The Mysterious Ajeeb - The Pride of the Eden Musée
The New Yorker
The Pride of the Eden Musée
The Eden Musée, a three-story architectural hodgepodge of arches, pilasters, and ormolu at 55 West Twenty-third Street, was opened to the public in 1884. For a year of more, a visitor to the place usually started off by paying his respects to the array of waxworks whose grisly charm made it possible for the management to charge fifty cents admission and still do a lively business. There were sixty tableaux in the waxworks section, most of them stressing death in its spicier and more spectacular forms, but, for the benefit of the high-minded and the chickenhearted, a few patriotic displays of an inspiring nature were spotted along the way. If the visitor;s staying powers were up to it, he would struggle to the end: if his ears began to buzz, he could always fall out of line. In either case, he was almost certain to wind up in the theatre-caféon the ground floor, where for a small additional fee, he could sit back and regain his grip on himself by watching the performance of six-year-old Master Walter Leon, a prodigy who wore his yellow hair in Fauntleroy ringlets, dressed in velveteen and lace, and lisped as he gave lectures on topics such as "Is Marriage a Failure?"
The sponsors of the Musée, a predominantly French syndicate founded by Count Kessler and headed by a New Yorker named Richard G. Hollaman — achieved a prose style as unctuous as an undertaker's in describing their establishment. It was, their advertisements proclaimed, "a Temple of Art without rival in this country, affording to all an opportunity for instruction, amusement and recreation, without the risk of coming into contact with anything or anybody that is vulgar or offensive." James Huneker, the critic, writing in the Times, once called the Musée the world's greatest assemblage of the "ludicrous and horrible." The public, tutored by its horse-car conductors, took to calling the place Moosie.
The tone of the Musée was stepped up in August, 1886, by the arrival of Ajeeb, billed as a chess-and-checkers-playing automaton. Ajeeb, whose body was made of papier-mâché andwhose head was made of wax, was a larger than life-size likeness of a black-bearded Moor. Wearing a white turban and robe and a billowing red velvet cape, he enjoyed a thirty-year run at the Eden, during which he took on all comers, won nearly every one of his games, and wore out a series of more than a score of morose, brilliant, and frequently alcoholic little men who sweated through long afternoons and evenings inside him, guiding his right hand in the proper plays as they watched the board through a silk-covered slit in his midriff. Throughout his career at the Eden, Ajeeb, grasping a hookah in his immobile left hand and wearing a stuffed cockatoo on his right shoulder, carried on in an atmosphere thich with theatrical abracadabra intended to support his owner's claim that he was a genuine automaton operated solely by a jumble of wires, cogs, flywheels, and pistons that were situated where the ordinary Moor keeps his lungs and stomach and were open to inspection, in a dim light, through a tiny door in his chest. All these works, which actually had nothing to do with the functioning of the dummy, were made of rubber. Judged by today's standards, Ajeeb was a fairly gimcrack mechanical fraud, but audiences then were not too fussy.
Ajeeb became the subject of earnest and for the most part fallacious theorizing by dozens of Americans and British newspapers and magazines, including the Chess Monthly, the American Chess Bulletin, the London Quarterly Review, and the Cornhill Magazine. One of the most widely accepted theories was that he was guided by some sort of remote control, probably electrical. A few of the enlightened persons who took to frequenting the Eden after Ajeeb's arrival seem to have been more impressed by his skill at chess and checkers than by how he functioned. There was O. Henry, for example, who, when he lived n Twenty-fourth Street, would frequently drop in at the Musée and challenge Ajeebto a game of chess. Sometimes, when O. Henry found himself cornered, he would send an Eden attendant over to a Sixth Avenue saloon for a pint of Irish whiskey with which to clear his brain, and there are two versions of the scene that would follow. One had O. Henry gulping his tonic in fullview of the red-eyed, thirst-ridden wretch inside Ajeeb ; the other, and more charitable, one holds that O. Henry, while pondering a move, would slip the bottle under Ajeeb's robe and presently withdraw it, emptier by one snort. Another of Ajeeb's adversaries was Sarah Bernhardt, who played a game of chess with him on each of four trips she made to this country between 1886 and 1900. Christy Mathewson, the baseball player, liked to take him on too, and did so with a number of Wall Street men who used to spend an hour or two in the afternoon at the Musée on days when the Exchange was quiet.
