Chapter 3: The Bedford Canal Swindle Detected and Exposed

“Hampden and Wallace” has a nice ring to it, like “Laurel and Hardy,” and it would have made a good name for a vaudeville act touring Victorian music halls.  In fact, the Hampden and Wallace act entertained England for two decades, but their farce was played out in the public press and courtrooms rather than on music hall stages.  Wallace’s ill-fated attempt to spike flat-earthism only brought it increased attention and gave it a unity it had never had before.  “The Bedford Canal Swindle” became the zetetic theme song and rallying cry.  Believers saw in Hampden a David who boldly attacked Goliath only to be diddled out of his victory.  Secret flat-earthers came tumbling out of the woodwork. 

John Henry Walsh’s decision in favor of Wallace left John Hampden shaken.  For once in his life, he experienced self doubt.  He sent “Parallax” £10 and asked him to return to the Old Bedford Canal and repeat his experiments.  “Parallax” obliged.  He and several others spent three days on the site making further observations.  Rowbotham and his team returned to London on the evening of April 18, and they reported the canal still as flat as it was when Rowbotham lived there in 1838. [note 3.1]  Even this did not satisfy Hampden, and he subsequently spent another £10 to have printer Alfred Bull conduct further (and equally satisfactory) experiments. 

First, however, Bull had another task to perform.  Within days of Rowbotham’s return, Bull printed and published a pamphlet entitled Is Water Level or Convex After All?  The Bedford Canal Swindle Detected and Exposed.  The title page names no author, but the style and tone are unmistakably Hampden’s.  (Hampden was as hardnosed and mean-spirited a controversialist as ever hurled an epithet in lieu of an argument.) His opening words show he was in no mood to take prisoners:

Perhaps there is not upon record a more palpable illustration of the notorious rascality of the scientific world than has been recently exhibited in the trial between Mr. Hampden, of Swindon, and Mr. Wallace, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, of London, aided and abetted by a local “sawbones” of Downham Market, who acted as Mr. Wallace’s referee, and the Editor of The Field newspaper, who was his chosen umpire. [ref. 3.1] 

On the same page, Hampden states his motives for making the challenge:

Mr. Hampden took up the subject, simply and solely relying on the fact that the Bible, or Scriptural evidence, as far as it went, uniformly ignored, if it did not directly oppose the notion of a globular earth.  Not a single verse throughout the whole Scriptures hint [sic] at any expression confirmatory of the Newtonian theory.  Mr. H. knew this would be impossible if a revolving globe were really a fact … [ref. 3.2] 

Hampden briefly described the experiment, dusting off Martin W. B. Coulcher as “a local apothecary, who, if all reports were true, was not over scrupulous in making assertions according to circumstances.” After censuring Coulcher for refusing to argue with Carpenter, Hampden trained his guns on his primary targets:

If there is one class of men, next to horse dealers and jockeys who bear the unenviable reputation of being the most trickey [sic] and unscrupulous in their assertions, it is the members of our scientific societies. [ref. 3.3] 

The remark about horse dealers and jockeys was obviously aimed at sporting editor Walsh.  In case that shot missed, Hampden fired another volley:

Take these editorial functionaries away from their scissors and paste-pot, and they are found to be as great blockheads as other men—mere slaves to the popular taste, and most of them as venal as any hireling in existence.  There is no doubt some moral or pecuniary pressure was brought to bear on the late decision, and, like all cowards, Mr. Walsh was afraid to uphold the truth and the palpable evidence of the reports … [ref. 3.4] 

Having now libeled everyone in sight, Hampden briefly addressed the form of the earth.  He insisted that Wallace’s experiment had failed to demonstrate any curvature, and the diagrams of the referees proved it.  He found Wallace’s explanations contradictory, Walsh afflicted with ignorance and stupidity, and the conventional view of the universe utterly unsupported by evidence:

[T]hose who assert the earth to be a globe must be utterly regardless of the truth of their system, and merely uphold it simply because it contradicts the Bible, which is all these infidels seem to care about.  They have never made a single experiment the truth of which can be incontestably proved, and they stick to their insane theory because it is ingenious, and makes thoughtless blockheads stare with amazement.  One single proof would be worth a thousand mere assertions. [ref. 3.5] 

This was the sort of refutation he would always prefer.  Returning to Walsh, Hampden wrote:

He has … placed a rod in the hands of Mr. Hampden, who, perhaps of all men in the world, is most ready to inflict the severest retaliation on those who dare attempt to force their lying frauds upon his acceptance.  Deception and falsehood, meanness and cowardice always excite in his mind an intensity of loathing that few, perhaps, are able to realise. [ref. 3.6] 

As we will see, Walsh and Hampden took turns applying the rod to each other. 

In closing, Hampden noted that Wallace had agreed in principle to another experiment.  If the new experiment demonstrated the convexity of a body of water, Hampden would pay all expenses and admit to libel and slander.  If it failed, he would claim the £1000 and demand a full apology.  If his challenge was ignored, he would sue everyone in sight. 

Is Water Level or Convex After All? was difficult to ignore.  Hampden had initiated the Bedford Canal fiasco with an advertisement in Scientific Opinion, so perhaps its editors felt a proprietary interest in (or professional responsibility for) the matter.  In any case, the magazine reacted to the pamphlet with a full-page editorial in the April 27, 1870 issue.  It says in part:

This brochure, written anonymously, is a species of abusive Jeremiad of the very lowest and most offensive type, and we can only say of it that, if it is not beneath the contempt of Mr. Wallace, it is a publication which that gentleman would do well to put into his lawyer’s hands; for it is the most libellous and disgraceful tirade we have ever been pained by reading. 

And further:

We can well comprehend how painful it must be to Mr. Hampden to have to pay £500 for indulging in the nonsense he has enjoyed so long, but that by no means justifies the course either he or his friends have taken in publishing this pamphlet; and we trust that Mr. Wallace, who has had the courage to put the cap and bells on Mr. Hampden’s head, will equally apply the legal flagellum to the individual who has had the audacity and bad taste to write the pamphlet, and the cowardice to publish it anonymously. 

Despite this advice, Wallace tried to ignore Hampden’s libels.  Hampden considered silence an admission of guilt, and he produced a blizzard of letters-to-the-editor denouncing Wallace.  He also bombarded Wallace’s friends and colleagues with sulfurous letters and postcards.  At length, Wallace grew tired of being publicly branded a knave, liar, thief, swindler, imposter, rogue, and felon.  In January of 1871 he sued Hampden for libel.  Flat-earther B. Charles Brough described the result as follows:

The City Remembrancer, before whom the trial was heard, considering the affair a “most curious thing,” directed the jury to return a verdict for the plaintiff, and to assess the damages which would be likely to repair Mr. Wallace’s integrity.  Accordingly to counterbalance the effect which the charges of “swindling” were calculated to produce, a verdict for £600 was duly returned. [ref. 3.7] 

Characteristically, Brough neglected to mention why Wallace won a directed verdict.  Hampden never contested the libel suit, for he had another strategy.  While Wallace was in court, Hampden signed all his assets over to his solicitor son-in-law and declared bankruptcy.  Wallace’s judgment for £600 was uncollectible, but he ended up with a whopping bill for legal costs. 

Soon afterward, Walsh, also bespattered with the fallout of Hampden’s rage, brought a criminal action for libel at London’s famous Old Bailey.  The evidence was overwhelming, so Hampden pleaded guilty and apologized.  He was ordered to keep the peace for a year, equivalent to being put on probation. 

Hampden’s peace ended long before his probation expired.  On June 28, 1871, Annie Wallace received the following letter:

Madam—If your infernal thief of a husband is brought home some day on a hurdle, with every bone in his head smashed to a pulp, you will know the reason.  Do you tell him from me he is a lying infernal thief, and as sure as his name is Wallace he never dies in his bed. 

You must be a miserable wretch to be obliged to live with a convicted felon.  Do not think or let him think I have done with him. 

John Hampden [ref. 3.8] 

Twelve days later, Hampden was brought up before the Stratford bench of magistrates on a charge of writing a threatening letter.  Annie Wallace testified that she had previously received a similar letter, which she could not produce.  Alfred Wallace testified that the handwriting and signature appeared to be those of John Hampden.  The same was true of another letter introduced as evidence, this one addressed to the Committee of the Entomological Society, of which Wallace was president.  It read as follows:

Gentlemen,—Cannot you get some low, pettifogging attorney to try and defend your president from being a thief and a swindler—a rogue and imposter?  Of course no respectable men would have the name of such an infernal rogue on their books.  If I were to meet him in the middle of Regent-street or the Strand, tell him from me that I would spit in his face and kick him into the gutter. 

John Hampden

The bench said that it seemed to be a case of a crazy man writing crazy letters.  Regarding his letter to Mrs.  Wallace, Hampden told the court that some young friends of his were very much disturbed about the way Wallace had treated him; fearing violence, he had tried to warn Wallace.  The skeptical judge ordered Hampden to put up £100 as a surety that he would keep the peace for three months and to find two other sureties at £50 apiece.  Hampden spent a week in jail before two additional sureties came forward. [ref. 3.9] 

Criminal libel became a habit with Hampden; in the next four years he would be convicted three times.  Wallace apparently got little sympathy from his scientific colleagues.  Darwin, at least, expressed his condolences regarding the threatening letters, writing, “I was grieved to see in the Daily News that the madman about the flat earth has been threatening your life.  What an odious trouble this must have been to you.” [ref. 3.10]  Most thought he should never have gotten involved, and there were presumably whispers about a former land-surveyor trying to act the gentleman. 

