Some Cranks and Their Crotchets
Nature hath framed strange fellows in her time ! ”
Merchant of Venice, I. i.
ABOUT five-and-twenty years ago, when I was assistant librarian at Harvard University, much of my time was occupied in revising and bringing toward completion the gigantic pair of twin catalogues — of authors and subjects — which my predecessor, Dr. Ezra Abbot, had started in 1861. Twins they were in simultaneity of birth, but not in likeness of growth. Naturally, the classified catalogue was much bigger than its brother, filled more drawers, cost more money, and made a vast deal more trouble. For while some books were easy enough to classify, others were not at all easy, and sometimes curious questions would arise.
One day, for example, I happened to be looking at a pamphlet on the value of Pi; and should any of my readers ask what that might mean, I should answer that Pi (π) is the Greek letter which geometers use to denote the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The arithmetical value of this symbol is 3.1415926536 and so on in an endless fraction. Is it not hard to see what there can be in such an innocent decimal to irritate human beings and destroy their peace of mind ? Yet so it is. Many a human life has been wrecked upon Pi. To a certain class of our fellow creatures its existence is maddening. It interferes with the success of a little scheme upon which they have set their hearts : nothing less than to construct a square which shall be exactly equivalent in dimensions to a given circle. Nobody has ever done such a thing, for it cannot be done. But when mathematicians tell these poor people that such is the case, they howl with rage, and, dipping their pens in gall, write book after book bristling with figures to prove that they have “ squared the circle.” The Harvard library does not buy such books, but it accepts all manner of gifts, and has thus come to contain some queer things.
When I consulted the subject catalogue, to see under what head it had been customary to classify these lucubrations on Pi, I found, sure enough, that it was Mathematics § Circle - Squaring. Following this cue, I explored the drawers in other directions, and found that books on “ perpetual motion ” formed a section under Physics, while crazy interpretations of the book of Daniel were grouped along with works of solid Biblical scholarship by such eminent writers as Reuss and Kuenen and Cheyne. Clearly, here was a case for reform. The principle of classification was faulty. In one sense, the treatment of the quadrature of the circle may be regarded as a section under the general head of mathematics ; as, for example, when Lindemann, in 1882, showed that Pi cannot be represented as the root of any algebraic equation with rational coefficients. But our circle-squaring literature is very different. It is usually written by persons whose mathematical horizon scarcely extends beyond long division : just as the writers on perpetual motion know nothing of physics ; just as so many expositors have dealt with the ten-horned beast in blissful ignorance alike of ancient history and of the principles of literary criticism. What all such books illustrate, however various may be their ostensible themes, is the pathology of the human mind. They are specimens of Insane Literature. As such they have a certain sort of interest; and to any rational being it is the only sort they can have.
So I culled from many a little drawer the cards appertaining to divers printed products of morbid cerebration, and gathered them into a class of Insane Literature ; and under this rubric such sections as Circle-Squaring, Perpetual Motion, Great Pyramid, Earth not a Globe, etc., were evidently in their proper place. The name of the class was duly inscribed on the outside of its drawer, and the matter seemed happily disposed of.
The way of the reformer, however, is beset with difficulties, and it is seldom that his first efforts are crowned with entire success. Not many days had elapsed since this emendation of the catalogue, when one of my assistants brought me the card of a book on the Apocalypse, by a certain Mr. Smallwit, and called my attention to the fact that it was classified as Insane Literature.
“ Very well.” I said, “so it is.”
“ I don’t doubt it, sir,” said she ; “ but the author lives over in Chelsea, and I saw him this morning in one of the alcoves. Perhaps, if he were to look in the catalogue and see how his book is classified, he mightn’t altogether like it. Then, as I looked a little further along the cards, I came upon this pamphlet by Herr Dummkopf, of Breslau, upsetting the law of gravitation ; and — do you know ? — Herr Dummkopf is spending the winter here in Cambridge ! ”
“ To be sure,” said I, “ it was very stupid of me not to foresee such cases. Of course we can’t call a man a fool to his face. In a catalogue which marshals the quick along with the dead some heed must be paid to the amenities of life. Pray get and bring me all those cards.”
By the time they arrived a satisfactory solution of the difficulty had suggested itself. I told the assistant simply to scratch out “ Insane,” and put “ Eccentric ” instead. For while the harsh Latin epithet would of course infuriate Messrs. Dummkopf, Smallwit & Co., it might be doubted if their feelings would be hurt by the milder Greek word. Some people of their stripe, to whom notoriety is the very breath of their nostrils, would consider it a mark of distinction to be called eccentric. At all events, the harshness would be delicately veiled under a penumbra of ambiguity.
Thus the class Eccentric Literature was established in our catalogue, and there it has remained, while the books in the library have increased from a hundred thousand to half a million. Once or twice, I am told, has some disgusted author uttered a protest, but the quiet of Gore Hall has not been disturbed thereby Care is needed in treating such a subject, and my rule was that no amount of mere absurdity, no extremity of dissent from generally received opinions, should consign a book to the class of Eccentric Literature, unless it showed unmistakable symptoms of crankery or the buzzing of a bee in the author’s bonnet. This rule has been strictly followed. One lot of books — the Bacon - Shakespeare stuff—which I intended to put in this class, but forgot to do so because of sore stress of work, still remain absurdly grouped along with the books on Shakespeare written by men in their senses. With this exception, the class offers us a fairly comprehensive view of the literature of cranks.
Just where the line should be drawn between sanity and crankery is not always easy to determine, and must usually be left to soundness of judgment in each particular case, as with so many other questions of all grades, from the supreme court down to the kitchen. One of the most frequent traits of your crank is his megalomania, or selfmagnification. His intellectual equipment is so slender that he cannot see wherein he is inferior to Descartes or Newton. Without enough knowledge to place him in the sixth form of a grammar school, he will assail the conclusions of the greatest minds the world has seen. His mood is belligerent ; since people will not take him at his own valuation, he is apt to regard society as engaged in a conspiracy to ignore and belittle him. Of humor he is pretty sure to be destitute ; an abounding sense of the ludicrous is one of the best safeguards of mental health, and even a slight endowment will usually nip and stunt the fungus growth of crankery.
