Arthur Stace.
April 18, 2001 4:42 AM   Subscribe

Arthur Stace. Emperor Norton. These were not Great Men, but they were great men. Eccentric. Inspiring in a way. I have always found an affinity for people who walk to the beat of a different drummer. People with a vision underappreciated in their own time. Someone people would never truly understand. I'd like to learn of more people cut from similar mettle, but what does one put in a search engine? What do you call people like this? Can you think of other eccentrics of history? (and yeah I already tried "eccentrics of history" but search engines bring up nothing of note).
posted by ZachsMind (22 comments total)
William Blake

On another note:
There have been 406 links and 6470 comments posted since your last visit

I miss anything?
posted by capt.crackpipe at 4:49 AM on April 18, 2001

i think it's out of print but "the big book of wierdos" from the factoid series of comics is fantastic.
posted by johnboy at 5:52 AM on April 18, 2001

Odd Nerdrum. (Yes, that is his name.) More info here. An extraordinarily talented (living) Norwegian painter with a penchant for the bizarre and the melancholic. Be sure not to miss his latest self-portrait...

Great topic, by the way! Looking forward to see other suggestions...
posted by frednorman at 5:58 AM on April 18, 2001

I have often wondered what Thoreau did for babes in his cabin, this the beat he listened to?
posted by Postroad at 6:02 AM on April 18, 2001

Following Capt.crackpipe's good lead, I submit: Oscar Wilde.
posted by trox at 6:16 AM on April 18, 2001

Jonathan Swift, most famously the author of Gulliver's Travels, but also eccentric and author of such satirical essays as A Modest Proposal in which he suggests selling the children of the Irish poor as food for the rich.
posted by Markb at 7:19 AM on April 18, 2001

I'm not sure who was actually playing that drum, but he must have played in Sun Ra's Arkestra at some point.
posted by harmful at 7:25 AM on April 18, 2001

My favorite American historical figure: John O'Neill. Who founded O'Neill, Nebraska, aka "The Irish Capital of Nebraska". Also, he got some union troops together and invaded Canada, twice.
posted by Trampas at 7:27 AM on April 18, 2001

William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott, the 4th Duke of Portland (1800-1879). He's the one who decided to build a network of underground tunnels beneath his ancestral pile, then lived there. Mick Jackson wrote a novel about him a few years ago; I've heard it's pretty good.
posted by Mocata at 7:51 AM on April 18, 2001

"The annals of quack medicine are chock full of good eccentrics; better yet, they -- like kook theologicians -- tend to leave testaments behind. To pick one reference at not-really-random, John Henry Clarke's 1915 pamphlet on gunpowder as a home remedy (as referenced down the page here) is mighty entertaining.

I'd vote for Count Cagliostro, although he was really more of a con artist than an eccentric per se, and the flipping insane Nicola Tesla, the Croatian genius who invented alternating current and generated ball lightening for fun but obsessively calculated the volume of food that he ate and was nauseated by the sight of human hair. Tesla has the added bonus of being a favor subject for many mad-science-tilting kooks of today.
posted by snarkout at 8:41 AM on April 18, 2001

More recently, Paul Erdos, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.
posted by Skot at 9:43 AM on April 18, 2001

Samuel Hill. He decided that Eden actually lay in the NorthWest US somewhere. So he sent an agent out, and the agent returned with an olive branch (or something like that) and Sam Hill decided that Eden had been found -- in the Columbia River Gorge. He collected together a band of people who decided to go there and establish a utopia. Nothing much really came of it.

But he also built a very lovely house there. It's now known as the Maryhill Museum and it has the strangest collection of any museum I've ever seen. There's a bunch of work by Rodin there -- nothing important, mainly sketches and preparatory work. There's a room dedicated to memorabilia to Sam's mistress, a former dancer from France. There's the biggest collection of chess sets I've ever seen. There's a weird collection of swords and armor. And there are the Romanian Crown Jewels (which are truly astounding, and enough to make a trip worthwhile). There's no theme at all.

Nearby there's a memorial to American dead from the Great War in the form of a reproduction of the inner ring of StoneHenge made of concrete (known informally in Oregon as "ConcreteHenge"). Unfortunately, they didn't orient it correctly and it doesn't predict eclipses the way the real one does. (When I lived in Portland, we got a total eclipse of the Sun. It was overcast that day, sob. But some local druids went out to ConcreteHenge and did a ceremony, half in jest.)

