Thursday, May 31, 2012

Benson Bidwell

Benson Bidwell (b. Avon, New York, 2 September 1835; d. Chicago, Illinois, 7 March 1911)

Benson Bidwell published only two books, both coming out at his own expense in 1907.  The first is an autobiography of sorts, with the breathlessly long title Benson Bidwell: Inventor of the Trolley Car, Electric Fan and Cold Motor: History of Early Struggles and Later Successes: With Personal Reminiscences, Lectures, Essays and Letters (Chicago: The Henneberry Press, 1907).  The second is a slim epistolary fantasy, The Flying Cows of Biloxi (Chicago: The Henneberry Press, 1907). The latter book has achieved a legendary status.  According to Vincent Starrett, who wrote in 1948 in his “Books Alive” column in The Chicago Daily Tribune, “it first came to notice of fantasy collectors, in 1933, when it was listed in Science Fiction Digest and attracted attention by its provocative title. Ever since, book hunters in the fantasy field have been seeking the tale and failing to find it; it has become one of the famous ‘phantom books’ of recent bibliography” (11 April 1948). Starrett also quoted Melvin Korshak, who during the World War II had been stationed near Biloxi and one day went there and questioned the mayor and a delegation of alderman about the book:  “without result, except that I worried them considerably about a mystery book that took the name of their city in vain. They didn’t know anything about flying cows, either; and they would like to know something about Benson Bidwell, the reputed author.” A few years later, Frederick Shroyer devoted his column (“The Antiquarian Bookshelf”) in the September 1950 issue of Fantasy Advertiser to discussing the book.  Many years later, Sam Moskowitz published “A Collector’s Saga” in Fantasy Commentator, no. 45/46 (Winter 1993/1994) a long account of his search over many years to acquire a copy. Typically Moskowitz’s account centers on acquisition, not on putting any historical perspective on Bidwell or his book.

Joseph Benson Bidwell was born in upstate New York, the third child (of six) of Austin Burhham Bidwell (1804-1865), a confectioner, and Laura Isabell Butterfield, who were married in 1832.  On 3 February 1856, Bidwell married Clarissa Eliza Walker Burch (1838-1907). They had four children, two sons and two daughters. Unusually for his time, Bidwell seems to have moved around a lot.  According to the U.S. Censuses, in 1850 he and his family were living in Toledo.  In 1860 Bidwell listed himself as a baker in New York City. Ten years later he is found as a candy manufacturer in South Bend, Indiana.  By 1880, Bidwell has moved to Indianapolis, his profession elevated to that of a lawyer, while in 1900 he had evolved into an electrician in Chicago (the 1890 Census was destroyed by fire many years ago).

Bidwell first book was a self-aggrandizing autobiography in which claims are made for various inventions and episodes from his life are whipped up to the status of myth, complete with illustrations, some of which are unintentionally quite funny, having captions like “Baby Brother Petting Snake,” “He Scalds His Mother’s Foot,” “Live Indian Roasted on Logheap,” “Old Horse Resents Singeing,” etc. The legend to Bidwell’s frontispiece portrait elevates himself to the status of professor. The prose is also overblown, and the claims that Bidwell invented of the trolley car, the electric fan, and the cold motor engine, remind the modern reader of the sham hucksterism of the likes of P.T. Barnum. 

The Flying Cows of Biloxi, which is also illustrated with line drawings by the same artist, purports to collect Bidwell’s letters to a friend telling how, when visiting Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1893, Bidwell observed that the cows fed upon spanish moss, which grows only high-up in the trees.  So Bidwell invented a way to graft branches of orange trees onto the cows so they could fly up for their food.  The wings have the added advantage of growing oranges! Another great invention for the talented Bidwell!

From The Flying Cows of Biloxi

The truth is another matter.  A perusal of The Chicago Record-Herald shows that in early 1908 Bidwell and his elder son, Charles Freeman Bidwell (1857-1929), who was also his business partner, were arrested and charged with fraud and embezzlement.  Investors in his cold motor engine claimed that their money was used solely to fund the publication of his two books.  In October 1908 the pair were convicted of running a confidence game and sentenced to ten years in prison.  Charles Bidwell withdrew his appeal and accepted the prison term on the condition that his elderly and widowed father, whom he claimed was near death, could remain free.
An advertisement for the cold motor

NB: A portion of the above appeared in different form in the “Curiosities” column of the October-November 2005 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. 

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