Monday, March 19, 2018

The Shaver Mystery-Part Three

Young Richard Shaver and the Crackpot Equation

Born on October 8, 1907, in Berwick, Pennsylvania, Richard Sharpe Shaver was of a type that just might be unique to America: the commercial crackpot, alternatively the earnest conman, a guy who isn't exactly trying to put anything over on anybody because he honestly believes his own BS. He's not lying when he gives you his sales pitch because what he's trying to sell you is true and it's for your own good that you believe him. His life was saved when the lights came on and the doors opened to his new beliefs. Yours can be, too. Sometimes the earnest conman is motivated by religious belief. Sometimes his beliefs are non-religious but backed by a religious intensity or fanaticism. Typically, he mixes quasi- or pseudoscientific concepts with pseudo-religion, pseudo-history, or other pseudo-fields, such as pseudo-economics or pseudo-psychology. Pseudoscience, however, is the backbone of his system, the reason being that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Science, having slain God, was seen to have become the ultimate authority on all things. (1) We still live in an age of Scientism, and there are still countless fields of pseudo-studies and countless earnest conmen among us peddling their wares. Whatever you've got to sell these days, it had better be scientific or pseudoscientific if you expect it to go very far. (2)

Richard Shaver was more than just an earnest conman, though, for the things he created and in which he believed came from a diseased mind. (His.) We can't at this distance diagnose him, but he is thought to have been schizophrenic. If he wasn't schizophrenic, Shaver was at least so bad off psychologically that he was institutionalized for much of the 1930s. When he wrote to the editors of Amazing Stories in September 1943, he may only recently have been released. No one seems to know, as the facts of his early adulthood are now pretty well lost. And to be fair to him, when Shaver wrote his letter, he displayed a decided lack of confidence in his ideas, unlike the typical earnest conman. Although he claimed that his discovery of a lost language--and by extension, a lost and ancient civilization--was "an immensely important find," he also closed his letter with these words: "I need a little encouragement." It might be more accurate to say that Richard Shaver was only one-half of the crackpot equation. The ideas were his, but he needed an advertising man, a booster, a promoter, a huckster. Maybe that's the real American type, the guy who's half sincere when he's trying to put one over on you and half full of BS even in his sincerity. Maybe the true American innovation is the attempt at turning a crackpot idea into a moneymaking opportunity. After all, the business of America is business, and material success is a sign of God's grace. In any case, Shaver found the other half of the equation for what became known as the Shaver Mystery in the editor of Amazing Stories, Raymond A. Palmer.

* * *
Richard was said to have been a wild child, playing many pranks, several of which backfired on him giving him a reputation as a "troubled youth." He was reported to have [had] imaginary companions, one his friend, the other his enemy. He had names for these imaginary companions, and fifty years later they were said to be more real to him than other past acquaintances. (3)
Like his father before him, Shaver lived an itinerant lifestyle. He was reared in Berwick and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. In the summer he sold ice door to door. As a young man he worked in a meatpacking plant and for a tree surgeon. In 1930, Shaver moved to Detroit, where his older brother, Taylor V. Shaver, was holding down a good job with the U.S. Immigration Service. (4) While in Detroit, Shaver studied at the Wicker School of Fine Arts (5) and made a little money on the side sketching portraits in the park and modeling for life-drawing classes. He also became involved in leftwing causes, joining the John Reed Club in 1930. (6) On May Day that year, he even spoke at a communist rally in Cass Park in Detroit. (7)

In addition to being a student, Shaver was an instructor at the Wicker School of Fine Arts. One of his own instructors, after that presumably one of his colleagues, was a young Russian-born artist named Sophie Gurvitch. Sophie was a prize pupil at the Wicker School and a rising star on the Detroit art scene. On June 29, 1932, in Detroit, she became the bride of Richard Shaver. Neither was employed at the time, but as their family grew with the birth of their daughter, Evelyn Ann, in 1933 or 1934, Shaver would have to go to work. And when he did, things started to get weird again.

To be continued . . .

(1) The development of the natural sciences in the nineteenth century ran pretty well parallel to the development of the United States as a nation. However, poorly understood science often leads to pseudoscience, in other words, a new mythology for an age of Science, and that's what happened in America. Throw some pretty potent Romanticism and utopianism, the fervor and fanaticism of the Second Great Awakening, and the hustle and bustle of the Early National Period into the mix, and you might have the beginnings of crackpottery (my new word) in America.
(2) The current Cult of Global Warming is a good example. So is the growing fascination with finding Bigfoot. Here's my Unified Field Theory of global warming and Bigfoot: He's getting harder and harder to find because his habitat is being destroyed by global warming. If we want to save Bigfoot, we have to give up on heating our houses and driving our evil, fossil-fuel burning cars. And that means all of you. Not me. You.
(3) From "The Shaver Mystery" by David Hatcher Childress in Lost Continents and the Hollow Earth (Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press, 1999), p. 220.
(4) I have not found Shaver in the census of 1930.
(5) The Wicker School of Fine Arts was established in 1911 by artist John P. Wicker (1860-1931). See the photograph and caption below for more information.
(6) According to Wikipedia: "The John Reed Club was founded in October 1929 by staff members of The New Masses magazine to support leftist and Marxist artists and writers. Originally politically independent, it and The New Masses officially affiliated with the Communist Party in November 1930." Shaver may have come to the John Reed Club by way of associating with leftwing art students at the Wicker School. Then again, if he didn't start at the school until September (see the advertisement below), maybe he encountered communism by being a tramp and an idler in the first year of the Great Depression.
(7) Shaver's involvement in communism is an example of the concept of continuity, the overarching theme of this series. Again and again, we find examples of authors of science fiction and fantasy who were also involved in Forteana, pseudoscience (e.g., UFOlogy), pseudo-religion (e.g., Scientology), pseudo-history (e.g., Marxism, aka scientific socialism, which is also a kind of pseudo-science), and various combinations thereof. Even the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are broken down so that they become continuous as well. The Shaver Mystery, passed off as the truth but taking the form of fiction, is an excellent example of the continuity of fiction with non-fiction, more accurately perhaps, pseudo-non-fiction.

An advertisement for the Wicker School of Fine Arts from the Detroit Free Press, August 24, 1930. If Richard Shaver attended the school during the 1930-1931 academic year, then maybe he began on September 22, 1930. By the way, the Maccabees Building is still in existence.

The head of the Wicker School was the well-loved teacher and painter John P. Wicker. Born on February 23, 1860, in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Wicker established his school in 1911. The 1930-1931 academic year was sadly his last: Wicker died on February 12, 1931. Did Richard Shaver know John P. Wicker? Was he in any way close to him? If so, his teacher's death would have been the first of three to hit Shaver in his years in Detroit. Was Detroit, then, the place where disintegrant energy (de) first made itself known and felt in Shaver's life?

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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