Self-promotion by the White Mountains’ “Arctic Philosopher”?

Anonymous, writing under the pseudonym “Victoria by Albert” [but John Merrill?] / G.F. Kimball, Printer, Royal Despatch of Her Majesty to Hon. John Merrill, Flume House, N. H. East Canaan, NH, [1857?]

Broadside, 21 ¾”h x 10 ¾”w at printed border on a 23 ¾”h x 13 ¾”w sheet, uncolored. Minor staining, area of moderate discoloration at lower left, long horizontal printer’s crease, minor wear along folds and at edges. Still, very good or better for such a large, separately-issued item.

An off-the-wall and extremely rare broadside purportedly reprinting the text of a letter addressed to White Mountains legend John Merrill (but quite possibly written by him), bearing commendations and further information from Queen Victoria and the “Grand Lama” on Merrill’s theory of a hollow Earth.

In the mid-19th century John Merrill (1802-1892) became a White Mountains celebrity. He attained fame by dispensing hollow-earth theories while rowing tourists around “The Pool,” a huge natural basin in the Pemigewasset River in Franconia Notch. On the basin’s walls Merrill drew charts of the hollow planet, which he used to explain his views. These appear in numerous photographs and are faintly visible in Thomas Hill’s painting “Merrill’s Pool, Franconia Notch”, and traces of them are said to have remained visible into the early 2000s.

In 1860 Merrill published his Cosmogony; or Thoughts on Philosophy, in which he propounded his hollow-earth views, which had been kept alive in the 19th century by the work of John Cleves Symmes Jr. (1780-1829).

“The evidence is abundant and clear that this earth is not a solid sphere, but a hollow world, more flattened at the extremities than is usually admitted; that it is open at the northern and southern extremities admitting heat light, air and space inside; that there are continents and oceans within as habitable and navigable as those on the outside.” (Cosmogony, p. 8)

Merrill was sometimes known as “the Philosopher of the Pool, and sometimes went by “the Arctic Philosopher” because of his contention that the earth was open at the Poles (McGrath, p. 142). Merrill, whom one author described as “a queer combination of the hermit and the prosperous Yankee” (McGrath, p. 143), apparently took home enough from his summer ferrying to live comfortably for the rest of the year.

The broadside
The broadside purports to reprint a letter sent Merrill by an admirer, one “Lord Napier”, writing on behalf of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Alid El Kader, and “the Grand Lama”. The text of the “letter” appears in both type and a “facsimile” of Napier’s handwriting, and is surmounted by images of the recto and verso of the envelope in which it was supposedly transmitted. Surrounding the whole is border employing a repeating foliate design.

Writing on July 4, 1857 from the “Aerial Mansion, High Pillacoddy, Royal Ramparts, Thames Tunnel, London”, Napier offers the “most transatlantic compliments of ALID EL KADER; and to acknowledge the receipt of your most learned, antiloquent, and circumambient State Document, dated August 28th, 1854.” I have found no trace of this alleged August 1854 document, but in any event El Kader “concurs in [Merrill’s] new views of the hole in the earth; and believes it was caused by a derangement of the North Pole—affected by the scintillations of the hyperborean Aurora Borealis.”

From the date on the “letter”, I tentatively date the broadside to 1857, though that’s just a guess. The broadside was presumably written by Merrill himself, as it was printed by G.F. Kimball, who was also responsible for the Cosmogony. If so, Merrill could have intended the broadside either as a promotional exercise for his magnum opus or as part of an extended practical joke. Alternatively, the broadside may have been published by others (a friend of Merrill? Dartmouth students?) as a piece of satire.  Whatever the case, Merrill saw fit to reprint the text of Napier’s “letter” in the Appendix to the 1871 second edition of his Cosmogony, along with testimonials said to come from Louis Napolean, the Minister of China, and the Prince Saxe Coberge.

Merrill and his broadside merited a long mention in “A Summer Experience”, an article by “H. K.” in the November 1861 number of the Yale Literary Magazine:

“Here is an old man in a barge, into which you enter, and he paddles you around the narrow circuit of the Pool.  When you have reached the side toward the Falls, where the water is from twenty to thirty feet deep, but clear as crystal, he begins to unfold to you his favorite theory; (for you must know that, is his own estimation at least, the old man is quite a philosopher;) that the earth is a hollow sphere, inhabited on the inside, as well as the outside.  He maintains his position by arguments entirely original and irrefutable; has an answer ready for every question, and seeks to proselyte you.  He reads a letter he pretends to have received from Queen Victoria, -which I here insert. (Yale Literary Magazine, vol. XXVII no. II—Nov., 1861—pp. 66-67)

The article goes on the reprint exactly the text of the broadside.

This example of the broadside is offered with a stereoview of “The Philosopher of the Pool” by John P. Soule of Boston. It shows Merrill, dressed all in plaid, gazing into the middle distance as he reclines in his boat. The Pool’s crystalline surface and rocky waterfall are visible in the background.

A delightfully harebrained broadside on the hollow Earth theory of New Hampshire’s “Arctic Philosopher,” a true New England original.

OCLC #773035638 (Boston Public, Dartmouth, and Peabody Essex Museum, as of April 2024) and probably #57279084 (“Royal Dispatch to John Merrill” a “broadside 24 x 14” held by the New Hampshire Historical Society). I am aware of another example in a private New England collection. Not in Bent, Bibliography of the White Mountains, which does however list the Cosmogony. Some background from McGrath, Robert L. Gods in Granite: The Art of the White Mountains of New Hampshire (Syracuse University Press, 2001).