A Foolish Man, Philosopher, and Fanatic
by William Dean Howells
“Who is Blennerhassett?” asked William Wirt, at the trial of Aaron Burr for treason, and many a schoolboy since has echoed the question, as many a schoolboy will hereafter, while impassioned oratory is music to the ear and witchery to the breast. The eloquent lawyer went on to answer himself, and painted in glowing colors a character which history sees in a colder light. But though Blennerhassett was not the ideal that Wirt imagined, he was the generous victim of a cold and selfish man’s ambition, and the ruin of his happy home and gentle hope is none the less pathetic because his own folly was partly to blame for it.
We must go back of the events which we have been following to an earlier date, if we wish to find Harman Blennerhassett dwelling with his beautiful wife on their fairy island in the Ohio. Their earthly paradise lay in the larger stream at the mouth of the Kanawha, not far from the present town of Belpre, and there in the first year of the century, Blennerhassett built a mansion which became the wonder of the West. The West was not then very well able to judge of the magnificence which it celebrated, but there seems no reason to doubt that Blennerhassett’s mansion was fine, and of a grandeur unexampled in that new country where most men lived in log cabins, and where any framed house was a marvel. He was of English birth, but of Irish parentage, and to the ardor of his race he added the refinement of an educated taste. He was a Trinity College man, and one of his classmates at Dublin was the Irish patriot, Emmet, who afterwards suffered death for his country. But it does not appear that Blennerhassett came to America for political reasons, and he seems to have made his home in the West from the impulse of a poetic nature, with the wealth and the leisure to realize the fancies of his dream. “A shrubbery that Shenstone might have envied,” says Wirt, “blooms around him. Music that might have charmed Calypso and her nymphs, is his. An extensive library spreads its treasures before him. A philosophical apparatus offers him all the secrets and mysteries of nature. Peace, tranquillity, and innocence shed their mingled delights around him. And to crown the enchantment of the scene, a wife, who is said to be lovely even beyond her sex, and graced with every accomplishment that can render it irresistible, had blessed him with her love.”
Whatever may be the facts concerning the home of the Blennerhassetts, the memories of those who knew its mistress bear witness to the truth of these glowing words. They testify that she was not only brilliant, accomplished, exquisite in manner, but good to every one, kind to the poor, and devoted to her husband and children. She was a faultless housewife, as well as a fearless horsewoman, and she was strong in body as she was active in mind. “She could leap a five-rail fence, walk ten miles at a stretch, and ride with the boldest dragoon. Robed in scarlet broadcloth, with a white beaver hat, on a spirited horse, she might be seen dashing through the dark woods, reminding one of the flight and gay plumage of a tropical bird.”
To this home and its inmates came Aaron Burr, as bad, brave, and brilliant a man as ever figured in our public life. He had been a gallant officer in the Revolution, he had been Vice President of the United States, he had come within a vote of being President. But he had killed Alexander Hamilton in the duel which he forced upon him, and all his knowledge of the world and men had taught him to worship power and despise virtue. It has not yet been clearly shown what Burr meant or hoped to do, and possibly he could not have very well said himself; but it is certain that in a general way he was trying to separate the West from the East, and to commit the warlike people of the backwoods to a fine scheme for conquering Mexico from Spain, and setting up an imperial throne there for him to sit upon. He was always willing to sell out his fine scheme to France, to England, to any power that would buy, even to Spain herself; and in the mean time he came and went in the West and Southwest and built up a party in his favor, which fell to pieces at the first touch of real adversity. General Wilkinson, of the United States army, who had been plotting and scheming with Burr, arrested him; he was tried for treason, and those who had cast their fortunes with him were carried down in his fall. The most picturesque of the sufferers was Blennerhassett, who was one of the most innocent. Burr had found other Ohio people too plodding, as he said, but the Blennerhassetts took him seriously, and when Burr in his repeated visits tempted the husband, and flattered the wife, who was ambitious only for her husband, he easily beguiled them into a belief in his glorious destiny.
Blennerhassett put all his fortune into the venture. He ordered fifteen large boats built for transporting five hundred men down the Mississippi, he contracted for provisioning them, and pledged himself for the payments of all kinds of debts. His friends tried to reason with his folly in vain. Governor Tiffin called out a company of militia to prevent his boats from leaving the Muskingum; Blennerhassett heard that he was to be arrested, and fled; a troop of Virginians seized his island, pillaged his house and ruined his grounds; and Mrs. Blennerhassett with her children embarked amid the ice-floes of the Ohio on a small flatboat and made her way to her husband in Louisiana. Here he was taken, but discharged after a few weeks’ imprisonment. They came back to their island, but they never lived there again, and in 1811 the house was burned. They wandered from place to place, and grew poorer and poorer; in 1831 he died at the house of his sister in the island of Guernsey, and seven years later his wife ended her days in a New York tenement house.
Another picturesque figure of our early times was one who never meant and never imagined harm to any living creature, man or beast, but gave his simple, humble life to doing good, with no thought of his own advantage. Perhaps as the world grows more truly civilized the name of Johnny Apple-seed will be honored above that of some heroes of the Ohio country. Like so many of our distinguished men, he was not born in our state, but he came here in his young manhood from his birthplace in Massachusetts, and began at once to plant the apple seeds which gave him his nickname.
