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Professor Paul Lewis Challenges English Students to Solve 200 Year Old Riddle

In 1796, a Boston literary publication called Massachusetts Magazine went out of business. In those days, it was common for literary magazines to include puzzles and riddles to challenge their readers, and then reveal the answer in the next issue. The puzzle in the last issue of Massachusetts was never answered, a mystery unsolved for over 200 years—until, maybe, this week.

That’s the hope of Boston College English professor Paul Lewis, who emailed BC English majors and minors Monday challenging them to find a solution to the puzzle. This particular issue of Massachusetts featured a rebus, a short poem of rhyming couplets, in which each line contains a clue. The clues to each line also rhyme in couplets, which makes solving a little easier, and the first letters of the clues spell out the answer to the rebus.

Lewis gave an example. “The isle where Etna’s flaming mountain stands, / The Grecian monarch who in foreign lands,” is the start of a rebus from 1803. The lines rhyme, and each has a solution—the isle is Sicily, and the Grecian monarch is Ulysses. So the answer would be “Sicily’s the isle where Etna’s flaming mountain stands, / Ulysses the Grecian monarch who in foreign lands.” Eventually, all the clues spell out Susanna Rowson, a famous author and educator.  

Lewis said that one of the valuable things about this rebus exercise is that it forces students to think like people in 1796. Classical literature was widely read, so Sicily and Ulysses would probably have been more obvious answers to his example than they are today. Lewis recommended Oxford English Dictionary as a potentially helpful resource, because it lists historical usage of words and can indicate popular or common words at the time.

The contest is in conjunction with the upcoming release of The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820, a collection of over 100 Boston-themed poems gathered by Lewis and BC undergraduates over the last three years. Lewis and his research assistants used digital archives to comb through over 4,500 poems, picking out some that seemed the most representative of Boston during the period just after the founding of the United States.

“This included poems set at specific locations, including Beacon Hill, the Common, the Neck, the Charles River, poems about young people moving to Boston from the country, and poems that bring us into homes and shops, schools and graveyards, and out onto specific streets around the old city,” Lewis said in an email.

One poem published in 1820 called “A True Story” might be the first historical recording of the word “beanpot,” Lewis said. The story is about a traffic jam between a stagecoach from Beverly and a teamster from Charlestown, and beanpot is actually an insult directed at the stagecoach.

The winner of the rebus contest will be asked to read his or her solution at the launch event of the book, which is on Thursday, Apr. 14 in O’Neill Library.

Lewis said that one of the things he enjoyed about the project was the use of different types of research methods to sort through old documents, and he plans to explore that more in the future, maybe using crowdsourcing to research large amounts of material online in little time.

“Guiding students into the digital databases that provide access to these materials is the first step,” he said in an email. “Creating research designs that can lead to new knowledge by expanding the canon of US literature or pointing to new ways of reading familiar texts is a greater challenge.”

Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Staff

March 16, 2016
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