Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Von Kemplelen and His Discovery,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 1355-1367 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 1355, continued:]


This is Poe's prose comment on the Gold Rush to California which inspired his “Eldorado” in verse.* Gold was found on [page 1356:] January 24, 1848 by James Wilson Marshall in the raceway of a sawmill constructed by Captain John Augustus Sutter on the South Fork of the American River in California. The discovery is recorded in the San Francisco Californian of March 15, 1848. The Gold Rush came very late in that year and in 1849. That the transmutation of the baser into precious metals would be possible in the nineteenth century was asserted by “Dr. Girianger, of Göttingen,” according to the article “Alchymy” in Isaac D‘Israeli's Curiosities of Literature.

Experience had shown Poe that unwary readers could believe in imaginary miracles of mesmerism. He concluded that such people might swallow an account of a chemist who really made gold. The piece was finished by March 8, 1849, when Poe wrote to E. A. Duyckinck:

If you have looked over the Von Kempelen article which I left with your brother, you will have fully perceived its drift. I mean it as a kind of “exercise”, or experiment, in the plausible or verisimilar style. Of course, there is not one word of truth in it from beginning to end. I thought that such a style, applied to the gold-excitement, could not fail of effect. My sincere opinion is that nine persons out of ten (even among the best-informed) will believe the quiz (provided the design does not leak out before publication) and that thus, acting as a sudden, although of course a very temporary check to the gold-fever, it will create a stir to some purpose ...

I believe the quiz is the first deliberate literary attempt of the kind on record. In the story of Mrs Veal, we are permitted, now and then, to perceive a tone of banter. In “Robinson Crusoe” the design was far more to please, or excite, than to deceive by verisimilitude ... In my “Valdemar Case” (which was credited by many) I had not the slightest idea that any person should credit it as any thing more than a “Magazine-paper” — but here the whole strength is laid out in verisimilitude.

Poe offered the hoax to Duyckinck for the New York Literary World, “for $10, or, in fact, whatever you think you can afford.” He asked Duyckinck not to reveal the secret, and to return the piece if he felt “shy” about it, and added that the agent of the Flag of Our Union would give him fifteen dollars for it, but it would then “be quite thrown away.” It was.

Poe's trap was laid only for the credulous. For the rest, his exercise in the verisimilar practically avoided the veracious. He was at no pains to mislead the analytic. He referred in the story itself to his hero as “connected, in some way, with Maelzel,” whose [page 1357:] chessplayer involved only theatrical magic. The localities in Bremen mentioned are found in no map of that city. The scientists mentioned are men of international reputation whose scientific discussions of the savant from Utica would soon be found not to exist; and the English name of the chemical compound to which Von Kempelen's discovery was akin is the broadest hint of all. There are also direct and indirect allusions to several friends of Poe which I think were calculated to amuse them. All these and other whimsical elements in the story are discussed in the notes below.*


(A) The Flag of Our Union (Boston), April 14, 1849; (B) Works (1850), I, 102-109.

Griswold's version (B) is followed as it shows two apparently auctorial changes. The Flag of Our Union text (A) reverses the usual custom of printing single quotations within, double without. This earlier text is, however, superior in punctuation, and a number of improvements in our text have been made from it. The spelling of Sir Humphry Davy's given name is permitted to remain as Poe always spelled it.


After the very minute and elaborate paper by Arago, to say nothing of the summary in “Silliman's Journal,” with the detailed statement just published by Lieutenant Maury,(1) it will not be supposed, of course, that in offering a few hurried remarks in reference to Von Kempelen's discovery, I have any design to look at the subject in a scientific point of view. My object is simply, in the first place, to say a few words of Von Kempelen himself (with whom, some years ago, I had the honor of a slight personal acquaintance,) since everything{a} which concerns him must necessarily, at this moment, be of interest; and, in the second place, to look in a general way, and speculatively, at the results of the discovery. [page 1358:]

It may be as well, however, to premise the cursory observations which I have to offer, by denying, very decidedly, what seems to be a general impression (gleaned, as usual in a case of this kind, from the newspapers,) viz.: that this discovery, astounding as it unquestionably is, is unanticipated.

By reference to the “Diary of Sir Humphrey Davy,” (Cottle and Munroe, London, pp. 150,)(2) it will be seen at pp. 53 and 82, that this illustrious chemist had not only conceived the idea now in question, but had actually made no inconsiderable progress, experimentally, in the very identical analysis now so triumphantly brought to an issue by Von Kempelen, who{b} although he makes not the slightest allusion to it, is, without doubt (I say it unhesitatingly, and can prove it, if required,) indebted to the “Diary” for at least the first hint of his own undertaking. Although a little technical, I cannot refrain from appending two passages from the “Diary,” with one of Sir Humphrey's equations. [As we have not the algebraic signs necessary, and as the “Diary” is to be found at the Athenæum Library, we omit here a small portion of Mr. Poe's manuscript. — ED.](3)

The paragraph from the “Courier and Enquirer,”(4) which is now going the rounds of the press, and which purports to claim the invention for a Mr. Kissam, of Brunswick, Maine,(5) appears to me, I confess, a little apocryphal, for several reasons; although there is nothing either impossible or very improbable in the statement made. I need not go into details. My opinion of the paragraph is founded principally upon its manner. It does not look true. Persons{c} who are narrating facts, are seldom so particular as Mr. Kissam seems to be, about day and date and precise location. Besides, if Mr. Kissam actually did come upon the discovery he says he did, at the period designated — nearly eight years ago — how happens it that he took no steps, on the instant, to reap the immense benefits which the merest bumpkin must have known would have resulted to him individually, if not to the world at large, from the discovery? It seems to me quite incredible that any man, of common understanding, could have discovered what Mr. Kissam says he did, and yet [page 1359:] have subsequently acted so like a baby — so like an owl — as Mr. Kissam admits that he did. By-the-way, who is Mr. Kissam? and is not the whole paragraph in the “Courier and Enquirer” a fabrication got up to “make a talk?” It must be confessed that it has an amazingly moon-hoax-y air.(6) Very little dependence is to be placed upon it, in my humble opinion; and if I were not well aware, from experience, how very easily men of science are mystified, on points out of their usual range of inquiry, I should be profoundly astonished at finding so eminent a chemist as Professor Draper,(7) discussing Mr. Kissam's (or is it Mr. Quizzem's?) pretensions to this discovery, in so serious a tone.

But to return to the “Diary” of Sir Humphrey Davy.(8) This pamphlet was not designed for the public eye, even upon the decease of the writer, as any person at all conversant with authorship may satisfy himself at once by the slightest inspection of the style. At page 13, for example, near the middle, we read, in reference to his researches about the protoxide of azote: “In less than half a minute the respiration being continued, diminished gradually and were succeeded by analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles.” That the respiration was not “diminished,” is not only clear by the subsequent context, but by the use of the plural, “were.” The sentence, no doubt, was thus intended: “In less than half a minute, the respiration [being continued, these feelings] diminished gradually, and were succeeded by [a sensation] analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles.”(9) A hundred similar instances go to show that the MS. so inconsiderately published, was merely a rough note-book, meant only for the writer's own eye; but an inspection of the pamphlet will convince almost any thinking person of the truth of my suggestion. The fact is, Sir Humphrey Davy was about the last man in the world to commit himself on scientific topics. Not only had he a more than ordinary dislike to quackery, but he was morbidly afraid of appearing empirical; so that, however fully he might have been convinced that he was on the right track in the matter now in question, he would never have spoken out, until he had everything{d} ready for the most practical demonstration. [page 1360:] I verily believe that his last moments would have been rendered wretched, could he have suspected that his wishes in regard to burning this “Diary” (full of crude speculations) would have been unattended to; as, it seems, they were. I say “his wishes,” for that he meant to include this note-book among the miscellaneous papers directed “to be burnt,” I think there can be no manner of doubt. Whether it escaped the flames by good fortune or by bad, yet remains to be seen. That the passages quoted above, with the other similar ones referred to, gave Von Kempelen the hint, I do not in the slightest degree question; but I repeat, it yet remains to be seen whether this momentous discovery itself (momentous under any circumstances,) will be of service or disservice to mankind at large, That Von Kempelen and his immediate friends will reap a rich harvest, it would be folly to doubt for a moment. They will scarcely be so weak as not to “realize,” in time, by large purchases of houses and land, with other property of intrinsic value.

