The Strange and Wondrous Ajeeb

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This is the Strange and Marvelous story of Ajeeb, the Greatest Wonder Ever Invented,  whose "movements are so life-like that it is difficult to believe that it is not endowed with life."


     Built by Charles Hopper, a Bristol cabinet maker, in 1865,  Ajeeb  (or Aheeb) was made to resemble Kempelen's famous automaton, the Turk, which had been destroyed in a fire in Philadelphia just eleven years prior to Hooper's start on the project  This life-size figure was operated by several of both chess and checker masters including Constant Ferdinand Burille. He played 900+ games and lost only three times and never lost a checker game. Between 1893 and 1900 it was operated by Harry Nelson Pillsbury. In the Eden Museum at Twenty-third Street in New York City, it would play either a game checkers for a dime or a game of chess for 25 cents. Notable opponents of Ajeeb included Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, Admiral Dewey, Henry and Sarah Bernhardt and O. Henry. 

Standing about 10 feet in height, Ajeeb was first exhibited at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London in 1868.  Between 1868 and 1876 it was on show at the London Crystal Palace.  It played at Breslau, Dresden, Leipzig, Hanover, Magdeburg, Cologne, Elbefeld, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Wiesbaden and over 100,000  people viewed it in Berlin during a three month period.  After Germany,  it visited Brussels and Paris. Here Zukertort is said to have played against it. Rosenthal played it twice, winning one and losing one.  In 1885 Ajeeb visited New York, Minneapolis, Chicago and Kansas City.  Both Charles F. Moehle and Charles Francis Barker, the U.S. checkers champion, operated the automaton in turn.

Hooper sold Ajeeb to Emma Haddera, a ticket seller at the Musée who had long admired Ajeeb  (she then married James Smith, an assistant manager of the Musée. and gave him half interest in the dummy)  and retired to England in 1895.  When the Eden Musée closed in 1915,  Smith set up the automaton at Coney Island where the operator was Sam Gonotsky.  Smith required that Gonotsky take on an apprentice to learn the ropes of how Ajeeb worked. Once [so it's said] when a poor loser shot Ajeeb in the torso and it was supposed that the operator was wounded. However Gonotsky, Smith, and several others knew that the  Gotski's apprentice had been killed. To cover up for there still successful automaton, they got rid of the apprentice's body and managed to keep the secret since the appentice, like many carnival employees, was a transient.   Sam Gonotsky  quit, believing he heard strange occurrences from inside Ajeeb with the automaton moving on its own accord.  Sam got involvled working for magicians behind the scenes in New York dinner clubs. Around 1926 Sam, now old,  became friends with fellow stagehand  named Gustav Burzendt, who claimed to be a distant relative of von Kempelens and who, because of that supposed relationship, had developed an interest in automatons.  Gonotsky's paranoia made him believe that Burzendt suspected his crime.  Sam Gonotsky just up and dropped out of sight. While Gustav Burzendt, who tried to purchase the automaton but couldn't come up with the money, planned, but failed, to steal it.

By that time Ajeeb had gone through two other operators. Both operators at some future time told their friends and family how Ajeeb seem to move by itself.  Ajeeb's last operator even refused to play anything but checkers due to strange occurrences within the automaton. 
Ajeeb was operated by two U.S. chess champions. One was Albert Beauregard Hodges who became U.S. champion by defeating Jackson Showalter in 1894. One of his first chess gigs was operating Ajeeb, playing both chess and checkers.  The other was one of America's greatest players, Harry Nelson Pillsbury. Pillsbury operated Ajeeb  between 1893 and 1900, his peak years as a chess player.

Frank Frain and Jesse Hanson bought Ajeeb in 1932 from Hattie McKeever and took it on tour of the United States Canada. Hanson was noted checkers master.

Perhaps the most interesting episode involving a U.S. President occurred around September 1885, when both the U.S. president and vice-president visited a chess event together.  According to the September 1885 issue of The International Chess Magazine
          Ajeeb, 'The Chess Automaton', is now giving exhibitions at Eden          
          Musee, Twenty-third Street, New York. We learn from the 
          Evening Telegram that President Cleveland and Vice-President 
          Hendricks paid a visit recently to Ajeeb's chess room, and the 
          latter had a game with the figure which 'The Automaton' finished 
          with a neat five-move version of the so-called Philidor's Legacy 
          or smothered mate."

Who operated Ajeeb was on that occasion isn't clear, but a likely candidated would Albert Hodges. Thomas Hendricks died in office only two months after losing that game while Grover Cleveland went on in 1888 to become the first president to win the popular vote while losing in the electoral college. He then became the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms 1884-1888 and 1892-1896.