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Precocity and Genius

Charles Sanders Peirce [?]

The Nation, Jan. 13, 1910, 31-32.

The phenomenon presented at Harvard University the other day,


when young Sidis, a boy of eleven, gave a paper on Four-Dimensional
Bodies before the Mathematical Society, is something quite different
from that of the arithmetical prodigy, or lightning calculator. By some
peculiar endowment, these prodigies are enabled to perform almost
instantaneously arithmetical operations which, by the usual processes,
involve a great amount of labor. Some of them have even been able to
answer, in a few seconds or minutes, questions relating to the
decomposition of large numbers into prime factors, which do not admit
of being answered by any known mathematical process other than that of
repeated and tedious trial. What special faculty makes these feats
possible is a mystery upon which, we believe, very little light has been
thrown; but it may be set down as certain that the faculty is something
very different from intellectual power in the ordinary sense—not only
different from general intellectual power, but also different from that
special form of intellectual power which is the equipment of the great
mathematician. These prodigies are unable to say how they arrive at
their results; nor do they build up a system which carries them beyond
the achievement of particular feats and leads to the establishment of new
truths or of fruitful generalizations.

Though the reports of what was actually contained in young Sidis's


communication to the Harvard Mathematical Society are too meagre to
permit of any appraisal of its value, enough is indicated, both in that
report and in the boy's previous history, to show that he possesses
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extraordinary intellectual power in general and that in particular he has
the makings of a great mathematician. If, as it appears, he has discovered
—or rediscovered—and demonstrated fundamental theorems concerning
figures in four-dimensional space, one cannot help feeling that he gives
promise of adding one to the short and splendid list of those whose
names are landmarks in the history of mathematics. That list, brief as it
is, includes several the early dowering of whose genius is not less
remarkable than the greatness of their powers. Pascal, without access to
any books or instruction in geometry, constructed for himself, before the
age of eleven, a geometrical system substantially equivalent to the first
book of Euclid, and before he was sixteen completed a wonderful
treatise on conic sections, based chiefly on his own researches; Galois
was killed in a duel at the age of twenty, but left behind him work the
development of which has given occupation to two generations of
mathematicians; William Rowan Hamilton, a prodigy in languages in his
early boyhood, acquired, without other teaching than that of the books
he seized upon and devoured, such mastery of the most profound parts
of mathematics that the astronomer royal for Ireland is said to have
declared, "This young man, I do not say will be, but is, the greatest
mathematician of the age." Young Sidis's attainments in languages,
chemistry, and other subjects, and his later intense devotion to
mathematics, suggest the story of Hamilton; and his choice of vector
analysis—an outgrowth of Hamilton's quaternoins—as his first subject
of study at Harvard, is at least an interesting coincidence.

The idea that precocity—or at any rate precocity of any such


character as this—generally dies down into mediocrity has very little
foundation. Some actually go so far as to think that the very fact of
unusual brilliancy in a child at so early an age is a prophecy of little
ability when he grows up; a notion that rests upon the same fallacy as
that which regards the children of highly gifted parents as less likely to
be highly endowed than other children. They are vastly more likely to be
thus endowed—as Galton conclusively demonstrated in his "Hereditary
Genius"; but great genius is so extremely rare that, in spite of the
chances being enormously in their favor, compared with other persons,
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the children of highly gifted parents have still only a moderate chance of
attaining similar distinction. And it is the same way with children who
early show great talent. But, of course, there is precocity and precocity;
in some cases, we see merely flashes of an early maturity; in others we
see early maturity; in others we see early indications of great and
unusual powers.

Another question raised in connection with young Sidis is that of


training versus native endowment. Dr. Boris Sidis, the eminent
psychologist who is the boy's father, is said to regard his son's
achievements as indicating that by proper methods of instruction several
years could be cut off from the time actually employed in bringing boys
up to the college or university stage. With the proposition itself we have
no particular fault to find; but that young Sidis's exploits serve in any
degree to establish it we deny without hesitation. The part played by
native genius is so manifestly predominant in this case as to nullify any
general application. This is evident on the face of the matter; but
confirmation of the strongest kind is given, if any were needed, in such
precedents as those of Pascal and Hamilton, both of whom made the
amazing mathematical conquests of their youth without any outside help
whatsoever. And it is equally unnecessary to consider another view that
has been ascribed—though, like the one just mentioned, probably
erroneously ascribed—to Dr. Sidis. This is the theory that, with a proper
personal hold on a boy, you can turn him out a mathematician or
anything else. There is no doubt a wide range in which most young men
of intellectual power can freely choose their field of distinction; but it is
equally certain that the range is strictly limited in most cases. The
faculty for mathematics is as distinctive as that for poetry or music; if
you take enough pains, you can train almost anybody of ordinary
endowment to turn out verses or to compose some kind of music; but
you can't make him a poet or a musician. To be a mathematician you
must have mathematical insight, the mathematical vision; and if young
Sidis, like young Hamilton, has that along with remarkable gifts for
language and other things, this does nothing whatever to disprove the
existence of the thousands of boys who, while gifted in other directions,
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are blind to the beauties and deaf to the harmonies of mathematics. In
fact, we are loath to believe that from the performances of one
extraordinary child a man of science would feel disposed to draw any
conclusion at all that runs counter to the results of the age-long
experience of mankind.

BOY PRODIGY OF HARVARD


Current Literature, 1910, 48, 291-93.

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ALTHO the eleven-year-old scientist of Harvard, William James Sidis,
fell ill after his recent lecture on the fourth dimension, there is no
evidence whatever that his studies have undermined his health. On the
contrary, he seems to enjoy enviable bodily vigor. Rumors that he may
never return to his advanced studies invariably follow his preparations
for vacation; but, as vacation and rest enter into his course of education,
these rumors need not be taken seriously. In the meantime, the father of
the prodigy, Professor Boris Sidis, one of the most eminent of living
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psychologists, has given, in response to requests innumerable, an
authentic account of the scope and aims of his son's intellectual career.
"I do not believe in the prevailing system of education for children,"
writes Professor Sidis. "I have educated my son upon a system of my
own, based to some extent upon principles laid down by Professor
William James," This system, Professor Sidis insists, has justified itself
by its results in the case of the boy prodigy of Harvard. He knows as
much at eleven; the father says, "as a gifted professor of mature years,"
and when he grows up "he will amaze the world." Nor is the result due
to heredity or to abnormality of the child's brain. The results achieved in
the case of this eleven-year-old lad are due wholly to the methods of
training pursued. To quote the father's words as given in a recent issue of
the New York American;

"He is not a freak who can perform vast sums in arithmetic, as


some children have done, but he understands the underlying principles
of mathematics and whatever he learns.

"You must begin a child's education as soon as he displays any


power to think. Everybody knows how hard it is to learn a new language
late in life. The same holds good of all our acquisitions. The earlier they
arc acquired the more truly they become part of us.

"At the same time keep alive within the child the quickening power
of curiosity. Do not repress him. Answer his questions; give him the
information he craves, seeing to it always that he understands your
explanations.

"You need not he afraid of overstraining his mind. On the contrary,


you will be developing it as it should be developed―will he habituating
the child to avail himself of the great fund of latent energy which most
of us, to our detriment, so seldom use,
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"The law of ‘reserve mental energy,' as set forth by Professor
William James, has much to do with the progress of my son. Professor
James explained that the power of getting what is popularly known as
'second wind' might be controlled at will and enable us to accomplish
daily and regularly what we can all do under stress of circumstances. If
you do prolonged mental work you will find yourself grow tired, but if
you keep on working the feeling of fatigue will pass away. You are
drawing on your reserve mental energy.

"As a baby grows more rapidly after birth than at any other time, so
his brain develops most rapidly then and becomes less sensitive to
impressions as he grows older. The process of education cannot begin
too soon.

"I began to train my boy in the use of his faculties immediately


after his birth. He was bound to use them anyway, and therefore I took
care that he used them properly. I taught the child to observe accurately,
to analyze and synthetize and make sound deductions. Neither his
mother nor myself confused him with baby talk, meaningless sounds or
foolish gestures, and thus, altho he learned to reason so early, his mind
was no more burdened than that of the ordinary child.

"I knew that as soon as he began to speak his first interest would be
in the sounds he was uttering, and so I trained him to identify the
elements of sound. Taking a box of large alphabet blocks I named each
to him day after day.

"In this way he learned to read and spell correctly before he was
two years old. What was still more important he learned to reason
correctly.

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"When he learned that he could express himself more quickly and
clearly on the typewriter than in handwriting, his natural eagerness led
him to master the typewriter.

"I taught him to count with similar blocks, and then, wishing to
familiarize him with ideas of time, as well as the meaning and use of
numbers, I placed in his hands several calendars and taught him their
use. At five from his own studies of these he had devised a method of
telling on what day of the week any given date would fall.

"His interest in anatomy was suddenly aroused by his discovering a


skeleton in our house, a relic of my student days. It was almost
gruesome to see the enthusiasm with which he studied the bones,
identifying each by close comparison with the plates in a text hook on
anatomy, Within a very short time he knew so much about the structure
of the body that he could pass a medical student's examination creditably
at six years of age.

"His great interest in words gave me an opportunity to start him in


the study languages. As I am a polyglot myself, I was usually able to
answer his questions about the meaning of words in foreign languages,
and to put him in the way of learning more. Thus after English he
learned Russian, French, German, Latin and Greek."

By far the most remarkable achievement of the youthful William


James Sidis is his exposition of what is termed the fourth dimension.
The literature of the fourth dimension is now voluminous, and few there
are who have not heard or read of this factor in intellectual processes.
For some reason, however, it has been found extremely difficult to
popularize the fourth dimensional idea. The practical problem of the
fourth dimension, therefore, is less its validity as an intellectual concept
than the correct mode of convincing the average person that it is
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anything more than an academic abstraction with no reference to the
world of realities. For instance, in his lecture at Harvard, young Sidis
used such words as “hecatonicosihedrigon" and
“hexacosihedrigon”―words invented by the boy himself to fit the
exigencies of his explanation. By way of preface, therefore, to young
Sidis's technical analysis of the fourth dimension, it may be well to read
the ensuing paragraphs in which Professor Henry P. Manning, of Brown
University, practically applies the abstraction:

"If you were a point and if you lived on a straight line you would be
a one-dimensional man. You could move backward and forward only.
You could not look up or down, nor from side to side. Your visible
world would lie always in front of your eyes. You could only see the
back of the man's head in front of you. You could never turn around and
talk to the man behind you.

"If you lived on a surface you would be a twodimensional man. In


other words you would be a smear. You would slide around like quick-
silver, but you would have no thickness. You could turn around and see
the man behind you, but you could not look down or up at the sky, if
there is one in your two-dimensional world.

"The world in which we live is a world of three dimensions. It has


length, breadth and thickness. If the inhabitants of the two dimensional-
world, smears on a plate without thickness, were to attempt to imprison
you in a two-dimensional jail you could escape simply by stepping over
the walls of your prison, and your twodimensional jailers would never
realize how you eluded them.

“If there is such a thing as a fourth dimension it would be


impossible for us to incarcerate a four-dimensional criminal. He would
step out of his jail and we would never know how he escaped. A rope
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knotted in the middle and fastened to two walls can be unknotted
without detaching it from the walls in the fourth dimension. A hollow
rubber ball could be turned inside cut in the fourth dimension. A liquid
could be poured into a completely enclosed vessel in the fourth
dimension."

Young Sidis's own definition of the fourth dimension was more


technical. "It is an Euclidian space," he said, "with one dimension
added." To quote from the lecture delivered last January before the
faculty of Harvard:

"My own definition of the Fourth Dimension would be that it is an


Euclidian space with one dimension added. It is the projection of the
figures of the Third Dimension into space. The third dimensional
figures, such as the cube, are used as sides of the figures of the Fourth
Dimension, and the figures of the Fourth Dimension are called
configurations.

"It is not possible to actually construct models of the figures of the


Fourth Dimension, or to conceive of them in the mind's eye, but it is
easy to construct them by means of Euclid's theorem.

"In his theorem, F equals the faces of the figures, S equals the sides,
V the vertices and M equals the angles. The theorem is that F plus S
equals V plus M.

"It is possible to take any figure of the Third Dimension and with it
construct figures of the Fourth Dimension. These figures of the Fourth
Dimension are called Polyhedrigons. It is possible to tell how many
faces any given figures of the Fourth Dimension will have by applying
Euler's theorem. Some figures of the Fourth Dimension, however,

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cannot be worked out by this theorem, but must all be tried by using
logarithms.

"When a figure of the Fourth Dimension is pressed flat, as I have


already said, it is made into a figure of the Third Dimension. It is
possible to construct figures of the Fourth Dimension with a hundred
and twenty sides called Hecatonicosihedrigons, and also figures with six
hundred sides called Hexacosihedrigons. I attach great value in the
working out of my theories to the help given by the polyhedral angles of
the dodesecahedron which enter into many of the problems. Some of the
things that I have found out about the Fourth Dimension will aid in the
solution of many of the problems of elliptical geometry."

In its recent study of boy prodigies, with particular reference to the


Harvard case, the Revue Psychologique insists that much of their
performance is of the nature of memory work.

BENDING THE TWIG


THE EDUCATION OF THE ELEVEN YEAR OLD BOY
WHO LECTURED BEFORE THE HARVARD
PROFESSORS ON THE FOURTH DIMENSION

BY

HAROLD ADDINGTON BRUCE

ILLUSTRATED WITH A PORTRAIT

The American Magazine, 1910, #69, 690 – 695.

Contributed by Ann Hulbert

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Two years ago Prof. William James, in one of the most remarkable
articles ever published in this or any other periodical, formulated for the
readers of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE his startling psychological
doctrine of the hidden energies of man.

“Everyone knows,” Professor James wrote, “what it is to start a


piece of work, either intellectual or muscular, feeling stale―or cold, as
an Adirondack guide one put it to me. And everybody knows what it is
to ‘warm up’ to his job. The process of warming up gets particularly
striking as the phenomenon known as ‘second wind’. On usual occasions
we make a practice of stopping an occupation as soon as we meet the
first effective layer (so to call it) of fatigue. We have then walked,
played, or worked ‘enough’, so we desist. . . . But if an unusual
necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The
fatigue gets worse up to a critical point, when gradually or suddenly it
passes away, and we are fresher than before.

“We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until


then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after
layer of this experience. A third and a fourth ‘wind’ may supervene.
Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as the physical, and in
exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-
distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to
own, sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually
we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical
points . . .

“It is evident that our organism has stored-up reserves of energy


that are ordinarily not called upon, but that may be called upon: deeper
and deeper strata of combustible or explosible material, discontinuously
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arranged, but ready for use by anyone who probes so deep, and repairing
themselves by rest as well as do the superficial strata. Most of us
continue living unnecessarily near our surface.”

The controversy which these views of Professor James provoked


still waxes warm. For the most part his scientific colleagues are at odds
with him. Yet all the time, while his critics have been criticising him,
facts have been coming to light tending to prove that Professor James’s
theory, far from being a gospel of overstrain, is a gospel of hope,
opening up to the human race vistas of possibilities and achievement
unreached in any epoch of the history of the world.

A Marvel―and Still a Child

There is at Harvard University today a student who has caused


much astonishment, perplexity, and debate among the members of the
faculty. He is only eleven years old. At an age when most boys are
struggling desperately with the elementals of education, this lad is
specializing in advanced mathematics, and, since admission at the
beginning of the college year last September, has easily held his own
with fellow students in most cases more than twice his age. Even before
coming to Harvard he had progressed far on the road towards mastery in
the science of mathematics. Algebra, trigonometry, geometry,
differential and integral calculus―all these he had at his fingers’ ends by
the time he was nine or ten. He has even written a treatise on the
properties of the hypothetical “fourth dimension.”

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What makes the case of this child-undergraduate still more amazing
is the fact that, unlike almost every other “infant prodigy” of whom
history gives any account, his marvelous precocity is far from being
confined to a single department of knowledge. He is almost as good an
astronomer as he is a mathematician, and for the past few months has
been industriously charting the heavens according to a new system of his
own. He has invented a universal language which, he clams, is free from
the objections that have been raised against Esperanto. He has studied
anatomy, physiology, physics, geography, history, and political science.

Withal, he has remained essentially a child. He is as truly a boy as


is the barefoot urchin playing ball in the street. He is no bulging-browed,
bespectacled, anaemic freak. His cheeks have a ruddy glow, his eyes
sparkle, he has a ringing laugh, and is fairly bubbling over with animal
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spirits. He is, in fact, so much of a boy that when, at the age of eight, his
parents entered him in a high school, the school authorities, at the end of
three months, were glad to see the last of him, so damaging to the
discipline of the classroom were his pranks and antics. In some respects
he is more childlike than the average youngster of his years and has not
yet outgrown his fondness for the toys of the nursery. Of this, as of his
wonderful intellectual attainments, I can speak from long personal
observation, as I have known him since he was seven.

The Father of the Boy―and His Ideas

How to account for him is a problem that is puzzling the savants of


Harvard. One man, however, the boy’s father, feels absolutely certain
that he can give the true and only adequate information.

His son’s mental growth, he declares, is the result not of heredity,


not of exceptional native talent, but of a special education he has
received, an education having as its chief purpose the training of the
child to make facile, habitual, and profitable use of his hidden energies.

The father is himself a psychologist with a reputation on two


continents. His name is Boris Sidis. Although best known in the
scientific world as a medical psychologist, he has for years been making
a special study of educational psychology. Like Professor James, with
whom he is a co-discoverer of the law of latent energy, a subject on
which Dr. Sidis has been working and experimenting for years, he is
firmly convinced that most of us “live unnecessarily near the surface,”
and he throws the blame for this largely on our educational system. In
particular, he condemns the custom of delaying any attempt at formal
education of the child until he arrives at “school age.”

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“The notion that the young child’s mind should be allowed to lie
fallow,” is the way Dr. Sidis put it to me, “is utterly wrong and
pernicious. The child is essentially a thinking animal. No power on earth
can keep him from thinking, from using his mind. From the moment his
inquiring eyes first take in the details of his surroundings he begins the
mental processes which education is intended to guide and develop. He
observes, he draws inferences from everything he sees and hears, he
seeks to give expression to his thoughts.

“Left to himself, however, he is certain to observe inaccurately and


to make many erroneous inferences. Unless he is taught how to think he
is sure to think incorrectly, and to acquire wrong thought habits, causing
him to form bad judgments respecting matters not only vital to his own
welfare but also important to the welfare of society. In fact, in order to
get the best results, his training in the principles of correct thinking
should begin as soon as, or even before, he starts to talk. There need be
no fear of over-taxing his mind. On the contrary, the effect will be to
develop and strengthen it, by accustoming him to make habitual use of
the latent energy which most people never utilize at all.”

Learning to Spell and to Read Before Three Years Old

Holding these views, Dr. Sidis, upon the birth of his son―who was
named William James Sidis, after Professor James―resolved to put
them to the test of experiment. To realize his great aim of energizing and
rationalizing the child, he began to train him in the use of his
observational and reasoning faculties before he was two years old, and,
with the aid of a box of alphabet blocks, actually succeeded in teaching
him how to spell and read before he was three. He did this by playing
with the boy, shifting the alphabet blocks around to spell different
words, pointing to the objects spelt, and naming them aloud. The effect
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of this was not simply to teach the child spelling and reading, but also to
give him a thorough grounding in the principles of sound reasoning.

Moreover, the method employed by Dr. Sidis seemed to impart to


his son a power of mental concentration seldom seen in children. All
children, as every parent is aware, are eager “tom know about things,”
but as a rule their inquisitiveness is easily satisfied, and they flit, like so
many butterflies, from one subject to another without giving much
thought to anything. Not so with little William James Sidis. Once his
attention was arrested, his interest aroused, he was not content until he
had learned the exact nature of whatever had excited his curiosity.

At the age of three and a half, for example, he chanced one day to
wander into his father’s office while Dr. Sidis was writing a letter on a
typewriter. He watched the movement of the carriage back and forth, he
heard the clicking of the types, the ringing of the bell, and forthwith
tugging at his father’s coat. What was that machine for, he demanded,
how did it work, and many other questions. Then, climbing into his
father’s lap, he pressed his little fingers on the keys, and exultantly read
the words his father showed him how to form. This first lesson was
followed by others, until within six months―when he was only four
years old―he was typewriting with considerable dexterity. He had
already learned to write with a pencil.

When he was six―his parents having in the meantime removed


from New York, where he was born, to Brookline, Mass.―he was sent
to a public school. His career there was brief but spectacular. In half a
year he passed through seven grades, leaving behind him a succession of
bewildered, wide-eyed teachers, aghast at the precocity he displayed. An
interval of two years of study at home was followed by three months of
attendance at the Brookline High School. Then two years more of study
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at home, and now, as has been said, he is a special student at Harvard,
toying with vector analysis and other forms of higher mathematics.

At Harvard, as may be imagined, his career is being watched with


the liveliest interest. Aside from the surprise occasioned by his
proficiency in the difficult field of study which he has selected, those
who have come into contact with him are most deeply impressed by the
manner in which he, so to speak, takes himself for granted. He does not
seem to regard his precocity as anything out of the usual, and enters as a
matter of course into the new life opened up to him by his admission to
the university. He is a regular attendant at the Harvard Mathematical
Club, and enters freely into the discussion of the various papers read, his
criticisms commanding as respectful a hearing as though coming from a
man of mature years.

Lecturing to Professors and Others

Indeed, not long ago he read a paper of his own before the
Mathematical Club, taking as his subject the theme, “Four-Dimensional
Bodes.” As may be imagined, the attendance at that meeting of the club
was the largest of the year. More than 75 men were present―professors,
assistant professors, instructors, students, and some specially invited
guests. Not a few came in a profoundly skeptical frame of mind, having
heard about the boy, but believing that his powers had been greatly
overrated.

