Tag Archives: T. D. Nostwich

Roger W. Smith, “Dreiser’s Nephew Carl”


‘Dreiser’s nephew Carl’

This post is in the form of a downloadable Word document (above).


'Dawn' - first typescript - Chapter XLII, pg. 13

Theodore Dreiser, “Dawn,” first typescript, Chapter XLII, pg. 13





This article focuses on Theodore Dreiser’s nephew Carl Dresser, who was born out of wedlock in 1886 to Dreiser’s sister Cacilia (Sylvia) Dreiser. The article provides hitherto unknown details about Sylvia’s affair with Carl’s father — the pseudonymous “Don Ashley” — when Theodore Dreiser, his sister Sylvia, and other siblings were living in Warsaw, Indiana with their mother, as recounted by Dreiser, with some major modifications of facts, in his autobiographical work Dawn.

I have discovered the identity of Carl’s father and confirmed details of Carl’s death. It was “known” on scant evidence that he was a suicide. It has been said, which is inaccurate, that Carl died in his teens. I have found Carl’s death record, as well as his birth record.

Dreiser’s sister Sylvia abandoned Carl and did not raise him; he was raised by Dreiser’s parents and also by his aunt Mame (Theodore Dreiser’s sister) and her husband. As an unwanted child, Carl had a difficult life. Many details have remained sketchy or were never investigated by Dreiser biographers; there is scant mention of Carl in Dreiser biographies.

The story of Sylvia’s affair and pregnancy, a scandal at the time, is worth investigating, since Dreiser saw it as not insignificant in his family history and as contributing to ideas about sex and morality he had as a teenager — he used it as the subject matter of two chapters in Dawn. And, the story of Carl’s birth and his short, unhappy life throws some light on characters in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and, to a lesser extent, in his novel Jennie Gerhardt.




Theodore Dreiser, “The Return of the Genius,” Chicago Sunday Globe. October 23, 1892 (under byline Carl Dreiser)

Theodore Dreiser, ‘The Return of the Genius.’




132 West 15th Street, NYC

+ 132 West 15th Street, Manhattan; photo by Roger W. Smith, May 2020. Carl Dreiser was born at this address, in the apartment of Theodore Dreiser’s sister, Emma, in 1886.

Carl's building

53 West Erie Street, Chicago; where Carl Dresser lived at the time of his death; photo by Tamie Dehler



Addendum, August 16, 2020:

I received an email from Professor Emeritus Thomas Kranidas today which called my attention to something I had overlooked (italics): “Dreiser was surely influenced by memory of Carl’s bellhop days. And Carl was tragically influenced by Dreiser’s portrayal of Hurstwood’s suicide in “Sister Carrie.”

Note that Carl Dresser (as detailed in my essay ) died from “Asphixiation by illuminating gas.”


— posted by Roger W.  Smith

   May 2020; updated August 2020

mistaken attribution (Dreiser credited with early news story he didn’t write)




The excerpts posted above – as a downloadable PDF file — are from Theodore Dreiser, Journalism, Volume One: Newspaper Writings, 1892-1895, edited by T. D. Nostwich (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988).



In his laboriously compiled, invaluable book Theodore Dreiser, Journalism, Volume One: Newspaper Writings, 1892-1895, the editor, Professor T. D. Nostwich, attributes two stories about the hanging of the convicted murderer Sam Welsor, which appeared in the St. Louis Republic in January 1894, to Theodore Dreiser.

News stories were not bylined in those days.

Regarding the attribution to Dreiser of these stories, Nostwich observes:

In ND [Newspaper Days], chap. 54, describing events of some unspecified time during his Republic period, Dreiser says, “I remember witnessing a hanging … standing beside the murderer when the trap was sprung and seeing him die …” In the next sentence he mentions the lynching of a “negro in an outlying county” – that is, the event he described in Nos. 73 [“This Calls for Hemp”] and 74 [“Ten-Foot Drop”] – seeming to imply that this lynching occurred after the hanging. His short story “Nigger Jeff,” which is based largely on Nos. 73 and 74, lends support to this inference, for there the young reporter who covers the lynching is said to have once before “been compelled to witness a hanging, and that had made him sick — deathly so – even though carried out as part of the due process of law of his day and place” (Free and Other Stories, p. 77). Inasmuch as the execution of Sam Welsor did occur before the lynching of John Buckner and was, in fact, the only one to take place while Dreiser lived there, it must be the one referred to in ND. Since Nos. 70 and 71 form a unified narrative sequence culminating in the execution, they can be attributed to Dreiser with confidence.

There are two problems with this attribution.

First, in his posthumously published Notes on Life (The University of Alabama Press, 1974, pp. 241-42), Dreiser states: “In 1892, in the city of St. Louis, I witnessed the execution of a wife-murderer who had to be carried to the gallows and was limp and unconscious at the time the trap was sprung.”

Sam Welsor’s execution occurred in 1894. (It is possible, of course, that Dreiser, who was often imprecise with facts, could have gotten the date wrong.) Welsor was convicted of murdering his mistress, not his wife. More importantly as regards the attribution of this story to Dreiser (in view of Dreiser’s recollections in Notes on Life), Welsor did not have to be carried to the gallows, as is shown in the second of the two news stories which follow; he was fully conscious.

I made an attempt to find from newspaper archives on the Internet if there were any hangings in cities where Dreiser lived around this time that would match his description of the hanging he recalled and could find none.

There is a second consideration that leads me to regard this attribution as problematic. The writing in the two stories about Welsor’s execution is too polished as compared with Dreiser’s other journalism of this time. He was still learning his craft, and while he was a diligent reporter and good at achieving color in his stories, one could see him still struggling with his material, struggling to learn his craft. The two stories in the excerpt posted above (as a PDF file) seem to be the work of a more experienced reporter.


— Roger W. Smith

   February 2016