After Augustus Le Plongeon's death, it was difficult to be lukewarm about him. He was loved by close friends and intimates, but thoroughly ridiculed by those who opposed him. His articles on diffusion and his books, especially Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx, provided the fuel for posthumous attacks on his work, and sometimes on his char-acter as well, by those who did not share his views.
In a 1909 book on new world civilizations, Channing Arnold and Frederick Frost labeled Le Plongeon's ideas on Maya diffusion as "the most remarkable of all theories." Though giving him credit for being brave and having the "genius of enthusiasm," they ridiculed his work saying, "he dated the civilization of Central America 11,500 years back. This preposterous proposition was received with the Homeric laughter it so richly deserves"*
With Augustus' work being given this
kind of reception, it was no wonder that Maude Blackwell rejected an offer
from Frederick Putnam of the Peabody Museum at Harvard to purchase the
Chichen Itza mural tracings and other materials for the museum. It
was only a short while since Alice had given her deathbed instructions
to wait until such time that the American people showed a serious interest
in Maya civil-ization. If she saw no sign of such interest as her
life neared its end, Maude Blackwell was determined to personally destroy
everything, following her friends' requests.
Instead she worked diligently at perpetuating their memory. She oversaw publication of the culmination of Augustus' life work, "The Origins of the Egyptians." The Word published it serially throughout 1913 and 1914. In it Augustus traced the Maya through India, the Middle East and Egypt, where he said they founded settlements as they went.
Augustus' reputation continued to be harmed by the persistent rumors of his use of dynamite. Ironically, as the untrue story grew and changed, the supposed use changed from Uxmal to Chichen Itza and became entwined with their exca-vation of the platforms. It may have been a passing refer-ence by Le Plongeon's contemporary Teobert Maler, who arrived in Yucatan in 1884, that became the basis for the untrue story. Eduard Seler, who also worked at Chichen Itza and Uxmal, decried Le Plongeon's archaeological destruction of the platform mounds. The dynamite story in one form or another continued to feed on itself and is today one of the most persistent misunderstandings about Le Plongeon.
There were some writers, however, many of whom wrote for the popular press, who were still sympathetic to Le Plongeon's ideas. In a 1912 American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal article, John O. Viking backed Le Plongeon's statement that Christ's last words on the cross were spoken in Maya. Willis Fletcher Johnson, writing about "Pioneers of Mayan research" for The Outlook in 1923, was also sympathetic to Le Plongeon's diffusionist ideas. He decried the injus-tices inflicted upon him by the academic community.
"Some of the most influential leaders and patrons of American archaeo-logical and ethnologicalOn the other hand, Lewis Spence, the latest in a long line of writers trying to prove the existence of Atlantis, attacked Le Plongeon's work in a 1924 book called The Problem of Atlantis. "We must absolutely cast behind us the wild and un-scien-tific theories and alleged 'discoveries' of Le Plongeon and his school."
research appar-ently set themselves to discredit Dr. Le Plongeon and to prevent recognition of his achievements. They derided him and denounced him as a romancer and fabricator."
Theodore Willard, an industrialist and Maya
enthusiast, wrote a popular book about Chichen Itza, called The City
of the Sacred Well. In it he quoted at length Edward H. Thompson,
who owned the Hacienda Chichen for many years and extensively explored
the ruins. Thompson recognized the Le Plongeons' herculean efforts
in the field and noted that Maya excavators who had worked on the Platform
of Venus excavation called Augustus "a very positive man." "And from
all his years of labor," Thompson told Willard, "Dr. Le Plongeon evolved
a Mayan theology which is either inspired or the result of a mentality
unhinged by too great labor."
James Churchward, a longtime friend of Alice and Augustus, acknowledged the influence of Augustus on his book, The Lost Continent of Mu. "Before the death of Dr. Le Plongeon he gave the writer his unpublished notes and translations for copy; so that what I say comes principally from the result of Dr. Le Plongeon's twelve years among the ruins." Churchward credited Le Plongeon with a number of insights pertaining to the theory that the contin-ent of Mu, Churchward's Atlantis of the Pacific, was respon-sible for world civilization.
