Text: Clarence S. Brigham, “[Contributions for 1839],” Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (1943), pp. 12-19 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 12:]


[December 18, 1839, page 4, columns 1-2] [[TOM R-01]]


A correspondent writes to us as follows from Halifax county, Va.

Editors of Alexander’s Messenger:

Gentlemen — Examining a parcel of your old papers (which were on file at my father’s) some short time since, I found in one an enigma, which runs thus:

I’m a noise never heard, yet I’m nothing but sound;

I move not, yet travel the world all round;

I cannot be seen, yet no mortal can say

Without seeing me he can go through the day;

I cannot be touched, yet no lady fair

Can close her sweet hand without finding me there:

I’m enormously large, though as small as a digit;

And I often at cards put old frumps in a fidget;

I’m rough, smooth, soft, hard; I’m both oval and square,

Yet nothing but angels which make tories swear;

I’m the prop of the throne, and abhor revolution,

And yet for my treason deserve execution:

I’m blacker than jet, than a lily more white;

I never am seen, yet am never out of sight;

I’m colder than ice, yet hotter than fire;

I die every minute, yet never expire.

Come guess me at once; make no fuss about me,

For ladies never sit down to piquet without me.

From the many contradictions and novelty of the piece, my curiosity is raised to such a degree, that I must request you to send me the answer. I have read it over carefully a great many times, and can form no idea what it can be.

Respectfully, your friend, &c. [page 13:]

We sympathise with our correspondent’s perplexity, and hasten to remove it — especially as we have a penchant for riddles ourselves. In spite of the anathemas of the over-wise, we regard a good enigma as a good thing. Their solution affords one of the best possible exercises of the analytical faculties, besides calling into play many other powers. We know of no truer test of general capacity than is to be found in the guessing of such puzzles. In explanation of this idea a most capital Magazine article might be written. It would be by no means a labor lost to show how great a degree of rigid method enters into enigma-guessing. So much is this the case, that a set of rules might absolutely be given by which almost any (good) enigma in the world could be solved instantaneously. This may sound oddly; but is not more strange than the well known fact that rules really exist, by means of which it is easy to decipher any species of hieroglyphical writing — that is to say writing where, in place of alphabetical letters, any kind of marks are made use of at random.*

The method of which we speak enables us to say at once, in regard to our correspondent’s enigma, that he has puzzled himself, and would have puzzled himself to all eternity, in vain. It has no answer. That is, it has no word of solution which will reply to all the categories. The enigma is imperfect, and no doubt, composed by some ignorant person; one who, at all events, knew nothing of the laws of such compositions; for, like everything else, they have their laws. The style would indicate this ignorance sufficiently, without looking farther; but a little scrutiny fully exposes it. Still it is not difficult to perceive what the author intended as the answer — and this is light. The vulgar notions about light are embodied in the opening lines, and indeed throughout; while the “putting old frumps in a fidget at cards” &c. &c. plainly show the design.

Modern taste, however, at least modern newspaper taste, affects rather the conundrum than the enigma proper. The former has more spice in its composition, and its brevity gives it force. A good enigma, we have said, is a good thing, but a good conundrum may be a better. Consequently, we see our brethren of [page 14:] the press trying their hands at cons in all directions, and as soon as they perpetrate a decent one (after a severe effort) they set up a cackle forthwith, and the bantling goes the round of the papers in a kind of ovation. This inordinate estimation of conundrums arises from the chance hap-hazard manner in which they are conceived, making their conception a difficult thing. With a little of that method upon which we just now commented, they may be manufactured by the yard — yes, and of good quality, too. We will just look over the pages of a Johnson’s Dictionary for five minutes, and then shall have no trouble in concocting a string of them as long as your arm. No sooner said than done.

