One of the Lost Geniuses


THE telegraph announces the death in the city of Mexico, October 21st, of Henry Ward Poole, one of the oldest American residents of that city. It speaks of him as a man of rare attainments, and as having received the degree of M. A. from Harvard College.

Mr. Poole was so unique a personality and so much of a public character that some reminiscence of him may possess interest. I believe he was a native of Danvers, Mass., but for some years the family resided near Worcester. I first knew him at Yale College in 1842, where he was a member of the class of 1845. His brother was a classmate of mine, and became a somewhat intimate friend, and the two roomed together. I do not remember that I made much progress in Henry’s acquaintance at that time, although I saw him frequently. He appeared to me to be always intensely busy about something, and had a preoccupied air.

At the beginning of his junior year he did not return, and as his brother was also absent for a while I lost track of him. I next met him at Worcester, at a house where I was visiting, and where he had called to borrow a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I found that he wanted to consult the article on Music, and especially the mathematical portion, and that in regard to everything relating to the theory of music he was well informed. He told me that he was studying the subject of organs, and invited me to come and see him at his home, two or three miles from the city. I afterwards made the visit, and on this occasion I referred to our acquaintance in college, and asked him why he left.

“ Oh,” he replied, “ I was there for a temporary purpose only, and having accomplished that I left ”

“Well?” said I interrogatively, intimating that I should like to know more.

“ Yes,” said he, “ I will tell you all about it, if you care to listen. The fact, is I have a taste, or I might say a natural aptitude, for mechanics, and I thought I should like to do something in a mechanical way which was worth doing. I investigated a good many mechanical pursuits, and I came to the conclusion that organ building was about the most difficult, and therefore the best worth doing, of any.

“Now, you see, to build an organ it is necessary to know a good many things. First of all a man should thoroughly understand the theory of music, and to do that requires a considerable knowledge of mathematics. It was that which took me to college. I did n’t care anything about Latin and Greek and other things, hut I did want mathematics, and I decided that I could get them in college better than elsewhere ; so I fitted for college. Of course I had to study Latin and Greek and other things, but I got the mathematics that I wanted, and although it took a good deal of time, on the whole, I am not sorry. Well, when I had the mathematics, that was all I cared for, and then I left.

“ Now, in organ building a good deal of leather is used, and it is necessary to understand something about the tanning and preparation and finish of several different kinds of leather ; so I apprenticed myself to a tanner, until I could do a respectable job in tanning and finishing piano leather.

“ Also there are the metal pipes. In order to understand them one must be familiar with certain kinds of metal work : well, I learned that, and then filing, turning, forging, and finishing steel and iron, — in short, the ordinary work of a machinist. I did enough at that to be a respectable workman.

“ Next, there is the ivory work : that is a department by itself, and had to be learned; but I had done so many similar things that I found it quite easy. The cabinet work and the other wood work was more of a task ; for it is not only necessary to know all about working woods, but one must also know a great deal about the different kinds of wood, — their peculiarities and possibilities. There is more wood about an organ than anything else, and everything depends on the kind, quality, condition, and workmanship of this wood. It took me a long time to master this, although I did not find the mechanical part difficult. There is some of my work. I made everything in that, and he pointed to a highly finished parlor organ which I had already remarked on account of its beauty.”

“ You made that?” I said, doubtless indicating some surprise.

“Certainly,” said he ; “why not? I ought to do as good work as another man after having learned the trade. Well,” he continued, “ to make a rather long story short, I have mastered, I think, what there is to be known in this country about organs. Now I am going abroad to see if they have anything to teach me there, and in twenty-five years from the time I began I expect to be able to make as good an organ as has ever been produced.”

The coolness with which he laid out half of an ordinary business life to the purpose of acquiring an art almost took away my breath ; but I found that he was perfectly serious. No commercial view seemed to present itself in the matter. His one thought was that he should himself be able to build a perfect organ.

Four or five years later, in 1850, Poole produced his Enharmonic Organ, which for a time attracted much attention in musical circles. His own account of it appeared in Silliman’s Journal of Science ; and there were several articles in other magazines, and numerous notices in the papers of the time. As nearly as I can recollect, this invention was an attempt to give every scale perfectly, by having pipes that were accurately tuned for each scale, and machinery so adapted that all the scales could be controlled from one keyboard. B flat and A sharp would no longer be represented by the same sound as they are in the ordinary organ or piano, — which sound is in fact neither B flat nor A sharp, but a compromise between the two, — but each should have its true sound, and so on. Many thoroughly practical and scientific musicians spoke warmly in favor of the new instrument, but after a while the interest died out, and nothing practical came of it. Whether this was because the instrument was too elaborate and complicated for general use, or because no one took up the enterprise in a business way and applied to its furtherance the necessary capital and energy to insure success, I do not know. Perhaps no one does. Probably Poole himself lost his interest in it as soon as he had accomplished what he undertook.

It was about this time that I met him, one day, in the railroad station at New Haven. While we stood talking together, a small bell, perhaps a porter’s call or something of the sort, rang out near us rather sharply, but not, to my ear, disagreeably so. Poole jumped as though he had been shot, put both hands to his ears, and looked wistfully at me, as much as to say, Let me know when it stops. I can’t take my hands down until I am sure. Then, gradually recovering his equanimity, he said, “ Ah ! we ‘ll soon put an end to all that sort of thing. No use going through life in agony, when everything can just as well be made pleasant.”

“ No,” said I ; “ but how do you propose to do it ? ”

“ Simply have all our sounds musical,” said he; “ easiest thing in the world. That bell, now, might be a source of absolute pleasure instead of throwing people into fits with its horrid din.” And he proceeded to give his theory of common concordant sounds which should produce this elysium ; but I have forgotten the details.

After this I lost sight of Poole for a good many years. I heard, however, that he was in the city of Mexico, that he had acted as professor (I think of modern languages) in a college there, and that he was pleased with the country. One day, later on, I met him at the Athenaeum Library in Boston, and bad a talk with him, interesting, intense, and iconoclastic as usual, about Mexico. During the conversation he took from his pocket a handful of brilliant gems, which he was apparently carrying loose with his knife, small change, and other articles. I remember among them some very large and beautiful rubies and emeralds, evidently of great value. Poole immediately went off into a dissertation on gems. Each kind had its history, and each individual stone its biography. He made it all very interesting. I referred to his old interest in music. “ Oh,” he said, with a faraway, dreamy look, “ I had forgotten about that ; so I had. How long ago it seems ! ”

That was the last time I saw him. A few years ago, a friend of mine was about visiting Mexico, and upon his asking me if I knew any one there, I gave him a letter to Poole, knowing no special address, nor even if he were still there. My friend told me afterwards that he found him without difficulty. He was living by himself with a housekeeper and servant (he never married) in a small house with a considerable yard, surrounded by a high wall, and guarded by a number of dogs. At first there appeared to be some doubt about the visitor being allowed to enter, but he was finally admitted. The style of living, although perhaps not uncomfortable, seemed, to an American eye, very careless and Helter-skelter. My letter was presented, but Poole was apparently not quite sure that he had ever heard of me. He said, however, that he had known and forgotten so many people that one more or less made no difference, and he began talking immediately on Mexican affairs, showing much more interest in them than in anything that was happening at his old home.

This was the last, I think, that I heard of him, until I saw the notice of his death ; but he was so full of resource and genius and a certain kind of energy that one cannot help wishing to know more of a life that must have been, to say the least, very picturesque.