Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 4th, 2018

The Bad Pennies, Part 2

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William Herbert Sheldon achieved his greatest fame by classifying human beings into degrees of three basic categories—ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph—based on their physical proportions. At exactly the same time, and with far more enduring results, he did something similar for rare coins. In 1949, he developed what became known as the Sheldon coin grading scale, a modified version of which is used to this day by numismatists and coin collectors. In his book Early American Cents, Sheldon notes that numismatists gain much of their knowledge from studying photographs of coins, and he continues:

A workable idea can be formed as to how the various shades of condition from a poor coin to a perfect coin can be scaled or graded. This progression is of course a continuum, not a series of discrete steps, and for those who think quantitatively rather than adjectivally it is more accurate to grade coins on a numerical scale than to try to fit them into a series of adjectival pigeonholes.

Sheldon goes on to provide “a quantitative scale of condition” for the coins known as large cents, ranging from 1 to 70, with the highest rating reserved for specimens in an uncirculated state. And while I don’t know enough about Sheldon to speculate on the direction of influence, the entire project was strikingly similar to his work on somatotypes, which classified individuals on a quantitative scale, ranging from 1 to 7, based on the close examination of photos.

Both aspects of Sheldon’s career were also tainted by what appears to have been a deep streak of dishonesty. One of his former assistants, Barbara Honeyman Heath, said decades later that Sheldon had “mutilated and manipulated the materials” for his book Atlas of Men, and an even stranger scandal emerged after his death. In the course of his research on large cents, Sheldon frequently studied the examples held by the American Numismatic Society in New York, including a collection donated by the numismatist George H. Clapp. As a legal filing states:

ANS took physical possession of the Clapp collection in 1947. At some time after ANS’s receipt of the Clapp collection and before 1973, a number of coins were surreptitiously stolen from the Clapp collection by someone who replaced the Clapp coins with coins of the same variety but of inferior grade…The late William Sheldon, a preeminent classifier, cataloguer, and collector of large cents, lived near the ANS until 1973. During that time, Sheldon spent much time at ANS, unguarded, examining the Clapp collection. In 1973-1974, the ANS catalogued its Clapp collection and discovered that some of the coins had been switched for inferior coins of the same variety.

In 1991, a collector published a book, United States Large Cents, that included photos of coins that had been acquired from Sheldon. After closer scrutiny, they were identified as the coins that had been stolen from the Clapp collection—and Sheldon also appears to have pilfered coins from at least four other private collectors, switching them out in each case with inferior examples of his own.

Sheldon’s thefts evidently took place during his research for Early American Cents and its successor, which was titled Penny Whimsy. The revised edition was prepared by Sheldon in collaboration with Walter H. Breen, a much younger numismatist whom he had met while teaching at Columbia University. The two men worked together on what become known as the Sheldon-Breen rarity scale, which rates a coin’s scarcity on a scale from 1 to 9. And much as in Sheldon’s case, Breen’s interest in coins was mirrored in his fascination with unusual human beings, particularly those of high intelligence. Breen was an early member of Mensa, and he evidently attempted to start a program for gifted children that may have involved Sheldon. Our primary source here is Jack Sarfatti, a controversial physicist with ties to Uri Geller, who has made some unusual claims about this project:

I was part of a group of super kids, these genius kids that were being studied at the Columbia University Laboratory of William Sheldon, and one of his assistants, a Walter Breen—we’re talking like 1953…It was also connected to the government.  It had something to do with what later became Sandia Labs in New Mexico…There were experiments, and they would just sit with the kids, you know, trying to get them to move objects.  We never moved anything, but there was a whole program going on about this.  Also, they talked about aliens and flying saucers, trying to figure out how they fly, and all that kind of stuff, it was a lot of science fiction.

In the same interview, Sarfatti claimed that Alan Greenspan had been involved, and that “it was all connected somehow with Ayn Rand,” which is more plausible than it sounds. Sarfatti also stated that Breen often took the kids to science fiction conventions, and he added: “Oh, and I met Isaac Asimov at that time.”

Whether or not we take this seriously, it’s obvious that Breen was interested in fringe aspects of psychology, often with a paranormal or mystical element, which he later called “biological humanics.” (Breen said in an interview that he investigated various subcultures as a sociologist, “including not only the Beat Generation groups on both coasts but also some of the very earliest hippies, finding out incidentally that some ideas that the bunch of us had developed in science fiction fandom had gotten into the hippie subculture and were being paraded around as their own inventions.” He also said that he had broken away from Sheldon after becoming concerned by his antisemitism.) And another side of his work wouldn’t become widely known for some time. In the critical anthology Before Stonewall, the scholar Donald Mader writes:

Walter Henry Breen (also known under his pseudonym J.Z. Eglinton) was the most important theorist of man-boy love to appear since the German figures…in the first third of the twentieth century…Breen independently affirmed, as they had, the distinction between what he termed “Greek love” (pederasty, or intergenerational homosexual relationships) and “androphile homosexuality” (eroticism between adult males)…He himself argued that androphile homosexuality had usurped the “true” tradition of homosexuality which belonged to Greek love.

Writing as Eglinton, Breen published a book on the subject, Greek Love, which he dedicated to his wife Marion Zimmer Bradley, who became famous decades later as the author of The Mists of Avalon—and it eventually became clear that both Breen and Bradley were guilty of offenses that far outweighed Sheldon’s thievery and deception. I’ll talk more about this in a concluding post tomorrow.

Quote of the Day

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When I was starting to write—in the late fifties, early sixties—there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and he could play that role and do whatever he wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels had no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids…I’m not sure this is so true anymore, but it certainly was at the time, and I didn’t much like it. I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything. I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved—I suppose—deviously. I mean I didn’t actually let too many people know what I was doing.

Joan Didion, to The Paris Review

Written by nevalalee

December 4, 2018 at 8:01 am

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