Charles Godfrey Leland:The Forgotten American Scholar

Morris Weiss, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Medical Department of Medicine
University of Louisville School of Medicine
Fellow-American College of Physicians
Fellow-American College of Cardiology
Fellow-American Heart Asscitation
Presented to the Innominate Society

            Charles Godfrey Leland is a forgotten American scholar. My interest in ancient medicine, which has been focused on the Etruscans, led to my learning about his important work involving them. Leland lived in Philadelphia, in the shadow of Pennsylvania Hospital where I interned. Those two coincidences and a number of others increased my interest in his life and career.

Charles Godfrey Leland was born August 15, 1824 I Philadelphia into a family that had been prominent in the city even before the Revolutionary War. His father was a successful merchant who knew and worked with the important people of Philadelphia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At age 20 months, Charles had a serious “meningitis-like” illness. Later in life, he credited the brain damage from that illness as being a significant factor I his nervousness, idealism, romanticism, poetic ability and attraction to the occult and mysticism. Other significant early influences included his Dutch nurse’s being a sorceress who “cast several spells” on him when he was young. Throughout his boyhood and developing years Charles’ interest in the occult increased and, later in life, he worked with gypsies I England and Southeastern Europe. At age six, he memorized Prospero’s speeches from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and also became a voracious reader.

Charles Godfrey Leland’s youth was almost idyllic. He went to a series of private schools in Philadelphia and during the summer lived with his cousins I the New England countryside. Although he tended to be nervous and had a number of illnesses, he grew to be a six-foot adult who was vigorous in adult life except for occasional episodes of depression. After graduation from Princeton, his father sent him to Heidelberg, Munich and Paris for post-graduate study. When he returned to the US, he worked as a journalist and as an editor for a number of years and even apprenticed in a law firm. During those years, he wrote hundreds of essays, reviews and articles for the major periodicals of the time, including Vanity Fair, Graham’s Magazine, and the Knickerbocker Magazine. In the 1850’s and during the Civil war he had strong pro-Union sentiments.

One of his poetic figures was the fictional “Hans Breitman,” whose German-English dialect popularized Leland so that he became a sought-after, prosperous writer. However, he was ostracized by the academic community as not being sufficiently scholarly and scientific. Also he was regarded as being too far ahead of their mechanistic world. Nevertheless, he continued to delve into the occult. The income from “Hans Breitman’s” sales and the inheritance from his father enabled him to pursue his studies independently. He studied Algonquin Indians’ stories and myths, was a great folklorist and was a social anthropologist 75 years before Margaret Mead did her great work.

Leland did and impressive amount of fieldwork. He lived with Indian groups for months at a time and recorded their stories scientifically by checking with various sources. He also studied the myths of the Eskimos, a number of Finnish and Laplander groups and various Mongoloid peoples. He found parallels between the themes in various Norse Eddas and North American Indian myths and, inasmuch as the Algonquin Indians’ stories could be related to the Norse legends, he developed a theory of diffusion of themes. He postulated that certain themes had spread form Greenland down to Canada and Northeastern America. Leland’s studies, including the post-graduate work in Germany, led him to the conviction that the US did not have a meaningful, legitimate folk ethos. He maintained that the American Indians understood nature and spirituality better than even Emerson or Whitman. His works preceded Joseph Campbell’s famous publications by about 100 years.

Leland’s writing covered diverse topics’ his book on will power explained how he had been able to strengthen his mind and memory through self-hypnosis. While in Philadelphia, he developed the Manual Arts System of instruction for the Philadelph8ia School System that remained in place for about 100 years. During an extended stay in the American West, he lived with the Crow Indians and also reviewed the flourishing world of pulp literature about the Wiled West that had flowed into the northeast.

In 1856, at age 32, Leland published “The Poetry and Mystery of Dreams” that predated Sigmund Freud’s work by about 50 years. He admired poets for their understanding the imagery of dreams and their imagination- much of which they were able to correlate with the drama of real life. In addition, he discussed ancient Greek and Arab writers’ works on dreams.

Charles Godfrey Leland then traveled in Europe to study the gypsies in England and to develop and publish a definitive dictionary of the gypsy language. He looked at the gypsies’ origins in India and, to achieve the necessary understanding, identified their language (Shelta, the tongue used by itinerant English tinkers while they were “on the road”). He considered it to be an example of ancient Celtic language and wrote a dictionary of it. He traveled throughout Eastern Europe with various gypsy groups and finally went to Florence, Italy, where he stayed for a number of years to study the witches (stregas) of Northern Italy. During the next 20 busy years, Leland translated 20 volumes for German into English, including the complete works of the poet, Heinrich Heine.

It was interesting to be able to follow the path in Florence that Leland had once walked and studied. For example, he talked in the Meracato for years to gypsies; especially to one named Madellena, a Tuscan witch. He extracted from her stories about the medical treatments performed by witches and found many were the same as those used by the Etruscans seven centuries BCE. Also he found that the late roman Emperor Honorious (384-423 AD) studied 100 magical cures used by the rural classes of Tuscany. Even at the beginning at the 20th century, many of those age-old treatments were still in use. They included interesting treatments for dreams, toothaches, various eye problems, headaches, all types of bodily pains, bladder stones and colic.

It is unfortunate that Charles Godfrey Leland has been forgotten in many of the academic centers of America. He was truly a fascinating person. Although in his own time, he was thought not to be “scientific enough,” as this brief survey reveals, he was 19th century Victorian genius who made contributions to anthropology, the history of medicine and literature. The time has come for him and his work not just to be recalled, but for him to take his rightful place in American scholarship.