Sunday, December 7, 2014

Chapter 32 - Trial-By-Headline: Part 4 - More Lies and Misrepresentations

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Korzybski wrote to Adolf Meyer, “Lies and misrepresentations always leave some residues, which are not easily eliminated.”(32)  For one thing, he was concerned that the stories connecting him and the anthropometer to the Houcks’ troubles would enter newspaper “morgues”—files of old stories kept for researchers, who could then bring up the whole mess again in future articles. For the present, he hoped to make the best of a bad situation. The promise of possible lawsuits with hefty financial payoffs cheered him. He was keeping his own “morgue” for that purpose. He also hoped to get some declarations of support from psychiatrists and scientists. Otherwise, he did not know if he would be able to continue his work. He and Mira put off their move to Brooklyn and devised a multi-pronged plan to vindicate his reputation. 

The Washington Psychopathological Society met on January 4, 1927. At the meeting, Alfred requested an official statement of support from the group. (He had already gotten a letter of support from Dr. White.) There was some haggling over wording and a committee of three made up of White, Harry Stack Sullivan, and a Dr. Johnson agreed to work on a statement, approved at the Society’s next meeting in March.

A few days later in January, Mira left on a trip to Baltimore, New York City, New Haven, and Boston, mainly to see Alfred’s scientific friends at Johns Hopkins, NYU, Columbia, Yale, Harvard, and MIT. In February, she continued onto Detroit, where she had some connections and hoped to drum up support for Alfred. Her directives from Alfred were to inform people whom they knew about what actually had happened, and to gather letters of support from them. (Alfred had no intention of publishing any letters without additional permission but, for his personal use, wanted as many of them as possible from well-known scientists.)

Alfred also got letters of support from many other friends around the country. E.T. Bell’s comments must have given him particular satisfaction:
…As to your work, there never has been any question in my mind that your law of time-binding is a first class discovery, first because it is true, second because it is necessary and sufficient to distinguish man from the rest of creation, third because it is simple and free of all mysticism—religious, human or scientific—, and last because it is so extremely powerful and elementary that it has been overlooked for centuries—until you stated it...As for the good opinion of men who acclaim only what is fashionable, or orthodox, or well received by the elect, it is worth not a solitary curse. That you have chosen to illustrate some of your applications of the theory by a plastic diagram may tickle the fancy of the trivial minded, but this again is a mere detail. Some who dislike your work prove thereby that they should have their noses rubbed in it.
     With Best Wishes — E. T. Bell (33) 

Bell was right about some of the people who disliked Alfred’s work. But it was encouraging to find out how many important mathematicians and scientists, like Bell, supported it.

Meanwhile, by mid-January the lack of news about Mrs. Houck seems to have led people at The World, the main Pulitzer newspaper in New York City, to pump up interest in the flagging story by publishing a Sunday feature comparing and contrasting her case with that of detective novelist Agatha Christie in England. Early in December, Miss Christie had gone missing. Eleven days later, authorities tracked her to a country inn, staying under the name of her husband’s mistress. Presumably she had had a nervous breakdown. The headline read “Two Woman Mysteriously Vanish Here and In England.” Unfortunately for Alfred, the story played up his connection with the Houck affair. The subheading began “Thought Machine Adds to Interest in Case of Mrs. Houck of Washington…”(34)  In an added bit of brazenness, the article included a large photomontage of “Dr. Knute Houck, His Wife and Child, and the Thought Machine” underneath which appeared the notice “Machine Copyrighted by Alfred Kurzypski” (while infringing on his copyright). Grrrr! The story was reprinted in at least three other national newspapers owned by the Pulitzer syndicate, which seemed like the worst offender against his reputation. Korzybski discovered that Underwood & Underwood—a nation-wide purveyor of pictures to the press, provided the photographs. Perhaps he would sue them too.

It seemed difficult to counteract the potential damage that pieces like this—produced by a giant news organization—could do to his reputation. Still, Alfred felt grateful for a small protest, “Sensationalizing Science”, printed on February 12 in New York: A Four-Page Journal of Ideas for the General Reader, a weekly paper published by New York University and edited by Harold de Wolf Fuller, an N.Y.U. professor of journalism. Though not mentioned by name, Korzybski—depicted as a victim of the prevailing low standards of ‘yellow’ journalism—had his dilemma summarized in the closing lines of the short piece by Fuller: “What is the foreigner [a distinguished visiting scientist] and what is respectable science to do? Bring suit for libel or submit to the trend of the times? This is a question which is now being considered.”(35) 

Somebody at The World seems to have taken note of this possibility. Indeed, Alfred and Mira later learned that a well-meaning, influential, and according to Alfred, “stupid” acquaintance of theirs had approached one of the Pulitzer brothers with complaints about the paper’s coverage. Afterwards, the paper issued what amounted to a retraction.(36) A short, three-column article used one column just for its four headlines: “Sanity Specialist Still Under Cloud. Dr. Knute Houck Fails to Regain Reason Following His Wife’s Disappearance. KORZYBSKI LINK DENIED. Study of “Thought Machine” Merely a Coincidence.” The remaining six paragraphs of the piece contained two cursory lead paragraphs with the current non-news about Houck and his wife. The rest of the article devoted itself to backtracking on the paper’s previous misrepresentations of Korzybski and his work. Alfred was not assuaged. The piece appeared in the March 1 morning edition of the paper. The story didn’t appear in that day’s later editions and, as far as he could find, was not syndicated in any of the other Pulitzer publications. Too little, too late.(37) Besides, Alfred felt bothered because the existence of the article provided the Pulitzers with an excuse they could use as counter-evidence in the event he sued them.

Repentance, if one could call it that, seemed short-lived at the World editorial offices. Perhaps the most vicious article yet appeared in the March 24 issue of The Evening World. The day before, Gladys Houck’s remains had been found floating in the Potomac. The Pulitzer paper carried the headline, “Finding of Body Partly Clears Up Noted “Thought Machine Mystery”.” The article, a libelous rehash of previous fabrications that had appeared in the Pulitzer papers, held “Kurzypski’s” [sic] “thought machine” responsible for the entire affair. It also offered a new label for the affair—the “Thought Machine Mystery”—that, if it caught on, could indelibly tar his name by associating it with the fabrications about his work and the Houcks’ misfortune. The final line of the piece read, “Washington believes that the “Thought Machine” brought discord and tragedy to the little home on Congress Heights.” Korzybski felt infuriated but also invigorated. The stark accusatory tone and obvious falsehoods of the article, alone might provide the basis for a devastating libel suit against the Pulitzer newspaper chain.(38) 

Final determination of Gladys Houck’s death was soon made by an autopsy: death by drowning. However, the coroner’s jury appended this with, “under circumstances unknown”, refusing to come to any conclusion about how she had gotten into the water, and leaving it up to the district attorney to decide whether to prosecute Dr. Houck for murder. (He could have knocked her unconscious and thrown her into the water, for instance.) Houck was freed, however, and the case was dropped. Alfred made sure to get the full details of the findings. In a private memo, he summarized the evidence, which overwhelmingly favored suicide.(39) 

So that was that. The papers had pretty much finished with the Houcks and with Korzybski too. (Korzybski hadn’t finished with the papers, though.) It was time to get to Brooklyn. Mira had returned to Washington in the beginning of March. She and Alfred began to pack. They had some business problems to attend to as well. A wealthy Washington family had commissioned portraits from Mira, who had designed and purchased frames, cut the ivories, and done the major part of the painting. But the family had become uncommunicative and uncooperative. Mira was going to be out nearly $5,000 if they didn’t pay.(40)  Alfred helped put together letters to the family and a history of Mira’s transactions with them. These eventually ended up in the hands of a lawyer when they finally had to go to court for the money.

At the start of April, Alfred wrote to their friend Sally Avery that when the church fathers gave a picture of hell, they did not know there was such a thing as moving.(41) The Korzybskis left Washington in the middle of the month. The Brooklyn apartment they found waiting for them needed cleaning and repair work. Alfred, as usual, did the carpentry.

That, and dealing with the 49 pieces of luggage that they brought with them, and the multiple trunks that they retrieved from Manhattan Storage and other places, kept them busy for another month before they had unpacked and settled.(42) The Houck business had provided a huge, unwelcome distraction from writing. Now Alfred could focus on the book again. But he hadn’t let go of the possibility of one or more lawsuits for libel and copyright violation. Through the summer and fall he met with lawyers, looking for someone willing and able to take his case.

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
32. AK to Meyer, 1/14/1927. AKDA 19.505. 

33. E.T. Bell to AK, 2/6/1927. AKDA 19.645. 

34. The World, 1/16/1927. AKDA 19.228. 

35. “Sensationalizing Science”. New York: A Four-Page Journal of Ideas for the General Reader, 2/12/1927. AKDA 19.226. 

36. AK to Sally Avery, 4/1/1927. AKDA 19.369. 

37. The World, Tuesday, 3/1/1927. AKDA 19.227. 

38. AK to the editor or secretary of the New York Masonic Outlook, 3/30/1927. AKDA 19.368. 

39. Note for New York American Washington Correspondent. AKDA 19.372. 

40. “Statement about the facts in the Everett case”. AKDA 20.419. 

41. AK to Sally Avery, 4/1/1927. AKDA 19.369. 

42. AK to Sally Avery, 5/27/1927. AKDA 20.459. 

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