Edgar Allan Poe Investigates The Abominable Man of Monsieur Renaud
Recently Discovered and Published
by the Edgar Allan Poe Society
I had been engaged for readings in Philadelphia, and having lost my valise containing two of my lectures (and then it being returned back to me sans lectures) I had, due to suffering deliriums and imprisonment, been in the doldrums. It was then at that time I saw a large advertisement for a traveling exhibition of an automaton called “The Abominable Man.” I had seen the trick done with Maelzel’s Chess Player, of which I had written an exposé for the Southern Literary Messenger. The idea of perhaps writing another one for a local publication struck me as a way to make a quick sale to help alleviate my state of embarrassing destitution.
The automaton was being shown at the Walnut Street Theatre. The playbill contained a wonderfully executed steel engraving of two men, one with long hair, the other short. Based on the arrangement of the composition, it was impossible to tell which was the machine and which the man. I stood outside the theatre and interviewed several people upon their exits inquiring about what they had seen. I found a curious quorum; all to a man agreed that the automaton was the most lifelike and human machine they had ever seen. Several were of the mind that perhaps the machine was a man, in make-up to appear less so. Here then would be my angle.
Having secured the preposterous $2 admission fee, I sat myself down in the upper balcony of the theatre. The broad crimson curtain rose and a man with long hair walked out onto the stage. He introduced himself as Monsieur Renaud and informed the audience that he was here presenting his spectacular automaton referred to as The Abominable Man. A second, short haired man appeared. Or so I thought. You see, the thing moved on its own. In a sort of terrible waltz, its appendages travelled gracefully through the air looking remarkably like those of a living creature. Yet it was made of brass and copper, horsehair and linen, or so I had been told. Certainly it contained no soul but a machine soul, a tick-tock clock of a soul. Yet it moved and behaved as though it truly lived. Its inventor touted it as the most accurate simulacrum of a human being yet created. I found it repulsive. However, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to leave Philadelphia by train and return to Baltimore and so was not able to start my investigations.
So it was there in the humid, early summer of 1849 that the Baltimore Lyceum hosted the Thing for paying customers to see and gawk at. Surely there was nothing more fascinating to the general public than the strange metal man that performed so many intricate motions; that it was able to bow gracefully to women and to provide a strong handshake to a man. Its chest rose and fell as if breathing and when posed a question it would open its hinged mouth to speak a reply! Its voice was like tin made audible, it crackled and hissed far down in its throat. “HELLO. ITS GOOD TO MEET YOU. I PRAY THAT YOU ARE WELL.” Pray? Surely there is no metal god for it to give praise to.
I enticed the Baltimore Sun Newspaper to fund an investigation into secrets of this strange visitor. I managed to secure an appointment with its builder, M. Jean-Claude Renaud of New Orleans. I met him in a warehouse along the waterfront, the creaking of ship’s hulls heard over the cacophony of seabirds even within the huge brick edifice. The morning light poured in through clerestory windows and M. Renaud stood in shadowless grace, bowing with entreaties of goodwill.
“M. Renaud, I am Edgar Allan Poe, writer for the Sun Newspaper, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I have come, as you know, to interview you regarding your marvelous creation, The Abominable Man. My first question to you is – why build a man at all, considering God already performed the deed and performed it well?”
A small laugh. “M. Poe, I have read your ‘tintinnabulations’ before. If you were able to discern the secret behind the Mechanical Turk, surely your keen mind has worked out the details behind my androides. He is nothing more sinister than copper gears and bellows and wound-up springs.”
“I didn’t mention anything sinister regarding your mechanical man, monsieur. I merely wanted to see if it was as capable as you claim it to be. Despite all of our technological progress, I cannot understand how the Thing can hear and speak without a human operator to control these functions. How can it know the meaning of words without a mind?”
Renaud stood and looked at me with serene blue eyes, eyes that seemed to track mine without as much as a blink. I fought the urge to look away, perhaps so that I would not appear to be weak-minded.
“M. Poe, my Abominable Man has no human within its iron ribcage. I have learned to master electricity, to make it conform to my will. Inside its ‘brain’ is a pound of the finest copper wire, wound around tightly into coils that vibrate with energy. The ears are two siphons that transmit your voice directly into its brain. It deciphers and collates and, with gusto, brings forth answers to your questions.”
I looked at him in wonder. I understood electrical power, I had played with Leyden jars and built batteries. Yet I knew of no circuit that could replicate consciousness. Surely he was either mad or lying. I pressed my point.
“The copper electrode only works when a current is applied, the human brain is functioning even without input, I doubt that you have a large enough concavity inside your machine that can host a never-dying battery – unlike the human host that generates a life-force that is self-sustaining. Tell me more about your circuits. Paint me a picture that can allow me to see like your Thing can see. For I have watched the performance of The Abominable Man from the dark balcony of the Lyceum, I used my opera glasses and could see no connection from the Thing to an operator. I saw no hidden human forms, I have watched it walk with nothing approaching a mechanical gait. How sir does it know where to walk, where to lead its feet; does it see through electric eyes as well?”
He stared at me with cool appreciation. I believe that he understood I was no fool.
“I will tell you one thing – the eyes of the Abominable Man are made of clear crystal. Their irises can open and close in desire of what they see, according to the ambient light. The optic nerve is made of fine silver. Mineral oil acts as tears. Its all very simple, M. Poe.” I had no immediate reply, but referred to the other part of my question.
