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.
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.”
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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.