|Rube Field, Greatest Mental Mathematician in the World|
Could Not Read or Write
Long time Fayetteville, Johnson County Resident
1852 Born Bath County, KY
1913 Died Kansas City, MO
|Rube Field, Mathematical Wonder of Warrensburg, MO|
Reuben Field, Prodigy
Bath County, Kentucky, once produced a citizen who made Rain Man look as dumb as a box of hair. The unlikely prodigy was the son of Skidmore Field, a blacksmith, and his wife Harriet Elizabeth Templeman Field. (In many accounts the family name is given as Fields.) The well-respected couple lived in a town called Pittsburgh, located on White Oak Creek and were destined to have three daughters and a son. The girls were Louisa (born 1843), Elizabeth (born 1848) and Mary Franklin (born 1856). The wonder of the family, however, was their son Reuben, born April 17, 1851. (Or 1852, according to the 1880 Johnson County, Missouri, census.)
It was soon obvious that Reuben was no ordinary boy. For one thing, he was a glutton almost from the cradle. Bath County historian J. A. Richards wrote, “He early developed a voracious appetite that he always proceeded to gratify regardless of consequences. Nothing short of a forcible withdrawal from the table would stop his consumption of all the provender he could hold in his capacious stomach.” A neighbor recalled the entertaining sight of Reuben eating beans by the double handful straight out of a garbage barrel intended for feeding hogs. On another occasion, finding himself in the center of an acre of sugar cane, little Reuben sucked the juice out of every single cane stalk. Field enjoyed potables as much as edibles, if not more, with the result that he was a heavy drinker at a time of his life when most boys were playing pirate and doing handstands on the church steeple.
In temperament Reuben was wild and intractable. Efforts to educate him proved impossible; at school, he refused to learn and as a result was a lifelong illiterate. Late in life, he remarked that if he had gone to school, he “would have become as big a fool as other people.” He spent most school days as a truant, and whenever forced to attend classes would scare other children with snakes and frogs. He also enjoyed terrifying onlookers by running between the legs of nervous horses.
In young adulthood, Reuben Field was fat, almost entirely uneducated, and seemingly a half-wit. An obituary recalled him as being “an overgrown country lout with boorish manners and silly mind.” His appearance was uninviting, as he had tiny crossed eyes and weighed 200 pounds though only 5 feet, 1 inches tall. He was also blessed with an oversized head and a thin, scraggly beard. Matters were not improved by his daily habit of smearing his face with grease from a jar that he carried around for said purpose. He had “a look the reverse of intelligent,” the Courier-Journal once remarked. However, Field had been blessed with a bizarre gift for mathematical computation that made him a marvel to all who encountered him. He was a prodigy, or to use the politically incorrect term, an idiot savant—a person who, despite being intellectually challenged, is brilliant in one specialized area.
His gift developed gradually. When he was about eight years old, Fields commenced startling neighbors by doing simple arithmetic problems mentally. Before long, writes Richards, he “became a sort of local wonder as an adept in addition, multiplication, etc.” A schoolmaster who knew Reuben as a boy stated that at first Field needed a night or so to solve math problems, but due to his astonishing memory he soon became what was then called a “lightning calculator.” He could solve the most difficult mathematical problems very quickly, sometimes instantaneously, and entirely in his mind.
The family moved to Fayetteville, Missouri, when Reuben was still a boy, although he appears to have spent considerable time commuting between Fayetteville and his relatives in Bath County. By then his talent had developed enough that he was soon the talk of his new surroundings. One of the earliest newspaper accounts I have found regarding his career comes from the Waukesha [Wisconsin] Freeman of February 17, 1870: “Reuben Field is a mathematical prodigy who lives in Missouri. He is a mere boy, has never been to school, and is possessed of no capacity for education. However, he gets drunk young as he is. But he can give the square of 12 figures, mentally, in three minutes’ time.” From this little item we make three deductions: before he turned twenty, Field’s fame was widespread; he was already an alcoholic; and his mental processes had become very fast, at least as far as math was concerned.
Reuben’s way with numbers is the stuff of legend, and stories abound concerning his freakish mental calculations. If read a lengthy column of numbers, he could instantly calculate the sum and he could remember the order in which the numbers were called. The Kansas City Star recounted a time when someone tested Reuben’s ability: “After having called several columns of figures for addition he went back to the first column, saying it was wrong and repeating it, purposely miscalling the next to the last figure. At once Field threw up his hand, exclaiming: ‘You didn’t call it that way before.’”
If provided with the date, month and year of a person’s birth, Reuben could instantly tell which day of the week the birth fell upon. Family Bibles and perpetual calendars proved him correct. He was able to calculate immediately how many grains of corn of a certain length it would take to reach from the earth to the moon. “It is immaterial whether there are 10 or 700 figures in [the problem],” declared the Courier-Journal in a November 1891 article. “Whether multiplication or subtraction, addition or division or a combination of all these, he will give you the answer, without the aid of paper or pencil, before the echoes of your voice in propounding the question have fully died away.” If given the circumference or diameter of a locomotive’s wheel and the distance between any two points, Field could immediately determine the number of revolutions the wheel would turn within that distance. Or the reverse: if told the distance and number of revolutions, he could calculate the circumference or diameter of the wheel. If given the dimensions of a brick and then the dimensions of a hypothetical wall, Field could instantly declare how many bricks of that size it would require to make up the wall. The Courier-Journal declared that if asked to multiply 59,746,989,223,615 by 94, subtract 73,275, and divide the result by 57 ½, “Reub” could give the correct answer nearly instantaneously.
