«NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS PART OF VOLUME VIII BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIR BENJAMIN OSGOOD PEIRCE ...»
NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
PART OF VOLUME VIII
BENJAMIN OSGOOD PEIRCE
EDWIN H. HALL
PRESENTED TO THE ACADEMY AT THE ANNUAL MEETING, I9I8
CITY OF WASHINGTON
PUBLISHED BY THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCESMarch, 1919
BIOGRAPHY OF BENJAMIN OSGOOD PEIRCE
From Jerathmiel were descended also Jerathmiel 2d, and his son Benjamin, Librarian of Harvard College from 1826 to 1831, and his son Benjamin, Tutor or Professor of Mathematics at Harvard from 1831 to 1880, among whose sons were James Mills, also for many years Professor of Mathematics at Harvard, and Charles Sanders, a brilliant mathematician and projector of the philosophic cult of Pragmatism. Without a break, save perhaps for a few months in 1831, some one of the descendants of Jerathmiel Peirce was in the service of Harvard College from 1826 to 1914. Three of his descendants have been members of the National Academy. In the annals of intellectual achievement in America there is no greater name than Peirce.
Perhaps, too, the name Jerathmiel had a certain potency.
It sounds like a whole thunder-peal, the threatening rumble, the climactic crash, the soft and reassuring diminuendo. This name is derived or recreated from the lifeless Jerahmeel of the Old Testament Chronicles by the simple but miraculous
NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL.. VIIIchange of inserting a t and putting an i for an e. I have wished to claim this transformation as a New England achievement, directly inspired, and have refrained from verifying a suggestion that the greater word merely conforms to the Hebrew pronunciation of the ancient name.
There were contrasts of fortune among the descendants of Jerathmiel Peirce. One of his sons, Jerathmiel 2d, became wealthy as a merchant and built the famous Peirce-Nichols mansion, which stands today as one of the architectural treasures of Salem. The other, a baker in business, killed in the Concord-Eexington fight of April 19, 1775, was followed by a posthumous son who fared ill at the hands of a stepfather, was bound out to a hard master, and so badly treated that he at last ran away to shift for himself.
But the boy came of a sturdy and generous breed. We may be sure that it was no ordinary man who, at the age of thirtyseven,' far older1 no doubt than the great majority of those in arms, hurried across the country from distant Salem to meet his death in that first clash of arms in the Revolution, the only citizen of his town to fall at the hands of the British on that day. So the runaway apprentice, sustained perhaps by pride in the heroic father whose face he had never S'een, having at any rate the same blood in his veins, was soon able to make his own way, neither broken by misfortune nor embittered by injustice. At twenty-seven years of age he had built and owned a large house in Beverly, the house in which his son and his grandson, our colleague, and this colleague's first daughter, Jessie, were born. A little later he had mortgaged this house to promote the building of a Baptist meeting-house;
for a Baptist he was, and the Baptist tradition remained in the family.
He married well. His wife, Rebecca One, a woman of great piety and dignity, counted among her New England anThus in the Danvers Company, which he may have accompanied, though not a member of it, the oldest man killed this day was 33, the ages of the others who fell ranging from 25 to 21. In fact, Peirce was probably too old to be naturally enrolled among the Minute Men. His name is not to be found in the official register of Massachusetts soldiers and sailors of the Revolutionary War. He seems to have been a franctweur.
UIJNJAMIN OSGOOn PRIRCK HALI,cestors a considerable number of clergymen and magistrates, men of note and influence in their time and place. Of these was John Osgood, one of the founders of the first church in Andover, Mass., and the name Osgood, thus brought into.the Peirce family, has continued in active use there in three generations. Our colleague, his father, his mother also, as it happens, and his two daughters have all borne it as a middle name. It is small wonder that in England, at the scientific meetings of 1912, the family came to be known as the OsgoodPeirces.
The first Benjamin Osgood Peirce, born in 1812, was in due course of time sent to the Baptist College at Waterville, Me., where he graduated in 1835. He married, in 1841, Miss Mehetable Osgood Seccomb, a native of Salem. She was a lady of excellent family connections and traditions, with one or two reputed witches, of the eminently respectable Salem variety, flitting somewhere in the background of her ancestry.
Though born in adjoining towns, Mr. Peirce and Miss Seccomb met for the first time in Georgia, where both were engaged in teaching.
In the case of a man so remarkable as our late colleague it would be interesting, if it were practicable, to trace the influence of each line of inheritance for some generations back;
but this is a task beyond the powers of the present writer, and perhaps no one could successfully undertake it. The impress of each parent was strong upon him. He resembled his mother in certain physical and moral aspects; but it seems probable that the father was the dominating influence in his mental inheritance and in his education. An examination of family photographs confirms verbal report in attributing to the mother dignity, force, and poise; to the father like qualities, in so far as they are compatible with great intellectual vivacity and variety of interests. A picture of the mother gives the impression that the photographer could take his time, that his subject would look just the same the next minute or the next hour; a picture of the father, like one of the son, suggests by a certain gleam of the eyes and a certain mock severity of the mouth that the present attitude of stillness is
NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOCRAPHICAL MEMOIRS—VOL. VIIlmaintained with effort and will vanish into something very different the instant restraint is removed.