In the brief account of Von Kempelen which appeared in the “Home Journal,”(10) and has since been extensively copied, several misapprehensions of the German original seem to have been made by the translator, who professes to have taken the passage{e} from a late number of the Presburg “Schnellpost.”(11)Viele” has evidently been misconceived (as it often is,) and what the translator renders by “sorrows,” is probably “lieden,” which, in its true version, “sufferings,” would give a totally different complexion to the whole account; but, of course, much of this is merely guess, on my part.(12)

Von Kempelen, however, is by no means “a misanthrope,” in appearance, at least, whatever he may be in fact. My acquaintance with him was casual altogether; and I am scarcely warranted in saying that I know him at all; but to have seen and conversed with a man of so prodigious a notoriety as he has attained, or will attain in a few days, is not a small matter, as times go.

“The Literary World”(13) speaks of him, confidently, as a native of Presburg (misled, perhaps, by the account in the “Home Journal,”) but I am pleased in being able to state positively, since I have it from his own lips, that he was born in Utica, in the State [page 1361:] of New York,(14) although both his parents, I believe, are of Presburg descent. The family is connected, in some way, with Mäelzel, of Automaton-chess-player memory. [If we are not mistaken, the name of the inventor of the chess-player was either Kempelen, Von Kempelen, or something like it. — ED.](15) In person, he is short and stout, with large, fat, blue eyes, sandy hair and whiskers, a wide but pleasing mouth, fine teeth, and I think a Roman nose. There is some defect in one of his feet.(16) His address is frank, and his whole manner noticeable for bonhommie. Altogether, he looks, speaks and acts as little like “a misanthrope” as any man I ever saw. We were fellow-sojourners for a week, about six years ago, at Earl's Hotel, in Providence, Rhode Island;(17) and I presume that I conversed with him, at various times, for some three or four hours altogether. His principal topics were those of the day; and nothing that fell from him led me to suspect his scientific attainments. He left the hotel before me, intending to go to New York, and thence to Bremen; it was in the latter city that his great discovery was first made public; or, rather, it was there that he was first suspected of having made it. This is about all that I personally know of the now immortal Von Kempelen; but I have thought that even these few details would have interest for the public.

There can be little question that most of the marvellous rumors afloat about this affair{f} are pure inventions, entitled to about as much credit as the story of Aladdin's lamp; and yet, in a case of this kind, as in the case of the discoveries in California, it is clear that the truth may be stranger than fiction.(18) The following anecdote, at least, is so well authenticated, that we may receive it implicitly.

Von Kempelen had never been even tolerably well off during his residence at Bremen; and often, it was well known, he had been put to extreme shifts, in order to raise trifling sums. When the great excitement occurred about the forgery on the house of Gutsmuth & Co., suspicion was directed towards Von Kempelen, on account of his having purchased a considerable property in Gasperitch Lane, and his refusing, when questioned, to explain how [page 1362:] he became possessed of the purchase money. He was at length arrested, but nothing decisive appearing against him, was in the end set at liberty.(19) The police, however, kept a strict watch upon his movements, and thus discovered that he left home frequently, taking always the same road, and invariably giving his watchers the slip in the neighborhood of that labyrinth of narrow and crooked passages known by the flash-name.(20) of the “Dondergat.” Finally, by dint of great perseverance, they traced him to a garret in an old house of seven stories, in an alley called Flätplatz; and, coming upon him suddenly, found him, as they imagined, in the midst of his counterfeiting operations. His agitation is represented as so excessive that the officers had not the slightest doubt of his guilt. After hand-cuffing him, they searched his room, or rather rooms; for it appears he occupied all the mansarde.{g} (21)

