Thursday, March 22, 2018

Augustus T. Swift (1867-1939)

Teacher, Writer, Investigator
Born September 23, 1867, New Bedford, Massachusetts
Died November 4, 1939, presumably in Providence, Rhode Island

Anonymous left a comment on my blog the other day regarding Augustus T. Swift and his contemporaneous comments on the fiction of Francis Stevens. For a long time people believed that Augustus T. Swift was H.P. Lovecraft writing under a pseudonym. I thought that this idea had been corrected or debunked already, but apparently there are still some who believe that these two men were one in the same. So I'm going to interrupt my series on the Shaver Mystery to re-debunk the idea that Augustus T. Swift was H.P. Lovecraft. This won't take long. Actually it will, but it won't stretch into a series. I think we'll find some interesting things along the way.

The Swift-Lovecraft story began with two letters written to The Argosy magazine by a man named Augustus T. Swift of Providence, Rhode Island. The first was published in the issue of November 15, 1919, the second in that of May 22, 1920. I don't have anything on the first letter, but here is an image of the second as it appeared in the magazine:

"Not Out for Blood," a letter of comment from Augustus T. Swift of Providence, Rhode Island, published in The Argosy, May 22, 1920, page 288. Contrary to stories bandied about, this was not the work of H.P. Lovecraft.

In this letter, Swift expressed high praise for three stories written by Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1883-1948), then known to readers only as Francis Stevens. The stories were "The Citadel of Fear" (Sept. 14-Oct. 26, 1918), "Avalon" (Aug. 16-Sept. 6, 1919), and "Claimed" (Mar. 6-20, 1920), all serials and all published in The Argosy. Swift's letter has been used not only with the assumption that Lovecraft wrote under the pseudonym Augustus T. Swift but also as evidence that he knew of Francis Stevens' work, moreover that he was influenced by it. Two of those claims are of course bogus, and the third--that Lovecraft knew of Francis Stevens' work--is open to question.

So for the record, Augustus T. Swift was not H.P. Lovecraft. I don't know how that story got started, but it goes back at least to 1949 and Chicago Tribune columnist Vincent Starrett, who was reporting on a newsletter, called The Lovecraft Collector, by Ray Zorn (Jan. 1949). (1) For many years it must have been common knowledge among pulp historians that Swift was Lovecraft. Here for example is a quote from 1991: "Yet the 15 November 1919 issue [of The Argosy] featured a letter from Augustus T. Swift, a name now known to be a Lovecraft pseudonym . . . ." (2) We can excuse mistakes or overenthusiasm on the part of researchers believing they have made some kind of discovery. After all, here was a letter to a pulp magazine from a reader in Providence, Rhode Island. The time, place, and interests in popular fiction were right. And that name--Augustus T. Swift. It must have been a fake. Only characters played by Groucho Marx and W.C. Fields have names like that. Lovecraft must have come up with it himself, for he was a great admirer of British writers of the Augustan period, one of the exemplars of which was of course Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Augustus T. Swift just had to be Lovecraft.

Except that he wasn't.

Augustus Taber Swift was actually a teacher, writer, and investigator born on September 23, 1867, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to John Franklin Swift (1836-1905) and Helen Taber (Foster) Swift (1837-1926). Swift's great-great-grandfather through his mother's line was Zenas Bryant (1753-1835), a native of Plympton, Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, and a drummer in two different units of Massachusetts men during the Revolutionary War. By that descent, Augustus T. Swift was eligible for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution. When he applied in 1930, he was residing at 122 Rochambeau Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island, not far north of where Lovecraft lived on the peninsula between the Providence and Seekonk rivers. They may not have been the same man, but they were close.

In the 1880 census, Swift was, at age twelve, still in New Bedford with his family. His father was a clerk in a store. His older brother, Frank H. Swift, was employed as an architect. Also at home was younger brother John C. Swift. We'll hear more about the two of them in a minute. Augustus T. Swift graduated from Brown University with an AM and a PhD on June 19, 1889. Commencement exercises that year were held at "the old First Baptist meeting house" (3, 4), presumably the First Baptist Church, located at 75 North Main Street in Providence. Lovecraft fans might recognize the church for its connections to his life and writing. Swift delivered one of the orations at his graduation. For the next two years, he taught German at Brown University. In 1891, he applied for a passport in Providence. Giving his city of residence as New Bedford and his occupation as teacher, he planned to be abroad for a year. His brother, Frank H. Swift of Providence, witnessed the application, the fee for which was a whole dollar.