“How does it walk then?”
Renaud took a small step forward, did a little pirouette, and told me in a small, lilting way that “it walks just like I walk. It uses two feet to move, two legs to stand upon. It balances the way we do. I did not have to teach it to crawl before it could walk, like a baby. I built him perfectly the first time without the incremental steps.” I was beginning to realize that he was not going to give me simple mechanistic answers for how this Thing did it or how any of the hidden mysteries of its processes worked. I would have to be more forceful in achieving my goals. I asked with a hint of demand that he let me examine The Abominable Man, so that I may at the very least get an understanding of its inner mechanisms. To my surprise, M. Renaud eagerly agreed.
“So, where do you keep the Thing when its not performing? I assume you would need to spend considerable time using a spark generator to recharge its batteries. Is it here in the warehouse?” He began to walk a short distance from me, and then stopped. He turned to face me and started to remove his overcoat and then his vest, next came off his cravat and linen shirt. He stood there nude from the waist up. “Come here” he said. I proceeded to approach, but not without a sense of foreboding.
I was but a few feet from him when I noticed that he had short hair unlike when I had seen him just a month prior in Philadelphia. He raised his arms into the air and looked to the rafters of the far-away roof. He made a shrugging motion and, all of a sudden, his chest opened up like the carapace of some great fleshy beetle. I backed away in startled confoundment, not quite sure what was happening. Within his open chest cavity was an impossible arrangement of gears and cams, snaking lines of multicolored wires, bits that looked like hydraulic jacks, and to my further astonishment, hundreds of tiny colored lights flashing in various sequences when he moved or breathed.
“M. Renaud! You are The Abominable Man!?” He began to laugh heartily, lowering his arms and standing with his chest still exposed. I could see him taking in breath, exhaling it with a faint billow of steam from his mouth that showed in the cold of the warehouse. It suddenly became a realization that the man within my view was not a man, but a machine. Some kind of clockwork creature powered by electric batteries, with hidden elements composing what could only be an alien mind. I became frightened.
“M. Poe. Now you see the Abominable Man laid at your feet. Surely your powers of ratiocination can be applied to this fecund mystery? Tell me what you make of this? What is your denouement? Tell me!”
I am unaccustomed to being without words – but here I stood dumbstruck, my mind, while racing, yet came up to a forbidding wall I could not climb. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for the truly impossible which this most assuredly was. I decided to feint, to distract while I formulated a response.
“M. Renaud, where did you come from? Surely God in His wisdom did not you make. Mustn’t there be a progenitor, a real M. Renaud?” He, It, looked at me with what I could only regard as pity.
“I have no immediate creator. The imbecilic actor I have hired to act as M. Renaud on stage certainly did not make me. No M. Poe I am both older and younger than you can imagine, a paradox for you to agonize over. You must understand that I come from a future date, but I have been living here in the past for a long time. I have seen the world turn through many revolutions; figurative and literal. I know more, have seen more, and if I so desired, could tell you more than a hundred-thousand men who lived a thousand lifetimes. But since I respect you I will tell you something of value to you.”
I vainly looked for a chair or settee, so I could sit before I fainted. For I thought that perhaps I was suffering again from mania-à-potu, but I had had no alcohol for two weeks. Thus I was confronted with reality. And I waited.
“M. Poe – I envy you. You are flesh and blood and therefore subject to death. You are not immortal. I cannot die, not even by my own hand. But you can. You can be free of living! Of having to see! Of having to know! It is horrible to be among the mass of humanity but not a part of it! So M. Poe, my valuable something is this: you are going to die and it will be soon. In October of this year to be precise. How and why are unfortunately unknown even to me. But soon you will be relieved of your melancholia and mayhap be reunited with your beloved Virginia.”
How could this Thing know my fate? How could it be both immeasurably old and premature? I began to feel sick. A sickness of the heart. I decided to beg my leave of The Abominable Man, for surely it was abominable in the truest, cruelest way – loathsome and inhuman. Instead of waiting for more of the Thing’s revelations, I decided to cut my loses and leave this accursed warehouse.
“M. Renaud, or Abominable Man, or whatever you wish to call yourself – I will be taking my leave. There is no sense in sharing with the world what I have witnessed here, for they already call me a madman. But take to heart I plan on living past the ignominious date you have placed before me, but if I do not be assured that I will be sending you letters directly from my place in Hell asking that the Evil One may hold rooms close to me for your use.”
I left the docks and proceeded apace to write out this report of what one could only describe as the most unbelievable meeting. I am placing it in care of my colleague Mr. R. W. Griswold, who, if evil befalls me, is to publish the report tout de suite.
In an appended quarter page, written in Poe’s hand, is a short message stating:
Renaud has contacted me via telegram, delivered by a messenger. He asks that I meet him in Baltimore so that “we may discuss his origins and put to rest certain misconceptions that I have.” The cost of this communiqué must have been extraordinary! The messenger explained that a return telegram had been paid for and that I need only provide a reply. He also presented me with a train ticket. I accepted.
I add this short letter as notification of my whereabouts in the case of anything unfortunate happening to me on my journey.
- Edgar Allan Poe, signed in Richmond, Virginia