Thursday, 30 October 2014

Hoax anticipation of Darwinism and germ theory of disease (Sleeper 1849/1913)

An almost forgotten hoax anticipation of natural selection and the germ theory of disease left some interesting traces in the Wallace correspondence, the proceedings of the Linnean Society,  Nature and elsewhere. The records are such that even Milton Wainwright, who elsewhere argued against the priority of Wallace and Darwin, concludes that it is probably a hoax.

The first trace I could find in the Wallace Letters Online archive is a letter from Alfred R. Wallace to some Ben R. Miller Esq. dated 18 January 1913. In it Wallace thanks Miller for a pamphlet by George Washington Sleeper, which Miller had sent him. Wallace agreed that it anticipated the idea of evolution through natural selection and also the germ theory of disease. The dead letter office returned this letter to Wallace, however, as can be seen from the note on the top right as well as from this later letter of Wallace to Poulton. E. B. Poulton seems to have been more lucky in contacting Miller, and Miller seems to have forwarded addresses of members of the Sleeper family to Poulton including that of G. W. Sleeper's son John F Sleeper. Unfortunately, the initial letter of Miller to Wallace is not (yet) in the online archive. The fact that Poulton managed to contact Miller, however, may also mean that Wallace forwarded that initial letter by Miller to Poulton. It may be worthwhile to look for it among Poulton's correspondence rather than Wallace's.

E. B. Poulton, Wikimedia Commons
At 2 April 1913, Wallace forwarded the booklet with a letter to E. B. Poulton. It said:
"About two months ago an american [sic] drummer sent me the enclosed booklet which he had been told was very rare and contained an anticipation of Darwinism. This it certainly does [...] His anticipation, however, of diverging lines of descent from a common ancestor and of the transmission of disease germs by means of insects are perfectly clear and very striking."
The only sense I can make of the drummer’ is that Miller might have been a civil war veteran drummer boy using it as a badge of honour to call himself so. [Glenn Branch informs me that drummer could also mean a salesperson, see comments]. By the way, Poulton reprinted this letter in his presidential address to the Linnean Society of London, 24 May 1913 (A Remarkable American Work upon Evolution and the Germ Theory of Disease). But he changed "an american 'drummer'" into "an American."

Wallace, who died in November 1913, was convinced about the authenticity of Sleeper (1849). He entrusted Poulton with dealing with that issue, because Poulton had already publicised the work of James Cowles Prichard, which included some prescient ideas, though not evolution through natural selection.

Poulton must have received an earlier notice of the Sleeper anticipation from Raphael Meldola, however. At 3 April 1913, he sent a postcard to Wallace, in which he mentioned Meldola's grapevine and suggested that Wallace should prepare an article about the anticipation for the journal Bedrock. A scan of this postcard is in the Wallace Letters Online. As it is not yet transcribed and neither mentioned in any of the other records, I will add what I could decipher:
"To: A. R. Wallace FRS, Broadstone, Dorset. St Helens Cottage, St Helens, Isle of Wight, Apr. 3. 1913. Have just received a letter from Meldola who tells me of a wonderful American anticipation of natural selection and other important discoveries. Have you another copy to spare? I should very much like to read it. It would be very appropriate if you would write an article for Bedrock on it to appear in the July number. I can easily arrange this if you can manage it. Kindest regards E. B. Poulton"
Anyway, Poulton did the job in the end. He discussed the pamphlet of George Washington Sleeper (1849) in his presidential address to the Linnean Society, 24 May 1913. This event was reported on in Nature (22 January 1914. "A Remarkable Anticipation of Darwin." Volume 92: pp. 588-589).

Poulton was uncertain about the authenticity of Sleeper's booklet, however. At 3 June 1913, Wallace opens a letter to Poulton by:
"My dear Poulton, I am very glad you have changed your view about the "Sleeper" Lectures being a "fake". The writer was too earnest & too clear a thinker to descend to any such trick. And for what? "Agnostic" is not in Shakespeare, but it may well have been used by some one before Huxley."
This hints at Poulton's doubt, which he already mentioned in his presidential address from 1913. By July 1914, these doubt had become a certainty. Poulton had employed various bibliographical experts checking the paper, the type, the signature on the contract with the printer etc. Poulton reported in his presidential address to the Linnean Society of 25 May 1914 ("Continued Investigation into a Remarkable American work upon Evolution and the Germ Theory of Disease"), their verdict was negative. The Sleeper document was a hoax. The internal evidence showed anachronisms, like the use of the term agnostic before Thomas Huxley had coined it (pressing Sleeper's son to claim that his father had coined it). The paper used for the pamphlet was old, but the type seems to have not been in existence in 1849. The quality of the product was amateurish and not up to the standards of the printer ostensible contracted. The signature of the printer on the contract was compared with signatures of that printer from the 1850s and signatures of the same printer from much later (e.g. 1890). The signature on the contract resembled that of the later dates, not that of the earlier ones. That was the evidence finally convincing Poulton and the experts of the fraud. The conclusion was, again, reported in Nature (30 July 1914. "A Forged "Anticipation" of Modern Scientific Ideas."Volume 93: pp. 563-564).

The Appendix of Poulton's presidential address from 1914 also reprinted the whole pamphlet (G. W. Sleeper 1849. Shall we have common sense. Some recent lectures. Boston: Wm. Bense) as faithfully as possible.

The only thing that remained in the dark was the identity of the forger—was it G. W. Sleeper, his son J. F. Sleeper or that drummer, Ben Miller, who sent the booklet to Wallace? (Ben Miller claimed to have bought it either in Cleveland or Cincinnati, but the existence of the shop he mentioned could not be verified fore either town.) In this respect, the hoax is equals the whodunit-suspense of the Piltdown man found in 1912.

All this is not my apostil, however. I find it remarkable how deeply and soundly relaxed Alfred R. Wallace reacted, when confronted with this anticipation. He told Poulton that Sleeper cannot, in his opinion, be a hoax, for he was too earnest a writer. Poulton resolved that by concluding self-deception of the forger whoever it was. But this is not my apostil. My apostil is: Would Wallace have been that relaxed about an anticipation coming towards him, if he had himself a dark secret to hide about plagiarising Matthew and blackmailing Darwin, who also plagiarised Matthew? (As suggested by some Darwin-conspiracy theorists.)

P.S.: #canihavpdf


  1. Miller was probably a salesperson -- see sense 3 s.v. "drummer" in the OED: "A person who solicits custom or orders; a travelling sales representative."

    1. Thanks for the hint, Glenn. That could also explain, why the first letter from Wallace could not be delivered and was returned to him.