In August 1892, Augustus T. Swift accepted a position as master of modern languages at the brand new Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut (a school still in existence). By 1900, Swift was in Providence, living at 46 Rochambeau Avenue and working as a teacher. With him was his young wife, the former Emma A. Morris, whom he had married on August 3, 1898, in Rhode Island, probably in Providence. In 1900, she worked, too, as a type-writer, that is, a typist. In 1905, Swift applied for another passport, again in Providence. This time his younger brother, John Campbell Swift of 54 Moore Street, was the witness. 

In the 1910 census, Augustus T. Swift was still in Providence, living at 122 Rochambeau Avenue and employed as a high school teacher. His wife served as a clerk in the office of the superintendent of schools. The 1915 Rhode Island census recorded the same information for the Swifts, who, despite their surname, were seemingly immovable for thirty or forty years. Emma Swift always worked for schools and her husband was always a high school teacher. And that brings up a question, namely, did H.P. Lovecraft know Augustus T. Swift?

Born in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft would have graduated from Hope High School in Providence in 1908 if he had not suffered a breakdown of some kind. Established in 1898, Hope High School is now located north of College Hill and not far south of Rochambeau Avenue, more or less halfway between Lovecraft's stomping grounds and the Swifts' home. So if Swift taught at Hope High School, and the school wasn't an especially big one, then maybe Lovecraft was in Swift's classes. But we still don't know.

By the 1920 census, things hadn't changed much in the Swift home: same place, same jobs, even Swift's widowed mother, at age eighty-two, was still in the household. By 1930, she was gone, and the Swifts, though working their same jobs and living in their same house, were nearing retirement age. Unfortunately, Swift didn't make it to the next census, for he died on November 4, 1939, at age seventy-two and was buried with his parents at Riverside Cemetery, Fairhaven, Massachusetts. His wife, Emma A. (Morris) Swift, followed him to the grave on February 4, 1943. She was interred with her parents at North Burial Ground in Providence.

Frank H. Swift (1860-1934), older brother of Augustus T. Swift, was an architect in Providence. In 1893, he entered into a partnership with Frank W. Angell (1851-1943) and Thomas J. Gould to form Gould, Angell & Swift. Upon Gould's retirement, the firm was reduced to Angell & Swift, which remained in business until Swift's death in 1934. Thereafter, Angell went into semi-retirement. These various firms and their predecessors designed homes and other buildings in Providence. As a fan and student of architecture, H.P. Lovecraft must have walked by them hundreds of times. You can read more about Frank W. Angell on Wikipedia, here. You can also read about Lovecraft's Providence at the website, here. For a map of a walking tour of Lovecraft's College Hill, see the same website, here.

The youngest of the three Swift brothers was John Campbell Swift (1872-?). He graduated from Brown University in 1895. In 1918, when he filled out his draft card, he was living at 60 Summit Avenue and employed as a high school English teacher on Pond Street, both addresses in Providence. The school at which he taught was one of a complex that included Classical High School and Central High School. I can't be sure which it was, and I don't know anything about the schools in Providence. Maybe someone in that neck of the woods can tell us more. In any case, Swift later taught at Central High School, where he was head of the history department. By the way, C.M. Eddy, Jr. (1896-1967), a friend of Lovecraft and a writer of weird fiction, graduated from Classical High School.

That still leaves the question of Augustus T. Swift's career. In 1930, he called himself an investigator, but of what? Was that a simple business title, like an insurance investigator? Or was it something more exotic? He also called himself a writer. So what did he write, other than letters to pulp magazines? And what subject or subjects did he teach? Well, I found Swift and his wife in a directory of public school employees in Providence from 1904. Emma A. Swift was a clerk in the office of the superintendent of public schools, while her husband's name appeared below hers as a teacher of English. I also found the name of the school where he taught, English High School, also called Central High School at some point. So unless he worked at more than just those schools--unless he worked closer to home at Hope High School--Augustus T. Swift may not have known H.P. Lovecraft, thus a possible connection between these two fans and readers of pulp fiction was seemingly missed.

There's one more question to address: Was H.P. Lovecraft influenced by Francis Stevens? I have better questions: Did Lovecraft even know of Francis Stevens? And if he did, did he ever make a written comment on her stories? The answer to at least two of those three questions is probably no, but if you pay attention to this lousy Internet, you'll see the same garbage recycled again and again: That Francis Stevens influenced both H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt, a claim made without any substantiating evidence. That Lovecraft is quoted as calling her among "the top grade of writers," a quote without a citation and essentially a rephrasing of Augustus T. Swift's opinion that "Mr. Stevens" was "the highest grade" of writers contributing to The Argosy. And perhaps most egregious of all, that Francis Stevens "invented dark fantasy," another claim made without any substantiating evidence and one that I thought had been pretty thoroughly debunked already. This is my best and last question: Why do these things go on? The last claim especially can be considered little more than puffery, even an outright lie. And yet it goes on. Why?

