Benjamin Banneker, the African-American Mathematician Who May Have Saved Washington, D.C.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 

Many people who have a passing familiarity with Washington, D.C. know it was originally styled after famous European locales by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, then completed by Andrew Ellicott after L’Enfant was given the boot in 1792. Too few tourists and history fans, however, know that the U.S. capital might have been a very different place if not for the surveying work of Benjamin Banneker—a highly accomplished mathematician, astronomer, and scholar who challenged Thomas Jefferson and his peers to recognize African-American achievement when it was right under their noses (and feet).

Benjamin Banneker was born November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland, to Robert and Mary Banneker. While scholars still debate almost all the specifics of his background and early life, according to the most popular story, both sides of his family suffered under enslavement in the soon-to-be United States. Although records are scarce, it's said that Benjamin’s maternal grandmother, a woman named Molly Welsh, was falsely convicted of theft in England and sentenced to indentured servitude in Maryland (not an uncommon practice at the time). After earning her freedom, she rented land in Baltimore County and purchased two slaves to help farm it. Several years later, after the farming operation was established, she freed both men.

One of them, who is said to have been abducted from a royal family in Africa earlier in his life, displayed a keen interest in astronomy and other scientific subjects. He was called Bannake or Bankka, and Molly Welsh married him, violating state law that forbid marriage to slaves. Later, their daughter Mary and her husband—a Guinean man who’d been abducted, enslaved, and then baptized as Robert and freed—chose to adopt the surname Banneker at the time of their own marriage. Just a few years after regaining his freedom, records show that Robert was able to purchase a 100-acre farm (possibly the same one his mother-in-law rented), where his family would live out much of their lives and where his son’s scholarship would bloom.

Benjamin Banneker grew up as one of only 200 free African-Americans among 13,000 whites and 4000 slaves in Baltimore County. His experience with formal instruction was limited to a brief stretch in a one-room, mixed-race Quaker schoolhouse, but he was a keen study from his earliest years. Perhaps with his doting grandmother Molly’s help, he learned to read and soon became especially interested in mathematics and mechanics, often performing calculations and experiments on his own.

Once he was old enough to work on the family farm, Banneker settled into a lifestyle that combined this work with scholarly achievement. After his father’s death when Banneker was 27, he continued running the farm with his mother and sisters. The horses, cows, garden, and multiple beehives he kept enabled a simple, comfortable life for the family, according to one 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society. Using crop rotation and irrigation techniques that wouldn’t catch on in the U.S. for many decades, he also raised profitable tobacco crops that were sold alongside his produce in the Ellicott family’s store. Taking heed of food shortages during the Revolutionary War, Banneker also swapped tobacco out for wheat to help feed American soldiers.

Throughout his life, Elizabeth Ross Haynes writes, Banneker “found time to study all the books which he could borrow.” He became well-versed in topics throughout the sciences and humanities. The 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society remembered Banneker as “an acute observer, whose active mind was constantly receiving impulses from what was taking place around him.”

For example, one rather illustrative 1797 journal entry reads:

Standing at my door I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon bullet.

Some historians have speculated that Banneker’s many childhood lessons with his grandmother Molly, who may have gained a sophisticated understanding of astronomy from Bannake, could have fostered his particular expertise with the subject. However, it was his prowess with mathematics for which he first became renowned throughout Baltimore County, according to a 1912 article. As word spread of his exceptional skills, far-away scholars began sending Banneker complex mathematical problems, and they continued to do so throughout his life. Banneker reportedly always solved them, often responding in verse and with a fresh problem.

As a young man, Banneker also gained fame and admiration for miles around due to one of his earliest known mechanical feats: building a working clock almost entirely out of wood from scratch. It may have been the first clock ever assembled completely from American parts, according to Haynes (although other historians have since disputed this). Banneker reportedly only had a borrowed pocket watch to use for reference on clockwork mechanisms, while his wooden version contained functioning, carved-to-scale components. The clock continued working until a few days after Banneker’s death, when a fire destroyed his cabin home and many of its contents—clock included.

However, Banneker’s accomplished scholarship remained mostly unknown outside the region until he encountered the Ellicott family. In 1772, the Quaker Ellicotts purchased the land next door to Banneker’s and began building new gristmill facilities there. Banneker’s fascination with the mill’s mechanics made him a frequent visitor to the site. In keeping with Quaker tradition, the similarly scholarly Ellicotts were adamant proponents of racial equality, and they collaborated with Banneker as well as encouraged wider application of—and recognition for—his unique skills.