Before the evening was at an end they were listening to him with
the most intense interest and evident astonishment. Many of them were
quite unable to follow his complicated calculations, which he made with
assurance and ease. As he explained, in opening his lecture, the “space”
with which we are acquainted is of three dimensions, but it is quite
conceivable that there may be space with more than three
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dimensions―with four, five, or any number of dimensions. In four-
dimensional space it would be possible to construct mathematical figures
of very different form from our ordinary three-dimensional figures. The
explanation of how many of these figures there might be, how they
could be constructed, and what they looked like, was the subject of his
lecture.

For upward of an hour and a half this little lad in knickerbockers


held the closest attention of his auditors, now speaking directly to them,
now reading from a carefully prepared paper, with not a little oratorical
effect, and now, in a childish scrawl, demonstrating on a blackboard the
mathematical proof of the theories he was advancing. As he explained it,
figures in the fourth dimension could be of the most remarkable shapes,
having even as many as six hundred sides. A six-hundred-sided four-
dimensional figure he called a “sextacosiahedragon,” a bit of original
terminology which he surpassed when he referred to another many-sided
four-dimensional figure as a “hecatonicosahedragon.”

In conclusion, this youngest lecturer in the annals of Harvard


insisted that it was a great mistake to suppose, as do many non-
mathematicians, that the hypothesis of the fourth dimension is of no
practical value. On the contrary, it is of the greatest usefulness to
mathematicians, who by its aid are enabled to solve many problems that
would otherwise baffle them, and more particularly geometrical
problems.

And all this, be it remembered, is, according to his father, the result
of special education, having as its principal object the training of the boy
to utilize those hidden energies which, as Professor James pointed out in
his AMERICAN MAGAZINE article, the vast majority of people never
make any use of whatever.
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How the Father and Mother Managed the Boy’s Education

To attain this object Dr. Sidis has, in the main, relied on the
familiar educational principle of teaching a child through appealing to
his interest, but he has made the appeal to interest in an unusual
way―namely, by systematic application of the influence of that little
understood but tremendously powerful psychological factor,
“suggestion.”

Now, suggestion is no mysterious or uncanny force, operable only


under exceptional conditions. Everybody knows what is meant by a
“suggestive teacher,” a “suggestive book,” a “suggestive picture.” By
suggestion is meant nothing more than the intrusion of an idea into the
mind with such skill and power that it dominates and, for the moment,
disarms or excludes all other ideas which might prevent its realization.

In dealing with little children, as many educators have long


recognized, the one sure way of implanting in their minds the ideas
which one wished to make dominant is by arousing their curiosity and
stimulating their interest. This has led to the method of education
through play, as exemplified in the kindergarten.

But Dr. Sidis believed that, if properly manipulated, the method of


education through play might be extended to subjects not taught in the
kindergarten―that, in fact, a child might be led to undertake and
continue the study of any subject provided it were made sufficiently
interesting to him.

Today, as we have seen, his son excels in mathematics. There was a


time, however―while he was at the grammar school―when no subject
could possibly have been more distasteful to him, and he seemed totally
unable, or at all events unwilling, to apply himself to it.
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Discovering this, Dr. Sidis did not attempt to drive him to the study
of mathematics. Instead he purchased some toys―dominoes, marbles,
etc.―with which he invented games requiring more or less knowledge
of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Every evening, for
an hour or more, he played these games with his little son, deftly
managing matters so that his interest in time shifted from the toys to the
principles underlying their use. In the boy’s presence, too, he continually
discussed with Mrs. Sidis―who has throughout loyally co-operated with
her husband in his unique educational experiment―questions involving
the practical application of arithmetic and “suggesting” its importance in
the affairs of every-day life.

This process proved so effectual that the boy spontaneously, and


with the greatest enthusiasm, took up the study of mathematics,
progressing in it so rapidly that in a couple of years his mathematical
knowledge was superior to that of his father.

The same method has been followed by Dr. Sidis in stimulating


him to the study of other subjects to which he first showed indifference
or positive dislike. And the result has invariably been the same. Once
really interested he has gone at every subject with eagerness and
enthusiasm, grasping and mastering its principles with amazing ease.

Nor is this the only way in which Dr. Sidis has made use of
suggestion to stimulate his son’s intellectual development.

Everything about us, as is now beginning to be pretty generally


appreciated, is of suggestive. From our friends, our books, the very
pictures on our walls, from everything in our environment, we
constantly receive suggestions which influence us to a varying but
nonetheless unmistakable extent. This is particularly true of the plastic
period of childhood. Recent psychological investigation has made it
21
certain that everything the child sees or hears, no matter whether he is
consciously aware of it or not, leaves a more or less profound
impression, is “subconsciously” remembered by him, and may at times
exercise a determining influence upon the whole course of his life.

A Story About Helen Keller

One impressive bit of testimony as to the permanence of the


impressions of childhood and their influence upon the child’s later
development is afforded by an experience in the life of Miss Helen
Keller, who, as is well known, was left by illness deaf, dumb, and blind
when less than two years old.

Among the many accomplishments she has acquired not the least
astonishing is her power for appreciating music, which she “hears” by
placing her hand lightly on the instrument and receiving its vibrations.

It occurred to Dr. Louis Waldstein, an authority on the


“subconscious,” that quite possibly her appreciation of music was
connected with subconscious memories of music she had heard before
her illness. To test this theory he obtained from her mother copies of two
songs which nhad often been sung to Miss Keller as an infant in
Alabama, but which she had not heard since.

These he played in Miss Keller’s presence, with remarkable effect.


She became greatly excited, clapped her hands, laughed, and
communicated:

“Father carrying baby up and down, swinging her on his knee!


Black Crow! Black Crow.”

It was evident to all present that she had been drawn back in
memory to the surroundings of her infancy. But no one knew what she
22
meant by the words “black crow” until her mother explained that that
was the title of a third song which her father used to sing to her. She had
not heard it since her nineteenth month, when she lost all sense of
hearing, but now, many years afterwards and although dependent solely
on the sense of touch, she was able not merely to remember it, but even
to recall its name!

As a psychologist―and, for that matter, as the author of a standard


textbook on “The Psychology of Suggestion”―Dr. Sidis was well aware
of the possibility of so arranging his son’s environment as to cause it to
radiate upon him suggestions quickening and enlarging his intellectual
capacities.

With the Boy in His Study Room

While the boy was still a mere infant, he set aside a room for him, a
bright, cheery, well-lighted apartment, hung with a few attractive
pictures. A little writing table was placed in one corner of the room, with
pad and pencil. Opposite the child’s bed a small bookcase was placed. It
was filled in part with the ordinary books of childhood―volumes of
nursery rhymes, fairy tales, picture books. But it also held books of
serious interest, simple tales of travel, of history, of science, and the like,
most of them illustrated. As the child grew older, books of a more
advanced character were added to his little library, studies in literature
and biography, mathematical and scientific text-books. A large
revolving globe, showing the countries of the world in bright colors, was
placed near the window. Toys having a scientific basis also found a way
to his room, which thus became a sort of educational museum, inspiring
him with a love for knowledge.

“And,” says Dr. Sidis, emphatically, “it is because he has been


inspired with such an interest, such a genuine enthusiasm, that he has
23
made the progress which people regard as surprising. Any normal child
would make as good a showing if he were given the same training. The
trouble is that parents neglect their children―allow them to fritter away
their energies, to acquire habits of loose and incorrect thinking, at the
very time when they stand most in need of careful education. It is the
first years that count for most. Then it is that the child should be taught
to observe accurately, to think correctly.

“I do not mean by this that the child should be deprived of play. My


boy plays―plays with his toys, and plays with his books. And that is the
key to the whole situation. Get the child so interested in study that study
will truly be play. Don’t tell me it can’t be done. I have done it.”

Dr. Sidis would probably speak with less assurance were it not that
this is by no means his only experiment in the development of latent
energy.

Story of Another Boy

Some years ago he made the acquaintance of a young foreigner, a


boy of fifteen, who was desperately anxious to secure an education that
would fit him for a professional career. His parents, who had but
recently arrived in the United States, were very poor, and were bitterly
opposed to his “ambitious notions,” believing that instead of going to
college he should set to work to earn his living. He had had no schooling
in his native land, knew scarcely a word of English, and was ignorant of
even the elementary knowledge possessed by the youngest primary-
school child. Nevertheless, with a confidence that was pathetic, he
applied for admission to a high school.

24
“No,” he was told, “we cannot admit you. You do not know
enough. You must go first to a primary school and then to the grammar
school before you can enter here.”

He was in despair when Dr. Sidis sent for him.

“You wish to get into the high school, I hear,” said he. “Very well,
you shall. Go and find out exactly what they require you to know before
they will admit you, and then come back to me.”

For hours daily he labored with the boy, teaching him first of all the
rudiments of spelling, reading, and arithmetic by methods which
“trained him to use his mental faculties correctly and to use them fully.”
The result was much the same as achieved in his son’s case.

At the end of eight months the young foreigner passed with flying
colors an examination for admission to the high school. He completed
the high-school course with phenomenal rapidity, graduating with the
highest honors. Then he entered college, where he again distinguished
himself, and, passing to a medical school, won further laurels there.
Today he is holding a responsible public position.

In another case the subject of experiment was a man of forty, a


tailor by trade. Dr. Sidis became interested in him on learning that, in a
dim, vague, inchoate way, he had longings not merely to better himself
but to be of some service to humanity. He talked with the man and found
that, although rather stupid and uneducated, being scarcely able to read,
he was really stirred by altruistic ambitions.

“Then I took him in hand. I began to educate and energize him. He


came to me every day, and when he was not with me he was studying

25
the text-books I gave him to read. I kept him at work, with his mind set
on the distinct goal of helping his fellow man.

“Before long, he displayed an intellectual ability that amazed those


who had known him before the process of energizing began. He seemed,
as some of his friends said to me, to be a new man. Whereas before he
had been timid and diffident he became self-assertive and masterful. He
attended and even organized workingmen’s clubs, he developed a
marked gift as a public speaker, and before his death, which occurred a
few years ago, won considerable reputation as a labor leader.

“But I could have done much more with him had I had him much
earlier. It is by beginning in early childhood that the best results can be
obtained. You know the old saying―’As the twig is bent the tree’s
inclined.’ Parents cannot too soon begin the work of bending the minds
of their children in the right direction, of training them so that they shall
grow up complete, efficient, really rational men and women.”

26
SIDIS GETS YEAR AND HALF IN JAIL
11 OTHER MAY DAY RIOTERS SENTENCED

Boston Herald, Wednesday, May 14, 1919.

27
Distortion of his likeness aside, this article contains some of his trial
testimony.

William James Sidis, who was graduated from Harvard at the age
of 15, told Judge Albert F. Hayden in the Roxbury Municipal Court
yesterday that he is a Socialist, a believer in the soviet form of
government, that he believed in evolution, that he does not believe in a
god, that his god is evolution, and that he believes in our form of
government to the extent of the Declaration of Independence. Sidis and
11 other persons who were arrested during the May Day riots in
28
Roxbury were given jail sentences, the so-called Harvard prodigy
getting a year and a half.

The testimony of Sidis in the afternoon and the rebuke of Atty.


Edward M. Shanley by Judge Hayden in the morning, when the attorney
attempted to introduce evidence which the court excluded, were features
of the trial yesterday.

Patrolman Samuel C. Hutchins of the Dudley street station had, in


his direct examination, identified 7 of the 11 defendants who went on
trial yesterday morning, including Edmund Savrie, 74 Cedar street,
Roxbury; Peter Thompson, 15 Temple street, West end; Alex Glasnick,
Sidis, Frank Szydlofski of 90 Hunneman street, Roxbury, and Samuel
Shoyet of 1077A Blue Hill avenue, Roxbury.

While Hutchins was testifying Patrolman William E. Wiseman,


who had preceded him on the witness stand, made some notes having no
connection with the hearing, so when Hutchins concluded his testimony
Attorney Shanley recalled Wiseman to the witness stand and asked him
to tell what notes he had made. Judge Hayden, arising from his chair,
excluded the question and told Wiseman not to answer and to step down
from the witness box.

As Wiseman walked to his seat Shanley asked him for the paper
and received it. Here Judge Hayden told Attorney Shanley that he would
be removed from the cases if he attempted to introduce evidence which
the court had ruled out. Shanley replied that he appeared for defendants,
stating that he was there to assert their rights and see that they were
protected, but the court refused to allow him to proceed and told Atty.
Thomas G. Connolly, appearing for other defendants, to take up the
defence of those represented by Shanley.

Bars Attorney

Shanley remained within the bar enclosure, but took no part in


proceedings until Special Officer Stephen E. Gillis of the Dudley street
29
station identified Andrew Ford of 23 Oakwood street as a parader.
Shanley then started to cross-examine Gillis, when Judge Hayden told
him that he had been barred from further appearance in the cases. Atty.
Shanley replied that he represented certain people, when the court again
interjected, "I refuse to let you proceed."

Atty. Shanley remarked that it was an autocratic rule, adding that he


was present to protect his clients' rights and concluded by saying that the
ruling "helps the cause along."

"Sidis, called to the stand, was quick in his response to questions


propounded and seemed, while nervous at times, to be little concerned
with the serious charges on which he was in court.

He said that his name was William James Sidis, and that he lived at
200 Newbury street, Back Bay.

Questions and Answers

These questions and answers followed:

"Were you at the Dudley Street Opera House on May 1?"

"I was there continuously from 11 in the morning until 2 o'clock in


the afternoon."

"What did the chairman at the Opera House say to those


assembled?

"He said that there was to be a meeting at New International Hall


and that we should all go; so I went with the crowd to the new hall."

"Where were you when the paraders left the hall?"

"At the beginning I was in the rear of the line, and at different parts
of the line at different times. When we reached Walnut Avenue and
Warren Street, I was in the rear."
30
"Were you carrying a red flag?

"I was carrying a red flag, 3 by 3 feet; it was a piece of red silk
tacked to a piece of stick."

"Did you remember witness Sullivan?"

"He yelled to me to take down the flag and I made no reply."

"Was there any disturbance on the part of the paraders?"

"I heard no noise until later some persons started to sing."

Says He's a Socialist

"Are you a Socialist?"

"Yes."

"Do you believe in the soviet form of government?"

"I do."

"Will you state briefly what the soviet form of government is?"

"That will be a rather difficult thing to do."

"Could you give His Honor a description in 100 words?"

"The soviet form of government is the present revolutionary form


in Russia. The soviet word is the Russian word for counsel. The general
principle is that those who do socially useful work are to control the
government and industries of the country as officials in government do
in general. The fundamental principle is that everybody is supposed to
work."

"Would you say in that respect only those who do socially useful
work?"
31
"I would state that those who do work shall be entitled to control
the government, but those who are in non-essential industries should not
be counted."

Force if Necessary

"Do you understand that they intend to get control through


industries in which they work?"

"So I understand."

"By force if necessary?"

"I understand every government implies a certain power to suppress


opposition."

"That does not answer the question. You said before that the
people want control of the industries of the country. I want to know
whether you advocate by force the control of the industries of the
country or by the use of the ballot?"

"I countenance the use of force only in case it should be necessary,


and I base my statement on a comparison with the Declaration of
Independence of the United States government, which states clearly that
the people shall be governed only with the consent of the government
[governed]."

"Who decides? The majority or the minority?

"The majority."

"Do you believe in economic evolution?"

"I do."

"Can any person tell what course human events will take or what
forms of government?"

32
"I say practically that."

Disbelieves in God

"Do you believe in a god?"

"No."

Atty. Connolly then asked the court what God he meant,


whereupon Judge Hayden replied, God Almighty.

Here Sidis said that the kind of a God that he did not believe in was
the "big boss of the Christians," adding that he believed in something
that is in a way apart from a human being.

"Asked by his attorney if the soviet ideals necessarily implied


violence, he replied in the negative, stating that there should not be any
violence on the road to that goal.

Describing Bolsheviki and political Socialists, Sidis said that the


latter believed mainly in the ballot, the former in control of industry.
Asked if, on the day of the alleged riots, there were any circumstances
attending the marching people that would have been indicative of
trouble if the paraders had been left alone, Sidis said, "nothing
whatever." If the people had not been interfered with by the hoodlums,
he declared, there would not have been any trouble at all.

Shows Him Red Flag

The red flag which he had carried was shown to him by his
attorney and he said that the red stood for the common blood of
humanity as it does in the American flag. Asked what the red in the
American flag represented, the defendant said that it stands for the
common brotherhood of mankind. He said that he did not believe that
we should have idolatry in the world. He added that he did not idolize
the red flag, adding that it was just a piece of red silk.

33
Cross-examined by Sergt. Dennis J. Casey, appearing for the
government, Sidis said he was born in New York city, and that he is 21
years old. He said he was in the draft and claimed exemption because of
conscientious objections. Sergt. Casey asked him what feeling he would
have if the American flag were trampled upon and Sidis did not answer.
He said he saw paraders struck without provocation. Asked if he did not
urge the people to go ahead when the police arrived, the defendant said
that he told them to stop.

Not Believer in Force

Connolly, on re-direct examination, told Sidis that, for a man who


believed in the soviet form of government, he certainly did not use much
force. And Sidis remarked that he did not believe in using force. He
denied that he had said, "To hell with the American flag," as the police
testified he had, adding that he never used such language.

Judge Hayden then asked him why he did not carry an American
flag instead of the red flag, and he said he had one in his pocket but that
it was not an organized parade. The court asked him if he did not carry it
for protection, and the defendant said he had attended several meetings
and that it might be wanted.

"Do you believe in what the American flag stands for," queried
Judge Hayden. The defendant answered that he believed in certain ways
for what it stands, in the sense of the Declaration of Independence.
Asked if Martha H. Foley, the militant suffragist, already sentenced to
18 months, and himself were not the organizers of the parade and had
charge, he replied in the negative. He denied that he was a leader, stating
that there were no leaders in the parade, and that as far as he knew, no
permit was asked for a parade.

No Thought of Trouble

Asked if he did not think there would be trouble when he went on


the street with a red flag, Sidis said that it did not occur to him. He said
34
that under the American flag he did not stand for lynching of Negroes
without trial. Attorney Connolly propounded a question on alleged
crowding of mining strikers to hunger in Arizona, asking him if he
would stand for that under our flag, he replied in the negative,
whereupon Judge Hayden stated that we all know what the American
flag stands for Atty. Connolly declared that he didn't, adding that we had
slavery here, fighting of armed thugs, and everything else.

Other defendants who took the stand included Benjamin Barden of


Chelsea, treasurer of the Millinery Workers' Union. He admitted he was
a Socialist. He was not a parader, he said.

Peter Thompson testified that he had been at a dentist's office,


heard of trouble and that when he came out of the building, hands in his
pockets, he was arrested.

Edmund Savrie of 74 Cedar street, Roxbury, was identified by


Patrolmen Morse and Hutchins; Peter Thompson was identified as a
parader by Patrolman Hutchins, while Patrolman Moore identified
Gedart Gehre. Alex Glasnick was identified by Sergt. Casey, and
Patrolmen Hutchins, Moore, Cummings, and Patrolman Gillis and Sergt.
Casey identified Andrew Ford as a parader.

Identify Sidis

Sidis was identified by Sergt. Casey, Patrolmen Wiseman, Hutchins


and Cummings. Deomid Pitnichny of 96 Auburn street, Chelsea, was
identified by Sergt. Casey and Patrolmen Hutchins and McAllister, and
Patrolman Murphy picked out Benjamin Barden as one of the marchers.
Patrolman McAllister identified Joe Waranski, and Frank Szydlofski
was identified by Solomon, Hutchins, Moore and Cashman, while
Solomon, Hutchins, Gillis and McAllister identified Samuel Shoyet as a
parader.

After the defence had completed its testimony, Judge Hayden


sentenced Edmund Savrie, Peter Thompson, Joe Markovitz, Alex
35
Glasnick, Andrew Ford, Deomid Pitnichny, Benjamin Barden, Joe
Waranski and Samuel Shoyet to the house of correction for three months
on a charge of rioting and an additional three months for an assault on
Hutchins.

Sidis, Berhe and Szydlofski were given six months for rioting and
one year additional for assault. All appealed, Sidis being held in bonds
of $5000 for the superior court and the other defendants in $1000 each.

John Borasnick of 99 Blossom street, Lynn, and Roman Berasofsky


and Samuel Andrefsky of 208 Washington street, Walpole, were
discharged.

Several cases of alleged rioting were put over until May 22, but all
other cases have been disposed by Judge Hayden, who sat continuously
on the cases since May 1.

Where Are They


Now?
April Fool!
by Jared Manley (pseud. of James
Thurber) 1

The New Yorker, Saturday, August 14, 1937,


22-26.

