In the charity ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital, Stephen Foster, America’s first professional songwriter, dies at the age of 37.
Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1826–the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He developed his talent for music early and while still young began to compose in the style of African-American minstrel music. His first hit as a professional songwriter was “Oh! Susanna,” which he sold to a publisher for $100 in 1848. In 1849, he was hired to write songs for the minstrel troupe of E.P. Christy; “The Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River”) was among the most popular from this period. Between 1850 and 1860, Foster wrote many of his most famous songs, including “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Despite his success, copyright laws were rarely enforced in music at the time, and he reaped few financial rewards from the widespread performance and publication of his songs. In 1857, economic difficulties led him to sell all rights to his future songs for just under $2,000. Near the end of his brief life, he lived alone in New York City and suffered from alcoholism. In 1864, he died in Bellevue Hospital. He had been taken to the hospital after suffering from a protracted fever which left him so weak that he collapsed and hit his head on a washbasin. Foster composed more than 200 songs in his lifetime, many of which are still popular today.