William Carpenter remained silent for more than a year after his controversy with Coulcher and Walsh in The Field.  Not until the summer of 1871 did he publish his first pamphlet on the Bedford Canal experiment, Water, Not Convex: The Earth Not a Globe.  The first really detailed description of the Bedford Canal experiment and its aftermath, it is generally reliable despite Carpenter’s obvious bias.  It is particularly interesting because of Carpenter’s expertise in Pitman shorthand, and some of the dialogue he preserved is quoted in the previous chapter.  Unfortunately, Carpenter was a tedious writer with a penchant for petty quibbling and a genius for misunderstanding simple English.  In a letter to Hampden, Wallace noted that if one sighted along a line of poles between Old Bedford Bridge and Welney Bridge, the tops should appear to be “rising higher and higher to the middle point, and thence sinking lower and lower to the furthest one.” Carpenter commented as follows:

The surface of the earth is to be seen “rising” and “falling!” How strange!  Why, have we not just been provided with the exact amount of curvature in one continuously progressive scale, without any “ups” and “downs,” from eight inches in the first mile, to 130 feet in the fourteenth mile?  Is Mr. Wallace right, and all the other scientific men wrong?  Does the surface of the earth curvate continuously upwards, or continuously downwards, or, first upwards, then downwards?  Is there a gradual incline, a gradual decline, or is there first one then the other?  These are questions every thoughtful man will ask. 

Nonsense!  A thoughtful man would easily understand what Wallace meant.  Carpenter carped continuously in everything he wrote, and after a few pages of his stuff, Hampden’s rages sound almost reasonable.  Unlike Hampden, Carpenter knew how to walk the thin line between fair comment and libel.  His innuendoes contain the same accusations Hampden made, but he was never sued.  His penchant for detail made some of his tiresome works informative, but Hampden’s tirades are more interesting reading. 

Meanwhile, the flat-earth movement thrived on the controversy.  For the first time in its history, the movement got national publicity.  True, the publicity was all bad, but the zetetics finally gained recognition.  Rowbotham, Carpenter, and Hampden no longer stood alone in the public eye.  The Bedford Canal experiment brought in new blood and spawned the first genuine outpouring of zetetic literature.  One writer brought into the flat-earth controversy by the Bedford Canal controversy was Empson Edward Middleton. 

Some benighted souls imagine that no practical seaman could ever be a flat-earther.  Empson Edward Middleton, the first to circumnavigate England single-handed, is an excellent counterexample.  To a modern landlubber, a voyage that rarely left sight of land sounds unimpressive.  But sailing vessels rarely sank in the open sea.  The rocks, shoals, and tides found close to shore were (and still are) the greatest danger.  Middleton brought the Kate in to shore nearly every night, thus traversing the danger zone twice daily for much of his voyage.  In the days before auxiliary engines, electronic navigation systems, and large-scale piloting charts, putting a 21-foot yawl into a strange harbor single-handed was not for the faint of heart, and Middleton’s survival sometimes depended upon heroic feats of rowing.  He described his hair-raising experiences in The Cruise of the Kate, first published in April 1870 and still in print. 

Empson Edward Middleton was not exactly born to the sea, but his maternal grandmother came from a ship-owning family, the Tindals of Scarborough.  The Middleton family tree was sufficiently distinguished that grandfather Empson had tried unsuccessfully to wangle a title.  When young Empson was born in Jamaica in 1838, his father Boswell was governor of the island.  Boswell Middleton died in the cholera epidemic of 1853, and Empson was put aboard a Tindal ship, the Albemarle.  He proved himself a gifted helmsman, so good at steadying a wallowing vessel that when the crew went aloft in foul weather, they asked that he be put at the helm.  He served in the British Army in India, but Lieutenant Middleton was not a happy man, and he returned to England in 1864 or 1865 and retired from the Army by selling his commission.  Being a gentleman, Middleton had no need of (or taste for) employment or profession.  Instead, he decided to translate Virgil’s epic Latin poem the Aeneid into rhymed English pentameters.  It was a daunting task, from which his voyage on the Kate was intended as a temporary respite. 

The successful author leaped into the flat-earth fray in late 1871.  As a youth aboard the Albemarle, Middleton had questioned the rotundity of the earth.  Now he took exception to some antizetetic letters-to-the-editor sent to a British newspaper by an anonymous “Globe-ite.” Middleton engaged “Globe-ite” in one of those letters-to-the-editor battles beloved by the 19th century British press.  Middleton’s four contributions, later published under the title The Trigonometreadidit Letters, illustrate his unique style.  His response to Globe-ite’s first published letter began thus:

Sir—Kindly permit me in all humility to arouse, wake up, alarm, terrify, freeze Globe-ite with a burning sensation that I wonder.  Would Globe-ite be sensitively pricked up to the distant rumbling, mighty roaring, all-earth-clashing, sea-nonconvexing, air-spitting, gentle ear-tickler?  Then let Globe-ite be aware that I quiver, shake, nay—rattle with amazement to know, would he (Globe-ite) allow, recognize, and determinedly swear that there is such a thing as perpendicular!  Swear, Globe-ite, swear!  affirm yea!  It is affirmed.  Globe-ite has graciously condescended that he acknowledges an ordinance of nature called (according to position) vertical, upright, perpendicular, or otherwise.” [ref. 3.11] 

Middleton argued that if there is on earth such a thing as a perpendicular, there must also be such a thing as a horizontal.  If horizontal, then flat, Q.E.D.  Unfortunately, Middleton’s arguments were rarely clear to anyone but himself, and when prose failed, he switched to verse.  For example, in his third letter, he wrote:

The earth’s a plane!  the earth’s a plane!
Hurrah for “Parallax” then;
Hurrah, hurrah!  hurrah, hurrah!
For Carpenter and Hampden!

Another cheer for publishers,
And printers, too, who boldly
Set forth the truth!  set forth the truth!
And shun the false and mouldy. [ref. 3.12] 

It is hard to argue with this kind of logic.  One suspects that most globites kept out of Middleton’s way as much as possible, though not for the reasons he imagined.  He followed The Trigonometreadidit Letters with more of the same in his Controversy on the Shape of the Earth between a Newtonian Astronomer and a Poet (1872). 

With secret flat-earthers coming out of the closet and new converts coming into the fold, the time was ripe for a zetetic periodical.  Hampden tried to start one in 1871, [ref. 3.13]  but he never got it off the ground.  More successful was B. Charles Brough, who brought forth the first issue of The Zetetic: A Monthly Journal of Cosmographical Science on July 1, 1872.  Brough opened The Zetetic as follows:


If any explanation were necessary for the appearance of The Zetetic in the ranks of journalism, it might be found in the fact that while almost every phase of scientific, political, and social problems has its own particular organ, and medium of communication, those who have been led to believe in the principles of Zeteticism have been hitherto totally unrepresented; and, owing to the partiality and intolerance of the press, frequently misrepresented. 

The Zetetic was published in Brough’s hometown of Stafford, a small market town 25 miles north of Birmingham, then England’s industrial powerhouse.  Stafford’s best-known native son was Izaak Walton (1593–1683), who probably wet his first line in the river Sow, which flows through the town.  Little is known of Brough’s background, but he seems to have been a middle-class professional, perhaps an attorney (or solicitor).  He had already published a pamphlet entitled What Is the Shape of the Earth? and perhaps other works, but none survive. 

The Zetetic is a gold mine of flat-earth trivia.  Correspondence published in the premier issue indicates that an informal network of flat-earthers was already in place.  One of Brough’s aims was to formalize this network, and the August 1872 issue of The Zetetic announced that “a Zetetic Society … is now in the course of formation …” The Zetetic Society remained in the course of formation for as long as The Zetetic was published, but nothing came of it. [note 3.2] 

The early issues of The Zetetic are a showcase of flat-earthism in the years immediately following the Bedford Canal experiment.  Rowbotham contributed a series of autobiographical essays, which are our primary source of information about his background and early life.  Hampden and Carpenter made cameo appearances with letters-to-the-editor.  Several flat-earthers we will meet again in later chapters first appeared in The Zetetic: Frederick D. Evans, pamphleteer James Naylor, and pamphleteer and zetetic lecturer William Bathgate. 