(1) See "Books Alive" by Vincent Starrett, Chicago Tribune, Mar. 20, 1949, p. 124.
(2) From "Lovecraft and the Pulp Magazine Tradition" by Will Murray in An Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991), p. 105. I don't want to single out Mr. Murray, for he was obviously not the only person to believe that Swift was Lovecraft. The idea goes back at least to 1949, as we have seen. I have used his quote here only as an example and because it is so readily available.
(3) "Commencement Exercises," The Evening Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.), June 20, 1889, p. 1.
(4) Swift was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

English High School, Providence, Rhode Island, where Augustus T. Swift taught for many years.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Shaver Mystery Interlude

My friend Hlafbrot has been reading my series on the Shaver Mystery and brought to my attention another odd manuscript, this one from the Middle Ages. It's called the Voynich manuscript, and it has defied understanding for centuries. Hlafbrot sent me links to two articles, one on Wikipedia, the other on the website of the New York Times Review of Books. That second article is called "Secret Knowledge--or a Hoax?" and it's dated April 20, 2017. (Click here to read it.) It's a fascinating article on a fascinating case. The author, Eamon Duffy, gets to what I have been writing about recently (or I'm getting to what he wrote about last year). The following paragraph, in which the author considers the Voynich manuscipt as a hoax, leapt out at me:
Why might such a hoax have been perpetrated? The sheer scale, expense, and complexity of the Voynich manuscript would seem to preclude the notion that it was assembled as some kind of joke: it's hard to imagine a punch line that required so elaborate a buildup. That leaves lunacy or lucre as possible motives. Madness can't entirely be ruled out: mania takes many forms, and a well-to-do obsessive convinced he (or she) held the key to great secrets might drive the production of such a compilation. [Emphasis added.]
An "obsessive convinced he (or she) held the key to great secrets"--that phrase precisely describes Richard Shaver and countless men like him. (And they're nearly all men.) Like the author of the Voynich Manuscript, these men (and a few women) work out in exhaustive detail their entire systems. This the most ambitious and driven among them commit to writing, calling it Mantong and "A Warning to Future Man," The Communist Manifesto or Progress and Poverty, Isis Unveiled or Worlds in Collision, The Book of Mormon or Dianetics. Some of these works are more interesting than others, more entertaining than others, more readable than others, more successful than others, but all amount to the same thing: the obsessive--mad or not--who believes he has found "the key to great secrets" and wants the world to know about it. The idea that they might be hoaxes is a non-sequitur, for the obsessed author has no interest in jokes or hoaxes. He doesn't even know what those things are. He is instead driven by his vision and his discovery. He has seen the light and he wants you to see it, too. (He might also want you to come across with the cash, but that's the subject of the next paragraph.)

Here is another phrase from the quote above, the phrase that gets right to my point from yesterday: "lunacy or lucre as possible motives." Mr. Duffy makes an either-or proposition. But what if it's actually a both-and proposition? What about both lunacy and lucre as a motivation for these things? Both madness and money? Europeans may not always be good at this combination, for they tend to be mired in the past, in ancient and medieval institutions of power and culture. They're not forward-looking enough nor perhaps energetic or obsessive enough to make a go at it. Only in America do we have the free-wheeling, anything-goes attitude that allows for the legitimacy of a person's ideas to be measured by the size of his bank account. Maybe Americans are the first people (or the only people) to perfect the combination of lunacy and lucre, madness and money. Maybe it took Puritanism or Calvinism afoot in a New World or a strange mixture of salvation and success, Reason and Romanticism, Utopia and the Millennium before this new man could emerge. That's what I was trying to get at yesterday with my terms the commercial crackpot and the earnest conman. They're still not the best terms. I'd like to find something better. But I think this is an American type, and the combination Richard Shaver-Raymond Palmer gives every appearance of having been of that type.

Copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part Three

Born on October 8, 1907, in Berwick, Pennsylvania, Richard Sharpe Shaver was of a type that just might be unique to America: the commercial crackpot, alternatively the earnest conman, a guy who isn't exactly trying to put anything over on anybody because he honestly believes his own BS. He's not lying when he gives you his sales pitch because what he's trying to sell you is true and it's for your own good that you believe him. His life was saved when the lights came on and the doors opened to his new beliefs. Yours can be, too. Sometimes the earnest conman is motivated by religious belief. Sometimes his beliefs are non-religious but backed by a religious intensity or fanaticism. Typically, he mixes quasi- or pseudoscientific concepts with pseudo-religion, pseudo-history, or other pseudo-fields, such as pseudo-economics or pseudo-psychology. Pseudoscience, however, is the backbone of his system, the reason being that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Science, having slain God, was seen to have become the ultimate authority on all things. (1) We still live in an age of Scientism, and there are still countless fields of pseudo-studies and countless earnest conmen among us peddling their wares. Whatever you've got to sell these days, it had better be scientific or pseudoscientific if you expect it to go very far. (2)

Richard Shaver was more than just an earnest conman, though, for the things he created and in which he believed came from a diseased mind. (His.) We can't at this distance diagnose him, but he is thought to have been schizophrenic. If he wasn't schizophrenic, Shaver was at least so bad off psychologically that he was institutionalized for much of the 1930s. When he wrote to the editors of Amazing Stories in December 1943, he may only recently have been released. No one seems to know, as the facts of his early adulthood are now pretty well lost. And to be fair to him, when Shaver wrote his letter, he displayed a decided lack of confidence in his ideas, unlike the typical earnest conman. Although he claimed that his discovery of a lost language--and by extension, a lost and ancient civilization--was "an immensely important find," he also closed his letter with these words: "I need a little encouragement." It might be more accurate to say that Richard Shaver was only one-half of the crackpot equation. The ideas were his, but he needed an advertising man, a booster, a promoter, a huckster. Maybe that's the real American type, the guy who's half sincere when he's trying to put one over on you and half full of BS even in his sincerity. Maybe the true American innovation is the attempt at turning a crackpot idea into a moneymaking opportunity. After all, the business of America is business, and material success is a sign of God's grace. In any case, Shaver found the other half of the equation for what became known as the Shaver Mystery in the editor of Amazing Stories, Raymond A. Palmer.

* * *
Richard was said to have been a wild child, playing many pranks, several of which backfired on him giving him a reputation as a "troubled youth." He was reported to have [had] imaginary companions, one his friend, the other his enemy. He had names for these imaginary companions, and fifty years later they were said to be more real to him than other past acquaintances. (3)
Like his father before him, Shaver lived an itinerant lifestyle. He was reared in Berwick and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. In the summer he sold ice door to door. As a young man he worked in a meatpacking plant and for a tree surgeon. In 1930, Shaver moved to Detroit, where his older brother, Taylor V. Shaver, was holding down a good job with the U.S. Immigration Service. (4) While in Detroit, Shaver studied at the Wicker School of Fine Arts (5) and made a little money on the side sketching portraits in the park and modeling for life-drawing classes. He also became involved in leftwing causes, joining the John Reed Club in 1930. (6) On May Day that year, he even spoke at a communist rally in Cass Park in Detroit. (7)

In addition to being a student, Shaver was an instructor at the Wicker School of Fine Arts. One of his own instructors, after that presumably one of his colleagues, was a young Russian-born artist named Sophie Gurvitch. Sophie was a prize pupil at the Wicker School and a rising star on the Detroit art scene. On June 29, 1932, in Detroit, she became the bride of Richard Shaver. Neither was employed at the time, but as their family grew with the birth of their daughter, Evelyn Ann, in 1933, Shaver would have to go to work. And when he did, things started to get weird again.

To be continued . . .

(1) The development of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century ran pretty well parallel to the development of the United States as a nation. However, poorly understood science often leads to pseudoscience, in other words, a new mythology for an age of Science, and that's what happened in America. Throw some pretty potent Romanticism and utopianism, the fervor and fanaticism of the Second Great Awakening, and the hustle and bustle of the Early National Period into the mix, and you might have the beginnings of crackpottery (my new word) in America.
(2) The current Cult of Global Warming is a good example. So is the growing fascination with finding Bigfoot. Here's my Unified Field Theory of global warming and Bigfoot: He's getting harder and harder to find because his habitat is being destroyed by global warming. If we want to save Bigfoot, we have to give up on heating our houses and driving our evil, fossil-fuel burning cars. And that means all of you. Not me. You.
(3) From "The Shaver Mystery" by David Hatcher Childress in Lost Continents and the Hollow Earth (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999), p. 220.
(4) I have not found Shaver in the census of 1930.
(5) The Wicker School of Fine Arts was established in 1911 by artist John P. Wicker (1860-1931). See the photograph and caption below for more information.
(6) According to Wikipedia: "The John Reed Club was founded in October 1929 by staff members of The New Masses magazine to support leftist and Marxist artists and writers. Originally politically independent, it and The New Masses officially affiliated with the Communist Party in November 1930." Shaver may have come to the John Reed Club by way of associating with leftwing art students at the Wicker School. Then again, if he didn't start at the school until September (see the advertisement below), maybe he encountered communism by being a tramp and an idler in the first year of the Great Depression.
(7) Shaver's involvement in communism is an example of the concept of continuity, the overarching theme of this series. Again and again, we find examples of authors of science fiction and fantasy who were also involved in Forteana, pseudoscience (e.g., UFOlogy), pseudo-religion (e.g., Scientology), pseudo-history (e.g., Marxism, aka scientific socialism, which is also a kind of pseudo-science), and various combinations thereof. Even the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are broken down so that they become continuous as well. The Shaver Mystery, passed off as the truth but taking the form of fiction, is an excellent example of the continuity of fiction with non-fiction, more accurately perhaps, pseudo-non-fiction.