The slightest glimmering sense of humor would have restrained that inveterate circle-squarer, James Smith, from publishing (in 1865) his pamphlet entitled The British Association in Jeopardy, and Dr.Whewell, the Master of Trinity, in the Stocks without Hope of Escape. His case, with those of many other ingenious lunatics, was racily set forth by the late Professor De Morgan in his Budget of Paradoxes (London, 1872), a bulky book dealing with the author’s personal experiences with cranks and their crotchets. It was De Morgan’s lot as an eminent mathematician to be outrageously bored by circle-squarers and their kin, and it was a happy thought to put on record the queer things that happened. His friends asked him again and again why he took the trouble to mention and expose such absurdities. He replied that when your crank publishes a book “ full of figures which few readers can criticise, a great many people are staggered to this extent, that they imagine there must be the indefinite something in the mysterious all this. They are brought to the point of suspicion that the mathematicians ought not to treat all this with such undisguised contempt, at least. Now I have no fear for π; but I do think it possible that general opinion might in time demand that the crowd of circle-squarers, etc., should be admitted to the honors of opposition ; and this would be a timetax of five per cent, one man with another, upon those who are better employed.” At any rate, continues De Morgan, with a twinkle in the corner of his eye, whether in chastising cranks he has any motive but public good “ must be referred to those who can decide whether a missionary chooses his pursuit solely to convert the heathen.” He confesses that perhaps he may have a little of the spirit of Colonel Quagg, whose principle of action was thus succinctly expressed: “ I licks ye because I kin, and because I like, and because ye’s critters that licks is good for ! ”
Among the creatures whose malady seemed to call for such drastic treatment was Captain Forman, R. N., who in 1833 wrote against the law of gravitation, and got not a word of notice. Then he wrote to Sir John Herschel and Lord Brougham, asking them to get his book reviewed in some of the quarterlies. Receiving no answer from these gentlemen, he addressed in one of the newspapers a card to Lord John Russell, inveighing against their “dishonest ” behavior. Still getting no satisfaction, the valorous captain wrote to the Royal Astronomical Society with a challenge to controversy. To this letter came a polite but brief answer, advising him to study the rudiments of mechanics. It was not in the paradoxer’s nature to submit tamely to such treatment; and he answered in a printed pamphlet, wherein he called that learned society “ craven dunghill cocks ” and bestrewed them with other choice flowers of rhetoric, much to the relief of his feelings.
One of this naval officer’s fellow sufferers was a farm laborer who took it into his head that the Lord Chancellor had offered £100,000 reward to any one who should square the circle. So Hodge went to work and squared it, and then hied him to London, blissfully dreaming of sudden wealth. Hearing that De Morgan was a great mathematician, he left his papers with him, including a letter to the Lord Chancellor, claiming the £100.000. De Morgan returned the papers with a note, saying that no such prize had ever been offered, and gently hinting that the worthy Hodge had not sufficient knowledge to see in what the problem consisted. This elicited from the rustic philosopher a long letter, from which I must quote a few sentences, so characteristic of the circlesquaring talent and temper : —
Doctor Morgan, Sir. Permit me to address you
Brute Creation may perhaps enjoy the faculty of beholding visible things with a more penitrating eye than ourselves. But Spiritual objects are as far out of their reach as though they had no being Nearest therefore to the brute Creation are those men who Suppose themselves to be so far governed by external objects as to believe nothing but what they See and feel And Can accomedate to their Shallow understanding and Imaginations
. . . When a Gentleman of your Standing in Society . . . Can not understand or Solve a problem That is explicitly explained by words and Letters and mathematacally operated by figuers He had best consult the wise proverd
Do that which thou Canst understand and Comprehend for thy good.
I would recommend that Such Gentleman Change his business
And appropriate his time and attention to a Sunday School to Learn what he Could and keep the Litle Children form durting their Close
With Sincere feelings of Gratitude for your weakness and Inability I am Sir your Superior in Mathematics.
A few days after this elegant epistle there came to De Morgan another from the same hand. Hodge had sent his papers to some easy - going American professor, whose reply must clearly have been too polite. It is never safe to give your crank an inch of comfort ; it will straightway become an ell of assurance. This American savant, crows Rusticus, “ highly approves of my work. And Says he will Insure me Reward in the States I write this that you may understand that I have knowledge of the unfair way that I am treated in my own nati County I am told and have reasons to believe that it is the Clergy that treat me so unjust. I am not Desirious of heaping Disonors upon my own nation. But if 1 have to Leave this kingdom without my Just dues. The world Shall know how I am and have been treated
“ I am Sir Desirous of my Just dues X. Y.”
A cynical philosopher once said that you cannot find so big a fool but there will be some bigger fool to swear by him ; and so our agricultural friend had his admiring disciple who felt bound to break a lance for him with the unappreciative De Morgan : —
“ He has done what you nor any other mathematician as those who call themselves such have done. And what is the reason that you will not candidly acknowledge to him . . . that he has squared the circle shall I tell you ? it is because he has performed the feat to obtain the glory of which mathematicians have battled from time immemorial that they might encircle their brows with a wreath of laurels far more glorious than ever conqueror won it is simply this that it is a poor man a humble artisan who has gained that victory that you don’t like to acknowledge it you don’t like to be beaten and worse to acknowledge that you have miscalculated, you have in short too small a soul to acknowledge that he is right. ... I am backed in my opinion not only by Mr. Q. a mathematician and watchmaker residing in the boro of Southwark but by no less an authority than the Professor of mathematics of * * * College United States Mr. Q and I presume that he at least is your equal as an authority and Mr. Q says that the government of the U. S. will recompense X. Y. for the discovery he has made if so what a reflection upon Old england the boasted land of freedom the nursery of the arts and sciences that her sons are obliged to go to a foreign country to obtain that recompense to which they are justly entitled.” 1
Ordinarily, the aim of the paradoxers is to achieve renown by doing what nobody ever did. Hence the fascination exercised upon them by those apparently simple problems which already in ancient times were recognized as “ old stickers,” the quadrature of the circle, the trisection of angles, and the duplicature of the cube. The ancients found these geometric problems insolvable, though it was left for modern algebra to point out the reason, namely, that no quantities can be geometrically constructed from given quantities, except such as can be formed from them algebraically by the solution of quadratic equations; if the algebraic solution comes as the root of a cubic or biquadratic equation, it cannot be constructed by geometry. Against this hopeless wall the crowd of paradoxers will doubtless continue to break their heads until the millennium dawns.
Sometimes, however, our crank has a practical end in view, as in the numerous attempts to discover “ perpetual motion,” or, in other words, to invent a machine out of which you can get indefinitely more energy than you put in. It is not strange that many thousands of dollars have been wasted in this effort to recover Aladdin’s lost lamp. The notorious Keely motor is but one of a host of contrivances born and bred of crass ignorance of the alphabet of dynamics. But perpetual motion is not the only form assumed by wealth - seeking crankery. In 1861, a Captain Roblin, of Normandy, having ascertained to his own satisfaction, from the prolonged study of the Zodiac of Denderah, the sites of sundry gold mines, came forward with proposals for a joint stock company to dig and be rich. The labors of Herr Johannes von Gumpach were of a more philanthropic turn. He published in 1861 a pamphlet entitled A Million’s Worth of Property and Five Hundred Lives annually lost at Sea by the Theory of Gravitation. A Letter on the True Figure of the Earth, addressed to the Astronomer Royal. Next year this pamphlet grew into a stout volume. It maintained that a great many shipwrecks were occasioned by errors of navigation due to an erroneous conception of the shape of the earth. Since Newton’s time it has been supposed to be flattened at the poles, whereas the amiable Gumpach calls upon his fellow creatures to take notice that it is elongated, and to mend their ways accordingly.
The desire to prove great men wrong is one of the crank’s most frequent and powerful incentives. The name of Newton is the greatest in the history of science : how flattering to one’s self it must be, then, to prove him a fool! In eccentric literature the books against Newton are legion. Here is a title : David and Goliath, or an Attempt to prove that the Newtonian System of Astronomy is directly opposed to the Scriptures. By William Lander, Mere, Wilts, 1833. And here is De Morgan’s terse summary of the book : “ Newton is Goliath ; Mr. Lander is David. David took five pebbles ; Mr. Lander takes five arguments. He expects opposition ; for Paul and Jesus both met with it.”