Brough himself was already attacking conventional astronomy in public forums.  In the first issue of The Zetetic, he alludes a recent public debate on the shape of the earth, apparently with our old friend J. Dyer, but he gives no details.  As part of his flat-earth ministry, Brough offered a lecture program entitled “Impeachment of Modern Astronomy.” The full program took three evenings.  Brough gave formal lectures on the first and second evenings, and (at his option) held an open discussion on the third “in towns where there are Newtonians sufficiently competent to handle the subject.” [ref. 3.14]  Brough delivered his lecture series twice in the week of December 15–21, 1872, in Stafford on Monday through Wednesday (December 16–18) and in Liverpool on Thursday and Friday. [note 3.3] 

Neither lecture series was well-attended.  The hometown lecture was reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser as follows:

“IMPEACHMENT OF THE NEWTONIAN ASTRONOMY.”—Such was the heading of the placards which announced three lectures to be delivered in the Lyceum on the evenings of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, by Mr. B. Chas. Brough, but notwithstanding its taking character the audiences were not numerous.  On the first evening, the Mayor, B.P. Wright, Esq., presided, and, in his opening remarks, stated that his presence there by no means committed him to the views propounded by the lecturer, he merely attended to give countenance to a townsman in explaining those views, which his worship good-humouredly observed, might be so dear to him as to lead him to anticipate the time when he would be placed on the pedestal of fame, and persons point to him and say, “A greater man than Newton is here.” Mr. Brough then proceeded with his lecture, in which, with no lack of ability, he attempted to enforce those ideas respecting astronomy which our correspondent “Common-sense” so completely refuted, and which are contrary to the experience alike of the man of sense and the untutored sailor [italics added by Brough]. [ref. 3.15] 

Brough took umbrage at this report (especially the italicized passages), and he printed his rebuttal in the January 1873 issue of The Zetetic.  The mayor said no such thing, he insisted.  As for the refutation by “Common-sense,” Brough made a revealing statement:

It is not true that the utter inaccuracy of “Parallax’s” system, would, in the slightest degree, invalidate the truth of Mr. Brough’s Impeachment; neither is it true that Mr. Brough advocated, or permitted the discussion of, Zetetic Astronomy … [ref. 3.16] 

This suggests that Brough’s public approach was pure obscurantism.  He attacked Newtonian astronomy hammer and tongs but refused to present or defend any alternative.  Obscurantist tactics work best with unsophisticated audiences, and modern creationists mimic Brough’s approach by assaulting conventional science while refusing to say what they think should replace it. 

Brough was a prickly sort, and he filled the pages of The Zetetic with barbs directed at the spherical opposition.  Though his knowledge of the Bedford Canal affair was entirely secondhand, he persisted in commenting on it to Wallace’s disadvantage from the first issue to the last he edited.  Brough seemed to think that some combination of insult and innuendo would persuade Wallace to participate in a rerun of the experiment.  One example of his technique should suffice. 

Between battles with flat-earthers, Wallace spent most of 1871 and part of 1872 planning and building his dream house in an old chalk pit near Grays, Essex, about 20 miles east of London and just north of the river Thames.  With unfailing naiveté, he hired a notoriously crooked contractor who cost him considerable time and money and eventually left him managing the project himself.  The Wallaces finally moved into the new house, named The Dell, in mid-1872.  Some letters Brough subsequently sent to Wallace’s old address in Barking were returned by the post office.  Commenting on this, Brough wrote:

About this time Mr. Hampden had commenced to institute legal proceedings for the recovery of his £500, but no-one would insinuate, for a moment, that this was the cause of Mr. Wallace’s exodus, any more than he would attribute the ‘journey’ of discretionary French patriots, during the late Franco-German war, to the most distant sea-ports, to any fear, however remote, of the fortunes of war. [ref. 3.17] 

Wallace had actually been negotiating a new experiment, but this cheap shot, so characteristic of Brough, apparently eliminated Wallace’s interest in communicating with him.  Besides, Brough’s career at The Zetetic was rapidly drawing to a close. 

With the September 1872 issue, Brough became joint editor with “Parallax,” although the editorial style continued to bear Brough’s mark.  (Brough was afflicted with that unctuous intellectual dishonesty so common among sectarian controversialists.) In March 1873, the title was changed to The Zetetic and Anti-Theorist: A Monthly Journal of Practical Cosmography, and “Parallax” was listed as the sole editor.  On the first page, Rowbotham described his favorite Bedford Canal experiment, one he claimed to have worked successfully many times.  He proposed that a boat equipped with a flag 6 feet high be rowed 6 miles down the canal and observed with a telescope 8 inches above the water.  According to the spherical theory, the boat and flag should go out of sight behind the curvature of the earth.  In numerous repetitions of this experiment, said Rowbotham, the observer had never failed to keep the boat and flag in view for the full 6 miles.  He concluded, “Trial of the above experiment is the challenge here solemnly given, in the interest of truth alone, to the scientific men of the whole world.” [ref. 3.18]  There were no takers. 

For his own part, Rowbotham was still lecturing actively.  On April 21, 22, 28, and 29, 1873, he gave a series of lectures in the Penge Hall, near Anerly Railway Station, Penge, about 7 miles south of the Tower of London.  Each lecture started at 8:00 p.m.  General admission was 6d. and reserved seats 1s. for each lecture, or 1s. 6d. and 2s. 6d., respectively, for the whole course of four lectures. 

The discussion period following the first lecture included some fireworks.  “Parallax” reported the event as follows:

On Monday evening last, April 21st, Mr. J. Dyer, a gentleman who some time ago published a pamphlet entitled ‘Parallax Answered,’ [note 3.4]  attended the first of the second course of lectures delivered in the Penge Hall.  At the close, when discussion was invited, Mr. D. walked to the foot of the platform, and boldly declared that he was able to show that the whole of the lecturer’s statements and arguments were absolutely false. [ref. 3.19] 

Dyer was feisty and somewhat abusive, and the chairman addressed him in strong language.  Rowbotham ended the discussion by challenging Dyer to debate the issue at another time.  Dyer accepted. 

The “Parallax” vs. Dyer debate was held at the Penge Hall on May 5, 1873.  Again, the tickets were 6d. for general admission, 1s. for reserved seats.  Each speaker gave a 15-minute opening address, and then they spoke alternately for 10 minutes each until the end.  Rowbotham gave a third-person account of the debate in The Zetetic, beginning as follows:

“Parallax” opened the debate, by remarking that the subject they were met to discuss was one of the most important which it was possible for the human mind to grapple with.  The doctrine that the earth was a globe was so interwoven with different other subjects, that to show its fallacy was practically to pull down all the vast superstructure of modern science and philosophy; and it was not to be wondered at therefore that so many of the learned professors of the day were so anxiously determined to resist the advance of contrary teaching.  But they were divided as to the best means of accomplishing their object.  Many declared it was better to leave it unnoticed; to “pooh, pooh,” and treat it with apparent indifference.  Others, as our friend Mr. Dyer, thought otherwise, that it ought to be attacked and battled with on every possible occasion.  He called Mr. Dyer a friend, because, however savage and impatient in his manner of opposition, he afforded an opportunity, by discussing the subject, of shewing its true importance and strength if it were true; and its insignificance and weakness if it were false. [ref. 3.20] 

Rowbotham argued that if the surface of water were horizontal, then Newtonian astronomy is dead.  Dyer (if we are to believe Rowbotham) opened as follows:

I am here to affirm that all that “Parallax” has said is a mass of error in every respect.  I object entirely to his telling you of certain experiments; and requiring you to take his word.  Neither I nor you shall take his or any other man’s ipse dixit[ref. 3.21] 

Dyer implied that Rowbotham lied about his experiments.  Rowbotham said that Dyer should not make such statements before going to the canal and making experiments himself.  He then issued the following challenge:

He [Rowbotham] now gave him a formal challenge to do so; and in order that he might have no excuse, he would undertake to pay all his expenses, there and back, on the sole consideration that he should agree to present himself before a public meeting, called for the purpose in that hall, to state explicitly and without reserve what he had seen with his own eyes. [ref. 3.22] 

Dyer declined, supposedly as follows:

Yes, this is the way “Parallax” is in the habit of dealing with his opponents; and it really takes the wind out of us!  It seems to an audience so fair and above-board that very often they think we ought to go, and that we haven’t a leg to stand on unless we do.  But I beg to say that I entirely decline to do anything so foolish—who knows what would occur when we got there?  Who knows what would be the conduct of “Parallax” and his party?  what would they say and do, and what version would they give on their return?  I have no doubt that the whole thing would be so muddled and cooked that no satisfaction would be felt by the public. [ref. 3.23] 

Rowbotham insisted that Dyer and others didn’t have the courage to do the experiment.  Dyer argued that Wallace’s experiment had settled the matter, and there was no point in doing further experiments.  Rowbotham then appealed to the audience as follows:

You see, ladies and gentlemen, how the matter stands.  Mr. Dyer refuses to make experiments to test the matter at issue; and he relies upon the unsatisfactory and inconsistent results obtained by Mr. Wallace, who declined, and still declines, to try the plain, simple experiment I described.  Why do these people so strangely shrink from the only proper test which can be instituted?  I leave the matter with you, for your own individual consideration. [ref. 3.24] 

At that point, Dyer was beaten.  He went on to argue that ships disappearing over the horizon prove the earth’s sphericity, but Rowbotham had been answering that one for more than two decades.  He knew how this well-known illusion occurred, he said, and he explained and illustrated the zetetic law of perspective.  (The latter depends upon zetetic geometry, which, like creationist thermodynamics, sounds plausible enough to a lay audience.) He challenged Dyer to refute his explanation with a demonstration. 

Dyer declined.  He said he had twenty proofs that the earth is a globe, and began presenting them.  He had barely begun arguing from the sun’s motion when Rowbotham interrupted to say that Dyer was talking about the consequences of the earth’s shape rather than the shape itself.  He would be happy to debate that topic on another night, but it was not this evening’s subject.  It was now about eleven o'clock, and they broke up, Dyer no doubt going home a sadder (if not wiser) man. 

