If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange.The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This time we’re headed to Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union, as well as the home of johnnycakes, snail salad, clam cakes, and more coffee and donut shops per capita than anywhere else in the country.
THE LEGEND OF PROFESSOR JOSIAH S. CARBERRY
Brown University in Providence, R.I. is one of the most exclusive schools in the country, and has been since its founding in 1764. But just because they’re elite doesn’t mean they can’t have a sense of humor. For example, in 1929, Brown University Professor John William Spaeth, Jr. posted a notice on a bulletin board stating that his friend and colleague, the honorable Professor Josiah Stinkney Carberry, would be holding a lecture on “Archaic Greek Architectural Revetments in Connection with Ionian Philology.” What a man-made sloping bank constructed to help deter water erosion of a shoreline has to do with the language of an ancient tribe of Greece is anyone’s guess, but even if you showed up for the lecture, you’d still be left in the dark. The professor never showed up—most likely because he didn’t exist.
When asked for more information about the mysterious professor, Spaeth told tales of Carberry’s academic travels and about his family, including his lovely but ungrammatical wife Laura, his poetic daughter Patricia, his daughter Lois, whose primary hobby was puffin hunting, and his research assistant Truman Grayson, who was always getting bitten by things that began with the letter A. There was also a son, Zedidiah, who grew into manhood before Josiah and Laura noticed him because they were too busy raising the girls.
As more people got in on the joke, the legend of Professor Carberry spread like cat videos on the Internet. Soon, local papers were inundated with letters, postcards, and telegrams from around the world, claiming to be the Carberries, asking for news of their travels to be entered into the personal notices. Eventually, the Providence Journal stopped printing the notices, but not all publications were so stuffy. In 1934, an article by Carberry appeared in the academic newsletter Classical Weekly, and American Scientist included his book on “psychoceramics,” the study of cracked pots—his primary field of focus—in the footnotes of an article in 1945.
On May 13, 1955, a donation of $101.01 was given to Brown University by an anonymous donor in order to establish the Josiah S. Carberry Fund in memory of his “future late wife.” Ever since then, on Friday the 13th and on every leap day, Brown celebrates “Carberry Day” by placing brown jugs all over campus, which students and faculty are encouraged to fill with loose change to purchase books that “Professor Carberry might or might not approve of.” In addition to the brown jugs, the proceeds from the sale of Carberry Cookbook: From Nuts to Soup, featuring recipes for Puffinburgers, Antelope in Sauce, and Boiled Water, also go toward the fund. Books that have been purchased over the years include Contemporary Ceramics, An Encyclopedia of Swearing, Among the Missing, and May the Farce Be With You.
Although he hasn’t been spotted on campus in quite some time, the professor is still warmly embraced by Brown University. In 2013, a 20-minute documentary, Made Not Born: The Wife and Dimes of Josiah S. Carberry, detailing the history of Carberry’s life and travels, was produced to provide insight into Brown’s “most famous, but least seen” member of the faculty. Professor Carberry has also made the jump to social media, as eagle-eyed Instagrammers post fuzzy photos of figures whom they claim to be the man himself, and mark the photo with the hashtag #josiahcarberry. And if you ever find yourself wandering the stacks at the Brown University library, look for a Carberry Fund bookplate on the inside cover. It’s easy to spot, because it bears the motto Dulce et Decorum Est Desipere in Loco, which translates to, “It is pleasant and proper to be foolish once in a while.” Whether or not Professor Carberry ever actually existed, I think we can all agree those are words to live by.
Peruse all the entries in our Strange States series here.