There are few subjects over which cranks are more painfully exercised than the figure of the earth, and its relations to the heavenly bodies. Aristotle proved that the earth is a globe ; Copernicus showed that it is one of a system of planets revolving about the sun ; Newton explained the dynamics of this system. But at length came a certain John Hampden, who with dauntless breast maintained that all this is wrong ! His pamphlet was prudently dedicated “ to the unprofessional public and the common sense men of Europe and America ; ” he knew that it could find no favor with bigoted men of science. This Hampden, like his great namesake, is nothing if not bold. “ The Newtonian or Copernican theory,” he tells us, from the first hour of its invention, has never dared to submit to an appeal to facts ! ” Again, “ Defenders it never had; and no threats, no taunts or exposure, will ever rouse the energies of a single champion.” In other words, astronomers do not waste their time in noticing Mr. Hampden’s taunts and threats. Why is this so? His next sentence reminds us that “ cowardice always accompanies conscious guilt.” He goes on to tell us the true state of the case : “ The Earth, as it came from the hands of its Almighty Creator, is a motionless Plane, based and built upon foundations which the Word of God expressly declares cannot be searched out or discovered. . . . The stars are hardly bigger than the gas jets which light our streets, and if they could be made to change places with them, no astronomer could detect the difference.” The North Pole is the centre of the flat earth, and its extreme southern limit is not a South Pole, but a circle 30,000 miles in circumference. Night is caused by the sun passing behind a layer of clouds 7000 miles thick. It is not gravitation which makes a river run downhill, but the impetus of the water behind pressing on the water before. Is not this delicious ? As for Newton, poor fellow, he “ lived in a superstitious age and district; he was educated among an illiterate peasantry. " This is like the way in which the Baconizing cranks dispose of Shakespeare. So zealous was Mr. Hampden that in 1876 he began publishing a periodical called The TruthSeeker’s Oracle. Similar views were set forth by one Samuel Rowbotham, who wrote under the name of “ Parallax,” and by a William Carpenter, whose pamphlet, One Hundred Proofs that the Earth is not a Globe (Baltimore, 1885), is quite a curiosity ; for example, Proof 33 : If the earth were a globe, people — except those on top — would certainly have to be fastened to its surface by some means or other ; . . . but as we know that we simply walk on its surface, without any other aid than that which is necessary for locomotion on a plane, it follows that we have herein a conclusive proof that Earth is not a globe.” Since Mr. Carpenter understands the matter so thoroughly, can we wonder at the earnestness with which he rebukes the late Richard Proctor ?
“ Mr. Proctor, we charge you that, whilst you teach the theory of the earth’s rotundity, you KNOW that it is a plane ! ”
More original than Messrs. Hampden and Carpenter are the writers who maintain that the earth is hollow, and supports a teeming population in its interior. Early in the present century this idea came with the force of a revelation to the mind of Captain John Cleves Symmes, a retired army officer engaged in trade at St. Louis. In 1818 he issued a circular, of which the following is an abridgment: “ To ALL THE WORLD I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within ; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will Support and aid me in the undertaking. . . . My terms are [Hear, Messrs. Quay and Platt ! and give ear, O Tammany !] the PATRONAGE of THIS and the NEW WORLDS. . . . I select Dr, S. L. Mitchell, Sir H. Davy, and Baron Alexander von Humboldt as my protectors. I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia, in the fall season, with reindeer and sleighs, on the ice of the frozen sea. I engage we find a warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82°. We will return in the succeeding spring.”
This circular was sent by mail to men of science, colleges, learned societies, legislatures, and municipal bodies, all over the United States and Europe ; for when it comes to postage, your crank seems always to have unlimited funds at his disposal. At Paris, the distinguished traveler, Count Volney, doubtless with a significant shrug, presented the precious document to the Academy of Sciences, by which it was mirthfully laid upon the table. Nowhere did learned men take it seriously; it was generally set down as a rather stupid hoax. But, nothing daunted by such treatment, the worthy Symmes began giving lectures on the subject, and succeeded in making some impression upon an uninstructed public. In 1824, his audience at Hamilton, Ohio, at the close of a lecture, “ resolved, that we esteem Symmes’ Theory of the Earth deserving of serious examination and worthy of the attention of the American people.” At a theatre in Cincinnati a benefit was given for the proposed polar expedition, and verses were recited suitable to the occasion : —
By whom the unfading laurel may be won ?
Yes! history’s pen may yet inscribe the name
Of SYMMES to grace her future scroll of fame.”
The captain’s petitions to Congress, however, praying for ships and men, were heartlessly laid on the table, and nothing was left him but to keep on crying in the wilderness, which he did until his death in 1829. In the cemetery at Hamilton, the freestone monument over his grave, placed there by his son, Americus Symmes, is surmounted with a hollow globe, open at the poles.
Half a century later the son published a pamphlet,2 in which he gave a somewhat detailed exposition of his father’s notions. From this we learn that the interior world is well lighted ; for the sun’s rays, passing through “ the dense cold air of the verges ” (that is, the circular edge of the big polar hole), are powerfully refracted, and after getting inside they are forthwith reflected from one concave surface to another, with the result that the whole interior is illuminated with a light equal to 3600 times that of the full moon. We learn, too, that the famous Swedish geographer, Norpensjould (semper sic !), after passing the magnetic pole, found a timbered country with large rivers and abundant animal life. Afterward one Captain Wiggins visited this country, where he found flax and wheat, highly magnetic iron ore and rich mines of copper and gold. The trees are as big as any in California ; hides, wool, tallow, ivory, and furs abound. The inhabitants are very tall, with Roman noses, and speak Hebrew. Yes, echoes Captain Tuttle, an old whaler, who also has visited this new country, they speak Hebrew, and are a smart people. “ Would it not be logical,” writes Americas, “ to think that this was one of the lost tribes of Israel ? for we read in the Bible that they went up the Euphrates to the north and dwelt in a land where man never dwelt before.” Just so; evidently, Messrs. “Norpensjould,” Wiggins, and Tuttle sailed “ across the verge ” and into the interior country, the concave world, which shall henceforth be known as Symmzonia ! The book ends with the triumphant query, “ Where were those explorers if not in the Hollow of the Earth, and would they not have come out at the South Pole if they had continued on their course?”
It is sad to have such positive conclusions disputed, but even in eccentric lore the doctors are found to disagree. Scarcely had Americas put forth his revised edition, when a pamphlet entitled The Inner World, by Frederick Culmer, was published at Salt Lake City (1886). Its chapters have resounding titles: I. The Universal Vacuity of Centres ; II. The Polar Orifices of the Earth ; III. The Alleged Northwest Passage and Symmes’ Hole. We are told that although the polar orifices have diameters of about a thousand miles each, nevertheless, in spite of Wiggins and Tuttle, “ there is no passage to the inner world on the north of America; ” on the contrary, it must be sought within the antarctic circle. But Mr. Culmer would discourage rash attempts at exploration, and believes that “ no man will be able to plant the standard of his country on any land in that region worth one dime to himself or any one else at present.” For this gloomy outlook we must try to console ourselves with the knowledge that Mr. Culmer has detected the true explanation of the Aurora Borealis : “ it is the sun’s rays shining on a placid interior ocean and reflecting upon the outer atmosphere.”
