The Golden Key to the Kingdom of the Universe
from Aimée Crocker, Queen of Bohemia by Kevin Taylor
Colonel George Edward Gouraud, Thomas Edison’s agent and Aimée Crocker’s father-in-law, had shrewd business practices that were no doubt passed down by his French father, Professor Jean Baptiste François Fauvel-Gouraud. François is known chiefly as an agent to another legendary inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), who in 1839, introduced his photographic invention, the daguerreotype, to the world.
The enlightened François provided a mini-biography of his early years as a wanderer and knowledge gatherer in his 1845 book Phreno-mnemotechny, or, The Art of Memory:
(I had) tasted the “ambrosia of Constance,” and hunted the African ostrich at the Cape of Good Hope; breathed the perfumes of the incense upon the burning soil of Yemen; enjoyed the nectar of the coffee upon the sandy plains of Mocha; eaten the dates of Arabia in the tented streets of Muscat; languidly pillowed my head upon the downy carpets of Teheran in the kiosks of Bassora, while haling the rosy attar of the harems beneath the shade of its perfumed acacias; admired the Asiatic splendors of Surat, Bombay, and Calcutta; hunted the hydrocroax and the paraquet through the forests of Malabar and Coromandel; attended the sacrifice of the Hindostan widow upon the funeral pyre of her husband; fished up the pearls of the ancient Ormus upon the nacreous coasts of Ceylon; mounted the elephant of Seringapatam; bathed in the sacred waters of the Ganges; luxuriated in the gaudy palanquin of the rayahs of Aracan; gathered the spices of the Moluccas in the perfumed groves of Sumatra; drank the tea of the Celestial Empire at Canton from the gilded porcelain of Pekin; smoked the exhilarating opium in the gold and amber pipe of the conceited Mandarin; pursued the hyperbolical ornithorincus upon the desert shores of Van Diemen; dreamed of the golden age of Cythera, Paphos, and Amathus beneath in Elysian shades of Tahiti; trod upon the silver mines of Potosi; escaped the perils of Cape Horn; glided like a bird beneath the beautiful sky of Buenos Ayres, Montevideo, St. Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, and the “faithful Havana”; paid homage to the glorious shade of Columbus in his gilded chapel; furrowed the liquid tomb which rolls its mountainous waves about the ruins of Atlantis; tasted at the Fortunate Isles the honied orange of Teneriffe, and the nectarine wine of Madeira; thrilled with pleasure at the voluptuous dances of the voluptuous Iberia; and at last visited again the Penates which I had quitted three years before, and which I was soon again to leave to encounter successively the ices of two poles, before visiting, in still happier days of my wandering existence, the ruins of Carthage and the Colosseum; the antique mosque of St. Sophia; the tumulus of Achilles, of Ajax, and of Patroclus; the column of Pompey; the Pyramids of Cairo; the remnants of the Persepolis; the ruins of Palmyra; the humble tomb of Christ; the palaces of Montezuma; the majestic ruins of duito, of Uxmal, and Palenque; until the time when, guided by a benevolent Providence, I came to burn my roving wings in this focus of the future liberty of the world, while awaiting the destined hour when at last, freed from its mortal envelope, my spirit, taking its last flight, shall depart on its final voyage.
A reviewer for the North American Review wrote that Gouraud, “has the vanity to speak of himself with an air that would have been unbecoming in a Newton.”
With 30 French daguerreotypes on hand, Gouraud sailed to America acting as the agent of Alphonse Giroux & Cie., a French company producing daguerreian manuals and an apparatus personally endorsed by Daguerre. François intended to offer demonstrations of the daguerreotype process. On November 29, 1839, the illustrious, the dynamic, the supercilious Gouraud sent out invitations that read:
As the friend and pupil of Mr. Daguerre, I came from Paris by the British Queen, with the charge of introducing to the New World the perfect knowledge of the marvelous process… Having the good fortune to possess a collection of the finest proofs which have yet been made, either by the most talented pupils of Mr. Daguerre, or by that great artist himself, I have thought it my duty, before showing them to the public, to give the most eminent men and distinguished artists of this city the satisfaction of having the first view.
The American public welcomed the new technology enthusiastically. A lively discourse on the daguerreotype swept the nation. The dark, sly, and charming François was showered with accolades by the press. The New Yorker, reviewing François Gouraud’s exhibition of French daguerreotypes, commented that “the specimens of this wonderful art… bear the impress of a perfection never before attained by human ingenuity. The most beautiful and accurately painted miniature, if placed beside many of Mr. Daguerre’s representation, would appear very much like a miserable daub.”
The Knickerbocker wrote, “We have seen the views taken in Paris by the ‘daguerreotype,’ and have no hesitation in avowing, that they are the most remarkable objects of curiosity and admiration, in the arts, that we ever beheld. Their exquisite perfection almost transcends the bounds of sober belief.”