No doubt the support for Le Plongeon by individuals like Churchward, who himself was highly controversial, merely served to further emphasize the questionable parts of Le Plongeon's work.
In 1927, Augustus and Alice's contributions
to archaeology were discussed in a series of letters to the editor of the
New York Times. A devotee of Chinese literature, Alexander
McAllen, claimed that a Chinese book explained the significance of the
Chacmool figure. He praised Le Plongeon for grasping the importance
of the statue, without the aid of the book. As have many others commentating
on Le Plongeon's work, he molded the Old Doctor's conclusions to his own
In response, John Opdycke, an old acquaintance of the Le Plongeons', praised McAllan for helping point out that the then-current writers on the Maya such as Otis Mason and Spinden, who were receiving so much attention, were not the true trail blazers on ancient Mexico.
"No matter what degree of difference there may be between the more recent students ofOpdycke alluded to their love of humanity.
Mayan archaeology and the Le Plongeons, there can be no doubt that the modern school
has been indifferent, not to say professionally dis-courteous to these good people, who were
the first really great experts in regard to the ancient Mayan peoples."
"The Le Plongeons were scientists not only, but they were, as well, artists and philosophersProfessional journals, when they mentioned Le Plongeon's work at all, were less flattering. Herbert J. Spinden, at that time a widely regarded Mayanist of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, placed Le Plongeon with "the most daring group of romantic writers" in anthropology, accusing Le Plongeon of believing that the Maya crossed Atlantis "to walk dry shod to Africa for the purpose of founding Egypt." Later in his Maya Art and Civilization, Spinden characterized references in Le Plongeon's writings as valuable, but found his theories and conclusions untenable.
in the field of archaeology. They touched nothing with the hand of scientific research that
they were not able to adorn with rational, albeit, artistic, interpretation."
That Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon's work
con-tinued to receive occasional positive notice was encouraging to Maude
Blackwell. But it was a different sort of sign that she needed to
be convinced of the American people's readiness to accept the evidence
about the Maya. She was waiting for something dramatic.
It came in 1931. The New York Times published an aerial photo-graph of Chichen Itza taken while archaeologist Alfred Kidder flew over the ruined city with Charles Lindbergh. Maude Blackwell took this as the moment she was waiting for. She contacted the well-known arch-aeologist Sylvanus Morley, Director of the Carnegie Institution's Chichen Itza project, and Frans Blom, Director of Tulane University's Middle American Research Institute to inform them that she had the Le Plongeon materials.
Morley was astonished to learn that, contrary to the rumor that had spread among Mayanists, the Le Plongeon material still existed. He had been told by Alfred Tozzer, his professor of archaeology at Harvard University 26 years earlier, "that Dr. Le Plongeon had decided to burn all his notes and photographs just before his death to prevent their falling into the hands of such an ungrateful world" (Morley 1931). He and Karl Ruppert, also a Carnegie archaeologist, arranged to meet Blackwell in Los Angeles where she had taken the materials.
Meanwhile Blom wrote back to Blackwell, "I would like to see these papers, not only for the valuable material they may contain, but also because I should like to incorporate them in our library." She sent him another letter with a few photos and some plans of structures at Chichen Itza and Uxmal.
Apparently the meeting with Morley and Ruppert did not go well. As Blackwell described it in a second letter to Frans Blom,
"Of course I ought to have been prepared to find that the two archaeologists are tooMorley had problems relating to Blackwell as well. He wrote to the Carnegie Institution, "I spent from noon to ten o'clock one night trying to get concrete facts from her and to pin her down to anything." As a result Blackwell broke off negotiations with Morley. In contrast Blom seemed much more interested and sincere, but acquisition was hampered by the distance between Los Angeles and New Orleans.
conservative to pay much attention to Dr. Le Plongeon's theories etc. In more ways
than one I was disappointed in their visit here. TIME will prove as to which set of
'theories' lies nearest the truth."
Concurrent with the negotiations with Morley and Blom, Blackwell had also contacted Manly P. Hall, President of the Philosophical Research Society, a private research and educational institution in Los Angeles. She found Hall to be a more sympathetic individual. His sincere interest in the Le Plongeons' work convinced Blackwell to sell their mater-ials to the Philosophical Research Society in 1931. The collection of several hundred photographs, glass-plate negatives, tracings of Maya murals, and memorabilia remains there today.
In her discussions with Blom, Morley, Ruppert,
and Hall, Blackwell suggested that Alice's deathbed statements dis-closed
that the Le Plongeons had uncovered a number of Maya codices in Yucatan
during their years of fieldwork.
If true, this would have been a major discovery, since only three hieroglyphic texts were known to have survived. Any new codices found would be of immense help to Maya research and would bring great fame to the finder.
With the best of intentions, Blackwell had attempted to right the reputation of Augustus Le Plongeon. She may have hoped that the hints and confused statements she attributed to Alice and Augustus might lead an archaeologist to stumble onto a cache of codices, thereby indirectly giving credit to the Le Plongeons. Her attempt merely magnified the confusion about their lives and work. Shortly after leaving the Le Plongeon materials with Manly Hall, Blackwell left Los Angeles and returned to her home in New York. The possibilities left by the Le Plongeon legacy dangled tantalizingly. Various individuals, including some Maya archaeologists who chose not to admit they believed the tale, may have quietly looked for a trace of Le Plongeons' codices.
In 1940, archaeologist Harry E. D. Pollock mentioned Augustus Le Plongeon in "Sources and Methods in the Study of Maya Archi-\tecture." He credited Dr. Le Plongeon with being "the first to perform any considerable amount of excavation" in the Maya area, and pointed out the importance of "the new material that appeared in his photographs, plans and draw-ings." However, he added, "his lurid imagination made his writing almost valueless."
Manly Hall also noted the importance of the Le Plongeons' photo-graphs to the study of Maya civilization in "The Maya Empire," a 1948 article published in the Philosophical Research Society's magazine, Horizon. Perhaps for the first time, a scholar was looking at the Le Plongeons' work in the context of the nineteenth century to attempt a fair estimation of their contribution to Maya archaeology.
"Le Plongeon could not censor his discoveries by referring to the learned texts of otherHall found it interesting that many in the scientific world had formed opinions on Maya archaeology without the benefit of practical experience, "with the caution natural to their kind, these savants questioned, criticized, and condemned all of Le Plongeon's findings."
authors. He did not have the benefit of the works of the great institutions, which have
since spent millions of dollars and sent dozens of experts to examine the field. He and his
wife could report only what they actually found, but it was impossible for them to be in
the presence of so many wonders without doing a little wondering themselves."
Few took note of Halls observations; and with the deaths of Morley and others involved in the abortive attempts to acquire Le Plongeon's photographs, their whereabouts were largely forgotten. One scholar who did look at them briefly was Professor Henry B. Nicholson, an archaeologist at UCLA. He found them intriguing, but set any work on them aside in favor of other, more pressing, projects.
In the mid-1950s, a trunk belonging to Maude Blackwell was delivered to archae-ologist William Duncan Strong of Columbia University in New York. It arrived unannounced from a storage company, when storage payments stopped, presumably upon Blackwell's death. It contained some of her personal possessions, as well as some negatives, prints and lantern slides of Augustus Le Plongeon's. Strong sent the trunk and its contents to Gordon Ekholm, curator of anthropology for the American Museum of Natural History in New York since it seemed of more interest to a museum.
These were the last fragments of Le Plongeon research materials to come to light. No hoped-for archaeo-logical field notes or diaries from their years in Yucatan or unpublished manuscripts, such as the "Pearls in Shells" treatise on religion, have been found. Perhaps in the attic of an old home in New York or London sits a trunk full of the missing photographs, field notes, and manuscripts.
In 1962, a popular book by archaeologist Robert
Wauchope, Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents, devoted a chapter to
Augustus Le Plongeon. It was highly critical of every aspect of his
work. According to Wauchope, Le Plongeon's "arrogant flaunting of
his own ego produced a lurid epoch in the history of American archaeology."
A decade later, historian Robert Brunhouse wrote, In Search of the Maya, a book on eight early archaeologists. In it he gave a somewhat more balanced account of Augustus Le Plongeon. Alice's activities were noted, however her contribution was minimized by the sugges-tion that her husband was the source of all her ideas. And Augustus was summarized as "mysterious, prepos-terous, opinionated, haphazardly informed, reckless, and a remarkable figure."
Recent writers on Maya history and American archaeology have distilled Le Plongeon to one sentence throw-aways. He has been called many things, including "one of the most fantastic characters in American archaeology" (Willey and Sabloff 1974:65), a "French antiquarian and mystic" (Gallencamp 1985:32), and a "master of self-deception" (Miller 1985:7).
For many years, Maude Blackwell's statements about codices found by the Le Plongeons remained a mystery, since efforts to locate possible hiding places had proved fruit-less. However, recent research on Augustus Le Plongeon's life brought to light a letter he wrote in 1907 to Charles P. Bowditch, patron of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, revealing that he had never unearthed any codices. Bowditch was interested in Le Plongeon's inter-pretations of Maya hiero-glyphics and iconography, and attempted to get Augustus to divulge where he thought Maya codices might be hidden. In reply to one inquiry by Bowditch, Augutus explained that he had no codices hidden away in Yucatan,
"[I] may be induced perhaps, to mention some of the places where such records may still existThey were brave and proud words from an old man who lay near death, but who nevertheless refused to give up his dream of revealing the true history of the Maya.
and where some years ago, I began to look, when my researches were interrupted by events
beyond my control. I have no objection to tell you that, in my own mind, I am convinced
that very ancient Mss. exist at Chichen ...If I had money of my own I would be willing to
spend it to bring to light these ancient books."
Was Augustus Le Plongeon really a crackpot. The question will persist, no doubt. He came into Maya studies as a renaissance man un-encumbered by geographic or disciplinary boundaries which were being formed at the time. He chose to ignore them if they did not fit his need or world view. His experiences around the world and with various livelihoods told him that a little research and experimen-tation could perfect any process. It worked in his surveying and photographic careers. He met little or no opposition to his experiments and writings on earthquakes or "electro-hydropathic" medicine. He tried to apply this principle to the study of world civilizations with less success.
Alice Le Plongeon arrived in Yucatan as a young woman, seeing the world for the first time. As the first European woman to live and work in that area, she had to make her own rules as she went. She quickly learned the skills she needed to be her husband's partner in their work. And on her own she made significant contributions to the understanding of the social history and living conditions of the Maya.
It is clear that the Le Plongeons made a worthwhile contribution to American archaeology. Their fieldwork was at the turning point in the development of serious documentation of ancient Maya civilization, while their outdated theories provide us with a perspective into the developing field of archaeology during the nineteenth century. They carried the validation of the worth of New World civilization to an extreme that even the strongest proponents of New World studies could not accept. Augustus Le Plongeon was promoting worldwide diffusion by Maya culture at a time when opposition to diffusion from either direction was beginning to gather scholarly momentum. Le Plongeon had made his case through comparative religion and linguistics, but the new level of scholarship all but demolished his arguments. Daniel Brinton, and later scholars and field archaeologists such as Eduard Seler, Alfred Maudslay, and Sylvanus Morley found virtually no basis for such a position.
Ironically, what he considered to be his greatest
find, the Chacmool statue from Chichen Itza, may have been his worst enemy.
It confirmed to him that the Maya were the founders of Egyptian civilization.
Had he not found the statue, he might have given up that particular line
of research. But undaunted, he fought on until his death, and suffered
complete rejection by the very scholars whom he considered lesser intellects.