Minnesota’s contributions to American culture include Zubaz, hotdish, and a cheeseburger where you put the cheese inside the burger. Equally deranged but less well-known is Ignatius Donnelly: crank, crackpot, charlatan, peripatetic land speculator turned politician turned PT Barnum of apocalyptic cosmology and revivalist tent preacher of pseudohistory, known as “the greatest failure who ever lived,” which is accurate, but only if you’ve never seen Ishtar.
Donnelly was born in Philadelphia in 1831 to a middle-class but otherwise nondescript family, and had an otherwise nondescript upbringing. He dabbled in various professions but ultimately decided to become a lawyer, where he came into the full flower of a lifelong love affair with his own intellect. Operating on levels of self-regard lethal to most functioning adults, Donnelly annihilated his interpersonal and business connections to such an extent that by his mid-20s he’d effectively been exiled (he was perhaps taking his Napoleon complex too literally). It was of little consequence: a land boom was on, and he headed for the sky blue waters of Minnesota, wife and kids in tow (right, at some point he married, and virtually all that is known of his family is: they existed).
Donnelly did what any red-blooded American man of the mid-19th century would do: found a utopian commune. Situated on a river just outside Minneapolis, the town, called Nininger, promised to be a cooperative farm community and model society and also to make its founders rich. One of those founders was the brother of Minnesota’s governor, who intended for Nininger to become the state capital. It is not at all clear how Donnelly got involved in the scheme or what he contributed to it, but the town (and Donnelly himself) was nearly bankrupted in the panic of 1857, less than a year after its founding. It was not named the state capital, was not a model society, and did not make its founders rich. Though it continued to exist in a sort of semi-official state of town-ness for a few more decades, Donnelly (and presumably his family) remained as virtually the only resident; he was derisively called “The Sage of Nininger” for years afterward.
Then, through a mysterious and inexplicable web of political connections, Donnelly ended up Minnesota’s lieutenant governor in 1860. He was just 28 years old, had been virtually chased out of Philadelphia three years earlier, had just presided over a doomed commune start-up that was now effectively his private hermitage, and had no prior political experience. How did this happen? How could a delusional intellectual narcissist whose past is a Tunguska-level debris field of business and social wreckage possibly succeed in politics? I can find no explanation, but politics was Donnelly’s regular gig for a good long while: he served as lieutenant governor for three years, in the house of representatives for 7, and spent two more decades alternating between various positions in state politics and publishing populist anti-monopoly magazines from his home in Nininger. He was even the Populist Party vice presidential candidate in 1900.
Ignatius Donnelly’s lasting fame, though, comes from what he was doing when he wasn’t being a lawyer, land speculator, or politician of medium repute: developing some outré ideas about world history. The first and most prominent of his assorted fixations was realized in his 1878 book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. A seminal work notable for forcing the term “pseudohistory” to be coined, it has been called “the single most influential work of pseudoscience ever published” which outlines “every later work of alternative archaeology.” Yes, Donnelly is the wellspring from which the entire Chariots of the Gods / History Channel ancient aliens mythos was birthed; the spiritual forefather of Edgar Cayce and Velikovsky and thousands of late-90s Geocities pages listed in the “conspiracy” webring. Like an ideological Genghis Khan, 1/6th of all conspiracy theories are descendants of Donnelly.
Plato’s Timaeus, written in 360 BCE, relates the history of an ancient island nation called Atlantis. The Atlanteans, he said, had used their military power and technological prowess to invade and colonize great swaths of the mainland in the distant past. Only when they targeted the powerful nation of Athens and were rebuffed was the Atlantean hegemony toppled. Shortly thereafter, a great earthquake rent the island in two and it was swallowed by the ocean. The great society was lost forever.
This story was not intended—nor was it contemporaneously received—as historical fact. It was a fable, meant to demonstrate the perfection of the Athenian nation-state, a society so perfect it was able to repel even the technologically advanced might of Atlantis. Plato’s Atlantis was a story about the perils of hubris. Hubris always ends in disaster—the Greeks taught us that.
For the next two millennia, the concept of Atlantis as a vast, advanced island state consumed by natural disaster appeared sporadically in Western history. At least one early Christian scholar believed Atlantis was a proto-religious utopia that had been destroyed by pagans. Another felt compelled to assure the reader that the destruction of Atlantis could be explained within the framework of standard christian cosmology. Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth-century traveller, cartographer, and great-name-haver, wrote a book called Christian Topography, in which the Atlantis story—by some bizarre carto-religious calculus—proved that the world was flat. “Atlantis proves flat-earth” feels like some kind of Rosetta stone for conspiracy theorizing.
The Atlantis “myth” appeared sporadically in European history for centuries. Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, published in 1627, is a description of a utopian, highly technocratic island nation. Athanasius Kircher, a polymath known as “Master of a Hundred Arts,” mapped the supposed location of Atlantis in his 1865 book Mundus Subterraneus. Captain Nemo found the ruins of Atlantis in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Atlantis even came in handy when the first Mayan ruins were discovered. Europeans, desperate to reconcile the ruins of an advanced society with the logic of their own presumed racial supremacy, found in Atlantis a suitable tool for lancing the boil of their cognitive dissonance: white Atlanteans had escaped their sinking island and brought cultural advances to the Mayans.