“Why is a bad wife better than a good one? — Because bad is the best.” This somewhat ungallant old query, with its horrible answer, is an embodiment of the true genius of the whole race to which it belongs — the race of the conundrums. Bad is the best. There is nothing better settled in the minds of people who know any thing at all, than the plain truth that if a conundrum is decent it wo’nt do — that if it is fit for anything it is not worth twopence — in a word that its real value is in exact proportion to the extent of its demerit, and that it is only positively good when it is outrageously and scandalously absurd. In this clear view of the case we offer the annexed. They have at least the merit of originality — a merit apart from that of which we have just spoken. At all events if they are not ours, we have just made them, and they ought to be. If any one has imagined such things before, he, evidently, had no business to do so. We say, with Donatus, apud Hieronymus, “Pereant qui ante nos nostra.”

1.  Why are the Thugs like the crack omnibuses?

Because they are Phansigars. — fancy cars.

2.  Why is a man a bad reasoner who bruises his knuckles?

Because he’s a sophist. — he’s a sore fist.

3.  Poor Mary’s dead! why is she a many-sided figure?

Because she’s a Polly gone. — polygon.

4.  Why is my fat friend Tom’s scarlet face like a small pungent esculent?

Because it’s a little reddish. — a little radish. [page 15:]

5.  Why is his olfactory organ like a bunch of flowers?

Because it’s a nose gay. — a nosegay.

6.  Why is his last new novel sleep itself? Because it’s so poor. sopor.

7.  Why is Dr. Williams’ cash, the oculist, like a divorced wife’s pension?

Because it’s all eye-money. — alimony.

8.  Why are Bennett’s ocular organs interrogative?

Because they are queer eyes. queries?

9.  Why is a lean cat a very common fish?

Because it’s a poor puss. — porpus.

10.  Why is a tin cup like a crab?

Because it is a can, sir. — a cancer.

11.  What kind of a vessel was Don Quixotte’s squire?

A pan, sir. — a Panza.

12.  Why is a pismire a good reply to that last question?

Because it is an ant, sir. — an answer.

13.  What is the difference between a small tub and a runaway shoat.

The one is a piggin, pig in, the other a pig out.

14.  I have a table needing repairs; why must the cabinet-maker who comes for it be in good circumstances?

Because he is comfortable. — come for table.

15.  Why is the fifteenth letter of the alphabet, when mutilated, like a Parisian cockney.

Because it is a bad O. — badaud.

16.  Why is the Pacific like an inhabitant of Languedoc?

Because it’s a languid ocean. — a Languedocian.

17.  Why is a chain like the feline race?

Because it’s a catenation. a catty nation.

18.  Why should my friend Miss Sarah Amanda be able to stand fire?

Because she’s a Sal Amanda. — a salamander.

19.  Why is there little difference between herb soup and turtle?

Because one is herb soup, the other soup herb. — superb.

20.  Why might a regular rowdy be eaten?

Because he’s a loafer bred. — a loafead.

21.  What must you do to a tea-table to make it fit to eat?

Take tea from it, t, it then becomes eatable.

22.  What important difference is there between a sot and the purple Convolvulus?

The one is always drunk, the other blue every other day. [page 16:]

23.  Why does a lady in tight corsets never need comfort?

Because she’s already so laced. — solatyd.

24.  When you called the dock a wharf, why was it a deed of writing?

Because it was a dock you meant. — a document.

25.  Why ought the author of the “Grotesque and Arabesque” to be a good writer of verses?

Because he’s a poet to a t. Add t to Poe makes it Poet.

*  For example — in place of A put † or any other arbitrary character — in place of B, a * &c. &c. Let an entire alphabet be made in this manner, and then let this alphabet be used in any piece of writing. This writing can be read by means of a proper method. Let this be put to the test. Let any one address us a letter in this way, and we pledge ourselves to read it forthwith — however unusual or arbitrary may be the characters employed.

NOTE: The original issue of the newspaper of December 18, 1839 is in the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, at Columbus, and contains this contribution and the following article on beet-root. The piece is characteristically in Poe’s style and laid the scene for the engimas and ciphers which he later printed and solved. His outline of a method for solving enigmas and hieroglyphical writing has much in common with his article in Graham’s Magazine for July 1841. Although the above enigma was sent to Alexander’s Messenger for solution, it is a fact that the Philadelphia Saturday Courier long before 1839 had been printing a column for enigmas and puzzles. It is probable that Alexander, seeing the success of his rival’s venture, thought that such a column, especially with cipher writing added, would increase his own circulation.

