Faith or Fact
The Famous Thirty-Six Infidels
by: Henry M. Taber
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THE FAMOUS THIRTY-SIX INFIDELS.
IN the New York Tribune of November 9th, 1887, appeared a report of a sermon preached at Newburgh, by the Reverend George Henderson Smyth, minister of the Second Reformed Church of this city, in which sermon it was stated that many years ago there existed a society of thirty-six Infidels; that on one occasion they baptized a cat and gave communion to a dog, and that within a year from that time the entire membership of the society was exterminated by death. The report added that Grant B. Taylor, Esq., a lawyer of Newburgh, had investigated the statement and found it to be true.
This was so astounding a recital that I wrote to the last-named gentleman, saying that if it was true it ought to be spread wide as a warning to “Infidels.” If not true, it ought promptly to be contradicted, in the interest of truth; and asking him to be kind enough to furnish authority therefor. In answer to this he referred me to “The History of Orange County, published by Evarts & Peck, of Philadelphia, page 267, et seq.,” adding that “Dr. John Johnston’s life, therein referred to, has a full account of the affair.”
I also wrote to Rev. G. Henderson Smyth a letter, similar to that written to Mr. TayIor, and in answer thereto Mr. Smyth referred me to a book called Ad Fidem, written by Rev. E. F. Burr, D. D., on reference to which I find it stated (page 259) in substance, that of this “ Druidical (or Infidel) Society,” one died a violent death the same day, one was found dead in bed the next day, one died in a fit three days after, one was frozen to death, two were starved to death, three died “accidentally,” five committed suicide, seven were drowned, seven died on the gallows, eight were shot — in all thirty-six.
Dr. Burr adds: ”In short, within five years (not one year, as Mr. Smyth stated) from the organization of the society, every one of the original thirty-six members died in some unnatural manner.”
Determining to press my inquiries still further, I wrote to the Rev. E. F. Burr, D. D. (at Lyme, Ct.), asking him to favor me with the source of his information on this matter. He replied that I could find the account in Arvine’s Cyclopedia of Moral and Religious Anecdote.
Referring to this most remarkable collection of miraculous event ! I found substantially what Dr. Burr had stated, but without quoting a single authority. Rev. Dr. Arvine adds: “Of the foregoing statement there is good proof; they have been certified before Justices of the Peace in New York,” but the certificates (or affidavits) are (suspiciously) omitted from the record.
I have made every possible effort to ascertain the whereabouts — if living — of Dr. Arvine, or some corroboration of these extra-natural events, but without success. I have consulted, I believe, every known historical authority for information and proof of these marvelous statements.
In Evarts and Peck’s History of Orange County, (to which Mr. Taylor referred me), a Society of Druids is mentioned, but the record is silent as to the amazing circumstances related by Mr. Smyth, except what is stated on the authority of Rev. Dr. John Johnston, viz: after mentioning the mock communion incident, Dr. J. is quoted as saying that “the principle actor in this impious transaction did not long survive; on the following Sabbath evening he was found convulsed with awful spasms, and died without being able to utter a word. (July 2d 1799.)”
Eager’s History of Orange County mentions a Society of Druids, but gives no particulars whatever.
Mr. H. Spencer Clarke, an old resident of Newburgh, to whom I wrote for information on the subject says with reference to the story, “that any such direful effects ever followed is flatly contradicted by several old residents whom I have questioned, and in whose veracity I have the fullest confidence.” Another correspondent at Newburgh, also an old resident, and who was personally acquainted with its oldest inhabitants, writes: “Rev. Dr. Johnston’s account has always been criticised, particularly the mock ceremony.”
In Rev. Dr. Wm. B. Sprague’s Annal’s of the American Pulpit, is a sketch of Dr. Johnston’s life (pp. 396-401), in which no allusion is made to these remarkable circumstances. The sketch is concluded with a letter (giving recollections of Dr. Johnston) by Rev. John Forsyth, D. D., in which the “Society of Ancient Druids” is mentioned ; but not a word with regard to the untimely end of the thirty-six members of the Society, nor indeed of any of them.
I have also consulted the Autobiography of Rev. John Johnston, D.D., with an Appendix, by Rev. James Carnahan, D.D. (1856); but neither furnishes any particulars additional to what I have already referred to, nor any authority whatever for what statements are made.
Ruttenber’s History of the Town of Newburgh, gives an account of what Rev. Dr. Johnston is quoted as saying, with reference to the Druid Society, but does not, by any manner of means, present it as “history.” On the contrary, in answer to a letter I wrote to him on this matter, he says : “My examination of the subject, from written and printed evidence and conversation with living, impartial actors in the occurrences, led me to assert that the stories told by Dr. Johnston et al., was gossip, almost pure and simple. I traced the deaths of several of the most pronounced cases, and found that unnatural deaths came to none of them, while others lived to be old men. The stories you speak of have been repeated in religious circles so long, however, that many will believe them, no matter what the denials, and hold up holy hands in horror against any denial of a tradition that has religious sanction. It is no consequence to me what men may say, or who says it nor what the motives. I know the stories are mostly false and wretchedly perverted from the truth.”
Let us analyze Mr. Smyth’s story, for the purpose of detecting what truth, if any, there is in it:
Dr. Arvine, from whom (through Dr. Burr) it is admitted that Mr. Smyth got it, gives a period of time five times longer than does Mr. Smyth. Dr. Johnston (from whom, undoubtedly, Dr. Arvine got it) reports but one unnatural death (if, indeed, a person “convulsed with spasms” can be considered to have died an “unnatural” death), instead of thirty-six (as reported by Dr. Arvine), so that, if we multiply five by thirty-six, we have one hundred and eighty showing that there was not more than a one hundred and eightieth part of truth in the story (a homoeopathic dilution).
A newspaper, published at Newburgh in the early part of this century, called the Recorder of the Times, contains a notice of the organization of the “Society of Druids,” on Sept. 22d, 1803. Dr. Johnston says that the one person convulsed with spasms, died July 2d, 1799, four years before the Society was organized. Besides which is the significant fact that Dr. Johnston does not appear to have been at Newburgh, or, at all events, it is certain that he did not begin to preach there till 1806 — seven years subsequent to the time he, himself, states as that when the person was “ convulsed with spasms.”
Such is the “truth of history!” as presented from the pulpit. The whole story is unquestionably and simply for effect, viz: that of gaining adherents to the gospel of miracle, superstition and fear. As further proof of this, I have a letter from a member of the church at Newburgh, where Rev. Mr. Smyth preached the sermon alluded to, which says: “Mr. Smyth has received letters from all points of the compass, and seemed rather pleased that the story had been given a fresh start, and hoped much good results from it. We have a special impression in the church, and a number are joining on profession of faith, — thirty-five, I think, from the Sunday-school in one day, alone. I think Mr. Smyth’s little story is some of the cause.”
There are any quantity of just such stories — fables, falsehoods — in Arvine’s Cyclopedia of Anecdote; and any one who would enjoy Gulliver or Munchausen, would fairly revel in Arvine. Aesops Fables are “sublime truth” in comparison.
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