The Swindling Geologist (1863)

It must have been glorious to have been a geologist in Dubuque, Iowa, in September 1863. When Professor James Dale Owen of the Smithsonian Institute arrived at the State Fair, he was given a season pass, appointed to a prominent committee, and feted by many. He had dinner with the state’s governor. People throughout Iowa invited him to their homes, offering to pay his travel expenses. He was written up in the newspaper. Unfortunately for Owen, and for several other people who met him, the story’s main focus was that Owen was a fraud who had scammed and stolen hundreds of dollars from unsuspecting victims.

For six months from April to October 1863, a person pretending to be James Dale Owen victimized people from West Virginia to Iowa. He claimed to be the son of David Dale Owen, the state geologist of Indiana, and was out west “to visit the several State Fairs and make a note of what was new and curious.” If any items interested him, he would purchase them for the Smithsonian. He also traveled on behalf of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), an agency set up to raise money for the Union during the Civil War. In this capacity, Owen sold sets of books by prominent geologists, such as Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, with the money earmarked for the USSC. Eight to ten people from Davenport ponied up the seven dollars, and, of course, never received the books.

They made out better than others. When Owen told others that he worked for the New York Tribune, and could get them mentioned in the paper, some people gave him money to cover his expenses to come and them. Apparently a ladies’ man, he asked several young women to marry him. At least three accepted. But his greatest success was as a pickpocket, pilfering $80 from one person and $50 from another. Total take in Davenport was estimated at $1,500.

Where Owen fared less well was as a geologist. After Davenport, he headed to Illinois and made the acquintance of amateur geologist O.N. Adams. Adams attempted to solicit Owen’s thoughts on various geology topics, and found his answers often incorrect. When pressed Owen responded that he had been ill in Iowa and had been given “dreadful opiates, which make me dull and stupid.” Despite the opiates, Owen still hoodwinked Adams out of a valuable fossil collection, sold him a set of geology books, and even promised Adams’ daughter two guinea pigs. “He little heart is well nigh broken,” reported the Chicago Tribune.

Finally, in early October 1863, Owen was arrested in Tamaroa, Illinois, a small town in the southern part of the state. Owen argued that “it was a mere matter of time.” If he had been arrested in Chicago, with its high quality telegraph services, he could have contacted the Smithsonian or his publishers in Philadelphia and they would have cleared up the situation immediately.

Of course, no such communication took place, so Owen took it upon himself to remedy the situation. He first attempted to bribe the person who made the arrest. When this failed, he apparently colluded with a pettifogger, who convinced the officer holding Owen that he would suffer if Owen was not let go. Before any could stop him Owen caught the first train, never to be seen or heard from again.


Thoreau’s Cairn

Henry David Thoreau and I might have had a few spats. Despite his apparent fondness for all things natural, he did not like building stone. In Walden he wrote “To what end, pray, is so much stone hammered…Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave…I love better to see stones in place.” Perhaps then we might have agreed on cairns.

No they are not stones left in place but at least they are not stones altered by man or nation. One of the things I like best about cairns is that people make them from found rocks and not from rocks cut, chiseled, or sawn for that purpose. As I noted in my section on geology, stones used in cairns invariably reflect the nature of the stone—where and how it formed and where and how it weathered—and not the nature of a person. In that way, I like to think that cairns honor Thoreau’s admonition for simple and honest architecture.

How splendid then that a cairn is “our oldest monument to Thoreau.” Specifically, this cairn rises near where his original house stood at Walden Pond. It has been a central memorial to the man from Walden Pond since a lady from Dubuque, Iowa, placed the first stone in 1872.

Thoreau had died ten years earlier. He had not lived at Walden Pond since 1847, following his 26-month-long experiment “to anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!” The 10 x 15-foot house he had built had long been gone from Walden, too. In 1849, it had been moved across Concord. The new owners stored corn in it. They would later demolish it and use the wood for building projects on their farm.

By the early 1870s, Thoreau’s fame had led to a regular stream of pilgrims seeking out Walden. They found little to mark Thoreau’s life until June 1872, when Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May, visited with his friend Mary Newbury Adams and showed her where the small cabin had once stood. Noting that it was pity that there nothing to mark the spot, Adams suggested building a cairn and “then let everyone who loved Thoreau add a stone.” Alcott, a life-long friend of Henry’s agreed and added a stone to the one left by Adams. He noted in his journal of July 12-13, “Henry’s fame is sure to brighten with years, and this spot be visited by admiring readers of his works.”

The cairn at Walden still stands, pilgrims still visit it, and they still leave rocks. And, I still like hammered stone.