Was Naturalist Rafinesque Cincinnati’s Most Bizarre Visitor?

The Turkish immigrant certainly made a name for himself in Cincinnati and Kentucky in the early 1800s.

In the strange convolutions of time and fame, we find millions of monuments to Constantine Samuel Rafinesque embedded throughout the hills of Cincinnati. They are things—the largest not quite 3 inches across—but they’re innumerable and might be 450 million years old.

The fossilized brachiopod, Rafinesquina ponderosa, is named in honor of Constantine Rafinesque. It is abundant in the Ordovician rocks that underlie Cincinnati’s hills.

Photograph courtesy of the Cincinnati Dry Dredgers

Rafinesque’s “monuments” are the fossil shells of the genus Rafinesquina, which means “Rafinesque’s shell.” The fossil was named in 1892 to honor a most eccentric naturalist, a scientist so unconventional that many of his colleagues considered him insane.

When he was born in Istanbul in 1783, he was given the name Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, the “Schmaltz” inherited from his German mother and dropped from his professional name. His father was a French merchant who died when Constantine was 10 years old. Constantine followed his father into business and became so successful that he retired at 25 and emigrated to the United States.

Completely self-educated, Rafinesque established himself as a botanist of some note, but his interests ranged widely, from paleontology to religion to linguistics to anthropology. He wrote a 300-page monograph on the fishes found in the Ohio River and hung out for months with John James Audubon, learning about birds. Audubon pranked his peculiar houseguest by regaling him with descriptions of imaginary creatures. Rafinesque dutifully published scientific papers on all of them, including the 10-foot-long “Devil-Jack Diamond” fish equipped with bullet-proof scales.

Rafinesque was a tireless networker. He visited and corresponded with anyone interested in natural history, including President Thomas Jefferson. So many letters flew between America’s president and the pioneer naturalist that they were eventually collected in a book.

His travels frequently took Rafinesque through Cincinnati, where he lectured at Joseph Dorfeuiile’s Western Museum, predecessor of today’s Museum of Natural History & Science at Union Terminal. Cincinnati loved Rafinesque; he was the subject of a toast during citywide Independence Day celebrations in 1827. He consulted with John C. Short, a North Bend farmer and dedicated amateur naturalist who accumulated an extensive collection of plants and fossils. According to biographer Edward Mansfield, some of Rafinesque’s more ingenious ideas were ignored by stolid Cincinnatians:

“Professor Rafinesque proposed more astonishing things—among other things, to grow pearls in the Ohio river; but the people were unfortunately so much addicted to raising corn and pork, that he literally threw pearls before swine, and had the mortification to see them treated with indifference.”

Today, Rafinesque is mostly associated with Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, which has nothing to do with vampires (the name means “across the woods”). He spent seven contentious years there as an unwelcome professor of natural history and botany. The university’s president preferred classical studies and tried to ban this self-taught scientist, but Rafinesque wrangled an unpaid position through friendship with a wealthy trustee. Since the university refused to pay him, Rafinesque sold tickets to his scientific lectures and also to the classes on ancient and modern languages he taught on the side.

Once, on returning to Transylvania from a leave of absence, Rafinesque discovered that the university had leased his room to a several students and dumped his books and specimens in storage. He resigned in a huff, allegedly cursing the university and its president, and moved to Philadelphia. Within a couple of years, the president was dead and the university suffered a major fire, so the legend of “Rafinesque’s Curse” spread.

On his way east, Rafinesque rebranded himself as a “pulmist” or specialist in lung disorders and sold a patented medicine concoction called “Pulmel” through advertisements in Cincinnati newspapers.

Constantine Rafinesque was a frequent visitor to Cincinnati, presenting lectures, consulting (infelicitously) with John James Audubon, and studying local flora and fauna.

Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress

While in Philadelphia, Rafinesque published his most unusual project, a volume so strange it’s had scholars scratching their heads for almost two centuries. The Walam Olum (“Red Record”) purports to be a historical record of the Lenape (Delaware) Tribe of Native Americans. Rafinesque claimed to have received this document in the form of birch-bark sheets from a “Doctor Ward” who practiced in Dearborn County, Indiana. The doctor, who has never been conclusively identified, said he received the sheets from a Lenape tribe member grateful for an efficacious medical treatment. Rafinesque claimed the original birch-bark sheets got lost, so the only source for this unique cultural artifact is his own manuscript. Recent scholarship has proven almost definitively that Walam Olum is a hoax perpetrated by Rafinesque to support his eccentric theories about the origins of Native Americans and, possibly, to qualify for a munificent French stipend.

Rafinesque died in Philadelphia, and this is where his story gets really weird. According to legend, the impoverished naturalist was buried in a pauper’s grave. The legend is simply not true. Rafinesque was hardly impoverished. Just before he died he published several books at his own expense and was renting a house to contain his collections. The “pauper’s grave” was actually a charitable cemetery established as an alternative to the Potter’s Field for “strangers.” Strangers meant people who were denied burial in a churchyard because they lacked church membership.

In 1924, having had a century to get over Rafinesque’s curse and seeking to polish its reputation by association with the increasingly famous scientist, Transylvania University had Rafinesque’s bones exhumed and reburied beneath the administration building. Every Halloween, a select handful of Transylvania students spend the night in Rafinesque’s tomb.

Problem is, those aren’t Rafinesque’s bones. The cemetery in which he was buried and from which he was exhumed buried at least five other corpses in the same plot along with Rafinesque, and it’s almost certain that the bones of one Mary Passimore now lie beneath the steps of Old Morrison Hall on Transylvania’s campus.

Still, even in death, Rafinesque inspires a great party. Charles Boewe, who spent half a century unraveling Rafinesque’s biographical and thanatological mysteries, enjoyed his student-led tour of Transylvania.

“The guide may tell you that Rafinesque Day, occurring about Halloween time, has become a tradition at Transylvania, and that on that night four lucky students, two boys and two girls, are selected to pass the night together in the crypt, ‘right here on these graves!’ The guide is less likely to tell you that part of the Rafinesque Day festivities consists of a bonfire that night, and that boys dressed as undertakers solemnly carry a black coffin around the fire, while, in some years, students have been known to scream obscenities to release whatever primordial urges bedevil students in the autumn when the moon is full.”

That old cemetery in Philadelphia was graded and transformed into a playground in 1950. Depending on how deep the bulldozers scraped, Rafinesque’s actual bones were either dumped 18 miles away on the grounds of another cemetery, or lie beneath a (hopefully not cursed) baseball diamond.

Meanwhile, specimens of the lovely little fossil shell, Rafinesquina, are found in museums throughout the world.

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