The Noted Authority W. P. Barbellion, Part 1

W. N. P. Barbellion, via Wikimedia Commons

Not so long ago, when I was writing about the original Science League of America’s essay contest in 1925, I digressed in order to discuss a lawsuit launched in 1940 by William Floyd, the freethought writer who proposed the topic of the contest (“Why Evolution Should Be Taught in Our Schools Instead of the Book of Genesis”) and provided a prize of $50 for the best essay. The creationist Harry Rimmer, I explained, had offered first $100, and later $1,000, to anyone who could demonstrate a scientific error in the Bible. Floyd tried to claim the prize, citing five or fifty-one (accounts vary) such errors, but the case was dismissed on the grounds that Floyd had failed to prove that the advertisement with the challenge to which he responded was placed or approved by Rimmer.

In discussing Floyd’s suit against Rimmer, I was relying on Ronald L. Numbers’s The Creationists (1992) and contemporary press reports for the details, because two pro-Rimmer sources of information about the trial—The Bible Defeats Atheism (1941), by James E. Bennet, Rimmer’s attorney, and That lawsuit against the Bible (1940) by Rimmer himself—were unavailable to me while I was writing. Recently, I remembered that Edward B. Davis (a historian of science at Messiah College) had edited a volume of Rimmer’s pamphlets published by Garland in 1995, so I went to check if That lawsuit against the Bible was included. It isn’t (although I’ve since found a copy). But I noticed something interesting in it anyhow.

In the foreword to the pamphlet “Monkeyshines: Fakes, Fables, Facts Concerning Evolution” (1926), Rimmer claims that he studied “under men who were strong believers in the theory of monkey ancestry of man,” yet “it is quite common today to meet folks who will say that the evolutionists never claimed that man was descended from the monkey family at all.” As far as I can tell, his claim about his education is dubious. According to Davis, Rimmer was expelled from school when he was in the third grade, although he read voraciously on his own. He later took classes at the Hahnemann Medical College in San Francisco, the San Francisco Bible College (probably), Whittier College, and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles—none of them hotbeds of evolution.

Regardless, to show that “the theory of monkey ancestry of man”—“this vicious teaching,” as he describes it—was indeed embraced by evolutionists, Rimmer offers the following “from a noted authority, W. P. Barbellion”:

“How I hate this man who talks about the “brute creation,” with an ugly emphasis on the world ‘brute.’ As for me I am proud of my close kinship with other animals. I take a jealous pride in my simian ancestry.” (Simian means monkey.) “I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees; and that my frame came down through geological time, via sea jelly—and worms—and amphioxus—fish—dinosaurs and apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?” (emphasis and parenthetical interpolation in original)

Predictably, Rimmer retorts, “I would! I would rather a thousand times trace my descent up to God through Adam than down to a sea jelly through wormy ancestors whose children were apes!” (emphasis in original).

What interested me, however, was the noted authority. As it happens, I knew the name W. P. Barbellion. I knew that Rimmer omitted one of the initials: it should be W. N. P. Barbellion. I even knew what the initials stood for: Wilhelm Nero Pilate. Yes, that’s Wilhelm as in Wilhelm II, the German emperor whose bellicose foreign policy provoked the First World War; Nero as in Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the first-century CE Roman emperor who persecuted Christians and supposedly fiddled while Rome burned; and Pilate as in Pontius Pilate, the first-century CE prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, who according to the gospels presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered him to be crucified.

What would his parents give their child such a name? As it happens, they didn’t. Barbellion was born Bruce Frederick Cummings in 1889. His new surname was taken from the name of a sweetshop, although as Noel Perrin astutely observed in his essay on Barbellion in his A Reader’s Delight (1988), “Besides its pleasing foreignness, Barbellion combines ‘barbarian’ and ‘rebellion.’” But the rest of his name was chosen because he regarded Wilhelm, Nero, and Pilate as the most miserable of men. And he knew all about misery, since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1915 and died, tragically young, in 1919. He left behind him diaries that he started when he was thirteen years old, published, under the Barbellion name, as The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919).

Barbellion was a born naturalist. The very first entry in The Journal of a Disappointed Man, dated January 3, 1903, reads, “Am writing an essay on the life-history of insects and have abandoned the idea of writing on ‘How Cats Spend their Time.’” By 1908, he records, “I get up every morning at 6 a.m. to dissect. Have worked at the Anatomy of Dytiscus, Lumbricus, another Leech, and Petromyzon fluviatilis all collected by myself.” By 1911, he is recording the “three most fascinating books in Science that I have so far read … 1. Darwin’s Expressions of the Emotions. 2. Gaskell’s Origin of Vertebrates. 3. Bergson’s Le Rire [i.e., Laughter].” But how did Barbellion become “the noted authority” of Rimmer’s pamphlet? Or did he? I explain in part 2.