I better go read Irving’s Life of George Washington that has been sitting on my shelf for 20 years since I found it at a used book shop.)

    Comment by Mark B. — July 10, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

  7. As a single man I have a different point of view. It seems that modern people cannot “leave well enough alone” and allow a man who has chosen to remain single all his life to stay that way after his death. I have noticed other cases that people have found a need to look around for a woman they can seal to their single male relatives. I think we should let people choose their relationship even after they are dead. Probably Wilford Woodruff with his many wives could not imagine that some men would rather be single. We can never be sure why Irving never married, but that was his choice.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — July 10, 2012 @ 10:00 pm

  8. Jeff — I’m glad you said something — it reminds me that there’s a single man in the family of today’s St. George woman. I’ll send you a note about him.

    About the sealing — I personally find this practice misguided. Although sentimental and romantic on the surface, sealing someone to a person he or she was not married to is not the prerogative or privilege or responsibility of anyone, with the exception of the President of the Church who holds the keys to the sealing power.

    Did Wilford Woodruff do the sealing of Irving and Hoffman in 1896? It’s possible — he was around, of course — but Irving was both famous and beloved, so practically anyone attending the temple could have had the sealing done. Both Irving and Hoffman were rebaptized at the same time in 1896, so I’d suspect it wasn’t Wilford Woodruff, but I don’t have access to the actual temple records to be able to see.

    After 1896, the next spate of ordinances for Irving and Hoffman was in 1994. Their sealing was repeated three times that year. That was a striking data cluster, so I looked and saw that that was the year the book The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff was published.

    Comment by Amy T — July 11, 2012 @ 5:28 am

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