Once Field was asked: “The circumference of the earth is, in round numbers, 25,000 miles. How many flax seed, allowing twelve to the inch, will it require to reach around it?” He had the answer in less than a minute. (19,008,000,000, in case you were wondering.)
Naturally, Field was in great demand among businessmen. Surveyors beseeched him to help with their calculations. Merchants would hire him to do their invoices. In the fall of 1873 the Fayetteville tax collector had Reuben look over his records; several months later, in summer 1874, he could still remember every number in the taxman’s ledger. A wholesale firm in Kansas City hired him for a single day as an experiment after he told them he could do the work of ten clerks. By the end of the day he had proved that he certainly could, and the firm gave him $45—pay sufficient for ten men. It was a rare occurrence, however, when Field accepted money for his computing skills. The childlike prodigy usually asked only for some piece of merchandise such as a pair of boots. On one occasion he accepted a bar of perfumed soap as payment. Rumor held that he ate the soap.
Then there was the time the government of Bath County called on Reuben to provide aid with his highly specialized skill. As told by historian Richards,
Bath County was indebted to the Big Sandy Railroad in a large amount, the bonds for which were held by a New York firm. The debt had been running and accumulating interest a great many years and a member of this firm was sent to negotiate a compromise with the county. The compromise was effected, the calculations were made and all the papers drawn and approved by the parties to the contract. The County Judge sent for [Field] and stated to him the whole business in a way he could understand it and though not being able to read or write he made the entire calculation by mental process and it tallied to the cent with the calculations made by the parties.
In addition to these feats, Field had some sort of internal clock that allowed him to tell the exact time of day or night without consulting a watch. He never owned a watch and would have been unable to tell time with one if he had it; because he was illiterate, he was unable to distinguish numerals as well as letters. (To put it another way, Field knew the numerical value of, say, the number 220, but if shown the numbers written on a piece of paper he did not recognize them.) People would experiment by waking him up in the middle of the night and asking the time. He was never wrong.
The press enjoyed informing readers about the wonder known as Reuben Field, often comparing him to Tom Bethune, a blind and probably autistic former slave who became a celebrity due to his phenomenal talent at playing piano. The St. Louis Republican sent a reporter out to visit him at his home in Fayetteville in July 1874. The following edifying dialogue took place.
Journalist: “Reub, I hear that you can tell what day of the week any given date was or will be. Is that so?”
“What was July 1, 1868?”
“Correct. What was the 22nd of January, 1848?”
“What day will the Fourth of July come on this year?”
“All right. I have also heard, Reub, that you can tell the hour at any time of day or night. Is that so?”
“What time is it now?”
“It is 17 minutes past 2 o’clock, railroad time—sun time is 13 minutes slower.”
The reporter repeatedly tested Field’s ability to tell time without a watch and was satisfied. Perhaps in the mood to show off a little, Field asked a passing citizen to write down and read aloud a column of numbers. There were thirteen two-digit numbers in all. Reuben immediately added them, and proved that he could repeat the numbers in the order they were written. He could also do it backwards.
Scientists and mathematicians who tested Field invariably found that his near-instantaneous calculations were correct. “The most learned mathematicians have tried to trap him, but without success,” said the Courier-Journal in 1891. “He always instantly gave a correct answer to their most difficult and complicated problems…. While expert accountants who have witnessed his feats have sometimes questioned the correctness of his answers, they have always found, upon investigation, that they were in error and Field was right…” The paper further noted that the savant had a perpetual idiotic grin and glassy eyes that lit up only when doing his mental calculating.
In April 1892 the Scientific American printed a letter describing his feats, sent by reader N. T. Allison of Columbus, Kansas:
[…H]is reasoning powers have never developed beyond those of a child of the most ordinary intellect. In the face of these facts, however, he has the keenest perception of the relation of numbers and quantities, and is able, as if by instinct, to solve the most intricate mathematical problems. He does not know figures on a blackboard, but he understands them perfectly in his mind…. Once in my office I asked him the time. He replied at once: “Sixteen minutes after three.” In order to test him, I drew him off upon some other question, not letting him know my object, and when seventeen minutes had passed, I looked at my watch and asked him the time. He said: “Twenty-seven minutes to four.”
In 1887 Field displayed his skills before Governor Crittenden of Missouri and other celebrities of that state, all of whom “unhesitatingly pronounce[d] him one of the greatest wonders of the century.”
To what did Field credit his seemingly miraculous power? He could not explain it except to say he thought it was a gift from God, and “liable to be taken away from him if not properly used.” He believed that if he were to try to use his talent to make money he would lose it; therefore he refused the tempting offers of many a circus owner or business firm. (Only once was he persuaded to go onstage, but Reuben’s manager unwisely told the audience in his introduction that Field was a fool in all matters except math. Reuben exclaimed “You are a fool yourself; I’m no fool!” and left the stage, never to return.) Field also shunned literacy, telling a reporter that he feared he would lose his talent if he ever learned to read and write. However, noted the Courier-Journal, he evidently did not fear he would lose his gift due to drunkenness. “Reub loves his toddy and indulges freely. Already his face is bloated from the effects of whisky, and it is only a question of time until he will fill a drunkard’s grave.” In 1874 Field enigmatically attempted to explain his mathematical instincts to a St. Louis Republican reporter: “You commence at the bottom and work up—I commence at the top and work down; it is easier falling out of a tree than climbing out. If I could read and write, I shouldn’t know any more than you do.”
Field refused to work, although the 1880 Johnson County, Missouri, Census lists his occupation as “natural mathematician.” He lived with various family members and acquaintances, leaving for another host whenever he sensed that he was wearing out his welcome. Sometimes his benefactors had to resort to subterfuge in order to get him to leave, as related by local historian Richards: “When the good woman of the house felt that he had overstayed his time, he was told about some neighbor who had just slaughtered a hog, or had procured a new supply of hominy, both of which he loved, whereupon he would take off for a visit there until the hog and hominy were gone.” Field never married, claiming he would do so only if the Lord commanded it. “Even then,” said the Kansas City Star, “it is doubtful if any sane woman would have had him for a husband.”
After a lifetime of amazing people, sometime in the early twentieth century Reuben Field vanished from the record. John A. Richards writes in his history of Bath County that the place and date of Field’s death were unknown. However, due to the magic of backbreaking research, I can relate the story of the prodigy’s final days. He had moved to Jackson County, Missouri, and in 1907 was committed to the county poor farm by court order. With the onset of poor health came the loss of his mathematical skill. He died of apoplexy at the county hospital at Little Blue on November 27, 1913. “Death now holds the secret of Rube Field’s wonder,” remarked the Kansas City Star.
Field’s relatives were unable to care for his remains, so he was buried in the cemetery at the county poor farm. It is a matter for metaphysicians to ponder whether his ghost can instantly compute the number of grains of dirt that fill his grave.SOURCES
Allison, N. T. “Another Mathematical Prodigy.” Scientific American 30 Apr. 1892: 276.
Colangelo, Drema. E-mails to author. 10 Oct. and 11 Oct. 2003.
Coshocton [OH] Morning Tribune. “Rapid Calculator Dead.” 29 Nov. 1913: 4.
Kansas City Star. “Bury Prodigy as a Pauper.” 28 Nov. 1913: 2A.
---. “A Wizard of Figures Dies.” 27 Nov. 1913: 1.
Louisville Courier-Journal. “A Lightning Calculator.” 1 Nov. 1887: 4.
---. “A Mathematical Prodigy.” 30 Nov. 1891: 5.
Richards, John A. A History of Bath County, Kentucky. Yuma, AZ.: Southwest Printers, 1961.
Waukesha [WI] Freeman. “Reuben Fields is a mathematical prodigy…” 17 Feb. 1870: 1.
“Worse Than the Lightning Calculator.” Originally in St. Louis Republican. Reprinted in Herald and Torch Light [Hagerstown, Md.] 15 July 1874: 1.
July 14, 1891
The Sedalia Weekly Bazoo
ANOTHER JONAH. The Wonder of the Age Shows Up at Warrensburg, Mo., July 11. Special A mathematician, by the name of King; from Utica, N. Y., came here this week to see and converse with Rube Field, the greatest mathematical wonder of the age. The New Yorker gave Field some of the most difficult problems and received the correct answer immediately after the problem was stated. He also, to the great astonishment of the stranger told the exact time of day without confuting any timepiece. Without looking at any one's watch he can give the exact time by it,... Field said to-day that God had ordered him to go to Joplin and front there to Louisville, Ky., where he must stay for three months. He never disobeyed these imaginary commandments.
Rube Field, the celebrated mathematical freak, what time of day it was, says the Boonville Advertiser. Rube wished to know whether he wanted sun time or railroad time. The conductor said the former. Rube then looked out of a window, glanced up at the great orb of day, and replied instantly: “Thirteen minutes and three seconds to 8 o’clock.” Mr. Rogers pulled out his watch and found Field’s calculation exactly correct. / Rube was en route to Marshall.
Sedalia Democrat March 29, 1900
"At the age of 17 he came with his family to Johnson county, Mo. For many years their home was at Fayetteville, ten miles north of Warrensburg. His parents are now dead and the family scattered. A brother lives at Chilhowee, a sister at Holden. Though an able-bodied man. Rube is very indolent, and never could be induced to work at home......"
“Rube” Field is so well known in Warrensburg that everyone takes him as a matter of course, and little attention is paid him."REUB. FIELD, MATHEMATICAL PRODIGY.* (Warrensburg, Missouri)
By WALTER F. Prince.
Journal of American Society of Physical Research 1912 Reub Field
Journal of American Society of Physical Research 1912 Reub Field
An article in McClure's Magazine for September 1912, written by Mr. H. Addington Bruce, deals with the feats of a number of "Lightning Calculators" of the last hundred years.
Zerah Colbum, an American, at the age of six quickly answered the question of how many times the clock would strike, at the rate of 156 times a day, in 2,000 years. Later, when asked what stun multiplied by itself will produce 998,001, he answered in four seconds. In ten seconds he told how many yard-long steps one would take in going sixty-five miles.
"Marvelous Griffith " of Indiana, could raise a number to the 6th power in eleven seconds, but could not carry on a conversation regarding non-mathematical subjects without quickly suffering brain-fog.
Inaudi, an Italian peasant, did not learn to read or write until nearly twenty years old. Yet at seven he could multiply two sets of figures, each containing five digits, by some swift mental process. When grown older he was examined by Charcot and other learned men, responded to the request to cube 27 in ten seconds, and three seconds after the last word of the question, announced the number of seconds in 39 years, 3 months, and 12 hours. Eight days after these and many other feats he was unexpectedly asked to give a number of 22 figures which had entered into one of them and correctly remembered it.
Henri Mondeaux of France as a boy would in a few moments solve such problems as the number of seconds in 19 years. At fourteen he astonished a committee of the Academy of Sciences which examined him.
Vito Mangiamele of Sicily was also examined by a committee of the Academy of Sciences. He was then eleven years old, and quite illiterate. In half a minute he announced the cube root of 3,796, 416, and in a little longer time the tenth root of 282, 476, 249. In less than a minute he correctly answered the question, “What number satisfies the condition that its cube plus 5 times its square equals 42 times itself increased by 40?”
Zecharias Dase, a German, gave public exhibitions at fifteen. He once mentally multiplied two sets of figures of a hundred members each. He was otherwise ignorant.
Truman Safford at three could calculate the number of barleycorns (617,760) in 1,040 rods. Later he was able to call out the result of multiplying a number of fifteen digits by one of eighteen, in not more than a minute. He became professor of astronomy at Williams College, and so remained until his death in 1901.
George Bidder, an Englishman who showed a marvelous facility in purely mental calculation, became a great engineer.
Karl Friedrich Gauss, another infant prodigy in mathematics, attained to fame in that science, as a professor at Gottingen, and author of mathematical treatises.
Andre Marie Ampere, who as a child deserved a place in the list of "lightning calculators," became the famous mathematician and physicist, whose name is applied to the field of electrical measurement.
It appears from these and other instances that phenomenal ability to solve mathematical problems may coexist with illiteracy or education, ability or almost imbecility in other directions, may develop at a very early age and afterwards persist or decay.
We now put on record in a suitable place what is in the files of this Society regarding another and too little inspected case, that of one Reub. Fields. First comes an article in the Religion-Philosophical Journal of August 29, 1891, taken from the columns of the St. Louis Daily Republic.
A MATHEMATICAL PRODIGY.
At Warrensburg, Mo. lives a man named Reub. Fields, widely known as a great mathematical prodigy. He is forty-one years old, a native of Kentucky, above the average height, rather stout, ungainly in appearance, slow in his movements, and at times unsocial and morose. He is superstitious and claims to be under the special guidance of the Almighty. He believes that God has created him for a special purpose, and if his mission is not fulfilled here on earth it will be when he sits at the final judgment on the day of resurrection and keeps account of the souls saved and damned in all the ages of the past.
A representative of the St. Louis Daily Republic, who interviewed him lately, says: Fields' strange feats seem as wonderful and strange to his relatives as to strangers. In an interview with the writer yesterday, he said, "God sent into the world but one Moses, one Samson, one Savior and one Reub. Fields." Indeed Samson's strength is no more wonderful than Fields' mathematical ability. There is no problem in any branch of mathematics that he cannot correctly answer as soon as the problem is stated. Problems that have taken expert mathematicians days to solve Reub. has correctly answered in less than fifteen seconds. When asked yesterday to add 784,675,675 to 986,534,671 and multiply the answer by
64, he instantly replied 11,060,064,662.* He can add a column of any number of figures as fast as they can be called. It does not matter how complicated or full of simple or complex fractions the problems may be, he will solve them as readily as if they were simple sums in addition. While invoicing goods he sits like a statue, keeping as many as twelve clerks busy, and at the close of the day he will give correctly the invoice of the day. He has never been known to make a mistake. He also possesses the peculiar ability of telling the standard and local time of the day or night without consulting any time-piece. He not only can tell the correct time, but without seeing one's watch will tell exactly how far it is from being correct. Traveling east or west he is conscious of how many degrees of longitude he has passed through and of the difference of time between the place of starting and where he is at that time. When given the year and day of one's birth he will, with
lightning-like rapidity, tell the day of the week on which the person was born. Notwithstanding he can do all these wonderful things,
♦As the purport of the article is that Reub. answered correctly, the St. Louis Daily Republic evidently misprinted the result, which should read 11,070,064,662.5.
he acknowledges his inability to explain the process of reasoning by which he arrives, always, at correct answers. In his early youth he showed no signs of this remarkable talent.
It was furthermore stated that as a boy vicious animals and venomous reptiles were docile with him, also that to the time of the interview he had remained unable to read or write, or even to recognize numerals when he saw them.
It is evident that a distinction must be made between what this observer stated as the result of his own tests, and what he sets down from hearsay. Only one test is actually alleged to have been made by the reporter, though it is highly probable that he made others. He could hardly have resisted the inclination to name the year and day of his own birth, and Reub's ability to give the day of the week would have been of precisely the sort which young Mantilla manifested in the presence of Dr. Hyslop, though not unerringly. That Fields was able to solve any problem whatever as soon as it was proposed is incredible, and of none of the historic prodigies is it asserted that the time of the answer did not vary somewhat according to the difficulties of the problem. The very next sentence of the article is inconsistent with the claim, since there is a difference between "as soon as the problem is stated" and “less than fifteen seconds." It is not certain that the autobiographic testimony was free from exaggeration or even suppression of some of the facts in order to make the remaining facts seem the more marvelous. For example, it is well-nigh inconceivable that a man whose intellectual life consisted largely in his delight in mathematical calculation could have avoided learning, though by accident, how some of the numerical digits are made. It is a pity that there could not have been some learned body in America with sufficient interest to cause it to follow the example of the French Academy of Sciences, and appoint a committee to examine the man. One claim is unique, so far as I know, namely, the claim that he showed no unusual calculating power in very early childhood.
Dr. Hodgson attempted to trace the writer of the above report, and was informed by Mr. C. H. Jones, editor of the St. Louis Republic, that it was probably furnished by the Warrensburg correspondent, Charles Achenbach. Next in the course of the inquiry came a letter from S. P. Sparks, a lawyer of Warrensburg, dated Oct. 15, 1891.
My friend, W. A. Kelsoe, of St. Louis, forwarded to me, a day or so since, yours to him of 7th inst, containing a clipping from The Religion-Philosophical Journal of Aug. 2nd, 1891, entitled “A Mathematical Prodigy." Mr. K. requests me to inform you whether the statements are matters of fact or fiction. I will state that I am and have been acquainted with Mr. Fields for more than twenty years and I critically read the article in the St. Louis Daily Republic on which the article in your clipping is based and every statement I knew to be true. Field is indeed “Rare avis in Terra “(Juv.) if I can give you at any time any further data concerning this Prodigy will cheerfully do so.
Yours very respectfully,
S. P. Sparks.
Next we find a letter from Mr. Achenbach, who did not claim to be, and in fact was not, the author of the article. It was written from Warrensburg, and dated Oct. 15, 1891.
Replying to yours of Oct. 19th, in regard to Reub Fields, the mathematical wonder, will say that the tests made of his skill in mathematics are wonderful, the problems given him being long lists of figures in addition, to be multiplied by any number of figures, or anything of this nature, involving fractions or whole numbers and cube or square root. It is claimed that if he can be made to understand the problem desired to be solved, he can solve it. For example, should he be given a problem in cube root, if you first solve it for him to explain what is wanted, he can thereafter solve any number of problems of the same kind. This has not been tested as to Geometry, Trigonometry, etc., but his admirers claim this feat. As to telling the time on a watch which he has not seen, this I think has not been fully demonstrated. This statement gains credence from the fact that he can tell the time at any time, and by seeing the watch tell how much it is wrong either way, and it is claimed he can ever afterward tell the time of your watch, if not changed, from the fact that he remembers the difference. In conclusion, he certainly is a phenomenon worthy of further investigation, and refer you to H. C. Hale, of Warrensburg, who has often seen his performances, also to W. M. Malone, of Concordia, Lafayette Co., Mo., and Augustine Gallagher, of the Kansas City Times, Kansas City, Mo.
This short but discriminating letter draws a pretty clear line between what had been demonstrated, and what had been claimed but not demonstrated, at least to the writer's satisfaction.* His account of the watch phenomenon appears highly reasonable - It is confirmed to a degree by the next witness, a merchant of Warrensburg, writing Nov. 4th, 1891.
Answering your favor of 29th, Mr. Rube Fields does not pretend to give the time from an unseen watch. He simply gives meridian time at any time called on, even when awoke suddenly in the night.
He is a remarkable natural mathematician, without learning, and is very nearly an idiot in many respects. I could give you many of his remarkable feats, but prefer testing him before a committee and give you the result. Prof. Howe of the Normal School here, Mr. Achenbach and myself will try to interview him.
H. C. Haise.
Unfortunately, no report of the intended committee appears in the file. But this by no means necessarily implies that the gentlemen named did not try to carry out their plan. Reub appears to have been a rather cantankerous personage, and it may be that he declined to be so formally interviewed by a group of his neighbors, or that he got angry and cut it short with the valedictory eloquence to be described.
Next came a letter by the real writer of the article in the St. Louis Republic. It was written Nov. 7th, 1891, from Concordia, Mo. He says
Mr. Chas. Achenbach, of Warrensburg, was the regular correspondent at that time for The Republic, but this article on Reub Fields, the Mathematical Prodigy, was written by myself after a long interview with "Prof. Fields." It is in substance correct. Any information outside of the article I have mentioned that I can give you I will kindly do so.
