A Poetic Mystery

A Poetic Mystery

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

With the new arts district in Noblesville, there is an impetus to start cataloging area arts figures.  While celebrities like Rex Stout are important, it’s worthwhile to go exploring for lesser known people.  I’ve mentioned writers like John Wise, Berta Jones, and Gordon Olvey.  There may be now a new poet to add to that list – Benoni P. Todd – if this person actually existed.

That name has appeared because of a letter supposedly from the Noblesville Home Literature Club to the New York Sun that was sent on December 2, 1904.  If the name of the newspaper is familiar at this time of year, they were the ones that published the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” essay.  The letter from Noblesville complimented the Sun for their willingness to promote Hoosier authors.

“As humble citizens of this state, professing no talent ourselves for fine writing, we have long felt that we owed it to your great newspaper, as well as to ourselves, to make long past due acknowledgment to The Sun because of the enlightened interest, above referred to, which it has manifested in these productions of these fellow citizens of ours, which have undoubtedly, on many occasions, startled the literary world.”

The letter was answered on December 12.  (The whole article can be found online here.) The newspaper said that it was grateful for the compliments, and that the city had excellent taste in literature, and ended by saying, “Noblesville has a park of authors, a lake, a sea, an ocean of poetry.  She needs no more.”  The article was reprinted in the Charlotte (North Carolina) Daily Observer on December 15.

However, it is a very odd exchange.  Although Hoosier literature had giants like Lew Wallace, James Whitcomb Riley, and Booth Tarkington, the Sun preferred to talk about poets like James Byron Elmore – “The Bard of Alamo” – or George Washington Sayler.  A group of essays about Elmore can be found here.  Judging poetry is a question of taste, but the examples of Elmore’s work in the essays seem to be very poor.

In the December 12 article, after discussing Elmore and Sayler, the paper mentions Benoni P. Todd as Noblesville’s “own gifted verse smith” and quotes a section of his (or her) poetry:

Paris and Florence, Venice, Rome,

What are they to my Hoosier Home?

Praise not to me the City of Light;

She ain’t a Noblesville, not by a sight!

Paris can’t equal her by a week;

My Noblesville, my heart’s delight!

Nestling soft on Cicero Creek,

Noblesville-On-The-White!

There is a problem – I cannot find the name of Benoni Todd anywhere else except for one poem titled “Isolation” that appeared in a journal called “The Churchman” from July 9, 1881.  There is nothing in the census records, cemetery records, county directories, or newspapers around the country.  This is possibly a pen name, which would make it impossible to track.

An interesting point is that there is no mention in the local papers for December 1904 about the article in the Sun.  There is also no mention of a Home Literature Club.  This is possibly all a grand hoax or satire.  The language in the articles about James Elmore is laid on so thick that it’s hard to tell.  It may be an early twentieth-century version of the article in the Onion.  The whole thing may have been some sort of huge joke – Elmore and Sayler were mocked in their own day for their ham-handed poetry.

So, is Benoni P. Todd an undiscovered Hamilton County artist or the takeoff point for satire?



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