An advertisement for the Wicker School of Fine Arts from the Detroit Free Press, August 24, 1930. If Richard Shaver attended the school during the 1930-1931 academic year, then maybe he began on September 22, 1930. By the way, the Maccabees Building is still in existence.

The head of the Wicker School was the well-loved teacher and painter John P. Wicker. Born on February 23, 1860, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Wicker established his school in 1911. The 1930-1931 academic year was sadly his last: Wicker died on February 12, 1931. Did Richard Shaver know John P. Wicker? Was he in any way close to him? If so, his teacher's death would have been the first of three to hit Shaver in his years in Detroit. Was Detroit, then, the place where disintegrant energy (de) first made itself known and felt in Shaver's life?

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part Two

Richard Sharpe Shaver was born on October 8, 1907, in Berwick, Pennsylvania. His father, Ziba Rice Shaver (1875-1943), was descended from Philip Shaver (1762-1826), a native of Vienna, Austria, who lived and died in Pennsylvania. Shaver's mother was Grace T. (Taylor) Shaver (1871-1961), an author of verse and true confession stories. She was the daughter of Thomas Benton Taylor (1837-1915), a Pennsylvania cavalryman of the Civil War era. (1)

Richard S. Shaver was one of Ziba and Grace Shaver's five children:
  • Donald Shaver (b. Sept. 27, 1899; d. Apr. 29, 1979), a U.S. Navy man (Oct. 4, 1917-Aug. 19, 1919) and a railroad brakeman. He married Marion Harder.
  • Catherine Claire Shaver Haughton (b. Nov. 26, 1901; d. Aug. 22, 1993). She married Henry Osburne Haughton.
  • Taylor Victor Shaver (b. Nov. 9, 1903; d. Feb. 24, 1934, Detroit, Michigan), a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps, a Pennsylvania state trooper, chairman of the Board of Inquiry for the U.S. Immigration Service in Detroit, and an author of stories for Boys' Life and The Open Road for Boys.
  • Richard Sharpe Shaver (b. Oct. 8, 1907; d. Nov. 5, 1975), the subject of this series. He was married three times and had a daughter by his first wife.
  • Isabel or Isabelle D. Shaver (b. April 23, 1915; d. April 20, 1988), a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers and an advertising copywriter in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
All were born in Pennsylvania.

In the chronicle of public records, you will find Ziba Shaver in the 1900 U.S. census in Philadelphia, where he was employed as a laborer. He had been married for about a year and a half when the enumerator found him. By 1910, he had made his way up in the world and was working as a press operator in a steel plant. In his household in Berwick, Pennsylvania, there were his wife and four children, plus five boarders and a servant. Richard S. Shaver, age two, was the youngest of the four. When he filled out his draft card in 1918, Ziba Shaver was still in Berwick and working as a salesman for Prince Furniture Company.

Things changed greatly by the time of the next U.S. census, for in 1920, Ziba Shaver and family were living in Bloomsburg, Columbia County, Pennsylvania. His oldest son Donald, then only nineteen, was working as a clerk in a restaurant. There was no occupation listed for Ziba Shaver. Change had come again by the next census when, in 1930, the enumerator counted Ziba, his wife, and his youngest child Isabel or Isabelle in Philadelphia. Ziba was at the time employed as a chef at a college.

If a newspaper article from the Detroit Free Press is accurate (2), the Shaver family moved to Detroit in about 1930. They may have followed Taylor V. Shaver there, for he was pretty gainfully employed with the U.S. Immigration Service in that city during the early years of the Great Depression. Tragically, Taylor Shaver died on February 24, 1934, after a brief illness. By 1940, Ziba Taylor was back in Pennsylvania, in Douglass Township, Montgomery County, where he ran a restaurant. His wife was with him, but their children were out on their own. All but Richard Shaver, that is, for he was being cared for by someone else in a faraway place. That's a story for another part of this series.

