09.09.2014

Chubbed! Part 1

Edgar Lee Masters

The Scopes trial in 1925 attracted a lot of interesting characters to Dayton, Tennessee. In Evolution in the Courtroom: A Reference Guide (2002), Randy Moore lists “circus performers, Lewis Levi Johnson Marshall (‘Absolute Ruler of the Entire World, without Military, Naval or other Physical Force’), Elmer Chubb (who claimed that he could ‘withstand the bite of any venomous serpent’), flat-Earth advocate Wilb[u]r Glenn Voliva [about whom I wrote in “Voliva!”], ‘some of the world’s champion freaks,’ monkeys (Mindy the Monkey arrived in Dayton with golf clubs and presented several piano concerts) and monkey-based advertisements by local merchants, religious fanatics (including a hairy prophet who billed himself as ‘John the Baptist the Third’), and unabashed religiosity” in attendance. But I recently happened to notice that in that list of oddballs, there’s a ringer: Elmer Chubb.

It’s true, of course, that there were handbills in circulation in Dayton advertising Chubb. They read, ignoring a few typographical niceties, as follows:

COMING! COMING!

TO DAYTON, TENNESSEE

During the Trial of the Infidel Scopes

ELMER CHUBB, LL.D., D.D.

FUNDAMENTALIST AND MIRACLE WORKER

MIRACLES PERFORMED ON THE PUBLIC SQUARE!

Dr. Chubb will allow himself to be bitten by any poisonous snake, scorpion, gila monster, or other reptile. He will also drink any poison brought to him. . . In demonstration of the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as found in the 16th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark:

And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils, they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing it shall in no wise hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.

PUBLIC DEMONSTRATION of healing, casting out devils, and prophesying. Dr. Chubb will also preach in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Coptic, Egyptian, and in the lost languages of the Etruscans and the Hittites.

TESTIMONIALS—all favorable but one:

With my own eyes I saw Dr. Chubb swallow cyanide of potassium. WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN, CHRISTIAN STATESMAN

Dr. Chubb simply believes the word of God, and his power follows. REV. J. FRANK NORRIS

I was possessed of devils, and Dr. Chubb cast them out of me. Glory to God. MAGDALENA RABACK, R.F.D. 3, DUNCAN GROVE, MICH.

When under the spell of divine inspiration Dr. Chubb speaks Coptic as fluently as if it were his mother tongue. As to Etruscan, I cannot say. PROF. ADDISON BLAKESLEY

Chubb is a fake. I can mix a cyanide cocktail that will make him turn up his toes in thirty seconds. H. L. MENCKEN

SPECIAL NOTICE: Dr. Chubb has never pretended that he had power to raise the dead. The Bible shows that only the Saviour and Twelve Apostles had that power.

Free will offering, dedicated to the enforcement of the anti-evolution laws.

But Chubb never spoke in Dayton, not in any of the languages advertised, not even in English—because he didn’t exist.

Chubb was the satiric creation of the poet Edgar Lee Masters (1868–1950; seen above), perhaps best remembered for Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of epitaphs of the dwellers of a small town, narrated by the dead themselves. Chubb, however, was livelier. In his Edgar Lee Masters: A Biography (2005), Herbert K. Russell explains, “Dr. Chubb was most likely to come to life when Masters was bored, tired, tense, or in the mood to play the buffoon. Chubb, along with several other imaginary brethren, might spring into existence on broadsides, fake calling cards, and stationery and in occasional verse.” He could prove to be troublesome, too, as when Masters lightheartedly told his publisher that he wished to dedicate his novel Skeeters Kirby (1923) to Chubb, and his publisher, not understanding the joke, dutifully complied. “One of the most ghastly things that has ever happened to me in the literary game,” Masters later groused.

Chubb’s literary career started with a series of sonnets published in Reedy’s Mirror, edited by Masters’s friend William Marion Reedy, a literary journal that published the poems later assembled as Spoon River Anthology. According to an unsigned note in The Bookman in 1922, “Fulsome praise of William Jennings Bryan, adoration of the Anti-Saloon League magi, and anathema on a lewd generation were the prevailing theme…The manner was perfect and it was not overdone. The ‘Mirror’ public, a comparatively small but undiscriminating one, was completely imposed on and the editor was deluged with letters and telegrams for information on that egregious ass Elmer Chubb.” Chubb’s talents weren’t limited to poetry: he began to submit letters to the editor. I especially liked his letter dated March 11, 1920, which applauded the Mirror for not publishing “the soi-disant poems of Edgar Lee Masters as much as formerly”; it made a point of describing Spoon River Anthology as bursting “with vehement lubricity upon a defenseless public.”

Masters didn’t visit Dayton for the Scopes trial. On a personal level, he might have found it difficult to know which side he disliked more. Masters was law partners with Clarence Darrow in Chicago for five years, from 1903 to 1908, but the two parted ways acrimoniously, apparently for financial reasons—Darrow was not always careful to ensure that legal fees found their way into the firm’s accounts. Masters used to admire William Jennings Bryan, who in turn tried to secure him a seat on a federal court around 1913, but he disliked the moralizing campaigns of his later career, which provided the basis for Chubb. Indeed, in a letter to Reedy’s Mirror in 1920, Chubb went so far as to suggest that Bryan run for president in 1924 “on a platform advocating a state religion by constitutional amendment.” But in any case, Masters wasn’t there. So where did the handbills come from? There’s a clue in the text itself, as I’ll explain in part 2.