The Daguerreian Era and Early American Photography on Paper
Over the next four years, Gouraud exhibited photographic images of Paris by Daguerre and his most talented pupils as well as a few of his own daguerreotypes of New York City. He charged one dollar for the public to see his exhibit and lecture. He sold pamphlets that summarized his lectures. He sold specimens of the “New Art” from his collection for $40 to $300 with certain pieces going for as much as $500. He also offered private courses for instruction and sold daguerreotype cameras and equipment. Working with the inventor and his students, Gouraud initiated the use of a Meniscus or curved lens on the new apparatus. This would reduce the sitting time from 15 to 25 minutes to one minute to two minutes twenty seven seconds tops. Portraits could thereafter be taken with eyes open.
Gouraud’s lectures were attended by such prominent men of letters as Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes as well as the American painter and inventor Samuel Morse. The inventor of the telegraph and a co-inventor of the Morse code, Professor Morse, who along with his brothers were publishers of The New York Observer, was very interested in the new art. At the annual supper of the National Academy of Design, in April of 1840, Morse declared, “The daguerreotype is undoubtedly destined to produce a great revolution in art, and we, as artists, should be aware of it and rightly understand its influence. This influence, both on ourselves and the public generally will, I think, be in the highest degree favorable to the character of art… the name of Daguerre will deservedly stand by the side of Columbus and Galileo, and Papin and Fulton.”
Morse began experimenting with daguerreotypes receiving instructions both before and after Gouraud arrived in America. As Gouraud continued to exhibit, the two came to loggerheads over the course the daguerreotype should take in America. Gouraud trounced Morse in the papers. He implied in a letter to the editor of the Evening Star, that much of the success of the lovely photos that Morse was producing was owed to himself, since he had “given Mr. Morse all the instruction in my power.” A notable public dispute ensued. An embittered Morse shot back in the same newspaper, saying that he had produced several photographs “of more or less perfectness” three weeks before Gouraud arrived in New York. Everything useful that Gouraud showed him in two months of so-called instruction was already available in Daguerre’s manual. Gouraud’s embellishments only hindered him. “All the instruction professed to be imparted by M. Gouraud I have felt it necessary to forget.” Morse and Gouraud would eventually make amends when they ran into each other at Niagara Falls.
One night, while sitting in contemplation at the edge of the Falls, a mesmerized Gouraud, in the throws of a peak, mystical experience, suddenly saw the planets themselves as “Animated Beings, endowed with passions and feelings.” He declared he had discovered “the golden key to the Kingdom of the Universe.” François then made a dramatic shift in his career. Around 1844, after processing his transcendental revelations, François Gouraud developed an ingenious theory of artificial memory. Now referring to himself as “Professor” Gouraud, he began lecturing extensively and authored two books: Phreno-Mnemotechny, or the Art of Memory, The Phreno-Mnemotechnic Dictionary, being a Philosophical Classification of all the Homophonic Words of the English Language.
Night after night, during his lectures, Gouraud rattled off obscure dates from ancient history, solutions to complex mathematical problems, the longest word in the Greek language… In one of his more popular demonstrations, Professor Gouraud distributed among his audience fifty slips of paper, on which one hundred different persons would write whatever they please, however absurd or inconsistent, scraps of verse, rows of figures, arbitrary arrangements of letters, or anything difficult to be remembered. He read each slip twice, and returning all to the audience, he could repeat, in any order, and without the omission or misplacement of a syllable, everything that had been written. All this, along with tremendous powers of oration, routinely brought down the house. “One of M. Gouraud’s lectures,” gushed one reporter, “is, even from the point of amusement, a greater treat than many a fashionable drama.”
Eventually, he was compelled to move his act into larger auditoriums to accommodate the swelling audiences. At a head count of two thousand, these crowds — most of whom were women — were the largest to assemble for a lecture in America at the time. He became an orator in a manner so facile and remarkable that he received $20,000 in a single winter, then a princely chunk of change.
A Baltimore critic, one Edgar Allan Poe, wrote about Gouraud and his method, “It is by no means too much to say that the powers of memory, as aided by his system, are absolutely illimitable. We earnestly advise our readers to procure M. Gouraud’s extraordinary work and decide in the premises for themselves.”
The National Review called his book and its system, “bombastic to the last degree of the ridiculous; wordy to an inconceivable extent; vulgar in its tawdriness, and disgusting in its all its affectation and pretense. The lectures abound in the most incoherent and absurd rhapsodies, in what the learned call rigmarole…”
The drama reached a fever pitch near the end of his Philadelphia lectures, when Gouraud appeared on stage with a letter penned in red ink. This letter, he claimed, contained a threat to murder him, and his wife and children, as payment for his plagiarisms. Greatly distressed, he went on to read aloud from a letter of endorsement signed by numerous New York editors. “He was vehemently applauded,” noted the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times on May 30, 1844, “after which he fainted from the agitation. Recovering, he went on with his lecture.”
On June 16, 1847, after unsuccessful speculations and a long illness, he died indigent and was buried in an unclaimed body lot along with his wife who died one month before him. He left two orphans, George Edward and Cleménce Emma Gouraud (who was married in 1857 to the reverend and poet Horatio Nelson Powers) and an unfinished work on a universal grammar, later published as Practical Cosmophonography: A System of Writing and Printing All the Principal Languages, with their Exact Pronunciation by Means of an Original Universal Phonetic Alphabet.