Wm. M. Malone.
Another account appeared in the Kansas City Times, of a date not appended but probably in November. It will be remembered that Mr. Achenbadi named among the witnesses of
Fields's feats, Augustine Gallagher of the Kansas City Times,
It is likely, then, that he was the author, but at any rate, there is internal evidence that it was not Malone but another investigator. After reiterating that Field was illiterate to the point of not knowing even the numerals, this new witness goes on "Rube” is not easily engaged in conversation, and there is not a person in the world to whom he would confide his secrets. He believes that all mankind is in league to take from him his gift, or, as he puts it, his "mystery." He regards every man in the same way, and that ungovernable fear will, no doubt, keep him out of sight of the public, as it has for the last twenty years. Though he is mercenary to a degree in his dealings, he does not seem to possess any special desire for riches, but rather evinces the desire to see "fools," as he calls the human family, put to some expense on his account. It makes him feel big to have men hire him to be interviewed, and yet he is not vain enough to make a public exhibition of himself, another evidence of his unusual composition.
He cannot tell how he manipulates figures and computes numerals as with a thought, and this inability to explain bothers him least of all who are aware of the fact. He says he is aware if he could write an arithmetic with his system of calculation as a basis he “could make more money than ten railroads," but he can't do it and doesn't care anything about it. He is satisfied with his lot and has great plans for the future. It is his belief that he came into this world to herald to men that beyond their vision of the science of numbers lies the key to all the mysteries of life. The great work he is to do upon earth has not been outlined to him by the Omniscient, but will be in due time.
Taking him unawares I asked:
Can you add 26,896,432 to J, 938, 548 to 69,598,624,138 to 1, 846,-
028,001 to 14,374 without stopping to figure?"
"That makes 71, 473, 501, 493," said he on the instant, and then he laughed heartily at my surprise.
As I called the numbers to him he added them, having the aggregate of the first two before I had finished the third, and of the whole while I caught my breath after enumerating them. Then I read him a column of figures ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands, the length of a sheet of legal cap, and he had furnished me an accurate aggregate the moment I finished.
Such an evidence of unexplained power will astonish the most credulous, but what must one think when such a character says that he is a living, walking chronometer, and proves the same before you can dispute it? He mistrusts all men, and a financial consideration, together with the inducements of acquaintances, is necessary to set his tongue going, which done, he keeps you busy listening, for he talks like a torrent rushes, swears with the fury of a cyclone, and calculates with the rapidity of electric pulsations. I employed him to be interviewed for one hour, and desiring to test him as to his knowledge of time without giving him an opportunity to consult a timepiece, I asked:
"What is the time now, professor?" (He delights to be called "professor.")
"Twenty-five and one-quarter minutes after three," he replied. I reached for my watch to see if he answered right, and before I could see he said, "Your watch is one and one-quarter fast." “How do you know?" I asked.
"I can't tell you, but I am right," he said. And so he was, as the Western Union regulator proved. I then concluded to test him further, and resolved that I would say nothing of it when his hour was ended and note if he knew it. Imagine my surprise when in the middle of a problem he stopped me and announced that his time was up. Consulting my watch, I found him right to a second. Previous to that I had asked him the time in St. Petersburg and he stated it correctly, saying that he was conscious of the degrees of longitude and latitude in all his calculations of time. He knows their location and can answer any question of time whenever asked. Often he has been aroused from sound sleep and upon being asked the time would state it correctly while rubbing his eyes. Reading the dial plate of a clock in Berlin, he says, is no more trouble to him than that of the watch in my pocket, and in this he brings proof of the assertion that he is conscious of every clock tick in the world, whether sleeping or awake. His memory is almost as remarkable as his calculating genius. Having heard any statement he will remember it, and, though he may not understand words he hears, he will use them in the same or a similar sense to that in which they were used when he heard them. By ^is means he has a vocabulary far in advance of other illiterates. Speaking of his youth he said he remembered no change, so far as his knowledge of things is concerned, since his seventh year, at which time he came into possession of his "mystery." He is not fond of his relatives, who, he believed, would make a fortune at his expense if he was not so smart as to prevent it.
Here again we must distinguish between tests actually administered and assertions by the man, some of them preposterous, and others probably exaggerated. The terms of the report do not forbid the assumption that Mr. Achenbach's theory of the watch experiments is the correct one. It seems likely that the witness took out his watch at the beginning of the experiment, since he was paying for exactly one hour. It may be that Field glanced at it. If it did not occur to the present investigator that perhaps the prodigy, possessing some strange faculty for telling the time, simply by an act of memory, and not by clairvoyant vision, rectified the time of a watch, at any reasonable time after he had once glanced at it, he might not attach significance to his act in taking out the watch for a moment at the very banning of the hour. Mr. Hale, indeed, declared that Field did not claim to tell time from an unseen watch. It may be that the claim was made or denied depending on the opportunity for a surreptitious peek given, or not given, by the visitor.
But aside from allegations which are absurd and claims that are doubtful, there remains enough to give Reub. Field an honorable place among the "lightning calculators." It is a pity that older persons who knew him as a child could not have been interviewed. His assertions that he did not possess his calculating power until he was seven years old cannot be trusted unreservedly, for fear of an illusion of memory. If the statement was correct, then the case of Reub. Field is probably unique in history, and more nearly than the stock cases approaches the inexplicable.*
* Since the above was written it has been learned that Fields's phenomenal mathematical faculty waned, if it did not entirely disappear, toward the end of his life. He died at the age of 64 in the Jackson Comity (Mo.) Home for the Poor.
Daily public ledger., June 06, 1899, Page 2,
The Butler weekly times., August 20, 1890
Mathematical Genius Dead. Reuben Field, whose phenomenal power as a rapid calculator have puzzled mathematicians from all parts of the country, died recently of apoplexy at the Jackson County, Missouri, poor farm where he had been cured for since 1907. He was 70 years old. Field's brain power ran to figures only. Slovenly in his personal hubris, without ambition for worldly progress and always dependent upon others for the care that preserves life, he regarded his; mathematical powers as the gift of God that would be taken from him if turned to worldly gain. He was unable to read or write. Given the distance by rail between two cities and the dimension of the oar wheel, he would tell an inquisitor how many revolutions of the wheel would be rotated to cover the distance almost before the statement of the problem was complete. It was said of him that he could tell the exact time tit any time without hesitation and without reference to clock, sun or other outside agency. On several occasions Field had consented reluctantly to aid in making invoices in stores at Independence, near the county farm, A clerk would read off the n u m b e r of yards in a bolt, the price per yard until he had covered the contents) of a shelf, after which Field would tell him instantly the total value of the lot. A promoter once obtained Field's consent to appear on a stage in Independence. Before introducing the prodigy the manager explained that Field, while without parallel us a mathematician, was a little "foolish" in other matters. Hearing the introduction, Field rushed on the stage with the explanation: "I'm not a fool, You're a fool yourself," He then ran from the house and could never again be induced to appear before the public. Field would never go to school. He always suit! he feared attendance at school would make him as big a fool as most other people. No explanations could ever be drawn from Field as to how he worked his problems. Nor would he say whether he kept his system secret or whether he could not explain it. He was born in Bath county, Kentucky, but had spent most of his life in western Missouri. in WarrensburgKeven McQueen Stories Link
Rube Fields And His Gift
|Rube Fields, circa unknown.|
|From the January 12, 1899 issue of the Owingsville Outlook. Note the fourth paragraph about Rube Fields. The third paragraph is interesting too!|
Many of you have heard of Rube Fields already, but I hope the excerpt below brings a personal element to his story that might be missing otherwise. My father-in-law spoke of Mr. Fields often, always with a sense of amazement and respect, never with any hint of derision. There is a lesson in that for all of us.
Small town living can be hard and it can even be brutal to those who march to a different drummer, but it has long been my opinion that one thing small towns do best is to take care of those among us who may have what we now call "special needs." I know this is true of our Bath County towns because I have witnessed it hundreds of times in many different ways. ~Ginger
From the journals:
“I can’t accept money for taking inventory of your store goods because God might take away my gift." So spoke one of the most unusual persons that ever lived. This man was born and reared in Bath County and later made occasional trips to Missouri. Rube Fields has been a legend in Bath County since the time he became an adult.
Rube grew up in the White Oak community. A multitude of stories told about this interesting man were true. There are many skeptics who do not believe Rube could have worked such magic. If Mr. Fields lived today, he would probably be referred to as a "walking computer." Certainly, it was uncanny how he could give you the exact time of day without looking at a watch. Some fellas were not too sure if Rube could tell time by a watch. It is a fact, though, that he could – if he would – give you the correct time at any time, without looking at one. Boys, having heard of his power, would slip up on Rube and ask for the time. Rube would respond, "It’s time you were at home getting in your mother’s firewood." Time telling was only a small part of his gift
Mathematical problems and the solving of them seemed to be the greatest gift that this man had. Rube would not have been able to solve the problem on paper, but would instantaneously give the answer after the problem had been stated. You might give him a problem such as this: How many times would a locomotive wheel turn over between Salt Lick and Preston if the circumference of the wheel is 8’4” and the distance by rail between the two points is seven and three miles? He could respond immediately with the correct answer.
The town council in Owingsville had a large cistern built alongside the old courthouse.* Old cisterns were usually a cylinder that began to taper in toward the top forming a cone, but the cone is chopped off at the top. The point made here is that not everyone can figure to the gallon what the capacity of such a cistern would be. The "town fathers" calculated what they believed to be accurate to the gallon and then called in Rube Fields and gave him the dimensions. Rube unhesitatingly answered and the councilmen informed him that this was one time that he had missed. Not being satisfied, however, one of the councilmen took the problem to a mathematician (reputedly a college professor of mathematics) and of course Rube had it to the gallon.
Some of the top circuses in the United States tried to no avail to employ Rube but again he stated, "I can’t accept money because God might take my gift away from me."
Rube loved to go into a cane field and eat and suck on the cane until he had his fill. He also used soap differently than most. Rube would rub dry soap on his face until it became red and slick.
