Saturday, November 1, 2014

The First Death of Father Schleyer

Father Schleyer, at the
time of his not death
In October 1888, the word went out that Father Johann Martin Schleyer, the inventor of Volapük had died. It made the newspapers across the country over a number of days, though some simply ran a brief item reading “The death is announced of Father Schleyer, the inventor of Volapuk,” or some close variant. The source of this information isn’t quite clear. The Los Angeles Daily Herald included it in a column of “Cable Sparks” on October 10, 1888. On the same day, Der Deutsche Correspondent ran an article with about the same information, datelined Paris.

This was repeated in several newspapers over the next few days. Some even condensed it down to “Schleyer, the inventor of Volapuk, is dead.”
But the Evening Bulletin of Maysville, Kentucky expanded it to “in Paris,” in their October 11 edition, probably mistaking the dateline for the place of the incident.

On October 18, the Mexico Weekly Ledger of Mexico, Missouri, unkindly called Schleyer “the inventor of Volpuk and the slayer of the English language.” But the Fergus County Argus (Lewiston, Montana) expanded on things, providing a bit of sympathy to the obituary.
Father Schleyer, the inventor of Volapuk is dead. A universal language ws what he endeavored to introduce. Failing in this sphere, he has gone to that bourn where all, probably, speak one tongue.
And in Edenton, North Carolina, they needed a new atlas at the offices of the Fisherman & Farmer.
The death is announced of Father Schleyer, the parish priest of Constance, France, and the inventor of the new language, known as Volapuk.
Constance, or more appropriately Konstanz, is in Germany. It tried to join Switzerland, but instead remained part of Germany (this all happened in the fifteenth century)[1]

The announcement of the death of Schleyer didn’t stop the snark about Volapük. The Burlington Weekly Free Press wrote on October 26 that
The death of Father Schleyer, the inventor of Volapuk is announced. One of these days the death of his invented language will be announced.
The more sympathetic obituaries came out later. An item ran in several newspapers[2] which summed us his accomplishments and the success of Volapük noting that
Father Schleyer was the inventor of Volapuk, Yet, when he died, the big New York papers devoted but few lines each to his death.
The obituary started with the words
The parish priest of the beautiful little town of Constance, Baden, Germany, died the other day.

He lived quietly, for many years on the historic green island of Mainau, surrounded by the limped waters of Lake Constance. His name was Schleyer, and he was a very remarkable man—a scholar, a poet, by many considered a genius. His brain conceived and evolved a wonderful thing—a universal language, to be spoken and written by all nations.
On October 21, 1888, the Abbeville Press and Banner of Abbeville, South Carolina announced that “A fund to his memory will be raised by his followers.” Other newspapers also reported this piece of information.

And all these lovely words were quite unnecessary. Not that one shouldn’t say pleasant things when people die, but Father Schleyer hadn’t died. Johann Martin Schleyer died in August 1912. By the perspective of 1888, his death was nearly twenty-four years away. In that same year, the French newspapers had published an erroneous report of the death of Alfred Nobel[3]

The Jamestown Weekly Alert reported on November 1, 1888
The Author of Volapuk Not Dead
NEW YORK. Nov. 1.—Charles E. Sprague,[4] the volapuk scholar, has information that Professor Schleyer, the inventor of the universal language, is not dead as was reported. He has been very ill, but is recovering.
The St. Paul Daily Globe reported the same, under the title “Schleyer Still Lives,” repeating the error from the Alert on Sprague’s name, but remembering to capitalize Volapuk.

The news seemed to be slow in getting out. There’s little more information on this, when you might expect newspapers to be rushing out their retractions.

In fact, on November 10, the Sacramento Daily Record-Union ran an item that had run when newspapers might not be blamed for thinking Schleyer was dead.
Volapuk did not die with Father Schleyer, and we hope there is peace in heaven for the man who, in translating into his new lingo two of the sweetest words in every language, deliberately called a maiden a volume and a bride a ji-gam.—New York Sun.

Except he wasn't dead. The Wichita Eagle ran the long obituary on November 23, weeks after it should have been generally known that Schleyer wasn’t dead. For all that, while I found more than a dozen references in October 1888 to Schleyer’s death, I only found seven in November 1888 to his not dying. I guess reporting that you were wrong didn’t merit as much ink. Schleyer later said that
he had been dangerously ill and even received the last sacraments of the church, but he had been cured by the baths of Baden.
That was reported in the Evening Star of Washington, D.C. on November 5, 1888, taking their information from the Volapukabled Zenodik. The news of Schleyer’s recovery moved slowly. Even though Volapük was at its height, people were already predicting its demise, though whether they were prescient or it was just a hope is another matter.

  1. Wikipedia, of course.  ↩
  2. The Daily Times, Richmond, Virginia, October 23.
    The New North-West, Deer Lodge, Montana, October 26.
    Ottawa Free Trader, Ottawa, Illinois, October 27.  ↩
  3. This was picked up by the Sun on April 16, 1888. I can trot out this same theme in April and write about the papers’ premature treatment of Nobel’s death. The sun called him one of the world’s “greatest experimental chemists.” In any case, 1888 clearly was a good year to announce the deaths of living people.  ↩
  4. Reported as “Spragge” by the Alert.  ↩

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