Let it not be said that I only write about things favorable to Maine’s image. Long after the earth was known to be a sphere, a core group of die-hard biblical literalists decided the earth was flat, no matter what. One of them, Joseph Holden, who lived in the central Maine town of Otisfield made himself known as a prominent flat-earther.
Born in 1816, Holden worked his way to become the owner of several sawmills in rural Maine but never married. He called himself “professor” but there is no evidence his education progressed beyond Otisfield’s one room schoolhouse. It is said his mother tried to walk on water. He was a lifelong Republican and served as Justice of the Peace, census enumerator and even ran for state senate.
Coming of age in the mid 1800s he was a witness to Charles Darwin’s rise to fame and saw the scientific community’s gradual acceptance of the tenets of evolutionary theory. Finally, the Descent of Man, released in 1871 confirmed Darwin’s evidence for a family connection between humans and apes and escalated the war between science and religion which continues to this day. Joseph Holden chose his little piece of the war and fought it for the rest of his life. Being more or less financially secure, it is doubtful the small admission he charged for his lectures did more than pay for his travels, so a scam artist he was not. From stories told by the town historian Jean Hankins it seems he was a tolerated and colorful character, annoying perhaps, but not a threat. Townspeople “respected his right to be foolish if he wanted to.” His poor hearing made argument futile, so most of his victims just nodded their heads in agreement. Another convert.
His main demonstration was to fill a bucket of water and set it upon a post. He bet his audience that he could return in 24 hours and the water would still be there, proof that the earth didn’t spin about an axis or move in any other foolish way. When he began to lecture at the age of 75, he was a constant presence in the state legislature, attending every session for many years. He lectured in Portland, Boston and even at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892. His lectures were filled with common sense arguments and humor. People came for the entertainment and left feeling entertained, but likely not converted.
Joe Holden died on March 30, 1900. His passing was noted by at least one sympathetic newspaper (Statesville, NC Semi-weekly Landmark):
We hold the the doctrine that the earth is flat ourselves and we regret exceedingly to learn that one of our number is dead, because there are few of us and one can ill be spared. But we are not without hope. One of these days the idea that the earth is round and turns over every 24 hours will be relegated to the roar along with other antiquated notions.
Amazingly, flat-earthers exist to this day. Just check out http://theflatearthsociety.org. I can’t say the people who run the website are true believers or it’s just tongue-in-cheek, but with all the other bizarre beliefs out there, why not? At least this one doesn’t seem to involve stockpiling ammunition.
In his will Joe bequeathed $3 per year to the parishioners of the Otisfield Baptist Church for an annual summer picnic. Each August he is still celebrated in Otisfield with the gentle ridicule and good humor. I wonder if anyone leaves a bucket of water on his grave.
Sources used for this story:
- Christine Garwood (2007). Flat Earth.
- Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1992). Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.