Ziba R. Shaver died on June 10, 1943, at his home in Barto, near Niantic, Pennsylvania. Also at home were his wife Grace and his son Richard, who helped bear his casket to the grave. Richard S. Shaver was at the time between marriages. His first wife had died in a bizarre accident. His second was still on the horizon. Shaver's seminal letter to the editorial staff of Amazing Stories was still five months off, too, but if he was telling the truth when he claimed that he had been working on his decoded alphabet for "a long period of years," then the death of his father in 1943 and that of his brother nine years before could only have confirmed him in his suspicions about the secret meanings behind the English language. After all, Taylor V. Shaver had died in Detroit, while Ziba R. Shaver had succumbed, according to his death certificate, to pulmonary edema due to cardiac decompensation.




Disentigrant energy--de--was evidently going about its detrimental work within the Shaver family.

To be continued . . .

(1) Ziba Rice Shaver was born on November 1, 1875, Dallas Township, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and died on June 10, 1943, at home, in Barto, near Niantic, Douglass Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, at age sixty-seven. Although there is a Shaver cemetery in Dallas Township, Shaver was buried at Fairmount Springs Cemetery, Fairmount Springs, also in Luzerne County. Ziba's wife, Grace T. (Taylor) Shaver, was born in August 1871. In the 1900 census, while her husband was in Philadelphia, Grace was counted with her parents and her infant son Donald in Fairmount Springs. Thereafter, she was counted with her husband in the U.S. census (1910, 1920, 1930, 1940). After his death in 1943, she presumably lived with Richard Shaver, though perhaps not continuously. She died at his home in Lanark, Portage County, Wisconsin, on July 21, 1961, at age eighty-nine and was buried with her husband in Fairmount Springs.
(2) "Taylor V. Shaver" (obituary), Detroit Free Press, February 26, 1934, page 3.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part One

One afternoon in December 1943, Raymond A. Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, was sitting in his office, listening intently as assistant editor Howard Browne read from a recently arrived letter. It had come from a reader in Barto, Pennsylvania, a man who expressed his hopes that the editors would place it in their magazine "to keep it from dying" with him. The "it" of which the man wrote was his discovery that within words in English there are hidden clues to an ancient and forgotten language. "This is perhaps the only copy of this language in existence," he continued, "and it represents my work over a long period of years." Accompanying the letter was a separate sheet illustrating the secret meanings behind the letters of the English alphabet. For example, the letter A means animal, while B means be, C translates as see, and D represents a novel concept, disintegrant energy or detrimental (presumably abbreviated de), meaning harmful or destructive. The word bad, then, can be broken into its constituent parts: be a de, or be a disintegrant energy or detrimental. (I guess a can mean either animal or the indefinite article.) "It is an immensely important find," the man wrote of his discovery, "suggesting the god legends have a base in some wiser race than modern man." Howard Browne laughed at it as one of countless crank letters received every year in the offices of Ziff-Davis of Chicago. Then he crumpled it up and threw it away. "What kind of editor are you?" Palmer asked as he retrieved the pages from the trashcan. He handed them back to his assistant editor and said, "Let's run the entire thing in next issue's letter column."

And that's how the Shaver Mystery began.

The Shaver Mystery, launched by Palmer from the writings of Richard S. Shaver of Barto, Pennsylvania, was both a boon and a bane to science fiction during the 1940s. Some readers and fans loved it. Once Palmer started running its stories in Amazing Tales, sales took off, and the magazine began receiving thousands of letters in response. "This is real," many claimed. "This happened to me," wrote others. "I, too, have come in contact with detrimental forces." Others hated it, a very young Harlan Ellison most prominently among them. (Sam Moskowitz and Forrest J Ackerman were part of that group, too.) The arguments and controversy raged for about half a decade, beginning in 1945 and reaching its height in 1947-1948. Then, suddenly, in December 1949, Palmer was out as editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, and the Shaver Mystery faded from mainstream science fiction (if any science fiction can be called mainstream). There were Shaver Mystery stories published in these and other magazines after 1949, but they were pretty well consigned to the fringes. That is of course where they had originated, for they had come from the diseased mind of Richard Sharpe Shaver.

To be continued . . .