Ajeeb was brought to this country from England by a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Charles Edward Hooper, who had designed and built him five years before and had already seen him through a long and prosperous run at the Crystal Palace. The Hoopers paid Hollaman a hundred dollars a week for the privilege of exhibiting their dummy and charged ten cents to anyone who wanted to see him in action. To play against him cost a dime for checkers and a quarter for chess. Mr. Hooper was a small, fragile, meek, quick-witted Englishman, the perfect specimen of an Ajeed manipulator. His wife was a buxom Belgian beauty, hopelessly large for the work.
Ajeeb himself, by far the most impressive of the trio, was ten feet high in all as he sat, erect, on a throne-like box. From the waist down he was mainly a mass of drapery. The game — chess or checkers, whichever the customer chose == was played on a board which rested on Ajeeb's lap, and his legs which hung down as far as the bottom of the box, were completely hidden by his billowing robe. The box he sat on was four feet square and three feet high, and stood of the floor on four thick legs, so that spectators could look underneath and strengthen the illusion that no human agency was involved. The two front legs were hollow, although spectators, of course, were not aware of it. The box could be opened at the rear, but this fact was concealed by Ajeeb's robe, which, like his legs, hung to the bottom of the box. When a game was to be played, Mr. Hooper squeezed himself feet first through the rear opening of the box, worked his legs part way into the hollow front legs, and then raised himself to a seated position in the box, his eyes level with the peep-hole in the dummy's middle. The customer, looking uncomfortably dwarfed, stood facing his towering opponent. The audience stood outside a rail fencing off the contestants.
Before a game, Mrs. Hooper pretended to wind Ajeeb up by turning a large key fitted to a plausibly noisy shaft in his right side. She then opened two six-by-eight doors, one in the dummy's chest and the other at the same level in his back, and held a none too brilliant light at the back as if to give the spectators a good look at the tangle of rubber machinery. This called for great agility on Mr. Hooper's part. Just before his wife opened the doors, he had to twist to one side and lie along the bottom of the box. At the same time, he had to release a catch which dropped a shroud of black cambric over him as a precaution against players with especially strong eyes or suspicions. After Mrs. Hooper had closed the doors and announced that Ajeeb was ready to play, her husband would squirm back into position. Ajeeb was operated by two levers — one, inside his right arm, controlling, with great precision, the motion of the arm and of the thumb and forefinger with which he handled the pieces, and the other, suspended from the gullet, producing the few but highly expressive gestures he made with his head. Mr. Hooper would grab the first lever with his right hand and the second with his left, squint through the peep-hole, and the game would be on.
Ajeeb's manner while playing was imperious and deliberate, and gave no hint of the turmoil that was going on inside him. His right arm swung over the board in a slow, graceful arc, pausing while the papier-mâché thumb and forefinger closed on the piece to be played and then moving it to a square where it was to be set down. He rarely hesitated more than a second or two before moving. If a player tried to cheat by moving the wrong way or by sneaking one of his opponent's pieces off the board, Ajeeb would grandly sweep all the pieces off the board and Mrs. Hooper would declare the game forfeit. If the player was plainly a greenhorn and made a move forbidden by the rules, Ajeeb would throw back his head in a gesture of mixed horror and scorn and freeze in that position until Mrs. Hooper explained the game to the novice and put things to rights. When Ajeeb played chess, he indicated a check by nodding once and a checkmate by nodding three times. On the infrequent occasions when it became apparent that he was going to lose, he would concede the game by knocking over his king.
