Tuesday, 27 December 2016
Biographical Sketch of A Hyatt Verrill
A Biographical Sketch of A. Hyatt Verrill
This may be the best summary of the life of A. Hyatt Verrill that I have read in my 15 years of research on the author. I have added a few footnotes and hyperlinks to add some details. There are hundreds of other pages on the author in my blog and I have republished many rare stories which are available on Lulu./drf
VERRILL, Alpheus Hyatt (23 July 1871-14 Nov. 1954), author and anthropologist, was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Addison Emery Verrill, a professor and curator of the Peabody Museum at Yale, and Flora Louisa Smith. He was educated at New Haven’s Hopkins Grammar School, the Yale School of Fine Arts, and in zoology and geology at the Yale Sheffield Scientific School. He married Kathryn L. McCarthy in 1892; they had one son and three daughters. Lida Ruth Shaw Kohler became his second wife in 1944; they had no children.
Able to produce accurate drawings of insects from life at age nine, Verrill illustrated the natural history section of Webster’s International Dictionary in 1896 and later did illustrations for the Clarendon Dictionary and a subsequent edition of Webster’s. He often illustrated his own works and other scientific reports. An expert photographer, he developed the autochrome process of natural color photography in 1902.
For the Yale museum, at age seventeen Verrill became perhaps the youngest collector to make a one-man expedition to obtain fauna of tropical jungles, beginning a series of explorations in the Caribbean and Central and South America. He lived in Dominica from 1903 to 1906, British Guiana from 1913 to 1917, and Panama from 1917 to 1921. In 1907 Verrill rediscovered a supposedly extinct shrew-like animal, Solenodon paradoxus, in Santo Domingo. He made his last collecting trip to Latin America in 1950.
Under the auspices of George G. Heye and his Museum of the American Indian in New York City, Verrill undertook archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork from 1916 to 1932, collecting cultural artifacts, vocabulary lists, and oil painting from life of members of the Caribs of British Guiana; the San Blas Indians and the Guaymis of Panama; the Aymara, Colla, and Sirionos of Bolivia; the Yungas of Peru; and the Panos of Chile. These oils were displayed in the Museum of the American Indian and exhibited in London at the Royal Geographical Society (c. 1926).
Verrill’s most important archaeological contribution, for which he is cited in the Handbook of Middle American Indians (1966), was his work at a ceremonial center of the previously unknown Coclé culture of Panama. Interested in representative samples rather than extensive excavations, and suspecting Verrill of stealing material that should have gone to the museum, Heye withdrew financial support, which forced Verrill to terminate excavations. Verrill went on his own to South America and got back into Heye’s favor by sending him anthropological and archaeological material from Bolivia, Chile, and Peru from 1928 to 1932.
Shortly after his return from Dominica in 1906, Verrill became the popular science editor of American Boy Magazine. His work attracted the notice of publishers, and he began writing popular adult and boy’s books and articles on ethnography, archaeology, natural history, history and geography, and mechanical and scientific subjects. His The A.B.C. of Automobile Driving (1909) was translated and used as an instructional manual for the Japanese army. In his autobiography he states that at his peak in the 1930s he was writing two books at a time and turned out seven books in one year (probably 1936), a feat that was noted in the World Almanac. His subjects covered areas such as biography, history, geography, natural history, geology, and treasure hunting. Verrill claimed to have written South and Central American Trade Conditions of Today (1914) in ten days. His 1916 book on airplanes, the first popular book on the subject, was updated and remained a standard work for years. Having produced books on aircraft and gasoline engines, he received an appointment (c. 1912) as technical advisor on gasoline engines for the Aeronautical Society. Among his other books were Motor Boats and Boat Motors (1910); The American Crusoe (1914); Harper’s Book of Gasoline Engines (1916); Radio Detectives in the Jungle (1918); The Real Story of the Pirate (1923); South and Central American Trade Conditions of Today, rev. ed. (1919); Boy Adventures in the Land of El Dorado (1921); Panama Past and Present (1922); Romantic and Historic Maine (1933); Lost Treasures (1938); Wonder Creatures of the Sea (1940); Perfumes and Spices (1940); and Shell Collector’s Handbook (1950).