Opening into the garret where they caught him{h} was a closet, ten feet by eight, fitted up with some chemical apparatus, of which the object has not yet been ascertained. In one corner of the closet was a very small furnace, with a glowing fire in it, and on the fire a kind of duplicate crucible — two crucibles connected by a tube. One of these crucibles was nearly full of lead in a state of fusion, but not reaching up to the aperture of the tube, which was close to the brim. The other crucible had some liquid in it, which, as the officers entered, seemed to be furiously dissipating in vapor. They relate that, on finding himself taken, Von Kempelen seized the crucibles with both hands (which were encased in gloves that afterwards turned out to be asbestic), and threw the contents on the tiled floor. It was now that they hand-cuffed him; and, before proceeding to ransack the premises, they searched his person, but nothing unusual was found about him, excepting a paper parcel, in his coat pocket, containing what was afterwards ascertained to be a mixture of antimony and some unknown substance, in nearly, but not quite, equal proportions. All attempts at analyzing the unknown substance have, so far, failed, but that it will ultimately be analyzed, is not to be doubted.

Passing out of the closet with their prisoner, the officers went [page 1363:] through a sort of ante-chamber, in which nothing material was found, to the chemist's sleeping-room. They here rummaged some drawers and boxes, but discovered only a few papers, of no importance, and some good coin, silver and gold. At length, looking under the bed, they saw a large, common hair trunk, without hinges, hasp, or lock, and with the top lying carelessly across the bottom portion. Upon attempting to draw this trunk out from under the bed, they found that, with their united strength (there were three of them, all powerful men), they “could not stir it one inch.” Much astonished at this, one of them crawled under the bed, and looking into the trunk, said:

“No wonder we couldn’t move it — why, it's full to the brim of old bits of brass!”

Putting his feet, now, against the wall, so as to get a good purchase, and pushing with all his force, while his companions pulled with all theirs, the trunk, with much difficulty, was slid out from under the bed, and its contents examined. The supposed brass with which it was filled was all in small, smooth pieces, varying from the size of a pea to that of a dollar; but the pieces were irregular in shape, although all more or less flat — looking, upon the whole, “very much as lead looks when thrown upon the ground in a molten state, and there suffered to grow cool.” Now, not one of these officers for a moment suspected this metal to be anything but brass. The idea of its being gold never entered their brains, of course; how could such a wild fancy have entered it? And their astonishment may be well conceived, when next day it became known, all over Bremen, that the “lot of brass” which they had carted so contemptuously to the police office, without putting themselves to the trouble of pocketing the smallest scrap, was not only gold — real gold — but gold far finer than any employed in coinage — gold, in fact, absolutely pure, virgin, without the slightest appreciable alloy!

I need not go over the details of Von Kempelen's confession (as far as it went) and release, for these are familiar to the public. That he has actually realized, in spirit and in effect, if not to the letter, the old chimera of the philosopher's stone, no sane person is at liberty to doubt. The opinions of Arago are, of course, entitled to [page 1364:] the greatest consideration; but he is by no means infallible; and what he says of bismuth, in his report to the academy, must be taken cum grano salis.(22) The simple truth is, that up to this period, all analysis has failed; and until Von Kempelen chooses to let us have the key to his own published enigma, it is more than probable that the matter will remain, for years, in statu quo. All that as{i} yet can fairly be said to be known, is, that “pure gold can be made at will, and very readily, from lead, in connection with certain other substances, in kind and in proportions, unknown.”

Speculation, of course, is busy as to the immediate and ultimate results of this discovery — a discovery which few thinking persons will hesitate in referring to an increased interest in the matter of gold generally, by the late developments in California; and this reflection brings us inevitably to another — the exceeding inopportuneness of Von Kempelen's analysis. If many were prevented from adventuring to California, by the mere apprehension that gold would so materially diminish in value, on account of its plentifulness in the mines there, as to render the speculation of going so far in search of it a doubtful one — what impression will be wrought now, upon the minds of those about to emigrate, and especially upon the minds of those actually in the mineral region, by the announcement of this astounding discovery of Von Kempelen? a discovery which declares, in so many words, that beyond its intrinsic worth for manufacturing purposes, (whatever that worth may be), gold now is, or at least soon will be (for it cannot be supposed that Von Kempelen can long retain his secret) of no greater value than lead, and of far inferior value to silver. It is, indeed, exceedingly difficult to speculate prospectively upon the consequences of the discovery; but one thing may be positively maintained — that the announcement of the discovery six months ago{j} would have had material influence in regard to the settlement of California.

