Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"We Do Affirm That There Is, There Must Be, Some Profound Mystery at the Bottom of This Affair"

IT ISN'T EVERY DAY that a literary hoax leads to a criminal icon, but when "Caxton" published a science fictional spoof that furrowed a lot of eyebrows in the state of 
California, he also inadvertently inspired the nickname of a real-life bandit (see the 
postscript to the Fantasy and Science Fiction version for details). As to why the 
authorities in the story refused to prosecute the man who without a shadow of a 
doubt murdered a frail septuagenarian by pushing him off a cliff, you'll just have 
to read . . .

"The Case of Summerfield."
By "Caxton" (W. H. Rhodes, 1822-76).

First appearance: The Sacramento Union, May 1871.
Collected in Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches (1876).
Reprinted in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Summer 1950.
Reprints list (HERE).
Novelette (26 pages).
Online at (HERE) and Project Gutenberg (HERE; WARNING: SPOILERS in Introduction).

"I have now the means at my command of rising superior to fate, or of inflicting incalculable ills upon the whole human race."
What would you do if you knew someone deserved to die and had a chance to do something about it?

Comment: Our author smartly employs all of the tools necessary to make a hoax of this kind sound plausible, particularly the focus on official documents, an abundance of technical details, and the deadpan delivery.

- Not exactly a household name, William Henry Rhodes is known best to hardcore SFF enthusiasts; see Wikipedia (HERE), the SFE (HERE), and the ISFDb (HERE).
- Concerning our author, the Fantasy editor writes:
   ". . . W. H. Rhodes was in this and other stories one of the great pioneers of modern science fiction, who, in this story intended as a pleasant hoax, even anticipates, if crudely, the concept of chain reaction. As we read his bare, direct style, combining as it does imaginative romancing with the reportorial factualness of Defoe, we realize indeed what a great pity it was that Mr. Rhodes could never quite bring himself to forsake the law completely for 
his writing."

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