Written and presented by Odd Salon Fellow Stuart Gripman. Stuart is a cookie obsessed taphophile currently struggling to master infrared photography. Visit gripman.net to view his multitudinous cemetery photos.
“It seems that nothing, not even mortal fear, could dissuade Constantine Rafinesque from leaving Henderson without first squeezing every last bit of knowledge out of Audubon’s head. So Audubon apparently accepted his fate, but not without some defiance. If Rafinesque wanted field notes, he’d get field notes. And something more.”
In this episode, Odd Salon Fellow Stuart Gripman shares the true story of the scientifically undignified pranks of one of America’s greatest ornithologists, driven to his wits’ end by an unruly rival.
In 1818, a not-yet famous John James Audubon was visited by a brilliant yet egotistical and sometimes churlish naturalist named Constantine Rafinesque. What started with an amiable conversation devolved into an ordeal as Rafinesque turned out to be a persistent, even destructive, house guest. The motivations for what Audubon did next are up for debate, but there’s no question that he illustrated an array of fanciful creatures and presented them to Rafinesque as genuine. Even though his victim seemed to fall for the prank, Audubon’s folly came at a price.
The only thing John James Audubon wanted that summer evening in 1818 was a good night’s rest. What John James Audubon actually got was a thunderous ruckus echoing from his guestroom. Racing to the chamber he flung open the door to find his guest, a fellow naturalist named Constantine Rafinesque, whom Audubon had just met that afternoon, utterly naked and frantically chasing some bats that had flown into the room. Desperate to collect them as specimens, Rafinesque had taken up Audubon’s fancy Italian violin and smashed it to hash in a futile effort to clobber a few of the bats.
Hello, I’m Stuart Gripman, author, baker, taphophile, and proud member of the 2014 class of Odd Salon Fellows. I’m here to share with you a strange prank that took nearly two centuries to be fully revealed. The only first hand accounts of this incident come from the two people involved and, frankly, neither is a particularly reliable source. So I’m offering my own take on these events with a good faith effort at divining their motivations.
In the summer of 1818, John James Audubon was co-owner and manager of a general store in rural Henderson Kentucky. Neither famous nor rich at this time Audubon worked out of necessity but spent as much time as he could out in nature feeding his bird obsession. But this was still over a year before he announced his intention to illustrate every bird species in America and decades before achieving notoriety and wealth with Birds of America, a folio book containing over 400 prints of his exquisitely detailed bird paintings.
Contemporarily, Audubon is best known as the eponym for many avian advocacy organizations that formed years after John James Audubon’s death. It’s also worth noting that several of these groups, including the Audubon Naturalist Society will be changing their names, owing to the fact that John James Audubon was an enslaver.
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was about the same age as Audubon but much further along in his career in 1818. With the aid of his father’s connections and resources, he’d already built modest fortunes but tended to lose them when his insatiable need to be collecting and studying specimens overtook his sense of responsibility. A self-taught naturalist from early youth, Rafinesque named thousands of genera and species, helped found the Lyceum of Natural History in New York, and sketched out the concept of evolution while Darwin was still sailing on the Beagle.
Why, then, is Rafinesque not well known? Why is his work not venerated in scientific circles? Let’s start with his ego. Rafinesque claimed to have learned 50 languages and read over a thousand books before reaching age 17. While he was demonstrably brilliant in many ways, this was likely an inflation of the truth.
When a university offered him a chemistry professorship, he declared that he’d be better at it than anyone else they were considering, then turned down the job apparently feeling it was beneath him.
Rafinesque’s relentless bragging at the Lyceum of Natural History caused its members to shun him despite his engaging and insightful lectures.
His writings on what we now call evolution were indeed prescient, but he never applied any testing or scientific methodology to the idea. A thumbnail sketch was proffered in a letter to a colleague, but nothing more.
Those thousands of genera and species Rafinesque described? The vast majority were either not new to science or not sufficiently distinct to be considered discrete species.
And at age 20, he instructed US President Thomas Jefferson to collect botanical specimens on his behalf. Now, Jefferson famously kept open house during his time in office and citizens were welcome to roam the grounds and even enjoy free drinks. Still, a self guided tour was one thing. Directing the president to run your errands was quite another.
But perhaps the most significant reason Rafinesque isn’t well known is that he was self-taught, not particularly methodical, and had that penchant for treating every specimen that was new to him as an organism that was new to science. This likely cost him credibility among both his contemporaries and subsequent naturalists who probably found it safer to rely on information from more disciplined practitioners than wade through Rafinesque’s writings. And research that goes uncited tends to fade away.
In retrospect it seems almost inevitable that these two naturalists would meet. Both were born to expatriate French fathers. Both Audubon and Rafinesque spent some formative years in Western Europe obsessed with birds and plants respectively. While both were born into the moderate wealth of the 18th century merchant class, they sometimes struggled to retain that status when financial responsibilities were shirked in favor of their obsessions with nature.