Verrill’s 109 books included several on adventure and fantasy subjects. Uncle Abner’s Legacy (1915) was the first of six Verrill science-fiction novels. He wrote another novel, When the Moon Ran Wild (1931), under the name Ray Ainsbury. Between 1926 and 1935 Verrill wrote more than twenty science-fiction stories for the early pulps, utilizing his experiences in Central and South American jungles with “lost” ancient civilizations and his knowledge of the biological and physical sciences.
Verrill’s writings on pirates and lost treasures led him to be considered an expert on the subject by some. He was hired in 1929 by a syndicate interested in recovering Spanish treasure lost in 1637 on Silver Shoals, 100 miles north of the Dominican Republic. Research among the records of Sir William Phipps’s 1687 recovery of part of the treasure led Verrill to locate a wreck and bring up artifacts, including a few coins, before the season’s funds ran out. He failed later to relocate the wreck. A second syndicate hired him to head an attempt in 1937-1938 to recover treasure attributed to Jean Lafitte on the Suwannee River in western Florida. Verrill claimed that traces of gold were found on his drill but that the chest kept slipping deeper into “quicksand” and could not be recovered.
Following this excavation, Verrill built a cabin in 1940 in nearby Chiefland on the site of Anhiarka, the Indian village at which Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto had wintered on his trek to the Mississippi. Verrill established experimental gardens and a natural history museum and zoo and supplied the Philadelphia Zoo with live specimens from the area. Mounted specimens went to the Universities of Miami and Florida and to Cornell University.
Moving to Lake Worth, Florida, in 1944, Verrill gave art lessons and then opened a shell business. On a shell collecting trip to the West Indies he discovered five unknown species and the second known specimen of Murex spectrum, a carnivorous rock or dye snail. Verrill died in Chiefland, Florida.
Heye credited Verrill with having “written a new chapter of Middle American archaeology” (“Never A DullMoment,” Box 0C032, Folder 9, p. 390). Theodore Roosevelt stated in a museum talk that “my friend Verrill. . . really put the West Indies on the map.” Although considered an authority in his day, no anthropological journal noted Verrill’s passing. Ground-breaking, informative, and popular in their time, many of his anthropological works contain references to “primitive” tribes and “races,” “wooly-headed” native “rascals,” and other expressions now out of favor. Working before the development of scientific dating methods, Verrill sometimes proposed theories not accepted by professional anthropologists. The “first” American to penetrate many areas, he reported his explorations with a sense of adventure, wonder, and humanity, as in this passage from his autobiography:
“Such people [of the town of Huarachiri, Peru] were those whom Pizarro and his fellows saw, robbed, enslaved and butchered, and as I watched them I felt that somehow, by some magical means, I . . . must be watching a dance in the days of Atahualpa . . . Never will I forget the scene, the Indians in their gorgeous Incan costumes and flashing ornaments bathed in the golden light of the sinking sun, the majestic snow-capped peaks towering above, the great purple shadowed gorge below, the marvelous Incan road clinging like a slender thread to the mountain side and the yearning chorus floating to us from across the quebrada. (Box OC032, Folder 8, pp. 406-7, 409-10)”
Verrill’s papers, including archaeological and ethnological reports, artifact lists, correspondence, and his unpublished autobiography “Never a Dull Moment,” are in the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, New York City. Partly autobiographical works are Thirty Years in the Jungle (1929) and My Jungle Trails (1937). His anthropological books include Old Civilizations of the New World (1918), Strange Manners, Customs, and Beliefs (1946), America’s Ancient Civilizations (1953), and The Real Americans (1954). In 1927 he published an archaeological report, “Excavations in Coclé Province, Panama,” in Indian Notes 4, no. 10: 47-61. A critical review of his science-fiction writing by Walter Gillings is in Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers, ed. Curtis C. Smith (1991). Obituaries are in the New York Times, 16 Nov. 1954 and Wilson Library Bulletin 29 (Jan. 1955): 344.
J. Jefferson MacKinnon
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.