36
One snowy January evening in 1910 about a
hundred professors and advanced students of
mathematics from Harvard University gathered in a
lecture hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to listen
to a speaker by the name of William James Sidis.
He had never addressed an audience before, and
he was abashed and a little awkward at the start.
His listeners had to attend closely, for he spoke in
a small voice that did not carry well, and he
punctuated his talk with nervous, shrill laughter. A
thatch of fair hair fell far over his forehead and
keen blue eyes peered out from what one of those
present later described as a "pixie-like" face. The
speaker wore black velvet knickers. He was eleven
years old.
As the boy warmed to his subject, his shyness
melted and there fell upon his listeners' ears the
most remarkable words they had ever heard from
the lips of a child. William James Sidis had chosen
for the subject of his lecture "Four-Dimensional
Bodies." Even in this selective group of erudite
gentlemen, there were those who were unable to
37
follow all the processes of the little boy's thought.
To such laymen as were present, the fourth
dimension, as it was demonstrated that night, must
indeed have perfectly fitted its colloquial definition:
"a speculative realm of incomprehensibly involved
relationships." When it was all over, the
distinguished Professor Daniel F. Comstock of
Massachusetts Institute of Technology was moved
to predict to reporters, who had listened in
profound bewilderment, that young Sidis would
grow up to be a great mathematician, a famous
leader in the world of science.
William Sidis, who at the age of eleven made
the front pages of newspapers all over the country,
was a Harvard student at the time. To explain how
he got there, we must look at his father, the late
Boris Sidis. Born in Kiev in 1868, the elder Sidis had
come to this country, learned English, and gone to
Harvard, from which he was graduated in 1894. His
specialty was that branch of psychotherapy which
engages to alleviate the nervous diseases and
maladjustments by mental suggestion. He wrote a
book called "The Psychology of Suggestion," and
he was greatly interested in experiments in
transmitting suggestion by means of the hypnotic
state. It was his belief that in its very first years the
brain is many times more susceptible to
impressions than in later life. When his son was
born in 1898, he was born, so to speak, into a
laboratory. Boris Sidis by the time was running a
38
psychotherapeutic institute in Brookline,
Massachusetts. He was an admirer and friend of
the late William James, and he named his son after
that great psychologist.
Boris Sidis began his experiments on his son
when little William was two years old. It appears
that he induced a kind of hypnoidal state by the
use of alphabet blocks. The quick results he got
delighted his scientific mind. The child learned to
spell and to read in a few months. Within a year he
could write both English and French on the
typewriter. At five he had composed a treatise on
anatomy and had arrived at a method of
calculating the date on which any day of the week
had fallen during the past ten thousand years.
Boris Sidis published several papers in scientific
journals describing his baby's achievements. At six,
the little boy was sent to a Brookline public school,
where he astounded his teachers and alarmed the
other children by tearing through seven years of
schooling in six months. When he was eight years
old, William proposed a new table of logarithms,
employing 12 instead of the usual 10 as the base.
Boris Sidis published a book about his amazing son,
called "Philistine and Genius," and got into Who's
Who in America.
The wonder child was going on nine when his
father tried to enroll him at Harvard. He could have
passed the entrance examinations with ease, but
39
the startled and embarrassed university authorities
would not allow him to take them. He continued to
perform his wonders at home, and began the study
of Latin and Greek. He was not interested in toys or
in any of the normal pleasures of small children.
Dogs terrified him. "If I see a dog," William told
somebody at this time, "I must run away. I must
hide. I like the cat. I can't play out, for my mother
would have to be there all the time―because of
the possibility that I might see a dog." His chief
recreation seems to have been going on streetcar
rides with his parents. The elder Sidis explained
transfers to him and interested him in the names of
streets and places. Even before he was five,
William had learned to recite all the hours and
stations on a complex railroad timetable. He would
occasionally recite timetables for guests as other
children recite Mother Goose rhymes or sing little
songs. Those who remember him in those years
say that he had something of the intense manner
of a neurotic adult.
In 1908, at the age of ten, William James Sidis
was permitted to enroll at Tufts College, in
Medford. He commuted daily from Brookline with
his mother, who was as interested in his
phenomenal mental development as his father
was. They always went to and from the college on
streetcars. The youngster attended Tufts for one
year and finally, in 1909, when he was eleven,
Harvard permitted him to enroll there as a special
40
student. He matriculated as a regular freshman the
following year, and thus became a member of the
class of 1914. Cotton Mather, in 1674, had become
a Harvard freshman at the age of twelve, and it is
probably because of this distinguished precedent
that William Sidis was allowed to matriculate at
that same age. He was a source of wonder to his
fellow students and to the faculty; some of the
newspapers assigned reporters to cover "the Sidis
case."
Just how William was prevailed upon to speak
before the learned scholars in January of his first
year at Harvard is lost to the record, but it is known
that he took an eager interest in hearing others
lecture and joined easily in group discussions of
metaphysics. In his spare time he began to
compose two grammars, one Latin, the other
Greek. The pressure of his studies and his sudden
fame began to tell upon him, however, and it
wasn't long after his notable discourse that he had
a general breakdown. His father was running a
sanatorium in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the
time, and William was rushed off there. When
finally he came back to Harvard, he was retiring
and shy; he could not be persuaded to lecture
again; he began to show a marked distrust of
people, a fear of responsibility, and a general
maladjustment to his abnormal life. He did not
mingle much with students and he ran from
newspapermen, but they cornered him, of course,
41
on the day of his graduation as a Bachelor of Arts
in 1914. He was sixteen years old. He wore long
trousers then, and he faced the reporters who
descended on the Yard with less of a feeling of
embarrassment than he had as a knickered child.
But definite phobias had developed in him. "I want
to live the perfect life," William told the
newspapermen. "The only way to live the perfect
life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated
crowds." For "crowds" it was not difficult to read
"people." Among those who graduated with William
James Sidis that day were Julius Spencer Morgan;
Gilbert Seldes; and Vinton Freedley and Laurence
Schwab, the musical-comedy producers. The
reporters paid no attention to them.
At sixteen, William James Sidis was a large
boy, and when he entered Harvard Law School, he
was no longer the incongruous figure he had been.
The newspapers had little interest in his comings
and goings. He attended law school quietly for
three years and was apparently a brilliant student,
but his main interest was mathematics, and in
1918 he accepted a teaching position at a
university in Texas. His fame preceded him, but
even if it hadn't, the extreme youth of this
mathematics instructor would have been enough to
set him off as a curiosity. He found himself the
centre of an interest that annoyed and dismayed
him. He suddenly gave up his position and

42
returned bitterly and quietly to Boston, where he
lived obscurely for some months.
It was on May 1st, 1919, that young Sidis's
name reached the front pages of the newspapers
again. With about twenty other young persons, he
took part in a Communistic demonstration in
Roxbury and was hauled into the municipal court
as one of the ringleaders of the group, as, indeed
the very individual who had carried the horrific red
flag in their parade. On the witness stand, Sidis
proved to be more forthright and candid than
tactful. He announced to a shocked court that
there was for him no god but evolution; asked if he
believed in what the American flag stands for, he
said only to a certain extent. At one point he
launched on an explanation of the Soviet form of
government, for the instruction of the magistrate.
His Marxist leaning had developed over a period of
several years. When the United States entered the
war, he had announced himself as a conscientious
objector, and on several occasions had delivered
himself of the opinion that the troubles of the world
were caused by capitalism.
A policeman who had helped break up the
parade of the radicals identified Sidis as the man
who had carried the red flag. The officer said that
he had asked Sidis why he was not carrying the
American flag, and that Sidis had replied, "To hell
with the American flag!" Returning to the stand,
43
the famous prodigy hotly denied that he had ever
spoken to the witness and that he had ever said to
anyone, "To hell with the American flag!" He
repeated that he was opposed to war and that he
believed in a socialized form of government. After
a pause, he announced that, as a matter of fact, he
had carried an American flag, whereupon, to the
amazement of the courtroom, he pulled a
miniature American flag from his pocket. He was
sentenced to eighteen months in jail for inciting to
riot, and assault. He appealed, and while out on
bail of $5,000 disappeared from the state in which
he had startled erudite professors and shocked
patriotic policemen. It marked the beginning of a
new and curious mode of life for the young man.
For five years after that, William James Sidis
seems to have achieved the "perfect life" he had
spoken of on the day of his graduation, the life of
seclusion. Apparently he drifted from city to city,
working as a clerk, or in some other minor
capacity, for a salary only large enough for him to
subsist on. In 1924 he was dragged back into the
news when a reporter found him working in an
office in Wall Street, at twenty-three dollars a
week. He was dismayed at being discovered. He
said all he wanted was to make just enough to live
on and to work at something that required a
minimum of mental effort. The last few reporters
who went down to his office to interview him didn't

44
get to see him. He had quit his job and
disappeared again.
Two years later, in 1926, Dorrance &
Company, a Philadelphia publishing house which
prints "vanity" books―that is, books published at
the authors' expense―got out a volume called
"Notes on the Collection of Transfers." It was
written by one Frank Folupa. Frank Folupa, some
pitilessly ingenious reporter discovered, was none
other than William James Sidis. Again he was run
down and interviewed. He announced that he had
been for a long time a "peridromophile"―that is, a
collector of streetcar transfers. He had coined the
word himself. His book (now out of print) ran to
three hundred pages and was a scholarly and
laborious treatise on the origin, nature, and
classification of nothing more nor less than the
slips of paper streetcar conductors hand to
passengers when they ask for transfers. Many a
psychologist and analyst must have been
interested to read in the papers that the genius of
the precocious child who had astounded the
academic world sixteen years before had flowered
in this bizarre fashion. The book is worthy of
examination. Sidis wrote a preface to the volume,
which began this way: "This book is a description of
what is, so far as the Author is aware, a new kind of
hobby, but one which seems on the face of it to be
as reasonable, as interesting, and as instructive as
any other sort of collection fad. This is the
45
collection of street car transfers and allied forms.
The Author himself has already collected over 1600
such forms." The preface revealed, in another
place, that the Author was not without a certain
humor. "We may mention," it read, "the
geographical and topographical interest, both in
the exploration and in the analysis of the transfers
themselves. There is also the interesting sidelights
which such a collection throws on the politics in
which transit companies are necessarily involved;
though we hardly recommend that this political
interest be carried far enough to induce the
collector to take sides in any such disputes. And
again: "One may derive much amusement out of
transfers―It is said that a Harvard College student
got on a street car and, wishing an extra ride,
asked the conductor for a transfer. When asked
'Where to?' he said, 'Anywhere.' The conductor
winked and said, 'All right. I'll give you a transfer to
Waverly.' The student was afterwards laughed at
when he told the story, and was informed that the
asylum for the feeble-minded was located at
Waverly." Sidis also included in his preface some
verses he had written when he was fourteen years
old. They begin:

From subway trains at Central,


a transfer get, and go
To Allston or Brighton or
to Somerville, you know;

46
On cars from Brighton transfer
to Cambridge Subway east
And get a train to Park Street,
or Kendall Square, at least.

"We know," the Author concludes, "someone


who was actually helped to take the right route by
remembering a snatch from one of these verses."
The book discusses all kinds of transfers: standard
types, Ham type, Pope type, Smith type, Moran
type, Franklin Rapid transfers, Stedman transfers.
Of the last (to give you an idea), Mr. Sidis wrote,
"Stedman transfers: This classification refers to a
peculiar type turned out by a certain transfer
printer in Rochester, N. Y. The peculiarities of the
typical Stedman transfer are the tabular time limit
occupying the entire right-hand end of the transfer
(see Diagram in Section 47) and the row-and-
column combination of receiving route (or other
receiving conditions) with the half-day that we
have already discussed in detail."
The year after his book came out (it
apparently sold only to a few other
peridromophiles), Sidis came back to New York City
and once again got a job as a clerk with a business
firm. To his skill and experience in general office
work, the mathematical genius had now added,
ironically, the ability to operate an adding machine
with great speed and accuracy, and was fond of
boasting of this accomplishment. He lived at 112
47
West 119th Street, where he made friends with
Harry Freedman, the landlord, and his sister, a Mrs.
Schlectien. Sidis is no longer with them and they
will not tell you where he has gone, but they will
forward any mail that comes for him. They are fond
of the young man and appreciate his desire to
avoid publicity. "He had a kind of chronic
bitterness, like a lot of people you see living in
furnished rooms," Mr. Freedman recently told a
researcher into the curious history of William James
Sidis. Sidis used to sit on an old sofa in Freedman's
living room and talk to him and his sister. Sidis told
them he hated Harvard and that anyone who sends
his son to college is a fool―a boy can learn more in
a public library. Frequently he talked about his
passion for collecting transfers. "He can tell you
how to reach any street in any city of the United
States on a single streetcar fare," said Mr.
Freedman in awe and admiration. It seems that
Sidis corresponds with peridromophiles in a
number of other cities, and keeps up on the
streetcar and transfer situation in that way. Once
the young man brought down from his room a
manuscript he was working on and asked Mrs.
Schlectien if he might read "a few chapters" to her.
She said it turned out to be a book on the order of
"Buck Rogers," all about adventures in a future
world of wonderful inventions. She said it was
swell.

48
William James Sidis lives today, at the age of
thirty-nine, in a hall bedroom of Boston's shabby
south end. For a picture of him and his activities,
this record is indebted to a young woman who
recently succeeded in interviewing him there. She
found him in a small room papered with the design
of huge, pinkish flowers, considerably discolored.
There was a large, untidy bed and an enormous
wardrobe trunk, standing half open. A map of the
United States hung on one wall. On a table beside
the door was a pack of streetcar transfers neatly
held together with an elastic. On a dresser were
two photographs, one (surprisingly enough) of Sidis
as the boy genius, the other a sweet-faced girl with
shell-rimmed glasses and an elaborate marcel
wave. There was also a desk with a tiny, ancient
typewriter, a World Almanac, a dictionary, a few
reference books, and a library book which the
young man's visitor at one point picked up. "Oh,
gee," said Sidis, "that's just one of those crook
stories." He directed her attention to the little
typewriter. "You can pick it up with one finger," he
said, and did so.
William Sidis at thirty-nine is a large, heavy
man, with a prominent jaw, a thickish neck, and a
reddish mustache. His light hair falls down over his
brow as it did the night he lectured to the
professors in Cambridge. His eyes have an
expression which varies from the ingenious to the
wary. When he is wary, he has a kind of
49
incongruous dignity which breaks down suddenly
into the gleeful abandon of a child on holiday. He
seems to have difficulty in finding the right words
to express himself, but when he does, he speaks
rapidly, nodding his head jerkily to emphasize his
points, gesturing with his left hand, uttering
occasionally a curious, gasping laugh. He seems to
get a great and ironic enjoyment out of leading a
life of wandering irresponsibility after a childhood
of scrupulous regimentation. His visitor found in
him a certain childlike charm.
Sidis is employed now, as usual, as a clerk in
a business house. He said that he never stays in
one office long because his employers of fellow-
workers soon find out that he is the famous boy
wonder, and he can't tolerate a position after that.
"The very sight of a mathematical formula makes
me physically ill," he said. "All I want to do is run
an adding machine, but they won't let me alone." It
came out that one time he was offered a job with
the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway
Company. It seems that the officials fondly
believed the young wizard would somehow be able
to solve all their technical problems. When he
showed up for work, he was presented with a pile
of blueprints, charts, and papers filled with
statistics. One of the officials found him an hour
later weeping in the midst of it all. Sidis told the
man he couldn't bear responsibility, or intricate

50
thought, or computation―except on an adding
machine. He took his hat and went away.
Sidis has a new interest which absorbs him at
the moment more than streetcar transfers. This is
the study of certain aspects of the history of the
American Indian. He teaches a class of half a dozen
interested students once every two weeks. They
meet in his bedroom and arrange themselves on
the bed and floor to listen to the one-time prodigy's
intense but halting speech. Sidis is chiefly
concerned with the Okamakammessett tribe, which
he describes as having had a kind of proletarian
federation. He has written some booklets on
Okamakammessett lore and history, and if properly
urged, will recite Okamakammessett poetry and
even sing Okamakammessett songs. He admitted
that his study of the Okamakammessetts in an
outgrowth of his interest in Socialism. When the
May Day demonstration of 1919 was brought up by
the young woman, he looked at the portrait of the
girl on his dresser and said, "She was in it. She was
one of the rebel forces." He nodded his head
vigorously, as if pleased with that phrase, "I was
the flag-bearer," he went on. "And do you know
what the flag was? Just a piece of red silk." He gave
his curious laugh. "Red silk," he repeated. He made
no reference to the picture of himself in the days of
his great fame, but his interviewer later learned
that on one occasion, when a pupil of his asked
him point-blank about his infant precocity and
51
insisted on a demonstration of his mathematical
prowess, Sidis was restrained with difficulty from
throwing him out of the room.
Sidis revealed to his interviewer that he has
another work in progress: a treatise on floods. He
showed her the first sentence: "California has
acquired considerable renown on account of its
alleged weather." It seems that he was in California
some ten years ago during his wanderings. His
visitor was emboldened, at last, to bring up the
prediction, made by Professor Comstock of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in
1910, that the little boy who lectured that year on
the fourth dimension to a gathering of learned men
would grow up to be a great mathematician, a
famous leader in the world of science. "It's
strange," said William James Sidis, with a grin,
"but, you know, I was born on April Fools' Day."
―Jared L. Manley 1

_________
1
In The Years with Ross Thurber wrote: "It was one of the 'Where Are They Now?' series, for which I did
the rewrite (Grossett & Dunlap, 1957, p. 210)." But Jared Manley was Thurber's pseudonym. "Bernstein
writes: 'In early 1936 Thurber began to write (really rewrite, since some of The New Yorker's best
reporters, like Eugene Kinkead, were doing the research) a number of short, retrospective profiles.
Bernstein also reveals that Jared L. Manley was a name that Thurber cobbled together when writing his
first piece about an old boxer based on the initials of the boxer John L. Sullivan and Manley based on "the
manly art of self-defense".'"—Privacy, Information and Technology

2
Norbert Weiner, who was at the math club meeting wrote: "Young Sidis, who was then eleven, was
obviously a brilliant and interesting child. His interest was primarily in mathematics. I well remember the
day at the Harvard Mathematics Club in which G. C. Evans, now the retired head of the department of
mathematics of the University of California and Sidis's life-long friend, sponsored the boy in a talk on the
four-dimensional regular figures. The talk would have done credit to a first- or second-year graduate

52
student of any age, although all the material it contained was known elsewhere and was available in the
literature. The theme had been made familiar to me by E. Q. Adams, a companion of my Tufts days. I am
convinced that Sidis had no access to existing sources, and that the talk represented the triumph of the
unaided efforts of a very brilliant child (Ex-Prodigy, Simon & Schuster, p. 131 - 132)."

3
Minutes of the Harvard Math Club, Wed., Jan. 5, 1910

4
Cf. The Failure Myth by Dan Mahony: "Research shows that most child prodigies go on to lead
productive lives. As did Sidis."

Typing by Bill Paton

The Failure Myth


A Short Bibliographical Biography
of W. J. Sidis
Dan Mahony, M. Phil.

53
"We attempt to explain rather than advocate."―WJ

The failure-myth was a weave of old


fallacies, popular misunderstandings
of the new science of psychology,
and rigid notions about what

54
constitutes success.

"The desire for fame is the last


infirmity cast off even by the
wise."—Tacitus

INTRODUCTION

First came the resurrection of a popular fallacy that child


prodigies tend toward unproductive lives. Just why so many
believe such a thing is hard to know. There has never been
any actual evidence for it.

Secondly it was supposed that his father,


a great psychologist, somehow caused his son's genius
either through some mysterious psychological technique
or by having discovered magical educational methods.

Third: a childhood of "all-work-no-play" had caused his


supposed failure; and fourth: his working at low-paying
jobs was confirmation of all of the above. A fifth false
belief was that his fatal brain hemorrhage had
psychological causes.

It is not difficult to refute the failure myth. Let's do so one by one.


The first misconception is contradicted by the practical fact
55
that no psychologist would claim that genius can be created
by any of the methods of psychology.

The second, 'prodigies-burn-out', has been disproved by abundant


historical and statistical evidence, especially that provided by
Lewis Terman, which shows that vast majority of prodigies go on to
lead productive lives. As did Sidis.

The third, "all-work-and-no-play," is contradicted by his mother's


description of his early education which was self-motivated.
"He asked me a question one day, and then triumphantly said,
'But you will say, "Let's look it up," and I can look it up myself!'
That is the last lesson I gave Billy."—The Sidis Story
Said his father: "My boy plays―plays with his toys,
and plays with his books. And that is the key to the whole situation.
Get the child so interested in study that study will truly be play."
—Bending the Twig

The fourth, because Harvard's youngest graduate was as an adult


engaged at mere labor, he was therefore a failure. This despite
the great scientific discoveries and works of art by persons who
were not employees of university corporations. The list is long.
Einstein developed his theory of relativity while working
as a patent examiner. Newton? Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Descartes? Artillery advisor to his king―coordinate
geometry. Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce? Hundreds of
articles for encyclopedias and popular science magazines—
besides his many books. Painter Paul Gauguin? Bank teller
until he quit to pursue his art. Composer Charles Ives? Insurance.
(He once said business life made his music richer.)

And Sidis? Accountancy Clerk. He paid his own way instead


of living la dolce vita of academe. His hard-earned pay went
56
into his research and self-publishing, especially his extensive
travel by street-car across the country researching American
history at the local level. And while Tacitus's warning about
the addictive nature of fame might have guided him to some
degree, the Okamakammesset principle of anonymous contribution
was the path under foot―the hardest path to find.

The fifth misconception, that his fatal cerebral hemorrhage at


age 46 was caused by "thinking too much," rested on the popular
confusion of brain with mind. His father, Boris Sidis, died at age
56 from the same physiological cause.

Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D., wrote in 1919 that there is a widespread fear
of precocity: "This abject fear of genius and of precocity is one of the
most pernicious philistine superstitions, causing the retardation of the
progress of humanity."—Precocity in Children After years of negative
publicity surrounding his son, this great psychologist was deleted from
the history of American psychology, due in no small part to academe's
subservience to public opinion. See the clickable bibliography in the
Boris Sidis Archives.