Dyer’s refusal to participate with Rowbotham in another Bedford Canal experiment was nothing new.  Rowbotham had been repeating his challenge in every issue of The Zetetic without result.  Finally, in the July 1873 issue, he directed it specifically to Alfred Russel Wallace.  To be sure Wallace didn’t miss it, Rowbotham sent him a copy of the issue.  For a great scientist, Wallace was a remarkably slow learner.  In a letter dated July 14, 1873, he accepted Parallax’s challenge. 

Again, a voluminous correspondence ensued, and Rowbotham reproduced much of it in the August–September 1873 issue of The Zetetic.  Wallace agreed that Rowbotham’s experiment would be conclusive, saying that he would “cheerfully abide the result of the trial with any impartial judges to decide whether the boat continues to be seen or not.” [ref. 3.25]  He insisted, however, that the observer must be someone accustomed to using a telescope and suggested that Rowbotham should appoint “any professional land surveyor or civil engineer from the neighbourhood” [ref. 3.26]  to make the observations.  As for himself, he would get Martin W. B. Coulcher to observe for him again.  Eventually, Parallax agreed to accept a surveyor named by Wallace, saying he would himself make “collateral observations.” Coulcher, whose home was in Downham Market, near the canal, advised that July was not favorable, due to mirage.  Coulcher recommended October or November, but “Parallax” cited his own experience there and insisted there should be no problem.  They eventually settled on August 26, 1873. 

Wallace had made a dangerous concession.  The successful canal experiments Rowbotham described in his lectures and literature invariably had the observer’s eyes close to the canal waters.  Parallax suggested that the experimenters use punting boats—narrow, flat-bottomed, very low-profile boats often used for wildfowl hunting.  Instead of a punt gun, a huge boat-mounted shotgun used for massacring sitting ducks, one of the boats would be equipped with a powerful telescope mounted inches above the water.  Another boat with a short flagstaff mounted on it would row off down the canal.  The observer would note whether the flag remained in view for the 6 miles from Old Bedford Bridge to Welney Bridge or went out of sight behind the curvature of the earth.  On a cool morning in late August, with the canal water warmer than the air, the flag just might remain in view!  Either Wallace didn’t understand air refraction or he trusted Coulcher and the surveyor, one Burton, not to attempt the experiment with an inversion layer near the water. 

Rowbotham was insistent on getting the observer’s eye into the mirage layer.  In case the experimenters couldn’t get suitable boats, he borrowed “an improved diving dress” from Messrs. Heinke & Company, Submarine Engineers, explicitly so that the observer’s eye and telescope could be kept “within a few inches of the surface.” [ref. 3.27] 

Neither Wallace nor Rowbotham went to the Bedford Canal for the new experiment.  Wallace never intended to go, and Rowbotham had to cancel at the last minute.  Coulcher proved a better weather prophet than Rowbotham; the experiment had to be called off due to mirage. [note 3.5]  Rowbotham complained in The Zetetic that they got started too late (ten o'clock), and he proposed a new experiment.  Nothing came of it. 

The Zetetic was by this time probably struggling financially.  Rowbotham was not as mean-spirited as Brough, which improved its tone, but overall The Zetetic went downhill under his editorship.  From the day Rowbotham took over as sole editor, The Zetetic never carried a major article by another flat-earth writer.  He printed letters-to-the-editor, miscellaneous notes, more of his reminiscences, and sections from his book. 

Rowbotham’s own interests apparently were shifting.  For instance, he was advertising a new book, The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, Zetetically Considered, which he continually assured readers would be released soon. [note 3.6]  He was also promoting his ideas on patriarchal longevity and publishing Earth Life, a periodical tract promoting “Dr. Birley’s Syrup of Free Phosphorus.” The patent medicine business was strong and profitable, and Carpenter, Hampden, and other flat-earthers were peddling the stuff for him. 

The Zetetic folded with a double issue dated October–November 1873.  Rowbotham continued to give occasional flat-earth lectures, but his reduced activity left something of a power vacuum in the zetetic world.  By default, Hampden became the leading zetetic spokesman.  To Rowbotham’s chagrin, many thought Hampden was the famous “Parallax.”

Hampden’s pen, of course, had not been idle during this time.  In late October 1872, Wallace had again prosecuted him for libel at London’s Old Bailey.  The November 1872 Zetetic reported the case as follows:

[A] few days ago, Mr. John Hampden was charged, at the Bow-street Police Court, before Mr. Flowers, with libelling Mr. Alfred Russell [sic] Wallace. [ref. 3.28] 

The case was heard before Mr. Commissioner Kerr.  The editor of The Zetetic was not pleased with the result. 

On Monday, the 2nd ult., the Wallace “libel” case was unseemingly disposed of.  At an early stage in the proceedings the prosecutor, apparently desirous of avoiding a critical examination, pressed for an apology to be made; and, as Mr. Commissioner Kerr, before whom the trial was heard, received the suggestion with favour, this course was eventually agreed on.  Such a denouement may be very palatable to Mr. Wallace—doubtless it is so—but we cannot help thinking that, throughout the transaction, he has asserted an honesty which may be better described as legal than moral. [ref. 3.29] 

The prosecutor referred to was, of course, Wallace.  In a letter published in the next issue, Wallace charged that the Zetetic had again misrepresented him.  Rather than pressing for an apology himself, he was pressed to accept one by one of Hampden’s friends.  Whoever made the suggestion, Mr. Kerr let Hampden off on his promise to apologize to Wallace in twelve newspapers and magazines.  The Zetetic carried the apology in the December 1872 issue:

“PUBLIC APOLOGY”—I, JOHN HAMPDEN, of 33, Warwick Street, New Cross, do hereby make a full and complete apology to Mr. Alfred R. Wallace for having falsely accused him of unfair or dishonourable conduct, and I acknowledge that all the accusations I have made against him since April, 1870, are wholly without foundation, and I hereby retract and withdraw everything I have said, written, or published reflecting on his character as a man of honour and integrity. 

John Hampden

Hampden didn’t mean a word of it.  In January 1873, Wallace again had Hampden brought up for libel.  Again, Hampden expressed contrition.  Again, he was ordered to print an apology and to keep the peace.  Again, the judge neglected to confiscate his ink bottle, and the never-peaceful John continued as before. 

By this time, Hampden had moved to Croydon, Surrey, a suburb 10 miles south of London Bridge.  While the editors of The Zetetic were still trying to get a Zetetic Society organized, Hampden established the New Geographical Society.  The headquarters seem to have been Hampden’s home, and it’s not clear that the society had more than one member.  In the ensuing years, the New Geographical Society published numerous items, all of them written or edited by Hampden himself.  An early example, issued in June 1873, was a relatively innocuous four-page tract, A Few Scriptural Inconsistencies with the Newtonian Theory.  Other items from Hampden’s pen, especially his letters-to-the-editor published in various newspapers, were not innocuous. 

In the summer of 1873, while he was negotiating with Rowbotham for further experiments at the Old Bedford Canal, Wallace had Hampden brought up at the Norwich Assizes for further libels. [note 3.7]  Once again, Hampden had been defaming Wallace in letters-to-the-editor published in various newspapers.  This time, the judge rejected Hampden’s apologies and promises of good behavior.  Hampden spent two months in Newgate prison. 

Newgate must not have agreed with Hampden, for he didn’t publish a single pamphlet in 1874.  By the following year, he had caught his wind, and on March 6, 1875, he was indicted at the Chelmsford Assizes for new libels against Wallace.  Chelmsford was a marketing and manufacturing town 30 miles northeast of London.  A 12th century stone bridge over the river Chelm had once guaranteed the town’s importance.  The Chelmsford Assizes were held in the handsome shire hall near the ancient bridge.  On the outskirts of town stood the Chelmsford Gaol, a forbidding stone edifice dating from the 17th century.  Considering the evidence and Hampden’s record, the judge ordered Hampden incarcerated in the Chelmsford Gaol for a year, and he further ordered him to keep the peace for two more years, under heavy sureties. 

Hampden’s second jail term in as many years ensured his martyrdom.  The renewed controversy brought a relative outpouring of flat-earth material.  Carpenter returned to the fray with two pamphlets, Wallace’s Wonderful Water and Proctor’s “Planet Earth”.  The former was admirably summarized by Carpenter himself in his advertisements for the pamphlet:

WALLACE’S Experiment was chiefly for the gaining of £500. from J. Hampden; and it is tolerably well known that Mr. Wallace succeeded in doing so.  But it is not by any means well known in what manner this was effected.  To supply this deficiency is the object of the author.  He was an eye-witness of the Experiment for the whole of the week that was occupied with it, and is, consequently, able to say what he knows of the subject, and not merely what he imagines.  He does not libel Mr. Wallace.  Oh, no!  He uses a more WONDERFUL and effective weapon than that which the law can put down.  He trusts to the power which TRUTH alone affords, and to FACTS which are too stubborn to be put down by any law whatever.  The subject is bound to interest the Reader: for Truth is stranger than Fiction; and, moreover, its importance to the student of Nature cannot easily be over-estimated.  If it is simply a fact that the surface of water is level—and not curved upwards in the middle of any six miles of its extent that may be chosen, as “science” puts it,—we owe much to—WATER! For it shows us the true form of the Earth.  As is the water so must be the Earth in its general features.  It is not a globe: but it is scientifically demonstrated to be just what the Scriptures declare that it is:—an immovable body, “Stretched out above the waters.” Modern Astronomical Theory, is false! [ref. 3.30] 

In other words, the pamphlet rehashes the Bedford Canal experiment from Carpenter’s point of view.  Wallace’s Wonderful Water was written and published while John Hampden resided in Chelmsford Gaol.  So was Proctor’s “Planet Earth”, an attack on Lessons in Elementary Astronomy by astronomer and prolific science writer Richard Anthony Proctor, who was emerging as a major opponent of zeteticism.  (We will meet Proctor later in this chapter.)

