Arts and Leisure

The Long, Footsore Courtship of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for seven years walked back and forth over the West Boston Bridge in what seemed a futile quest.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1850

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow around 1850

When he started his lonely walk, he was a 29-year-old widower and Harvard professor, and he was in love with Fanny Appleton. He had met her in Switzerland eight months after his first wife, Mary Potter, died in November 1835.

Longfellow was born on Feb. 27, 1807, in Portland (then Massachusetts) to an old New England family. She was born Oct. 6, 1817, the daughter of wealthy Boston industrialist Nathan Appleton.

Upon her return from Europe in 1836, she lived in her family home on Beacon Hill.

He lived in Cambridge in rented rooms at the Craigie House, once George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War and now preserved as a historic site by the National Park Service.

Longfellow walked across the bridge over the Charles River to court her at home. She wasn’t interested. He persisted.

In 1839, he wrote to a friend: “[V]ictory hangs doubtful. The lady says she will not! I say she shall! It is not pride, but the madness of passion.”

The Longfellow Bridge

The Longfellow Bridge

She continued to reject him, causing him to suffer from depression and panic attacks. He took a six-month leave of absence from his job at Harvard to recover at a health spa in Germany.


Fanny Appleton

On May 10, 1843, Fanny Appleton sent a letter agreeing to marry him. He was too excited to wait for a carriage, so he walked for an hour and a half to her house. They were married a month later on July 13, and had their first of six children the following year. Her father bought the entire Craigie House for them as a wedding gift.

Longfellow published a poem called The Bridge in 1845, which made the West Boston Bridge famous. It describes his misery at Fanny’s rejection contrasted with his later happiness. The bridge was replaced in 1906 with a new bridge called The Longfellow Bridge.

Fanny died tragically in 1861 when her dress caught fire at home. Longfellow tried to save her by throwing a rug over her, but failed. He was too badly burned to attend her funeral, and wore a beard for the rest of his life to disguise the scars on his face. He never fully recovered from her death.



  1. Nancy Place

    February 27, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    Thank you for sharing this story!

  2. Deb Putnam

    February 28, 2014 at 12:50 am

    These articles have become my favorite sites!

  3. Margaret Dragon

    February 28, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Keep them coming please!

  4. Helen Solomon

    February 28, 2014 at 10:04 am

    The Salt and Pepper bridge!

  5. Molly Landrigan

    February 28, 2014 at 5:33 pm

    Yes, we always called the bridge the Salt and Pepper Bridge, too.

  6. Literary Rob

    April 28, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Just a few minor corrections: I’ve never heard that Longfellow suffered panic attacks; his trip to the spas at Germany were to treat his poor eyesight and his neuralgia (not a broken heart). The distance in time between her letter and their marriage is two months, not one as stated here. Most importantly, there seems to be little evidence to indicate any significant frequency in Longfellow walking across the bridge to Beacon Hill to see the Appletons. Certainly, it happened at least once, maybe twice, but not incessantly for seven years, as the folklore (and the opening sentence here) often implies. Even if it did, there was an omnibus from the Cambridge “village” into Boston. The fact is, he was often in Boston anyway, not solely to court a certain lady. It makes the story somewhat more poignant that, on May 10, 1843, he could not wait for the next ride and chose to walk in his excitement.

  7. Pingback: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day - Hope Surfaces from Despair - New England Historical Society

  8. Pingback: Acadians Refuse To Take a Loyalty Oath to the British King and Pay the Price - New England Historical Society

  9. Pingback: The Heroic Last-Minute Rescue of the Old South Meeting House - New England Historical Society

  10. Pingback: Franklin Pierce Discovers the Body of Nathaniel Hawthorne in New Hampshire - New England Historical Society

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To Top