Mr. Fields was a large man with a ruddy complexion. He was well-liked but folks often tested him because they wondered about his gift.
Perhaps you wonder about the author’s source of information. The author’s father knew Rube Fields. Other fellas also knew this great man with the unbelievable gift.**
It is understood why most people do not believe the exploits of Rube Fields and the author would be one also had his father not known him. It is thought by some that knew Rube that he died between 1910 and 1912.
For those of you who saw the movie "Rain Man," Rube was much like the character played by Dustin Hoffman, except that character had some formal education and Rube was illiterate. The medical term for such gifted persons is "idiot savant.”***
*My father in law notes in the margins of his writing that the cistern is "still to the west of the courthouse near Main Street," and it is - see the picture below. You can see the location of several old cisterns on the 1914 maps of Owingsville that we have linked to. Some of them have since been filled in, and to give you an idea of how big they are, Don says you could fit two cars inside.
**He also notes in the margins that "Mr. Jeff" knew Rube Fields, Mr. Jeff being Jefferson L. Darnell, Don’s grandfather or Mr. Burl’s father-in-law. I'm sure he heard stories from him as well.
***The term "idiot savant" has fallen out of favor because not all savants have limited intelligence. "Autistic savant" was used for a while because quite a few (fifty percent) of savants are autistic. Not all are, of course, so the term "savant syndrome" is now the preferred one.
Rube Field, mathematical genius is dead
BACKWOODSMAN WHO WAS GENIUS AT MATHEMATICS. Born In Bath county,"Kentucky, "Rube" was one of quite a large family" of children. The family "came West", when "Rube" was a small boy, and lived for many years In Johnson county. Missouri. The only members ' of the family now living, so far as known, are a brother, James Field," and ' sister named Mrs. Braun. Both are supposed to be In Kansas City, but efforts to locate them have been unsuccessful, according to Dr. J. H. George, superintendent' of the county farm. Funeral arrangements are being delayed, Dr. George said yesterday afternoon. In the hope that some of the relatives or friends of the former "wizard" may be found. " Rube' was one of the most lovable old fellows we over had at the farm." said Dr. George. His wonderful, mathematical powers appeared to leave him when he became afflicted with epilepsy some years and often unconscious humor never was exhausted. He was said to have been taciturn and rather quarrelsome In his younger days, but none of that disposition cropped out during his stay at the farm He was on good terms with all the in mates and seemed to enjoy both talking and listening. He was always neat about his person and his habits during his latter days were exemplary. He took on considerable flesh as he grew old and ceased his active outdoor life. He weighed more than 200 pounds when he died although he was only a few inches over five feet In height" - "It is gift of God." was the only explanation ever offered by Field when asked to 'tell of his marvelous powers. When working out problems he would shake as with palsy, and, perspiration would stand out on his brow. He never, made a mistake take, but ha could give no analysis of how he arrived at his conclusions. His work apparently was subconscious." V . It was rare that Field would talk of himself. One of the longest conversations he ever held along this line was about as fol lows: before coming to us, but his fund of droll I "When I was boy. In Johnson county. Missouri, - everybody thought I was crazy. Even my mother , thought ' so. When " I started to school ' everybody made "fun of me, and It was so plain they all thought I was crazy that I couldn't stay In school and consequently missed an education. regret that my mother did not live long enough to learn that 'I' wasn't crazy, but that I possessed a gift from God." The first use to which Field's great were put was by merchants, who engaged him in invoice work." He was able to keep a corps of clerks busy reading figures to him. and his answers were instantaneous and always correct. Had he possessed business acumen - he might have become rich. ' In those days, however, he was given to drink, and in the case of unscrupulous employers he often was paid little more than, the price of a few drinks. "Traveling men everywhere knew Rube," and they,would entertain themselves on long winter evenings In the bars of country hotels by getting him to work out Intricate problems, buying him drinks by way of payment. Of late years he quit drinking altogether. A circus man once sought to exploit Field as a side-show attraction. Rube" went out with the aggregation but quit before the first performance when the barker announced that he had Inside "mathematical freak", "I'm not a freak!" shouted Field, angrily; and he forthwith left the show grounds. Field was a typical backwoodsman In appearance. His face was weather-beaten, he always wore an old " slouch hat. rough clothing and boots. " He was extremely bashful and talked In jerky fashion. Scientists who studied hint sever were able to fathom him. He was an enigma. One phase of "Rube's" mathematical gift was the ability, to tell the time to second at the hour of the day or night. How he did It be never could tell. It was the same as his method of solving problems. He declared he "Just did it," And that's all he knew. It has been positively asserted that if awakened from a sound sleep and asked the time "Rube" would answer with out hesitation," and if he ever made mistake it Is not on record. Often his questioners would think they had him bested because their watches showed different, time from his. Always," though, the test proved him 'right and the watch wrong. It is said that if one told "Rube" the difference between the time indicated by any given watch and that given by "Rube," and then asked "Rube" the time next day, the answer would be given, along with the time by the watch.
Ed. He was possibly an "Austistic Savant". What do you think?
Ed. He was possibly an "Austistic Savant". What do you think?