Before the next game started, Mrs. Hooper would open the doors in the dummy again and once more her husband would have to duck. Ajeeb's hours were from one to five every afternoon and from seven to ten-thirty every evening. After each session had ended and the room had been cleared, Mrs. Hooper locked the entrance and lifted the hem of Ajeeb's robe, so that her husband, drenched with perspiration and badly in need of a drink, could crawl out. All in all, it was a strenuous life for a frail man, and in 1889, after three years of it in New York, he began looking around for a substitute.
Hooper found a substitute in the person of Albert B.Hodges, a twenty-nine-year-old statician of Nashville, recommended by a mutual friend in St. Louis, who of course was in on the secrets of the hoax, as an exceptionally swift and able chess-and-checkers player. Speed was important, because the faster Ajeeb beat his customers the more dimes and quarters came in. Hodges, who had a government job in St. Louis, was told of the new opportunity by the friend, and Mr. Hooper, evidently feeling a nervous breakdown coming at any moment, engaged him sight unseen, wiring him travelling expenses and instructions to appear at noon four days later on the corner of Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue, wearing a carnation. Mr. Hooper considered it advisable not to have a stranger wandering around backstage at the Eden until he had a chance to size him up and swear him to secrecy. Hodges was easily sworn, but he sized up vert poorly ; in fact, he was almost prohibitively tall and stout. Mr. Hooper, however, was desperate. He hustled Hodges to the Musée and into Ajeeb, played him a practice game, and, an hour after the two men had met, told Mrs. Hooper to let in the day's first customers.
The only way Hodges could make himself fit was to lie on his side n the dummy's abdomen, and this allowed him to use only one eye at the peephole. By the end of the month he had become myopic and his head and muscles ached continually. He drank quantities of beer to ease the pain and this increased his girth. Even though Mr. Hooper morosely filled in for him one day a week, Hodges lasted only six months and then resigned to earn a normal living again as the chief accountant of Sailors' Snug Harbor. His successor was C. F. Burille, a Bostonian with the somewhat precarious parlor-stunt knack of being able to solve sixty chess problems in an hour on paper. This didn't get his very far against Ajeeb's less effete opposition, and Mr. Hooper soon had to let him go.
The labor turnover inside Ajeeb presented a difficult problem. The professional life expectancy of an operator turned out to be just a little over one year. Mr. Hooper was always looking for players who were not only small and expert but sufficiently self-controlled to keep their temperments and thirsts within bounds during working hours. Anonymity, an irksome thing for any professional chess or checkers player, was of course essential. After an Ajeeb operator had knocked off work and crept away to a bar, he had, on pain of dismissal, to say nothing about where he had been all day. On the other hand, the pay was from fifty to seventy-five dollars a week, which was more than most chess and checkers players could count on as a steady thing.
Only two or three men taller than five feet six or heavier than a hundred and thirty pounds stuck it out long in Ajeeb. Most of them were even smaller and slighter than that. At least two were consumptives, one had stomach ulcers, one was dipsomaniac, andnearly all were anemic. The job was scarcely likely to improve their health. In summer the atmosphere inside Ajeeb was steamy, and its oxygen content always was low. This had such a soporific effect upon on Ajeeb operator, a fellow named Doc Schaefer, that he occasionally dozed off at his post while waiting for his opponent to move and had to be roused by a Musée workman hastily summoned to bang upon the dummy's throne under the pretense of repairing it. It is likely that opening the door in Ajeeb's body before and after each game contributed as much to saving the life of the man inside as it did to the perpetration of that hoax. The head cold was an occupational disease among Ajeeb workers, and a serious one, too, since an imperfectly strangled sneeze or cough would mean almost certain disaster for the whole venture.
The man who lasted the longest inside Ajeeb was Harry Nelson Pillsbury, of Somerville, Massachusetts, a mental freak of startling capacities who wore wing collars and polka-dot four-in-hands, smoked Havana cigars, and drank a quart of whiskey a day. He worked Ajeeb from 1890 to 1900. He did, however, enjoy generous leaves of absence, to play in international chess competitions. He won twenty, several of them in Europe. His specialty, though one which he did not attempt with Ajeeb, was simultaneously playing ten games of checkers, ten of chess and a hand of wist. A newspaperman who saw him compete in a chess tournament in Vienna in 1898, held as part of Emperor Franz Josef's Jubilee, wrote, "Pillsbury is a beardless young man whose Anglo-American origin in easily read on his face. His profile is cameo-like, nobly cut ; every movement is dignified and gentle eloquence. When Pillsbury sits at a board, he has an absolute stony calmness in his face ; not a single muscle moves, only now and then will he wink a bit faster, when he feels himself slowly and satisfactorily nearing his goal."
Once, at the request of two college professors, Pillsbury took a memory test which consisted of repeating, as accurately as he could, a list of twenty-eight words and phrases which were read to him. Here, in its strange entirety, is the list : "Antiphlogistian, Periosteum, Takadiastase, Plasmon, Ambrosia, Threlkeld, streptococcus, staphylococcus, micrococcus, Mississippi, Freiheit, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, athletics, no war, Etchenberg, American, Russian, philosophy, Piet Potgelter's Rost, Salamagundi, Oomisillecottsi, Bangmamvate, Schlechter's Nek, Manzinyama, theosophy, catechism, Madjesoomalops." Pillsbury repeated it without error and without hesitation. Then he recited it backwards. He repeated it again the next day, one way only. He died insane , in Frankfort, Pensylvania, in 1906.
After deducting the salaries of a barker and the operator and the hundred dollars a week they paid Hollaman, the Hoopers managed to clear a thousand dollars a month from Ajeeb. In 1895 they decided to sell out and go home to England. They found an eager buyer in Miss Emma Haddera, a ticket seller at the Musée who had long admired Ajeeb. She presently married James Smith, an assistant manager of the Musée. and gave him half interest in the dummy. Miss Haddera died a few years later and soon afterward Smith presented his wife's share to a divorcée named Mrs. Hattie Elmore, who had worked her way up at the Eden from selling catalogues to costuming figures for the waxworks. Smith had tuberculosis of the bones and Mrs. Elmore, in return for his generosity, took care of him until he died, after which she became the sole owner of Ajeeb. Hiring one chess-and-checkers expert after another, Mrs. Elmore kept Ajeeb in operation until 1915, when the Eden went bankrupt and closed, done in by the cinema. The honor of being the last man to work Ajeeb at the Musée went to Jesse B. Hanson, who was further distinguished by being nearly six feet tall — a giant by Ajeeb standards. He compensated for his height by weighing only a hundred pounds and by his ability to coil up inside Ajeeb, somewhat like a rattler.
Ajeeb remained in being but went steadily downhill after the Eden folded. Sam Gumpertz, the expansive gentleman who is now one of the owners of Hamid's Million Dollar Pier in Atlantic City, got what might be called his start by buying a controlling interest in the Musée's waxworks for fifteen thousand dollars and moving them to a museum which opened on Surf Avenue at Coney Island, also under the name Hamid's. Mrs. Elmore trailed along with Ajeeb. Finding it hard to pay the high salaries asked by skillful chess players, she decided to confine the dummy's activities to checkers. She hired, as the manipulator, a tiny, consumptive Brooklyn boy named Sam Gonotsky, who was also a part-time Western Union messenger and frequently wore his uniform while on duty in Ajeeb. Gonotsky finally died, and shortly afterward Mrs. Elmore had a disagreement with Gumpertz and moved Ajeeb few doors down to a rival museum called World of Wax, where for several seasons she did a desultory business with the help of fly-by-night checkers players. Meanwhile, she married a handsome, three-hundred pound Army drum major named Wethereall McKeever and settled down with him in a frame house which they bought on Avenue U in Brooklyn. In 1925 she retired and took Ajeeb home with her. Her husband, whose size made it safe for him to show an indulgent interest in te dummy, built him a shed on the front lawn and Mrs. McKeever embroidered him a pretty Chinese robe. During the first year of her retirement, she turned down six offers from showmen who wanted to by Ajeeb. "I just like to keep him around, fixed up nice," she told them.