A favorite occupation of cranks is the discovery of hidden meanings in things. Whether we are to say that the passionate quest of the occult has been prolific in mental disturbances, or whether we had better say that persons with ill-balanced minds take especial delight in the search for the occult, the practical result is about the same. The impelling motive is not very different from that of the circle-squarers ; it is pleasing to one’s self-love to feel that one discerns things to which all other people are blind. Hence the number of mare’snests that have been complacently stared into by learned donkeys is legion. Mere erudition is no sure safeguard against the subtle forms which the temptation takes on, as we may see from the ingenuity that has been wasted on the Great Pyramid. In 1864, Piazzi Smyth, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, published his book entitled Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, and afterward followed it with other similar books. Whatever may have been the original complexion of this gentleman’s mind, it was not such as to prevent his attaining distinction and achieving usefulness as a practical astronomer. But the pyramids were too much for his mental equilibrium. As De Morgan kindly puts it, “ his work on Egypt is paradox of a very high order, backed by a great quantity of useful labor, the results of which will be made available by those who do not receive the paradoxes.”
The pyramidal tombs of Egyptian kings were an evolution in stone or brick from the tumulus of earth which in prehistoric ages was heaped over the body of the war chief. They are objects of rare dignity and interest, not only from their immense size, but from sundry peculiarities in their construction. In their orientation great care was taken, though usually with imperfect success. Their sides face the four cardinal points, and the descending entry-way forms a kind of telescope, from the bottom of which an observer, sixty centuries ago, could look out at what was then the polestar. These and other features of the pyramids are no doubt connected with Egyptian religion, and may very likely have subserved astrological purposes. But what say the pyramid cranks, or “ pyramidalists,” as they have been called ?
According to them, the builders of the Great Pyramid were supernaturally instructed, probably by Melchizedek, King of Salem. Thus they, were enabled to place it in latitude 30° N. ; to make its four sides face the cardinal points; to adopt the sacred cubit, or one twentymillionth part of the earth’s polar axis, as their unit of length ; “ and to make the side of the square base equal to just so many of these sacred cubits as there are days and parts of a day in a year. They were further by supernatural help enabled to square the circle, and symbolized their victory over this problem by making the pyramid’s height bear to the perimeter of the base the ratio which the radius of a circle bears to the circumference.” 3 In like manner, by immediate divine revelation, the builders of the pyramid were instructed as to the exact shape and density of the earth, the sun’s distance, the precession of the equinoxes, etc., so that their figures on all these subjects were more accurate than any that modern science has obtained, and these figures they built into the pyramid. They also built into it the divinely revealed and everlasting standards of “length, area, capacity, weight, density, heat, time, and money,” and finally they wrought into its structure the precise date at which the millennium is to begin. All this valuable information, handed down directly from heaven, was thus securely bottled up in the Great Pyramid for six thousand years or so, awaiting the auspicious day when Mr. Piazzi Smyth should come and draw the cork. Why so much knowledge should have been bestowed upon the architects of King Cheops, only to be concealed from posterity, is a pertinent question ; and one may also ask, why was it worth while to bring a Piazzi Smyth into the world to reveal it, since plodding human reason had after all discovered every bit of it, except the date of the millennium ? Why, moreover, did the revelation thus elaborately buried in or about B. C. 4000 come just abreast of the scientific knowledge of A. D. 1864, and there stop short ? Is it credible that old Melchizedek knew nothing about the telephone, or the Roentgen ray, or the cholera bacillus ? Our pyramidalists should be more enterprising, and elicit from their venerable fetish some useful hints as to wireless telegraphy, or the ventilation of Pullman cars, or the purification of Pennsylvania politics. Perhaps the lastnamed problem might vie in difficulty with squaring the circle !
The lucubrations of Piazzi Smyth, like those of Miss Delia Bacon, called into existence a considerable quantity of eccentric literature. For example, there is Skinner’s Key to the Hebrew-Egyptian Mystery in the Source of Measures originating the British Inch and the Ancient Cubit, published in Cincinnati in 1875, a tall octavo of 324 pages, bristling with diagrams and decimals, Hebrew words and logarithms. The book begins by getting the circle neatly squared, and then goes on to aver that sundry crosses, including the Christian cross, are an emblematic display of the origin of measures. The “ mound-builders ” come in for a share of the author’s attention ; for the mounds are “ alike Typhonic emblems with the pyramid of Egypt and with Hebrew symbols.” A Typhonic emblem relates to Typhon, the “lord of sepulture,” whose Egyptian representative was the crocodile, as his Hebrew representative was the hog ; “ exemplified in the Christian books by the devil leaving the man and passing into the herd of swine, which thereupon rushed into the sea, another emblem of Typhon.” Yet another such emblem is a mound in Ohio which simulates the contour of an alligator. A certain Aztec pyramid, described by Humboldt, has 318 niches, apparently in allusion to the days of the old Mexican civil calendar. Mr. Skinner sees in this numeral the value of Pi, and furthermore informs us that 318 is the Gnostic symbol for Christ, as well as the number of Abraham’s trained servants. Frequent use of it is made in the Great Pyramid; for example, multiplied by six it gives the height of the king’s chamber, and multiplied by two it gives half the base side of that apartment. Our author then puts the pyramid into a sphere, and after this feat it is an easy transition to Noah’s flood, the zodiac, and modern ritualism. Of similar purport, though more concise than this octavo, is Dr. Watson Quinby’s Solomon’s Seal, a Key to the Pyramid, published at Wilmington, Delaware, in 1880. From this little book we learn that “ in the early days of the world some one measured the earth, and found its diameter, in round numbers, to be 41,569,000 feet, or 498,828,000 inches; ” also that “Vishnu means Fish-Nuh, Noah-the-Fish, in allusion to his sojourn in the ark.” Moreover, the Institutes of Manu were written by Noah, since Maha-Nuh = Great-Noah! With equal felicity, Rev. Edward Dingle (in his The Balance of Physics, the Square of the Circle, and the Earth’s True Solar and Lunar Distances, London, 1885, pp. 246) declares that “ my success, let it be held what it may, was secured by cleaving to the Mosaic initiation of the Sabbatic number for my radius.” At the end of his book Mr. Dingle exclaims, “ To the Lord be all thanksgiving, who has kept my intellect and the directing of its thoughts sound, while seeking to deliver his word from the exulting shouts of his enemies and the seducers of mankind ! ”
