- Posted November 8, 2020
Fernando King and John F. Mazur
We're going monthly, so no new episode this week, but we do have a fascinating update about a couple of the people mentioned in last week's letter thanks to indefatigable researcher Dan Pratt!
Dan scoured online newspaper archives and found a number of items about John F. Mazur, whose extravagant claims about creating artificial life in his laboratory got a fair amount of press coverage in the spring of 1926. Here is a big feature article from the June 6 issue of The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana. This clipping postdates HPL's letter so it can't be the one Aunt Lillian sent him, but syndicated stories about Mazur were being published from time to time that spring and no doubt something similar appeared in the Providence papers. Also shown below is a clipping from the March 26th Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.
Dan writes: "Mazur may have seen an ad in Popular Mechanics in the late 1910s for the American College of Bacteriology, a possibly-fictitious institution that offered correspondence courses in public health, bacteriology, and sanitation (even offering a 3-month nursing degree—yikes). I say Popular Mechanics because he later advertised his own services there: "CHEMICAL and bacteriological examinations guaranteed accurate. Formulas, processes. Write me about your chemical problems. List free. J F Mazur M.B., 937 W 20th St. Lorain, Ohio" (March 1923).
Mazur apparently made his living by processing biological samples for physicians in his private lab, but used his spare time to try to manufacture life from basic chemical components. He was embarrassingly convinced that he'd created cells, yeast—finally, even snails. He also had an odd religious angle on his process, which didn't help the newspapers (or other reputable scientists) take him seriously.
The poor guy was undoubtedly a little mentally ill and it seems like the scientists asked to comment on his work were relatively kind. Less kind was the San Francisco Examiner (Sep 19, 1926): "It took Frankenstein, of fiction, five years to create his monster. Mazur has been working for six years, and all he has been able to do is create, by means of chemical formula and mixtures, artificial snails." Damn. Some people are never satisfied. (Props to the reporter, though, for providing the complete synopsis of Frankenstein.)"
Dan also found out pretty much the entire life story of Fernando King, HPL's barber, by searching census records, Providence city directories, and other archives. Born in 1858 and working in a mill by the age of eleven, King went through a few jobs before becoming a barber.
Dan writes: "The first listing for the King & Fountaine salon appears in the 1895 City Directory: Room 112 at 72 Westminster Street (site of the present Turk’s Head Building, constructed 1913). Fernando’s business partner was Eduard Fountaine (a.k.a. Edward Fontaine) (b. 1864), a French Canadian who emigrated to the US in 1875." They changed locations and even split up over the years.
King lived to the age of 78, and passed away just one month before HPL himself did in 1937. He is buried in North Scituate, Mass. CLICK HERE to download a PDF full of more detail, including numerous photos of the places where King lived and worked.