When Richard Bissell died, The Cincinnati Enquirer was flabbergasted. The paper knew Bissell and had on file his self-penned obituary along with an amazing story [17 November 1885]:
“Early last spring an aged man walked briskly into the Enquirer office, and, with a very brief preliminary, stated that he wished to leave in charge of the editor his autobiography, to be published after his death, which would probably occur some time this fall. . . . His prediction was fulfilled yesterday morning at the Hummel House, where, in the office of the hotel, while walking, he suddenly threw up his hands, and, with no other sign, fell to the floor a corpse.”
So confident was Bissell of his predicted death, reported the Enquirer, he had made very specific arrangements:
“In addition to other arrangements for his last sleep . . . this methodical old gentleman recently purchased a handsome monument, paying for the same $250, and had it all inscribed, even to the year 1885, leaving only in blank the month and day of the month.”
Bissell was indeed methodical. Upon his death, several letters were found in his pockets, including instructions to the Enquirer to print his “Autograph Obituary.” On 15 October, one month prior to his death, he wrote and sealed letters to a niece in Middleport, Ohio. One envelope contained stock certificates amounting to $3,750 (nearly $100,000 in today’s dollars). The other letter gave his niece the house in which she lived and the contents of a bank account.
According to his obituary, Richard Bissell, naturalist, was a self-educated man.
“I made my first yell in my mother’s bed room without a shirt on January 1, 1801. . . . I grew up on a farm in Connecticut. . . . I was self-raised and educated from four years old, when I was left on the stormy sea of life without compass or rudder to steer through a long voyage.”
Bissell claimed to have been a school teacher at age 17, with some of his pupils being 18 years old. He also practiced medicine, but expressed disdain for it:
“Subsequently, I practiced the humbuggery of medicine, which is experimenting and guesswork, like a half-blind man going out to shoot birds or rats.”
He attributed his long life, in fact, to avoiding medicine and doctors:
“I never had a doctor nor took any drug-store poisons in my life and thereby died a natural death in my eighty-fifth year.”
Bissell claimed to have traveled a fair amount:
“Then I was a traveler and stood upon the banks of the Rio Grande; visited the tombs of the Presidents and saw some of the renowned people of our country and the nobility within the tropics.”
The 1850 Census found Bissell in Salisbury, Ohio, just outside Middleport on the Ohio River in Meigs County. He is recorded as a teacher.
Bissell seems to have arrived in the Cincinnati area later in life, around 1860. For several years he lived on Colerain Avenue in Northside, but his last decade was spent at several smaller and older hotels in downtown Cincinnati including the Henrie House, the Madison House and, ultimately, at the Hummel House on the southwest corner of Sycamore and Ninth streets.
When Bissell appeared in the city directories, he usually listed only his address without an occupation. In 1881, he listed himself as a mineralogist. For the two years previous to that, he described himself as a “capitalist.” What brought him to Cincinnati is unknown, a condition he refers to in his obituary:
“As I have none here to linger by my grave, I invite passing friends to call at my lot No. 141, section 110, Spring Grove Cemetery, where I can be found at home by my monument at all times, since none move out of the city of the lamented dead of over forty thousand inhabitants.”
Bissell’s tombstone of red granite still rises from a shaded hillside at Spring Grove. He took a very philosophical view of life and his death, noting that “my evil deeds will live in voices, while my virtues will be written in sand.” After all his travels and all his years, Bissell expressed one wish:
“Life is a struggle, full of care and trouble; its greatest pleasures are of shortest duration. Yet if I was asked what I most desired I would say give me back my youth.”
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities