Text: Albert H. Tolman, “Was Poe Mathematically Accurate?,” Dial, March 16, 1899, 47:189-190


­[page 189, column 2:]


(To the Editor of THE DIAL.)

I wish to comment upon two sentences in the interesting article of Mr. Charles Leonard Moore in THE DIAL of Jan. 16, entitled “The American Rejection of Poe “:

“Poe, a logic machine, was absolutely incapable of those pleasing flaws and deficiencies which allow other people to have a good opinion of themselves. He always added up true.”

Probably most persons would think of “The Gold-Bug”as the best illustration of the accurate working of Poe’s mind. The celebrated “cryptograph “there found solves itself all right, I presume. There are some mathematical statements in this story, however, which seem to me impossible.

The negro, Jupiter, is compelled by his master, William Legrand, to climb “an enormously tall tulip-tree, which . . . far surpassed . . . all other trees which I had then ever seen, in the beauty of its foliage and form, in the wide spread of its branches, and in the general majesty of its appearance.” The first great branch was “some sixty or seventy feet from the ground.” Jupiter is told to pass by six large limbs on a particular side of this tree, and to climb out upon the seventh. This last proves to be a dead branch, but capable of bearing the negro’s weight, and he climbs “mos’ out to the eend.” Here he discovers a skull nailed to the limb. Legrand tells him to use the “gold-bug,” tied to the end of a string, as a plumb-line, dropping it through “the left eye of the skull.” A peg is driven into the ground at the precise spot where the beetle falls. Legrand then fastened one end of a tape-measure “at that point of the trunk of the tree which was nearest the peg, . . . unrolled it till it reached the ­[page 190:] peg, and thence farther unrolled it, in the direction already established, . . . for the distance of fifty feet.” About the spot thus obtained as a centre, the three associates excavated a pit four feet in diameter to the depth of seven feet, but found nothing. It was then discovered that Jupiter had dropped the beetle through the wrong eye. The next time it fell at “a spot about three inches” from the previous point. “Taking, now, the tape measure from the nearest point of the trunk to the peg, as before, and continuing the extension in a straight line to the distance of fifty feet, a spot was indicated, removed by several yards from the point at which we had been digging.”

The impossibility of the statement italicized will be at once apparent. If the skull was found ten feet away from the trunk of the tree — was it not farther? — the centre of the new circle for digging was about six times three inches from the point about which they dug at first. If the skull were only five feet from the trunk, the second point for digging would be about thirty-three inches from the first.

The journey of the three associates to the place where the chest was discovered lay “through a tract of country excessively wild and desolate.” After travelling “for about two hours,” they “entered a region infinitely more dreary than any yet seen. It was a species of tableland, near the summit of an almost inaccessible hill, densely wooded from base to pinnacle, and interspersed with huge crags that appeared to lie loosely upon the soil. . . . Deep ravines, in various directions, gave an air of still sterner solemnity to the scene.”

The chest found contained “rather more than four hundred and fifty thousand dollars” in gold coins of various nations, “estimating the value of the pieces, as accurately as we could, by the tables of the period.” The gold dollar of the United States weighs 25 4-5, grains, and there are 7,000 grains in the avoirdupois pound. Gold coin to the value of $450,000 would weigh, roughly stated, about 1,655 pounds. Poe tells us that the weight of the other valuables in the chest “exceeded three hundred and fifty pounds avoirdupois,” not including “one hundred and ninety-seven superb gold watches.” This makes the total weight of treasure over 2,000 pounds. The three companions, unexhausted by their journey and prolonged digging, carried home one-third of this treasure in the solid chest over the route indicated above. They reached their hut “in safety, but after excessive toil, at one o’clock in the morning.” After a rest of one hour, they set off, “armed with three stout sacks,” to secure the remaining two-thirds of the booty. They got back to the hut with this, “just as the first faint streaks of the dawn gleamed from over the treetops in the East.” On the second return journey, if my estimates “add up true,” each of the three must have carried about 450 pounds of gold and gems. Certainly, at the time of this achievement, Poe — who tells the story as if himself the third party in the enterprise — had not weakened his bodily powers by dissipation.

In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” we read: On the hearth were two or three long and thick tresses of gray human hair, also dabbled with blood, and seeming to have been pulled out by the roots. “Later in the story, the infallible Dupin says: “You saw the locks in question as well as myself. Their roots (a hideous sight!) were clotted with fragments of the flesh of the scalp — sure token of the prodigious power which [column 2:] had been exerted in uprooting perhaps half a million of hairs at a time.” (The italics are mine.)

The Bible suggests that God alone can accurately number the hairs upon the human head; but I cannot think that it would have involved any impiety if Poe had made his partial estimate in this passage a little more reasonable.

Let us disabuse our minds, then, of the notion that Poe always “adds up true.”

Poe’s fame is secure, though he can never be popular. His was essentially an original mind: he was a literary discoverer, and the world does not often forget its discoverers. His message is mainly, perhaps, to literary craftsmen. Whether we think of the detective story; of the scientific romance, since carried further by Jules Verne and others; of what I can only call “the short-story of atmosphere”; of certain fundamental truths in “the philosophy of composition”; of the true theory of English versification, since elaborated by Sidney Lanier; or of Poe’s own peculiar type of intensely musical poetry, with its fascinating use of tone-color, parallelism, and repetition — we can say, I believe, with substantial truth, that he was

“ . . . . the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea. “


The University of Chicago, March 6, 1899.





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