My parents were deeply devout and never used profanity; instead of "What in the Hell?" they'd say "What in the Sam Hill?" I never knew where that came from until the first time I visited the Maryhill museum.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:35 AM on April 18, 2001

Donna Kossy wrote a book several years back entitled "Kooks: A Guide To The Outer Limits Of Human Belief". She's put some of the book up in her Kooks Museum. Interesting reading.
posted by swell at 11:41 AM on April 18, 2001

Great suggestions all! Thanks gang. =) Please feel free to add some more. I'm most intrigued by the more obscure ones. Oscar Wilde's a great (perhaps in some ways the ultimate) example of an eccentric, but I'm looking for the ones more often overlooked.

I wanted to add Johnny Appleseed, but if you actually read about Mr. Chapman, he wasn't so much an eccentric as an entrepreneur. He saw a demand and he fulfilled it. The stories some people told about him are eccentric however, and in some cases exagerrated. Sorta like Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill. A totally different genre of people.

But what would people like John O'Neill, Nicola Tesla, and Emperor Norton be called? Surely there's a better title than just "eccentric." And would William Burroughs fall in this perhaps un-nameable category? And what of eccentric women in history, who made a mark that may not have revolutionized humanity in any grandiose way, but is notable all the same?
posted by ZachsMind at 11:42 AM on April 18, 2001

Niel Gaiman wrote an issue of his Sandman comic book about Emperor Norton. He borrows the word "tzaddikim" from Jewish folklore to describe people like Norton: "They say that the world rests on the backs of 36 living saints - 36 unselfish men and women. Because of them the world continues to exist. They are the secret kings and queens of this world."
posted by shylock at 1:41 PM on April 18, 2001

Eccentric women like, say, the 6'-tall, hatchet-wielding, inspired-by-God-to-smash-up-bars Carrie Nation?

Shylock, "Norton I" was actually Jewish -- I can't remember if the Sandman issue explicitly mentioned that. There was a biography of him published a few years ago, written by -- quick Google search here -- William Drury. Not scintillating prose, but I quite enjoyed it. Mark Twain figures in it prominently at the end (as he does, less prominently, in the biography of Tesla that I've read). Twain liked kooks.
posted by snarkout at 2:05 PM on April 18, 2001

Tesla wasn't a kook. Tesla was more like Babbage: a man living before his time. Each was trying to do things which simply weren't possible with the technology of the day, and each showed the way to the technology which was coming. There's a lot of difference between a kook and a visionary.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:10 PM on April 18, 2001

Tesla was no doubt a visionary, but he was also a kook.

Actually, Babbage was kind of a kook too. Did you know that he hated street musicians and wrote letters to the Times about them? So all the street musicians would go to his house and play day and night until he capitulated. Only he didn't capitulate, and waged war against music and other "public nuisances" for years, making him one of the most publically reviled men in London. He claimed street musicians cost him a quarter of his creativity--but he still had enough left over to invent the cowcatcher. (Not to be confused with Cowcatcher.)
posted by rodii at 2:44 PM on April 18, 2001

Steven, I'm not denying the Tesla was a genius. But today a lot of his behavior would be judged to be symtoms of some sort of pathology:
He required any repeated actions in his daily life (such as the footsteps he took in a walk) to be divisible by three, and would keep repeating them until he arrived at a suitable total. Quantities of twenty-seven were the most prized of all, since that number was three cubed. Tesla also felt compelled to calculate the exact volume of his food before he ate it. This involved measuring his meal portions with a ruler and dipping pieces in water to determine how many cubic centimeters they displaced. He was especially fond of saltine crackers because of their uniformity of volume.
Of course, that source goes on to note that [m]any times, such as during the heat of a major project, Tesla would forget to eat altogether, and work for days without sleep. At one point his all-consuming devotion to the laboratory brought on an exhaustion so severe that for several days he lost all memory of who he was, which sounds less like lunacy. (Like the Indian number theoretician Ramanujan, Tesla's formidable genius seems to have largely expressed itself through his intuition, so I'm not sure that his visionarity and kooky qualities are readily seperated.)
posted by snarkout at 2:53 PM on April 18, 2001

Hrrm. The portion of the above that I meant to wrap in quote tags didn't come through; it starts with "many" and ends with "who he was".
posted by snarkout at 2:55 PM on April 18, 2001

And "visionarity" isn't a word that even a kook would use. When I am king, I will hire a copyeditor to follow me around and fix these things.
posted by snarkout at 2:56 PM on April 18, 2001

James Reavis, The Man Who Stole Arizona certainly fits the bill. Others of that ilk can be found at HOAX, a wonderful site in its own right, under the categories Impostors and Fake Folks.
posted by fable at 4:10 PM on April 18, 2001

« Older   |   Harry the vulture stuck his head inside the... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments