Harry Pillsbury, the American grandmaster from Somerville, Massachusetts, had an unusually short career. In 1895 he electrified the chess world by finishing first at Hastings, ahead of Lasker, Steinitz, Tchigorin, and Tarrasch. By the end of the century his ability had been undermined by syphilis; in 1906 he died of it.
In his prime Pillsbury was famous for his simultaneous blindfold exhibitions, and one of his favorite warm-up feats was characteristically ambitious. In the words of Harold C. Schonberg, “A list of thirty words would be submitted to him, and he would memorize them instantly.” It was at such an exhibition in London that Pillsbury performed his best-known feat of memory. In 1896 H. Threlkeld-Edwards, a surgeon from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Mansfield Merriman, who taught civil engineering at Lehigh University, gave Pillsbury a bizarre list of words to memorize. He reeled off the words forwards and then backwards, and on the following day did it again. The London papers picked up the story, and it was repeated throughout the chess world.
And what were the thirty words? Chernev and Reinfeld, in The Fireside Book of Chess, supply this list:
Antiphlogistine, periosteum, takadiastase, plasmon, ambrosia, Threlkeld, streptococcus, staphylococcus, micrococcus, plasmodium, Mississippi, Freiheit, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, athletics, no war, Etchenberg, American, Russian, philosophy, Piet Potgelter's Rost, Salamagundi, Oomisillecootsi, Bangmamvate, Schlechter's Nek, Manzinyama, theosophy, catechism, Madjesoomalops.
If we count as one word each the phrases “no war,” “Piet Potgelter's Rost”, and “Schlechter's Nek,” we get only 29 words. What was the thirtieth?
A more obvious and vexing question: What do the words mean? “Madjesoomalops” means nothing to chess players, let alone the general public. Yet of all the writers who have retold the anecdote, none have ever questioned its authenticity. Let us take a close look at the list, with a view to discovering how the words were chosen and where they came from.
A medication for relieving inflammation is now called an “antipyrotic,” but ninety years ago the term “antiphlogistic” was also used. Antiphlogistine is an old synonym, now confined mainly to veterinary use. It may also have been the name of a patent antipyrotic.
In anatomy, the periosteum is the membrane that sheaths a bone. No mystery here.
Your unabridged dictionary may define plasmon as the genetic type of a cytoplasm, and ambrosia as the food of the ancient Greek gods. It is not likely to define Taka-diastase or Threlkeld. The hidden connection is that all four are names of patent artificial foods or digestants fed to patients who cannot digest natural food. We may reasonably suppose that Dr. Threlkeld-Edwards had a hand in the invention of Threlkeld!
Streptococcus, staphylococcus, and micrococcus are well-known strains of bacteria. Another micro÷rganism is plasmodium, a fungus that is involved in the production of takadiastase.
Mississippi is a river and a state. Why was it included here? Since Merriman once contributed to a Pennsylvania geological survey, this could be a reference to Mississippi limestone.
Freiheit is the German for “freedom.” This should probably be the Afrikaans word “Vryheid”, the Boer movement for freedom from British rule. In 1896 the Boers and the British were fighting in South Africa.
Philadelphia and Cincinnati are American cities—also professional baseball teams, as was the Athletics. The London papers could not have been expected to know this; hence the uncapitalized “athletics.”
No war looks irrelevant in this list. Actually, “no war” or “no-war” was a popular name for pacifism or a pacifist, especially one who opposed the U.S. war with Spain.
Etchenberg looks misspelled. There was a German literary historian and philosopher named Eschenburg, and a French philosopher named Etchegoyen. Neither was alive in 1896.
American and Russian were at loggerheads as usual. Russia had seized Port Arthur, Americans were suing Russia for false arrest in connection with the coronation riots, and Czar Nicholas was visiting London.
Philosophy needs little explanation. It may have some relation to the other entries in the list.
Piet Potgelter's Rost should be “Potgietersrust”, a town in the Transvaal named for the old trek commander Piet Potgieter. “Rust” means “rest”, but the town is now usually called Potgietersrus.
Salamagundi, variously spelled, is a dish of chopped game, chicken, or almost anything. It was popular in the Netherlands, made with pickled herring and onions.
Oomisillecootsi is an outmoded variant of Umsilikasi or Mzilikazi, the Zulu general who eventually settled in what is now Zimbabwe to become chief of the Ndebele, or Matabele. From 1847 to 1851 his men stood off the Boers well enough to force them to sign a peace treaty with them.
According to Piet Potgieter, Bangmamvate, in the Matapo hills, was Mzilikazi's first settlement in Zimbabwe. It is now called Mbato. But this may also be a corruption of Bamangwato, a branch of the Bechuana or Botswana tribe that fought with the Ndebele.
Manzinyama is a lake in a swampy region of Maputuland in South Africa. The name means “black water.” The lake may have some historical significance.
Schlechter's Nek should be Slagtersnek, a settlement in the Cape Colony where the British put down a rebellion of Boers and hanged the leaders in 1815. It has nothing to do with the chess master Carl Schlechter. Slagter in Afrikaans means the same as schlechter (schlächter) in German: butcher.
Theosophy was a controversial spiritual movement of the time, founded by Elena Blavatsky in 1875. In August 1896 a band of American theosophists were seeking converts in London. Jeanette F. Walker provided this extract from an article in the London News for August 13, 1896:
A correspondent writes:Yesterday a number of Americans who form a band of missionaries which has been sent to this country in order to propagate a knowledge of Theosophy held a private reception to a number of people interested in the movement in London, at the Norfolk Mansions Hotel in Wigmore Street.
Were Threlkeld-Edwards and Merriman among them?
Catechism is a familiar word. Perhaps it was in the news because a religious body was rewriting its catechism.
Lastly, Madjesoomalops is probably a garbled form of matjesrollmops, which like salamagundi is a characteristic dish of the Netherlands. It consists of herrings rolled around small pickles, pinned with toothpicks.
I am indebted to Piet Potgieter of Wellington, South Africa (firstname.lastname@example.org), a descendant of the Trek leader, for identifying the names pertaining to the Boers and South Africa (except Manzinyama). I am also indebted to Don Shemanski (email@example.com) for his clever identification of “madjesoomalops.”