SURVIVING ON THE FRINGE
It was a pleasant change of pace for the Le Plongeons to travel to Europe in 1891. Alice had a reunion with her brothers and sisters in London after 18 years in America. For her, it was like being a tourist. They visited the Crystal Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Covent Garden, and they heard a musical program performed by the Band of the Royal Horse Guards. She and her husband, with his flowing white beard and brooding wild eyes, were treated as explorers and adventurers from unknown lands. Their stories and obser-vations were fresh and exotic, and Alice's family and their friends were a delighted and uncriticising audience. The round of parties and visits were but a pleasant respite. After two months, the Le Plongeons returned to New York, where their financial and scholarly battles continued.
Augustus could not let Daniel Brinton's public attack of the previous year go unanswered. He challenged Brinton to a scholarly debate on the many details of Maya studies that Brinton discussed in Essays of an Americanist, including Maya prophecies, science and numbers, and cosmogeny. The challenge appeared in the New York Advertiser in 1893. There was no response.
In 1894 Augustus repeated the challenge in the Brooklyn Eagle.
Hoping, sir, that you will gladly improve the opportunity to show that you are really superiorThe debate was never held. Le Plongeon included his challenge in an appendix to Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx, adding this lament, "Dr. Brinton took no more notice of this challenge than he had taken of the former one."
an authority, with right therefore to criticize other on such an important subject, to all American
scientists, and afforded me one for displaying my extra-vagancies or eccentricities before the
members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I beg to subscribe myself (1896:205-206).
Considered an excellent scholar and strategist, Brinton wisely chose not to engage in an open debate before his peers with a man who had studied the ancient Maya, not only through archival sources, but by living with their decendents in and about the ruins. Le Plongeon also spoke Yucatec Maya, having learned it from his Maya excavators, and from his friend, Father Crescencio Carrillo y Ancona of Merida, who became the first indigenous Bishop of Yucatan shortly after the Le Plongeons left Merida for the last time.
Le Plongeon felt that deciphering the ancient Maya script required a knowledge of spoken Maya, a point which Brinton had already conceded to him in a letter. He knew full well that Brinton had never been in the field, and thus had a limited knowledge of many of the fine points of Maya ethnology and archaeology, other than those gleaned from field researchers such as Dr. Karl Berendt, a linguist who was working in Central America, and who maintained close contact with Brinton. And, for Brinton to agree to a public debate was tantamount to accepting that Le Plongeon was on his own intellectual level, and had serious things to say, something Brinton could not admit.
Le Plongeon found that the more intensely he defended his position, the more the opposition found in it to attack. However, he still had many friends in Mexico. Bishop Carrillo y Ancona referred to him as "our good friend Le Plongeon" in the Anales del Museo Nacional, the official publication of the National Museum in Mexico City. But they were of little help to him in dealing with the American scholars. He could not even find a publisher for Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx, his major work in which he would divulge clues "to the American hieroglyphs" and decipher some of them.
Since personal funds for publishing were lacking, Alice stepped in on behalf of her husband and wrote Phoebe A. Hearst, wife of the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, asking for assistance. She argued that the book would "give to America its true place among the nations of antiquity." In response, Mrs. Hearst provided funds to cover part of the costs.
In the preface of Queen Moo, Augustus alluded to the difficulties his unpopular theories were causing.
"I have been accused of promulgating notions on ancient America contrary to the opinion ofDaniel Brinton and his colleagues in the American Association for the Advancement of Science were on his mind as he continued,
men regarded as authorities on American Archaeology. And so it is, indeed. Mine is not the fault, however, although it may be my misfortune, since it has surely entailed upon me their enmity and
"But who are those pretended authorities? Certainly not the doctors and professors at the headQueen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx was to stand as his last major published work on the Maya until after his death. It was an expanded version of the Queen Moo story, introduced a decade earlier in Sacred Mysteries. Queen Moo was reviewed in the London Athenaeum. This second book on Queen Moo and Maya civilization was called "well-printed and well-illustrated." But the reviewer found the text to be dis-appointing, full of "statements in all seriousness, which show that the author is more often led by his imagination than by his knowledge."
of the universities and colleges in the U.S.; for not only do they know absolutely nothing of
Ancient American civilization, but, judging from letters in my possession, the majority of them
refuse to learn anything concerning it."
Queen Moo included drawings from the Upper Temple of the Jaguars as evidence of Queen Moo's life story, including her travels to Egypt. To reinforce this slice of Maya history, Augustus added evidence he found during his 1875 and 1883 excavations at Chichen Itza. In his interpretation, Queen Moo ordered the Temple of the Jaguars to be erected in Prince Coh's honor. She also called for construction of the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars as a mausoleum to contain the cremated remains of his body. A similar mausoleum, the Platform of Venus, was built nearby in honor of High Priest Cay.
He interpreted the iconography on the Upper Temple of the Jaguars to read "Cay, the high priest, desires to bear witness that Moo has made this offering, earnestly invoking Coh, the warrior of warriors."
After the construction of the two burial monuments at Chichen Itza, Augustus wrote, Queen Moo fled to the Antilles, which he called Zinaan. Not feeling safe there, Queen Moo resolved to travel on to one of the remaining islands of sunken Atlantis. But she found no islands, so continued her journey to Egypt where she was given a warm welcome. Le Plongeon bolstered this version with a new interpretation of the lintel in the Akab Dzib, stating that it told of the destruction of Atlantis. As in his first interpretation of the lintel, Le Plongeon offered no glyph-by-glyph translation, nor an explanation of his methodology.
While Augustus focused on the development of Queen Moo's story, Alice continued her efforts to resolve the issue of the moulds held by the American Museum of Natural History. In 1894, Marshall H. Saville, Assistant Curator of Ethnology at the museum, attempted to raise enough money to acquire the Le Plongeon moulds and tracings of the frescos from the Upper Temple of the Jaguars at Chichen Itza.
Later, Alice described the affair in a letter to Phoebe Hearst. The moulds and some casts were "received in the Museum," but "no subscription was started, nor were the casts exhibited." Museum officials asked Alice to give a private lecture to Mrs. Jesup, wife of the president of the museum, and her coterie. Alice was assured that her presence would guarantee a successful fund-raising effort.
As I was the only woman who had explored the Yucatan Ruins and accomp-lished somethingThe lecture went very well. Professor Putnam, an important archaeologist at the Peabody Museum, "rose and stated that my lecture was the best exposition of the subject he had ever listened to." But, to Alice's dismay, no one made a move to contribute toward the acquisition of the moulds. Instead,
in American Archaeology, Mrs. Jesup would, among her lady friends, make a subscription to
donate the collection to the Museum (1900a).
"The only result of the lecture was a severe illness to me. This was induced by extreme depressionMr. Loubat, a patron of the arts, then made a suspici-ously miserly offer for the purchase of the moulds. When the Le Plongeons refused it, he had other casts made in Paris, which, according to Alice, were of inferior quality. She and Augustus strongly suspected that Mr. Loubat's offer to purchase their moulds for almost nothing and his subsequent action in having more expensive ones made in Paris was "done with unkind purpose." He donated them to the museum, which effectively blocked the acquisition of similar objects, including the Le Plongeons' moulds, "no matter how superior these might be."
through disappointment at seeing no action taken at the close of the meeting, and also by a severe
chill, because we walked under a drenching rain without umbrella from the Museum to the elevated railway, and I was at the time only convalescing from grippe."
This was a serious blow to the continuation of their work, Alice explained to Mrs. Hearst. "As we spent all our means in those explorations, expecting to replenish our purse by the sale of our work, our researches came to a stand-still."
There was irony in this financial crisis that
stopped their fieldwork. Alice's work was appearing regularly in
well-known periodicals including the Magazine of American History and Popular
Science. And in 1895 Scientific American had recognized her as one
of a score of women "who have contributed vastly to the knowledge and culture
of the age."
It appears that, indeed, it was the publication of Augustus' life-work, the story of Queen Moo, that dealt the final blow to his credibility in the mainstream scholarly community and made it impossible for him to raise funds.
In 1897, Augustus and Alice visited London again. On the ship returning to New York, they met Elbert Hubbard, who was reviewing Queen Moo for a journal called The Arena. Hubbard was impressed by the sprightliness of the old doctor, who was then over 70 years old.
Dr. Le Plongeon may be sixty, seventy, or ninety years of age. He is becoming bald, has aHubbard was also quite taken with Alice, "his faithful coadjutor, collaborator, and companion." When she gave a little lecture to the other passengers, "it was voted a great treat." Hubbard concluded that "Madam Le Plongeon is a rare woman;...My private opinion is that she is of a little better fibre than her husband, in which remark I am quite sure I should be backed up by the learned doctor himself."
long snowy, patriarchal beard, bright blue eyes, and a beautiful brick-dust complexion. When
every passenger on board had lost appetite and animation, this sturdy old man trod the upper
deck and laughed at the storm as the winds sang through the cordage of the trembling ship
As for his opinion of Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx, Mr. Hubbard wrote, "The work is intensely inter-esting, even to a layman, and its bold statements is sure to awaken into life a deal of dozing thought, and some right lively opposi-tion as well."
While under fire for his historical interpretations of the Maya, Augustus was still considered an expert on the Maya language. In the fall of 1902, William J. McGee of the Smithsonian Institution requested comments from him concern-ing three Maya diction-aries the Smithsonian proposed to publish. Le Plongeon provided McGee with a thorough back-ground on the origin of each dictionary, as well as a review of the linguistic merits of each.
One of them, named after a town in Yucatan where the information was supposedly collected, had been in the possession of Daniel Brinton. The Motul Dictionary owned by Brinton was not worth publishing, Le Plongeon explained, since it was an unedited mix of linguistic material compiled partly from the Cuidad Real Dictionary in the Brown Univer-sity library, and partly from modern linguistic informants who assisted Karl Berendt. One of Brinton's chief sources of raw field data, Berendt had died of an overdose of morphine in the village of Coban, Guatemala. According to Le Plongeon, after Berendt's untimely death, someone seized his papers and sold them to a bookseller in New York, who in turn sold them to Dr. Brinton.
With regard to Brinton's scholarly merits, Le Plongeon continued in his letter to Mr. McGee,
"I accuse Dr. Brinton of impeding the progress of Maya ethnology in this country by publishingIn his zeal to debunk the impression that Brinton had any linguistic expertise, Le Plongeon ignored Brinton's comment about the Motul Dictionary in Essays of an American-ist. "Only two copies of it are in existence, one, very carefully made, with numerous notes, by Dr. Berendt, is in my possession" (1890:119).
books on a subject of which he knew absolutely nothing, and of using the notes of Dr. Berendt
and palming them on his reader as his own knowledge."
Le Plongeon simply could not tolerate supposed scholarly efforts to interpret the Maya by those who lacked the basic skill of knowing their language. Since he had lived in their midst and could speak directly to them, he believed his interpretations of Maya history to be true. There was no doubt in his mind that his translations of murals and hieroglyphic inscriptions and his analysis of excavations based on the history he created were correct.
His confidence in his own linguistic facility led Augustus to one of the most controversial speculations in his writings. In trying to neatly tie up the loose ends of his diffusionist theories, he offered further proof that the Maya brought civilization to Egypt thousands of years ago, by arguing that Christ's last words on the cross were spoken in Maya. Finding a loose phonetic connection between Aramaic and Maya, Le Plongeon stated that the recording of those words in Matthew, Chapter xxvii, verse i was incorrect. Instead of Aramaic, "Eli, Eli. lamah sabach-thani," he suggested it should be read as Yucatec Maya, "Hele, Hele, lamah zabac ta ni," or "Now, now, I am fainting, darkness covers my face." Part of his argument rested on his position that the last words of Christ in Aramaic, that God had forsaken him, were inappropriate to a personage such as Christ.
Le Plongeon's stubbornness in trying to defend unfounded statements such as this served to seal his fate among the rapidly growing circle of intellectuals who were acquiring status and university backing. While these were busy positioning thesesleves in the development of an institutionalized discipline, Augustus and Alice had been immersed in a rigorous field experience that led them to propose untested hypotheses. Increasingly they found themselves excluded from the very circle they wanted to join.