After his marriage, in 1841, Mr. Peirce remained for several years in the South as Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy at Mercer. Returning to Massachusetts in 1849, he engaged as a merchant in the South African trade; but evidently business did not wholly engross him. He remained a scholar, had much to do with the Public Library of Beverly, indulged in practical mechanics as an avocation, and took an active part in the early education of his son. Tradition in the family says that the two used to speak Latin in their walks together, and this seems altogether probable to those who knew our colleague's proficiency in that language.
In 1864 Mr. Peirce visited the Cape of Good Hope, going in a sailing vessel and taking with him his son. then about nine years old. This voyage is of interest to us because it gave the boy occasion to write a number of letters which have been preserved and which give more than one indication of the kind of man the writer was to be. They are wholesomely boyish, with an occasional slight error in grammar and a pleasing lack of consecutiveness in the narration of incidents and observations. For example: "It seems queer to see the rebel officers (of the raider Alabama) walking about. I am going to try to get another monkey to carry home. We have had wild game several times, but I don't like it very well," etc.
IJnt the writing gives promise at least of that fair round hand which is illustrated farther on in these pages, and the lively vigor of the narrative reminds us of the ceaseless activity of later years. He asks his sister not to let certain of his possessions get soiled, a most extraordinary request for a boy, but according well with his lifelong horror of dirt. More significant still, however, are the messages of affection sent to numerous friends at home. To the end of his life Peirce was actively, thoughtfully, friendly toward a host of people. He remembered everybody's birthday, inquired after everybody's health, and strove to contribute to everybody's happiness. He is said to have occupied himself at Cape Town with schemes for blowing up the Alabama; but I have no doubt he always
BENJAMIN OSGOOD PEIRCIi HALLmade provision for the safety of the crew. There was no hardness in his heart. He has told me that when, as a boy, he sometimes had to fight another boy, he always labored under a certain disadvantage in not being able to get mad enough to enjoy hurting his enemy.
He is said to have retained in his memory so accurate and detailed a picture of Cape Town as to astonish in 1912 a South African whom he met in England. Any one who knew Peirce can well believe this. He was always eager for all sorts of information, and he had the capacity to store it. He acquired it as naturally and assiduously as his father gathered shells, minerals, and coins. Moreover, like most people with extraordinary collections, he had a certain joy in displaying his accumulations.
He was venturesome enough on shipboard to excite the anxiety of his mother, as a normal boy with a normal mother should be. It is related that on one occasion in rough weather he was perched on a boom when it swung outboard.
Perhaps a more significant incident was his quiet capture, under his arm, of a large rat which had attacked him in his cabin. For a boy of ten years this was no slight exploit. In general he had a liking for animals, and he was permitted to have a variety of animal pets, though he seems to have formed no favorable opinion of their moral and mental character. Two of his conclusions, based on knowledge, were : "There is no piety in a goat" and "Compared with a turtle, a hen is an intellectual animal."
We here for the first time catch a glimpse of that sportive disposition which was so powerful an element in his make-up.
He loved fun, and he made fun, always without malice, all his life. He early developed an inveterate fondness for slang, a turn which shocked his parents, both irreproachable in speech as in other matters. I never heard him utter an "unprintable" word,2 but he used habitually some expressions that looked queer in print. His parents, after laboring with him In fact, I think it probable that he adopted his grotesque, but always clean, habit of speech as a substitute for the profanity and general foulness of mouth that he must have been familiar with in some of his boy companions.
NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS—VOL.. VIIIin a vain effort to correct his conversation, wisely concluded to let him have his own way, or, as he would have said, "to go his own hooter." Why hooter, I never knew.
A more serious perplexity—in fact, a real disappointment and grief—came to his parents when, at the age of sixteen, the boy seemed to lose his ambition for scholarship. There is more than one version or theory of this phenomenon. One is that he was wayward, perhaps through his intimacy with other boys less carefully reared; but it is difficult to think of him as rebellious at any time in his life. It seems more probable that, owing to rapid physical growth and development, he really experienced a temporary mental lassitude. Possibly, too, there was some question, some difference of wish in the family, as to the particular college he should attend, if he went to college at all. Whatever may have been the reason, the fact is that for about two years, from the age of sixteen to that of eighteen, he worked regularly as a carpenter's apprentice at or near his home, taking all the rough experiences that came in the way of this occupation. Probably this life was good for him at this time, though some of his relatives lamented him as a light that had failed. The sturdy labor thickened and toughened the muscles on his big frame, and the methods of a professional workman became a habit with him—that is, the best of these methods; but one injunction from his carpenter "boss," though he doubtless obeyed it while under orders, amused him much in later years. It was substantially as follows: Always keep up an appearance of having plenty to do; if there is nothing else, find a pile of boards and shift it over from one place to another.
I never heard Peirce express any regret for the manner in which he spent these two years. They were pleasant and profitable to him in various ways. Though no longer, it would seem, looking toward a college career, he kept up his Latin and his habit of general reading. He had inherited from his father, who played the flute beautifully, a fine appreciation of good music, and he had an excellent bass or baritone voice.
Now he joined the Salem Oratorio Society and vastly enjoyed the singing there. A Beverly organist made him familiar with