George Ellicott, a close friend of Banneker’s for decades, was himself a student of astronomy and eagerly shared both his resources and queries with his neighbor. Banneker took great advantage of the borrowed tools and books in performing exquisite astronomical calculations, such as predicting a solar eclipse near-exactly in 1789. He also began building the foundations for several atlases and technical treatises he’d release in the decades before his death. In 1791, George’s cousin, Major Andrew Ellicott, gave Banneker a national stage, after Andrew had gone to George requesting help with a new job. George, being otherwise busy, suggested Banneker's assistance. The job was surveying land along the Potomac River for what would soon be the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

Ellicott's plan for Washington, D.C. Image credit: Leeann Cafferata, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The plans for the large city were laid out by French architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who volunteered for service in the American Revolution’s Continental Army and was hired for the project by George Washington in 1791. Before long, however, tensions mounted over its direction and progress of the project, and when L’Enfant was fired in 1792, he took off with the plans in tow.

But according to legend, the plans weren’t actually lost: Banneker and the Ellicotts had worked closely with L’Enfant and his plans while surveying the city’s site. As the University of Massachusetts explains, Banneker had actually committed the plans to memory “[and] was able to reproduce the complete layout—streets, parks, major buildings.” However, the University of Massachusetts also points out that other historians doubt Banneker had any involvement in this part of the survey at all, instead saying that Andrew and his brother were the ones who recreated L’Enfant’s plan. It's an intriguing myth, but it may only be that.

Yet Banneker’s valuable contributions to the project drew attention, and set the stage for later correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. During the project, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger made public note of Banneker as “an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation."

Gelman Library, George Washington University // Public Domain

In 1791, Banneker had finished his “painstakingly calculated ephemeris,” or table of the position of celestial bodies, which he would publish alongside charts, literature, and humanitarian and political essays in six almanacs with 28 editions in the following six years. Upon its initial completion, he first sent a copy of the ephemeris to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a famously direct, yet perfectly polite, letter challenging Jefferson’s opinion that African-Americans suffered an innate intellectual disadvantage [PDF]. Among other things, the letter observed:

Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves and for those inestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every individual ... might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof, neither could you rest satisfied [short of] their promotion from any state of degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race ... and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the supreme ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under the state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity to which many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty, with which you are favored, and which, I hope you will willingly allow, you have received from the immediate hand of that being ... [and] that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy, you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of heaven.

Jefferson’s letter of response the same year was significantly shorter than Banneker’s, and not without traces of the mindset Banneker sought to defeat. But it also documented the scholar’s triumph in gaining some respect for his accomplishments, and in helping to dislodge certain prejudices from the minds of the era’s most learned men.

On August 30, 1791, Jefferson wrote:

SIR,

I THANK you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men ; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.

I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.

I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,

THOMAS JEFFERSON.

The discrimination African-Americans suffered from Jefferson and other bigwigs is well-documented, and Banneker’s brave, considered opposition to it stands forever among his many admirable achievements. The 1854 document A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker reflected:

He appears to have been the pioneer in the movement in this part of the world, toward the improvement of his race; at a period of our history when the negro occupied almost the lowest possible grade in the scale of human beings, Banneker had struck out for himself a course, hitherto untravelled by men of his class, and had already earned a respectable position amongst men of science.

Records suggest that Banneker also suffered discrimination by lower-profile white Americans, and had his achievements belittled and questioned. Despite the many pushbacks he withstood, however, Banneker remained joyfully curious and generous of spirit throughout his life. According to A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker, he was able to slough off the bitterness of others in part thanks to his prevailing interest in study. “His equilibrium was seldom disturbed by the petty jealousies and inequalities of temper of the ignorant people,” the book notes, “with whom his situation obliged him frequently to come in contact.”

Benjamin Ellicott, who prepared extensive notes on Banneker’s life for the Maryland Historical Society, remembered him as such in a letter:

Although his mode of life was regular and extremely retired, living alone, having never married,--cooking his own victuals and washing his own clothes, and scarcely ever being absent from home, yet there was nothing misanthropic in his character … [He was known as] kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasant, abounding in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day; very modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own home.

Given Banneker’s wide-ranging interests and enthusiasm, then, it is perhaps fitting that a variety of parks, schools, awards, streets, businesses, and other public and private institutions and facilities all bear his name today. Admirers can learn about the accomplished scholar at Benjamin Banneker Park and Memorial in Washington, D.C., for example, or at Baltimore, Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. Others can choose to follow in his footsteps by exploring their passions and hobbies at community centers named for Banneker in Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Indiana, and Catonsville, Maryland. It seems possible, however, that the man himself might have been most fond of—or, at least, a very frequent visitor to—Maryland’s own Banneker Planetarium.

Header images via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Know of something you think we should cover? Email us at tips@mentalfloss.com.

Remembering Nellie Bly, Rabblerouser and Pioneer of Investigative Journalism

H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
H.J. Meyers via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Elizabeth Jane Cochran came into the world on May 5, 1864. Mrs. Cochran delighted in the baby, her first daughter, dressing Elizabeth in a pink gown for her christening.

The fun was not to last. When Elizabeth was only six, her father died without warning and without a will, plunging Elizabeth and her family into dire financial straits. Several years later, Mrs. Cochran remarried, to a man who was often drunken and abusive. As soon as she was old enough to work, Elizabeth left home to train as a teacher, but ran out of tuition money after only one semester. With no money and no other ideas, she and her mother moved to Pittsburgh, where Elizabeth helped run a boarding house.

What girls are good for

It was in Pittsburgh that Elizabeth found her calling. The city's Dispatch ran a weekly column by a self-important man named Erasmus Wilson, who called himself the “Quiet Observer.” One week in 1885, Wilson published an op-ed entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The answer, according to him, was housework. It was unseemly and ugly for ladies to work, he wrote, describing working women as a "monstrosity."

Elizabeth was having none of this. She penned an angry letter to the editor, signing it, provocatively, “Lonely Orphan Girl.” The letter was no work of art—Elizabeth had left school at 15, after all—but editor George Madden was impressed by its writer’s fervor. He placed an advertisement in the next issue of the Dispatch, inviting the Lonely Orphan Girl to come forward. She did, and he offered her a job. To protect her identity and her reputation, Madden soon recommended she select a pen name. The two settled upon Nellie Bly, after a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Bly came out with guns blazing. From the very beginning, she was determined to write stories that mattered. She had no experience, no education, and little polish, but she had a fire in her belly that few newspapers had ever seen. She wrote about women’s labor laws. She wrote about sexist divorce laws. She convinced Madden to send her to Mexico, but before long she was expelled for exposing government corruption.

The Dispatch editors were not pleased. They attempted to rein her in by assigning her stories about flower shows and fashion. Nellie Bly would have none of that. She quit, but not before leaving a spectacularly frosty message on the desk of the Quiet Observer: “Dear Q.O.: I’m off to New York. Look out for me.”

“Who is this insane girl?”

The year was 1887, and Nellie Bly had just talked her way into a job at the New York World. For her very first story, Bly agreed to feign insanity in order to gain entry to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

After checking herself into a women’s boarding house under yet another fake name, Bly began acting erratically, peppering her speech with Spanish nouns and claiming she had lost her memory. That night she asked for a pistol. This was apparently all it took; the proprietress called the police, who hauled Bly off to court.

Reporters in the courtroom were instantly captivated by “Nellie Brown.” On the stand, Bly spun a sensational tale of neglect, abuse, and abandonment. A physician who had examined her declared her “demented.”

That weekend, the New York Sun (a World competitor) carried breathless descriptions [PDF] of the enigmatic woman, from the contents of her pockets to the sound of her voice. “WHO IS THIS INSANE GIRL? SHE IS PRETTY, WELL DRESSED, AND SPEAKS SPANISH.”

Bly spent 10 days in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, during which time she saw and was the victim of horrific treatment. The asylum’s residents were mostly poor and immigrant women, some of whom were locked up simply because they could not speak English. The women were beaten, starved, and forced into ice-cold baths—a fate from which even Bly’s nice clothes could not save her.

Upon her release (arranged by an attorney for the newspaper), Bly recorded every single awful thing she had seen. She detailed the conditions in which her fellow residents were forced to live, and the punishment they endured: “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

The paper published "Ten Days in a Madhouse" in serial form. By the time the last installment hit newsstands, New York was paying attention.

Bly’s fearless reporting paid off. A grand jury investigation of the asylum confirmed many of her observations, and the institution was eventually shut down.

