Cudmore: The ghost skeptic; the year without a summer

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A philosopher-poet who lived in Amsterdam from 1832 to 1919 experimented with mind-altering drugs to have mystical experiences.

In 1874, Benjamin Paul Blood published a pamphlet called, “The Anesthetic Revelation and the Gist of Philosophy,” detailing how the dental anesthetic nitrous oxide opened his mind to new ideas.   The American philosopher William James reviewed the pamphlet for The Atlantic magazine and James, too, began using nitrous oxide to have mystical experiences.  James and Blood formed a pen pal relationship and the famous philosopher even came to Amsterdam to meet Blood.

According to a 1996 article in The Atlantic by Dmitri Tymoczko, Blood and James called their philosophy “pluralism,” meaning that mystical experiences could be religious, drug-induced or achieved by other means.

You might say that Blood and James, not Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary, started America’s first psychedelic movement.

“Blood could multiply large numbers in his head,” wrote Tymoczko. “He could demolish the itinerant lecturers who were a staple of nineteenth-century American popular culture. On one occasion he demonstrated to an astonished crowd how a visiting spiritualist had produced apparently ghostly occurrences.”

Blood’s family owned a large farm with acreage on both sides of the Mohawk River.  He was married to Mary Sayles and after her death married Harriet Lefferts.  He had a daughter from each marriage and a son.

Horace Kallen was editor of William James’ unfinished works and also was Blood’s literary executor.  Kallen donated the Amsterdam man’s papers to Harvard’s Houghton Library.

Blood’s book, “Pluriverse,” has been digitized as part of Google’s print library project.  The book’s topics include idealism, cause and a chapter on Jesus and free will.  Blood ends his book with a plea for knowledge: “Knowing is the soul’s all.”

1816: A COLD YEAR

Amsterdam historian Rob von Hasseln has made the case that the timing of the so-called “year without a summer” in 1816 almost destroyed the growing hamlet that became the city of Amsterdam. 

The settlement on the North Chuctanunda Creek near the Mohawk River began with Albert Vedder’s gristmill.  First called Veddersburg, the name of the hamlet was changed to Amsterdam in the early 1800s.

The abnormally cold weather of 1816 in upstate New York was linked to the 1815 explosion of a volcano – Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies.  A huge dust cloud circled the earth leading to 16 consecutive months of frost in North America.  After a normal April, May of 1816 turned cold.  The Syracuse Daily Standard reported that ice killed buds and fruit in May.  Frost, ice and snow were common in June.  Ice formed on the Fourth of July and August continued cold.

Amsterdam had some 150 people and 25 buildings at that time, including a church, school, post office and some shops and stores.  It was a mill town but the mills then milled grain. 

Von Hasseln said there was little or no grain or flax for Amsterdam’s grist and oil mills in 1816.  And, since there was a chronic lack of hard coin, von Hasseln said, farm produce served as currency.  

“Amsterdamians pulled together to help each other through the crisis,” von Hasseln said.  “As the globe-enshrouding dust fell to the earth, the skies brightened and normal weather returned. Spring plantings in 1817 provided an abundant harvest.” 

Amsterdam survived the weather crisis and began to grow.  Construction of the Erie Canal began in 1817.  Soon the first bridge over the Mohawk River was built and the Utica and Schenectady Railroad reached Amsterdam.  By the 1840s, John Sanford and his son Stephen were making carpets in a mill building at Church and Prospect streets.

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