From these grotesque rigmaroles it is not a long step to the lucubrations of the writers in whose bonnets the bee of prophecy has buzzed until they have come to fancy themselves skilled interpreters. There is apt to be the same droll mixing of arithmetic with history that we find among the pyramid cranks, and to the performance of such antics the book of Daniel and the Apocalypse present irresistible temptations. In my library days, I never used to pick up a commentary on either of those books without looking for some of the stigmata or witch-marks of crankery. Many a feeble intellect has been toppled over by that shining image, with head of gold and feet of iron and clay, which Nebuchadnezzar beheld in a dream. For example, let us take a few sentences from Emmanuel. An Original and Exhaustive Commentary on Creation and Providence Alike. By an Octogenarian Layman, London, 1883, pp. 420 : “ Upwards of thirty years ago, a fancy for chronological research, fostered by boundless leisure and a competent facility in mental calculation, riveted my attention on the metallic image, in the vague hope of symmetrizing the four sections of the collective emblem with the successive dominations of the individual empires. Failing in so shadowy an aspiration, I seemed to be more than compensated by detecting an identity of duration, equally pregnant and positive, between the gold and the silver and the brass and the iron taken together on the one hand, and the mountain that was to crush them all to powder on the other, — the former aggregate being assumed to stretch from Nebuchadnezzar’s succession in 606 B. c. to the dethronement of Augustulus in 476 A. D., and the latter again from the epoch just specified to Elizabeth’s purgation of the Sanctuary in 1558.” Having thus taken two equal periods of 1082 years, our Octogenarian proceeds to break them up (Heaven knows why!) each into four periods of 68, 204, 269, and 541 years. Then we are treated to the following equations : —
68 = 2 X 34
204 = 6 X 34
269 = 5 X 34 + 3 X 33
541 = 13 X 34 + 3 X 33
Hence, “ with such a fulcrum as the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, and such a lever as the span of the Victim’s sublunary humiliation, was I too rash in aiming at a result infinitely grander than Archimedes’s speculative displacement of the earth ? ”
That eminent mathematician, Dr. Nathaniel Bowditch, used to say that sometimes, when Laplace passed from one equation to the next with an “evidently,” he would find a week’s study necessary to cross the abyss which the transcendent mind of the master traversed in a single leap. I fancy that more than a week would be needed to fathom the Octogenarian’s “ hence,” and it would by no means be worth while to go through so much and get so little After a few pages of the Octogenarian, we are prepared to hear that in 1750 one Henry Sullamar squared the circle by the number of the Beast with seven heads and ten horns; and that in 1753 a certain French officer, M. de Causans, “cut a circular piece of turf, squared it, and deduced original sin and the Trinity.” 4
The reader is doubtless by this time weary of so much tomfoolery; but as it is needful, for the due comprehension of crankery and its crotchets, that he should by and by have still more of it. I will give him a moment’s relief while I tell of a little game with which De Morgan and Whewell once amused themselves. The task was to make a sentence which should contain all the letters of the alphabet, and each only once. “ No one,” says De Morgan, “ has done it with v and j treated as consonants; but you and I can do it ” (u and i: oh, monstrous pun!). Dr. Whewell got only separate words, and failed to make a sentence : phiz, styx, wrong, buck, flame, quid. Very pretty, but De Morgan beat him out of sight with this weird sentiment: I, quartz pyx, who fling muck beds! Well, what in the world can that mean? “ I long thought that no human being could say it under any circumstances. At last I happened to be reading a religions writer — as he thought himself — who threw aspersions on his opponents thick and threefold. Heyday ! came into my head, this fellow flings muck beds : he must be a quartz pyx. And then I remembered that a pyx is a sacred vessel, and quartz is a hard stone, as hard as the heart of a religious foecurser. So that the line is the motto of the ferocious sectarian, who turns his religious vessels into mud-holders for the benefit of those who will not see what he sees.” 5
I cite this drollery to show the worldwide difference between the playful nonsense of the wise man and the strenuous nonsense of the monomaniac ; in this little cabbala alphabetica, moreover, a great deal of the cabalistic lore which cumbers library shelves is neatly satirized.
As already observed, my rule was never to put into the class of eccentric literature any books save such as seemed to have emanated from diseased brains. To hold an absurd belief, to write in its defense, to shape one’s career in accordance with it, is no proof of an unsound mind. Of the hundreds of enthusiasts who spent their lives in quest of the philosopher’s stone, many were doubtless cranks ; but many were able thinkers who made the best use they could of the scientific resources of their time. Wrong ways must often be tried before the right way can be found. Even the early circle-squarers cannot fairly be charged with crankery; they sinned against no light that was accessible to them. But anybody who to-day should advertise a recipe for turning base metals into gold would meet with a chill welcome from chemists. He would speedily be posted as a quack, though doubtless many weak heads would be turned by him. It is the perverse sinning against light that is one of the most abiding features of crankery, and from this point of view such a book as Coin’s Financial School has many claims for admission to the limbo of eccentric literature.
About seventy years ago, one John Ranking published in London a volume entitled Historical Researches on the Conquest of Peru, Mexico, Bogota, Natchez, and Talomeco,6 in the Thirteenth Century, by the Mongols, accompanied with Elephants. It is well known that in 1281 the Mongols, after conquering pretty much everything from the Carpathian Mountains and the river Euphrates to the Yellow Sea, invaded Japan. A typhoon dispersed their fleet, and their army of more than 100,000 men, cut off from its communications, was completely annihilated by the Japanese. But Mr. Ranking believed that this wholesale destruction was a fiction of the chroniclers. He maintained that most of the army escaped in a new fleet and crossed the Pacific Ocean, taking with them a host of elephants, with the aid of which they made extensive conquests in America and founded kingdoms in Mexico and Peru. The widespread fossil remains of the American mastodon he took to be the bones of these Mongolian elephants. Now, this is an extremely wild theory, unsound and untenable in every particular, but it does not bring Mr. Ranking’s book within the class of eccentric literature.
The author was deficient in scholarship and in critical judgment, but he was not daft.
A very different verdict must be rendered in the case of Mr. Edwin Johnson’s book, called The Rise of Christendom, published in London in 1890, an octavo of 500 pages. According to Mr. Johnson, the rise of Christendom began in the twelfth century of our era, and it was preceded by two centuries of Hebrew religion, which started in Moslem Spain! First came Islam, then Judaism, then Christianity. The genesis of both the latter was connected with that revolt against Islam which we call the Crusades. What we suppose to be the history of Israel, as well as that of the first eleven Christian centuries, is a gigantic lie, concocted in the thirteenth century by the monks of St. Basil and St. Benedict. The Roman emperors knew nothing of Christianity, and the multifarious allusions to it in ancient writers are all explained by Mr. Johnson as fraudulent interpolations. As for the Greek and Latin fathers, they never existed. “ The excellent stylist, who writes under the name of Lactantius, not earlier than the fourteenth century ; ” “ the Augustinian of the fourteenth or fifteenth century, who writes the romantic Confessions : ” such is the airy way in which the matter is disposed of. As for the New Testament, “it is not yet clear whether the book was first written in Latin or in Greek.” This reminds me of something once said by Rev. Robert Taylor, a crazy clergyman who in 1827 suffered imprisonment for blasphemy, and came to be known as the Devil’s Chaplain. Taylor declared that for the book of Revelation there was no Greek original at all, but Erasmus wrote it in Switzerland, in the year 1516. The audience, or part of it, probably took Taylor’s word as sufficient; and in like manner not a syllable of proof is alleged for Mr. Johnson’s prodigious assertions. From cover to cover there is no trace of a consciousness that proof is needed ; it is simply, Thus saith Edwin Johnson. The man who can write such a book is surely incapable of making a valid will.