Hampden remained in Chelmsford Gaol for six months before friends secured his release.  As soon as he got out of the slammer, Hampden turned the tables.  In January 1876, he sued John Henry Walsh, stakeholder for the Bedford Canal wager, for his £500 deposit.  The Gaming Act of 1845 had made all wagers null and void.  Its ramifications were by this time well established in case law.  In a decision handed down on January 17, Chief Justice Cockburn explained:

[T]hough, where a wager was illegal, no action could be brought either against the loser or stakeholder by the winner, a party who had deposited his money with the stakeholder was not in the same predicament.  If, indeed, the event on which the wager depended had come off, and the money had been paid over, the authority to pay it not having been revoked, the depositor could no longer claim to have it back.  But if, before the money was so paid over, the party depositing repudiated the wager and demanded his money back, he was entitled to have it restored to him, and could maintain an action to recover … [ref. 3.31] 

Walsh was damned by a single, undisputed fact: Immediately upon receiving the decision, and long before Walsh delivered the stakes to Wallace, Hampden had demanded his money back. [ref. 3.32]  Legally, Walsh should have complied, so judgment was given in favor of Hampden. 

Wallace felt morally obligated to bear Walsh’s expenses in the suit.  As Wallace still had a £600 claim against Hampden, and Hampden’s bankruptcy was obviously (and perhaps provably) fraudulent, an accommodation was reached whereby Wallace paid £120 and the costs of the suit and retained a claim of £410 against Hampden.  He never got a penny. 

The jubilant Hampden lost no time in launching his first major venture into flat-earth journalism.  On May 1, 1876, he published the first issue of The Truth-Seeker’s Oracle and Scriptural Science Review, also identified as “Terra Firma,” “John Hampden’s Monthly,” and “Organ of the New Geographical Society.” The price was threepence, and the text was vintage Hampden.  He opened the first issue with these words:

The very announcement of our name will sufficiently assure our readers as to what is the object, and what will be the principal subject of our small Monthly.  With the first dip of our pen we throw down the gauntlet to the whole scientific world, and declare our intention to show, in the most unreserved manner, that all the geographers, all the astronomers, all the philosophers, all the scientific and educational professors of Europe are, on one particular subject, all wrong, all in error, all guilty of maintaining and upholding one of the most baseless theories, one of the most delusive fictions ever imposed on the ignorance and credulity of mankind.  We shall prove from Scripture, from reason, and from fact, the World to be neither globe nor planet, neither rocket nor wheel, neither mystery nor myth, but a stationary and level plane, over which the sun, moon, and stars horizontally revolve, at very moderate distances above us.  We shall contend for the maintenance and defence of the ancient systems of philosophy and Scriptural science against the modern theoretical astronomy; and for the resolute and persistent exposure of the unscrupulous falsehoods, and the fabulous and baseless theories of the royal professors; with constant and special reference to the Bedford Canal survey by one of their principal members, in the year 1870; unfolding step by step, the inexcusable blundering and the palpable iniquity of the whole affair, both morally and scientifically. 

Hampden was as pugnacious as ever.  He fully expected that his enemies would try to shut down The Truth-Seeker’s Oracle:

If there is neither sagacity nor intelligence enough among all our bigoted and vindictive opponents to silence our arguments before the issue of our second number, the disgraceful incompetence of the scientific professors and their literary hacks, will be most unsparingly denounced.  We ask for no quarter, and it will be very shortly seen we intend giving none. [ref. 3.33] 

He certainly didn’t.  Hampden lashed out at his enemies from every page, and he had enemies everywhere.  He blasted the religious publications of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, calling them “spurious, baseless, bastard, and infidel trash.” He fumed that the Committee of the Council on Education had refused to show his flat-earth map at an exhibition.  He raged at spherical ministers of the Church of England.  He called a planned expedition to the north pole “a disgraceful waste of the public money” and challenged scientists instead to circumnavigate the mythical south pole.  He hinted strongly that Christ would return to deal with “hypocritical professor[s]” and other degenerates within five years. 

Needless to say, Hampden had neither forgotten Wallace, nor was he cowed by the prospect of further prosecution for libel:

[I]n spite of all the law courts and lawyers in England we shall persist in publishing Mr. A. R. Wallace a defaulter in the sum of £725, till the last fraction of our claim against him as a man of honour has been cancelled. [ref. 3.34] 

One of Hampden’s projects, promoted in The Truth Seeker’s Oracle, was his New Geographical Society, for which he published a prospectus:

Its object is the revival and re-establishment of the original and only true system of GEOGRAPHY and ASTRONOMY, of 5,500 years duration, designed by the Almighty Creator, believed in and maintained by all the inspired historians, and never doubted or disputed till mankind had abandoned their reverence for God’s word, and astrology and superstition had supplanted the faith in the evidence of their own senses. [ref. 3.35] 

There is no evidence that anyone joined.  Indeed, there’s no internal evidence that anyone even read The Truth-Seeker’s Oracle, though many flat-earthers undoubtedly did.  The publication consisted exclusively of Hampden’s tirades and a few advertisements.  There were no articles by other contributors, not so much as a letter-to-the-editor.  Perhaps that explains why it lasted for only three issues. 

Zetetics may not have flocked to the banner of the New Geographical Society or the subscription list of The Truth-Seeker’s Oracle and Scriptural Science Review, but Hampden’s court victory over Walsh and Wallace gave flat-earthism a tremendous psychological lift, especially coming as it did on the heels of his incarceration in Chelmsford Gaol.  His fellow flat-earthers considered him vindicated, and zetetic discussions of the case rarely mention that the decision was based on a technicality rather than the outcome of the experiment.  A flurry of action ensued.  The year 1874 had passed without the publication of single zetetic work.  Carpenter had published two in 1875, while Hampden was jailed.  During the years 1876 through 1879, at least a dozen zetetic works were published, not counting The Truth-Seeker’s Oracle

Empson Edward Middleton, last heard from in 1872, brought forth two pamphlets in 1876, The Great Liberator! The Great Solvent! The Great Liberator! and On the Variation of the Needle in Connection with the Shape of the Earth.  That same year, he also published a map entitled Middleton’s Pioneer Map of the World (not to be confused with his Chart of the World, as Middleton was quick to caution potential buyers).  In 1877, he followed with The Variation of the Needle in Connection with the Construction of the Globe on Navigator’s Course.  It is difficult to determine his place in the flat-earth movement, if indeed he was linked to the movement by anything other than similar beliefs.  A prolific writer, Middleton operated from isolation, sitting in the outskirts and firing his oddly-shaped darts of wisdom almost at random. 

Indeed, Middleton often felt neglected, and it did not sit well with him.  The heroic voyage of the Kate was not (he felt) properly recognized by the public, and literary critics were unkind to his partial translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  The latter was completely ignored, and he lamented about “the gross injustice shown to myself as a poet, after my having published a poetical work of such unapproachable excellence …” Some people can only get justice from themselves.  Middleton never seemed to fit in anywhere, not even with his fellow flat-earthers.  Being born of wealthy parents, he never learned to wait on himself, which no doubt made life more difficult for him.  As he grew older, he continued to publish occasional flat-earth works, but he also sank deeper and deeper into eccentricity and obscurity.  He died virtually unknown in 1916. 

In the mid-1870s, Carpenter lived in Lewisham, a southeastern metropolitan borough of London, where he ran a book shop specializing in “works on Total Abstinence, Vegetarianism, Mesmerism, Spiritualism, Dietetics, Hydropathy, Phonography, etc.” [ref. 3.36]  He also peddled Birley’s Syrup of Free Phosphorus at 10s. per Imperial pint (a three-month supply at a teaspoonful morning and night).  And he continued to churn out flat-earth pamphlets. 

Carpenter had developed a penchant for attacking astronomers and/or replying to critics.  We previously mentioned his 1875 pamphlets Wallace’s Wonderful Water and Proctor’s “Planet Earth”.  These were soon followed by Mr. Lockyer’s Logic (1876), The Delusion of the Day: or, Dyer’s Reply to “Parallax” (1877), Proctor, Lockyer, Wallace and Dyer, Confuted and Their Fallacies Exposed (1877), and A Reply to Professor Airy’s Ipswich Lectures to Workingmen (1878?).  Wallace and Dyer need no further introduction, and we will meet Proctor shortly.  Astronomer Joseph Norman Lockyer was famous—and eventually knighted—for his investigations of the solar atmosphere.  Sir George Biddell Airy was Astronomer Royal from 1835 to 1881. 