"Mr. Shaver's Lemurian Alphabet." The source is unknown. This may be an image reproduced from the letters page of Amazing Stories. According to Fred Nadis, biographer of Raymond A. Palmer, the initial letter written by Richard S. Shaver to Amazing Stories arrived at Ziff-Davis in December 1943, and Shaver's letter and alphabet were published in the issue of January 1944. Author David Hatcher Childress says they appeared in the issue of December 1943. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDb) says there was no issue of December 1943, but I also couldn't find any listing of Shaver's initial letter and alphabet in the ISFDb. For now, we'll say Mr. Nadis is right. In any case, the published letter
included an editor's note asking readers to try it out and see what percentage of root words made sense when the alphabet was applied--would it be higher than pure chance? Rap [Raymond A. Palmer] told readers, "Our own hasty check-up revealed an amazing result of 90% logical and sensible! Is this really a case of racial memory, and is this formula the basis of one of the most ancient languages on Earth?" Dozens of readers responded. Many discussed the philological value of Shaver's discovery while others scoffed, curious why the interstellar root language depended so highly on English-based phonetics to impart its concepts. (The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey by Fred Nadis, 2013, p. 59)
The answer of course is that the alphabet is pseudoscientific and pseudo-historical nonsense, an attempt to reveal Earth's secret history, just as so many cranks and crackpots have attempted to reveal that history in the centuries since the Scientific Revolution began. John Cleves Symmes, Jr., (1780-1829) was one of them. So was Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891). Both provided ideas useful to Shaver and Palmer in their promulgation of what became known as the Shaver Mystery. These and countless others assert and have asserted basically the same case for themselves and their special place in history:
I am special.
I am chosen.
I am the first.
I am the only.
I was specially chosen to reveal this to you, to carry to a benighted humanity the truth about the world.
I alone know the truth. I alone am the prophet and purveyor of these things I tell you.
I was there at the beginning. I preceded all others.
I alone know the secret. I alone have the key.
I am the creator, the originator, the discoverer.
Time and again we have seen it, in Joseph Smith and Karl Marx, in Henry George and George Adamski. They have claimed discovery to the key to history, to economics, to religion, to human nature, and on and on. Richard S. Shaver was just another in a long line of cultists, crackpots, crazies, and cranks, some of whom have been rewarded by humanity, while others have been forgotten. If only some of the rewarded--Marx is the best example--could be among the forgotten.

I alluded earlier in this series to the significance of precedence in the various fields of pseudoscience, pseudo-religion, and pseudo-history. The men and women working in these these pseudo-fields invariably seek precedence, very often backdating their observations, experiences, and theories to support their claims to being first or to coming first. Rapuzzi Johannis did it when he claimed to have encountered a little green man in the Italian Dolomites in the summer of 1947. Fred Crisman did it, too, when he claimed to have seen and recovered parts from a flying saucer earlier that summer at Maury Island, Washington, before Kenneth Arnold's sighting near Mount Rainier and Mac Brazel's discovery of a supposed crashdown near Roswell, New Mexico. And Raymond A. Palmer did it when he wrote:
On December 27, 1949, Albert Einstein came out with a new theory of gravitation and electromagnetic fields. Months before that, Mr. Shaver (minus the mathematical formula) told me the same thing! For the record, I want to say that if any credit for a new and revolutionary theory of gravity goes to anybody it should go to Richard S. Shaver, on the basis of prior publication. (Quoted in "The Shaver Mystery" by Richard Toronto, Fate, March 1998, here.)
The examples could go on and on--and they will in this series, if only a little.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, March 12, 2018

Barker, Bender, Shaver, Palmer . . . and Beyond

I have been working on an idea and a series for many months. That's too long for this kind of thing, but that's just how it is. Before continuing, I would like to provide links to previous entries. Although the idea for this series started earlier last year, the first entry is from July 2017:

The Cosmic Question (February 2, 2018) (a segue way and an aside)

Next comes The Shaver Mystery-Part One. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Shape of an Oscar-Part Two

I didn't mean for there to be a part two to this article, but I read something on Friday night, after I had written part one, that fits so perfectly with this topic and this title that I have to tell you about it.