In the first discussion of William's genius, in The Nation in 1910,


possibly written by the great Charles Sanders Peirce, we read: "Dr.
Boris Sidis, the eminent psychologist who is the boy's father, is said
to regard his son's achievements as indicating that by proper methods
of instruction several years could be cut off from the time actually
employed in bringing boys up to the college or university stage.
With the proposition itself we have no particular fault to find; but
that young Sidis's exploits serve in any degree to establish it we deny
without hesitation. The part played by native genius is so manifestly
predominant in this case as to nullify any general application."

But whom do we blame for the negative image of William Sidis?


The failure myth was not just an invention of the press. It rested in
the public mind. The press merely fed on it. And reinforced it.
57
And all the while, Sidis's adherence to the
Okamakammesset principle of anonymous contribution
further fed the frenzy. (See also Sidis's Pseudonyms.)

SHORT ANNOTATED CHRONOLOGICAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

The following short biography interweaves an annotated bibliography


of Sidis's writings with another of news articles about him during
his lifetime. Most of the press clippings can be found in Harvard's
Houghton Library, and from microfilms of New York Times articles
which are thoroughly indexed and available on microfilm in many
research libraries. The only book about him does not dispute the
failure myth. One reviewer wrote, "Amy Wallace... skillfully weaves
vitality and wit into this very unfortunate story of wasted genius."
Not so! Well spent genius. Very well spent.

[William James to Boris Sidis, letters and


postcards 1896 - 1907, Houghton Library,
Harvard University]
-------------------------------------------------------
James occasionally replied to Boris's requests for
suggestions re his son's future education James Letters.
Boris was one of James's students at Harvard, and was
among the first to get the new degree of Ph. D. in Psychology
Boris Sidis Archives.

James's students included Edward Larrabee Thorndike,


the founder of the Journal of Educational Psychology.
58
But William Sidis's greatness could not possibly have been
caused by anything a psychologist has to offer.

At birth came, randomly, his extremely rare IQ, and oh


yes, the never mentioned by family, friends, and media—a
photographic memory. I say this because I had the privilege
of knowing his Sister Helena, who her seventies all too
often would ask: "Don't you remember I told you that?"
Some news stories told of his ability to memorize train
schedules as he read them.

Then came a fine academic home-schooling generated


mostly by himself, but happily and ably aided by his parents
(e.g., his mother taught him to how to spell as he learned
to speak).

Then came a, presumably, excellent education at Harvard


College, and then Harvard Law School. (He completed two
years there and left in good standing.)

But declining any further academic affiliation,


his life-long self-education and research included hundreds of
trolley-car rides to libraries research sites all across America.

Sidis tried to lead a perfect moral life, and remained celibate


as part of that goal. He never spoke ill of anyone. His guiding
principle was the ancient wisdom of a deceased Native-American
nation he had discovered under foot in Middlesex County,
Massachusetts.

An additional benefit of his principled lifestyle was that he


avoided the common ad hominem fallacy of linking his
own great abilities with the truth or falsity of his writings.
(We readers must do the same. We will judge the truth or
falsity of his writings regardless of its author.)
59
A PHENOMENON IN KILTS
Boston Transcript, Nov. 16, 1906
Massachusetts law required boys to attend school,
so he had to endure primary school even though
he already had a college-entrance education. The
article described his progress through grade school.
One wonders why the 3rd and 5th grades took so long.

"...the record from the school register


of his advance runs:

"First Grade - Only a day or two.

Second Grade - A few Days.

Third Grade - Three months.

Fourth Grade - One week.

Fifth Grade - Fifteen weeks.

Sixth and Seventh Grades - Five and a


half weeks.

Yesterday morning, Headmaster. . . of


the Brookline High School was
persuaded to allow me to see the boy at
his work at school without letting him
know that anyone was looking at him."
This article, while admiring of him, is also an early example
of invasion of his privacy. This subject would come up again
in a big way 30 years later.

AN INFANT PRODIGY
North American Review, 1907, #184, 887-888
60
It wasn't long before naysayers laid down what
would be a lifelong gauntlet. "With this pathetic
eagerness for utterly irrelevant knowledge, went
also an exaggerated reverence for the written
word." Not so. In fact he had, at an early age, an
eagerness for true knowledge and reverence for the truth.

At least the confused article concluded with a


positive: "It is to be hoped that the premature
development will not stop short, but that the
disinterested love of knowledge and of law may
solve some of this world's scientific problems."
Such as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
The article also mentions he "spent his summers at a
hotel in the mountains...It was his pleasing custom
to speak of all the guests in the house, in which he
spent his summers..." The hotel or guesthouse may
well be Shackford's in Albany, NH, which W. J.
named "Passaconaway House" in his first book
Passaconaway in the White Mountains, Chapter 13

DR. SIDIS OF BROOKLINE


Brookline [MA] Chronicle, Mar. 7, 1908
Boris gets his M.D., becoming perhaps the first to
have both a Ph. D. in psychology and M.D. from Harvard.
His Ph.D. in psychology was likely looked down upon
in the field of psychopathology which was ruled by M.D.'s
with little knowledge or understanding of the subject. It's
just that they had Rx. Boris's sarcastic opening sentence
in a 1899 talk to the American Medico-Psychological
Assn. was: "I cannot help feeling grateful to you for the
honor you have bestowed on me, a mere psychologist,
by your kind invitation to read a paper on any subject
in my line of work." Nature & Principles of Psychology
61
CHILD ENTERS HARVARD
Boy Prodigy of Eleven Will
Pursue Special Studies
New York Times, Sunday, Oct. 10, 1909, p.1.
-------------------------------------------------
William is front-page news in the Sunday
Edition of this prestigious international
newspaper: "The youngest and smallest
student ever matriculated at Harvard,
entered to-day as a special student. He is
William J. Sidis of Brookline, the 11-year-
old son of Dr. and Mrs. Boris Sidis." The
Times went on to say his parents were
originally from Poland. They were from
Russia.

HARVARD'S CHILD PRODIGY


All Amazed at Mathematical Grasp of
Youngest Matriculate Aged 13 Years
-------------------------------------------------
"Three years ago the boy first knocked at
the classic gates of Harvard for admittance,
but the powers that be refused him on
account of his youth."
New York Times, Mon., Oct. 11, 1909, p.1

Front page for a second day. Remarkable.


But already the Times makes a major error:
he is not thirteen but eleven years old, as
the paper correctly reported just the day
before.

62
We begin to see just how much nonfact
can make its way into a newspaper. The
article goes on to tell how the registrar,
referring to previous attempts at admission,
asks: "What, again?" W. J. had passed
the entrance exams two years earlier but
was rejected because of his age. This year
was different however. There was now a
prodigy project. Boris had just delivered
"Philistine and Genius" to the Harvard
Summer School. It dealt with the faults
of the educational system and urged early-
childhood education. It would come back to
haunt him and his son

A SAVANT AT THIRTEEN YOUNG


SIDIS KNOWS MORE ON ENTERING
THAN MANY ON LEAVING
A Scholar at Three
New York Times, Sunday, Oct. 17, 1909, Pt.5, p.9
---------------------------------------------------------
For the second time the Times gets the central fact
wrong: his age. And things go downhill from there:
"He is a Russian Jew―one is tempted to write
'of course' after that sentence, so common are boy
wonders among the Jews, and especially among
Russian Jews." Worse follows with the first signs
of the Burnout Myth that would persist in the press
to this day: "Child wonders are usually looked on
rather coldly and there are always prophets to
predict the sad end of precocity."

SIDIS COULD READ AT TWO YEARS OLD


63
Under Father's Scientific Forcing Almost
from Birth
New York Times, Oct. 18, 1909, p.7
---------------------------------------------------------
Boris has somehow managed to force genius.

SIDIS OF HARVARD
New York Times, Oct. 18, 1909, p.6
---------------------------------------------------------
Asks intelligent questions about his
education. Decides reserve energy
is his secret power. Maybe so. But as
The Nation would soon assert, it is a
case of unusual abilities at the far end
of the Bell Curve, combined with a pre-
school education and home schooling
and a student with a love of knowledge.

SIDIS OF HARVARD
Youngest Freshman in the History of the College
Boston Sunday Herald, Nov. 7, 1909, p.5
---------------------------------------------------------
A picture is worth a thousand words―well maybe
less in a newspaper. The distortion of his image
implies that something must be wrong with him.

He was not a freshman. He was admitted as a


special student in a experimental prodigies project.
64
A number of child prodigies from around the
country were "accepted" (assembled) to take
part in an experimental curriculum. The aim was
to educate them in such a way as to grant them a
real BA, not one with an asterisk. He was to take
a so-called Half-Course (Mathematics 6 1)
extended over a full year. He got a B.

He remained a special student for the next three


years taking a full course load, and was matriculated
as a senior in his fifth year in 1913. His grades?

10 A's, 9 B's, 4 C's:

The senior class included one Richard Buckminster


Fuller who, upon receiving a copy of The Animate
and the Inanimate 65 years later, expressed in a
letter to Scientific American his "...excitement and
joy that Sidis did go on to fulfill his promise."

ELEVEN YEAR OLD BOY LECTURES TO


MATHEMATICIANS
Answers Questions for Half An Hour; Talks
About Parallelopipedon and
Hectatonacosahedron With Utmost Ease
[Boston Globe ?], Jan. 6, 1910, p.1.
-----------------------------------------------------
Fragments: "In the games played in fourth-
dimension land the good player is he who can find
new short cuts in arriving at points, planes, faces
65
and sides. When you find a new short cut you get the
same pleasant sensation as when you are able to
fit two pieces into a jig-saw puzzle at the same time.
But the real situation is that we live in a three-dimensional
world. We know length, breadth, and height. Suppose we...
had one more dimension, a fourth?
The easy manner in which, in his discussions, he
approached and passed over the word "parallelopipedon"
made the professors gasp, and when he began to coin
a few words and between breaths slipped out
"hectatonacosahedragon" [hectatonacosahedron?]...
After drawing figures and proving theories until everyone
in the room was amazed, young Sidis suddenly glanced
at his watch in true platform style and brought his lecture
to a close. Then the professors asked him questions for
half an hour."

Boy of 11 Astounds Professors


Boston Transcript, Jan. 6, 1910, p.1
----------------------------------------------------
Front-page hyperbole. Only a few
faculty were present, and none said he
was astounded, though one thought
Sidis showed "great promise."

BOY OF TEN ADDRESSES


HARVARD TEACHERS
New York Times, Jan. 6, 1910, p.1

The Times gets his age wrong yet again,


this time lower rather than higher.
His age was the most important aspect of the
news about him at the time.
66
Here are the minutes of that meeting
of the Harvard Math Club.

[Collected Minutes of the Harvard Math Club, p 93.]

ILLUSTRATING A SYSTEM OF EDUCATION


(letter to the Editor)
New York Times, Jan. 7, 1910, p.8
Young Sidis' Training (letter to the Editor)
67
New York Times, Jan. 9, 1910, p.8
The Golden Age of Youth (letter to the Editor)
New York Times, Jan. 11, 1910, p.8
--------------------------------------------------
Readers begin to wonder about 'burnout'. It is
here we begin to see the public's role in what
a newspaper says. The burnout myth was a
public misconception. The media here express
that misconception.

Sidis An Avatar? (letter to the Editor)


New York Times, Jan. 12, 1910, p.8
-----------------------------------------------------
Apparently not all its readers believed in burnout.

Precocity and Genius


The Nation, Jan. 13, 1910, pp. 31-32
-----------------------------------------------------
This article, possibly written by the great
American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce,
discusses nurture vs. nature.

The idea that precocity―or at any rate precocity of


any such character as this―generally dies down into
mediocrity has very little foundation. Some actually go
so far as to think that the very fact of unusual
brilliancy in a child at so early an age is a prophesy of
little ability when he grows up; a notion that rests
upon the same fallacy as that which regards the
children of highly gifted parents as less likely to be
highly endowed than other children. They are vastly
more likely to be thus endowed―as Galton conclusively

68
demonstrated in his "Hereditary Genius."

Another question raised in connection with young


Sidis is that of training versus native endowment. Dr.
Boris Sidis, the eminent psychologist who is the boy's
father, is said to regard his son's achievements as
indicating that by proper methods of instruction
several years could be cut off from the time actually
employed in bringing boys up to the college or
university stage. With the proposition itself we have no
particular fault to find; but that young Sidis's exploits
serve in any degree to establish it we deny without
hesitation. The part played by native genius is so
manifestly predominant in this case as to nullify any
general application. This is evident on the face of the
matter; but confirmation of the strongest kind is given,
if any were needed, in such precedents as those of
Pascal or Hamilton, both of whom made the amazing
mathematical conquests of their youth without any
outside help whatsoever.

He Has No Equal: William James Sidis


World's Most Wonderful Boy
Utica [NY] Saturday Globe, Jan. 15, 1910
------------------------------------------------------------
Article says, "Oh well, look at his father
and mother. Dr. Sidis is a Harvard man
and has an international reputation for
his brilliant work...while his wife [Dr.
Sarah Sidis] holds the degree of medicine
and is wonderfully brilliant."

Professor Sidis Assails Harvard Methods


Offers New Child Training Ideas
Fragment from Boston (?) newspaper,
69
Jan. 17, 1910.
-------------------------------------------------------
Article about Boris's new book Philistine and Genius
reads, "...or at least it is supposed that [Harvard's]
President Eliot was referred to..." There must have
been some Harvard brew-ha-ha over this matter.
The average Harvard professor doesn't get much
media attention at all, let alone a taste of 15-minute
superstardom. But Boris was mainly questioning the
educational system in and did not mention Harvard.
This matter will reappear shortly.

Of Personal Interest
------------------------------------------------
Boston Advocate, Jan. 17, 1910
...he is of extremely happy
disposition, brimming over with
humor and fun. His physical
condition is splendid, his cheeks
glow with health. Many a girl
would envy his complexion.
Being above five feet four, he
towers over the average boy his
age...He is healthy, strong, and
sturdy.

"Bending the Twig"


Sidis" by Harold Addington Bruce
American Monthly, 1910, #69, 690-695
------------------------------------------------------------
Writer Harold Addington Bruce was a Sidis family friend.

70
"Masters of the Mind" by H. A. Bruce
American Magazine, 1910, #71, 71-81
------------------------------------------------------
Article about the major psychologists of
the time presents Boris Sidis and Sigmund
Freud as equal in influence. Boris strongly
argued against the fundamental assumptions
of psychoanalysis in a number of his books.
Freud made sure to ignore him.

The Boy Prodigy of Harvard


---------------------------------------------------------
Current Literature, 1910, #48, 291-293

"Boy prodigy and the Fourth Dimension"


by F. Fleischman
Harpers Weekly, 1910, #54, 9

Sidis Boy
Independent, 1910, #68, 162
NOTES AND NEWS

Mrs. Martha S. Jones, of Boston, Mass., has presented her


estate and magnificent parks near Portsmouth, N. H., to Dr. Boris
Sidis, of Brookline, Mass., for the purpose of establishing a private
hospital, to be named 'The Maplewood Farms, Sidis
Psychotherapeutic Institute,' in which modern methods of
psychopathology and psychotherapeutics will be employed in the
treatment of functional nervous diseases. The hospital will open in
the early spring.

[Psychological Bulletin, 1910, 7, 75.]

71
Advertisement in Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1910

72
Dr. Sidis To Open Novel Institution
Made Possible by Mrs. Martha Jones Gift
New Bedford [MA] Standard, June 25, 1911

(Click.)
------------------------------------------------------------------------
The first of what became known as residential
treatment centers. One of its many innovations
was residential family therapy.

[Book review of] Philistine and Genius by


Boris Sidis. New York Times, June 25, 1911, p. 404

Dr. Sidis In An Unkind Mood: His Vigorous


and Unkind Indictment of the American
System of Popular Education
New York Times, June 25, 1911, p. 402
-------------------------------------------------------------
Review of Boris's 10th book, Philistine and Genius
in which he argued that education
should begin much earlier than age five. He
added that "In every child there is genius."

Dr. Sidis On Education


Boston Transcript, July 1, 1911

73
"Intellectual Precocity: Comparison Between
J. S. Mill and the Son of Dr. Boris Sidis"
by Tom Williams
Pedagogical Seminary, 1911, #18, 85-103

"Lightning Calculators"
by Harold Addington Bruce
McClure's Magazine, 1912, #39, 586-596
----------------------------------------------------------
Has picture of WJS but nothing about him.

"Precocious Children" by Katherine Dolbear


Pedagogical Seminary, 1912, #19, 461-491
----------------------------------------------------------
"The effect of his education seems to have been
to produce a boy who can do wonderful, even
brilliant reasoning but has difficulty in transferring
that reasoning power to everyday affairs. In a class
room at Harvard where a formula was being explained
the boy became bored and began to balance his
hat upside down on his head."
Academic statement of the burnout myth.

Portrait
McClure's Magazine, 1912, #39, 586

Portrait
Literary Digest, 1912, #54, 514

"A Record of Experiments" by Joseph Hyslop


Proc. of Amer. Soc. of Psychical Research,
74
1912, #6, 371-372
--------------------------------------------------------------
A subject in an experimental investigation of
psychic processes happens to mention Sidis.

The Dormant Waker


New York Times, Feb. 18, 1913, p.12
----------------------------------------------------
Discusses Boris's Psychology of Sleep but refers to
him as "a Harvard Professor, unnamed"

[Untitled]
New York Times, May 7, 1914, p.10
----------------------------------------------------
Leaks, a month early, impending
graduation of Sidis from Harvard.

Harvard A. B. At 16, William James Sidis,


the youngest student to get degree there
New York Times, June 14, 1914, p.1
----------------------------------------------------------
His transcript indicates he was given no
special treatment and that he did well
enough on his exams and other
requirements to graduate Cum Laude
at the age of an average high school senior.

Sidis, W. J., Unconscious Intelligence


Appendix IV of Symptomatology,
Psychognosis, and Diagnosis of
Psychopathic Diseases by Boris Sidis
75
Ph.D., M.D. Boston: Badger, 1914, 432-439.
------------------------------------------------------
Presents a logical argument against the
foundations of psychoanalysis.
The subconscious has been explained in two ways;
according to one of these, the phenomena of the
subconscious are manifestations of a
consciousness, possessing all the attributes of
intelligence and other adaptations that any
consciousness possesses, while according to the
other theory there is behind these phenomena an
"unconscious intelligence" which has all the
properties of intelligence, but which somehow or
other is not conscious.
He argues that psychoanalytic theory makes a classic
scientific error by assigning different causes to the same
effects. The effects caused by a psychoanalytic
'unconscious' and the effects caused by conscious
processes, "...have no points of difference sufficient
to justify a difference in explanation (p. 435)."
Unconscious Intelligence

This Plan Is Full Of Promise


New York Times, April 24, 1915, p.10
------------------------------------------------------
Subtly hints at 'burnout'.

'14 - William James Sidis Is A Fellow In


Mathematics (instructing) at the Rice
Institute, Houston, Tex.
Harvard Bulletin, Oct. 20, 1915
--------------------------------------------------
76
Being constitutionally unable to be
a faculty member, then or thereafter,
he returned to Boston and entered
Harvard Law School.

"A Twelve Year Old Boy Wonder Child"


by R. H. Moulton
American Magazine, Feb. 1915, #79, 56-58

"Portrait"
Illustrated World, 1915, #24, 49

"William James Sidis, the Harvard Prodigy


Who Graduated At 16, as he looks today
(caption under photo)."
------------------------------------------------------
Fragment from Boston Sunday Herald

Bruce, Harold Addington


The Riddle of Personality
NY: Moffat Yard, 1915, 88-93
------------------------------------------
Bruce offers a 'bending the twig'
theory of education.

Sidis, William, Passaconaway in the White Mountains


by Charles Edward Beals, Jr. (pseud.), with Introduction
by Charles E. Beals (pseud., Boris Sidis).
Boston: Badger, 1916.
Boris wrote the Introduction:
77
The young man who wrote this book commenced his explorations of
Passaconaway-land when four years old, at which mature age he climbed
to the "turn of the slide" on Mount Passaconaway. With him it was a
case of 'love at first sight." He cannot remember when he did not love
the White Mountains. And with each succeeding year, that feeling has
deepened. How the world looks from a Beal-loved little mountain
nest―"Score-o'- Peaks"― the youngster will tell. If, by his chapters, he
shall succeed in imparting to some weary soul a tithe of the pleasure
which has been experienced by one family during nearly a score of
summers, I shall think that it was indeed a happy inspiration which led
me to suggest to the lad that he record the things herein set down.

The book is magnificently researched and thoroughly footnoted.


The history of the Penacook nation contained herein serves as
the first research for The Tribes and the States written a score of
years later. It also provides an almost mystical description of the
White Mountains of New Hampshire (home of the Penacooks)
which is so detailed it was likely written by a person with a
photographic memory. Passaconaway

'Nerves' and Experts On What To Eat:


Dr. Boris Sidis Considers Abnormal
Psychology Exaggerated Heredity
Boston Herald, March 24, 1917
-------------------------------------------------------
A complete confusion of Boris's theory
that genes play a major part in our
makeup and his distinction between the
'abnormal' and the 'pathological' in his
masterwork The Foundations of Normal
and Abnormal Psychology : "The
abnormal is the normal out of place [e.g.,
walking is normal but not while asleep], the
78
'pathological' is the normal under extreme
conditions [e.g., excessive cleanliness]
Boris Sidis Archives

[Transcript from Harvard Law School, 1917]


That he also completed two years at Harvard Law,
was never mentioned by the press.

Sidis, William "A Remark on the Occurrence of


Revolutions" (with foreword by Boris Sidis)
Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1918, 13, 213-228
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
Sidis remarks on a statistical correlation between sunspot
cycles the occurrence of revolutions.

However, I do not wish to be understood as saying


that the sun-spots cause revolutions. An
appearance of sun-spots could not, by itself,
produce revolution unless other circumstances are
already such as to cause the revolution. All such
revolutions would occur anyway, even without the
sun-spot variations; but these sun-spot variations
superadd natural extremes of climate, causing not
only physical discomfort but danger to life and
health, thus hastening a revolt that might
otherwise have waited for a very long time."

Revolutions

Arrest 114 Men and Women In Connection with Riot


79
Boston Herald, May 3, 1919
--------------------------------------------------------------
"Riot" = peaceful protest.

Arrest 102 In Roxbury


Boston Transcript, May 3, 1919

Four Boston Radicals Get Prison Sentences


New York Times, May 3, 1919

Boston Rioters' Cases Disposed Of


Bangor [Maine] Commercial, May 3, 1919

Sidis Gets Year And Half In Jail


Boston Herald, May 14, 1919.

80
Distortion of his beliefs and picture notwithstanding, this article
details his testimony in the trial that focused on his beliefs.
Interestingly, his political socialism at age 21seems based on
the Declaration of Independence and government by consent of
the governed. His later libertarianism and pacifism were based
on the same principles of the primacy of individual rights. Click
the picture or the link above it for full text of this article.

Young Sidis, "Harvard Prodigy," Sentenced


To A Year And A Half In Jail For Rioting
81
New York Times, May 14, 1919, p.1
--------------------------------------------------------------
He served the time in house arrest supervised
by his parents. See his description of this in
"Railroading" in the Past

A Youthful Prodigy In Trouble


New York Times, May 15, 1919, p.16
Genius Early Revealed
New York Times, May 15, 1919, p.16
------------------------------------------------------
Burnout myth grows. Having taken
part in an anti-draft demonstration
suggests burn-out.

Boris Sidis The Harvard Boy Prodigy A


Candidate To Serve Out A Jail Sentence
Is A Candidate For Attorney General of
Massachusetts
Lowell [MA] Courier-Citizen, June 11, 1919
--------------------------------------------------------------
Article states, "He stands to know a few
things about the law before he gets through."
This was a period of high activism and personal
profile in public life. His declared 'candidacy'
was a symbolic act to make a point.

[Tuesday, January 6, 1920. Sidis completes The Animate


and the Inanimate, and then waits five years to publish it
(see below.)]

82
"The Secret Of Sound Sleep"
by Boris Sidis M.D., Ph.D.
American Monthly, Dec. 1922, p.36
---------------------------------------------------
This article, one of more than 50, was his last.

Dr. Boris Sidis Dies Suddenly


Portsmouth [NH] Herald, Oct. 25, 1923

Dr. Boris Sidis Dies


New York Times, Oct. 25, 1923, p.19

Precocity Doesn't Wear Well


New York Times, Jan. 11, 1924, p.16
-----------------------------------------------------
More 'burnout' myth.

Sidis Inherits $4000, May 23, 1924


----------------------------------------------------
Documents

83
Sidis, W. J., The Animate and the Inanimate.
(Boston: Badger, 1925).
----------------------------------------------------------------
84
He begins the first chapter of this earthshaking work with a
remarkable discovery of what might be called the first law
of physical laws, modestly presented:
Among the physical laws it is a general characteristic
that there is reversibility in time; that is, should the
whole universe trace back the various positions that
bodies in it have passed through in a given interval of
time, but in the reverse order to that in which these
positions actually occurred, then the universe, in this
imaginary case, would still obey the same laws.
The only physical law that does not meet the reversibility
requirement is the second law of thermodynamics. And
therein lies a great secret:
In the theory herein set forth, we suppose that reversals of the second
law are a regular phenomenon, and identify them with what is generally
known as life. This changes the idea of unavailable energy into that of a
reserve fund of energy, used only by life, and created by non-living
forces.
Hence, in the last analysis, the second law of thermodynamics is to be
interpreted as a mental law, as the law determining the direction in
which a given mind will conceive of time as flowing.

His discovery has immense ramifications for the way we


understand the universe and indeed ourselves. In Chapter 3,
he presents a devastating argument against the still popular
Big Bang theory. He concludes that the highest probability is
that the universe is infinite and eternal as per the First Law of
Thermodynamics: energy is neither created nor destroyed;
and that the second law of thermodynamics is a psychological
law governing the way we perceive the universe. There are
other more mysterious ramifications such as the continuity of
consciousness after physical death, but this last matter must be
left to time.

85
Sidis, W. J. Notes on the Collection of Transfers
by Frank Folupa (pseud.) Phila.: Dorrance, 1926
From Introduction:

86
This book is a description of what is, so far as the author is
aware, a new kind of hobby, but one which seems on the face
of it to be as reasonable, as interesting, and as instructive as
any other sort of collection fad. This is the collection of
streetcar transfers and allied forms. The author himself has
already collected over 1000 such forms, there being no
duplicates included. We have been very much tempted to give
this process of transfer collection some special name, similar
to 'philately,' for stamp collection, and 'numismatics' for coin
and medal collection. Consequently, we went so far as to coin
the term 'peridromophilly' for the general subject of transfer
collection, and concurrently with this, 'peridromophile' for
the transfer collector.
As usual, Sidis is modest about the importance of his work.
The book preserves for posterity a complete record of the US
trolley-car system of the 1920s. The press, apparently
without exception, saw it as further evidence of his 'burnout'.
But Notes on the Collection of Transfers is taxonomy
Aristotelian in breadth and detail.

The transfers were collected while he was "riding his hobby"


in order to research the Tribes and the States at the local level.

Many suggestions have been made re his pseudonym. Perhaps


Frank = French, and Folupa = fallu pas (wasn't practical or necessary).

Russia Has Opportunities: Dr. [Sarah] Sidis


Recently Returned from Foreign Land Says
Wages of People High, Art Appreciated,
But Bread Is Scarcity
Manchester [NH] Union, March 4, 1929

[Fragment from Ripley's Believe Or Not]

87
Sidis, W. J., Perpetual Calendar

US Patent No. 1,718,314 , June 25, 1929


US Index of Patents, 1929, 658 - 660.
US Patent No. 1,784,117, Dec. 9, 1930
US Index of Patents, 1930, 638 - 640.
------------------------------------------------------
His great discovery is (1) a mere 56 calendars are
necessary for a perpetual calendar, and that (2)
they can be quite simply organized within a circle
which rotates within a surrounding square.

The invention relates to perpetual calendars in which


week-days can be found directly for any given date
whatever; and its object is, first, to provide a means by
which all such weekdays can be looked up in a direct,
simple, and easily understandable manner; secondly, to
avoid the cross-reference tables or complex mechanism,
one or the other of which have hitherto generally been
features of perpetual calendars providing means to look
up the week-day of any given date whatever; thirdly, to
provide a perpetual calendar in which, once the calendar
is adjusted for any given year, a complete and condensed
calendar for the year is plainly visible; fourthly, to
simplify the parts and their interrelation by the
88
elimination of indicators or pointers which add to the
difficulty and expense of manufacture and to the
derangement of the operation of the calendar.

Dare anyone dream of the royalties


for this invention? Better yet, dare
anyone dream of inventing such a
device after so many great
mathematicians had failed to do so?
Patent Photo

Sidis, W. J. The Orarch


A newsletter on liberty and related subjects.
Orarchy = limited government, as opposed
to anarchy = no government. Sidis was by this
time a 'libertarian', maybe the first to use the term.
He may be hinting at this in: The Modern Gray Champion.

Sidis, W. J., The Tribes and the States by John


W. Shattuck (pseud.), ca. 1932. Unpub. ms. 620 pages.
There are certain definite departures from the common and
well-known points of view regarding America and its past that
the reader will notice. At the opening, it is obvious that the
beginnings of American history are sought not in Europe but
here in America, among the peoples who originally inhabited
this country.

The material is partly the legends and traditions of the tribe


itself, some of which are embodied in its poems, which are freely
quoted throughout this history; partly well-known historical facts
and dates, as interpreted from this different point of view; partly
facts which are definitely known but which the ordinary history
89
fails to bring out because varying from the standard "patriotic
point of view―all originally presented by the "tribe" as isolated
material, but in this history for the first time woven into a
continuous whole.

---

There are other points of difference from the established text-


book view of history, such as: picturing America as a country
where popular revolts have been the rule rather than the
exception, and even as the origin and inspiration of such revolts
throughout the world; describing George Washington, not as the
hero of the American Revolution, as he is ordinarily considered,
but rather as one who had little sympathy with democracy, and
finally overthrew by conspiracy the republic the Revolution
established; the existence of a First Republic (John Hancock
being its first president) representing the American Revolution,
and a Second Republic representing a political counter-
revolution; the pre-revolutionary co-operative factory and civil
disobedience systems in Massachusetts; or the various peculiar
theories of economic and political functions and development as
presented here.
At the heart of this extraordinary history of North
America from prehistoric times is Sidis's Continuity Theory:
The history is thus not a history from the point of
view of ancestry, but rather of locality. The idea
developed is that in each locality there is a certain
continuity of tradition that persists in spite of the
changing character of its population—not that the
geographical characteristics compel this, as some
have supposed, but rather that each successive wave
of invasion or immigration acquires the traditions
from the previous inhabitants of the region.
*

90
In America, as in most cases of this sort, the original
institutions of the place not merely have a strong
influence on the new people and guide them to the
formation of their own societies, but, in so far as
they are displaced, show a strong tendency to come
back.
To this day, twenty-six American states retain their Native-American
names. The Massachusetts state flag depicts a red man, and even
the Mass. Confederacy, the first white democratic government in
America, adopted a red man as its symbol. Not to mention
the concept of federation invented by the Iroquois
(Hodenosaunee) which is still spreading around the world
today, and well-established in the rotating presidership
(presidency) of the UN Security Council.
Sidis's sources for the history of the red people were:

"The various designs of the colored beads in a


wampum belt expressed ideas as definitely as
any form of writing; and tribal history,
minutes of meetings--even personal letters,
were written by weaving wampums to express
the ideas intended to be conveyed(Chapter
III)."
The Tribes and the States

Out Today: Harvard Prodigy


New York World Telegram,
Aug. 13, 1937, p.15
91
--------------------------------------------
Reports publication of infamous
New Yorker article.

"Where Are They Now? April Fool" by Jared L. Manley


The New Yorker, August 14, 1937, 22-26
----------------------------------------------------------------
This article, a rewrite of Jared Manley's piece by
James Thurber, was central to a famous US
Supreme Court decision in 1941. It implied
that Sidis's enthusiasm for the Okamakammessets
was evidence of burn-out. As to "April Fool," he
was born on April 1. Many celebrities, such as Carol
Burnett, have lost invasion-of-privacy cases due to the
legal precedent set by the Sidis case.

Sidis, W. J., Atlantis ca. 1937. Unpub. ms. missing.

No Privacy for Prodigy


New York Times, Dec. 17, 1941, p.21
------------------------------------------------------
92
Reports US Supreme Court decision on Sidis's case against The New
Yorker
magazine for having violated his rights to privacy in its 1937 article. He
had not
assented to an interview. Sidis personally funded his case.

Sidis vs. F-R Pub. Corp


Federal Reporter, 1941, #113, 807-811
-------------------------------------------------------
In a 5 - 4 opinion, hence by the vote of a single
Justice, the US Supreme Court decided that fame
cast upon one's shoulders the burden of losing
one's rights of privacy. Chief Justice Brandeis, the
deciding vote, said The New Yorker article was,
"...merciless in its dissection of intimate details
of its subject's life," and further admitted that
ALL have the "... right to be protected from
the prying of the press..." But he proceeded to
deny Sidis that right because he was a public
figure! This case set the precedent which has
come up time and again in celebrity libel cases
against the press.

"Meet Boston" by Jacob Marmor (pseud.)


What's New In Town, Jan. 3, 1941 - Sept. 18, 1942
---------------------------------------------------------------------
89 weekly columns on interesting and little known
93
facts about Boston and its history. First week was
titled "Strange But True." (Marmor was Boris's
mother's maiden name.)

Peridromophily and Mr. Willie Sidis


The Evening Sun (Baltimore), Jan. 8, 1943
-------------------------------------------------------------
"Peridromophily" was Sidis's name for his
hobby of collecting trolley-car transfers.

One Time Child Prodigy Found Destitute Here


Boston Traveler, July 14, 1944, p. 1
------------------------------------------------------------------
He was far from destitute. He supported himself with
full-time jobs and lived in an apartment on Canton St.
a working-class section of Boston. He died with no
debt and had $625 of earned money in his bank
account, which would equal $7000 today.
Documents Inflation Calculator

Hub Prodigy Who Held Clerk's Job Dies Penniless


Boston Traveler, July 17, 1944
------------------------------------------------------------------------
Most Bostonians considered their lovely city to be
the Hub of the Universe then. Perhaps it was.

Landlady Tells How Sidis Was Stricken


Boston Traveler, July 17, 1944

Sidis A "Wonder" In Childhood Dies


94
New York Times, July 18, 1944. p. 21

Sidis Once Prodigy Dies In Hospital In Obscurity


Boston Herald, July 18, 1944
---------------------------------------------------------------
Obscurity? His death after a lifetime of press
attention was international news.

The Hidden Genius


New York Times, July 19, 1944, p.18
---------------------------------------------------
'Burnout' one more time.

"Sidis' Boyhood Seen Case of All Work


and No Play" by Alice Burke
Boston Traveler, July 19, 1944

"Sidis Was Victim Of An Experiment"


by Shirley S. Smith.
Boston Traveler, July 19, 1944

"What Happened To One Child Prodigy"


by Ruth Reynolds
New York Sunday News, July 23, 1944, 38-41;
"Taught Son Everything But How To Live"
by Ruth Reynolds
Boston Sunday Post, August 6, 1944
-----------------------------------------------------------
Same article, different titles.

95
Prodigious Failure
Time, July 31, 1944, #44, p.60
--------------------------------------------
To title an obituary of any human being
in this way makes this a low point in the
history of journalism. An apology has long
been in order given the prestige of this
periodical.

Burned Out Prodigy


Newsweek, July 31, 1944, #24, 77-78

"William James Sidis" by Hallowell Bowser


Saturday Review, July, 1944

Psychology for the Millions


by Abraham Sperling, Ph.D.
NY: F. Fell, Inc., 1946, 332-339.
-------------------------------------------
The City College of New York professor
was the first Sidis biographer. He visited Sidis's
family and friends and tells of having seen a
dozen manuscripts written by Sidis. See also
Atlantis Manuscript Philology & Anthropology Mss.

In a letter to Julius Eichel, who had been a friend of


Sidis for more than 20 years, Sperling wrote,

Also I am thoroughly familiar with his desire to


avoid publicity and his friends' wishes to
96
observe that desire. However, since the
appearance of so many distorted news and
magazine articles about Bill since his passing, a
true and worthy account of the noble spirit and
motives that guided Bill Sidis through life is
more than justified (Monday, June 25, 1945).

Amen to that!

Mrs. Sharfman's Lament for William Sidis


(Unpublished, ca. 1944)

97
98
99
WILLIAM JAMES SIDIS
by Julius Eichel

The Absolutist, #43, September 5, 1944

Mimeographed weekly newsletter published by conscientious-objector


group of which Sidis may have been a member.

In Julius Eichel Papers, Swathmore College Peace Collection

Born in Brookline1, Massachusetts April 1, 1898


Died in Brookline2, Massachusetts July 1944

This is not a biography in the sense which this term is usually employed.
It covers (inadequately, considering the meager space we are devoting to
it) parts of Sidis’ life that were so sadly misunderstood by his
contemporaries. A biography to be of value must be honest, for that
reason we will stick to the facts, shielding no one, but where actions and
principles and not the individuals concerned are the important
considerations, we will withhold names.

WILLIAM JAMES SIDIS AND PACIFISM William James Sidis was a


libertarian pacifist, and we are not departing from our accustomed
devotion to pacifism when we devote this entire issue to his biography.
At a time when general disgust with CPS3 slavery is sweeping through
CPS, it is well to remind our readers that Sidis was always an ardent
opponent of CPS. Before that evil was started we has written a paper
opposing the inauguration of CPS and sent copies to a number of friends
inviting comments, among them was Sidis. Sidis, under the pen name of
Parker Greene (our readers may remember his weekly column in The
Absolutist) wrote a similar denunciation, but having a practical turn of
mind in such matters, improved upon what we had written and suggested
an alternative to CPS. In effect he said the government insists that the
100
citizens of this country must do work of "national importance." Well and
good. Let the young men and women involved get together voluntarily,
and devote their energies, their abilities, and money for building self-
supporting projects of a cooperative nature with the government and its
bureaucrats excluded from its management. Had his suggestion been
adopted or even attempted much good might have resulted from it. But
the pacifist churches and their members were hell bent on trying out this
noble experiment under conscription, and both papers were suppressed
by all pacifist organizations out of deference to the pacifist groups who
insisted they wanted CPS.

PACIFISM AND GOVERNMENT To Sidis government had only one


legitimate function, and that is to protect the individual in his inalienable
rights. Any government that sins against the individual forfeits its right
to existence. From that standpoint all forms of organized violence can
meet only with opposition and not cooperation, for such violence entails
a denial of civil liberties and individual freedom. We have a clear picture
how organized violence defeats the needs of even good intentions in the
classical example of the recent civil war in Spain. Here was a democratic
and liberal government elected with a clear mandate to rid the country of
militarism and repudiate its imperialism. France was to be dismissed as a
butcher and a disgrace to humanity, and Morocco was to be liberated.
But the labor politicians, as politicians everywhere, found it easier to
make promises than to carry them out. The trappings of militarism and
imperialism were too seductive. Morocco was held in subjection, and
France was exiled to that place and permitted to play the soldier—we
know with what disastrous effect. The civil war got started because
militarism and imperialism had not been repudiated. With organized
violence both sides resorted to terror. Most people have much to loose
by such violence and desired to remain neutral, but individual freedom
and neutrality were not permitted by either side—that is the first law of
organized violence—and the principles that were supposed to activate
the loyalists were discarded for the greater glory of victory. There again
it was determined that rather than freedom, individuals prefer national
glory. That is the way of militarism. Sidis was never fooled by this war
101
psychosis, and denounced any attempt to take sides in the civil war in
Spain. War is the enemy of all mankind, and that is the great evil we
must fight at all costs and at all times.

SIDIS GETS INTO THE NEWS We first become acquainted with the
name of William James Sidis when he was admitted to Harvard at the
age of eleven. At the age of twelve he was in the news again for he had
created a sensation by lecturing on the fourth dimension to Harvard
professors. We next heard of him through the press when he led a May
Day parade in Boston on May 1, 1919. We came into personal contact
with him the later part of 1922, and almost up to the day of his death we
were in constant touch with each other.4

COMMON INTERESTS We were both libertarians and confirmed


conscientious objectors to all forms of organized violence, and
particularly national wars. Sidis had a strong love for America and its
traditions of freedom, and so did the editor. In World War I, Sidis
registered his objections to war, but the armistice of 1918 saved him
from a prison term. The editor was not so lucky, for we spent about
twenty-six months in prison for opposing conscription and war. It was
natural then that we who so strenuously opposed the institution of war
and so determinedly fought to uphold the best of our American traditions
of liberty, could join hands in combating the common enemy—
militarism and the institutions geared to maintain it.

SIDIS AND HIS PARENTS It would be well to review some of the items
that made Sidis the man he was. In our Weekly Prison News Letter No.
21, August 31, 1943, under the heading, "RAILROADING IN THE
PAST", Sidis gives his own story, in his own words, and describes the
attitude of his parents towards him. Sidis was very sensitive, and his
parents may have been well-meaning, but nevertheless in the interest of
realism in this biography, we are going to tell the story of his
relationship with his parents as he was accustomed to telling it. William
James Sidis had intelligent parents. His father was a professor of
psychology at Harvard, and was considered an authority in his day. His
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mother was a physician and also very intelligent. They were in a position
to help develop their son’s mental powers to the fullest. Sidis was
unfortunate in the fact that his parents were both strong-willed
individuals and incompatible. According to Sidis they would be
constantly quarrelling making life bitter for everyone on the family.
Sidis would say he was the object of their frustrations, and would often
get nagged and scolded, and be whipped when either of his parents were
cross with each other.

SISTER HELENE Life became a bit more bearable when his sister
Helene was born when he was about ten years of age. Not that the
nagging and beating stopped, but he found great comfort in this new
sister, for here was one member of his family that made no attempt to
dominate him. This attachment to his sister lasted until a year before his
death when she crossed him on some manner. There seemed to have
been some reconciliation between him and Helene as he lay dying, but
he never forgave his aged mother who was also present at his side. In
1923 when his father died his hatred for him was so intense that he
refused to attend the funeral.

THE INFANT PRODIGY Opinions vary on the talents Sidis possessed


as an infant, but all agreed that his talents were prodigious and broad. He
enjoyed the exuberance that came with his ability to think clearly and
clarify obtuse philosophies and scientific writings to older people in
clear and concise terms. This mental faculty he maintained to the end.
No one who would come into intimate contact with him could say that
his mental powers were waning. On the other hand, few could meet him
without coming away with the feeling that he lacked some of the
ordinary niceties that is expected of everyone in society. He was
interesting to those who could overlook his bitterness and his personal
habits, he could talk well on almost any topic and with an interest that
could hold his listeners spell-bound.6 Sidis seemed to have blossomed
out intellectually at the age of two, for it was then that he was accredited
with speaking four languages, and having some familiarity with most of
the sciences. This faculty to master anything he was interested in never
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forsook him. Even after he was popularly supposed to have given up
thinking, he could master a system of shorthand overnight, teach himself
a new language by the cryptogram method, talk learnedly on
mathematics, biology, astronomy, geology, topography, etc.

INTEREST IN RAPID TRANSIT Sidis was interested in transit before he


could toddle. One Harvard graduate, a number of years his senior
remembers with what astonishment he and two other classmates (today
one is a Supreme Court judge and the other a well known retired
professor of logic) came away after a visit to the Sidis home. Sidis
hardly more than two years old was on the floor of his room looking
over some maps of Greater Boston and calling to his mother, who had
just brought him home from a shopping tour. He called her attention to
the maps and pointed out how she could get to the shopping center of the
city by a much shorter route. He never lost his interest in transit, and up
to the time of his death he was constantly studying city transit problems,
and solving some quite elegantly, and that without ever having set foot
in some of the cities. Those of our readers who remember VUSP
(Volunteer Urban Self-Supporting Projects) will remember he was
offering his labors gratis if only he could be instrumental in getting a
volunteer cooperative started along the lines he planned. The sting that
interfered with stirring up interest for the plan was the preconceived
notions of most people that similar city guides were already in existence.
Nothing could be further from the truth. With painstaking thought and
logic he had evolved a system whereby anybody could by looking at the
part of the city he wanted to reach, see at a glance what transit facilities
to use towards that end.

SIDIS AT HARVARD At the age of six he raced through grammar


school in six months. At eight he finished a four-year course at the
Brookline High School in six months. He passed the Harvard entrance
exams at nine. He was not admitted immediately so he went to Tufts
College for a year.4 It was two years before Harvard broke down its
reserve to admit so young a scholar. He was eleven years old when he
entered Harvard. At twelve he suffered a nervous breakdown, and he
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was taken from school to his father's sanitarium at Portsmouth, N. H.5
Sidis would insist that it was not his mental activities that it was not his
mental activities that brought on his breakdown, but the social life he
was compelled top lead. His proud parents were anxious to show off
their prodigy, and insisted on directing his activities long after he had
achieved an intellectual superiority over them. His mother would make
appointments for him to meet people in whom he had no interest. He
would complain about such appointments, and his mother would say, I
promised to bring you"—and that settled it her way.

SIDIS AND THE YOUNG LADIES When he returned to Harvard to


resume his studies, he was still mentally alert, but very much more
reserved. One of his classmates describes him as very studious,
indifferent to his personal appearance, presumably happy, and not at all
bitter. The ladies began coming into his life, and being the celebrity he
was, some of them would coo over him. His bragging about their
attentions led some of the practical jokers among his schoolmates to
write love letters to him, until he gained the impression that all the
young ladies were after him as the prize catch. To his dying day he
would brag about the number of proposals he received. We believe he
counted them into the hundreds. Throughout his existence he continued
to receive proposals from facetious maidens who knew in advance he
was certain to turn them down—but he would count them in. He tried to
be secretive, but he was really very communicative. Any moon-eyed
girl, for that matter any man who could appear sympathetic could worm
out of him the innermost secrets of his life. In many ways he was naive,
ingenuous, and trusting, and while he was sophisticated enough on must
worldly matters, individuals could impose on him. It was from some
such inveigler that The New Yorker got the story of his life in 1937
which led to the lawsuit for invasion of privacy.

TEACHING AND FURTHER STUDY About this time young Sidis was
becoming disgusted with his academic surroundings, and becoming
better towards the end of his stay at Harvard, and was becoming more
careless in his personal dress and habits. At the age of sixteen he
105
graduated from Harvard. In 1915 he was invited to Rice Institute,
Houston, Texas, to teach mathematics. In June 1916 he resigned. After
this resignation Sidis decided to go back to Harvard and study law. Lack
of funds prevented him from continuing his studies in law, and from
then on he had to face the world and shift for himself.

RADICALISM AND GOVERNMENT It was after leaving law school


that some of his real troubles began. One had but to know the political
views of his father, Dr. Boris Sidis, to realize that the political and
economic phase of his education would not be neglected. William James
Sidis understood our traditions, was very familiar with our institutions,
and had a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the political realities in the
United States. He knew that the most sacred positions of trust in the
country were at the disposal of the political manipulators who would
stoop to the lowest depths to gain and retain power. When one considers
that a political convention called upon to nominate a President can be
influenced by the low tricks of politicians rigging up loud speakers in a
cellar of that convention, and delegates can be lined up for the candidate
by the evil machinations of a Tammany Hall, or a low down political
corrupt machine in Jersey City, or at this late date by labor politicians
who are bribed by the government by some share in this evil power over
their fellow men, then he can see that the government is run by gangs
and not by the good men that vote. Sidis knew that, but he was too busy
devoting his life to science. Now came a change. He desired to do with
politics and economics what he already accomplished in science—
master its intricacies and instruct people in the truth. To his dismay and
disappointment he discovered whereas he was free to discuss his
scientific convictions, he was not free to question political and economic
practices within the United States. Certainly he was not free to instruct
others on the solution to those evils. His professors discouraged any
such activities and so did his parents. His father had come here from
Russia to escape exile to Siberia for his revolutionary activities under the
Tsar. He was not going to permit his son to make the same mistake of
opposing the operations of a powerful and corrupt government. He
discouraged any activities along such lines. But young Sidis became
106
only the more interested, and continued his researches and activities. It
was not long before he found that very few would join him in the search
for truth. His professors, the editors, the ministers, and especially the
politicians had no objection to the truth in scientific matters, but they
made every effort to suppress or dodge the truth in economic and
political matters. He found these groups praising institutions and
individuals that should be receiving their condemnation.

POLITICS AND PARTIES Many of those acquainted with the actions of


young Sidis were quite at a loss to understand why he would shift his
allegiance from one party to another. Back in the early days of the war
he had joined the Socialist Party, and when the left wing split off to
become the Communist Party he joined that group, but soon after
dropped from that group. Some said he was too radical. The fact is that
he only had a scientist's interest in those parties. He was interested in
economic and political freedom. The Socialists seemed to promise that
and he joined up to help them. He soon came to the conclusion that
Socialist politicians were hardly better than any other kind. They, too,
attempted to enslave others in order to free them. He joined the
Communist branch of the split because he saw the entrenched Socialist
politicians stoop to low practices and slander that disqualified them as
champions of freedom as far as he could judge. The Socialist Party was
being disrupted by a struggle for power, and the group that he had hoped
had some ideals and was devoted to the truth, chucked such ideals
overboard to gain its ends. He left the Communist Party for the same
reason. He did not have to wait a score of years to discover that
Communism was a religion with the State as its God, and that individual
freedom was the least of Communist concerns. He saw that Lenin and
Trotsky were laying the foundations of a totalitarian Stalin. Sidis was
interested in individual freedom, and he severed his connections with all
groups that opposed such freedom.

AN AMERICAN PARTY NECESSARY It was through this experience


with political parties that led Sidis to the conviction that international
affiliations were a hindrance rather than an aid in gaining such freedom.
107
In Russia the people had exchanged the despotism of the Tsar for that of
the Communist Party. It was his conviction that the Russian people were
chained to despotism by their traditions and knew no better. He saw, too,
that the American branch of the Communist Party was more loyal to the
central power in Russia than it was to the American people. As a matter
of fact the party was willing to betray the American people in deference
to Russia's aims. He decided, after due consideration, that only an
American party with no direct international ties, with an economic
program that would renounce politics completely, that would have as its
program the democratic cooperative ownership by the workers in each
industry of the tools of production, such enterprise to be free from all
government direction and especially free from government bureaucracy,
could be the only practical alternative to corrupt politics and he evils of
the present economic system.

REVOLUTIONARY ACTIVITIES The father of young Sidis, Dr. Boris


Sidis, was a student of psychology, and was well acquainted with the
psychosis engendered by a national war, and the more he would study
the phenomenon the more he was disgusted with the patriotic devotion
that would impel people to mutual suicide and slaughter. Some day
when we can spare the space we will review some of Dr. Boris Sidis'
views on war and the masses. His views were definitely opposed to the
hysteria of war. It was small wonder then that young Sidis should be a
pacifist almost from the cradle. Sidis was only twenty in 1917 when the
United States entered the war, and he was too young to register in the
first draft. In another registration in 1918 he protested war and
conscription as a conscientious objector. It was at about this time that he
joined the Socialist Party. On May 1, 1919, he led a May Day
demonstration and parade which was organized by the Socialist Party.
He was arrested together with about a dozen others. In court, among
other items, he was charged with being a conscientious objector, an
atheist, and with carrying a red flag—none of which charges he denied.
There is quite a story connected with that arrest with many interesting
angles. For one thing the arrest proved his point that the authorities
could not tolerate free speech nor criticism, and that most public
108
officials were ignorant of American history, elements necessary for such
freedom. He was bitter but exultant. In court he matched wits with the
prosecution, and proved that the officers of the law were not familiar
with our traditions, but had a great respect for power and arbitrary force.
They had no regard for the meaning and demands of freedom. The red
flag he proved had been used in the War for Independence, slightly
altered to be sure, but it made the flag respectable—it was the old pine
tree banner, a red background with a green pine tree.

TRUE LOVE It was in the course of this experience that he formed an


attachment for a young lady which if reciprocated might have changed
the course of his entire life. Among those arrested in that May Day
parade was a young girl, since become famous as a writer, whom he
adored. Shortly after his arrest he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced
to eighteen months in the reformatory. He appealed, and before he could
get a hearing in court, he was whisked away to his father's Portsmouth,
N. H. sanitarium, and later to California. For details of this episode we
must again refer our readers to the article "RAILROADING" IN THE
PAST, where Sidis describes the ordeal he was put to. Upon his return
from California, he sought out this new flame and carried on a romance
on Central Park benches. Sidis was very naive when he would tell this
story of his love making. The first time he had her to himself in Central
Park he kissed her with a great deal of ardor. "Why you kiss like an
experienced lover," she said. "Where did you get that experience, pray."
And he naively answered, as he later told us, "Why, cant you believe it
comes as natural to me as any other man." This affair proved to be one-
sided, for while the lady was amused at this love making, it struck no
deeper root than that. Soon after she left the country and married
someone else abroad. She returned to this country with a baby, and Sidis
asked permission to visit her. He received that permission, and found he
still loved her and he loved the baby, and Sidis told us all about that
visit. And in spite of all rumors to the contrary, that is all that ever came
from that affair. It was a case of unrequited love. Sidis admitted that her
love might have achieved wonders with him, for whereas he might be
stubborn with others, there is nothing he would not have done to please
109
her. He carried her photograph with him from 1920 until the day he died,
and was always anxious to be asked about it, and would flourish it in the
face of any newcomer to arouse a curiosity which he was fast to satisfy
on demand. That was the only lady he ever loved, and would admit it,
just as readily as he would admit that she did not love him.

SIDIS DENIES HIS UNUSUAL ABILITIES The young lad that had
lectured to college professors on the fourth dimension was now a man,
and he had more important problems than showing off his scholastic
abilities. It was not only distasteful, he wanted to forget it, but society
would not permit him to shake off the reputation of his youth. It was this
attempt to deny his own genius and ability that probably forced him to
seek jobs where thinking was unnecessary. He would minimize his
personal attainments and abilities and insist that he was merely
mediocre, just to change the subject. Once, while denying his precocious
childhood that led to his entrance at Harvard at the age of eleven, we
asked: "But how could people say such things about you if they are not
true?" His reply to that was: "Well, I was at college at a time when a
number of my young classmates had distinguished themselves in one
subject or another—the authorities conjured up a composite picture of
the lot and named it Sidis."

NATURAL ABILITIES Be that as it may, Sidis could be counted on to


solve difficult mathematical problems if anyone could get him to
concentrate on them. And we have seen him compete with another able
mathematician in solving such problems. He did that to his distaste he
later said, but, nevertheless, he retained the ability to do so after he had
gained the reputation that he had stopped thinking. In 1927 he wrote a
book, Notes on the Collection of Transfers, which, considering the
meager material he had to work with, proved his ingenuity, his ability to
gather the material and arrange it attractively, and make a most
interesting story of a rather dry subject. The book, too, illustrates his
sense of humor, and that he could enjoy a joke, and also gives some
indication of the habits and character of the author. He was scrupulously,
and his opinion could be depended upon to be the truth. It was only
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when he would permit personal dislikes to color his thoughts that he
could be unreasonable in his attitude. In 1929 he patented a "perpetual"
calendar, which was a marvel of simplicity, depending only on the turn
of a disc to give information that similar contraptions would give
through a number of intricate devices that might disclose some
ingenuity, but not the direct and clear thinking that characterized the
works of Sidis. He never gave up thinking, but he had come to the
conclusion that science and all of its achievements were secondary in a
world geared to war and periodical destruction. He had a great concern
for his fellow man, and he was determined to help change the economic
and political structure of society so that man might be freed from his
enslavers. These were the problems upon which he was anxious to
concentrate, and he was proud of whatever achievements he could make
in that field.

SHORTCOMINGS AND IDIOSYNCRACIES William James Sidis was


born on April 1, and from the day we met him until The New Yorker put
emphasis on that point, we remember him saying whenever he had
occasion to give the date of his birth: "It was April fool to my parents."
The New Yorker sort of soured that joke, and he never repeated it
thereafter. Sidis was born in Brookline, Mass., and he died not far from
his birthplace. That was no mere coincidence—he could think of no
better place in the world, although he had seen much of the United
States. Brookline is part of Greater Boston, and he was proud of Boston
"the cradle of democracy," and he would ascribe the origin of most
democratic thought to Boston. He credited Boston with a number of
firsts, too numerous to mention here and many of which escape our
memory at the moment. Boston had the first cafeteria in the United
States, the first subway, etc., and he always insisted that the Boston
transit system was the most efficient. He was a loyal son of Boston, and
one of his last acts was to submit a plan to the authorities to prevent
post-war unemployment in Boston embodying his underlying faith that
non-profit, self-supporting projects are the only democratic solution to
the misery of unemployment. Boston can still honor one of her most
distinguished sons by the adoption of some plan like that. Sidis insisted
111
that he had very little sense of beauty, did not understand or appreciate
poetry or music, and was altogether bereft of any esthetic sense. That
was hardly true. He could hammer out a tune on the piano. He would
revert to poetry whenever he was strongly moved by sentiments
connected with liberty. He had memorized almost all of the good rhymes
on liberty, and he would recite them with enthusiasm and ardor like a
cheer leader. He had a keen sense of smell and all the essentials that
could make him an aesthete. He was very observant. Perhaps he did not
think these acquirements important enough and so disowned them.

HISTORICAL INFLUENCES Sidis had a great love for the American


Indians especially those who lived in and around the New England
States. He could read their wampum and talk their language. He believed
that a continuity existed between their institutions and our own.
Federation, for instance, was an old idea from the five Indian tribes
living in the northern section of New York, and Sidis was convinced that
they influenced us in that direction. There were two events in American
History for which he had a special fondness. They both dealt with
revolts of the common people against their American oppressors. One
concerned Sir Edmond Andros, governor of a large section of New
England whose rule as a royal dictator was terminated in the colonies by
a spontaneous uprising of New Englanders who disarmed his guard and
imprisoned him on April 18, 1689. Sidis was particularly impressed with
the fact that the uprising was spontaneous, very restrained, and effective.
He was convinced that it could serve as a pattern for uprisings against
out present-day despots. The other was Shay's Rebellion, which was
another spontaneous uprising of the common people, many of whom
fought in the War for Independence, only to return to civil life to find
themselves the victims of excessive taxation, and subject to
imprisonment for debt and facing foreclosures of their property. That
uprising, too, was a model of constraint considering the great
provocation, and it helped to wring many concessions from the tyrants in
control of the government in those days. Debtors prisons were abolished,
foreclosures were suspended, and many of the planks in our Bill of
Rights can be traced to those rumblings of rebellion that spread
112
throughout the country at that time. Sidis admired the spirit and aims of
both rebellions, and he tried to found societies in commemorations of
those events with the hope that similar rebellions against the tyrants of
our own day could be stimulated by such examples. Sidis saw no hope
for freedom in the politics of our day, and warned his friends to shun the
ballot. Instead he would stress the workers cooperatives free from
government participation and the bureaucrats.

PERSONALITY AND JOBS The first job Sidis was compelled to give
up was that of instructor at Rice Institute in 1916. He did not give it up
from choice—he was compelled to quit by the directors of the college.
His work was always excellent, he taught with painstaking care. The
students were pleased with his lectures. But his slovenly personal
appearance, his annoying habits, and his bitterness towards his critics
made him poor company. All of the jobs he managed to get were either
gotten him by friends or were the result of his passing civil service
examinations. Civil service examinations were easy for him; in almost
every instance he would head the lists. But his main trouble was holding
on to jobs. He would be asked to quit or the jobs would be voted out of
existence. A belief had grown up the Sidis objected to working for a
decent salary. It is true that his salary would range from $15 to $25 a
week, but that was not from choice. He took what was offered. His
principles would prevent him from living extravagantly, but he had plans
for using surplus earnings for his pet scheme of cooperatives. After his
father died in 1923 (Sidis, by the way, would not attend the funeral, he
detested his father so heartily) Sidis inherited about $50,0003 as his share
of the estate. He would not touch a penny of that for his own use. Instead
he invested the money in Bus stocks, which to all appearances seemed
sound enough, looking forward to the day when he could use that nest-
egg to start the cooperatives he was always planning. Financial
manipulations carried on by the parent bus company resulted in him
being squeezed out of his holdings, and he suffered a complete loss of
his inheritance. He had not enjoyed a penny of it. His salary was too
meager for any saving, and when he would lose a job he would suffer
from hunger. He could live on very little. He sought out the cheapest
113
boarding houses for his shelter. For the last five years of his life he lived
in an attic which was extremely hot in summer and very cold in winter.
In the summer of 1942 his sister Helene had visited him and presented
him with an electric fan which made the conditions in the attic a bit
more bearable. In the winter of 1943 he contracted a cold which he did
not thro off, and it continued to plague him into the summer when on
July 17, 1944 the newspapers reported his death. He had estranged most
of his friends, we among them. His sister, to whom he was attached, had
given him some financial help the year before, and with it went some
advice which he resented. He had a falling out with her for the first time
in his life, and until he was dying in the hospital he had no contact with
her. We had quarreled over some trivial matters of policy; he insisted on
judging each pacifist by his acceptance of the principles of VUSP, which
we thought was a poor measure of a pacifist's sincerity. Ordinarily such
a difference would not be enough to cause a rift, but Sidis, though very
calm and collected in ordinary matters, would become exceedingly bitter
and lose his head in personal matters. With that understanding of the
situation we stopped collaborating with him, although we wrote him we
respected his ideas, and we would be willing to cooperate on most
matters where there could be no personal friction.

PERSONAL APPEARANCE AND HABITS Sidis was as indifferent to


his personal appearance and habits as was Samuel Johnson in an earlier
age. But he suffered more than Johnson for this, for whereas Johnson
was the literary leader of the groups then congregating in coffee-houses,
Sidis had no such admirers, and few could overlook his careless
appearance and uncouth manners. The result was that first appearances
would shut out his [word illegible] to those who met him casually. Sidis
was about five feet, eight inches tall, stocky and broad boned, and
weighed about 220 pounds. In appearance and habits he could have
passed for a longshoreman rather than a white-collar worker, yet he
insisted that the only work he was fitted for was operating a
comptometer or in an office. That incongruity made it difficult for him
to get such office work, and that was at the root of his financial troubles.
No one could complain about his work; it was accurate and efficient, and
114
he would be asked to locate mistakes that others would make. If only he
had paid more attention to his cleanliness and his distasteful habits. But
in spite of friendly advice, he could not overcome such weaknesses. He
wore a dirty old cap, musty with age. He always seemed to need a shave,
although he did not cultivate a beard. His trousers were unpressed and
dirty, his shoes always remained unshined when he wore shoes. In later
years he wore ordinary gray sneakers, with socks in winter, and without
socks in summer. His coat was ragged with the lining usually showing
where the stitches or wear had loosened it from the cloth. His tie was
usually cut six inches from the knot, and usually dirty. In an age when
dress and appearances count for so much, his carelessness was an
obvious handicap.

LACKED APPEAL William James Sidis was a difficult man to have in


company for he demanded attention which few would accord him. His
experience with society had made him bitter and distrustful, and this
bitterness would be directed with very little discrimination against
anyone who would slight him. That does not mean his bitterness would
overcome his good sense when people would disagree with him. But in
personal matters he could be very abusive. It was such personal
shortcomings that made it difficult for him to influence people. He had
no desire for power over them, but he did hope to show people how they
could attain a democratic system which would strip leaders of despotic
power. He did not believe that the ends could justify the means, or that
any leader had the moral right to enslave his followers in order to save
them. He was opposed to all forms of coercion, just as much by parents
from which he had suffered, as from the government which had also
added to his suffering. Industrial democracy and true representative
government was his passion, and he evolved systems which he hoped
could bring the solution to our political and economic evils that all
lovers of freedom desired. But his secretive nature, his fear of
government interference and oppression, and his peculiar personality all
operated to separate him from the people he wished to influence. He
would not take more than a few people into his confidence on the type of
government necessary before we can have democracy, but how could he
115
with the best system in the world get it into operation unless people
know his aim? His plans had to be kept secret because he knew the
government could oppress people who opposed its evil rule, but how can
any opposition to the government succeed unless some sympathizers
know your plans? He could hate people most heartily for merely
misunderstanding, but how can ideas be thrashed out unless one can
endure misunderstanding and criticism without taking it too personally?
And then there was the matter of his dress and habits, and in this age
when it means so much, how can anyone expect to influence people who
is careless in that respect? These were the faults for which he suffered
much, and which were probably more responsible for his frustrated
existence than the popular notion that he had stopped thinking. Sidis
could not stop thinking. He wanted work where thinking was
unnecessary so that he could be free to think about problems that
concerned humanity. We close this biography by a word from Sidis
written long before our involvement in this war tying up his
conscientious objections to war with his love for democracy.

