Wrestling with the Titan; Or, Interpreting That One Really Weird Piece of Evidence

Will B. Mackintosh
1857 engraving of White Sulphur springs showing cottages, trees, mountains, and guests riding on horseback.

Engraving of White Sulphur Springs from John J. Moorman, The Virginia Springs (Richmond, 1857). Courtesy of Historical Collections & Services, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, University of Virginia.

It is a tired truism that the exception proves the rule. While researching my recent JER article, “Red Jacket Bathed Here: Creating Race and Nation at Early National Mineral Springs,” I stumbled across an absolutely mystifying piece of ephemera that, I concluded, could only be understood as just such an exception. Discussion of this source was ultimately sacrificed to the merciless gods of the word limit, so I am excited to have the opportunity to talk about it in the more expansive spaces of The Panorama.

In my piece, I argued that imagined Indian origin stories for early national mineral springs and spa towns served as a tidy intellectual resolution to some of the central problems of national legitimacy and identity formation that faced the most privileged Americans. Created by and for white Americans, these origin stories invented “Indian” figures that explained the history of North American spas in ways that bore only a tangential relationship to actual Indigenous use of the waters, if it bore any relationship at all. I also pointed out that “[b]efore the Civil War, Indian origin stories were largely limited to emerging spa towns in the northeastern United States.”[1] Relying largely on the work of Charlene Boyer Lewis, I argued that the cultural formations of antebellum southern mineral springs resorts did not lend themselves to invented Indian origin stories. I remain convinced that argument is true. I did find one invented Indian origin story for the Virginia springs, published in Southern Literary Messenger in 1838. However, because the Southern Literary Messenger was published in Richmond with the explicit goal of fostering a southern literary culture that could compete with—and would be read in—the north, I understood this idiosyncratic piece as an attempt to participate in a northern cultural form rather than an attempt to initiate a southern one.

Photo of the Moorman broadside with an elaborate title and two long columns of text.

The Moorman broadside held at the Huntington Library. Photograph by Amanda Herbert.

But the Virginia springs also produced perhaps the oddest artifact telling a nineteenth-century springs origin story. On Worldcat, I stumbled across an entry for a broadside entitled “The Titan, or Giant of the White Sul. Springs. Purporting to Show the Origins of that Famous Fountain,” published by John J. Moorman, the resident physician at White Sulphur Springs, sometime in the 1840s. Only one copy exists, at the Huntington Library, but happily my friend Amanda Herbert was currently there on a fellowship, and she graciously agreed to page it and send me a photograph. The broadside that arrived in my inbox took to task the “learned savants” and “mere fanciful imaginers . . . in America and Europe [who have attempted] to account for the origin of different celebrated mineral springs.” Moorman specifically bemoaned “[t]he various attempts through philosophy or folly to account for the origin of the White Sulphur Springs (and such attempts have been frequent).” Luckily, he claimed, “the recent mythological researches into the history of the remarkable mountains” around White Sulphur Springs “discover a new light to illumine this dark and intricate subject.” The broadside then launched into the tale of “Tityrus,” the “White Sulphur Titan,” a “direct [descendent] from Jupiter and his wife Juno.” Out of favor in the court of his father, and “being desirous to espouse Proserpine, whom he had decoyed from the embraces of Pluto,” the pair escaped by sea across the Atlantic, only to be pelted by “the concussion of thunderbolts which Jupiter unloosed for their destruction.” Pluto, enraged at the deception, charged one of Jupiter’s thunderbolts with sulphur, which ultimately struck and slayed the lovers. After their death, “Terra, the goddess of the earth, converted their bodies into an immense mountain which occupies the portion of the valley in which they fell. From the base of this mountain has ever since issued a copious stream of healing water, highly impregnated with sulphur.” Moorman concluded his broadside with the observation that “this, perhaps, is about as veritable an account of the origin of the famous White Sulphur Springs as has yet been given, or is likely to be arrived at.”[2]

What to make of this ghostly piece of ephemera, which was utterly unlike anything I had encountered in my research so far? I set it aside in confusion until it was my turn to present at my department’s regular brown bag series. I shared it with a sharp group of colleagues and students, and we collectively concluded that it could only be read as satire. As one of the most active promoters of the Virginia springs in the 1840s, Moorman was mocking his northern competition. His broadside sought to highlight the absurdity of popular Indian origin stories for mineral springs by applying the characters and tropes of popular classical mythology to western Virginia in a large-format, reductio ad absurdum epic tale.

I wish I knew more about the context of its production. Was it circulated as a kind of snarky advertisement? Was it jointly drafted by a late-night champagne-drunk party of springs visitors, who convinced Moorman that the joke was good enough to be printed and pasted up on the walls of the hotel? Was it the product of some self-consciously literary mind who wasn’t savvy enough to get it into the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger? Whatever its origins, in its weird, exceptional wonderfulness, it fundamentally underscores my point about the northern parochiality of imagined Indian origin stories for spa resorts, and perhaps suggests how less receptive audiences might have received such tales.


Endnotes

[1] Will B. Mackintosh, “Red Jacket Bathed Here: Creating Race and Nation at Early National Mineral Springs,” Journal of the Early Republic 42 (Fall 2022), 421–450, quotation 427.

[2] John J. Moorman, The Titan, Or Giant of the White Sul. Springs: Purporting To Show The Origin Of That Famous Fountain(Richmond[?], VA, 184[?]). The sole extant copy of this broadside is in the collection of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; many thanks to Amanda Herbert for forwarding me a copy.

15 September 2022

About the Author

Will Mackintosh is associate professor of history at the University of Mary Washington and the founding editor of The Panorama.

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