I found last week a book called Seeing Is Believing, or How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the 50s by Peter Biskind (1983, 2001). In my reading, I skipped to Chapter 3, "Pods and Blobs," about science fiction and monster movies of the 1950s. Here is an excerpt from the author's discussion of the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy of 1954-1956:
In the first film . . . the Creature was mildly appealing, more sinned against than sinning, almost but not quite a noble savage tormented beyond endurance by the arrogant scientists who mucked about in his lagoon, and driven into a frenzy by the proximity of Julia Adams in a one-piece bathing suit. . . . In the second and third films the Creature gets increasingly put upon. In [John] Sherwood's 1956 version [The Creature Walks Among Us], "he" has been taken out of his natural habitat entirely, removed in chains to a cage on land. Here, he's unambiguously sympathetic . . . . But he's unable to protect himself from the mad scientists who perform all sorts of grim experiments upon his body while prattling about "reality and facts." They transplant this, amputate that, move a fin here, a gill there, until his own mother wouldn't recognize him. One of the scientists even tries to frame him for murder, and in the end, the creature is killed. (Bloomsbury, 2001, p. 121)
That sounds a lot like The Shape of Water. There's a difference, though, and it's a significant one if you look at this movie of today in the context of the science fiction movies and monster movies of the 1950s. In those movies, there is a dichotomy between the military man of action and the scientific man of words and ideas. Sometimes the moviemakers were on one side of the dichotomy, and sometimes they were on the other. I can think of no better example than The Thing from Another World vs. The Day the Earth Stood Still, both from 1951. In The Thing, the military men are the heroes. It is by their action that an invasion (or infestation) of Earth is prevented. The scientist on the other hand, Dr. Arthur Carrington, wants to understand and communicate with the alien creature. He even goes so far as to propagate it by feeding it blood, including his own blood. He very nearly wrecks the whole operation, thereby threatening Earth with destruction. In contrast, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the military men are the tormenters of the alien. They even shoot and kill him, only to see him resurrected. (The Gill-man in The Shape of Water is shot, killed, and resurrected, too. Earlier, he is tormented by electric shock, like the giant carrot in The Thing.) By their actions, the whole of Earth is threatened with destruction. It is the scientists who sympathize with the alien and to whom he appeals. If the planet is to be saved, it will be by their ideas rather than by militaristic action.

So, in The Creature Walks Among Us, the scientists--"mad scientists," Peter Biskind calls them--torment and mutilate the Creature. They are, then, scientists of the first type, i.e., bad scientists. This, I think, is the more conservative version of the military man/man of science dichotomy. (Not conservative in the contemporary political sense but in an older, non-political or anti-political sense.) In The Shape of Water, there is an inversion. The military men or quasi-military men are now the tormenters of the Creature, and it is the scientist who sympathizes with him. (Significantly, the antagonist is the only character in The Shape of Water to quote from the Bible.) Instead of the conservative version of the dichotomy, we have the more liberal or leftwing version. (The scientist in The Shape of Water is a Soviet spy. I think his humanity and sympathy for the Creature are more to the point than his nationality or political affiliation.)

In any case, I haven't seen The Creature Walks Among Us in a long, long time. There may be more similarities between it and The Shape of Water. But as I wrote the other day, The Shape of Water is basically a sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. I think that's okay. Universal Pictures doesn't have exclusive rights to the idea of a lizardman, nor to the idea that a monster or beast might love a woman, a story as old as humanity. (The Creature of the Black Lagoon is essentially the same story as King Kong.) But in any movie a person might make, art should trump politics. More essential than that, bad storytelling should always be banished in favor of good storytelling. Like I told a friend, a good story is what counts. Nothing else in storytelling matters very much.

Finally, I mentioned how I found something in my reading that pertains to the title of this article. Well, the second series of ellipses in the quote above are in place of the following parenthetical statement:
(The Creature's distinctive costume was reputedly derived from a sketch of the Oscar statuette.) (1)
I didn't know that when I wrote the first part of this article, but by a bit of serendipity, my title closes a circle.

(1) According to the blog Psychobabble: "Millicent Patrick, who designed the Gill Man, was a television and film actress and had been the first female animator at Disney Studios. She was also responsible for the Mutant alien in This Island Earth." (July 25, 2010.)
(2) According to Wikipedia: "Producer William Alland was attending a 1941 dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane (in which he played the reporter Thompson) when Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told him about the myth of a race of half-fish, half-human creatures in the Amazon River. Alland wrote story notes titled 'The Sea Monster' 10 years later. His inspiration was Beauty and the Beast." And so another circle is closed in that a Mexican moviemaker, Guillermo del Toro, has made a movie based on a story told by another Mexican moviemaker more than three-quarters of a century ago.

The Gill-man and swimmer from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). You could write more than a few sentences about this image: about the Creature's superior position vs. the woman's inferior position; the fact that his hand is positioned just right to cover a part of his anatomy not intended for display; about her passiveness, fear, and averted gaze. But look at the background. Note the series of symmetries. Is this an unaltered image? Or did the original rocky background, in all of its symmetries, look like a view through a kaleidoscope? Where is Richard Shaver when you need him? He could tell us what these things mean.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley