14 August 2010

A Most Unusual Person

Today, 14 August 2010, marks 100 years since the death of Ottawa's most unusual person. Who was he? All is revealed in the text of a talk I gave to the Friends of the Ottawa Public Library on 15 June in the Auditorium at OPL Main.

For FOPLA – 15 June 2010

I’m honoured to be here this evening. It’s an opportunity for me to express my enthusiasm for library services which you do so much to support, as well as it giving me the chance to share a favourite story.

There’s a message today in the story I’d like to share. The message is about how you could help bring the OPL to a wider community. The story is about an Ottawan whose name was as recognizable in his day as Alfredsson or Harder are today. He was an eccentric ... the most unusual person who ever lived here.

It started for me on one of those triple H summer days weather folks like to talk about. Hot, hazy and humid. I escaped into the cool of the third floor in this building, found what I wanted, all too quickly, and wandered into the Ottawa Room to enjoy the cool for a few more minutes. Opening a black binder taken from a shelf at random I found two unusual advertisements from 1883 clipped from the Citizen. It’s in a style we don’t see today.

One under the title “The Wiggins Storm” advises:

"Wiggins Storm is drawing nigh,
Five pounds of tea you'd better buy.
Go to Stroud's without delay,
Or perhaps your money may blow away"

The other “Freaks of the Storm” is a fantasy. It imagines the storm twisting the Rideau Canal and breaking the equator.

I'd never heard of Wiggins Storm. As a former meteorologist I was interested, so asked Tom Rooney if there was anything more on Wiggins. He came up with a newspaper clipping. The headline was "Weather Seer Still Not Matched." It gave a rosy picture of Wiggins weather prophecies—"tornadoes and blizzards which he pinpointed ... struck precisely when and where he warned."

It also claimed his prediction technique had been suppressed by the government weather service—where I spent my career. That got my attention. Who was Wiggins, and what was his storm?

Scattered in Ottawa newspapers found upstairs on microfilm from 1881 to 1886, were many letters by Wiggins. He used the pen name ''Astronomer" for some early storm predictions—one accurately, and coincidentally, predicted a storm for the day, but not the location, when the steamer Asia sank in 1882. Amongst more than 120 victims were two sons of the prominent Sparks family. Also upstairs on microfilm I found city street directories showing him living at 237 Daly Avenue, and later in Britannia.

Ezekiel Stone Wiggins was born in New Brunswick in 1839, of United Empire Loyalist descent. He went to secondary school in Ontario.

The first sign of Wiggins' unconventional, forthrightly stated views came in 1864 in his book The Architecture of the Heavens which advanced the theory that light only exists in the atmosphere of the planets. He believed that the Moon we see in the sky has an atmosphere, and the Earth has other moons, without atmospheres, that are not visible.

Although Wiggins never practiced medicine he claimed to have a Doctor of Medicine degree from the dubious Philadelphia University of Medicine and Surgery. He had a legitimate second class honours BA in Mathematics in 1869 from Albert College, Belleville, with an MA granted in the following year while he was working as Superintendent of Schools. He taught in Mariposa and Ingersoll Townships and was first principal of the Institute for the Education of the Blind in Brantford from 1871 to 1874.

During this period he also claimed to have acquired a Doctor of Law degree.

He returned to New Brunswick, embarked on a political campaign and become the Conservative candidate in Queen’s County in the 1878 election.

Wiggins lost, but Macdonald formed the government and Wiggins got a consolation prize, moving to Ottawa to a job in the Finance Department.

Starting in 1881 Wiggins avocation became storm prophecy for which he earned an international reputation.

His most widely known prophecy was in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen published on the 22nd of September 1882 under the heading “An Astronomer's Warning: The Greatest Storm of the 19th Century Coming.” He first denounced " the utter uselessness of our meteorological bureaus", then comes his "announcement" starting — A great storm will strike this planet on the 9th of March next ...

The Associated Press carried Wiggins' prediction, and it appeared in English language newspapers around the world.

Many treated it as a joke, much as most of us treat end of the world predictions today. Others took it seriously including many New England fishermen who refused to put to sea.

What happened? There was a bit of a blow on the East Coast on the day but no worse than a storm a few days earlier. Nothing like the greatest storm of the 19th century. The New York Times immediately consigned him to "the limbo of exploded humbugs."

Wiggins had the security of his government job so he refined his storm prediction technique by adding invisible moons. In an extended correspondence with the Department of Marine, and in a letter to Prime Minister Macdonald, he asked that the government commission a study of his forecast methods. If his technique was judged valid he asked that the government issue storm warnings credited to be "by Wiggins method"; all for a one-time payment equivalent to the annual budget of the meteorological service.

He was asked to document his previous forecasts which he apparently did in a 46 page hand-written letter. The government copy was destroyed in a 1920s fire that burned Department of Marine records. I set out trying to track down living relatives as there was supposedly a copy of that letter in his files. I found quite a few relatives but no sign of that letter.

The inquiry into his storm prediction technique was never held. And he started coming under attack. As weather forecasters know, it's not only the predicted storms that don't appear that sap your credibility, it's also the ones that you miss forecasting. In the Ottawa Citizen on April 6th 1885 a poem appeared illustrating the peril.

by a

(for the Citizen)
Heavy storm began at Ottawa 9 am, April 2; still raging, 6 pm, April 3; snowfall, 24 inches; by far the greatest of the year. N.B.—No warning from Wiggins

Wiggins, O delusive prophet Wiggins ...

With over a metre of snow recorded, April 2 to 5, 1885 still stands in the record books as Ottawa's greatest snowstorm.

In October 1886 he wrote he "could no longer endure the tide of opposition to which I was subjected". Privately he came to acknowledge the limitations of his storm predictions, and even expressed muted support for the expansion of regular meteorological services.

His wife Susie was part of the local social scene, and an early but forgotten advocate for women’s rights. But he held the spotlight. They went to one New Year’s Levee and, after having been greeted by the Governor General, Wiggins moved quickly past Sir John A Macdonald who called after him “you move quickly Wiggins, like a comet.” The Cabinet members around him chuckled at the reference but Wiggins had the wit to respond “comets always move most quickly when nearest the sun.”

For a while Wiggins dropped into obscurity. He built a home called Arbor House in Britannia, now a heritage property, and served on the local parish council. In 1899 he was President of the Britannia Yacht Club, where his faded portrait hangs.

For a journalist Wiggins was an irresistible attraction on a slow news day. From the mid-1890s he regained some prominence being quoted in the Ottawa media. Headlines included "Professor Wiggins says the Sun is inhabited", "Second Moon in the Heavens Responsible for Cold Weather in the Opinion of Prof. Wiggins", "Prof. Wiggins to Sue Marconi" and “The Great Falls of Niagara Shall Be No More”. He was quotable, in the manner of the time: "In time oranges will grow in Canada and great orchards will hold up their golden fruit before the mirror of Hudson Bay".

In turn the press felt free to respond in kind. In the Brantford Courier "Mr. E. Stone Wiggins, who keeps baby cyclones tied up in his backyard, says that the origin of the cool weather has been two moons in the sky. Many a man has found frigidity to result from a similar cause".

Wiggins remained a public servant until two years before his death in August 1910. He died at his home in Britannia and was buried on the shore of Grand Lake, New Brunswick, where his tombstone reads,

Professor E. Stone Wiggins B.A., M.A, M.D., L.L.D.
Canada's distinguished scientist and scholar
Dec 4, 1839—Aug 14, 1910

Wiggins was a literate, egotistical, self promoting eccentric, an early exponent of the theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Although he’s a forgotten curiosity there’s a lesson for us in the story.

My finding those two ads on that hot, hazy and humid day was a matter of the purest chance. They are a part of local history hidden away in the Ottawa Room.

A trend now well underway is cloning and replanting community history for a new generation. Communities are spreading their stories by bringing material from where it rests in obscurity between institutional walls and giving it fresh exposure on the web. Technological advances in digitization are making this both possible and affordable. With your mandate to enrich the programs OPL can provide you have it in your power, by means of an earmarked donation, to help this happen with Ottawa Room materials. That’s something I encourage you to do, perhaps by funding a small pilot project, perhaps by making a contribution which would leverage other funds for a more substantial initiative.

Thank you again for the contribution you make to Ottawa’s libraries, and for allowing me to be a part of your meeting."


Carol said...

Thanks for posting this delightful story for those of us who didn't attend your talk.

Anonymous said...

Anne S. says "Driving through the towns of Ontario we see numerous long-established public libraries. Having grown up in Quebec City in the fifties, I can assure you that there were none there. A CBC radio program focused on how this was true for the rest of the province. Fortunately for us, the I.O.D.E. women had a small library open in my school for book exchange every two weeks. So, thanks for encouraging us to join Friends of the OPL, and to volunteer. We cannot take it for granted."