©AMNH/D. Finnin
©AMNH/D. Finnin

The Lost Book of Titian Peale, America's First Lepidopterist

©AMNH/D. Finnin
©AMNH/D. Finnin

When Titian Ramsay Peale II died on March 13, 1885, the 85-year-old went to his grave believing that his life’s greatest work—a book describing the butterflies and moths of North America—would never be published. And for more than a hundred years, that seemed to be its destiny. But now, 130 years after his death, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has finally printed portions of The Butterflies of North America, Diurnal Lepidoptera: Whence They Come, Where They Go, and What They Do, which Peale spent five decades working on, through tragedy and hardship, right up until his death.

“It became apparent to me, after poring over his manuscript and his paintings, that [Peale] was the original American lepidopterist,” David Grimaldi, curator of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at AMNH, said at an event for the book. “He was working before any of the other Americans who are credited with being the early American lepidopterists. He just never published his work.”

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The son of famed naturalist, portraitist, and Philadelphia Museum founder Charles Willson Peale, Titian was born on November 2, 1799 and named after a brother who had died the year before at age 18. The two had more in common than just a name: Like the first Titian, Peale devoted himself to lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths, which he took an interest in from childhood. Both Titians were also gifted artists. “He followed very closely in his older brother’s footsteps,” Grimaldi said, “and was very proud of that, in fact.”

But he was more than a lepidopterist: Peale was an accomplished artist who received his first professional commission—creating plates for Thomas Say’s American Entomology, a work Grimaldi called “one of the first original American works on entomology”—when he was just 16. He would later contribute 10 plates to American Ornithology, written by Napoleon’s nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte.

Peale was also an explorer, traveling with Say to Florida and Georgia—“wild and wooly places” at the time, said Grimaldi—and working as an assistant naturalist on the Stephen Harriman Long expedition to the Rocky Mountains, the first government-sponsored scientific trip to the American west since Lewis and Clark. Later, he traveled to Suriname, Colombia, and Brazil to expand the collections of what by then had come to be called the Peale Museum, which he took over with his brother, Benjamin, when their father died in 1824.

Still, lepidoptery was Peale’s true passion, and by 1931, he was working on a proposal for a book that he called Lepidoptera Americana: Or, Original Figures of the Moths and Butterflies of North America: In their Various States of Existence, and the Plants on Which They Feed, Drawn on Stone, and Coloured from Nature: With Their Characters, Synonyms, and Remarks on their Habits and Manners. The book would have 100 hand-colored lithographs. Peale’s plan was to release four plates every two months, beginning as soon as possible. 

All he needed were subscribers. According to Tom Baione, director of the Department of Library Services at AMNH, “At that time, scientific works were often, but not exclusively, published with the help of subscribers. So if you could find enough people who would agree to purchase the book, then you could proceed and perhaps produce some extras that could be sold to additional interested buyers.”

Unfortunately, only 27 people signed up for Peale’s book—far below the number he’d need to begin sending out folios. He continued to work on the book anyway.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

In 1838, Peale embarked on what Grimaldi called “probably the most adventurous exploration of his life,” as one of the naturalists on the United States South Seas Surveying and Exploring Expedition, the first seagoing expedition sponsored by the U.S. government. “[The expedition] went all along the Eastern coast of the New World, up along the West coast of South and North America, out to the Hawaiian islands, to the Galapagos, Fiji, and New Zealand,” Grimaldi said.

During the four-year trip, Peale identified and collected specimens of about 400 new species of Lepidoptera—which he then lost, along with his notes and private library, when the expedition’s ship, the Peacock, wrecked off the coast of present-day Portland, Ore., in 1841. 

Things were about to get worse. Much, much worse. 

Peale returned from the expedition to find that his Lepidoptera collections, which had been in storage awaiting a move to the Academy of Natural Sciences, had been destroyed in a fire. Then, the Philadelphia Museum—his family’s museum—closed permanently. Saddest of all, he lost his wife, a son, and a daughter, one right after the other.

