I do a lot of research for my stories, whether historical or contemporary, to ensure I’ve got my facts right. Much of what I find never finds its way onto the story’s pages, but it plays in my mind as background information that resonates with my characters. In Haunted Melody (Secrets of Roseville Book 2), Zak Markel is following the steps within an ancient alchemist’s journal but doesn’t understand what he should be doing. What’s not on the page is the name of the real-life alchemist that the fictional alchemist is based upon. So I’d like to introduce you to George Starkey, a 17th-century American alchemist educated at Harvard University.
George Starkey was born in Bermuda, where he exhibited strong curiosity about how nature works, in particular insects. He eventually moved to America, where he graduated from Harvard College in 1646. While at Harvard, he seriously practiced alchemy, working with John Alcock and John Winthrop, Jr., who would later become the first governor of Connecticut. Winthrop had a keen interest in alchemy and represents the elite alchemical circle within which Starkey moved. However, after struggling for several years to obtain the furnaces and the other apparatus necessary to conduct his experiments, Starkey moved to London in 1650 where he had access to better equipment.
While in London, Starkey became involved with the Hartlib group, otherwise known as the Office of Address, led by Samuel Hartlib. This group emphasized “intellectual communication” and used the practical science of Francis Bacon and the didactic agenda of the Czech reformer Jan Amos Comenius to merge “productive natural philosophy” (useful science) with “pansophia, the Comenian ideal of universal learning.” This group was central to Starkey’s reputation and influence in England.
Starkey contributed many influential medical works while in England, but more interesting is the fact that he lived two lives. Writing under the pseudonym of Eirenaeus Philalethes, “A Peaceful Lover of Truth,” Starkey took on the role of an adept, that is, one who is capable of transmuting base metals into gold or silver. As Starkey, he became the student of Philalethes and told fabulous tales of his alter ego living in New England. Starkey refused to reveal the true name of Philalethes, claiming he’d been sworn to secrecy to protect the life of his friend. So cleverly did he lead this dual life, even after he died in London from the plague in 1665, people reported seeing Philalethes in other countries. That’s some serious effort he took to make sure people did not know of his pen name!
His most popular work under his pseudonym was the Introitus apertus ad occlusum regis palatium (An open entrance to the closed palace of the king). Indeed, Starkey, as Philalethes, was “likely” the “most widely read American scientist before Benjamin Franklin.” However, the early 18th century tensions that led to a newly defined separation between “alchemy” and “chemistry” as well as between alchemists and other “scientists” put a division between Starkey and his contemporary friend and alchemy student, Robert Boyle (1627–91). Starkey/Philalethes slipped into the “shadows beyond the fringe of scientific respectability” despite being “the last great philosophical alchemist” of his time, while Boyle became the “vanguard of the ‘New Chemistry.’”
Here’s what I find most fascinating about him. He kept laboratory notebooks and wrote frequent correspondence, both often using Latin and symbols, which have been translated into English, and have proven key to decoding the allegorical and secretive language he employed across a variety of his writings. The notebooks and letters also provide “an unprecedented glimpse” into the “mind and labors” of Starkey, who was acclaimed for his alchemical efforts as well as his potentially money-making inventions. His laboratory notebooks reflect the scholastic training he received as a student at Harvard, despite his railing against wasting time learning classical argumentation skills. His notebooks also show a blending of the two distinct “intellectual traditions” of “the experimentalism of the ‘New Philosophy’ and the formal Scholasticism of ‘the Schools.’” Thus, Starkey merged two unique yet complementary aspects into one combined entity, much like he and Philalethes. Starkey, as himself and his alter ego, also routinely spoke in his correspondence and treatises in allegory and riddles, for reasons I shared in an earlier post here.
By the way, if you’re curious to know more about George Starkey, here are a few references to get you started. Also, there’s a biography of him here and an interesting analysis of his influences and interactions here.
- Newman, William R. Gehennical Fire: The Lives of George Starkey, an American Alchemist in the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ Press. 1994.
- Newman, William R. and Lawrence M. Principe. Alchemy Tried in the Fire: Starkey, Boyle, and the Fate of Helmontian Chymistry. Chicago: The Univ of Chicago Press. 2002.
- Woodward, Walter W. Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., Alchemy, and the Creation of New England Culture, 1606-1676. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ of NC Press. 2010.
For Zak, it takes quite some time for him to find a book at the Golden Owl Books and Brews store that helps him figure out how to solve the puzzle that is the alchemist’s journal. The book I’m alluding to is none other than Geheniccal Fire along with several articles by Newman. You’ll notice that none of this is spelled out in my story, for two reasons. First, I figure most readers probably won’t care about George Starkey; they’re likely more interested in Zak and Paulette. Second, I didn’t want to distract my readers from the actual story by including too much of the historical references and allusions.
I don’t know about you, but I was not aware that America had any alchemists. I had thought they were all in Europe, so that was a cool surprise to me. Thus I wanted to share with my readers but only in an entertaining way. At least, that was my intent. Did I succeed? Only you, my readers, can answer that question after you read the story! See below for how you can pre-order your copy.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and opinions!
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Haunted Melody is now available for pre-order and will release on March 28, 2017. Here’s more about the story…
Paulette O’Connell needs to build her home decorating business in order to give her unborn child a stable home. While exploring the mysterious attic of the antebellum plantation where she lives, she accidentally summons her grandfather’s ghost. But he won’t leave until she figures out why she needed him in the first place, putting her plans in serious jeopardy.
Zak Markel has been searching for the last ingredient to create the Elixir of Life he hopes will save his brother’s eyesight. But he discovers the woman of his dreams in the smart and beautiful Paulette, distracting him from his focus at the worst possible time, even though she staunchly refuses to allow him past her defenses.
Can he convince Paulette to open her mind to possibilities and follow her heart to true happiness before it’s too late?
(Updated and revised edition; originally published in 2014 as Remnants.)
Amazon USA: http://bit.ly/HauntedMelody
Amazon AU: http://bit.ly/HauntedMelody-AU
Amazon CA: http://bit.ly/HauntedMelody-CA
Amazon UK: http://bit.ly/HauntedMelody-UK