J. Sterling "Sterling T." Thomas
Stories of Guernsey county by Wm. Wolfe Page 610-611-612-613
Files of Cambridge papers published in the 80’s, 90’s and the first decade of the present century contain many poems and short articles of criticism signed “Sterling T.” Some of the older citizens will remember the writer as J. Sterling Thomas, an eccentric character of striking appearance, seen daily on the streets. His correct name was J. Smith Thomas, he himself having made the change from Smith to Sterling, as the latter was more suited to the dignity he believed himself to possess.
No prouder man than “Sterling T.” ever walked the streets of Cambridge. With his clean-cut features, gray hair, neatly trimmed beard and courtly bearing, his appearance was not unlike that of artist, actor, poet and diplomat combined. As long as his finances permitted, he dressed immaculately. When walking the streets, he invariably carried a cane. By those who came to know him he was found to be tender-hearted, honest and truthful, and courteous to an extreme.
Descendant of Pioneer Family.—Little was known about the life of J. sterling Thomas, as he kept his past a secret. It was known that his family was connected with the Gomber’s, Beatty’s and Metcalf’s, of pioneer days; that his father, Lambert Thomas, lived in Cambridge in the 30”s and published The Guernsey Times from 1836 to 1839; that “Sterling T.” was born in Zanesville about the year 1845 and years later came to Cambridge from Philadelphia. What had happened in the meantime was not known until after his death.
Lambert Thomas had been a man of some wealth, as such was considered in that day, and the inheritance of “Sterling T.” enabled him to live in style for a few years after coming to Cambridge. He painted pictures, wrote poetry and criticisms, and assumed an air of superiority that placed him in a class to himself. As both an artist and a writer, he displayed much ability. Why he chose to live in Cambridge was not known. Earning but little from painting and writing, he finally became so straitened in circumstances that he took quarters in a single basement room of the Taylor building, and here he lived for the last eight or ten years of his life. However, he retained his pride until the end. On the morning of December 2, 1910, he was found dead in a room of the American hotel which stood near the site of the present postoffice.
A few months before he died he came into the office of The Jeffersonian and handed the editor, John M. Amos, a bulky sealed envelope, with the instructions that it should not be opened until his death had been established beyond a question. On the day of his death the envelope was opened and found to contain the autobiography of J. Sterling Thomas. It is probable that he had a premonition of death, and, knowing that the people were curious concerning his past, took this means of satisfying them. While his life story, as he wrote it, is too long to be given here, we shall sketch it briefly.
Educated in Philadelphia and Europe.—He opens his story by stating that he was born in Zanesville, Ohio, son of Lambert and Catherine Gomber Metcalf Thomas (date of birth not given). When “Sterling T.” was five years old, his parents moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and placed him in a private school. Here, he says, he formed an attachment for a young girl whose name was Zilda Morgan. While in this school, his health was very delicate and his parents feared he would not live to manhood. On account of his health he was taken out of school at the age of sixteen and placed in a wholesale silk house where he remained one year. His father then sent him to Cadiz, Ohio, to work in the clothing store of an uncle. Here he met Hon. John A. Bingham who would have appointed “Sterling T.” to West Point, had his health permitted.
Returning to Philadelphia after a year in Cadiz, he began the study of art and classical literature. When a student in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, he painted a number of pictures that were exhibited and highly commended by artists and critics. The most of this literary productions of that time were printed in the Waverly Magazine and the Philadelphia Sunday papers.
Presumably to fire his poetical imagination he began drinking, forming a habit that remained through his life. Following a quarrel with his father he went West and tried roughing it for several months, drinking heavily all the time. Returning to Philadelphia, he wrote poetry and articles for Cincinnati, Chicago, and other city papers. After serving a clerkship in the Philadelphia postoffice for a year, he returned to art and literary labors. To further his art education he went to Europe and studied under some of the masters. While there he produced a number of his best pictures.
Not of Royal Birth.—In his youth, he said, he was obsessed with the belief that he was not the child of Mr. and Mrs. Lambert Thomas, but was a scion of royalty whom they had adopted and were passing as their own. On one occasion he accused his mother of this deception, but she painfully impressed upon him in a decisive manner that he was a Thomas and nobody else. As a child he was always morbid and melancholy. His only love affair, he said, was that of his boyhood days. In his literary studies, when a youth, he possessed an insane admiration for Byron and Thackeray.
Religious Belief.—He said that while he rejected some of the important dogmas of orthodox Christianity, he believed in religion and a future existence as a conscious entity, and had little dread of death, save the pain that may attend physical dissolution. Upon the death of Godwin Smith, the scholar whom he greatly admired, he wrote the following lines. They are not included in his autobiography. We found them in an old paper and are presenting them here a speciment of his literary work, and an indication of his religious faith:
“Goldwin, the gates of heaven stand ajar for thee,
Thou knight of old, linked to the man of modern mind;
Thine ancient face the wise and good no more may see,
But in thy works of wisdom truth and beauty find.
“The Scenes of this world’s evil live no more for thee,
To pain they heart, or to receive thy honest scorn;
With all the grace and gladness gone before for thee,
To that fair clime where honor, truth and love were born.
“There, where the good and honest live eternally,
In blest beatitude of mind and heart and soul,
Feeling the rapture of God’s love supernally,
With lofty intellectual life beyond control.”
In closing the story of his life he stated that his long and unintended stay in Cambridge had been due to his getting out of money. It had been very detrimental, as the annoyances he had experienced had affected his health. He requested Mr. Amos to give him as good a character as his conscience would permit, and closed with “Adieu, mon cher ami, jusque au revoir.”
On the day following his death he was buried in the South cemetery beside the bodies of his brother and sister. Six prominent professional and business men were the pall bearers.