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"You may not quite recall my name, but certainly you ought to..."

Apr 16, 2010 12:05 PM | 1 comment

On Sundays, beginning sometime around 1895, there began to appear in the pages of the Eagle a column called Tricks and Puzzles. Unlike Sam Loyd's eponymous puzzle column which first appeared in 1896, Tricks and Puzzles was not the work of one riddling mastermind, but rather a column created by Eagle readers for Eagle readers. However, don't think that this column was proof of some conundrum-loving community of puzzle-heads bound by the mysteries of five-letter double diamonds and scriptural enigmas; the motivating factor here was rather simple: cold hard cash. For the contributor offering the most ingenious puzzle, enigma, or conundrum the Eagle promised a prize of $3. And in an effort to be completely fair and impartial in delivering this prize, the Eagle even hired an outside judge with no connection to the paper to select the weekly winner. The rules of this regular competition were clearly stated and invariably printed at the top of each Sunday's column: only original work was accepted and contributors should write in ink, on one side of the paper only, and send answers and address seperate from the design. Notice of acceptance or rejection was published two weeks after receipt of the puzzle and for those rejected--like "May F.S." and "J.H.W." here--notices could be particularly harsh.

It's no wonder then that many of the contributors chose either a pseudonym or else the faceless trinity of their own initials as an epistolary handle. Looking through a few Tricks and Puzzles columns I found a list of contributors almost as enigmatic as any of the published puzzles: F.U.T.; B.R.S.; SPHINX; G.M.T.; M.J.L. They read like the enciphered plans for--who knows?--some Alpine reconnaissance or desert rendezvous perhaps. But then, in an issue of the Eagle dated September 15, 1895, I discovered one very familiar name--albeit an unfamiliar one at the time--printed in its entirety and seated just beneath a riddle. The name, printed in all caps, was that of UPTON SINCLAIR, JR.

Born on September 20, 1878, Sinclair was just about a week shy of his 17th birthday when this riddle appeared in the Eagle. According to his memoir, American Outpost, Sinclair was living in Manhattan on West 23rd Street at the time, enrolled at the College of the City of New York, and making a living publishing jokes for any publication willing to pay--usually Life, Judge, Puck, or the Evening Journal. His weekly budget at the time was slender: $1.25 for a top-story hall in a lodging house; $3.00 for two meals a day; and 25c for a clean collar and miscellaneous luxuries. And though he never mentions contributing anything to the Eagle, it's hard to imagine a young Sinclair passing on the chance to secure a week's meal ticket simply by publishing a 16 line riddle.

Afterall, $3.00 was no trivial amount in 1895. Had he decided to forego his board at the eating-house, Sinclair could have splurged on the kinds of goods advertised that day in the Eagle. For $3.00 he could have purchased a full sized muslin gown with tucked yoke and cambric ruffle at 39c; a steel enameled cuspidor for 39c; dog chains for 15c; a ruby gas globe for 25c; and a carving knife and fork--with stylized stag handles no less--for $1.29. And had he ventured out into the streets of Brooklyn in such a ghoulish get-up he likely could have used his remaining change to bribe any authorities looking to lock him up in the Flatbush Asylum.

However, it was not to be. Unfortunately for the young Sinclair--and perhaps accounting for his one-time appearance in the Tricks and Puzzles column--he did not win the prize. The $3.00 puzzle purse went instead to one E.T. Weymouth of 5 Macon Street for the following problem: 

And just to verify that E.T. Weymouth was not some pseudonymous extra-terrestrial, I checked the 1900 census and the 1897 Brooklyn City Directory where, it turns out, Elisha T. Weymouth is listed as a very real 57 year old steam-fitter who was born in Maine.

As for Upton Sinclair, his name would not appear again in the Eagle until March 29th, 1901 when, in a column called "To-day's Book News," the publication of his novel Springtime and Harvest--later to be renamed King Midas--was announced. Judging by Sinclair's own description of the genesis of this novel we can see why the joke writing and riddle writing had stopped for this earnest young man.

And though the editors of the Eagle promised to read his novel, not many other would-be readers made the same pledge. However, just 9 years after his losing riddle appeared in the Eagle, and 3 years after the above notice was published, Upton Sinclair was living in Chicago among the wage-slaves of the Beef Trust working on the book that would make his name. In 1906, after a handful of rejections, The Jungle was published by Doubleday, Page and Company. And soon thereafter, rather than toiling on jokes in his top-story lodging house hall room, Sinclair was raising his cup at the White House with Teddy Roosevelt discussing ways to solve a very tough conundrum indeed--how to clean-up one of America's largest and most corrupt industries.


10/23/2011 7:48:56 PM #

Love this post, Ben. Went back and read some of your others. This is fun! Local, of an era...I wrote a post on my own blog, I was so inspired. Thanks for the words.

Schuyler Brown