“All through that difficult time,” Grimaldi said, “lepidoptera were the things that engaged him and brought him solace.”

©AMNH/D. Finnin

By the time he was 48, Peale realized that he was not going to be able to make a living on the study of lepidoptery or selling his art. So in 1848, he took a job as an assistant examiner at the United States Patent Office in the Division of Fine Arts and Photography in Washington DC. “He became a pioneer in photography,” Grimaldi said, but he didn’t slow down work on the butterfly book he still hoped to have published, “even though he had a means to much more quickly capture, with fidelity, these beautiful specimens. He continued to paint, continued to collect, continued to study and observe life history stages.”

At one point, Peale proposed “a way to facilitate publication [of his book] ... using photography, but which would really compromise the quality of the work,” Grimaldi said. “But he still couldn’t find backers.”

It was also during this period that the men that most consider the early American lepidopterists began to publish. One was William Henry Edwards, a wealthy West Virginia coal mine owner. “[He] was obsessed with butterflies,” Grimaldi said. “He bankrolled gorgeous illustrations of his own lepidoptera of North America, which was published between 1868 and 1872, in various folios.” Another was Herman Strecker, a stonemason who specialized in making memorial monuments for children and published Lepidoptera: Rhopaloceres and Heteroceres in 1872. Peale knew and corresponded with both—Williams even bought 50 of the specimen boxes Peale used to display his butterflies—and, says Grimaldi, both were probably well aware of Peale’s proposed book, thanks to his prospectus.

“I wouldn’t doubt that William Henry Edwards and Strecker rushed to get their stuff done so that they wouldn’t be beaten by Peale,” he said.

Peale—who had remarried in 1850—spent 25 years at the patent office, rising to the position of principal examiner. When he retired in 1873, he moved his family back to Philadelphia, where they lived with one of his grandsons and used his wife’s small inheritance to get by. The Academy of Natural Sciences agreed to give Peale a room to complete his book, which by then he had begun to call Butterflies of North America. He spent the rest of his life devoted to butterflies, collecting, raising, and studying them. 

When he died in 1885, after being ill for just a day, his book still wasn’t complete. It nearly died with him.

©AMNH/D. Finnin

Peale’s manuscript remained in the family until 1916, when the nephew of Peale’s wife donated the book to the American Museum of Natural History. It was composed of 160-odd plates and 145 pages written on legal-sized paper. 

The lepidopterist had made his paintings on heavy paper using mainly gouache paints, with additions made in watercolor, ink, and pencil. “Peale laid out the pages as he hoped they would be pictured in the book,” Baione said. “The name of the plate, and even the plate numbers, are all penciled in, in his neat hand.” Rather than repainting a butterfly’s life stages on a single page, Peale often cut and pasted life stages from previous paintings onto other pages. In many plates, Peale painted a solid background representing the sky—solid blue, gray, or streaked with pink and orange, denoting dusk or dawn. 

After its donation, The Butterflies of North America became part of the museum’s rare book collection, where it was accessed by artists and art historians over the years, according to Baione. “I hate to disparage [Peale’s] scientific efforts,” he said, “but in the art world, Peale is better known.”

There the book remained until last year, when the project to publish Peale’s book began. The photography of the manuscript was supervised by AMNH conservation manager Barbara Rhodes. “My main role,” she told mental_floss, “was in handling the material for the photographer, so we could be certain that things would stay where they were supposed to and he didn’t expose them to too much light. A number of [the illustrations] do have loose components, so that was a consideration.”

The resulting book, titled The Butterflies of North America: Titian Peale’s Lost Manuscript, has three sections: the butterfly album, which includes all of the plates from Peale’s book and 14 of the original 145 manuscript pages; reproduced pages from Peale’s prospectus; and a section on a separate work of Peale’s called Lepidoptera: Larva, Food-Plant, Pupa, &c., which features the larvae of different butterflies and moths. Readers will find many butterflies they recognize within the book’s pages, like the Tiger Swallowtail, and some they might not, like Urania sloanus, a butterfly native to Jamaica that has since gone extinct.

