Jerome Shea       July 21, 2007      Weekend Wonk

I have another book for you, friends: Carl Sifakis’s American Eccentrics. It is in fact the ideal bathroom book, with entries that can be enjoyed at a short sitting as it were. Sifakis simply gives one- or two-page accounts of some of our stranger countrymen and –women and starts the whole thing off with a very thoughtful introduction. As always, I recommend the book itself. What follows is just a taste.

Some eccentrics are known to us all. Who has not heard of John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, or the notorious bluenose Anthony Comstock, who gave us the eponym “comstockery”? Some might well recognize “Emperor Norton I” of San Francisco, the pathologically penny-pinching millionaire Hetty Green, or, to the other extreme, “Diamond Jim” Brady, the famous high roller.

But did you ever hear of “Windwagon” Tom Smith (ca. 1810-?)? There would seem to be a large admixture of tall tale in his adventure, but according to Sifakis Tom was a real-life Massachusetts sailor who saw the wind-whipped Kansas prairie as really just a dry ocean. So he took the term “prairie schooner” literally and built a monstrous wagon with huge wheels, and mast and sail to match. He and excited local dignitaries set off from present-day Kansas City and were fairly skimming across the pelagic plain when the steering mechanism locked, sending the wagon and its terrified passengers circling for what must have seemed forever. That wore Tom’s welcome out pretty quick, but he is supposed to have then sailed west alone, into the sunset and into Western lore. Curiously, if you Google “Windwagon,” you will also hear of another man, a Samuel Peppard, who got within a hundred miles of Denver in a similar craft in 1860. Who knew?

There is sadness and violence and genuine insanity in these pages. The Reverend Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody (1700-1763) covered his face with black crepe till the end of his days because—as he confessed on his deathbed—he had inadvertently shot and killed a friend. (Yes, Moody was the inspiration for Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.”) Joseph Palmer (1788-1875) was guilty only of raising a bushy beard. But this lapse of orthodoxy so enraged the citizens of Fitchburg, MA, that they shunned him and then set upon him with razors. Fortunately, Palmer was a powerfully built farmer who could take care of himself in a fight. Thrown in the pokey, he defended himself again from his fellow inmates, who had been urged on by the jailers. Finally, he was forcibly removed from jail because they didn’t know quite else what to do with him. He strode home in triumph. Scarcely 20 years later, beards would cause no stir at all. Palmer was eccentric, but it’s clear where the craziness lay. Sarah Pardee (1839-1922) married into the Winchester family, of Winchester rifle fame (or infamy). Widowed, she became convinced that she was cursed because of that malignant invention. A seer told her that she could gain protection from evil spirits if she built herself a mansion—and if she never stopped building it! For almost four decades the construction and the renovations went on. Winchester House, in San Jose, became a warren of “secret passages, false doors, and stairways that would end in mid-air,” and is now a California state historical landmark.

“Science” has always attracted eccentrics like iron filings to a magnet. We have had flat-earthers, hollow-earthers, and spiral universe advocates. John Symmes (1780-1829)—I swear that Thoreau alludes to “Symmes’ Hole” somewhere—seems to have originated the idea that the earth is hollow and that the inside can be accessed somewhere near the north pole. Marshall Gardner (1854-1937) later found room inside for our sun. But a man with the euphonious name of Cyrus Reed Teed (1839-1908) went way past them. Turns out that not only is the sun inside of the earth, but so are we! And so is the universe as we know it! Teed is a good example of how crackpot science and crackpot religion become mixed together. He attracted a large following (eccentrics of this stripe have charisma to spare), founded “a New Jerusalem” in Florida, and announced that he would arise from the dead and lead his followers into Paradise. He didn’t, but his followers kept vigil until the board of health intervened. As for flat-earthers, it is hard to beat Wilbur Glenn Voliva (1870-1942). But Voliva was much more than that. Again we have a nexus of pseudoscience, religion, and money. He too had an enormous following, he too founded—or rather took over—a city—Zion City, north of Chicago—and ruled it with an iron hand. He predicted the end of the world four times between 1923 and 1935 (matching William Miller’s failure rate in the 19th century). The world did end for him in 1942, but it was a private affair.

The most fascinating eccentrics (no surprise to me) are the religious ones, and upstate New York gave us a slew of them. This was called the “Burnt Over District” because of the 18th and 19th century religious fevers, or fervors, which swept over it. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, came from upstate New York, and so did William Miller (1782-1849), mentioned above. And let us not forget Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784) who gave us the Shakers, or George Henry (1801-1888), the Holy Shouter, or, above all, Theophilus Gates (1787-1846), the apostle of free love who founded the Oneida colony.

Lovers, loners, losers, cranks—they are all crammed together in Sifakis’s book. I will leave “Goat Gland” Brinkley (1885-1942) to your imagination. See you next week.

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