Sunday, July 31, 2011

MAGPIE TALE: The Inventor's Curse

This week's elevated contribution to the Magpie Tales.

And it all began with a windmill...
Hosting friends in their Malibu split level with Les Baxter playing on the Hi Fi, Chauncey and Camille Souder seemed a world away from that windmill that inspired Chauncey's grandfather more than 70 years ago, but it was his inspiration that brought them both their elegant privilege...and paranoia.
That paranoia wasn't evident the following morning, as Chauncey served grand marshal of the Rose Bowl Parade.
There were surely hints of the family trauma as little Leamon IV played with his erector set as he stayed at home with the house keeper. Leamon, of course, was named after his great-grandfather the founder of Souder Vertical Transportation, and generally credited with inventing the escalator. The Souders were set for life with Leamon I's invention, but they were also haunted by the "founder's curse".

They were not the first wealthy family to be haunted by the guilt attached to a family fortune. The most famous of those was Sarah Winchester, widow of the inventor of the rifle, who was forever haunted by the ghosts of those who perished by the bullet flying from her husband's invention and piercing their flesh. While Otis would often claim to be the inventor of the escalator or the "moving staircase" it was Iowa immigrant Leamon Souder who truly invented it, later selling his patent to Otis at a tidy profit. Souder claimed that he got his inspiration by seeing windmills on the plains and had a vision for wheels that would take people "into the clouds".
He would soon be able to make a plush life for his young bride Clarisse. While she greatly enjoyed the privilege, trips to Europe and stable of servants, she was plagued by guilt. As was common among wealthy women, Clarisse hired an alienist to address her manic episodes. When both Leamon and Leamon II died from yellow fever in 1901, she suffered from a series of hysterical episodes.
It was shortly after this that she hired her first alienist, Mr. Schnoopers, and his "interpreters" Frank and Edna Kern. Schnoopers advised her to invest $1.3 million dollars in a real estate scheme that was a rouse by the Kerns who disappeared with the cash and Mr. Schnoopers and were never heard from again.

Two months later, another four-legged alienist in a top hat appeared, Count Black Leg Johnson, who spoke to Clarisse directly instead of through human "interpreters".

Cautious but not cynical after her episode with the Kerns, Clarisse entered into her relationship with the Count slowly. He was patient and respectful, asking for nothing from her in return beside an occasional slice of bacon and a bowl of water.

The Count used birch twigs and ash to do readings about what he saw in the future, not just Clarisse's future but the future of humanity. He was very sad to reveal to her that because of the escalator and elevated transport in general, humanity would become fatter and more sedentary into the 20th and 21st centuries. Though elevated transport alone could not be blamed, it was iconic of society being asked to move faster, and jump higher and become less in touch with their bodies.

This was devastating for Clarisse who would become a vegetarian and strong advocate for exercise among the nation's youth. She would travel around the world with the Count where the two would give lectures on the importance of exercise in diet in the industrialized age.
Souder Mansion in Des Moines, would reflect Clarisse's growing eccentricity, and she built an entire wing just for the Count.
Though Otis would eclipse Souder as the elevated transport industry reach greater heights, but the spirit of Clarisse and The Count is surely there each time circulating stairs raise a pair of legs to the next floor.

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