And that's not all the museum has planned for Peale's work—there's also a grant proposal to re-treat it. The plates had been contained in a scrapbook until 1977, when it was disbound and taken to a bookbinder, who removed the paintings and secured them to artist’s drawing paper. The paper has curved a bit in the years since. Re-treating will “involve taking the paintings off of the artist’s paper,” Rhodes said. “Fortunately they’re not stuck overall, they’re just dots on the corners, so we think we can get them off reasonably easily and expeditiously. We don’t know if there’s any writing on the backs of these. It’s possible that there is and it just wasn’t documented in 1977. The documentation for this is fairly sparse.”

Rhodes has already made a box especially for Peale's work—a common practice at AMNH—and she plans to rehouse the paintings and repair the leather-bound scrapbook that contains the manuscript. “It’s still in the original cover, but it’s falling apart, unfortunately,” Rhodes says. “So we’ll fix that.”

Thanks to the efforts of Grimaldi and Baione and others at AMNH, Peale is finally getting his due. His story is a sad one, Baione said, “but it has a happy ending. The happy ending is today—his work and his reputation are resurrected.”

Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.


By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.


Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

15 Facts About Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees

A tale of love and loss, sisterhood and trauma, Sue Monk Kidd's 2002 novel The Secret Life of Bees has won the hearts of millions of readers around the world. But few know the full truth behind this inspirational novel.


A bildungsroman is a novel that charts the moral or psychological growth of its protagonist. It's also known as a coming-of-age story. In this case, Kidd's novel follows the journey of its narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Lily Melissa Owens. After escaping her abusive father T. Ray, Lily finds solace with the beekeeping Boatwright sisters, and confronts the terrible truth about her mother's death.


Set in South Carolina during the civil rights movement, The Secret Life of Bees presents examples of overt racism. In one scene, a trio of white men harasses Lily's mother-figure Rosaleen Daise, who is black. At the same time, the novel challenges pernicious racial stereotypes. Before meeting the Boatwrights, Lily, who is white, assumes all black women are uneducated laborers or maids like Rosaleen. Through her time with the sisters, who are accomplished business owners, the novel's heroine recognizes her own prejudices, and grows to realize her ignorance.


Upon the novel's 10th anniversary, Kidd offered a long list of autobiographical elements that can be found within The Secret Life of Bees. "Both Lily and I were adolescents during the summer of 1964, and like Lily, I was powerfully affected by the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the racial unrest that fomented during those hot, volatile months," she wrote on her website. "I, too, had an African-American caretaker. I, too, wanted to be a writer ... Lily and I created fallout shelter models for our 7th-grade science projects and wrote papers called 'My Philosophy of Life' before either of us were old enough to have a philosophy." Kidd clarifies, however, that she did not lose her mother when she was a child and her father was "nothing like T. Ray."


"Some of those scenes where Lily is experiencing that rush of feeling and emotion when the bees come swirling out of their hives, I could never have gotten that from a book," the author told BookPage. "The fear and delight of all that and the sounds of it … the way your feet stick to the floor in a honeyhouse … the senses are alive in all of that experience."


In one way, Kidd lived in a honeyhouse of her own. "When I was growing up, bees lived inside a wall of our house, an entire hive-full of them—that is to say, 50,000 or so. They lived with us, not for a summer or two, but for 18 years," Kidd wrote on her website. "The room vibrated with bee hum. At times, the whole house seemed to hum. I remember my mother cleaning up the honey that leaked from the cracks and made tiny puddles on the floor. Being a good Southern family, we normalized the situation and went on with our lives."


Ahead of The Secret Life of Bees, the Georgia-born author wrote three books about aspects of Christianity: God's Joyful Surprise (1988), When The Heart Waits (1990), and The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996). It wasn’t until she was in her forties that Kidd shifted her focus to fiction, beginning with short stories. The Secret Life of Bees came out in 2002, when Kidd was 53 years old.