In Europe, as yet, the most noticeable results have been a rise of two hundred per cent. in the price of lead, and nearly twenty-five per cent. in that of silver.


[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1357:]

a  every thing (B) emended to follow A

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1358:]

b  who (B) comma added from A

c  People (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1359:]

d  every thing (B) emended to follow A

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1360:]

e  passages (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1361:]

f  affair, (B) comma deleted to follow A

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1362:]

g  mausarde (A, B) misprint

h  him, (B) comma deleted to follow A

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1364:]

i  that as / that (B) emended to follow A

j  ago, (B) comma deleted to follow A

[page 1365:]


1.  The supposed publications are all imaginary, but the persons were real scholars of note, whose names were well known in Poe's day. Dominique-Frangois Arago (1786-1858), a celebrated physicist and astronomer, was probably the most prominent of French scientists in 1849. Benjamin Silliman's American Journal of Science and Arts, founded in 1818 at New Haven by the professor of chemistry and natural history at Yale College, was already one of the important scientific journals of the world. Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury (1806-1873), who was a contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger under the pen-name of Harry Bluff, in 1847 and 1848 had just published the first of his famous wind and current charts and the companion sailing instructions which were to shorten materially the sailing time between ports in many parts of the world.

2.  The reference to Davy's “Diary” is wholly fictitious, but Poe may have seen a footnote in Harper's 1842 edition of Bulwer's Zanoni saying “Mr. D’Israeli, in his ‘Curiosities of Literature’ (Article Alchem.), after quoting the sanguine judgments of modern chymists as to the transmutation of metals, observes ... ‘Sir Humphrey Davy told me that he did not consider this undiscovered art as impossible ...’ ”

3.  In the bracketed passage Poe's reference must be to the Boston Athenaeum — a library that still flourishes — since the explanation is ascribed to the pen of the editor of the Boston Flag of Our Union, in which the tale appeared. There was no subscription library called Atheneum in New York, and institutions of the name in Providence and Baltimore can have nothing to do with the case. For dealing with a problem by means of an editorial explanation in brackets, see “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” at n. 120.

4.  The Morning Courier and New York Enquirer was edited by James Watson Webb, a friend of Poe in later years. He raised a fund for the poet at the Metropolitan Club after Virginia Poe's death in 1847, according to Griswold's “Ludwig” article in the New-York Tribune, October 9, 1849 — a statement I see no reason to doubt. (See Harrison, Complete Works, I, 354.)

5.  Brunswick, Maine, was the residence of Poe's young correspondent George W. Eveleth, for whose amusement the reference was probably inserted. The name Kissam is slightly ludicrous and was chosen for the pun on Quizzem.

6.  Obviously a reference to Richard Adams Locke's Moon Hoax; see “The Balloon Hoax,” introduction, p. 1066.

7.  John William Draper was a professor at New York University and a leading scientist, whose improvements in the chemistry of Daguerre's photography shortened exposure time enough to make possible the first daguerreotype portrait (1839). Poe did not like Draper, and told Eveleth, in a letter of June 26, 1849, that he was satirized in Eureka. Poe may have enjoyed representing Draper as a dupe.

8.  [As indicated in note 2 above, the “Diary” mentioned was Poe's invention, but Thomas Hall demonstrated, in “Poe's Use of a Source” (Poe Newsletter, October 1968), that the material for the ensuing discussion actually came from a [page 1366:] paragraph in Davy's Collected Works, III: “Researches Concerning Nitrous Oxide” (London, 1839).]