Still, Bly was just getting started.

Nellie Bly buys a baby

Bly became a sort of journalistic Robin Hood, exposing the darkest corners of New York City society. Wherever women, children, or the poor were being mistreated, you’d find Nellie Bly. She went undercover as a poor clinic patient and narrowly escaped [PDF] having her tonsils removed. For her story “The Girls Who Make Boxes,” she joined the ranks of young women working in a factory. She visited seven different doctors and got seven different diagnoses and an “extraordinary variety” of prescriptions.

She visited a home for “unfortunate women.” She lived for two days in one of New York’s poorest tenements in the hottest part of the summer. She bought a baby on the black market. No, really: she bought a baby.

"I bought a baby last week, to learn how baby slaves are bought and sold in the city of New York. Think of it! An immortal soul bartered for $10! Fathers-mothers-ministers-missionaries, I bought an immortal soul last week for $10!"

What could possibly top that?

Bly decided to conquer the world.

Around the world in 72 days

Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days, first published in 1873, was all the rage in 1889. Eighty days was pretty impressive given the transportation options at that time, but Bly thought she could do better. After convincing her editors to finance the whole thing, Bly bought a sensible dress and set off.

The rest, of course, is legend. Bly made it home in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. She even had time to stop in France for tea with Jules Verne. The story made her a household name.

Inspired by Bly’s work, other women began to follow in her daring footsteps. Because these undercover stories were the province of “girls,” their brave work was dismissed as “stunt reporting.” Today we’d call it investigative journalism.

A second career

Bly met industrialist Robert Seaman in 1895 and married him a few days later, leaving the newspaper life behind. Seaman was 40 years older than his bride, but neither seemed particularly fussed by the age difference. Their marriage lasted nearly ten years, until Seaman’s death in 1904.

Elizabeth Cochrane (she later changed her name to add the e) Seaman inherited all of her late husband’s holdings, including his Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Another widow might have handed the company over. Bly decided to run it herself.

Bly had no experience in this arena, but that had never stopped her before. By 1902, she was filing patents for new types of oil barrels.

As an employer, Bly embodied all the principles she had championed in her stories. She paid her workers fairly and offered them access to gymnasiums, libraries, and healthcare. This was unheard of.

Unfortunately, there was a reason for that. Treating employees like human beings was expensive, and before too long her businesses went under.

Bly returned to the newsroom during World War I. She was still working in 1922, when she died of pneumonia at the age of 58.

Nellie Bly was an unwavering advocate for social change, a journalistic dynamo, and a force of nature. She wasn’t the first woman of her time to join a newsroom, but she was certainly the most ferocious.

This article has been updated for 2019.

The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of Snake Handler Grace Olive Wiley

Grace Olive Wiley with reptiles
Grace Olive Wiley with reptiles
Hennepin County Library, used with permission

For the first 30 years of her life, Grace Olive Wiley was deathly afraid of snakes—a strange trait for someone who would come to be known as the most celebrated snake woman of her time. As a child and young adult, she would blanch in horror at even the most harmless varieties. But the story goes that one day in the early 1920s, while working at the Minneapolis Museum of Natural History, a rattlesnake slithered across her hand as she was talking to a visitor. When the reptile didn't strike, she thought that perhaps all snakes could be tamed, and decided she wanted to know how.

It was the dawning moment in a career that would see Wiley amass a collection of over 300 snakes, open her own zoo, and make numerous herpetological breakthroughs—even as working with the creatures would end up costing Wiley her life.

From Bugs to Snakes

Grace Olive Wiley holding a snake in 1935
Grace Olive Wiley holding a snake in 1935
Hennepin County Library, used by permission

Wiley started her career as an avid entomologist. Born in Chanute, Kansas, in 1883, she attended the University of Kansas to study insects. After she received her bachelor’s degree in entomology, she went on research trips in Texas, collecting insects, observing them, sending specimens back to the university, and cataloguing her findings. Based on these studies, she published two papers in The Kansas University Science Bulletin in 1922: “Life History Notes on Two Species of Saldidae (Hempitera) Found in Kansas” and “Notes on the Biology of Curicta from Texas.”