SIDIS WAS CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR TO WAR "The promotion


of the individual rights of the people of America necessarily involves
resistance to war in any form, as war inevitably must destroy these rights
and clamp additional government rule on people. This applies to any war
between nations or established governments. Anyone who supports such
hostilities, or governments participating in them (whether or not the
hostilities are actually called war) cannot be considered as doing
anything else but fighting against democracy and the rights of the
people; only those who resist war to the utmost, and with their last
breath and last ounce of energy, can be considered as truly fighting to
save this country for democracy."

****************************************

This sheet is distributed to our President, each senator, officials,


newspapers, friends, and subscribers.

116
______________
Some Footnotes by Dan Mahony
Eichel gives us valuable information about Sidis's thought and habits in
his last years. Especially the information about his abvility to read
wampum belts and his knowledge of Native-American languages.
But Eichel's information about Sidis's life in general is not accurate,
possibly because Eichel's information came from The New Yorker article
and other newspaper sources. Sidis is highly unlikely to have talked to
Eichel about his personal life.
Cases in point:
1. Sidis was born in New York City, not Brookline.
2. He died in Boston, not Brookline.

3. His inheritance was $4000, not $50,000 (see Financial Documents).


Eichel's knowledge of Sidis's past could have been informed only by
newspaper accounts.

4. The Tufts misconception is a clue that The New Yorker article was the
source of at least some of Eichel's beliefs about Sidis's childhood―he
certainly never heard it from Sidis.

5. Sidis's Harvard College transcript shows no interruption of his studies.


The Sidis Psychotherapeutic Institute in Portsmouth, NH, was the Sidis
family home.

6. Eichel's wrote: "That does not mean his bitterness would overcome
his good sense when people would disagree with him." Huh? This would
seem to contradict much of the claims that follow about Sidis's
"bitterness." Sidis's long-time friends in the Boston area, Issac
Rabinowitz, and "Rab's" daughter Anne Feinzig, never mentioned any
bitterness to me in many hours of conversation.

Nevertheless, Eichel gives us very valuable information about Sidis's


thought , habits, and lifestyle during the years after 1940.

117
A Story of Genius
Abraham Sperling, Ph.D.
In Psychology for the Millions, F. Fell, 1946,
332-339.

William James Sidis was a genius. He was by far the most


precocious intellectual child of his generation. His death in 1944 as an
undistinguished figure was made the occasion for reawakening the old
wives tales about nervous breakdowns, burned out prodigies and
insanity among geniuses.

Young Sidis was truly an intellectual phenomenon. His childhood


achievements ranked with those of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Macaulay,
and Johann Goethe. By the time William Sidis was two he could read
English and, at four he was typing original work in French. At the age of
five he had devised a formula whereby he could name the day of the
week for any given historical date. At eight he projected a new
logarithms table based on the number twelve. He entered Harvard at the
118
age of twelve and graduated cum laude before he was sixteen.
Mathematics was not his only forte. At this age he could speak and read
fluently French, German, Russian, Greek, Latin, Armenian and Turkish.
During his first year at Harvard University the boy astounded students
and scientists with his theories on "Fourth Dimensional Bodies."

The "man behind the gun" in this boy's amazing intellectual


attainments is supposed to have been his father, a graduate in
psychology at Harvard and a close friend of William James, after whom
the boy was named. Dr. Boris Sidis believed in awakening in the child of
two an interest in intellectual activity and love of knowledge. If you
started early enough and worked intensively, Dr. Sidis claimed that by
ten a child would acquire a knowledge equal to that of a college
graduate. The boy’s father published articles urging other parents to
follow his methods. He castigated the school authorities for their
"cramming, routine and rote methods," which he said, "tend to nervous
degeneracy and mental breakdown."

Sidis pointed to his son, William, as a successful example of his


methods. He wrote: "At the age of twelve the boy had a fair
understanding of comparative philology and mythology. He is well
versed in logic, ancient history, American history and has a general
insight into our politics and into the ground-work of our constitution. At
the same time he is of extremely happy disposition, brimming over with
humor and fun?"

Whether or not his childhood life was psychologically normal,


William's life after Harvard was a series of unhappy incidents. He
engaged in obscure mechanical jobs because, it was reported, "he did not
want to think." At the age of twenty-four he estranged himself from his
parents and to his last days the gap between parents and son remained
unreconciled, though toward his sister he always felt a brotherly love
which was expressed by a bond of friendship and mutual interests.
Toward the press, William Sidis bore an everlastingly strong hatred.

119
From this story the newspapers and the general public drew some
ill-formed conclusions about William Sidis and genius in general.
Newspaper writers pointed out that his "genius had burned out," that he
was "tired of thinking." By comparison it was stated that musical
geniuses are less likely to burn out. The father’s system was held
responsible for making the boy a prodigy. The parental pushing was
blamed for the mental breakdown and antisocial attitude. From his desire
to keep out of the limelight and taking obscure jobs that would pay for
his subsistence, William Sidis, the boy prodigy, was made out to be at
the time of his death a lonely, eccentric, prodigious failure" whose
intellect had deteriorated.

According to several newspaper reports, William' Sidis was


supposed to have had a brief mental breakdown at the age of twelve,
after which it was said, "he returned to school brilliant as ever, but
moody, and distrustful." Let us examine some of the true facts the
background of this case of genius.

I first checked on the occurrence of the supposed brief mental


breakdown. Students of abnormal psychology know that "brief mental
breakdowns" in children of twelve are extremely rare. Both William's
mother and his sister Helena, informed me that "he did not have a
nervous breakdown." Replies to correspondence from many persons
who knew William Sidis have convinced me that the idea of his having
had a mental breakdown either early or late in life is erroneous. It seems
that during the summer vacation when as a youngster the newspapers
reported him to have suffered his mental illness he was at his father's
sanitarium at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But, as his sister explained,
"this was their home." Dr. Boris Sidis ran a sanitarium for the cure of
psychopathic cases and the Sidis family, including William, lived there.

It is true that the father's concentration on academics to the


complete neglect of play and friends for the boy was wrong and
unhealthy by any standards. However, the boy had a prodigious capacity
to begin with. At five he had a mathematical ability that surpassed his
120
father's. And it is doubtful whether the parents could have curbed it.
Consider little Joel Kupperman, the "wonda child" of the Quiz Kids. At
the age of five he did algebra and geometry problems mentally that few
college professors could imitate. The Kuppermans are above average in
intelligence, the mother is a former teacher, and the father, an engineer.
They have used no system with Joel. His mother says: "Where he learns
these things is more than I know," but they keep him supplied with all
the books he wants.

An older youngster, whose history appears to approximate more


closely that of young Sidis, is Master Merrill Kenneth Wolf, enrolled as
a sophomore at Yale University at the age of twelve. The boy's parents,
both attorneys, insist that they are average persons in such matters as
intelligence and attainments. Yet, the father. Morris H. Wolf, never
attended school but like his son studied law at home; formerly a reporter
for the London Daily Mail, he has published three books and is an
accomplished musician. Mrs. Wolf had informed reporters that the
education of their son began when he amazed them by starting to talk at
the age of four months. By the time he was two, Kenneth Wolf had
finished all juveniles and showed an interest in adult works of science,
history, and philosophy. In addition to his grasp of French, English
grammar, zoology, and chemistry, the boy is a musical prodigy with that
rare gift of absolute pitch.

Regardless of their zeal, neither the Kuppermans, the Wolfs, nor the
Sidises could have given their children the stupendous intellectual
capacities that these youngsters manifested at so tender an age. Their
giving was primarily in the nature of the germ plasm, followed to some
extent by educational nurture.

Returning to William Sidis, the facts in his background are more


convincing as concerns family heritage. His mother schooled herself at
home through elementary and high school, and then was accepted at the
Boston University School of Medicine where she received her M.D.
degree. Boris Sidis, William's father, earned three degrees from Harvard
121
before he was thirty, though he arrived from Russia at the age of twenty.
Moreover, on both parental sides, the family, from grandparents to
cousins, includes many whose prodigious intellect is a matter of world
renown.

In any case, we can be quite certain that genius is not made by


parents' actions. No, William Sidis was not made a prodigy by his father,
he was born to be one.

That Sidis was socially maladjusted as an adult cannot be attributed


to any simple set of circumstances. That he had not been taught to play
in childhood may be considered a definite parental lack of foresight
contributing to this maladjustment. However, we must recognize that it
is not easy to find playmates or childish games to amuse or interest an
adult mind in a young body. The parents of any precocious child will
testify to that.

That William Sidis, as a youngster, had been unwholesomely


placed in the public eye by association with his father's psychological
fame, is a fact of record. Out of this probably grew the eventual
separation between patents and son when the youth reached adulthood.
As long as he lived, the thought of being considered a public spectacle
was positive poison to the soul of Bill Sidis. He refused to have his name
attached to any of his later writings and turned down offers of large
sums from publishers who would not agree to his use of a pen-name. He
won a successful suit against the New Yorker Magazine for placing him
in a ridiculous light in the public eye in 1937 in one of their "profiles."
Sarah Sidis gave a partial explanation for her son's lifelong animosity
toward the press. She related that as a child, returning home from school,
a couple of newspapermen would descend upon the boy. While one held
him, the other would take his picture. As a youth and as a man, Bill Sidis
wanted to be left alone to live as an average individual, and said so,
many times. He object bitterly to the idea of being stamped a "genius"
and treated as side-show with the connotation of "queerness" that he
knew to be associated with genius in the uninformed public mind. After
122
his death, one friend of Bill Sidis wrote a letter which appeared in the
Contributor's Column of the Boston Traveler in objection to false
impressions given in the many newspaper obituary accounts. With her
permission I am reprinting it.

People's Editor:

This is about Bill Sidis, who died Monday. His numerous friends do not
like the false newspaper picture of him as a pauper and anti-social recluse.
Bill Sidis held a clerical position until two weeks ago. For two weeks he
had received unemployment compensation. the first time in his life. Today
he was to start on a new job for which he had already been hired. Bill Sidis
paid his way; he was no burden on society.

Sidis had plenty of loyal friends. All of them found his ideas stimulating
and his personality likeable. Very few people know as much about the
Indian background of our social customs as he. His manuscript study of it
is worthy textbook material and very readable. He knew dozens of stories
from Boston's history and told them with relish. He recently submitted a
plan for post-war Boston.

But William Sidis had one great cause—the right of an individual in this
country to follow his chosen way of life. He had never been able to do this
for himself, first because his father made him an example for
psychological theories; then because the public, through newspaper
articles, insisted that he was a "genius," abnormal and erratic.

Whenever Sidis saw interference by individuals or governments, with


anyone's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he fought it any way
he could. He won a long legal fight against a nationally known publication
on the ground that it had invaded his privacy. Bill Sidis was a quiet man
who enjoyed the normal things of life. His friends respected him and
enjoyed his company. I am glad to have been one of his friends.

It is quite obvious from this evidence of Bill Sidis' enjoyment of


wholesome friendships to his very last days that his genius did make of
123
him the "queer, friendless personality" that is too often erroneously
thought to be characteristic of geniuses.

The intellect of William Sidis did not "burn out." What the
journalists did not report, and perhaps did not know, was that during all
the years of his obscure employments he was writing original treatises
on history, government, economics and political affairs. In a visit to his
mother's home I was permitted to see the contents of a trunkful of
original manuscript material that Bill Sidis composed during the time he
was supposed to be "reluctant to think." And in his obscure mechanical
jobs, the "adding machines" that the newspapers described him to be
working in later life were comptometers. Moreover, he would work two
of them at a time, one with his left hand and one with his right, using his
elbows for the space bar. That's not all. Supplied with a full share work
that was supposed to consume an eight hour day, he would finish all of it
within one hour. If that's an example of "burned out genius, then I'll. . .

Nor was Bill Sidis lacking in a sense of humor Many pungent


witticisms are to be found in his manuscripts. In book form they will
draw many a chuckle from the reader when published. This is a
characteristic sample: "Famous author, foreign correspondent and noted
commentator: a fellow with a sponsor."

There was no lessening of William Sidis' mental acuity. Helena


Sidis told me that a few years before his death, her brother Bill took an
intelligence test with a psychologist. His score was the very highest that
had ever been obtained. In terms of I.Q., the psychologist related that the
figure would be between 250 and 300. Late in life William Sidis took
general intelligence tests for Civil Service positions in New York and
Boston. His phenomenal ratings are matter of record.

In the interest of scientific truth and the benefits to be derived from


its application, I have tried to offer a truer story of an intellectual genius.
To mothers of intellectual prodigies, I say, fear not that the youngster's
brain power will be dissipated with age. Feed it, and it will grow like
that of any precocious musical or artistic genius. True, there are reports
124
of extremely precocious children whose brilliance flared like a torch and
burned out before the age of twelve as a result of the brain tumor which
can be diagnosed by a medical specialist.

The life of William James Sidis vividly portrays what psychology


teaches about intellectual genius. It is first born and then developed. The
prowess appears at an early age. It does not expire any sooner than
musical or artistic talent. Mental derangement is not characteristic of
genius. Unrealistic publicity in connection with a youthful person of
very superior capacity should be avoided. The feeling of being different
or queer should be guarded against. The precocious child it neither to
be squelched in his thirst for learning nor to be zealously prodded.
Allow the child to be the guide of his guardian. To develop normally, a
youthful prodigy should hare opportunities for wholesome emotional
and social contacts with a friendly world.

We have seen the necessity for the rational nurture of the


intellectual side of life regardless of what the original nature may be.

The Rebirthing of American


Independence
by Tracy Ann Robinson

Essex (MA) Life, Summer, 1984, 75 - 79.

IPSWICH, this year celebrating its 350th anniversary,


distinguishes itself as the "Birthplace of American & Independence."
This proud tradition derives from the town's 1687 vote to withhold
payment of a new tax levied by the unpopular regime of Governor
Andros―a tax, these colonists insisted, that infringed upon their rights
as Englishmen.

125
While praising the spirit of liberty demonstrated by his High Street
predecessors, one Ipswich resident, Dan Mahony, challenges the motto
their actions inspired. "The fact that there is no 're' in front of
'birthplace'," alleges Mahony, points to a widespread misconception
about the roots of American history. "The fact is," says Mahony, "the
only truly democratic government in the history of the world already
existed in this part of New England when the Pilgrims landed."

Five years ago, when Mahony started researching Harvard's


youngest graduate―William James Sidis, who was admitted to that
Institution in 1909 at the age of eleven―he had no idea he would end up
in Ipswich advocating for the Indians of the Penacook federation: "But
that's where Sidis led me. After locating and reading a 600-page
manuscript he compiled called 'The Tribes and the States' I became
personally convinced that American histories and encyclopedias aren't
giving credit where credit is due."

In that manuscript (copyrighted in 1981 by the Wampanoag Nation


and scheduled for publication by the Penacook Press, Scituate,
Massachusetts), Sidis presents a startling view of this country's political
development. This view is based on a theory that Sidis calls "the
continuity of history." Sidis," clarifies Mahony, "says that the
consciousness is in the space." As Sidis himself explains:

The history is. . . not a history from the point of


view of ancestry, but rather of locality. The idea
developed is that in each locality there is a certain
continuity of traditions that persists in spite of the
changing character of its population―not that the
geographical characteristics compel this, as some
have supposed, but rather that each successive wave
of invasion or immigration acquires the traditions
from the previous inhabitants of the region.

126
According to this theory then, what happened subsequently in
United States political history was due to a concept of federation
developed over a period of ten thousand years among the native
inhabitants of New England. Those nations, Sidis writes, attained a
degree of liberty and democracy such as no other people have ever
reached, and which was most irreconcilably opposed to the monarchical
and aristocratic institutions brought from Europe by the white invaders.
This was especially characteristic of the group of , Algonquin nations
living in the coastal region protected by the high barrier of the
Agiochook (now White Mountains) and Quinnitucket (Connecticut)
River. These nations were fairly well isolated from attack by others who
might endanger their liberties, but not so isolated that they did not have
many occasions to defend their liberty. They were excellently located for
developing in a militant form that spirit of liberty, equality, and
democracy, as well as concerted national endeavor, for which that part
of the country has always been prominent.

Although several northeastern nations, including the Iroquois, the


Lenape and Wabanake, federated, Sidis attributes democratic federation
only to the Penacooks, whose leaders, elected by the men and women of
their tribes, served not as rulers but as the "trusted advisors and
councillors of the people":

Among the Penacook peoples, there was nothing


known which could even remotely correspond to,
or give inkling of, any division of caste, class, or
rank―probably the only completely democratic
governments that ever existed in the history of the
world. This was a true democracy and equality
which might well prepare their country (now
known as New England) for being, at all times
down to the present. the cradle of the spirit of
liberty.

127
Because the area was long imbued with the traditions of liberty and
democracy, the Europeans who settled in Penacook territory were bound
to inherit those strong values, Thus, rather than bringing the seeds of
independence with them from Europe the Puritans and Pilgrims, "well-
meaning but slow-witted pupils of the Indians," reaped their destiny
here.

Certainly, if the consciousness of liberty was always in this space,


the original inhabitants of Essex County and the surrounding area had
ample opportunity to tune in. Carbon dating of artifacts from over four
hundred sites throughout the county establishes habitation here from
about 8000 B.C. (see Essex Life, Summer 1983). The tribes
that populated this part of New England during European exploration
and settlement―Sidis groups them into v the Saugus nation―were the
Naumkeags, of what is now Salem (prosperous, numerous and powerful
before the 1617 small pox epidemic that decimated seventy-five percent
of the entire region's population); the Squamscotts, from which both
Swampscott and Annisquam get their name; the Agawams, who ranged
from the tidewater on the Merrimack around to Cape Ann; and the
Wamesits, or Pawtuckets, whose land included the lower valley of the
Merrimack east to the Atlantic.

Sidis lists three main meeting places for the Penacook councils:
Penacook (in New Hampshire, adjacent to Concord), Pawtucket (at the
mouth of the Pawtucket River, now on the boundary between
Connecticut and Rhode Island) and the site on the Shawmut peninsula
now known as Boston. Colonial Indian magistrate Daniel Gookin
reported Pawtucket Falls to be another important gathering place; for the
Merrimack Valley Indians, it was the "ancient and capital seat" of the
area. Each spring, after wintering in relative isolation in woods that
broke the force of New England's bitter winds, tribes of the surrounding
area would gather at the falls for fishing and other activities. There,
according to a Lowell history, "they caught the salmon, sturgeon,
alewives and eels which then filled the river. These they cleaned,
smoked, and cured. In the evenings they attended to tribal business:
128
treaties, declarations of war, religious ceremonies, and the arrangement
of marriages."

Their waterside villages and encampments (many of which


subsequently developed as European settlement towns) were
strategically located; the river provided the Indians with a moderate
climate, easy access to fish and game, and a convenient system of
transportation. Although regular brush burning kept woods cleared for
easier foot passage, the native Americans here often used birchbark and
dugout canoes for long distance travel.

According to Dracut's historian Joseph M. Wilson, however, the


fact that the natives needed these rivers for transportation proved a flaw
in their character: "They located near a river which was a natural
highway for journeying in their canoes," Wilson claimed, ''as their
natural indolence caused them to be adverse to the labor of walking."

That judgment illustrates a serious problem with local white


historical records. It is not difficult for us to gain a sense of how Essex
County's Indians lived from the documentation provided by their
European successors in the area: most town histories contain a chapter or
two on the original inhabitants, describing their villages (frequently
stockaded), housing (wigwams and longhouses), foods (seasonal but
well-balanced diets), tools, household appliances, and sports. It is
another matter, however, to construct from these sources an accurate
picture of the Indian character. Our forebears were burdened by
prejudice against a culture they neither admired nor accepted, and
certainly did not understand. One particularly glaring misconstruction
was that of the native inhabitants' work style: frequently applied
descriptives include "idle," "slothful," "indolent" and "lazy." Clearly,
such assessment cannot hold up against more recent evaluations of
Indian society, such as Howard Russell's description of it, in Indian New
England before the Mayflower as "well ordered, socialistic. . . depending
on cooperative labor."

129
Apparently, their approach toward a day's work was just too
foreign for those early Puritans. 'You have to understand," explains
Mahony, "the Indians didn't believe in a forty-hour work week for the
sake of a forty-hour work week. If it took them two hours to do what
needed to be done that day, they took two hours to do it." Indeed, such
an approach might better be appraised as intelligent, rather than slothful.

Another local history, that of Haverhill, exemplifies the heavy-


handed and misinformed judgments white settlers typically dealt their
predecessors:

The aboriginal inhabitants of New England held a low place in


the scale of humanity. They had no civil government, no
religion, no letters, no history, no music, no poetry. The French
rightly named them Les Hommes des Bois―"Men Brutes of the
Forest." Except a power of enduring hunger and weather
acquired by their hunting habits, they were tender and not long-
lived; and though supple and agile, they always sank under
continuous labor. In them, the lymphatic temperament
predominated. They scarcely ever wept or smiled. Their slender
appetites required small indulgence, though at times a
gormandizing rage seemed to possess them. Though no instance
is recorded of their offering insult to a female captive, it must
be credited wholly to their natural coldness of constitution,
Their grave demeanor, which has so often been interpreted as
an indication of self-respect, was rather an indication of mere
stolid vacuity of emotion and thought, in constitution of body
and mind, they were far below the negro race.

Perhaps the most effective counteraction of those misconceptions


is the documented words of one of Essex County's most prominent
leaders: Masconomet, sagamore of Agawam, His replies to white
questioners, probing the extent of his commitment to Christian beliefs,
in which he had agreed to be instructed, significantly clarify the
philosophy on which his and his people's lives were based:
130
1st. Will you worship the only true God, who made heaven
and earth, and not blaspheme? Ans. 'We do desire to
reverence the God of the English and to speak well of Him,
because we see He doth better to the English, than other gods
do to others.' 2d. Will you cease from swearing falsely? Ans.
'We know not what swearing is.' 3d. Will you refrain from
working on the Sabbath, especially within the bounds of
Christian towns? Ans. "It is easy to us,―we have not much to
do any day, and we can well rest on that day." 4th. Will you
honor your parents and all your superiors? Ans. "It is our
custom to do so,―for inferiors to honor superiors." 5th. Will
you refrain from killing any man without just cause and just
authority? Ans, "This is good, and we desire so to do.' 6th.
Will you deny yourselves fornication, adultery, incest, rape,
sodomy, buggery, or bestiality? Ans. "Though some of our
people do these things occasionally, yet we count them
naught and do not allow them." 7th. Will you deny yourselves
stealing? Ans. 'We say the same to this as to the 6th question.'
8th. Will you allow your children to learn to read the word of
God, so that they may know God aright and worship him in
his own way? Ans, 'We will allow this as opportunity will
permit, and, as the English live among us, we desire so to do.'
9th. Will you refrain from idleness? Ans. 'We will'.

Sixteen hundred forty-four, the year Masconomet made those


statements, is a landmark in the history of Penacook country. In that
year, as historian C. E. Potter explains, Passaconaway, the
"acknowledged head of the most powerful Indian confederation east of
the Mohawks," signed a document drawn up by the English that
"voluntarily & without any constraint or persuasion, but of our own free
motion put ourselves our subjects Lands and estates under the
Government and protected by them according to their just laws."

131
Strange as this action―which effectively terminated
the independent Indian federation―seems for the inspired leader of a
freedom-loving people, it arose from that leader's singular depth of
wisdom and perception. As Mahony points out, "The history of the
relations between the whites and the reds in New England is not a series
of massacres and wars at all; it was one of many good-faith deeds and
treaties and good relations between the people. This," he claims," is
probably the direct result of Passaconaway's politics of pacifism." In the
early 1620s, that visionary―who reputedly stood seven feet tall and was
able to "make the trees dance and the rocks move, turn water into ice or
flame, bring dead serpents to life and make himself a burning fire-had an
insight about the ultimate European domination over Penacook territory.
For the next forty years, this president labored steadily to convince his
people to avoid self-destructive resistance to that inevitability. When in
1660, believing himself close to death (actually, he lived about twenty
years more), he abdicated the presidency in favor of his son
Wonnalancet, he gave the assembled Penacook tribes the following
farewell advice:

Take heed how you quarrel with the English


The white men are the sons of the morning.
Never make war with them. Sure as you light
the fires the breath of heaven will turn the
flame upon you and destroy you. Listen to my
advice. It is the last I shall be allowed to give
you. Remember it and live.

The federation over which Passaconaway presided, states Sidis,


formed in response to an invasion threatened in early 1621 by the
neighboring Iroquois league. (Sidis also notes that individual Iroquois
tribes had presented a threat to Penacook tribes since the 1400s and in
fact were "the sort of enemies from whom much could be learned that
could be used for the development of the ideas of liberty.") As a
coalition, the twelve Penacook tribes succeeded in discouraging the
Iroquois from attacking; and so―fortunately for us―it was the
132
democratic Wampanoags under Massasoit, rather than the oligarchic
Iroquois, who greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth and taught them not only
the basics of surviving New England winters but also the rudiments of
the future United States government.

One of Massasoit's most-renowned students, alleges Sidis, was the


Salem minister and founder of the "First Church Born in America" (as
commemorated on a plaque attached to the Daniel Low & Company on
Essex Street). When Puritan leaders threw Roger Williams out of town
for advocating freedom of worship, it was to Massasoit that he turned; it
was also Massasoit who persuaded a band of Narragansets to move off
their most fertile land in order to give Williams a place to continue
preaching liberty―the land Williams named Providence. And when
another dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, was similarly run out of Boston,
Massasoit allegedly performed the same service for her.

In the foreword to The Tribes and the States, Sidis introduces his
account as "a sort of story. . . in which verified historical facts and dates
are merely used to weld the whole together." He also writes, "But let us
hope that the new point of view will make the reader 'think it over'―that
it will excite his interest, and make him reconsider much that he has
taken for granted about his country."

That may be a lot to ask of the skeptical descendants of the


Puritans. But Mahony, following his own excursions to the libraries,
gravesites, and historical repositories of this area―"and listening to
the knowledge that already existed inside me"―has become convinced
of the significance of that "story." His objective now is to spread the
word.

And spreading it is. "The oral tradition is alive and well," affirms
Mahony, whose own enthusiastic advocacy is certainly sustaining that
tradition. This individual would like nothing better than for us to put
aside genealogy charts for a time and cultivate instead our understanding
of the people whose land and tradition of independence we inherited; as

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an active member of the Committee to Found the Penacook Museum, he
is working to facilitate such endeavors.

Mahony may have a long road ahead to set us straight in our


understanding of American history―but, nonetheless, given the state of
the planet two and a half centuries after our ancestors landed on these
consciousness-laden shores, it might not be a bad idea to tune into the
spirit that gave birth to our independence. With due respect to the
patriots of Ipswich, we could certainly give it a try.

Did the Indians Teach the Pilgrims Democracy?


Yes, says manuscript uncovered by local man―and therein lies a tale

by Cathy Spence

Ipswich (MA) Chronicle, Sept. 5, 1984, 14b - 16b.

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WILLIAM JAMES SIDIS was a 'boy wonder who could
speak five languages at age five and who graduated from
Harvard at sixteen. But he went on to live a seemingly
obscure life, working at menial jobs, and when he died in
1944 Time magazine called him a "prodigious failure." But
now Ipswich resident Dan Mahony has discovered a book by
Sidis that shows the opposite was true―and also puts forth a
startling theory about the influence of the New England
Indians on the early colonists. This is the only known photo
of Sidis as an adult.

At the age of 5, William Sidis could speak five languages and read
Plato in the original Greek. At the age of 8, he passed the entrance exam
into Harvard but had to wait three years to be admitted, whiling away
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the time by taking mathematics courses at Tufts. In 1909, at age 11, he
was finally admitted as Harvard's youngest scholar, and graduated cum
laude at the age of 16. But when he died 30 years later, Time magazine
ran a full-page obituary of Sidis that called him "a prodigious failure,"
and for all his adult life he was hounded by a media that called him "a
burnt-out genius."

Nearly four decades later, an Ipswich man, Dan Mahony, has found
the most conclusive evidence to date that William Sidis was not as the
press portrayed him. In a battered suitcase in a Brookline attic, Mahony
uncovered a manuscript that he says "should revolutionize New England
history."

Sidis wrote a 600-page manuscript that talks mainly about "what is


missing from New England history: an account of what was already here
when the White Man got here," according to Mahony.

What was here in New England was a federation of 200,000


Indians. Sidis says that not only were they here, but that they were an
important influence, and that "the characteristics of the various parts or
the country (can be) treated as directly traceable to the varying
characteristics and customs of the early tribes of the same regions."

A Classless Society

In contrast to many other Indian cultures, among the dozen tribes


that made up the local Penacook federation "there was nothing known
which could remotely correspond to, or give any inkling of, any division
of caste, class, or rank―probably the only completely democratic
governments that ever existed in the history of the world." This was a
true democracy and equality which might well prepare their country
(now known as New England) for being, "at all times down to the
present, the cradle of the spirit or liberty," wrote Sidis. What he calls
Sidis' "Continuity Theory" has been "transforming my life," according to
Mahony. But if what he found in the manuscript was startling, his search
for it came from the feeling that "no matter what the press said, Sidis
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was a man that had changed minds, would change minds, with the force
or his intellect."

"I guess I'm what you could call a Sidis enthusiast," he says,
grinning broadly. His search for Sidis' work goes back seven years to
when Mahony had a research grant in child development from Columbia
University. In the card catalogue, he found 17 books by a Harvard
physician named Boris Sidis. "He was the first one in this country to
advocate strong pre-school education and he believed the ages of two to
five were crucial, almost a heresy back around the turn of the century
when he wrote."

By chance, Mahony came across a mention of Boris Sidis' son in


The New York Times. When he followed it up, he found "an astonishing
amount of material. There were more than 150 articles on William Sidis.
He was in 'Ripley's Believe It or Not' many times. He made the front
page of The New York Times 19 times."

'Boy Wonder'

There were basically two kinds of articles. As a child, William


Sidis made good copy as a Boy Wonder. "Reporters used to go in teams
to corner him on his way back and forth to school: Some would grab
him while others got his picture." But when he graduated from Harvard,
there was a change in the media coverage. "The New York Times ran a
piece saying it would be interesting to see if Sidis lived up to his early
promise, or 'whether he would go the way of so many like him.'"

From then on, everything Sidis did seemed to confirm the media's
gloomy expectations of him. Sidis took a series of low-paying jobs, and
with each one, the press was on the scene to report his "failure." When
he published a book on trolley-car transfers, a hobby he named
"peridromophilly," he was ridiculed as trivial-minded. When he died of a
brain hemorrhage at 46, public opinion seemed unanimous: He was a
washout.

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"But the more I read about him, the more I felt something was
missing," says Mahony. "I finally realized it was Sidis himself who was
missing. What was he thinking all this time? What was he doing when
he wasn't at his part-time jobs?" To Mahony, reports like the one in the
Times that Sidis was earning $23 a week as a clerk in 1924 did not mean
much: "Einstein did his best work while he was working at a routine job
in a patent office. The great poet Wallace Stevens worked for an
insurance company. The question to me was, what was he doing with the
rest of his time?"

Undiscovered Manuscripts

Then, in a book by Abraham Sperling titled "Psychology for the


Millions," Mahony found what he was looking for. In a chapter on Sidis,
Sperling said that Sidis was not a burnt-out genius, but a great thinker,
and that he himself had seen a dozen manuscripts in a trunk that Sidis
had written.

By this time, Mahony had found out more about Sidis,


accomplishments: He'd perfected the perpetual calendar, taught study
groups on the Okamakammesset Indians, and had a book called "The
Animate and the Inanimate" privately printed; a theory of the universe
that predicted black holes 30 years before they were discovered. Under a
pseudonym, he even wrote a weekly column called "Meet Boston,"
containing little-known facts about the city.

When he searched out people who had known Sidis before he died
in 1944, Mahony found "they all remembered the same man―not the
media's 'failure,' but a brilliant man with a natural dignity, actively
studying and writing until the end of his life." When Mahony met Sidis'
sister, Helena, she knew about the trunk Sperling had mentioned in his
book. But when they tracked it down, it was empty.

Months later, following a lead from Helena Sidis, Mahony found


"The Tribes and the States" in a distant cousin's attic. In 1981, Mahony
turned the copyright over to the Wampanoag Nation, although Helena
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Sidis retains royalties of authorship. A shortened version will be
published later this year by Penacook Press of Scituate.

Iroquois Ideas

According to Sidis, white men in New England picked up politics


from the Penacook Federation in the same way the Penacooks had
learned from their neighbors, the Iroquois. Five separate Iroquois tribes
banded together to attempt "a permanent peace conference." Sidis says,
"It is the Iroquois Federation that started all this train of
ideas―federation of nations, disarmament of borders, written
constitutions (wampums), limitations of the powers of government―in
short, it was this which laid the foundation for most of the modem
advances in the art of government." So successful was this political
union that the New England Indians had to band together as protection
from the combined strength of the more aggressive Iroquois, But while
the Iroquois Federation had drawn together the separate councils of the
five nations, "the Penacook federal council was an independent body
composed of representatives selected by the members of the tribes, both
men and women voting, and both men and women being eligible to the
council, without regard to heredity―the first time such a form of
federation had ever been attempted anywhere in the world." One of the
tribes, the Penacook, gave its name to the entire federation, which also
included the Wampanoags of Cape Cod, the Saugus and Agawam from
the North Shore, the Naumkeag from Salem, and seven other tribes.
Collectively, they were known as The Pine Tree People.

"The emblem of the Penacook Federation was the Pine Tree, the
totem which was sacred to the Penacook people, and which represented
and symbolized the federation. This emblem, in later American history,
reappears repeatedly in the Penacook country as denoting liberty,"
according to Sidis.

Pine Tree Symbolism

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Dan Mahony points out that the Massachusetts Bay Colony flag
shows two pine trees and an Indian. The flag flown at Bunker Hill was a
pine tree flag, as was the first U. S. Navy flag. For many years the
Massachusetts state flag had a pine tree on the back of it.

Within the federation, the council of the Pine Tree people


controlled the dams built as fishing weirs which later supplied the power
for New England's mill towns. They were also overseers for what Sidis
calls "the system of public and neutral couriers" along regular routes.
The couriers were used by the white men, even in times of war with the
Indians because of their neutrality, and the routes became roads like the
local Route 1A, one of the first paved roads in the Western hemisphere.

Sidis also says that the New England Indians of each town also met
not merely to keep check on their representatives, but to settle important
public questions directly, and over the representatives' heads; this
furnished a prototype for the 'town meeting' which was and still is the
chief form of local government among the white settlers in the same part
of America." As the capital of the Saugus nation, Agawam, which later
became Ipswich, must have been the site of many such meetings.

Sidis knew he was presenting many things which "will doubtless be


difficult for the average reader to swallow." But he offers them openly,
honestly: "But let us also hope that the new point of view will make the
reader 'think it over'―that it will excite his interest, and make him
reconsider much that he has taken for granted about his country."

Says Mahony, "I think you can admire the resourcefulness and
adaptability of the first settlers more in " Sidis' version than you can in
some glossy picture book that pretends the white man always bad it all
together."

Founding of Plymouth

In fact, says Sidis, the Pilgrims were equipped with a map from
"The Plymouth Company. . . printed in a style similar to the modern
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'sucker' real estate literature, showing a town every few miles along the
coast, all named after English communities." The towns never
materialized, except for "Plymouth," which the settlers themselves
founded. And an agreement was drawn up "whereby all the passengers
on the ship agreed to abide by whatever government should be
established among them as soon as they should settle down. This
'Mayflower Compact,' as it is commonly called, is generally given
as one of the original instances of a democratically written constitution;
but it was actually hardly more than a recorded oath of allegiance to the
future rulers of the colony."

But the first ruler they chose didn't last out the rough winter. And
the next they chose in the Spring, John Carver, had no experience with
government, "So the church had to handle the government of the colony
for the time being. . . but it was reorganized and democratized under
Wampanoag influence."

If that first winter was hard on the Pilgrims, it was harder on the
Indians, who were not immune to the white men's diseases. Sidis
estimates that of over 200,000 Indians in the Penacook Federation, fewer
than 50,000 survived that first winter.

According to John Grimes, curator at Salem 's Peabody Museum,


lndians are not usually considered as an influence in New England
because "so many of them were wiped out so quickly by diseases, and
the ones that were left became scattered."

What seems surprising is that the Indians who were left were
friendly to the white men despite the many deaths. Dan Mahony points
to early deeds and treaties as evidence or the New England Indians'
interest in democratic government among the white men.

"Here is a copy of the Penacook deed for Rockingham County," he


says, producing an ornate document. "It specifies that all allotments be
granted 'by vote of a major part of the inhabitants.' The word 'lot' is said
to have originated with the Indian leader Massasoit who, when asked by
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the English about how to apportion the land they'd been given,
recommended that they draw lots to be fair"

Absorption of Values

Mahony interprets Sidis "not as saying the white men deliberately


copied the red, but as saying there was an absorption of the values
around them. Sidis is showing that the American political system is a
blend of two influences, the European. with an emphasis on hierarchy
and property, and the New England Indian culture, which was one of
great political insight and democratization. It 's only been in the '80s
with books like Howard Russell's 'Indian New England Before the
Mayflower,' that we're beginning to realize politics was an art form to
New England Indians."

Sidis even claims that the members of the Penacook Federation in


what is now Middlesex County, the Okamakammessets, although nearly
extinct by the time of the American Revolution, passed on many of their
principles to the Sons or Liberty, including their idea of "leaderless
rebellions," and their preference for tactics that did not involve loss of
life. Typical of several early skirmishes was "The Boston Tea Party."
The identity of of the white men was a well-kept secret, but they were
dressed as Mohawks, enemies of the Penacooks, in a dig at the British,
who were their allies. Sidis surmises that the regalia may "have come
from the supply captured by some Penacook tribe during the last war."

The legacy of the Indians lives on in sometimes strange ways in the


names of places and things all around us. The tribe that Sidis claims was
influential in the early days of the Revolution, the Okamakammessetts,
supplied the name for a fire engine in Marlborough. When the fire
engine was bought by the town of Marblehead in 1800, the firemen
thought it might be bad luck to change the name, like changing the name
of a ship. There is still a group of "Okoes" in Marblehead who look after
the old hand-drawn pump fire engine and take it out on parade.

A Private Man
142
But if Indian names are a reminder of the Indians who once lived
here, another example of Penacook influence might be the life of
William Sidis himself, who, according to Mahony, came to absorb many
of their values as he studied them. "One of the reasons Sidis didn't take
issue with the press was that he came to value his independence, his
privacy, above all else," Mahony says. "He didn't care if he was
ridiculed for his plain lifestyle, for not earning more money. Many white
men treated the Indians with contempt for living simply. The Penacooks
genuinely did not understand the white man's idea of 'owning' property
and this was really exploited,"

Sidis also learned a lot about detachment and tolerance from the
Indians, according to Mahony, "The Indians came up with the idea of
incorporating dissent within a system The Indian enlightenment was
eclecticism: include everything. Accept all the tribes in a federation,
have respect for each other's ways."

As proof, Mahony cites the record of an interview with


Masconomet, sagamore of Agawam (Ipswich), who is buried in
Hamilton Cemetery. Asked by white questioners in 1644, "1st. Will you
worship the only true God, who made heaven and earth, and not
blaspheme?" Masconomet replied, "We do desire to reverence the God
of the English and to speak well of Him, because we see He doth better
to the English, than other gods do to others." Asked, "Will you allow
your children to learn to read the word of God?" he replied, "We will
allow this as opportunity will permit, and, as the English live among us,
we desire so to do."

Like Passaconaway, the chief of the Penacook Federation,


Masconomet seems to have agreed to all the English asked of him, not
under threat of force, but with a gentle reasonableness.

Tolerance of Dissent

Even conservative history books record the influence of Massasoit


on Roger Williams, a friendship which may have led to Williams'
143
ejection from his colony for what Sidis calls "the heresy of freedom of
belief in religious tolerance." Massasoit gave land to Williams and to
another dissenter, Anne Hutchinson, to found what are now Providence
and Newport.

"The Indians never thought controversy was bad. They had a great
tolerance for dissent, for beliefs that were different from their own, Sidis
really identified with this. People who knew him said he would never
argue with anyone who disagreed with him. He automatically accepted
their right to think differently about things. He calls 'The Tribes and the
States' "an interesting alternative version of history," saying he hopes
'the truth will move you,' but that "I attempt to explain rather than
advocate,'" according to Mahony.

It was typical of Sidis, Mahony says, not to quote sources in his


manuscript other than the poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier (an
Amesbury resident) and that or the Okamakammessetts, but Mahony has
found some clues about other sources: "We know, for instance, that
Sidis himself spoke 32 Algonquin languages, those of the Penacooks. He
also read virtually every known early newspaper. And we have the
testimony of friends that Sidis could read wampum belts. Sidis talks
about these as important 'written' records, but he never says that he could
read them. That's typical of Sidis, who would hate to be treated as an
authority on anything."

Mahony bears out Sidis' Continuity Theory of people absorbing the


characteristics of others they become involved with. Reluctant to have
his photo taken or reveal much about himself, he asked. "Do I have to be
in this at all? Shouldn't this just be about Sidis?" Like Sidis, he supports
his research by taking diverse part-time jobs: He works half a week with
alcoholic derelicts In Boston, something he began to do on the Bowery
when he was in graduate school in New York.

He gives computer lessons, specializing in working with children,


and is currently tutoring several handicapped children on the computer.

144
"This might be a very good time to reconsider the legacy of the
local Indians," Mahony says. "We might learn some things from them
that could really help us now."

Sidis chose for pseudonyms names of persons who had contributed to


society but who were mostly unknown.

His sister, Helena, told me of "Barry Mulligan," and "Parker


Greene." I learned of a fourth, John W. Shattuck, the "author" of The
Tribes and the States, from its unpublished manuscript which I found in
a suitcase in the attic a distant Sidis relative. (The suitcase, which
Helena had directed me to, had her name-tag attached.) In the same
suitcase were WJ's "Meet Boston" articles written under the pen name of
"Jacob Marmor."

Sidis may have invented one too. In the case of Notes on the
Collection of Transfers, I wonder if "Frank Folupa" was derived from:
Frank (=French), and fallu-pas (French for wasn't practical or
necessary).

The Library of Congress Online Catalog now acknowledges five


Sidis pseudonyms:

DATABASE: Library of Congress Online Catalog

INFORMATION FOR: Sidis, William James, 1898-1944

Scope Note:

145
Search also For works of this author entered under other names, search also under:
Folupa, Frank, 1898-1944.
Greene, Parker, 1898-1944.
Marmor, Jacob, 1898-1944.
Mulligan, Barry, 1898-1944.
Shattuck, John W., 1898-1944.

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