Another acute phase of lunacy is exemplified in Nason’s History of the Prehistoric Ages, written by the Ancient Historic Band of Spirits (Chicago, 1880). This is a mediumistic affair. The ancient band consists of four-and-twenty spirits, the eldest of whom occupied a material body 46,000 years ago, and the youngest 3000 years ago. They dictated to Mr. Nason the narrative, which begins with the origin of the solar system and comes down to Romulus and Remus, betraying on every page the preternatural dullness and ignorance so characteristic of all the spirits with whom mediums have dealings.
Concerning the Bacon - Shakespeare folly, a word must suffice. As I have elsewhere shown,7 the doubt concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays was in part a reaction against the extravagances of doting commentators; but in its original form it was simply an insane freak. The unfortunate lady who gave it currency belonged to a distinguished Connecticut family, and the story of her malady is a sad one. At the age of eight-and-forty she died in the asylum at Hartford, two years after the publication of her book, The Philosophy of Shakespeare’s Plays Unfolded. The suggestion of her illustrious namesake, and perhaps kinsman, as the author of Shakespeare’s works was a clear instance of the megalomania which is a wellknown symptom of paranoia ; and her book has all the hazy incoherence that is so quickly recognizable in the writings of the insane. A friend of mine once asked me if I did not find it hard to catch her meaning. “ Meaning ! ” I exclaimed. “ There’s none to catch.” Among the books of her followers are all degrees of eccentricity. That of Nathaniel Holmes stands upon the threshold of the limbo, while as for Ignatius Donnelly, all his works belong in its darkest recesses.
The considerations which would lead one to consign a book to that limbo are often complex. There is Miss Marie Brown’s book, The Icelandic Discoverers of America; or, Honour to whom Honour is Due. In maintaining that Columbus knew all about the voyages of the Northmen to Vinland, and was helped thereby in finding his way to the Bahamas, there is nothing necessarily eccentric. Professor Rasmus Anderson has defended that thesis in a book which is able and scholarly, a book which every reader must treat with respect, even though he may notfind its arguments convincing. But when Miss Brown declares that the papacy has been partner in a conspiracy for depriving the Scandinavians of the credit due them as discoverers of America, and assures us that this is a matter in which the interests of civil and religious liberty are at stake, one begins to taste the queer flavor ; and taking this in connection with the atmosphere of rage which pervades the book, one feels inclined to place it in the limbo. For example : What but Catholic genius, the genius for deceit, for trickery, for secrecy, for wicked and diabolical machinations, could have pursued such a system of fraud for centuries as the one now being exposed ! What but Catholic genius, a prolific genius for evil, would have attempted to rob the Norsemen of their fame, . . . and to foist a miserable Italian adventurer and upstart upon Americans as the true candidate for these posthumous honours, — the man or saint to whom they are to do homage, and through this homage allow the Church of Rome to slip the yoke of spiritual subjection over their necks !
A shrill note of anger is sometimes the sure earmark of a book from Queer Street. Anger is, indeed, a kind of transient mania, and eccentric literature is apt to be written in high dudgeon. When you take up a pamphlet by “ Vindex,” and read the title, A Box on Both Ears to the Powers that ought not to be at Washington, you may be prepared to find incoherency. I once catalogued an edition of Plutarch’s little essay on Superstition, and was about to let it go on its way, along with ordinary Greek books, when my eye happened to fall upon the last sentence of the editor’s preface: " I terminate this my Preface by consigning all Greek Scholars to the special care of Beelzebub.” “Oho ! ” I thought, “ there ’s a cloven foot here ; perhaps, if we explore further, we may get a whiff of brimstone.” And it was so.
It thus appears that the topics treated in eccentric literature are numerous and manifold. Not only, moreover, has this department its vigorous prose writers ; it has also its inspired poets. Witness the following lines from the volume entitled Eucleia (Salem, 1861) : —
As walking by moonlight,
He whistles, instructing Carlo
To be still, and not bite.”
But even this lofty flight of inspiration is outflown by Mr. John Landis, who was limner and draughtsman as well as poet. In his Treatise on Magnifying God (New York 1843) he gives us an engraved portrait of himself surrounded by ministering angels, and accompanies it by an ode to himself, one verse of which will suffice : —
Familiar thy Name will e’er be.
Of America’s Poets thou
Stand’st on the foremost list now ;
On the pinions of fame does shine,
Landis ! brightened by ev’rv line,
From thy poetic pen in rhyme,
Thy name descends to the end of time.”
Immortality of fame is something desired by many, but attained by few. Physical immortality is something which has hitherto been supposed to be inexorably denied to human beings. The phrase “ All men are mortal ” figures in textbooks of logic as the truest of truisms.
But we have lately been assured that this is a mistake. It is only an induction based upon simple enumeration, and the first man who escapes death will disprove it. So, at least, I was told by a very downright person who called on me some years ago with a huge parcel of manuscript, for which he wanted me to find him a publisher. He had been cruelly snubbed and ill used, but truth would surely prevail over bigotry, as in Galileo’s case. I took his address and let him leave his manuscript. Its recipe for physical immortality, diluted through 600 foolscap pages, was simply to learn how to go without food ! Usually such a regimen will kill you by the fifth day, but if, at that critical moment, while at the point of death, you make one heroic effort and stay alive, why, then you will have overcome the King of Terrors once for all. I returned the gentleman’s manuscript with a polite note, regretting that his line of research was so remote from those to which I was accustomed that I could not give him intelligent aid.
On one of the beautiful hills of Petersham, near the centre of Massachusetts, there dwelt a few years since a small religious community of persons who believed that they were destined to escape death. Not science, but faith had won for them this boon. They believed that the third person of the Trinity was incarnated in their leader or high priest, Father Howland. This community, I believe, came from Rhode Island about forty years ago, and at the height of its prosperity may have numbered twentyfive or thirty men and women. Their establishment consisted of one large mansard-roofed house, with barns and sheds and a good-sized farm. Their housekeeping was tidy, and they put up apple sauce. They maintained that the eighteen and a half centuries of the so-called Christian era have really been the dispensation of John the Baptist, and that the true Christian era was ushered in by the Holy Ghost in the person of Father Howland, through believing in whom Christians might attain to eternal life on this planet. They had their Sabbath on Saturday, and worked in the fields on Sunday ; and they made sundry distinctions between clean and unclean foods, based upon their slender understanding of the Old Testament.
For a few years these worthy people enjoyed the simple rural life on their pleasant hillside without having their dream of immortality rudely tested. When one member fell ill and died, and was presently followed by another, it was easy to dispose of such cases by asserting that the deceased were not true believers ; they were black sheep, hypocrites, pretenders, whited sepulchres, and their deaths had purified the flock. But the next one to die was Father Howland himself. On a warm summer day of 1875, as he was driving in his buggy over a steep mountain road, the horse shied so violently as to throw out the venerable sage against a wood-pile, whereupon sundry loose logs fell upon his head and shoulders, inflicting fatal wounds. Then a note of consternation mingled with the genuine mourning of the little community. It was a perplexing providence. About two months afterward I made my first visit to these people, in company with my friend Dr. William James and five carriageloads of city folk who were spending the summer at Petersham. It was a Saturday morning, and all the worshipers were in their best clothes. They received us with a quiet but cordial welcome, and showed us into a spacious parlor that was simply brilliant with cheerfulness. Its west windows looked down upon a vast and varied landscape, with rich pastures, smiling cornfields, and long stretches of pine forest covering range upon range of hills moulded in forms of exquisite beauty. Beyond the foreground of delicate yellow and soft green tints the eye rested upon the sombre green of the woodland, and behind it all came the rich purple of the distant hills, fitfully checkered with shadows from the golden clouds. Here and there gleamed the white church spires of some secluded hamlet, while on the horizon, seventy miles distant, arose the lofty peak of old Greylock. Thence to Mount Grace, in one huge sweep, the entire breadth of Vermont was displayed, a wilderness of pale blue summits blending with the sky ; and over all, and part of it all, was the radiant glory of the September sunshine.