Poe’s quotation from St. Jerome is from the Commentary on Ecclesiastes, chap. I.

Poe, in the Philadelphia Saturday Museum of March 25 and April 1, 1843, in an article “Original Conundrums,” again used Nos. 3, 9, 16, 17, 18, 22 and 23 of the above list. The following points occur in commenting upon some of the twenty-five conundrums.

1.  Phansigars were the East Indian stranglers or assassins. In Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine for September 1839, p. 174, Poe had recently noticed a two volume work on The Thugs or Phansigars of India. He mentioned it again in “Marginalia” (Harrison, Works of Poe, vol. 16, p. 26).

6.  Poe has another pun on the word “sopor” in his “Marginalia” in the Southern Literary Messenger, June 1849 (see also Harrison, Works of Poe, vol. 16, p. 167). [page 17:]

7.  Dr. John Williams was an English oculist who is mentioned also in Poe’s story, “The Man that was Used up,” first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine for August 1839, p. 70. The Philadelphia Saturday Courier of December 21, 1839 tells something of Dr. Williams in the following article.

John Williams, the Humbug.

That arrant quack, John Williams, who came to this country two years since, advertised as “Oculist to His Majesty,” and all that sort of fudge, has been mulcted in the sum of seventy-five dollars and costs, for “destroying the vision of a poor man.” The man’s name is Roger Duffy. When he went to Williams, he could see well out of one eye, having lost the sight of the other some years since. Williams charged him $75 for attending him, and completely putting out his “other eye so that he could not tell day from night.”

Williams should have been compelled to pay enough to support the poor man for the rest of his life. He has humbugged enough out of others to do this over and over again. He is a Royal Quack, of whom we have spoken to our readers. Why should such fellows be patronized, when we have in America distinguished Oculists, who would honor any nation?

According to the New York Sunday Mercury of November 3, 1839 Williams was settled in New York and in the issues of the New York Evening Signal of December 12, 1839 and January 6, 1840, there are long accounts of his career and his trial.

8.  This refers to James Gordon Bennett, Sr., of the New York Herald. Philip Hone, in his Diary, under date of January 20, 1836, says “There is an ill-looking, squinting man called Bennett, who is now the editor of the Herald.” D. C. Seitz, in his The James Gordon Bennetts, 1928, p. so, says that Mr. Bennett “did squint sorely, as a result of much misuse of his eyes.”

20.  loafead is probably a misprint for loaf o’bread.

25.  Poe’s use of his own name in the final conundrum is characteristic. He had published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840 and it was the book for which he was best known up to that time. He later, in 1845, used this same conundrum in quoting the “Outis” letter on the Longfellow controversy (Harrison, Works of Poe, vol. 12, p. 50), as follows: “Edgar A. Poe. (Write it rather Edgar, a Poet, and then it is right to a T.)” The fact that the joke emanated originally from Poe lends new weight to the view, held by some authorities, that “Outis” was Poe himself, or at least was someone in close touch with him, and that the Longfellow War was to some extent a sham battle.


[page 18:]

[December 18, 1839, page 2, column 3] [[TOM R-02]]


A controversy has been going on of late in the columns of the Ledger, on the subject of the beet-root. The opponents are a Mr. T. M. (which letters may possibly stand for Tugmutton, or Trismegistus) and Mr. James Pedder, a gentleman of sound sense and much practical knowledge, who is well acquainted with the subject which he discusses, having paid attention personally for many years to the whole system of beet-raising and beet-sugar making in France, and being at the same time an experienced sugar refiner. As might be expected Mr. P. has the battle all to himself, and makes sad exposure of his antagonist’s ignorance. For our own parts we wonder at the good humor with which he has listened and replied to the rigmarole of Mr. T. M. We allude to the platitudes of this latter person now merely as an instance of the kind of opposition which all new suggestions or discoveries, however reasonable or valuable, have to contend with from that vulgar dunder-headed conceit which adheres, through thick and thin, to “the good old way,” and which so often calls itself by the name of “common sense” that it sometimes passes for such among people who should know better. Time was, when credulity, and a blind adoption of raw schemes, were the distinguished traits of the rabble; but the rapid march of invention has altered all this, and incredulity, and a dogged refusal to see or understand, are now more properly the popular features. The simple truths which science unfolds, day after day, are in fact, far stranger, apparently, than the wildest dreams in which imagination used to indulge of old.

