His family was worried about his failure to find work. They suggested he become a professional singer, as he liked to entertain friends by singing songs by Franz Schubert. His family asked Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor George Henschel to advise him. Crawford sang for Henschel, who told him he could never sing professionally. He couldn’t sing in perfect tune.
Crawford was distraught.
His uncle broke a long silence. “Why don’t you write down that little story you told me some time ago of that strange experience you had in India — don’t you know?
Within the year, Francis Marion Crawford produced his first novel, Mr. Isaacs. It was an immediate hit. He would go on to write 47 popular novels, as well as magazine articles, works of nonfiction and drama.
Francis Marion Crawford
He was born Aug. 2, 1854 in Italy, the son of sculptor Thomas Crawford and Louisa Cutler Ward, Julia Ward Howe’s sister. His father died when he was young. He attended St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, Cambridge University, the University of Heidelberg and the University of Rome. He then went to India to study Sanskrit, returning in 1881 to continue for a year at Harvard. By then his family thought he ought to get a job.
Crawford socialized with a highbrow art crowd, befriending Isabella Stewart Gardner and actress Sarah Bernhardt. In 1884 he married Elizabeth Berden, the daughter of Civil War Gen. Hiram Berdan. They then had four children.
He set many of his works in Italy, and they reveal his deep knowledge of Italian history. His novel Corleone was the first literary treatment of the Mafia. He was best known, though, for stories of horror and fantasy, such as Khaled: A Tale of Arabia. Hollywood made his story The Screaming Skull into a 1958 film described as a “truly awful example of drive-in cinema.”
A classic Crawford line from his collection of horror stories goes like this:
A cool breeze stirred my hair at that moment, as the night wind began to come down from the hills, but it felt like a breath from another world.
Crawford lived most of his life in Italy. He died at Sorrento on April 9, 1909, of a heart attack brought on by a lung injury. He had inhaled toxic gases at a glass-making works in Colorado while researching a novel about glass-making in medieval Venice.
Photo of Francis Marion Crawford by L C Page and Company Boston 1903. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. This story was updated in 2021.