The Red Score: Shooting the Messenger


There is a long tradition of shooting the messenger when they deliver bad news.

Shooting the messenger” is a metaphoric phrase used to describe the act of blaming the bearer of bad news.

An early literary citing of “shooting the messenger” is in Plutarch’s Lives states:

“The first messenger, that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that, he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him”

The Annals of Academia contain numerous examples of shooting the messenger.

However, some academic assassinations are long, drawn out affairs.

In the case of Constantine Rafinesque the academic assassins have been busy for the best part of 200 years organising hits that have failed to deliver a deadly double tap.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, as he is known in Europe (1783 – 1840), was a nineteenth-century polymath born near Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire and self-educated in France.

He traveled as a young man in the United States, ultimately settling in Ohio in 1815, where he made notable contributions to botany, zoology, and the study of prehistoric earthworks in North America.

He also contributed to the study of ancient Mesoamerican linguistics, in addition to work he had already completed in Europe.


The year after his death [in 1840] the Duplicitous Darwinian [aka Asa Gray] began nailing down the lid on Rafinesque’s botanical coffin [with duplicitous delight].

A gradual deterioration will be observed in Rafinesque’s botanical writings from 1819 to about 1830, when the passion for establishing new genera and species, appears to have become a complete monomania.

This is the most charitable supposition we can entertain, and is confirmed by the opinions of those who knew him best.

Hitherto we have been particular in the enumeration of his scattered productions, in order to facilitate the labors of those who may be disposed to search through bushels of chaff for the grain or two of wheat they perchance contain.

It is therefore of little consequence, that half his genera and species do not really exist at present, since they may perchance make their appearance a century hence.

Our notice of these extraordinary works must be very brief.

The first and most amusing part of the Flora Telluriana, is chiefly occupied with the author’s views of natural classification, upon which we have already made some remarks.

Botanical Writings of Rafinesque – Asa Gray
The American Journal of Science – Volume XL – 1841

But modern believers in the doctrine of the evolution of plant forms and the development of botanical species will incline to think that there was a method in this madness, when they read the passage from Rafinesque’s writings, about 1836, which Dr. Gray quotes as conclusively proving that, in things botanical, Rafinesque had lost his wits.

The Lenâpé and Their Legends – Daniel Garrison Brinton – 1885

Curiously, the Dr Gray mentioned above “as conclusively proving that, in things botanical, Rafinesque had lost his wits” is the very same Asa Gray who corresponded regularly with Charles Darwin and [somehow] argued that “religion and science were not necessarily mutually exclusive”.


When Rafinesque died in 1840, his library, manuscripts, specimens, and some of his personal effects were sold to cover the expense of burial, but the bulk of his papers – cartloads – were assigned to the rubbish heap.

It was an egregious act of vandalism and malice by the Philadelphia establishment, some of whom were happy to see the last of him.

Oddly enough, one of his sternest detractors, S.S. Haldeman, purchased a few of the manuscripts on Indian mounds and the notebooks containing the Walum alum.

There is no record of his purchase of the original wooden sticks, so whatever their history or whether they even existed, they have been lost forever.

Chapter 12 – Walam Olum
Constantine Samuel Rafinesque: A Voice in the American Wilderness
Leonard Warren – 2015

The Asa Gray hit piece very effectively formalised the polarisation of opinion into opposing groups of Rafinesque Believers and Rafinesque Detractors.

Two views of Rafinesque’s life are antithetically opposed, which leads to the conclusion that both spring from information that is subject to different interpretations.

The only American naturalist “who might clearly be called a titan,” Rafinesque was the “greatest field botanist of his time,” who “had outlined the rudiments of a hypothesis of Evolution by the year 1835” ; but, scorned by his dull-witted contemporaries, he “died in a lonely, miserable garret, ” and only now is truly appreciated- by whatever writer has most recently rediscovered him.

The other view is that he was an irascible and egotistical rascal-quite possibly insane- whose ill-digested knowledge and slipshod work methods produced a body of writings hard to lay hands on and best forgotten.

The Fall From Grace of That “Base Wretch” Rafinesque – Charles Boewe
The Kentucky Review – Vol 7 – Num 3 – Art 4 – Fall 1987

The crucial question arises: Was the Walam Olum a forgery by Rafinesque ?

It is necessary to ask and to answer this question, though it seems, at first sight, an insult to the memory of the man to do so.

No one has ever felt it requisite to propound such an inquiry about the pieces of the celebrated Mexican collection of the Chevalier Boturini, who, as an antiquary, was scarcely less visionary than Rafinesque.

But, unquestionably, an air of distrust and doubt shadowed Rafinesque’s scientific reputation during his life, and he was not admitted on a favorable footing to the learned circles of the city where he spent the last fifteen years of his life.

His articles were declined a hearing in its societies; and the learned linguist, Mr. Peter Stephen Duponceau, whose specialty was the Delaware language, wholly and deliberately ignored everything by the author of “The American Nations.”

Why was this?

Rafinesque was poor, eccentric, negligent of his person, full of impractical schemes and extravagant theories, and manufactured and sold in a small way a secret nostrum which he called ” pulmel,” for the cure of consumption.

All these were traits calculated to lower him in the respect of the citizens of Philadelphia, and the consequence was, that although a member of some scientific societies, he seems to have taken no part in their proceedings, and was looked upon as an undesirable acquaintance, and as a sort of scientific outcast.

As early as 1819 Prof. Benjamin Silliman declined to publish contributions from him in the “American Journal of Science,” and returned him his MSS.

Dr. Gray strongly intimates that Rafinesque’s assertions on scientific matters were at times intentionally false, as when he said that he had seen Robin’s collection of Louisiana plants in France, whereas that botanist never prepared dried specimens ; and the like.

The Lenâpé and their Legends – Daniel Garrison Brinton – 1885

The Rafinesque Believers maintained their momentum by [amongst other things] publishing two “new translations” of Rafinesque’s Red Score [1954 and 1992].

Reider T. Sherwin wrote The Viking and the Red Man in eight voumes from 1940 through 1954.

Sherwin, who knew an Old Norse dialect, focused on the Algonquin Language.

His eight volumes contain more than 15,000 comparisons between Algonquin “words” and Old Norse phrases.

Sherwin believed the Walam Olum was in the Old Norse language, with the title morphed from “Maalan Aarum,” meaning “engraved years.”

Frozen Trail to Merica – Unmasking the Maalan Aarum –

The authors seem to agree on two main points: that the Walam Olum is a genuine tribal history; and that it describes the migration of an Algonkian population, including the Lenape, all the way from Asia, across Bering Strait and the plains of North America, to the Ohio valley (where the Lenape were the makers of the famous Hopewell culture), and thence to the Atlantic Coast, where they were met by white men.

Book Review – Anthony F. C. Wallace – University of Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography – Vol 79 – Issue 1 – January, 1955

George E. Hyde, wrote Indians of the Woodlands, 1962.

Hyde used the Maalan Aarum (Walam Olum) and other oral hisgtories to describe the ancient Lenape migration from Canada through Michigan, into Ohio, where they joined the Iroquois to fight the Sioux, and then on to the east coast.

Frozen Trail to Merica – Unmasking the Maalan Aarum –

Kentucky-based writer Joe Napora wrote a modern translation of the text, which was published in 1992.

At the time he thought the Walam Olum was genuine.

The Rafinesque Detractors dug-in for a protected war of attrition.

As recently as 1950, however, an attempt was made at the Seventh International Botanical Congress in Stockholm to effectually declare Rafinesque a nonperson whose published botanical discoveries should be expunged from the record.

This unusual international intrigue began when the British botanist C. A. Weatherby wrote, in 1935, that the plant genera established in all of Rafinesque’s later books represented “a kind of pseudo-scientific work, the nomenclatural results of which may well be legislated out of existence” by other botanists.

As indeed it lay within their power to do.

The Fall From Grace of That “Base Wretch” Rafinesque – Charles Boewe
The Kentucky Review – Vol 7 – Num 3 – Art 4 – Fall 1987

By the 1980s, however, ethnologists had collected enough independent information “to discount the Walam olum completely as a tradition“.

Herbert C. Kraft, an expert on the Lenape, had long suspected the document to be a fraud.

He stated that it did not square with the archaeological record of migrations by the prehistoric ancestors of the Lenape.

In addition, he cited a 1985 survey conducted among Lenape elders by ethnologists David M. Oestreicher and James Rementer that revealed traditional Lenape had never heard of the narrative.

The older Lenape people said that they “found its text puzzling and often incomprehensible.”

Oestreicher examined the Lenape language text with fluent native speaker, Lucy Parks Blalock, and they found problems such as frequent use of English idioms.

In 1991 Steven Williams summarized the history of the case and the evidence against the document, lumping it with many other famous archaeological frauds.

And [according to Wikipedia] the Rafinesque Detractors were finally vindicated in 1994.

In 1994, and afterwards, textual evidence that the Walam Olum was a hoax was supplied by David M. Oestreicher in “Unmasking the Walam Olum: A 19th Century Hoax.”

Oestreicher examined Rafinesque’s original manuscript and “found it replete with crossed-out Lenape words that had been replaced with others that better matched his English ‘translation.’

In other words, Rafinesque had been translating from English to Lenape, rather than the other way round”.

In general, he found a variety of evidence that the Walam Olum was not an authentic historical record but was composed by someone having only a slight familiarity with the Lenape language.

Oestreicher argued that Rafinesque crafted the linguistic text from specific sources on the Delaware Language published by the American Philosophical Society and elsewhere.

Further, he said that the supposedly “Lenape” pictographs were hybrids from published Egyptian, Chinese, and Mayan sources.

Barnhart concurs, stating that “the pictographs are in no way comparable to the figures found on the stone carvings or petroglyphs found in Lenapehoking, the traditional homeland of the Lenape.

David Oestreicher asserted that the stories were a conglomerate assembled from numerous sources from different cultures that spanned the globe.

Barnhart was of the opinion that Rafinesque created the Walam Olum in hopes of winning the international Prix Volney contest hosted in Paris, and Barnhart thought that Rafinesque wanted to prove his long-held theories regarding the peopling of America.

Oestreicher’s findings were summarized by Herbert Kraft in his study, “The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE.”, and by Jennifer M. Lehmann in “Social Theory as Politics in Knowledge”.

Later David Oestreicher wrote that he had received a direct communication from Joe Napora. Oestreicher wrote that Napora wrote, “[H]e now recognises that the ‘Walam Olum’ is indeed a hoax…and was dismayed that the sources upon whom he relied had been so negligent in their investigation of the document and that the hoax should have been continued as long as it has”.

Oestreicher’s very detailed analyses have not found a wide audience, but they have made it possible to go a step further, and study the thinking and cultural assumptions of earlier researchers (for example by examining how they treated features of the Walam Olum which should have been clear evidence that it was a fake).

A recent biography of Rafinesque concluded:

“There is now very good reason to believe that he fabricated important data and documents... The most egregious example is the Lenni Lenape migration saga, ‘Walam Olum’, which has perplexed scholars for one and a half centuries.

Rafinesque wrote the ‘Walam Olum’ believing it to be authentic because it accorded with his own belief—he was merely recording and giving substance to what must be true.

It was a damaging, culpably dishonest act, which misled scholars in search of the real truth, far more damaging than his childish creations, which could be easily dismissed; this was more than mischief.”

However, this is a very dubious victory for the Rafinesque Detractors.

The headline “crossed-out Lenape words” are only evidence of “crossed-out Lenape words”.

Nothing more.

Suggesting these “crossed-out Lenape words” indicate Rafinesque was “translating from English to Lenape” is pure speculation – not evidence.

And in the realm of speculation it’s also possible to argue that these “crossed-out Lenape words” in Rafinesque’s manuscript indicate he painstakingly pieced together [as best he could] a verified and corrected version of the “song verses” he had obtained from an unknown source.

Two years later, Rafinesque obtained, from an unknown source, another document that contained written song verses in the Delaware language associated with the pictographs on the painted sticks.

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque: A Voice in the American Wilderness
Leonard Warren – 2015

Verifying this foreign language Phonetic Transcription as correct, comprehensible and complete is an inelegant art form that [usually] involves a lot of editing, a lot of good will and some good luck.


The flimsy “evidence” used to declare victory suggests the mainstream really needed to bury some bad news when they shot this particular messenger

The Rafinesque Believers went so far as to [metaphorically] exhume Rafinesque so that his body [of work] could be placed in the psychiatrist’s chair.

Although it had not occurred to the botanical legislators to include sanity of the author as a condition for valid publication, the question of madness has dogged Rafinesque from his lifetime onward.

He acknowledged that he suffered himself to be “laughed at as a mad Botanist” in his rambles around Kentucky, in order “to be a pioneer of science.”

By the middle of the twentieth century it was enough of an issue in botany that one of his staunchest defenders requested a posthumous psychoanalysis of the naturalist by the Boston psychiatrist J. M. Woodall. Doctor Woodall, after examining the published writing of his long-dead patient, pleased some people by his conclusion that Rafinesque was indeed sane, and went on to declare him clearly a genius; but he typed Rafinesque’s personality as paranoid, and diagnosed his ego as “enlarged and hypertrophied to an abnormal degree.”

The Fall From Grace of That “Base Wretch” Rafinesque – Charles Boewe
The Kentucky Review – Vol 7 – Num 3 – Art 4 – Fall 1987

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