In the summer of 1818 the Ohio River bordered parts of the states of Ohio and Virginia. It also separated Kentucky from Ohio, Indiana, and the southeastern tip of what would become Illinois in just a few months.
Constantine Rafinesque had set a goal of finding and cataloging all the plants and animals along the entire river and was making good progress as he brought his crude flat boat into Henderson Kentucky. Coming upon a man with a rifle near the riverbank, he approached and asked if the stranger knew where one might locate a Mr. Audubon. In a remarkable stroke of luck, that stranger was John James Audubon himself. Delighted, Rafinesque responded “My dear Audubon, I send you an odd fish which you may prove to be undescribed.”
Audubon, already puzzled by this man’s unusual clothing and disheveled appearance, thought he was about to be handed an actual fish. But Rafinesque, attempting a naturalist joke that flew right over Audubon’s head, was talking about himself.
The two began to talk shop. Rafinesque’s desire to chat with Audubon was likely a major complement. The former was much better known at the time and generally respected for his skills and accomplishments, despite his notable shortcomings. As the afternoon wore on, Audubon invited his colleague to dinner. Conversations ran into the night and eventually the dinner guest became a houseguest. This was the very night of the violin incident. Audubon later recalled the affair in a memoir writing in part: “We had all retired to rest. Every person I imagined was in deep slumber save myself, when of a sudden I heard a great uproar in the naturalist’s room. I got up, reached the place in a few moments, and opened the door, when, to my astonishment, I saw my guest running about the room naked, holding the handle of my favourite violin, the body of which he had battered to pieces against the walls in attempting to kill the bats which had entered by the open window, probably attracted by the insects flying around his candle. I stood amazed, but he continued jumping and running round and round, until he was fairly exhausted, when he begged me to procure one of the animals for him, as he felt convinced they belonged to ‘a new species’. Although I was convinced of the contrary, I took up the bow of my demolished Cremona, and administering a smart tap to each of the bats as it came up, soon got specimens enough. The war ended, I again bade him good night, but could not help observing the state of the room. It was strewed with plants, which it would seem he had arranged into groups, but which were now scattered about in confusion. ‘Never mind, Mr Audubon,’ quoth the eccentric naturalist, ‘never mind, I’ll soon arrange them again. I have the bats, and that’s enough.”
The next morning, one might have expected Rafinesque to meekly apologize for the smashed violin and slink off back to his boat. But no. He persuaded Audubon to take him out into the field to help him procure specimens. When they weren’t in the wildlands, Rafinesque insisted Audubon share his field notes and pencil drawings so they could be studied and copied. This imposition went on for days even as Audubon had to run his general store, but the visitor was relentless in his insistence.
Audubon, possibly too polite to simply evict the Rafinesque menace, tried to make him uncomfortable instead. When tramping through the marshy ground, Audubon would lead his less fit companion through dense stands of cane knowing full well there were established trails and navigable waters nearby.
When that didn’t dissuade Rafinesque, Audubon brought him into an area known to be well populated with Canebrake rattlesnakes. The hope, evidently, was that a close encounter with a menacing snake would frighten his pestilential guest into moving on. No venomous reptiles were encountered that day, but Rafinesque did get a massive scare according to Audubon’s account. The two came upon a bear which, startled by their sudden presence growled and threatened the pair. Though it didn’t attack, Rafinesque was terrorized by the encounter and reduced to a blubbering heap.
Audubon described the incident as amusing, but if any of his joy was derived from the belief that this would finally get Rafinesque to continue on his way, the feeling soon withered.
It seems that nothing, not even mortal fear, could dissuade Constantine Rafinesque from leaving Henderson without first squeezing every last bit of knowledge out of Audubon’s head. So Audubon apparently accepted his fate, but not without some defiance. If Rafinesque wanted field notes, he’d get field notes. And something more.
Spend enough time in the backwaters of the Ohio River basin and you’re sure to come across Litholepis Adamantius, colloquially known as the Devil-Jack Diamond fish. A notorious loafer as fish go, this huge beast is content to float motionless at the water’s surface looking for all the world like a ten foot log. Being too large and heavy to catch on a line, the clever angler might simply shoot it and drag it onto land, right? Well, not exactly. The Devil Jack Diamond sports bulletproof scales and scoffs at your pathetic attempts to bag it. Even if you could, it’s not the kind of trophy fish you’d be apt to mount over the fireplace, given that it looks like the love child of a sturgeon and a proboscis monkey.
But of course you can’t, because John James Audubon made it up. He fabricated this fish and earnestly presented a drawing and description of it to Rafinesque.
He also invented the Buffalo Carp Sucker, a creature whose giant dorsal fin, bulbous nose, and tortured expression makes it look a bit like a sailfish, a bit like a porpoise, and a lot like a barista whose zest for life just fell a notch upon receipt of a needlessly complicated drink order. What it has to do with buffalo and whether or not it actually sucked carp are open questions to this day.
