Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thorburn, Grant

THORBURN, GRANT (1773–1863), original of Galt's ‘Lawrie Todd,’ and author, son of a nail-maker, was born at Westhouses, near Dalkeith, Midlothian, on 18 Feb. 1773. He became a nail-maker, and worked for several years at Dalkeith. In 1792 he joined the ‘Friends of the People,’ and in the winter of 1793, along with seventeen others, was examined in Edinburgh as ‘a suspicious person,’ but dismissed. In 1794 he emigrated to New York, where at first he worked at his trade. In 1796 he and his brother, having between them a little money, and getting credit for something more, started a hardware business, which presently became Thorburn's sole concern. Owing to the introduction of machinery, nail-making in the old manual fashion ceased to be a profitable industry, and in 1805 Thorburn became a seedsman. He struggled through discouragements, failures, and even (in 1808) bankruptcy, and ultimately made his seed business one of the greatest in the world. From his youth he believed that he was under the care of a special Providence, and minute scrutiny of the events in his career enabled him curiously to illustrate his theory. He first became widely known as the hero of John Galt's ‘Lawrie Todd, or the Settlers in the Woods,’ 3 vols. 1830. In ‘Fraser's Magazine’ for 1833, vols. vii. and viii., Thorburn's autobiography was published, with a portrait, and this excited fresh interest. In 1854 he removed from New York to Winsted, Connecticut, thence to Newhaven in the same state, where he died on 21 Jan. 1863.

In June 1797 Thorburn married Rebecca Sickles, who worked heroically with him among the sick during the great epidemic in New York in 1798, and died on 28 Nov. 1800. He married a second time in 1801, and a third time in 1853. With an easy and somewhat loose but energetic and pointed style, Thorburn won attention by his originality, strength, and candour. His quaint discursiveness, his allusions to contemporaries and current affairs, his somewhat egotistical garrulousness, his confessions, descriptions, and reflections, besides illustrating his own character, throw light on the condition of America, and even of the civilised world, in his time. His publications are:

  1. ‘Forty Years' Residence in America; or the Doctrine of a particular Providence exemplified in the Life of Grant Thorburn (the original Lawrie Todd), Seedsman, New York,’ with an introduction by John Galt, 1834.
  2. ‘Men and Manners in Great Britain, by Lawrie Todd,’ 1834.
  3. ‘Fifty Years' Reminiscences of New York; or Flowers from the Garden of Lawrie Todd,’ 1845.
  4. ‘Lawrie Todd's Hints to Merchants, Married Men, and Bachelors,’ 1847.
  5. ‘Lawrie Todd's Notes on Virginia,’ 1848.
  6. ‘Life and Writings of Grant Thorburn, prepared by Himself,’ 1852.

The last-named work first appeared serially in the ‘Knickerbocker Magazine,’ the ‘New York Mirror,’ and various other periodicals.

[Thorburn's Works; Blackwood's Mag. xxvii. 694, xxx. 532; Irving's Book of Eminent Scotsmen; Allibone's Dict. of English Lit.; Athenæum, 1833, p. 847; London Literary Gazette, 1833, p. 787.]

T. B.