9.  Azote was Lavoisier's name for nitrogen; its protoxide (N2O) is, in common parlance, laughing gas.

[Davy's paragraph found by Mr. Hall on p. 272 of the volume cited reads as follows:

“Having previously closed my nostrils and exhausted my lungs, I breathed four quarts of nitrous oxide from and into a silk bag. The first feelings were similar to those produced in the last experiment; but in less than half a minute, the respiration being continued, they diminished gradually, and were succeeded by a sensation analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles, attended by a highly pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and the extremities. The objects around me became dazzling and my hearing more acute. Towards the last inspirations, the thrilling increased, the sense of muscular power became greater, and at last an irresistible propensity to action was indulged in; I recollect but indistinctly what followed; I know that my motions were various and violent.

“These effects very soon ceased after respiration. In ten minutes, I had recovered my natural state of mind. The thrilling in the extremities, continued longer than the other sensations.”

Poe's contribution here to the effectiveness of his tale was his skillful manipulation of Davy's phrases.]

10.  The New York Home Journal, founded in 1846 by Morris and Willis after they left the New-York Mirror, was always friendly to Poe.

11.  Pressburg (now Bratislava, Czechoslovakia) was reputedly a home of magic; compare “Morella” at n. 1. The newspaper named has not been found, and I think it a namesake of the New York Deutsche Schnellpost — which had been mentioned in the Broadway Journal of August 30, 1845, and was still being published in 1849.

12.  Poe used his scraps of German hard. Where he found viele (many) has not been discovered, but the comment on Leiden — which he misspelled and failed to capitalize as a substantive — came from a footnote in Sarah Austin's translation of Prince PĆ¼ckler-Muskau's Tour (1833), p. 388. There one finds a critical mention of Goethe's Sorrows of Werther and Mrs. Austin's note: “The translation of the title is of a piece with all the rest. Leiden does not mean sorrows, but sufferings.” Poe had used the note earlier in “Marginalia,” number 174 (Democratic Review, July 1846, p. 32).

13.  The Literary World was the weekly edited by Evert Duyckinck and his brother George, to whom Poe had offered the tale of Von Kempelen.

14.  Many German families were settled in Utica, but Poe probably chose it because it was the site of the New York State Insane Asylum, opened in 1843.

15.  The famous “automaton” chess-player exhibited by J. N. Maelzel was indeed the invention of Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804), a native of Pressburg. Poe described and analyzed the device, which despite its exhibitor's claims depended on human agency, in the Southern Literary Messenger for April 1836. The bracketed editorial interjection here is of course Poe's own. [page 1367:]

16.  The defect of Poe's protagonist's foot is a jocular hunt of diablerie. Compare “Never Bet the Devil Your Head” at n. 19.

17.  The Earl House, 67 North Main Street, Providence, was kept by Robert Earl at the time Poe lectured there on December 20, 1848; but “six years ago” in the 1844 Directory, Mr. Earl was listed as keeper of the City Hotel, 25 Broad Street.

18.  Compare the motto of “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” and the note on it.

19.  In William Godwin's St. Leon, the hero's wealth without explicable source more than once causes his arrest; but he did learn of the true philosopher's stone, which is also the elixir of life, from a mysterious stranger; whereas Von Kempelen seems to be an investigating scientist rather than an “adept” in forbidden lore.

The German names in this paragraph are made up. [For a discussion see Discoveries in Poe, p. 174.]

20.  Poe here makes a very neat reference in the “plausible or verisimilar style” when he calls these sinister passages by the flash-name of “Dondergat.” He obviously means a name in the flash language, identified by OED and the Century Dictionary as thieves’ cant or slang. [The word flash-name is listed as a Poe coinage in Poe, Creator of Words (1974) by B. Pollin.]

21.  The mansarde is the top story, under the roof.

22.  Cum grano salis means literally “with a grain of salt” — and signifies something to be doubted, but there is a joke here also, since bismuth is metallic and forms salts.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 1355:]

*  See Poems (Mabbott, I), 461-465.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 1357:]

  Poe's story and its component parts were discussed by Professor Burton R. Pollin, “Poe's Von Kempelen ... Sources and Significance,” in Études Anglaises, January-March 1967. [This article was revised for Discoveries in Poe and presents a full treatment of Poe's story.]





[S:1 - TOM3T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Von Kemplelen and His Discovery)