We can form an idea of Carpenter’s method from The Delusion of the Day: or, Dyer’s Reply to “Parallax”, which is dedicated to the schoolmasters of Great Britain (their number included Dyer).  The pamphlet is in the form of a dialogue between Frank (flat) and John (spherical).  Frank is a tiresome quibbler whom Carpenter undoubtedly modeled on himself.  John has brought his flat friend a copy of Dyer’s The Spherical Form of the Earth to examine.  We can pick up Frank’s method from a single example:

Frank: Your schoolmaster goes on with his picking from “Parallax” in this way:—“'That from this northern centre the land diverges and stretches, out of necessity, towards the circumference, which must now be called THE SOUTHERN REGION, which is a vast circle, and not a pole or centre.'” Does “Parallax” say that the land stretches; or, does he say that it stretches out?

John: What nonsense it is for you to talk that way, Frank!  Why, the comma is put in the wrong place, that’s all! [ref. 3.37] 

A misplaced comma seems trivial enough, but Frank smells a plot.  In the same quoted sentence, Dyer also changed “a circumference” to “the circumference.” Elsewhere in his book, he committed other sins greater and less, which Frank is determined to root out.  By the end of the pamphlet, Frank has refuted Dyer and the globe as thoroughly as any creationist has ever refuted Darwin and evolution.  Poor John grabs his book and exits in confusion. 

Carpenter would soon grab his own books and follow suit.  The “journeyman printer” (as he frequently styled himself) apparently had his hands full supporting his family with his book shop, shorthand tutoring, and printing.  Beginning in the mid-1870s, England entered a prolonged period of economic hard times.  The demands for her exports were decreasing.  Steel was replacing iron for many uses, and British industry was slow to adapt.  William Carpenter and his family emigrated to America in 1879, presumably seeking a more prosperous life. 

Like the British economy, the zetetic movement was somewhat chaotic.  Besides the visible zetetics, numerous shadowy figures were chipping away at the sphere from behind the scenes.  Much zetetic energy was expended, but it was not well-directed.  The flat-earthers needed a zealot with charisma and (more important) leadership ability to lead them out of the wilderness.  Rowbotham lacked the leadership psychology, and he was slowly reducing his flat-earth activity to concentrate on selling Dr. Birley’s Syrup of Free Phosphorus.  The only alternative candidates for leadership were Empson Edward Middleton, B. Charles Brough, and John Hampden.  Middleton, as usual, was somewhere out in left field.  Brough had vanished from the scene (unless he was the “Scaevola” who in 1877 published What Is the Shape of the Earth?).  Opportunity was hammering on the door demanding a zetetic who could persuade, cajole, motivate, manipulate, organize, and generally make things happen.  Only John Hampden answered. 

Unfortunately, Hampden was no leader; a quintessential loner, he was utterly unfit for the role the fates thrust upon him.  In his own way, he tried.  He founded flat-earth organizations with every other dip of his pen and flat-earth journals when he had the money. 

The zetetics had by now gained substantial recognition.  Many provincial newspapers treated the controversy seriously and regularly printed zetetic letters-to-the-editor.  Most “respectable” national publications turned up their journalistic noses and ignored the zetetics, as a proper Victorian might ignore an inebriate in the gutter, but there were exceptions.  The English Mechanic and World of Science, the weekly tabloid-format science paper that was the model for Rufus Porter’s Scientific American, boasted an eclectic readership—scientists, scholars, engineers, clergymen, shopkeepers, mechanics, students, and freelance thinkers like Hampden.  Written in a popular style, English Mechanic ran a conglomeration of feature articles, news stories, science notes, descriptions of new inventions, letters-to-the-editor, chemical recipes, craft tips, and whatever else the editors thought suitable and worthwhile.  From the 1860s onward, English Mechanic took a skeptical but relatively tolerant attitude toward unorthodoxy, and flat-earthers, moon-nonrotators, perpetual motionists, and miscellaneous misfits had their doings reported and their letters published in its pages. 

One who jousted with Hampden and Rowbotham in the pages of English Mechanic was Richard Anthony Proctor, who had risen from a humble background to become England’s best-known astronomical writer.  Proctor was a trained astronomer, one of the first to map Mars, and the first to suggest that meteorite impacts caused the moon’s craters.  He is best remembered, however, as a 19th century Asimov who produced respectable books at a prodigious rate.  Proctor apparently began following the flat-earthers in October 1864, when he heard Rowbotham speak at Plymouth.  Having listened to his arguments, examined his works, and analyzed some experiments he claimed to have performed, Proctor concluded that Rowbotham was a cynical fraud who didn’t believe his own theory. [note 3.8]  He dismissed Hampden as a dupe of Rowbotham and a refugee from the puzzle factory.  On this basis, Proctor exchanged barbs with Hampden and Rowbotham in the English Mechanic for years. 

In 1881, Proctor founded Knowledge, a popular science magazine.  A regular feature of Knowledge was “Our Paradox Corner,” a column devoted to examining unorthodoxies.  Proctor regularly treated the flat-earthers under this heading.  In March 1883, he agreed to give Hampden space for rebuttal.  Knowing Hampden’s propensity for billingsgate, Proctor warned him that only arguments from evidence would be printed and polemics would be mercilessly edited out.  Hampden, of course, was constitutionally incapable of writing anything else.  After several of his submissions were printed in severely edited form, Hampden wrote Proctor a blistering letter:

Dear Sir,—I gave you most distinctly to understand that any exhibition of bad faith in the treatment of my articles would compel me to denounce and expose as severely as I have the conduct of that degraded swindler, Alfred Russel Wallace.  I did not ask for the insertion of my notes; and you have no one to blame but yourself, when you find that your contemptible cowardice has entailed upon you a merciless retribution.  Your daring to expunge four-fifths of my articles, under the lying pretence that they were denunciatory, is quite on a par with what my friends told me I should be sure to meet with at your hands.  You have, I am sorry to say, a most unenviable reputation.  Such I would not have for a thousand a year.  By giving those lectures in the St. James’s Hall, you know that every shilling you take is obtained by false pretences.  Every statement you make you know to be a lie; and, before you have finished them, I will compel you to confess it.  No one but a mean, contemptible coward would dare to tie his opponent’s hands, and forbid him to say a single word in reference to his adversary’s statements.  How can you wonder at the growing contempt your infidel science is universally provoking?  It is you, and such liars and swindlers as Wallace that have brought the very name of science into ridicule and derision.  Go and ask that degraded thief Wallace what his villainy has done for him; and before you are many months older you shall be as ashamed to show your face as he is.  Remember my words.  If others are afraid to tell you what you are, I am not.  I have proved you to be a liar and a coward, and I shall so speak of you. 

Yours, &c., John Hampden. [ref. 3.38] 

Hampden was as good as his word.  Six months later, he launched his third or fourth venture into flat-earth journalism [note 3.9]  entitled Cosmos: A Geographical, Philosophical and Educational Review, Nautical Guide, & General Student’s Manual (hereafter Cosmos).  The masthead further identified it above the title as “The only Controversial Paper published in the Kingdom” and below the title as “The organ of the Biblical Science Institute.” Cosmos was a small-format, twopenny publication of sixteen pages per issue.  The premier (September 1883) issue had this fillip for Proctor:

A Mr. Richard Proctor has lately made himself more conspicuous as an advocate of the delusive frauds of the Copernican superstition; and an ample portion of each month’s space will be devoted to an exposure of this writer’s opinions, and the palpably reckless and shamefully false character of his attempts to illustrate the shape of the terrestrial and marine surfaces. [ref. 3.39] 

As with The Truth-Seeker’s Oracle and Scriptural Science Review, all articles were written by Hampden, but he at least ran a few letters-to-the-editor.  Mostly, Cosmos is page after page of tirades against Hampden’s usual whipping boys, except that astronomer Richard Proctor has almost completely replaced Wallace as the archdemon. 

In the October 1883 issue, Hampden asked a curious question: “Where Are the Engineers?”

Does any rational person suppose that if the Astronomers and Geographers had any confidence in the reality of their mathematical device, they would not instantly appeal for a confirmation of their spherical theory to the surveyors and engineers, whose sole business it is to ascertain the exact shape of the various surfaces on which their railways and canals are constructed? 

The question is curious because engineers have played prominent roles in virtually every unorthodox scientific movement of modern times.  Yet flat-earthism, to this point, could claim none!  This lack would soon be remedied. 

Once again, the flat-earthers were trying to get organized.  In the December 1883 issue of Cosmos, Hampden reported that a Zetetic Society was then being formed.  Prospective subscribers were instructed to write to “the President, The Zetetic Society, Welney House, Haverstock Hill, London, or the Editor, Cosmos, Balham, Surrey.” The former was Rowbotham’s home address, the latter Hampden’s.  This time, a Zetetic Society was successfully formed, with Rowbotham as President and H. Ossipoff Wolfson, a recent emigrant from Russia, as founding Secretary.  As for Cosmos, it folded immediately. 

Little resulted from the Zetetic Society, partly because the earlier zetetic momentum had been largely lost and partly because of a serious defection.  H. Ossipoff Wolfson had never doubted the earth’s sphericity until he met “Parallax” in September 1883.  Overwhelmed by his forceful personality, Wolfson became Rowbotham’s enthusiastic convert and intimate acquaintance, so trusted that Rowbotham selected him as Secretary of the new Zetetic Society.  After working with “Parallax” for six months, however, Wolfson was severely disillusioned.  He had looked into the Hampden–Wallace wager and found the zetetic explanation wanting; furthermore, he was severely troubled by Rowbotham’s claims for his patent medicine.  He went to Proctor and offered to expose Rowbotham in the pages of Knowledge.  Proctor ran the first installment in the March 28, 1884 issue. 