And let us save some space in our hearts for the flatnose double fin. This poor specimen seems to be a paddlefish, long and thick set with oar-like fins yet sporting both a Bonaroo-grade goatee and sort of angular goiter that would make the most phlegmatic among us recoil like a startled kitten.
The Bigmouth Sturgeon is a rather beaky customer with its head taking up fully one fourth of its length and a mouth resembling something much more reptilian than piscine. The eyes bulge to such an extent that this poor fish appears as though life is just one alarming and depressing episode after another. If it could make a sound it would probably be “how did this happen!?”
These are just four of the eleven fish Audubon is known to have dreamed up and presented to Rafinesque as genuine denizens of the Ohio River.
It wasn’t just fish. There were at least a dozen other animals including rodents like the Big-eye Jumping Mouse. Got some winter rations saved up in the cupboard? You might want to move them to the highest shelf lest the Big-eye Jumping Mouse claims your feast. This rodent has eyes the size of large marbles, ears that rival a rabbit’s, and massive hind legs and paws. It’ll bound right over your head and into the grain stores faster than you can say “miniature kangaroo.”
And speaking of eyes, keep an eye out for the adorable Brindled Stamiter, a sort of portly tiger-striped chipmunk that saves its leftovers in food pouches on the outside of its cheeks. How it manages to do so without thumbs has been left to the imagination.
Whether these nonsensical creatures were invented by Audubon as a lark, revenge for the violin incident, or just a way to cope with his strange and persistent visitor, we may never know. However it is reasonable to speculate Audubon did not expect that duping the overly credulous Rafinesque would have consequences.
Come 1820, the grandiloquently titled Icthyologia Ohiensis was published by Constantine Rafinesque. It was a compendium of all the fish he’d encountered (or read about) during his Ohio River Valley expedition.
I like to imagine Audubon picked up a copy and snickered to himself as he flipped through it looking for evidence of his prank, only to drop the book upon reading the following disclaimer attached to one of those fabricated fish: “This genus rests altogether upon the authority of Mr. Audubon, who has presented me a drawing of the only species belonging to it. It appears very distinct if his drawing be correct; but it requires to be examined again. Is it only a Sturgeon incorrectly drawn?”
His mischief had backfired and anyone who read Rafinesque’s book could come away believing that Audubon was possibly inept or even deceitful.
The scene I imagine probably didn’t take place, but as Odd Salon fellow Allison Meier pointed out in her 2015 article appearing on the Hyperallergic website, the now public prank may have damaged Audubon’s credibility. He was unable to generate much domestic interest in his Birds of America collection. Indeed he had to go all the way to the United Kingdom to find engravers willing to take on the work and interested customers with the means to subscribe. It’s possible that American publishers were leery of producing bird images from a guy known to fabricate fish and rodents.
Even if that was not the case, Audubon got a taste of his own medicine in the 1840s when his friend and collaborator John Bell effected some creative taxidermy, pulling together parts of different birds into a single beast. No drawings of this Frankenstein bird exist, but I like to imagine it as a worpletingeresque creation akin to Odd Salon’s beloved mascot Harvey. Whatever it looked like, Bell presented it to Audubon who, in a fit of Rafinesque-like naïvety, accepted it without question.
There’s also the issue of the five specimens in Birds of America which, to this day, have yet to be observed by any other ornithologists. If you happen to spot a Blue Mountain Warbler, Carbonated Swamp Warbler, Cuvier’s Kinglet, Small-headed Flycatcher, or Townsend’s Finch, naturalists and birders the world over would very much like to know about it. The consensus opinion is that these birds are likely misidentified variants of better known species or very rare species that went extinct before more examples could be found. But given the knowledge that Audubon had invented dozens of prank organisms before, one can’t help but wonder.
And what of our duped anti-hero Constantine Rafinesque? Despite the disclaimers he attached to some of those spurious fish, others were included in blind faith. Wouldn’t such failures in judgment have brought consequences for his credibility and prestige?
He was partly spared by the fact it took almost 200 years to connect those invented mammals back to Audubon. It wasn’t until US Geological Survey scientist Neal Woodman started poring over Rafinesque’s field notebooks in 2015 that the full extent of Audubon’s prank was revealed.
But moreover, consider what we know about Rafinesque. He possessed insatiable curiosity, a gargantuan ego, and utter indifference to criticism. Unlike Audubon, he wasn’t seeking notoriety, nor was he trying to sell anything. If Rafinesque even knew he was widely disliked by his naturalist peers, he surely didn’t care. It seems the only company he truly craved was that of his botanical specimens. And while he got those specimens in vast quantities, it seems he never did get the joke.
CREDITS: This episode was written and performed by Kelly Jensen, and recorded by Mig Miner in Oakland, California. The Odd Salon Podcast is produced by Annetta Black and Tre Balchowsky.
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