Having shown herself to be a capable and an enthusiastic naturalist, in 1923 Wiley took a post as the curator of Minneapolis's Museum of Natural History, a branch of the Minneapolis Public Library, where she oversaw a collection of reptiles. After the encounter with the rattlesnake that opened her eyes to the potential of all scaly creatures, she built up a private collection—chiefly snakes, but also seemingly unlovable creatures such as the venomous Gila monster.

To tame her snakes, Wiley fashioned a petting stick padded with cloth that she used to stroke them. Gradually, as they became accustomed to touch, she found she could handle them with her fingers—even the venomous species. Wiley also cooed and spoke to her scaly charges, attempting to convey sympathy to them instead of fear. She later explained in a 1937 article called “Taming King Cobras” in Natural History Magazine that “[snakes] are not, as a rule, afraid to trust you first. They believe you are friendly, before you are convinced they have no desire to bite.”

Wiley published two papers in the Bulletin of the Antivenin Institute of America that detailed her success with taming rattlesnakes: the first in 1929 on western diamondbacks and the other in 1930 on a species of pit viper. She didn’t just tame the diamondbacks, however. She also bred two generations of them, becoming the first person to ever breed the species in captivity. Thanks to her work, herpetologists were able to learn the gestation period for diamondbacks and better understand when and under what conditions rattlesnakes lose the segments on their tails.

By 1933, Wiley had decided to make caring for reptiles her full-time job. She wrote a letter to Edward Bean, the director of Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, with an unconventional pitch: She offered the zoo her private reptile collection of over 330 snakes (which included 115 species) in exchange for a job as curator of reptiles at the zoo. Bean accepted the offer, and the zoo set to work building a new reptile house to accommodate their large acquisition. It was rare for a woman to become a reptile curator—so rare that Wiley drew the attention of the national press, from the local Chicago Tribune to The Los Angeles Times, who praised the “lady herpetologist” for her new appointment.

Along with her snakes, Wiley also brought to the zoo her unorthodox methods. Against her superiors’ orders, she continued to handle the snakes without protection, and was generally lax with enclosure protocols. Her failure to close the snakes’ pens resulted in a series of 19 animals escaping, including a venomous Egyptian cobra and an Australian bandy-bandy. The latter escape reportedly disrupted the city, as mothers kept their children indoors and the police scoured the streets for the creature. The bandy-bandy was eventually found in a pile of dead leaves meant to be used as cage decorations.

Wiley had become a liability for the zoo, and the insurance payment resulting from the escape reportedly exceeded Wiley’s annual salary. Acting director Robert Bean fired Wiley in 1935—only two years after she had started.

Grace Olive Wiley's Last Photograph

Wiley left Chicago and moved with her mother to Long Beach, California, in 1937. There, she started her own roadside reptile zoo, which she named Grace Wiley — Reptiles, where visitors could pay to see her collection of cobras, Gila monsters, and monitor lizards. Without the rules and regulations of a formal zoo, Wiley allowed her reptiles—all 100 of them—to roam freely over the grounds. She earned extra money by loaning her tamed 15-foot king cobra, King, out to movie productions; the snake appeared in the Tarzan films, The Jungle Book, and Moon Over Burma.

In 1948, journalist Daniel Mannix visited the zoo to photograph Wiley’s collection. For dramatic effect, Mannix wanted a photograph of a cobra spreading its hood, but her tame cobras didn't spread their hoods—the gesture is usually only displayed out of intimidation or aggression. Instead of posing with one of her familiar cobras, Wiley decided to pose with an Indian cobra new to her collection. During the photo shoot, the Indian struck Wiley in the middle finger. According to a newspaper account of the event, Wiley calmly returned the cobra to its cage while she waited for an ambulance. She died 90 minutes after the bite at the age of 65.

Wiley’s dramatic death, along with her unconventional methods and eccentricities, have often eclipsed her contributions to science. Some scholars have written that it's tempting to see her as more of a showman than as a serious scientist concerned with facts and experiments. Wiley, however, did care about facts, and she contributed quite a few to the study of both insects and snakes. Her detailed notes and observations of the rattlesnakes she kept in captivity helped scientists better understand their breeding, psychology, and development. She also discovered a new species of water strider, and contributed insect specimens to the American Museum of Natural History and other institutions.

Yet sometimes, Wiley found that facts weren’t enough to explain something, and she embraced the unknown. “One may study and observe and know a great many facts,” she wrote in her 1937 article, “but when it comes to the how and the why, one finds one has little knowledge and a great deal of wonderment.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER