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b9c55e7759d53b3b297af5ffa252f657A Story Of A Genius

William James Sidis was a genius. He was by far the most precocious intellectual child of his generation. His death in 1944 as an undistinguished figure was made the occasion for reawakening the old wives tales about nervous breakdowns, burned out prodigies and insanity among geniuses.

Young Sidis was truly an intellectual phenomenon. His childhood achievements ranked with those of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Macaulay, and Johann Goethe. By the time William Sidis was two he could read English and, at four he was typing original work in French. At the age of five he had devised a formula whereby he could name the day of the week for any given historical date. At eight he projected a new logarithms table based on the number twelve. He entered Harvard at the age of twelve and graduated cum laude before he was sixteen. Mathematics was not his only forte. At this age he could speak and read fluently French, German, Russian, Greek, Latin, Armenian and Turkish. During his first year at Harvard University the boy astounded students and scientists with his theories on “Fourth Dimensional Bodies.”

The “man behind the gun” in this boy’s amazing intellectual attainments is supposed to have been his father, a graduate in psychology at Harvard and a close friend of William James, after whom the boy was named. Dr. Boris Sidis believed in awakening in the child of two an interest in intellectual activity and love of knowledge. If you started early enough and worked intensively, Dr. Sidis claimed that by ten a child would acquire knowledge equal to that of a college graduate. The boy’s father published articles urging other parents to follow his methods. He castigated the school authorities for their “cramming, routine and rote methods,” which he said, “tend to nervous degeneracy and mental breakdown.”

Sidis pointed to his son, William, as a successful example of his methods. He wrote: “At the age of twelve the boy had a fair understanding of comparative philology and mythology. He is well versed in logic, ancient history, American history and has a general insight into our politics and into the ground-work of our constitution.

In the waning years of the nineteenth century, boatloads of Russian Jewish immigrants were arriving in New York harbour as they fled from the religious and political persecution of their homeland. Boris and Sarah Sidis arrived in such a fashion, and they quickly gained notoriety in the United States as brilliant individuals. Boris established a reputation for himself as a pioneer in the study of psychology, and his wife Sarah became one of only a handful of women in America to receive a medical degree. Though they were widely regarded as the possessors of highly gifted minds, they were also renowned for their eccentricities.

After breezing through Harvard as a student, Boris became a professor of psychology there, where he taught and wrote about his ground-breaking theories in the field. He was influential in the areas of hypnosis, group psychology, and mob frenzy; and he was fascinated with the effects of evolution on the human psyche. He was also an advocate of some bizarre treatments such as the “rest cure,” whereby victims of mental disorders were isolated in bed for up to two months, sometimes in tandem with electrotherapy. Much of Boris’s work was experimental and adventurous in a time when the field of psychology was making great strides.

On April Fool’s day in 1898, Boris encountered a unique opportunity to begin applying his eccentric theories of psychology in a real-world environment: his wife Sarah gave birth to a son. Under the tutelage of these ingenious yet neurotic parents, young William James Sidis developed into an individual with astonishing talents.

Boris and Sarah began their child’s education in his first few months, and William’s infant mind absorbed the information at an extraordinary rate. Using wooden blocks, Boris began demonstrating the alphabet to his young son, using techniques similar to hypnosis to coax the baby into pronouncing the letters. At six months, William uttered the word “door,” and by the following month he had doubled his vocabulary to include “moon.” At eight months old, his proud parents boasted that he was able to feed himself with a spoon, a skill that very few children develop within their first year. He was also able to recognize and repeat the letters on Boris’s toy blocks, giving him a four-year-old’s grasp of symbol recognition.

The Sidis’ believed that aggressive curiosity was a quality to be nurtured, so Sarah gave up her career in medicine to dedicate her life to the child’s development. William’s thirst for knowledge never went unquenched, and by his first birthday— an age when most children are still babbling— he was honing his spelling skills. At one and a half years of age, he was reading the daily newspaper.

As William approached his fifth birthday, his spectacular abilities began to draw the attention of the press. He had taught himself to operate the typewriter from his high chair; tapping out a letter to Macy’s regarding an order for toys. He had also taken it upon himself to learn Latin, Greek, Russian, French, German, and Hebrew. His appetite for information seemed endless as he easily chewed through weighty tomes such as Gray’s Anatomy and the works of Homer. He entered grammar school at age six, but in just over half a year he had advanced into high school curriculum. His stunning accomplishments soon became a frequent feature on the first page of the New York Times.

Boris and Sarah were understandably proud of their son and his intellectual achievements. By cultivating his precocious nature it seemed that they had confirmed some of their outlandish theories, and they paraded young William around as evidence of this. But the question of how much was due to their influence and how much was due to his own natural genius is a matter of some debate. Whatever their approach may have contributed to his development, it is clear that his mind had a natural propensity for gorging itself on information.

At age nine William attempted to enroll at Harvard, and though the entrance exams were not a challenge for the young intellect, he was turned down on the basis that he was too “emotionally immature” for college life. As William waited for the Harvard admissions board to capitulate, he spent the intervening time at Tufts College correcting mistakes in mathematicians’ books, perusing Einstein’s theories for possible errors, mastering foreign languages, and diligently collecting streetcar transfer slips. He discovered that he could mentally calculate the day of the week for any given date in the past or in the future, and he wrote four books. When the boy prodigy reached eleven years of age in 1909, the prestigious university finally relented and accepted William as a student.

On a cold January evening in 1910, about a hundred professors and advanced math students gathered in a Harvard lecture hall to observe the eleven-year-old William Sidis’s first public speaking presentation. He spoke in a quiet, shy voice and had to stifle the occasional giggle, but his lecture on Four-Dimensional Bodies was very well received. It was sufficiently advanced that it bewildered many of his audience members, as indicated by the depth of his introduction:

“My own definition of the Fourth Dimension would be that it is an Euclidian space with one dimension added. It is the projection of the figures of the Third Dimension into space. The third dimensional figures, such as the cube, are used as sides of the figures of the Fourth Dimension, and the figures of the Fourth Dimension are called configurations. It is not possible to actually construct models of the figures of the Fourth Dimension, or to conceive of them in the mind’s eye, but it is easy to construct them by means of Euclid’s theorem.”

After William’s presentation, MIT professor Daniel Comstock predicted to reporters that Sidis would become the foremost mathematician of the 20th century. The story of William’s exploits shortly became national news.

Sidis graduated cum laude at age 16, having grown a bit introverted in response to the sudden fame and pressure. At his graduation, he told the gathered newspapermen, “I want to live the perfect life. The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated crowds.” He began a lifelong policy of vigorously rejecting sex, art, music, or anything else that would distract him from the pursuit of pure knowledge.

William briefly taught mathematics at Rice University in Houston, but he resigned when it became apparent that his age and fame were inescapable distractions to the students. He went back to Harvard for a short time to pursue a law degree, but dropped out when he found that the law did not suit him. In 1919 William was once again subjected to public scrutiny when he was arrested for participating in an anti-draft demonstration which developed into a riot. The ensuing trial further underscored his unconventional philosophies, such as his lack of a belief in God— particularly the “big boss of the Christians”— and his socialist leanings. His political views later evolved into something resembling Libertarianism.

He sidestepped imprisonment thanks to his parents’ influence, but they confined him to their summer home in California for a year after the event. Embittered, William moved back to the east coast in an effort to retreat from the press, his parents, and his talents— all of which he regarded as blights. He took up a series of menial jobs working as a clerk and a bookkeeper, moving to a new employer whenever his identity was discovered. “The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill.” he once said, “All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won’t let me alone.” On one occasion Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company hired him and handed him a stack of blueprints and statistics in the hopes that he could improve their system; he was reduced to tears at the prospect of the computations, and quit the new job on his first day.

Sidis made a noble effort to avoid the public eye in his adult years. He wrote several books, but most of them were under assumed names and about obscure subjects. One such book, entitled Notes on the Collection of Streetcar Transfers, discusses his unusual hobby of peridromophilia at painstaking length. The work was described by one Sidis biographer as “the most boring book ever written.” William also alluded to the existence of dark matter before it had been formally theorized, and wrote about how one democratic Native American tribe may have strongly influenced the politics of America’s founders. In the meantime he continued to learn new languages, absorbing dozens of foreign tongues with ease.

The press continued to hound William for years, poking fun at his humdrum jobs and scorning his neglected potential. One New Yorker article entitled “April Fool” was so scathing and filled with personal details that it prompted Sidis to sue for invasion of privacy, a case which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He finally won a partial victory in 1944, but it was a bittersweet success.

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William did not live long after that; in the following July his landlady telephoned the police after discovering him unconscious in his Boston apartment. Forty-six year old Sidis had suffered a massive stroke, and he never again regained consciousness. His father died of the same malady in 1923 at age fifty-six.

Such was the end of the one-time prodigy who had astonished a Harvard math audience at age eleven; It was reported in the newspapers, that he died a reclusive, penniless office clerk.

Those who knew him in his later life spoke of his conspicuous brilliance and his mastery of over forty languages, but his tangible contributions to society seemed to be relatively few for someone of his talents. Some argue that his parents pushed him too hard in his youth— overexerting his exceptional mind at an early age— and some blame the press for driving him into isolation. There is considerable evidence that William favoured the Okamakammesset tribal philosophy of “anonymous contribution”, a principle which implies that one’s value is not measured by one’s visible contributions to society.

Though he probably would not have put much stock in formal measures of intelligence, Sidis’s sister later claimed that a psychologist had administered an IQ test on her brother, arriving at an estimated score of 250-300. In such a test, 100 is average and over 140 is considered genius. Whatever the reason for his underwhelming output later in life, he was certainly one of the most profoundly ‘gifted’ human beings who ever lived. There is no telling what William might have accomplished for mathematics and science if only his talents had not been squandered.

When Sidis died, he was still carrying Martha Foley’s picture. She’d long since married someone else, but that didn’t matter. Sidis could only love with his head. All his life he’d vigorously rejected sex, art, music, or anything else that meant contact with the unwelcoming world outside his mind. His biographer, Amy Wallace, expresses her own anguish over that. She says:

Let us hope that [future gifted] children will grow up in a world that, instead of shunning them as oddities, will welcome and nurture their talents, … and their vision.

William James Sidis was not the first nor last child wounded by parents trying to create a trophy.

William James Sidis was an American child prodigy with exceptional mathematical abilities and a claimed mastery of many languages. After his death, his sister made the unverifiable claim that his IQ was "the very highest that had ever been obtained," but any records of any IQ testing that Sidis actually took have been lost to history. He entered Harvard at age eleven and, as an adult, was claimed to be conversant in over forty languages and dialects.

William James Sidis was an American child prodigy with exceptional mathematical abilities and a claimed mastery of many languages. He entered Harvard at age eleven and, as an adult, was claimed to be conversant in over forty languages and dialects.

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After his death, one friend of Bill Sidis wrote a letter which appeared in the Contributor’s Column of the Boston Traveler in objection to false impressions given in the many newspaper obituary accounts.

People’s Editor:

This is about Bill Sidis, who died Monday. His numerous friends do not like the false newspaper picture of him as a pauper and anti-social recluse. Bill Sidis held a clerical position until two weeks ago. For two weeks he had received unemployment compensation. the first time in his life. Today he was to start on a new job for which he had already been hired. Bill Sidis paid his way; he was no burden on society.

Sidis had plenty of loyal friends. All of them found his ideas stimulating and his personality likeable. Very few people know as much about the Indian background of our social customs as he. His manuscript study of it is worthy textbook material and very readable. He knew dozens of stories from Boston’s history and told them with relish. He recently submitted a plan for post-war Boston.