“ Truly,” said I to one of the brethren, a man of saintly face, “ if you are expecting to dwell forever upon the earth, you could not have chosen a more inspiring and delightful spot.” “ Yes, indeed,” he replied, it seems too beautiful to leave.” The topic which agitated the little community was thus brought up for discussion, and, except for a brief prayer, the ordinary Sabbath exercises were set aside for this purpose. All these people seemed polite and gentle in manner ; their simple-mindedness was noticeable, and their ignorance was abysmal, though I believe they could all read the Bible and do a little writing and arithmetic. In the facial expression of every one I thought I could see something that betrayed more or less of a lapse from complete sanity. Only one of the whole number showed any sense of humor, a keen-eyed old woman, yclept Sister Caroline, who could argue neatly and make quaint retorts. She and the man of saintly face were the only interesting personalities; the rest were but soulless clods.
It soon appeared that the belief in terrestrial immortality had not yet been seriously shaken by Father Howland’s demise. There were some curious incipient symptoms of a resurrection myth. Their leader’s death had been heralded by signs and portents. One aged brother, while taking his afternoon nap in a rocking-chair, fell forward upon the floor, bringing down the chair upon his back ; and at that identical moment another brother rushed in from the garden, exclaiming, “ I have seen with these eyes the glory of the Lord revealed! ” Evidently, the fall of the rocking-chair prefigured the fall of the wood-pile, and the moment of Howland’s fatal injury was the moment of his glorification. Then it was remembered by Sister Caroline and others that he had lately foretold his apparent death, and declared that it was to be only an appearance. “ Though I shall seem to be dead, it will only be for a little while, and then I shall return to you.”
The morning’s conversation made it clear that these simple folk were unanimous in believing that the completion of Father Howland’s work demanded his presence for a short time in the other world, and that he would within a few weeks or months return to them. It seemed to Dr. James and myself that the conditions were favorable to the sudden growth of a belief in his resurrection, and for some time after that visit we half expected to hear that one or more of the household had seen him. In this, however, we were disappointed. I suspect that its mental soil may, after all, have been too barren for such a growth.
Seven years elapsed before my second and last visit to these worthy people. In the meantime a large addition had been made to the principal house, nearly doubling its capacity ; and I was told that the community had been legally incorporated under the Hebrew title of Adoni-sham, or, “ The Lord is there.” One would naturally infer that the membership had increased, but the true explanation was very different. On a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1882, in company with fifteen friends, I visited the community. Our reception this time was something more than polite; there was a noticeable warmth of welcome about it. We were ushered into one of the newly built rooms, — a long chapel, with seats on either side and a reading-desk at one end. All the women, both hosts and guests, took their seats on one side, all the men on the other. A whisper from my neighbor informed me that the community was reduced to twelve persons: thus the guests outnumbered the hosts. The high priest, Father Richards, a venerable man of ruddy hue, with enormous beard as white as snow, stood by the reading-desk, and in broken tones gave thanks to God, while abundant tears coursed down his cheeks. Now, he said, at last the word of the Lord was fulfilled. Two or three years ago the word had come that they must build a chapel and add to their living - rooms, for they were about to receive a large accession of new converts. So—just think of it, gentle reader, in the last quarter of this skeptical century — there was faith enough on that rugged mountain side to put three or four thousand dollars, earned with pork and apple sauce, into solid masonry and timber-work! And now at last, said Father Richards, in the arrival of this goodly company the word of the Lord was fulfilled! It seemed cruel to disturb such jubilant assurance, but we soon found that we need not worry ourselves on that score. The old man’s faith was a rock on which unwelcome facts were quickly wrecked. Though we took pains to make it clear that we had only come for a visit, it was equally clear to him that we were to be converted that very afternoon, and would soon come to abide with the Adoni-sham.
Then Sister Caroline, stepping forward, made a long metaphysical harangue, at the close of which she walked up one side of the room and down the other, taking each person by the hand and saying to each a few words. When she came to me she suddenly broke out with a stream of gibberish, and went on for five mortal minutes, pouring it forth as glibly as if it had been her mother tongue. After the meeting had broken up, I was informed that this “ speaking with tongues ” was not uncommon with the Adoni-sham. A wicked wag in our party then asked Sister Caroline if she knew what language it was in which she had addressed me. “ No, sir,” she replied, “ nor do I know the meaning of what I said: I only uttered what the Lord put into my mouth.” “ Well,” said this graceless scoffer, with face as sober as a deacon’s, “ I am thoroughly familiar with Hebrew, and I recognized at once the very dialect of Galilee as spoken when our Saviour was on the earth ! ” At this, I need hardly add, Sister Caroline was highly pleased.
By this time there had been so many deaths that induction by simple enumeration was getting to be too much for the Adoni-sham. They were beginning to realize the old Scotchman’s conception of the elect: “ Eh, Jamie ! hoo mony d’ye thank there be of the alact noo alive on earth?” “Eh! mabbee a doozen.” “Hoot, mon, nae sae mony as thot! ” We found our worthy hosts less willing than of old to discuss their doctrine of terrestrial immortality, and there were symptoms of a tendency to give it a Pickwickian construction. Since that day their little community has vanished, and its glorious landscape knows it no more.
It is a pity that before the end it should not have had a visit from Mr. Hyland C. Kirk, whose book on The Possibility of not Dying was published in New York, in 1883. In this book the philosophic plausibleness of the opinion that a time will come when we shall no longer need to shuttle off this mortal coil is argued at some length, but the question as to how this is to happen is ignored. Mr. Isaac Jennings, in his Tree of Life (1867), thinks it can be accomplished by total abstinence from “alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, animal food, spices, and caraway.” This is sufficiently specific; but Mr. Kirk’s treatment of the question is so hazy as to suggest the suspicion that he has nothing to offer us.
I once knew such a case of a delusion without any theory, or, if you please, the grin without the Cheshire cat. In the course of a lecturing journey, some thirty years ago, I was approached by a refined and cultivated gentleman, who imparted to me in strict confidence and with much modesty of manner the fact that be had arrived at a complete refutation of the undulatory theory of light! To ask him for some statement of his own theory was but ordinary courtesy ; but whenever we arrived at this point — which happened perhaps half a dozen times—he would put on a smile of mystery and decline to pursue the subject. I once assured him that he need have no fear of my stealing his thunder, for I had not the requisite knowledge ; but he grew more darkly mysterious than ever, and said that the time for him to speak had not yet come.
A few months later, this gentleman, whom I will designate as Mr. Flighty, appeared in Cambridge, and came to my desk in the college library. Distress was written in his face. He had called upon Professor Silliman and other professors in Eastern colleges, and had been shabbily treated. Nobody had shown him any politeness except Professor Youmans, in whom he believed he had found a convert. “ Ah ! ” I exclaimed, “ then you told him your theory ; perhaps the time has come when you can tell it to me.” But no ; again came the subtle smile, and he began to descant upon the persecution of Galileo, a favorite topic with cranks of all sorts. He asked me for some of the best books on the undulatory theory, and I gave him Cauchy, whereat he stood aghast, and said the book was full of mathematics which he could not read. But he would like to see Newton’s Opticks, for that book did not uphold the undulatory theory. “ Oh ! ” said I, “ then are you falling back on the corpuscular theory ? ” “ No, indeed ; mine is neither the one nor the other,” and again came the Sibylline smile. As I went for the book I found Professor Lovering in the alcove, halfway up a tall ladder. “ Hallo ! ” said I sotto voce. “ There is a man in here who has upset the undulatory theory of light; do you want to see him ? ” “ Heavens, no ! Can’t you inveigle him into some dark corner, while I run away ? ” “ Don’t worry,” I replied, — “make yourself comfortable; I’ll keep him from you.” So I lured Mr. Flighty into a discourse on the bigotry of scientific folk, while Old Joe, whose fears were not so easily allayed, soon stealthily emerged from his alcove and hurried from the hall.
The next time I was in New York, chatting with Youmans at the Century Club, I alluded to Mr. Flighty, who believed he had made a convert of him.
“ Ay, ay,” rejoined Youmans, “ and he said the same of you.”
“ Indeed ! Well, I suspected as much. Unless you drive a crank from the room with cuffs and jeers, he is sure to think you agree with him. I do not yet know what Mr. Flighty’s theory is.”
“ Nor I,” said Youmans.
“ Do you believe he has any theory at all ? ”
“Not a bit of it. He is a madman, and his belief that he has a theory is simply the form which his delusion takes.”
“ Exactly so,’ I said ; and so it proved. Severe business troubles had wrecked Mr. Flighty’s mind, and it was not long before we heard that he had killed himself, in a fit of acute mania.
My story must not end with such a gruesome affair. Out of the many queer people I have known, let me mention one who is associated with pleasant memories of childhood and youth. This man was no charlatan, but a learned naturalist, of solid and genuine scientific attainments, who came to be a little daft in his old age. Dr. Joseph Barratt, whose life extended over three fourths of the present century, was born in England. He was at one time a pupil of Cuvier, and cherished his memory with the idolatrous affection which that wonderful man seems always to have inspired. Dr. Barratt, as a physician practicing in Middletown, Connecticut, is one of the earliest figures in my memory, — a quaint and lovable figure. His attainments in botany and comparative anatomy were extensive ; he was more or less of a geolo gist, and well read withal in history and general literature, besides being a fair linguist. Though eminently susceptible of the tender passion, he never married ; he was neither a householder nor an autocrat of the breakfast table, but dwelt hermit - like in a queer snuggery over somebody s shop. His working-room was a rare sight; so much confusion has not been seen since this fair world weltered in its primeval chaos. With its cases of mineral and botanical specimens, stuffed birds and skeletons galore ; with its beetles and spiders mounted on pins, its brains of divers creatures in jars of alcohol, its weird retorts and crucibles, its microscopes and surgeon’s tools, its shelves of mysterious liquids in vials, its slabs of Portland sandstone bearing footprints of Triassic dinosaurs, and near the door a grim pterodactyl keeping guard over all, it might have been the necromancing den of a Sidrophel. Maps and crayon sketches, mingled with femurs and vertebræ, sprawled over tables and sofas and cumbered the chairs, till there was scarcely a place to sit down, while everywhere in direst helter-skelter yawned and toppled the books. And such books! There I first browsed in Geoffroy St. Hilaire and Lamarck and Blainville, and passed enchanted hours with the Règne Animal. The doctor was a courtly gentleman of the old stripe, and never did he clear a chair for me without an apology, saying that he only awaited a leisure day to put all things in strictest order. Dear soul’ that day never came.
Dr. Barratt was of course intensely interested in the Portland quarries, and they furnished the theme of the monomania which overtook him at about his sixtieth year. He accepted with enthusiasm the geological proofs of the antiquity of man in Europe, and presently undertook to reinforce them by proofs of his own gathering in the Connecticut Valley. An initial difficulty confronted him. The red freestone of that region belongs to the Triassic period, the oldest of the secondary series. It was an age of giant reptiles, contemporary with the earliest specimens of mammalian life, and not a likely place in which to look for relics of the highest of mammals. But Dr. Barratt insisted that this freestone is Eocene, thus bringing it into the tertiary series ; and while geologists in general were unwilling to admit the existence of man before the Pleistocene period, he boldly carried it back to the Eocene. Thus, by adding a few million years to the antiquity of mankind and subtracting a few million from that of the rocks, he was enabled at once to maintain that he had discovered in the Portland freestone the indisputable remains of an ancient human being with only three fingers, upon whom he bestowed the name of Homo tridactylus. For companions he gave this personage four species of kangaroo, and from that time forth discoveries multiplied.
Such claims, when presented before learned societies with the doctor’s quaint enthusiasm, and illustrated by his marvelous crayon sketches, were greeted with shouts of laughter. Among the geologists who chiefly provoked his wrath was the celebrated student of fossil footprints, Dr. Edward Hitchcock. “ Why, sir,” he would exclaim, Dr. Hitchcock is a perfect fool, sir ! I can teach ten of him, sir! ” In spite of all scoffs and rebuffs, the old gentleman moved on to the end serene in his unshakable convictions. A courteous listener was, of course, a rare boon to him ; and so, in that little town, it became his habit to confide his new discoveries to me. When I was out walking, if chary of my half-hours (as sometimes happened), a long detour would be necessary, to avoid his accustomed haunts ; and once, on my return from a journey, I had hardly rung the doorbell when he appeared on the veranda with an essay entitled An Eocene Picnic, which he hoped to publish in The Atlantic Monthly, and which he insisted upon reading to me then and there. At one time a very large bone was found in one of the quarries, which was pronounced by Dr. Hitchcock to have belonged to an extinct batrachian ; but Dr. Barratt saw in it the bone of a pachyderm. “ Why, sir,” said he, “ it was their principal beast of burden, — as big as a rhinoceros and as gentle as a lamb. The children of Homo tridactylus used to play about his feet, sir, in perfect safety. I call him Mega-ergaton docile, ‘ the teachable great-worker.’ Liddell and Scott give only the masculine, ergates, but for a beast of burden, sir, I prefer the neuter form. A gigantic pachyderm, sir; and Dr. Hitchcock, sir, perfect fool, sir, says it was a bullfrog ! ”
The mortal remains of this gentle palæontologist rest in the beautiful Indian Hill cemetery at Middletown, and his gravestone, designed and placed there by a dear friend, is appropriate and noble. For the doctor was after all a sterling man, whose unobtrusive merits were great, while his foibles were not important. The stone is a piece of fossil tree-trunk, brought over from Portland, imbedded in an amorphous block untouched by chisel, save where, on a bit of polished surface, one reads the name and dates, with the simple legend, “ The Testimony of the Rocks.”