Sunday, December 9, 2018

Carnival of Death, Part Two: The Life of Samuel Rogers, 1894-1985

Samuel Rogers (1894-1985)
academic and author of a
criminal trilogy of terror
Horatio Rogers (1836-1904)
grandfather of Samuel Rogers
Henry Gardner Rogers (1923-1958)
son of Samuel Rogers

Death's Carnival
dead  soldier on the field of Gettysburg

At first blush there would seem to have been little in the life of Samuel Rogers to account for the gushing wellspring of gore and ghoulishness which one finds in his criminal trilogy of terror.  The esteemed academician and author was born Samuel Greene Arnold Rogers on September 5, 1894 in Newport, Rhode Island, the eldest of four sons of Reverend Arthur Rogers, an Episcopal clergyman, and Cornelia Arnold (making him a close contemporary of Providence’s H. P. Lovecraft, 1890-1937, another, rather more famous Rhode Island horror novelist).

Samuel Rogers’ family lineage was one of prominence in Rhode Island, his paternal grandfather, Horatio Rogers, having served two terms as Attorney General and a dozen years as an Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and his maternal grandfather, the distinguished lawyer and historian Samuel Greene Arnold, for whom Rogers was named, having served as Lieutenant Governor, a U. S. Senator and President of the Rhode Island Historical Society.
  Arnold additionally was the author of the two-volume History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1859-60).

Himself a highly literate and learned lawyer, Horatio Rogers served three years in the Civil War and as a colonel commanded the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry at the Battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
  Of the bloody carnage he witnessed at the latter engagement, he wrote memorably that “Death seemed to be holding a carnival.”  After leaving the Army in 1864, he was nominated by the Republican Party of Rhode Island as its candidate for Attorney General; the returned war hero was elected to the office with 96% of the vote.

Unusually for a politician, Horatio Rogers also was a noted antiquarian and bibliophile, and he authored several books, including
Private Libraries of Providence (1878), which surveyed the book holdings of some of Rhode Island’s most prominent citizens (including his own 4000 volume library), and Mary Dyer of Rhode Island (1896), a tribute to the fervent Quaker and religious martyr who was hanged in Boston by the Puritans in 1660.

Of bibliophilia Horatio Rogers philosophized in the essay which opens the former work that “the extremes of society meet in appreciation of books.
  The lofty and the lowly alike are cheered by their presence, and solaced by their companionship.  The conqueror will not be separated from them, even in his victorious career; and the simple artisan and the petty tradesman, after their humble labors, turn to them as to the sunlight of their existence.  (He might well have been describing the remarkable social ubiquity of mystery fans in his grandson’s day, when seemingly everyone from statesmen and ministers to “tired businessmen” and clerks, housewives, typists and shopgirls devoured detective fiction and crime thrillers.)

Probably the most intriguing literary question today about Horatio Rogers, however, is whether he might have been the actual author of one of the most revered and eloquent of Civil War soldier missives: the celebrated “Dear Sarah” letter ostensibly written by Horatio Rogers’ friend Sullivan Ballou, who also served, until his death at the First Battle of Bull Run, in the 2
nd Rhode Island Infantry.

Although he was a Rhode Islander by birth, Samuel Rogers spent his formative years in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where his father in 1899 was appointed Rector of the imposingly bell-towered Holy Trinity Church.
  Rogers attended Delancey School in Philadelphia, Brown University and the University of Chicago, though his advanced education was interrupted for a time by his service in France during the First World War, first in the American Ambulance Field Service and later as a private in the U. S. Army, in which capacity he was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal. 

All four of the Rogers brothers served in the Great War, prompting the printing of photographs of them in the
Chicago Tribune Pictorial Weekly, below the inspirational banner headline Patriots--Four Brothers Fighting For Uncle Sam. The brothers had proved themselves worthy not only of Uncle Sam but of their Grandfather Horatio.

