Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Professor and the Tax Collector

Did he learn it?
Samuel Schlenker, the Brenham, Texas tax collector in 1902 did not make a mark on the early Esperanto movement. He doesn’t show up in any of the early lists of Esperantists. But, given the paucity of prior reference to Esperanto in the Texas newspapers, Mr. Schlenker may have been the first Texan to come into contact with Esperanto.

As often happens in these early news items, the article leaves me with lots of questions, some of which are probably unanswerable. As the article notes, Mr. Schlenker received the book on Esperanto, “from his friend, Prof. R. H. Geoghegan.” Richard H. Geoghegan is likely the first English-speaker to learn Esperanto, and gave the first English version of Dr. Esperanto’s International Language.[1] How does a German-born tax collector living in Texas become the friend of an Irish-born linguist living in Washington State? When did their paths cross?

The Houston Daily Post included the discussion of Mr. Sclenker’s book acquisition in a October 21, 1902 item collecting various news items from Brenham, Texas, under the title “Brenham Budget.”
Tax Collector Schlenker is in receipt of a card from his friend, Prof. R. H. Geoghegan of Washington and a book explaining the new international language, called “Esperanto,” together with a book telling about its advantage and explaining how easy it is to pronounce and how simple is the grammar of it. Dr. L. Zamenhoff, a Russian, is the author, and the translation and English explanation is furnished by Prof. Geoghegan. It is based on all modern languages, and looks as it it would be easy to learn. Mr. Schlenker thinks it a great improvement on Volapuk.
It seems clear that before his exposure to Esperanto, Samuel Schlenker at least took a look at Volapük, and was sufficiently impressed by his friend’s gift that he told the press. As I said, no word if he actually learned it. Also, no word that he was German-born or that his name was Samuel. I had to find that out myself.

There aren’t that many Schlenkers in the 1900 Census for Brenham, Texas. And Samuel lists his profession as “tax collector.” He was born on 18 September, 1853 in Kirchheim unter Teck, Württemberg, Germany, the son of Christian and Heinrike (Dietrich) Schlenker. The Schlenkers gave their son the triple-barreled name Johann Jakob Samuel, which he seems to have quickly pared down to Samuel, and even just Sam. He emigrated to the United States in 1870, moving directly to Brenham (according to his passport application),[2] where he became the tax collector in 1884, and seems to have remained in that position until he died, which happened only a few years after Geoghegan sent him the book about Esperanto.[3] He died in 8 April, 1907, a just as others in the United States were starting to develop an interest in Esperanto. He was only 53 years old. He left a wife and a 22-year-old son.

Samuel’s brother, Gottlob Eugen Immanuel Schlenker, followed Samuel to Brenham, but seems to have made far less of a success at things. Three years younger than Samuel, Gottlob died in 1879, after only about six years in Texas, just a little over the age of 23.

Yet with all the information that is available about “tax collector Schlenker,” on the details I really want to know (how did he become friends with Richard Geoghegan? did he learn Esperanto?) the record seems mute. Was Samuel Schlenker one of the first Esperantists in Texas? The jury has to return the decision of insufficient evidence.

  1. Geoghegan’s book is fifth on the list of Esperanto books in the Adresaro de la Personoj Kiuj Ellernis la Lingvon Esperanto (1889) right after those books by Zamenhof. Subsequently, Henry Phillips of the American Philosophical Society created an adaptation, which appears at #22 on the list. The Adresaro is dated 18 September 1889, but claims to have books published up to October, 1889.  ↩
  2. Wikipedia notes that Brenham has a German Heritage Festival each May, probably an indication of an early population of German immigrants, like Mr. Schlenker.  ↩
  3. This is most certainly not a case of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” In no way would the receipt of a book on Esperanto lead to death. ↩

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