The novel includes Christian iconography, notably the Black Madonna that adorns the Boatwrights' honey jars. Its coming-of-age plot also touches on spiritual awakening. As Kidd said in the 2002 interview with BookPage, "I think of it as something deeper and more profound happening to [Lily] at the level of soul, and I wanted her to have a real transformation and a real awakening … to this other realm."


In the novel, a religious service is held before a statue called Black Mary or Our Lady of Chains, which is the figurehead of a ship that carries a great significance to the Daughters of Mary, a group of women who follow a religion invented by August Boatwright. Kidd had seen a similar figurehead while visiting a Trappist monastery in South Carolina. "The day that I discovered her," Kidd said, "I was totally captivated by … the powerful imagery of this [figurehead] Mary that was surfacing from the deep, washing up from the deep, onto the shores of consciousness, so to speak."


On her website, Kidd tells the story of how she came up with the Boatwright sisters' characters and setting. She had woken up in the middle of the night thinking about where Rosaleen and Lily were going to end up after escaping T. Ray. She picked up a selection of photos that she had hoped would spark creativity. "My eyes wandered back and forth between pictures of three African-American women, an uproariously pink house, a cloud of bees, and a black Mary, and suddenly, it fell in one unbroken piece into my head," she wrote. "My two runaways would escape to the home of three black sisters, who live in a pink house, keep bees, and revere a black Mary. This sudden revelation may have happened in part because down deep I wanted a way to write about the strength, wisdom, and bonds of women."


The Secret Life of Bees won applause for its insightful look into the inner lives of its female characters. It may be no surprise that its author says reading the groundbreaking feminist novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899, made a big impact on her. Kidd also cites Henry David Thoreau's Walden, the 1854 transcendentalist treatise on simplicity and self-reliance. When she read each book, Kidd told Scholastic, "I would say they were turning points in my life, but also I can look back and say they affected me deeply as a writer."


The novel spent more than two-and-a-half years on The New York Times bestseller list and more than 8 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. It has also been translated into 36 languages.


Many reviewers praised Kidd's beautifully rendered characters and setting. "Lily is a wonderfully petulant and self-absorbed adolescent, and Kidd deftly portrays her sense of injustice as it expands to accommodate broader social evils," The New York Times Book Review wrote. "August and her sisters, June and May, are no mere vehicles for Lily's salvation; they are individuals as fully imagined as the sweltering, kudzu-carpeted landscape that surrounds them."

In deeming the novel "buzz-worthy," People wrote, "populated with rich, believable characters and propelled by a swiftly paced plot, this debut novel is a cut above most coming-of-age tales."

The Secret Life of Bees was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Women's Prize for Fiction) in 2002, and won the American Booksellers Association's Book Sense Paperback of the Year award in 2004.


Gina Prince-Bythewood, who wrote and directed Love & Basketball and other features, adapted The Secret Life Of Bees into a period drama. The cast included Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominees Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo, multiple Grammy winner Alicia Keys, and Dakota Fanning as Lily.

Kidd visited the film set in a tiny North Carolina town and marveled at how every detail of the production was just as she had imagined it. But months later, when she sat down in the movie theater to watch the film for the first time, she felt nervous. "I had no idea what I would see. I’d glibly said that handing over my novel to Hollywood had seemed like leaping out of an airplane, but sitting there waiting for the film to begin, it really did seem that way," Kidd wrote on her website. "The parachute opened, thankfully, and the whole thing floated rather nicely to earth."

The movie earned a People's Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic Movie and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.


As part of Vassar College's Powerhouse Theater's summer season in 2017, the college and New York Stage and Film presented a workshop production of The Secret Life of Bees as a musical, which starred Orange is the New Black standout Uzo Aduba in the role of Rosaleen. The show featured music from Tony winner Duncan Sheik and a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.


Under the category "Women Writers," the long-running quiz show offered this answer: “Sue Monk Kidd’s debut novel is about these insects.” Kidd recalled that moment on her website: "I blinked at the television. Finally, I came to life and shouted, 'What are bees?' Fortunately, the contestant did not need my help."


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