The first chess-and-checkers-playing dummy was not Ajeeb. It was Turk, who made his début in Austria in 1769, a little over a hundred years ahead of Ajeeb. Turk had a career almost as illustrious as Ajeeb's and was operating in the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia when he was destroyed in a fire in 1854, Imitations of Turk, named Mephisto, Hajeb, As-Rah, and so on, appeared briefly in various parts of the world and then dropped out of sight. Ajeeb was the last of the great dummies and, a modest amount of research has revealed the only one to survive to this day.
Now over seventy, Ajeeb has been moved from his shed on the McKeevers' front lawn and is stored in Queens, dissected into eight parts. Seven-eighths of him, done up in packing cases, rests in the back of a Cadillac touring car which is itself stored on blocks in an open-air parking lot in Astoria ; the other eighth — his head — lies swathed in silk in a trunk in the Jackson Heights apartment of one of Ajeeb's two present owners, a man named Frank Frain, who, in his own words, has spent a great many of his forty-eight years "hovering on the fringes of the theatrical world." Ever since he was twelve, Frain has admired Ajeeb, and he has owned him for the past eleven years. He used to make out fairly well with the dummy, moving about the country in the Cadillac and exhibiting him, in both chess and checkers matches, at one-night stands in Masonic temples, Rotary Clubs, and state fairs, but lately hasn't been able to get enough gas and tires to carry on. Three years ago, Frain showed Ajeeb twice under highly distinguished auspices — once at the President's Birthday Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria and again, a few nights later, at an Aid to Britain party at the Astor. Shortly before, Ajeeb played an engagement in the basement of Hubert's Museum, the penny arcade and flea circus on West Forty-second Street.
Frain's partner, who did the work inside Ajeeb, was old Jesse Hanson, the skeletal six-footer who saw the dummy through the last days of the Musée. Of the more than twenty men who operated Ajeeb, two are still alive — Hanson, and Albert Hodges, who was Mr. Hooper's first helper. Hodges, who gave up to take the accountant's job at Sailors' Snug Harbor, quickly succeeded in putting Ajeeb out of his life ; Hanson has never been able to. Hodges, now eighty-two, is married and lives with his wife in a cottage at 84 Valencia Avenue, in Stapleton, Staten Island. He had his last serious go at chess some thirty years ago, when he won five and drew eight of a series of thirteen Anglo-
American matches, played by cable. His weight wen to n increasing after he got out of Ajeeb, and he acquired the build of a Kodiak bear. Finally, his weight leveled off at a hundred and ninety pounds. He still winces when he recalls the hours he spent inside Ajeeb fifty-three years ago.
Hanson at the moment is out West, trying to get along by playing in checkers tournaments, wiring Frain for money when he runs short and waiting for the day he can operate Ajeeb again. He is a shy man and is happiest curled up inside the dummy, as he has been during a large part of the past twelve years.
Frain and Hanson bought Ajeeb from Hattie Hattie McKeever in 1932 for what Frain stll considers a bargain price of a thousand dollars. Mrs. McKeever could no longer afford to turn down an offer for sentiment's sake. Her drum-major husband had died in 1928, a mortgage on her Avenue U house was about to be foreclosed, and she had to go back to work at Gumpertz's Coney Island museum. A bent and faded woman of sixty-four, she was on her old job of costuming wax horrors, and she is still on it. Mrs. McKeever sold Ajeeb reluctantly, and Frain, who knows how attached one can become to the dummy, told her she could come over to Queens whenever she felt like it and see the old fellow. Unfortunately, Mrs. McKeever has never been able to get away from the waxworks long enough to make the trip.
Frain is a slight, jaunty man with a wedge-shaped head that is bald three-quarters of the way back, at which point a shock of gray hair rises from the skull like a fright wig. His normal conversation is conducted in a confidential roar, which can be disconcerting when he gets to describing the supernatural qualities he is inclined to attribute to Ajeeb. "Why, one time," he will shout, "the pieces in those boxes in the Cadillac got to jumping up and down, so help me God! And three times, when I went to fix Ajeeb's head on him, I fell down like somebody shoved me!: It is a source of satisfaction to Frain, who is Irish Catholic, that he has had Ajeeb blessed at the shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré, in Quebec.
Frain was born in Passaic. When he was nine, his family moved to the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan, where his father ran a butcher shop. Young Frain went to Holy Cross School, on West Forty-second Street. Evenings he sold newspapers in front of the Eden Musée. One of his customers was James Smith, the assistant manager of the Musée who inherited Ajeeb from his wife, Emma Haddera, and passed him to Hattie Elmore. Smith took a liking to Frain and occasionally asked the lad out to beer parties after the Musée had shut down for the night. Hanson was at one of these affairs, grew friendly with Frain, and gradually, over a period of weeks, let him in on the Ajeebsecret. Frain studied journalism at New York University for a short while andon the strength of that got a position as office boy at the Scientific American. After that he kicked around, doing odd jobs as a theatrical press agent, for twenty years or more. He always kept in touch with Hanson, who had become an itinerant checkers player.
Hanson is a quite distinguished man in his field. The record book of the Second International Checkers Match, in 1927, devoted twenty-five lines to him, which was recognition equivalent to a whole column in Who's Who. He was born in Sacramento fifty-four years ago and did nothing but play checkers after he was twelve. Before that he had driven a butcher's truck. When he was twenty-three, he went abroad, where he defeated some of the best checkers men of Germany, France and England. After returning to this country, he went to work for Smith at the Eden. A lot of his best playing has been done in the name of Ajeeb, but he has won enough games as Jesse Hanson to be classed as one of the country's twenty ranking players. He is a bachelor with a mournful countenance and pitcher ears, given neither to conversation nor easy companionship. He is not, by the way, what Frain considers a drinking man, but his partner concedes that "he takes a little whiskey now and then because he likes to feel his heart beat good and hard."
The most prosperous year Frain and Hanson had with Ajeeb was 1936, when they signed a contract with the Radio Corporation of America to take him on the road to advertise the company's Magic Brain radio. Ajeeb, with Magic Brain Posters pinned on his robe and with Hanson inside, appeared in department stores, amusement parks, and hotels, while the partners incredulously split three hundred dollars a week andten-cent-a-mile travelling expenses. They were authorized to give away every month a thousand dollars' worth of Magic Brain radios to people who beat Ajeeb, but in the whole tour they had to part with only eight $25 credit slips towards a radio — the prize for playing the dummy to a draw. Frain considers the trip a great success. "In Chicago, we outdrew Dizzy Dean, so help me God," he says.
The Queens apartment which Frain shares with his wife and Ajeeb's head consists of two rooms. Mrs. Frain, a dress designer, works in a Brooklyn department store. Her husband spends most of the day away from home, hanging around Broadway and waiting for something to turn up. He says he has modernized Ajeeb considerably and speaks vaguely, but with pride, of an air-conditioning system which has been installed in the dummy. "The apparatus is all so mysterious that even genuine scientists don't ask questions for fear of ebarrassing themselves," Frain says by way of warning to inquisitive laymen. When Frain has nothing better to do, he gets out Ajeeb's head and smears its eyelids with vaseline, massages its cheeks and combs its long beard. He thinks this helps preserve the lifelike expression he sees in the face. :The natural expression is intent, piercing, andfriendly," Frain says, looking intent, piercing, and friendly himslef. "When I set him up in the right light, with mirrors and drapes, there;s a lot of controversy as to whetherhe is alive, so help me God." It is difficult to find out from Frain just who is waging this controversy. He has little patience with questions that do not concern Ajeeb'spast or, which is preferable, his future. Frain thinks that eventually the dumy's supernatural powers will be f as great interest to the public as his chess-and-checkers playing. Fondly contemplating such a prospect, Frain is likely to shout, as a lesser person might murmur, : "I am a man of speculative nature!"
—— John Kobles