Unfortunately, Wolfson wrote like a Russian novelist.  After two wordy and convoluted installments, he was still backing up to get started.  At that point Proctor received a letter from Howard Rumney, Rowbotham’s solicitor, threatening legal action.  Proctor was convinced that the threat was a bluff, but the series never resumed. 

Rowbotham had by this time almost ceased his flat-earth activities.  He was now about 68 years old, [note 3.10]  and perhaps his health was failing in spite of his phosphorized medicine.  The second edition of Earth Not a Globe, published in 1873, was his last published word on zetetic astronomy. [note 3.11]  For several years afterward, he had promoted The Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ, Zetetically Considered, but the book was never published.  Indeed, though some of his works were reprinted, he never published anything else new, with the possible exception of Phosphorus as Discovered and Prepared by Dr. Birley, a pamphlet published in 1881. 

The fact is that Rowbotham had made a bundle on Dr. Birley’s Syrup of Free Phosphorus.  He had long ago established a critical mass of regular users.  The stuff was advertised in cheap tabloids, and he had established a distribution system for it.  Several of his faithful followers—including Hampden, Carpenter, and Akester (who features in Chapter 4) had sold it for him.  Charles Watkyns de Lacy Evans, the surgeon who replaced Wolfson as Secretary of the Zetetic Society, had written a book extolling the virtues of free phosphorus. [note 3.12]  The nostrum was popular enough so that it would outlive Rowbotham by at least 20 years.  At this point, all he had to do was let the money roll in. 

Rowbotham’s relationship with other flat-earthers is unclear.  He never mentioned a close associate in his works, and (except for Wolfson) no follower ever claimed to be close to him.  He obviously resented the publicity Hampden got from the Bedford Canal experiment, and he was miffed because many thought Hampden was the famous “Parallax.” In a letter to Knowledge published during the Wolfson exposé, Hampden touched on his personal relationship with Rowbotham:

His conduct to me individually has been the very reverse of generous or equitable.  Some twelve or fifteen years ago, when “Parallax” had not, perhaps, as many sixpences as he now has pounds, I paid him some £130 or £140, when I thought of placing my son as his pupil, besides spending an additional £30 in advertising his book by a pamphlet of extracts, entirely trusting to his honour to make me some compensation, if the time should ever arrive, when he should be able to do so.  All the return I have had has been one pint bottle of his phosphorised medicine, and the privilege of having my name identified with the grand cause of which he is undoubtedly the founder. [ref. 3.40] 

“Parallax” seems to have had a number of eccentricities in addition to the more obvious ones, and one of them contributed to his demise.  He had a fear of trains, and as he grew older he refused to ride them.  Wealthy friends and patients seeking his company would send their carriages for him.  In the autumn of 1884, he fell getting out of a cab.  First weakened, then incapacitated, his phosphorized medicine couldn’t save him.  Samuel Birley Rowbotham died December 23, 1884 at age 68, well short the patriarchal longevity promised his customers, and just shy of the Biblical threescore and ten.  He was buried in the Crystal Palace District Cemetery on December 31 with the following inscription on his tombstone:

Founder of Zetetic Philosophy,
Died suddenly, Dec. the 23rd, 1884.
“The deepest truths with reason keen
Thy logic could uphold
Thy master mind with science fought,
Those truths but to unfold.
In ages yet to come Mankind
Will glorify thy name,
And none will shine with brighter rays
Upon the scroll of fame.” West. [ref. 3.41] 

Rowbotham’s death must have shocked users of his longevity-producing nostrum, but it probably had little effect on the movement he had founded.  In March 1885, Hampden launched Parallax, a journal dedicated to the master’s memory.  It opened with the following statement from the editor:

PARALLAX is dedicated to the memory of, and designed to perpetuate the principles, of the late SAMUEL BIRLEY ROWBOTHAM, better known by the nom de plume “Parallax,” the original founder of the ZETETIC Society, and one of the most genuine philosophers of modern times; who, for upwards of thirty years, maintained his ground as the unconquered champion of the greatest cause ever entrusted to the agency of man.  Edited by his grateful disciple and fellow-worker, JOHN HAMPDEN. [ref. 3.42] 

In the premier issue of Parallax, Hampden explained his principal theoretical contribution to zetetic astronomy, which was embodied in his “Circular Chart of the World:”

The circular plane is artificially, or for convenience sake, divided into 24 meridians of longitude, and 7 of latitude; the equator being the centre one.  The parallels of latitude must be exactly equal to the distance between any two meridians, or radii of longitude on the equator; or, 900 miles.  So that from the central north to the navigable boundary of the southern circumference is about 6,900 miles, rather under than over. 

The Sun travels from one meridian to another, irrespective of distance, from east to west, in one hour.  … The Sun itself never extends its orbit beyond 1,350 miles north or south of the equator …

The diameter of the Sun’s June or northern solstice, is 4,200 miles.  That is the mean or equinoxial orbit, is 6,900 miles; that is the December or southern solstice, is 9,600 miles; or, a difference of 2,700 miles between each.  Each parallel or circuit of latitude is, of course, artificially divided into 360 degrees; which makes it impossible to give more than 57½ degrees radius from the equator to the northern centre, or (geometrically) to the southern circumference. [ref. 3.43] 

The last claim—that it is “57½ degrees” from equator to north pole—is puzzling at first, but it provides insight into Hampden’s mental processes.  Conventionally, a nautical mile is defined as a minute of arc on the earth’s surface, and a degree equals 60 minutes.  Hampden would hear nothing of arcs, but he accepted that a degree of latitude is 60 miles.  He then asserted (on what grounds he said not) that the diameter of the equator is 6900 miles, [note 3.13]  meaning that from equator to pole is 3450 miles.  Then 3450/60 = 57½, Q.E.D.  On the Hampden scale, 45 north latitude is about 70 degrees 26 minutes conventional latitude. 

Parallax lasted only three or four issues. [ref. 3.44]  On September 4, 1886, barely a year after Parallax folded, Hampden launched his last and most successful journal, The Earth; Scripturally, Rationally, and Practically Described.  A Geographical, Philosophical, and Educational Review, Nautical Guide, and General Student’s Manual.  Perhaps he finally understood what it takes to make a successful periodical.  This time, he had a network of agents and correspondents, and he ran contributions by other writers. 

The flat-earth movement was on a roll, if one can believe Hampden.  He based his judgment on the quantity and quality of the opposition:

During the past three years, up to the month of July 1885, no less than between 25 and 30 various publications have been issued by nine or ten gentlemen of education and intelligence, in support of the plane or New Geographical system; whereas, but two trashy pamphlets have issued from our opponents—one written by a retired middle-class schoolmaster, and the other by a ship’s cement maker of Southampton! [ref. 3.45] 

The schoolmaster was, of course, Dyer, and the ship’s cement maker was Captain George Peacock.  They were, of course, only the human opposition.  Hampden made no bones about his real opponent:

The Zetetic or Socratic Society and Biblical Defence Association has earned the everlasting gratitude or every independent truth-seeker and Christian professor by its detection and exposure of that Satanic device and Pagan blasphemy of a round and revolving globe, which sets Scripture, reason, and facts at defiance, and has made the whole world wonder at the usurping dominion of an imposture which can only be overthrown when the Arch fiend himself shall have been bound in everlasting chains, and this curse shall cease to reduce mankind below the level of ‘the beasts that perish.’ [ref. 3.46] 

The year 1887 marked 50 years of Queen Victoria’s reign, and England was awash in Jubilee sentimentality, nostalgia, and hoopla.  In editorially congratulating Victoria, Hampden expressed the pious hope that she would do something about the spherical fraud. 

Her Majesty has to submit to the painful and humiliating reflection that during the whole of the last fifty years, she has been reigning over a nation of senseless idolaters of one of the grossest misrepresentations, one of the most baseless delusions, one of the most religiously and commercially pernicious systems of education that was ever imposed on the ignorance and credulity of mankind. [ref. 3.47] 

As had so many others, the queen ignored him. 

Hampden was now pushing 70.  With Rowbotham dead and Carpenter off in America, he had inherited the Zetetic Society.  He called himself Secretary of the Zetetic Society and issued publications in its name, but it was essentially dead.  Hampden had lost none of his fire, but perhaps he was tiring a little.  The Earth; Scripturally, Rationally, and Practically Described folded with the September 1, 1888 issue.  Biweekly at first, then monthly, Hampden had produced 27 issues, amounting to some 150,000 words of text.  It was his last publication. 

So what kind of man was John Hampden?  For one thing, he was very much a loner, and he seems never to have had a close ally in the flat-earth movement.  Rowbotham apparently had considered him a buffoon who had stolen some of his thunder.  Carpenter was an ally and sometime associate, but they were not close.  Hampden was the only regular contributor to most of his periodicals, and he often brushed off correspondents.  If he was as prickly in his dealings with his fellow flat-earthers as he was with others, he probably didn’t have a lot of friends.  Indeed, there are hints that Hampden’s relationship with other zetetics was not ideal.  For instance, James Naylor and William Bathgate were avid flat-earthers who appeared in The Zetetic in 1872 and 1873 and then dropped from sight.  As we will see in the next chapter, both reappeared twenty years later as enthusiastic as before.  Where were they in the interim?  Why don’t their names appear in any of Hampden’s publications? 