But William Sidis had one great cause—the right of an individual in this country to follow his chosen way of life. He had never been able to do this for himself, first because his father made him an example for psychological theories; then because the public, through newspaper articles, insisted that he was a “genius,” abnormal and erratic.

Whenever Sidis saw interference by individuals or governments, with anyone’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he fought it any way he could. He won a long legal fight against a nationally known publication on the ground that it had invaded his privacy. Bill Sidis was a quiet man who enjoyed the normal things of life. His friends respected him and enjoyed his company. I am glad to have been one of his friends.

It is quite obvious from this evidence of Bill Sidis’ enjoyment of wholesome friendships to his very last days that his genius did not make of him the “queer, friendless personality” that is too often erroneously thought to be characteristic of geniuses.

The intellect of William Sidis did not “burn out.” What the journalists did not report, and perhaps did not know, was that during all the years of his obscure employments he was writing original treatises on history, government, economics and political affairs.

And in his obscure mechanical jobs, the “adding machines” that the newspapers described him to be working in later life were comptometers. Moreover, he would work two of them at a time, one with his left hand and one with his right, using his elbows for the space bar. That’s not all. Supplied with a full share work that was supposed to consume an eight-hour day, he would finish all of it within one hour.

There was no lessening of William Sidis’ mental acuity. Helena Sidis said that a few years before his death, her brother Bill took an intelligence test with a psychologist. His score was the very highest that had ever been obtained. In terms of I.Q., the psychologist related that the figure would be between 250 and 300. Late in life William Sidis took general intelligence tests for Civil Service positions in New York and Boston. His phenomenal ratings are matter of record.

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The New Yorker, Saturday, August 14, 1937, 22-26 Where Are They Now? April Fool!

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SIDIS vs THE NEW YORKER

The case arose when James Thurber, writing under a pseudonym for The New Yorker, targeted the former boy “genius,” William James Sidis, who was then a quiet, eccentric, middle-aged man living in obscurity. In 1944, Sidis won a settlement from The New Yorker for an article published in 1937. He had alleged it contained many false statements. Under the title “Where Are They Now?” the pseudonymous article described Sidis’s life as lonely, in a “hall bedroom in Boston’s shabby South End.”

Lower courts had dismissed Sidis as a public figure with no right to challenge personal publicity. He lost an appeal of an invasion of privacy lawsuit at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1940 over the same article. Judge Charles Edward Clark expressed sympathy for Sidis—who claimed that the publication had exposed him to “public scorn, ridicule, and contempt” and caused him “grievous mental anguish [and] humiliation”—but found that the court was not disposed to “afford to all the intimate details of private life an absolute immunity from the prying of the press”.

Below is the New Yorker article the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Where Are They Now?
April Fool!

by James Thurber

The New Yorker, Saturday, August 14, 1937, 22-26.

One snowy January evening in 1910 about a hundred professors and advanced students of mathematics from Harvard University gathered in a lecture hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to listen to a speaker by the name of William James Sidis. He had never addressed an audience before, and he was abashed and a little awkward at the start. His listeners had to attend closely, for he spoke in a small voice that did not carry well, and he punctuated his talk with nervous, shrill laughter. A thatch of fair hair fell far over his forehead and keen blue eyes peered out from what one of those present later described as a “pixie-like” face. The speaker wore black velvet knickers. He was eleven years old.

As the boy warmed to his subject, his shyness melted and there fell upon his listeners’ ears the most remarkable words they had ever heard from the lips of a child. William James Sidis had chosen for the subject of his lecture “Four-Dimensional Bodies.” Even in this selective group of erudite gentlemen, there were those who were unable to follow all the processes of the little boy’s thought. To such laymen as were present, the fourth dimension, as it was demonstrated that night, must indeed have perfectly fitted its colloquial definition: “a speculative realm of incomprehensibly involved relationships.” When it was all over, the distinguished Professor Daniel F. Comstock of Massachusetts Institute of Technology was moved to predict to reporters, who had listened in profound bewilderment, that young Sidis would grow up to be a great mathematician, a famous leader in the world of science.

William Sidis, who at the age of eleven made the front pages of newspapers all over the country, was a Harvard student at the time. To explain how he got there, we must look at his father, the late Boris Sidis. Born in Kiev in 1868, the elder Sidis had come to this country, learned English, and gone to Harvard, from which he was graduated in 1894. His specialty was that branch of psychotherapy which engages to alleviate the nervous diseases and maladjustments by mental suggestion. He wrote a book called “The Psychology of Suggestion,” and he was greatly interested in experiments in transmitting suggestion by means of the hypnotic state. It was his belief that in its very first years the brain is many times more susceptible to impressions than in later life. When his son was born in 1898, he was born, so to speak, into a laboratory. Boris Sidis by the time was running a psychotherapeutic institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was an admirer and friend of the late William James, and he named his son after that great psychologist.

Boris Sidis began his experiments on his son when little William was two years old. It appears that he induced a kind of hypnoidal state by the use of alphabet blocks. The quick results he got delighted his scientific mind. The child learned to spell and to read in a few months. Within a year he could write both English and French on the typewriter. At five he had composed a treatise on anatomy and had arrived at a method of calculating the date on which any day of the week had fallen during the past ten thousand years. Boris Sidis published several papers in scientific journals describing his baby’s achievements. At six, the little boy was sent to a Brookline public school, where he astounded his teachers and alarmed the other children by tearing through seven years of schooling in six months. When he was eight years old, William proposed a new table of logarithms, employing 12 instead of the usual 10 as the base. Boris Sidis published a book about his amazing son, called “Philistine and Genius,” and got into Who’s Who in America.

The wonder child was going on nine when his father tried to enroll him at Harvard. He could have passed the entrance examinations with ease, but the startled and embarrassed university authorities would not allow him to take them. He continued to perform his wonders at home, and began the study of Latin and Greek. He was not interested in toys or in any of the normal pleasures of small children. Dogs terrified him. “If I see a dog,” William told somebody at this time, “I must run away. I must hide. I like the cat. I can’t play out, for my mother would have to be there all the time—because of the possibility that I might see a dog.” His chief recreation seems to have been going on streetcar rides with his parents. The elder Sidis explained transfers to him and interested him in the names of streets and places. Even before he was five, William had learned to recite all the hours and stations on a complex railroad timetable. He would occasionally recite timetables for guests as other children recite Mother Goose rhymes or sing little songs. Those who remember him in those years say that he had something of the intense manner of a neurotic adult.

In 1908, at the age of ten, William James Sidis was permitted to enroll at Tufts College, in Medford. He commuted daily from Brookline with his mother, who was as interested in his phenomenal mental development as his father was. They always went to and from the college on streetcars. The youngster attended Tufts for one year and finally, in 1909, when he was eleven, Harvard permitted him to enroll there as a special student. He matriculated as a regular freshman the following year, and thus became a member of the class of 1914. Cotton Mather, in 1674, had become a Harvard freshman at the age of twelve, and it is probably because of this distinguished precedent that William Sidis was allowed to matriculate at that same age. He was a source of wonder to his fellow students and to the faculty; some of the newspapers assigned reporters to cover “the Sidis case.”

Just how William was prevailed upon to speak before the learned scholars in January of his first year at Harvard is lost to the record, but it is known that he took an eager interest in hearing others lecture and joined easily in group discussions of metaphysics. In his spare time he began to compose two grammars, one Latin, the other Greek. The pressure of his studies and his sudden fame began to tell upon him, however, and it wasn’t long after his notable discourse that he had a general breakdown. His father was running a sanatorium in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, at the time, and William was rushedoff there. When finally he came back to Harvard, he was retiring and shy; he could not be persuaded to lecture again; he began to show a marked distrust of people, a fear of responsibility, and a general maladjustment to his abnormal life. He did not mingle much with students and he ran from newspapermen, but they cornered him, of course, on the day of his graduation as a Bachelor of Arts in 1914. He was sixteen years old. He wore long trousers then, and he faced the reporters who descended on the Yard with less of a feeling of embarrassment than he had as a knickered child. But definite phobias had developed in him. “I want to live the perfect life,” William told the newspapermen. “The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated crowds.” For “crowds” it was not difficult to read “people.” Among those who graduated with William James Sidis that day were Julius Spencer Morgan; Gilbert Seldes; and Vinton Freedley and Laurence Schwab, the musical-comedy producers. The reporters paid no attention to them.

At sixteen, William James Sidis was a large boy, and when he entered Harvard Law School, he was no longer the incongruous figure he had been. The newspapers had little interest in his comings and goings. He attended law school quietly for three years and was apparently a brilliant student, but his main interest was mathematics, and in 1918 he accepted a teaching position at a university in Texas. His fame preceded him, but even if it hadn’t, the extreme youth of this mathematics instructor would have been enough to set him off as a curiosity. He found himself the centre of an interest that annoyed and dismayed him. He suddenly gave up his position and returned bitterly and quietly to Boston, where he lived obscurely for some months.

It was on May 1st, 1919, that young Sidis’s name reached the front pages of the newspapers again. With about twenty other young persons, he took part in a Communistic demonstration in Roxbury and was hauled into the municipal court as one of the ringleaders of the group, as, indeed the very individual who had carried the horrific red flag in their parade. On the witness stand, Sidis proved to be more forthright and candid than tactful. He announced to a shocked court that there was for him no god but evolution; asked if he believed in what the American flag stands for, he said only to a certain extent. At one point he launched on an explanation of the Soviet form of government, for the instruction of the magistrate. His Marxist leaning had developed over a period of several years. When the United States entered the war, he had announced himself as a conscientious objector, and on several occasions had delivered himself of the opinion that the troubles of the world were caused by capitalism.

A policeman who had helped break up the parade of the radicals identified Sidis as the man who had carried the red flag. The officer said that he had asked Sidis why he was not carrying the American flag, and that Sidis had replied, “To hell with the American flag!” Returning to the stand, the famous prodigy hotly denied that he had ever spoken to the witness and that he had ever said to anyone, “To hell with the American flag!” He repeated that he was opposed to war and that he believed in a socialized form of government. After a pause, he announced that, as a matter of fact, he had carried an American flag, whereupon, to the amazement of the courtroom, he pulled a miniature American flag from his pocket. He was sentenced to eighteen months in jail for inciting to riot, and assault. He appealed, and while out on bail of $5,000 disappeared from the state in which he had startled erudite professors and shocked patriotic policemen. It marked the beginning of a new and curious mode of life for the young man.

For five years after that, William James Sidis seems to have achieved the “perfect life” he had spoken of on   the day of his graduation, the life of seclusion. Apparently he drifted from city to city, working as a clerk, or in some other minor capacity, for a salary only large enough for him to subsist on. In 1924 he was dragged back into the news when a reporter found him working in an office in Wall Street, at twenty-three dollars a week. He was dismayed at being discovered. He said all he wanted was to make just enough to live on and to work at something that required a minimum of mental effort. The last few reporters who went down to his office to interview him didn’t get to see him. He had quit his job and disappeared again.

Two years later, in 1926, Dorrance & Company, a Philadelphia publishing house which prints “vanity” books―that is, books published at the authors’ expense―got out a volume called “Notes on the Collection of Transfers.” It was written by one Frank Folupa. Frank Folupa, some pitilessly ingenious reporter discovered, was none other than William James Sidis. Again he was run down and interviewed. He announced that he had been for a long time a “peridromophile”―that is, a collector of streetcar transfers. He had coined the word himself. His book (now out of print) ran to three hundred pages and was a scholarly and laborious treatise on the origin, nature, and classification of nothing more nor less than the slips of paper streetcar conductors hand to passengers when they ask for transfers. Many a psychologist and analyst must have been interested to read in the papers that the genius of the precocious child who had astounded the academic world sixteen years before had flowered in this bizarre fashion. The book is worthy of examination. Sidis wrote a preface to the volume, which began this way: “This book is a description of what is, so far as the Author is aware, a new kind of hobby, but one which seems on the face of it to be as reasonable, as interesting, and as instructive as any other sort of collection fad. This is the collection of street car transfers and allied forms. The Author himself has already collected over 1600 such forms.” The preface revealed, in another place, that the Author was not without a certain humor. “We may mention,” it read, “the geographical and topographical interest, both in the exploration and in the analysis of the transfers themselves. There is also the interesting sidelights which such a collection throws on the politics in which transit companies are necessarily involved; though we hardly recommend that this political interest be carried far enough to induce the collector to take sides in any such disputes. And again: “One may derive much amusement out of transfers―It is said that a Harvard College student got on a street car and, wishing an extra ride, asked the conductor for a transfer. When asked ‘Where to?’ he said, ‘Anywhere.’ The conductor winked and said, ‘All right. I’ll give you a transfer to Waverly.’ The student was afterwards laughed at when he told the story, and was informed that the asylum for the feeble-minded was located at Waverly.” Sidis also included in his preface some verses he had written when he was fourteen years old. They begin:

From subway trains at Central,
    a transfer get, and go
To Allston or Brighton or
    to Somerville, you know;
On cars from Brighton transfer
  to Cambridge Subway east
And get a train to Park Street,
    or Kendall Square, at least.

The year after his book came out (it apparently sold only to a few other peridromophiles), Sidis came back to New York City and once again got a job as a clerk with a business firm. To his skill and experience in general office work, the mathematical genius had now added, ironically, the ability to operate an adding machine with great speed and accuracy, and was fond of boasting of this accomplishment. He lived at 112 West 119th Street, where he made friends with Harry Freedman, the landlord, and his sister, a Mrs. Schlectien. Sidis is no longer with them and they will not tell you where he has gone, but they will forward any mail that comes for him. They are fond of the young man and appreciate his desire to avoid publicity. “He had a kind of chronic bitterness, like a lot of people you see living in furnished rooms,” Mr. Freedman recently told a researcher into the curious history of William James Sidis. Sidis used to sit on an old sofa in Freedman’s living room and talk to him and his sister. Sidis told them he hated Harvard and that anyone who sends his son to college is a fool―a boy can learn more in a public library. Frequently he talked about his passion for collecting transfers. “He can tell you how to reach any street in any city of the United States on a single streetcar fare,” said Mr. Freedman in awe and admiration. It seems that Sidis corresponds with peridromophiles in a number of other cities, and keeps up on the streetcar and transfer situation in that way. Once the young man brought down from his room a manuscript he was working on and asked Mrs. Schlectien if he might read “a few chapters” to her. She said it turned out to be a book on the order of “Buck Rogers,” all about adventures in a future world of wonderful inventions. She said it was swell.         “We know,” the Author concludes, “someone who was actually helped to take the right route by remembering a snatch from one of these verses.” The book discusses all kinds of transfers: standard types, Ham type, Pope type, Smith type, Moran type, Franklin Rapid transfers, Stedman transfers. Of the last (to give you an idea), Mr. Sidis wrote, “Stedman transfers: This classification refers to a peculiar type turned out by a certain transfer printer in Rochester, N. Y. The peculiarities of the typical Stedman transfer are the tabular time limit occupying the entire right-hand end of the transfer (see Diagram in Section 47) and the row-and-column combination of receiving route (or other receiving conditions) with the half-day that we have already discussed in detail.”

William James Sidis lives today, at the age of thirty-nine, in a hall bedroom of Boston’s shabby south end. For a picture of him and his activities, this record is indebted to a young woman who recently succeeded in interviewing him there. She found him in a small room papered with the design of huge, pinkish flowers, considerably discolored. There was a large, untidy bed and an enormous wardrobe trunk, standing half open. A map of the United States hung on one wall. On a table beside the door was a pack of streetcar transfers neatly held together with an elastic. On a dresser were two photographs, one (surprisingly enough) of Sidis as the boy genius, the other a sweet-faced girl with shell-rimmed glasses and an elaborate marcel wave. There was also a desk with a tiny, ancient typewriter, a World Almanac, a dictionary, a few reference books, and a library book which the young man’s visitor at one point picked up. “Oh, gee,” said Sidis, “that’s just one of those crook stories.” He directed her attention to the little typewriter. “You can pick it up with one finger,” he said, and did so.

William Sidis at thirty-nine is a large, heavy man, with a prominent jaw, a thickish neck, and a reddish mustache. His light hair falls down over his brow as it did the night he lectured to the professors in Cambridge. His eyes have an expression which varies from the ingenious to the wary. When he is wary, he has a kind of incongruous dignity which breaks down suddenly into the gleeful abandon of a child on holiday. He seems to have difficulty in finding the right words to express himself, but when he does, he speaks rapidly, nodding his head jerkily to emphasize his points, gesturing with his left hand, uttering occasionally a curious, gasping laugh. He seems to get a great and ironic enjoyment out of leading a life of wandering irresponsibility after a childhood of scrupulous regimentation. His visitor found in him a certain childlike charm.

Sidis is employed now, as usual, as a clerk in a business house. He said that he never stays in one office long because his employers of fellow-workers soon find out that he is the famous boy wonder, and he can’t tolerate a position after that. “The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill,” he said. “All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won’t let me alone.” It came out that one time he was offered a job with the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway Company. It seems that the officials fondly believed the young wizard would somehow be able to solve all their technical problems. When he showed up for work, he was presented with a pile of blueprints, charts, and papers filled with statistics. One of the officials found him an hour later weeping in the midst of it all. Sidis told the man he couldn’t bear responsibility, or intricate thought, or computation―except on an adding machine. He took his hat and went away.

Sidis has a new interest which absorbs him at the moment more than streetcar transfers. This is the study of certain aspects of the history of the American Indian. He teaches a class of half a dozen interested students once every two weeks. They meet in his bedroom and arrange themselves on the bed and floor to listen to the one-time prodigy’s intense but halting speech. Sidis is chiefly concerned with the Okamakammessett tribe, which he describes as having had a kind of proletarian federation. He has written some booklets on Okamakammessett lore and history, and if properly urged, will recite Okamakammessett poetry and even sing Okamakammessett songs. He admitted that his study of the Okamakammessetts in an outgrowth of his interest in Socialism. When the May Day demonstration of 1919 was brought up by the young woman, he looked at the portrait of the girl on his dresser and said, “She was in it. She was one of the rebel forces.” He nodded his head vigorously, as if pleased with that phrase, “I was the flag-bearer,” he went on. “And do you know what the flag was? Just a piece of red silk.” He gave his curious laugh. “Red silk,” he repeated. He made no reference to the picture of himself in the days of his great fame, but his interviewer later learned that on one occasion, when a pupil of his asked him point-blank about his infant precocity and insisted on a demonstration of hismathematical prowess, Sidis was restrained with difficulty from throwing him out of the room.

Sidis revealed to his interviewer that he has another work in progress: a treatise on floods. He showed her the first sentence: “California hasacquired considerable renown on account of its alleged weather.” It seems that he was in California some ten years ago during his wanderings. His visitor was emboldened, at last, to bring up the prediction, made by Professor Comstock of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in 1910, that the little boy who lectured that year on the fourth dimension to a gathering of learned men would grow up to be a great mathematician, a famous leader in the world of science. “It’s strange,” said William James Sidis, with a grin, “but, you know, I was born on April Fools’ Day.”

―Jared L. Manley (James Thurber)

SIDIS vs THE NEW YORKER

 Legal Case Menu     

J. Sidis Biography

.Pdf

Sidis’s Legal Brief

The New YorkerArticle

 U.S. Appeals  Court Decision

Letter to Julius  Eichel re settlement of lawsuit, 

The Logics – Was William James Sidis the Smartest Man on Earth

Meet William James Sidis: The Smartest Guy Ever? : NPR

William J. Sidis – Jewish Virtual Library


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