When we spoke of new propositions and discoveries, we did not mean to insinuate that the cultivation of the beet-root was any thing very new, or even the manufacture of sugar therefrom. It is now an old story — at least it is old to every body but Mr. T. M. To this gentleman it appears novel and chimerical only because he views it through the darkened glass of his gross ignorance, or rather because he looks at it with the eyes of an owl. France [page 19:] derives a very considerable revenue from an impolitic impost on the manufacture; and nearly all the sugar consumed in the country, is sugar of the beet-root. Her climate is not better adapted to the culture than our own; and our manufactures are not less skilful than hers. What she has done, we can do — and, what is more we surely will do it, in spite of the whole race of the Tugmuttons.

NOTE: The article was first identified as Poe’s by Professor T. O. Mabbott, who printed it in London Notes and Queries, vol. 167, p. 420, Dec. 15, 1934. He was struck by the close similarity of one sentence in the article to a sentence in Poe’s “Marginalia” in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review for December 1844, vol. 15, p. 592, which read: “Twenty years ago credulity was the characteristic trait of the mob, incredulity the distinctive feature of the philosophic; now the case is conversed.” The sentence also occurs in Poe’s letter No. 2 to the Columbia Spy, of Columbia, Penn., of May 25, 1844 (reprinted in Spannuth and Mabbott, Poe’s Doings of Gotham, 1929, pp. 33-34).

James Pedder, whose part in the sugar-beet controversy was taken by Poe, was in the employ of a sugar manufacturer of Philadelphia. From 1840 to 1843 he was editor of a well known agricultural journal, the Farmer’s Cabinet. A few years before, he had journeyed to France to study the beet sugar industry. Poe was an intimate friend of Pedder and during his early stay in Philadelphia lived with the Pedder family (see Joseph Jackson, Encyclopedia of Philadelphia, vol. 4, p. 1010); he also presented a copy of his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque to the Misses Pedder.



In the copy of this article that he gave to Vincent Starrett, Thomas Ollive Mabbott, on page 17, in the note for item 25, changes the date of publication for Tales of the Grotesque from 1840 to 1839. Although the two volumes bear the imprint date of 1840, they were printed and available for purchase about September 1839. By convention, the 1840 date is usually given as the date of publication. Mabbott does not make this same change in his own copy of the Brigham article, now in the collection of his papers at the University of Iowa.

Although Brigham refers to what he thought was a unique copy of this issue of Alexander’s Weekly Messenger as being in the collection of the Ohio State Archæological and Historical Library, that copy has not been located. Sometime after 1943, this library became the Ohio State Historical Society. A correspondence with the Ohio Historical Society initiated by the Poe Society in 2008 indicated that it has no record of ever possessing any issues of Alexander’s Weekly Messenger. It is possible that this copy might be the origin of the isolated issues of 1839 now at the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, MA, although Mabbott’s 1934 article on “Article on Beet Root,” as well as his notes at the University of Iowa indicate that the copies of the Weekly Messenger at the Ohio State Historical Society represented a “file for 1839,” further suggesting that this was the file discovered about 1934 by Professor John Matthews Manly of the University of Chicago. Another copy of the December 18, 1839 issue, as well as a very nice run of the periodical, may be found in the New York State Library, in Albany, NY, from which a copy of the present article was kindly provided to the Poe Society for verification of this text. The set of Alexander’s Weekly Messenger with Poe material in the Koester Collection at the University of Texas includes only issues from 1840.


[S:0 - CSB43, 1943] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (C. S. Brigham) (Contributions for 1839)