Which is all to say that Donnelly was not nearly the first to take the Atlantis mythology seriously. And how can you blame him? It’s not like the Greeks were known for allegory and metaphor. In the book, he asserted that Atlantis was real; that it was the locus of man’s transition from “barbarism to civilization,”; that via emigration Atlantis was the source of modern civilizations in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Africa; that the Azores were the remnants of the sunken islands; that the sun-worshipping cultures of Egypt and Peru represented vestiges of the original Atlantean religion; that the kings and queens of Atlantis were the gods of Greek and Norse myth; that Bronze Age advances began in Atlantis; that it was the source of the original Phoenician alphabet; that survivors of the cataclysm were the source of archetypal flood epics (Noah, Gilgamesh, etc.). Not that he really needed all that for the book, but once you get locked into a serious omni-explanatory theory of global history and civilization, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
The myth of Atlantis had been lurking for centuries, but something about the way Donnelly packaged and sold it made it catch on, and the book was a bestseller. One reviewer was “staggered by the insufficiency of the premises and proofs” and “amused at the facility and extravagance of some of his deductions,” but believed his reasoning was “ingenious” and arguments “plausible.” They also described him as “full of his subject” and his writing as admirably free of “technical shibboleths.”
The book—you can read it for free—is a fascinating document, not only as an ideological archetype for future mythologies, but for its prototypical pseudoscientific rhetorical style. Self-reflexive assertions of objectivity and scholarly merit are interposed with disregard for the very “establishment” academics whose credibility and rhetoric is being aped; mocking the establishment while desperately seeking its approval. At all times, confidence is king: “Further investigations and discoveries will, I trust, confirm the correctness of the conclusions at which I have arrived.”
The success of Atlantis awakened in Donnelly a desire to fully unlock the secrets of the universe, coinciding with a desire to make money and feed his ego. His follow-up was 1883’s Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel, which is also the name of at least one Norwegian black metal album. Having explained Atlantis, Donnelly turned to its destruction, spinning the following theory: some 12,000 years ago, a comet hit Atlantis, destroying it and the advanced civilizations it had spawned. With the sun blotted out, man retreated to the caves, where advanced knowledge of art and technology and art and literature were lost in a struggle for survival. So: comet strike, island destroyed, devolutionary dark age, modern world.
It was not a willy-nilly claim: there was evidence. For instance, examine these great cracks in the earth’s crust radiating outward from the Great Lakes. Don’t they, Donnelly says, look rather suspiciously like the cracks in a window hit by a rock? And isn’t a comet, galactically speaking, really nothing so much as a big rock, and the earth’s crust, atomically speaking, not so different from a giant piece of glass? And look I know that geologists will tell you those cracks were made by an ice sheet, but isn’t that just what they want you to think? And how else is a coin going to end up buried 100 feet underground but to be driven there by the impact of a comet strike? I’m convinced! So was the public, at first: the book sold well initially, but bad reviews and academic resistance soured Donnelly on both publishing and academia.
One person who was not convinced was Alexander Winchell, whose review was the literary equivalent of a…cataclysmic comet strike. You can read it in its entirety here and I strongly recommend it. Here are my top three highlights, in good, better, best order:
- “Literature has never been the field of equal jugglery”
- “If one never saw a square plug fit a round hole, here is a rare opportunity to see the feat accomplished over and over again, twenty times in immediate succession.”
- “…a phenomenal aggregation of varied learning sundered from its conclusions.” <looks at 100,000 words and five years of trivia roundups, whistles innocently>
If I’m allowed to psychologize Ignatius Donnelly, it’s worth noting that his intellectual ego was constrained in at least one way. He did not, I think, believe that he knew everything. But he did believe that would have unique insight into any problem to which he applied himself. In a slightly different version of the multiverse, he made worthwhile contributions to geology or germ theory, as opposed to his landmark work in such areas as dubious historical misreadings, general crackpottery, and…the true author of the works of Shakespeare?
The idea of Shakespeare as the pinnacle of literary achievement is a relatively new one. It wasn’t until the 19th-century that he came to be regarded as a near-deity (the adulation was so intense that there’s a word for it: Bardolatry). But not long after Shakespeare’s literary reputation peaked, there came questions about whether he’d actually written his plays. The adulation and the skepticism were related: Shakespeare was “vulgar and unlettered.” How could the greatest author (of metered dick-and-fart jokes) in human history come from such low station? Perhaps, it was said, someone else—someone more refined—had written these works.
The idea of a secret author was first floated in 1848’s The Romance of Yachting, a rambling masturbatory diatribe/travelogue that had nothing to do with Shakespeare except a brief digression in which the authorship question was raised. The claim was later picked up by authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Delia Bacon and Walt Whitman and scores of others.
