The Legend of Josiah Stinkney Carberry

by by Gillian Brassil

On January 24, 1929, a young, round-faced professor in Brown’s Department of Classics found the key to a glassed-in bulletin board in University Hall. A lover of pranks, John W. Spaeth, Jr. found the opportunity irresistible and swiftly
composed a false announcement: next Thursday evening at 8:15 in Sayles hall, dr. J. S. carberry will deliver a lecture on ‘archaic greek architectural revetments in connection with ionian phonology.’ admission is free, dress is formal. For tickets and information, apply to prof. John Spaeth.

A fellow Classics Department member, Dr. Benjamin Crocker Clough, passed by the sign and immediately recognized that his friend’s posting was a hoax; he took it upon himself to gently pencil in, between ‘will’ and ‘deliver,’ a carat and the word not. Still, his correction went unnoticed by many; 150 people showed up to the nonexistent talk, and Spaeth was peppered with questions about the mysterious lecturer. When one curious graduate student approached him, Spaeth ad-libbed a few admiring remarks about Carberry’s prestige as a scholar of psychoceramics, or the study of cracked pots; then, apparently caught up in the joy of invention, he mentioned that Carberry had a wife, Laura, and two daughters: Lois and Patricia. His impromptu remarks formed the foundation of what would become a wildly-complicated and lovingly-curated myth at Brown.
* * *
Spaeth and Clough were immediately taken with this figment of their mutual imagination, and commenced straight away in making Carberry the perpetrator of their practical jokes. In large part, this consisted of sending each other telegrams and notes. The playful pair also amused themselves by submitting works from members of the Carberry family to various publications; in March of 1929, a poem by Lois was published in The Providence Journal:

“Sphinx Song”
born of the purple chaos of the wind,
clamourous and pinguid,
taut with fuzzy, fusty garlands
of insensate spactara,
challenging the redolence of liFe,
She knelt there.
all her carmine courage, giddily abortive,
muttered matters immaterial,
cackled squeamish visions,
bartered for a moiety of Faith
and shuddered.

After receiving a deluge of submissions from Carberry family members over the ensuing years, the providence Journal refused to print anything bearing that last name, precluding some real-life Carberrys from announcing their weddings. Spaeth and Clough, avid Classics scholars, extended Carberry’s writing whims to academia and delightied especially in penning letters of correction and suggestion to various journals of Greek and Latin; Josiah was the recipient of numerous letters of thanks and interest from grateful editors. He even authored two pieces published in classical Weekly, including the undoubtedly riotous “Another Catullus to Another Lesbia.”
* * *
Spaeth left Brown in 1930, becoming a Dean and Professor of Classics at Wesleyan. Clough stayed in touch with him through pun-riddled and poetic Carberry postcards; one such missive featured a picture of the Atlantic ocean captioned “MORNING ON THE ATLANTIC”; the reverse side bore Clough’s loopy, narrow script: What more romantic / than morning on the atlantic? / your aff’nate & frantic / Josiah & laura, pedantic. Spaeth responded occasionally—in 1936, he commissioned a wedding announcement in the middletown press for Lois Carberry and (the already-married) Clough. Still, the Carberry correspondence was largely one-sided, with Clough fashioning Spaeth’s brainchild into a wordplay fiend with a penchant for foreign languages and esoteric academic references—in other words, a fellow much like Clough himself.

Josiah’s (and Clough’s) persnickety tendencies were reflected in one 1944 letter to Clough’s wife, Elsie, who ran The Book Shop, a well-loved Market Square establishment: i feel i must take pen in hand to state as follows: Upon entering the book Shop the other day, i noted a sign on your door, stating, “book Shop—5 Steps down.” i have always been the kind of a person who is given to following directions at all times, and i, therefore, went down five steps. “one, two, three, four five,” i counted to myself, so as not to disturb any persons who might be about. it was at that point that i suddenly became involved in a difficulty. i did not find the book Shop five steps down as the directions had stated so plainly i would. Fortunately, i had the presence of mind to take the proper step – to be specific, the sixth. Thereupon, i found myself in the book Shop, but only thereupon. it is things like this that lead such people as i to ask, “is this trip necessary?” Some day someone is going to count on there being only five steps, like the sign states, and that person is likely to end up right in the middle of the modern library.

Clough retired as a professor in 1949, though he stayed active in university life, serving as the official curator of Carberryania. By the early 1950s, the fame of Carberry had spread, and Clough replaced Spaeth as the primary recipient of his notes as students and colleagues sent him dispatches from around the world. In 1943, Josiah wrote from Algeria, able to communicate through the United States’ World War II Victory Mail. In 1950, he wrote from Turkey: P.S. lois has married a Kurdish chieftain. They are wintering in prague. patricia has caused me great trouble of an indelicate nature best left undescribed here. my wife is a source of comfort and discomfort. She looks after my needs as best she can; but is sorely jealous of my new friends, the psychic fish. (He included several drawings of said fish.)

The letters thus expanded upon Josiah’s family history: Patricia’s obsession with puffins and skill in hunting animals whose names start with “pt”; Lois’ marriage to Truman Grayson, Josiah’s assistant regularly beleaguered by attacks from animals whose names start with “a”; Laura’s difficulties with personal pronouns, unfailingly signing letters “from Josiah and I.” Laura’s particular defect apparently led to considerable strife with her husband, resulting in a personal ad in the Middletown Press in 1955 which read: come home, J.S. promise never to use the wrong case again.
your going has left nothing but remorse for lois, patricia, and i.

* * *
The surge in the ranks of Carberry devotees can be traced to the efforts of W. Chesley Worthington B’23, or Chet, who had taken Clough’s essay class as an undergraduate. Worthington, a hawk-faced, handsome man, started editing the brown alumni monthly in 1930, and became a full-time Brown staff member in 1940, when he was hired as Director of Alumni Relations. Worthington featured Carberry in bam whenever possible, printing portions of Josiah’s postcards and invoking his name during fundraising drives. Worthington became even more active in Carberry propagation efforts when, on Friday the 13th of May, 1955, a letter signed by Carberry arrived at University Hall, the envelope containing $101.01 in cash. Since the return address in Manchester, New Hampshire was that of a liquor store, there wasn’t a single clue as to who had authored the letter, which stated: The enclosed $101.01 is for a special fund in memory of my future late wife, Laura Carberry; to be known, of course, as the Josiah S. Carberry Fund. ...each Friday the 13th shall henceforth be designated as Carberry Day. The curator shall urge alumni, students, friends of the University, and other unfortunates to donate anonymously to the Fund such small change as they might have on their persons on carberry day.

Worthington, in conjunction with Clough and other Carberry activists, spearheaded Carberry Day festivities every Friday the 13th, posting announcements for new and nonexistent lectures—“Asps and Aardvarks,” “Pot Shards of the Amazon Delta,” “The Influence of Psychoceramics on the Neo-Protestant Movement at Berkeley,” “Positive Negativism”—and placing cracked pots around campus in which students were instructed to deposit loose change. The
collected funds were given to the University Library—a favorite cause of Worthington’s, who co-founded Friends of the Library of Brown University—to purchase “such books as Professor Carberry might or might not approve of.” Worthington also orchestrated Carberry’s trip around the world in a single day on July 4th of 1956, in which 24 dated postcards were mailed detailing Carberry’s activities in various locations, one from each of the world’s time zones. In this project and in general, Carberry’s voice lost some of its refinement and erudition because so many people were simultaneously crafting his remarks, but his odd affinities still managed to shine through, as in a letter from 1959 from Columbus, Georgia: although at present i am without repose in a primitive land, i send greetings in honor of him, who brought the reptiles into england. my research has—ever enlarging upon itself—taken me into the realm of what i dub “gastro-ceramics”, and particularly “hush-puppies” which are taken internally (infernally?) by the inhabitants of this region. generally they are preceded by Fish and followed by indigestion... i am about to embark on an expedition
to mammy’s catfish Shanty and i am letting you know just in case.

* * *
Over the years, the frequency of Carberry epistles has waxed and waned, but under the stewardship of Clough and Worthington, no lull lasted especially long. After Clough’s death in 1975, Worthington took over Carberryania curatorial duties, and much of the support for the legend of Josiah shifted to the archivists at the John Hay. Certain Brown Presidents—namely Vartan Gregorian and Howard Swearer—have also spurred the actions of Carberry aficionados; for whatever reason, those two received many more dispatches from that venerable professor than any Presidents before or since. Since Worthington’s death in 2002, though, the stream of Carberry ephemera has dwin-
dled: only three postcards have been sent by him since 2000. Still, with another Carberry
Day upon us this Friday, Josiah just might choose to get back in touch.

With love and a spicy with, Gillian Brassil B’12 & I.