Few knew that his real name was John Chapman, but it did not matter; and Johnny Appleseed became his right name if men are rightly named from their works. Wherever he went he carried a store of apple seeds with him, and when he came to a good clear spot on the bank of a stream, he planted his seeds, fenced the place in, and left them to sprout and grow into trees for the orchards of the neighborhood. He soon had hundreds of these little nurseries throughout Ohio, which he returned year after year to watch and tend, and which no one molested. When the trees were large enough he sold them to the farmers for a trifle, an old coat or an old shirt, and when he needed nothing he gave them for nothing. He went barefoot in the warm weather, and in winter he wore cast-off shoes; when he could get none and the ways were very rough he protected his feet with rude sandals of his own making. His hats were of his own making too, and were usually of pasteboard with a broad brim in front to shield his eyes from the sun; but otherwise he dressed in the second-hand clothing of others, for he thought it wrong to spend upon the vanities of dress. He dwelt close to the heart of nature, whose dumb children he would not wound or kill, even poisonous snakes or noxious insects. The Indians knew him and loved him for the goodness of his life, and they honored him for the courage with which he bore the pain he never would inflict. He could drive pins into his flesh without wincing; if he got hurt he burned the place, and then treated it as a burn; he bore himself in all things, to their thinking, far above other white men.
It was believed that he had come into the backwoods to forget a disappointment in love, but there is no proof that he had ever suffered this. What is certain is that he was a man of beautiful qualities of heart and mind, who could at times be divinely eloquent about the work he had chosen to do in this world. He was a believer in the philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg; he carried books of that doctrine in his bosom, and constantly read them, or shared them with those who cared to know it, even to tearing a volume in two. If his belief was true and we are in this world surrounded by spirits, evil or good, which our evil or good behavior invites to be of our company, then this harmless, loving, uncouth, half-crazy man walked daily with the angels of God.
In those early days when the people were poor and ignorant, and had little hope of bettering themselves in this world, their thoughts turned much to the other world. The country was often swept by storms of religious excitement; at the camp-meetings the devout fell in fits and trances or were convulsed with strange throes called the jerks, and all sorts of superstitions grew up easily among them. The wildest of these perhaps was that of the Leatherwood God which flourished in Guernsey County, about the year 1828. The name of this fanatic or impostor, who was indeed both one and the other, was Joseph C. Dylks, and his title was given him because of his claim to be the Supreme Being, and because he first appeared to his worshipers on Leather-wood Creek at the town of Salesville. The leatherwood tree which gave this creek its name had a soft and pliable bark, which could be easily tied into knots, and was used as cordage by the pioneers; and the dwellers on Leatherwood Creek had a faith of much the same easy texture. Yet they were of rather more than the average intelligence, and they were so far from bigoted or intolerant that all sects among them worshiped in one sanctuary, a large cabin which they had built in common, and which they called the Temple. Here on a certain night, while they sat listening to one of their preachers, they were thrilled by a loud cry of “Salvation!” followed by a fierce snort, like that of a startled horse, and they discovered in their midst a stranger of a grave and impressive aspect, who had come no one knew whence or how. When he rose he stood nearly six feet high, and showed himself of a perfect figure, with flashing black eyes, a low broad forehead and a fine arched nose; his hair, black and thick, fell in a mass behind his ears over his shoulders; he wore a suit of black broadcloth, a white neckcloth, and a yellow beaver hat. His weird snort and his striking presence seem to have been his sole equipment for swaying the faith of the people; though some of the earliest believers saw a heavenly radiance streaming from his countenance at times, and when he rode, they beheld above his head a ring of light which hung in the air over the saddle if he dismounted. But he soon began to make converts, and he had quickly enough, of the best among those good men and women, to gain the sole use of the Temple. At first he claimed merely to be the Lord Jesus Christ, but he presently announced himself God Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth; and his followers readily believed him, though he failed in the simple miracle of making a seamless garment out of a bolt of linsey-woolsey cloth, and kept none of his promises to them. He probably found it sufficient to be the Deity, and his worshipers, among whom were two ministers, were certainly content; but the unbelievers felt the scandal to be too great. They had Dylks arrested, and brought before two justices of the peace, who one after the other decided that there was no law of Ohio which forbade a man to declare himself the Almighty.
The wretched creature was acquitted, but he was thoroughly frightened. He made his escape from his guards, and took to the woods, where he was some time in hiding. When he came back to the believers, he had bated nothing of his claim to divinity, but he was no longer so bold. He now told them that the New Jerusalem would not come down at Leatherwood Creek, but in the city of Philadelphia, and he departed to the scene of his glory. Three of the believers followed him over the rugged mountains and through the pathless woods, finding food and shelter by hardly less than a miracle; but they did not find the New Jerusalem at their journey’s end. Dylks had told them that where they should see the heavenly light the brightest, there they should behold the beginning of the New Jerusalem; but they nowhere saw this light, though they walked the streets of the earthly city night and day. Two of them were substantial farmers, and when they had lost all hope, and had lost even Dylks himself (for he soon vanished), they pledged their tobacco crops and so got money enough to come home, where they lived and died in the full faith that Joseph C. Dylks was God Almighty, though he never did anything to prove it but snort like a startled horse, wear long hair on foot and a halo on horseback, and fail in everything else he attempted. The third of this company of his followers, a young minister of the United Brethren, did not return for some years; then he came, well dressed and looking fat and sleek, and preached to the people on Leatherwood Creek the faith in which he had not faltered. He accounted for the disappearance of Dylks from the eyes of his other worshipers in Philadelphia very simply: he had seen him taken up into heaven.
But the people had merely his word for the fact; Dylks never descended to earth again as his apostle promised, and the belief in his divinity died out with those who first accepted him.