If not Shakespeare, who actually wrote the plays? Francis Bacon, maybe. Or Christopher Marlowe, or Sir Walter Raleigh, or the 17th Earl of Oxford, or any of 80+ other candidates, a number that grows if you factor in theories supporting multiple authors, the most common of which holds that a cabal including Bacon and Raleigh authored the plays to demonstrate political beliefs/messages they could not explicitly make.
Documentary evidence for these claims is either sparse or nonexistent, depending on your point of view. Actually, to be precise, it’s sparse unless you have a decoder ring. Ignatius Donnelly had an idea, borne from reading his kid’s book on codes: if in fact Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare’s works, surely he would have left some clue to this fact. And if he had left a clue, wouldn’t it be in the form of a cipher, of which he is known to have developed several complicated variations? And if it were a cipher, wouldn’t the place to start looking be any Shakespeare play that uses the word bacon?
So he looked for a cipher that would prove Bacon was the real author. And he found it. The result was 1887’s The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s cipher in the so-called Shakespeare plays. He still had his confidence: “The key here turned, for the ﬁrst time, in the secret wards of the Cipher, will yet unlock a vast history.”
Here are three relevant facts about The Great Cryptogram:
- The book covers 1,000+ pages and the ostensible main thesis—a cipher—is not discussed until page 500.
- Donnelly begins by supposing that Francis Bacon is the real author of Shakespeare’s plays, then works backwards to develop a cipher that reveals hidden messages supporting that claim, based largely on finding the words “Francis” and “Bacon” occurring in at least one of Shakespeare’s plays.
- The book defines the precise area of overlap in a Venn diagram of Pedantry and Confirmation Bias.
Whatever magic touch Donnelly had discovered with Atlantis and Ragnarok, it abandoned him when it came to Shakespeare. The book was a commercial failure. And yet, debate over the authorship question was only just getting started. A mock trial lasting 15 months was intended to settle the question in 1892-3. Donnelly stood for the plaintiffs, who lost.
Donnelly’s most important contribution was in introducing the concept of cipher-as-clue, which sparked dozens if not hundreds of imitators. In 1916, for example, an advocate for Bacon-as-author was sued by the producer of a Shakespeare movie, who held that questioning Shakespeare’s legitimacy would affect ticket sales. After showing the judge his ciphers, the defendant was awarded $5000 in damages (the decision was revoked due to uproar/shaming). Orville Owen, a 20th century proponent of the Baconian theory, developed a “cipher wheel” to scan for cryptographic anomalies in Shakespeare’s works. He claimed to have deciphered not just the Bacon-Shakespeare connection, but also an entire alternate history in which Bacon was actually the son of Queen Elizabeth and rightful heir to the throne. Unrelatedly, per Wikipedia: “Owen died a “bedridden almost penniless invalid”, full of regret for sacrificing his career, reputation and health on the “Baconian controversy” and warning admirers to learn by his example and avoid it.”
Donnelly turned to intentional fiction for his next book, a dystopian work of speculative fiction called Caesar’s Column (written under the extremely obvious pseudonym Edmund Boisgilbert). To give you an idea of the general tenor of the book, the title refers to a massive pile of corpses entombed in concrete in the aftermath of a revolution. Donnelly, I mentioned previously, was a capital-P Populist and the book was a thinly-veiled allegory reflecting exactly that (by which I mean: it was racist and, more broadly, urban-phobic). Set in a future riven by class divides under a ruthless capitalist oligarchy (with him so far), it’s the story of a simple rural farmer visiting the urban hellscape of 1988 New York, where he witnesses a brutal and deadly uprising led by the Brotherhood of Destruction (also the name of at least one Norwegian black metal album). As the city “plunges into the fires of revolutionary destruction,” dead bodies are stacked and encased in cement as a monument. I have checked the world almanac and this did not actually happen in 1988. Other of the book’s predictions that did not come true: city lights are not powered by aurora borealis, sidewalks are not transparent, and there is no Hotel Darwin. The book was a modest success.
Perhaps you’ve noticed the most common theme to Donnelly’s works: death, destruction, the danged apocalypse. You are not alone: Donnelly is a featured player in a 1965 book called Doubters and Dissenters: Cataclysmic Thought in America, 1885-1918, where he’s one of a series of “American Cassandras.” Noting the emergence of such “cataclysmic thought,” in America in the late 19th century, the author ties its rise to a kind of Freudian projection of social tumult: urbanization, immigration, labor unrest, industrial capitalism, imperialism, Reconstruction—if society feels like it’s splitting apart at the seams, we might increasingly look to, or find relevance in, apocalyptic future visions. Perhaps deep in Donnelly’s subconscious, America is Atlantis, waiting for the comet. Well, it’s just a theory.
Caesar’s Column marked a turn for Donnelly into increasingly direct and increasingly forgettable allegories for his political beliefs. Doctor Huguet followed in 1891, then The Golden Bottle, or the Story of Ephraim Benezet of Kansas in 1892, both marginal and forgotten works.
He died in 1901, in Minneapolis.