Despite his loner instincts, Hampden could found a flat-earth society with a stroke of his pen.  At various times he claimed to represent the New Geographical Society, the Society for the Restoration and Extension of Biblical Cosmography, the Biblical Science Defence Association, the Christian Philosophical Institute, the Biblical Science Institute, the Philosophical Society of Christendom, and the Zetetic or Socratic Society and Biblical Defence Association.  One can only wonder how many of these organizations ever had more than one member. 

Hampden’s theoretical contributions to zetetic astronomy were limited at best.  His main innovation, the idea that the distance from the equator to the pole is only 57½ degrees, was not generally accepted by other zetetics.  Though his writings often seem to be unbroken strings of pejoratives, they are not without substance.  Several themes obsessed Hampden:

(1) The Bedford Canal Experiment.  He railed about it to the end of his life. 

(2) Isaac Newton.  Hampden was convinced that Sir Isaac Newton was duped by his own mathematics.  A legitimate question in the philosophy of science is this: What connection exists between mathematical abstractions and the real world?  Hampden did not recognize any that he could not personally understand. 

(3) The indefensibility of the globe.  Most scientists declined to argue with him about it, so Hampden assumed the globular model was indefensible.  He always insisted there is absolutely no proof for it. 

(4) The schools.  Hampden was outraged because the schools taught the conventional theory, and he raged against their “pasteboard globes” and “half-witted science.”

(5) The Satanic nature of modern astronomy

(6) The venality and stupidity of scientists.  Hampden considered modern science and its practitioners equally corrupt; therefore, he rejected such innovations as gravitation, magnetism, and atmospheric pressure. 

(7) The apostasy of the Established Church.  Hampden apparently never left the Church of England to join a nonconformist sect, but he was extremely unhappy with conventional views on theology and the Bible. 

(8) The Bible.  All true science comes from the Bible. 

(9) The Creation.  Hampden insisted that the Genesis creation story is meaningless if the earth is an insignificant speck of dust suspended in an immeasurable universe; why then was it created before the infinity of stars? 

(10) The End of the World.  Hampden expected Jesus to return momentarily. 

The parallels with modern creationists are striking.  Eliminate the Bedford Canal Experiment, which was Hampden’s personal tragedy, and substitute Darwin for Newton, evolution for astronomy, and mainstream religion for the Established Church, and you have the outline for several of Henry Morris’s best-selling creationist books. 

Unorthodoxies multiply like rabbits.  The unorthodox seem to reason that delusion knows no boundaries.  Again using modern creationists as an example, their doctrine holds that conventional scientists are deluded about biology, geology, geophysics, astronomy, cosmology, geochronology, chemical thermodynamics, and linguistics.  If so, it is not unreasonable to assume they are also deluded about relativity, quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, and all of particle physics. [note 3.14]  In this light, it is hardly surprising that, in addition to his flat-earthism, Hampden was a wellspring of scientific unorthodoxy.  For example:

(1) The calendar.  Hampden claimed the calendar should give June 32 days, December 33 days, and all the rest 30 days.  “This is not an arbitrary or ideal division; it is in a literal and exact accordance with the Almighty’s decision, declared and unmistakably demonstrated by the annual course of the sun.” [ref. 3.48] 

(2) Squaring the circle.  One of the seven traditional follies of science was attempting to find an exact ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle (“squaring the circle”). [note 3.15]  This amounts to determining the value of pi by geometric construction, an impossible feat.  Hampden was unconcerned with impossibilities, and he squared the circle as follows:

Q.  What is the exact proportion between the diameter and the circumference? 

A.  As 115 is to 360, so is the diameter to the circumference of any circle.  Now, we know the circumference of the Sun’s mean circuit to be 21,600 miles, and we are equally sure that the diameter of such a circle can be no more than 6,900 miles, as measured across a flat surface. [ref. 3.49] 

Thus, by fiat, Hampden made pi = 360/115 (i.e. 72/23, or approximately 3.130435), and used this value to calculate that a circle with a circumference of 21,600 miles would have a diameter of 6,900 miles. 

(3) The compass.  According to Hampden, the compass needle receives its north–south orientation from electricity caused by the sun circling above the earth.  This fact had not been previously discovered “because the bigots who call themselves scientists had not the remotest conception of the sun’s motion in its circular and horizontal orbit!” [ref. 3.50] 

(4) Atmospheric pressure.  “[W]e shall probably amaze our readers more than ever, when we assure them that the positively asserted fact of atmospheric pressure is as preposterously false and fabulous as the rest!” [ref. 3.51] 

(5) The period of a pendulum.  “The pendulum, if honestly used, does not vibrate quicker at one spot than another …” [ref. 3.52] 

(6) The midnight sun in the Antarctic.  “The sun is never seen the whole of the twenty-four hours in the southern regions; and no one has ever ventured to argue that it has been.” [ref. 3.53] 

(7) Galileo.  “[T]hat insane fanatic and apostate, Galileo … with that pitiable cowardice which uniformly accompanies conscious guilt, recanted every statement he had made, and confessed that every word he had uttered, was a lie!” [note 3.16]  [ref. 3.54] 

(8) Scholarship.  “[A]n educated scholar from a classical college, is fit only to be a curate, or a fox hunter, or a Pall Mall lounger.” [ref. 3.55] 

Some might detect in the last statement a whiff of anti-intellectualism.  Hampden considered conventional scientists fools and liars, but he never claimed his own enlightenment made him something special.  Hampden never considered himself the chosen instrument of the Almighty, as do some modern fundamentalists.  He rose above other men because of their own blindness, not through his own special relationship with God.  He found the flat earth was perfectly reasonable, but he would have been astonished to hear a preacher claim his personal prayers had deflected a hurricane. 

Hampden lived in a state of perpetual righteous indignation.  His most cherished ideas were generally rejected by the human race, and he was infuriated by this universal stupidity.  He had an unsinkable sense of his own self-worth, and nothing he could do—deceiving Wallace into accepting Carpenter as referee, welshing on a bet he had instigated, perpetrating a fraudulent bankruptcy, signing utterly insincere apologies to Wallace—nothing could diminish his image of himself as a paragon of rectitude.  It would be inaccurate to call him a hypocrite, for hypocrisy requires at least a glimmer of self-consciousness.  Hampden had none. 

Consider the little pamphlet entitled The Rampart of Steel or a Fancys Sketch for a Permanent Coast Militia and an Army of Reserve by Major-General John Hampden, published in Canterbury in 1852.  The author represented himself as a military man of some experience.  The Rampart of Steel contains a single autobiographical passage:

The writer is no grumbler or alarmist—has no fear of a fair stand-up fight, and never had.  To this add, he has no interest whatever in making any increase to the national force, naval or military.  With most of the ports and battle fields of Europe, he is well acquainted: he has seen the field of Hastings, and his name appears in the battle roll of the victors; but at 62 he would lend a hand to “fight it over again,” and with anything like equal numbers and a few field works, would have no fear of the result. 

Zetetic John Hampden was 33 (not 62) in 1852, almost certainly too young to have been a Major-General, even in the bad old days when military commissions were bought and sold.  Besides, the wooden words of The Rampart of Steel lack the verve and venom characteristic of his authentic writings.  While he never explicitly claimed to be author of The Rampart of Steel, Hampden regularly advertised it among works undoubtedly his own, and he is generally credited with writing it. [note 3.17] 

Hampden’s place in history was assured without The Rampart of Steel.  His authentic literary output is a monument to the flat-earth movement.  Though he never wrote a full-length book, his collected pamphlets would make two substantial volumes, his published letters-to-the-editor another, and his periodicals (he wrote most of the articles himself) a couple more.  Though sometimes dreary, he was never dull, and when he was steamed (which was most of the time), he was a brilliant polemicist. 

As long as he lived, John Hampden periodically plagued Wallace.  After the Walsh lawsuit of 1876, the great naturalist resolutely ignored him.  Unlike Hampden, who never doubted his own righteousness, Wallace came to view his part in the Old Bedford Canal wager as an ethical lapse for which he paid dearly in time, money, and embarrassment.  His autobiography reveals that Wallace developed a perverse sort of affection for his old Nemesis.  Sometime around 1885, Hampden stopped at Wallace’s house at Frith Hill, Godalming, when Wallace had some friends over for lunch.  Wallace’s immediate reaction upon meeting Hampden at the door was to get rid of him as quickly as possible.  Later, he regretted not inviting him to join them for lunch.  So it was that Wallace, hardly a Christian, developed a genuinely Christian attitude toward Hampden, while Hampden, the avowed Christian, never forgave and never forgot. 

Judgmental in the extreme and vindictive to a fault, Hampden was one of those self-infatuated people who create and inhabit realities independent of the natural world.  His writings never reveal the slightest suspicion that any of his opinions might be wrong.  In his last years, he apparently became obsessed with the impending End of the World.  For John, the End came on January 22, 1891, in the form of severe bronchitis.  The flat-earth movement has not produced another like him.