Samuel Rogers, third patriot (and sibling) from the left
The church of Samuel Rogers' father in West Chester, PA
(regrettably the awesome bell tower is no more)
stained glass window, Holy Trinity Church
West Chester, PA
Fearful Symmetry: Science Hall, University of Wisconsin
Samuel Rogers' lugubrious inspiration for Don't Look Behind You!Photo by Chris Zimmerman
1923 Rackham illustration (Jack the Giant Killer)

After leaving military service Samuel Rogers in 1919 married Marion Richmond Gardner, daughter of Henry Brayton Gardner, an economist and Eastman Professor of Political Economy at Brown University.
 The couple had three children, all of whom were named for his and his wife’s illustrious forebears: Cornelia, born in 1920, and, a few years later in 1923, a pair of twins, Henry Gardner and Lucia.  Rogers joined the French Department at the University of Wisconsin in 1920, remaining there for nearly four decades, until his retirement in 1960. 

During his years at UW he published a scholarly monograph, Balzac and the Novel (1953) and was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, but outside of the groves of academe he was best known for his six mainstream novels, which he published between 1927 and 1942, and his three psychological suspense thrillers from the Forties. 

Rogers’ artist granddaughter Forest Ponder Rogers recalls that the wooded Tudor Revival Rogers house in Madison “was like a time machine.
  There was a bookcase in a dark upstairs hall, full of storybooks illustrated by Rackham, Kay Nielsen, Dulac and others.  I spent hour upon hour sitting on the floor exploring those shelves during Christmas visits….I rummage the universe for my ideas the way I used to search for treasures in that house.

Unquestionably the most critically successful and lucrative of Samuel Rogers’ mainstream novels was
Dusk at the Grove, a seemingly semi-autobiographical stream-of-consciousness novel about a patrician Rhode Island pastor and his family which won the $10,000 Atlantic Prize for 1934.  Rogers’ novel, one out of over 13,000 manuscripts submitted for consideration that year, was the first by an American to win the prize. 

Yet after penning two additional novels of acute psychological portraiture,
Lucifer at Pine Lake (1937) and Flora Shawn (1942), Rogers became afflicted with writer’s block.  Like many another stalled mainstream novelist before and after him, Rogers turned to writing crime fiction, but the interest in aberrant psychology which characterizes these later books had already been signaled by his earlier mainstream fiction.

As has been noted in a recent edition of the University of Wisconsin’s alumni magazine,
On Wisconsin, Rogers drew inspiration for his first crime novel from the university’s Science Hall, a gloomily imposing Richardsonian Romanesque structure.  (In a 1973 oral interview, Rogers recalled that he had got to thinking “what a lugubrious place Science Hall was.”) 

UW Alumnus Tim Brady affirms that “Anyone who’s opened the heavy oak doors of the Romanesque Revival building, climbed the winding staircase—past the exposed brick walls bearing the ghostly signatures of students from long ago—to a tiny landing on the top floor where a pair of locked doors seem to lead nowhere, can appreciate [Rogers’] impulse.

In the dramatic climax of
Don’t Look Behind You!, Daphne Gray desperately attempts to evade a pitiless killer pursuing her through the darkness of the remote and lonely upper reaches of a fictionalized Science Hall.  One is reminded of the climax of the suspense film The Spiral Staircase (1946), which followed the novel two years later, although that takes place in a more typical old dark house.

Samuel Rogers’ later years were darkened by a family tragedy that seems indicative of the sort of psychological maladjustment which so clearly engaged the author in both his genre and non-genre novels.
  In 1944 Rogers had dedicated Don’t Look Behind You! to his 21-year-old son, Henry Gardner Rogers, a UW graduate who then was serving as an ensign in the U. S. Naval Reserve.  (John Frazer, the protagonist in You Leave Me Cold!, may have been modeled after Henry Rogers.)

After the war, during which he had risen to the rank of lieutenant, Henry attended Harvard University, where he also worked as a mathematics instructor.
  He later left Harvard, took up art professionally, married artist Lou Ponder and with her moved to a wooded house he had built by the Connecticut River in South Deerfield, Massachusetts.  (Among his paintings was, Van Gogh-like, an arresting self-portrait.)

In 1958, not long after the birth to him and his wife of a daughter, who was named Forest after the trees which surrounded them, the 35-year-old Henry, who had for some time suffered from severe bouts of depression, drowned himself in the nearby river.
  His body, which was not discovered for nearly two weeks, was identified by his father.

How all this contrasted with the passing of Samuel Rogers’ minister parent, Arthur, whose life had ended peacefully two decades earlier at the age of 73.
  Reverend Rogers was laid to rest at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, below a simple granite headstone upon which an etcher had elegantly inscribed these modest yet resolute words:

Son of Horatio &
Lucia Waterman Rogers
October 26, 1864
June 10, 1938
I have fought a good fight
I have finished my course
I have kept the faith

Having come to South Deerfield to assist in the desperate search for his missing son, Samuel Rogers, upon the dreadful discovery of the drowned body of his boy, received melancholy confirmation that in real life the problems of the human brain are far harder to unlock and decipher than any fiendishly sealed murder room from the Golden Age of mystery.

1. For the text of the “Dear Sarah” letter, which was made famous by 1990 by Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, see “Sullivan Ballou Letter” at  On the question of the missive’s authorship, see Robert Grandchamp, “O Sarah!  Did Sullivan Ballou’s Famed Letter Come from Another Pen?,” America’s Civil War Magazine (November 2017), at and “’No, Sarah!’ Did Someone Else Write the Sullivan Ballou Letter?,” John Banks’ Civil War Blog, 2 September 2017, at  On Horatio Rogers bibliophilia see bachmann, “For the Love of Books,” 13 February 2018, The Shelf: Preserving Harvard’s Library Collections, at 

2. Samuel Rogers’ paternal uncle, Lucian Waterman Rogers (named for his and Arthur’s mother, Lucia Waterman), also was an episcopal minister and he served for many years as the rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.  Lucian’s son and Samuel Roger’s cousin, Horatio Rogers, served with the artillery during the First World War.  His wartime diary was later published under the title World War I Through My Sights (1978).  Samuel Rogers’ brother Horatio Rodman Rogers, who during the Great War served as a private in the 344th Tank Battalion, received the Distinguished Service Cross for “extraordinary heroism in action,” described in the citation as follows:

Acting as a runner, Private Rogers, upon learning that there was a scarcity of tank drivers, begged permission to drive a tank.  Permission being granted, he drove his tank well in advance of the Infantry until the officer in command of his tank became wounded by enemy fire.  Private Rogers left the shelter of his tank and crawled to other tanks of his company, carrying messages from his wounded officer.  The duty was performed in the face of heavy artillery, machine-gun, and rifle fire, and was carried on until Private Rogers was severely wounded.  The coolness, devotion to duty, and fearlessness displayed inspired the men of his company to still greater endeavor.

See “Horatio R. Rogers,” The Hall of Valor Project, at

3. For Forest Ponder Rogers' recollection see Natalia Joruk, “Wild Abandon Between Here and Eternity: Interview with Forest Rogers,” 1 September 2016, Beautiful Bizarre, at 

4. On Science Hall see Tim Brady, “Scary Story,” On Wisconsin (Fall 2018): 13.

5. Samuel Rogers successively dedicated his remaining pair of novels, You’ll Be Sorry! and You Leave Me Cold! to his respective daughters, Cornelia and Lucia, and the husbands whom they had recently wed (“Keena and Carl” and “Lu and Hod”).  One wonders what the daughters made of these grisly studies in morbid psychology.  Perhaps Lucia, who at the University of Wisconsin majored in zoology and did a semester of graduate work in parasitology before her marriage to medical student Horace Kent Tenney III, son of a UW professor of pediatrics, was not shocked at all.  Her sister Cornelia married future noted plant physiologist Aldo Carl Leopold, son of UW professor and influential conservationist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, a “conservation classic” of which more than two million copies in 14 languages have been sold since its original publication in 1949.  The two young women both must have spent considerable time on campus at Science Hall.

6. A moving account of the marriage of Henry Gardner and Lou Ponder Rogers and his subsequent death, written by their daughter, who also is an artist, is found at


  1. Thanks for this second "one-two punch" of biosketch and book review.

    1. It always helps to know about the author, I think.

  2. Thanks also for the reference and link to the "Dear Sarah" letter, which I had never heard of. Reading it brought tears to my eyes ... as did physicist Richard Feynman's letter to his dead first wife, Arline.

    1. Yes, I remember it so well from the Ken Burns doc. That there might be such a connection to Samuel Rogers' grandfather floored me.

  3. Really enjoyed your research. I've had a couple of his books on my radar for a while. Looking forward to taking the plunge.

    1. Hope you find them as interesting as I did. So glad you enjoyed the pieces!