Zerah Colburn, Math Prodigy

    by Jane Brown

Cabot, Vermont was still in its infancy when, on September 1, 1804, Zerah Colburn, the “Calculating Child,” was born to Abia and Elizabeth (Hill) Colburn.  A few months before this remarkable child’s birth, the family had moved from Hartford, Vermont, to a farm on the road leading from Cabot to Peacham, now known as Danville Hill Road.  Zerah was the sixth child and had five brothers and three sisters.

The information we have about Zerah Colburn comes mostly from his Memoirs of Zerah Colburn by Himself, published in 1833. Colburn wrote in the third person, referring to himself as “Zerah,” or “the boy,” in a detached manner, and his book includes examples of his unusual powers and detailed recollections of his life. 

We have only one picture of Zerah Colburn, the engraving done when he was in England.  Zerah, like his father and great grandmother, had an extra digit on each hand and foot.  Two or three of his brothers also had extra digits.  The extra finger shows up in the portrait.  When Zerah was 8, Dr. Carlisle, in London, removed the small extra digits from Zerah’s hands and although Zerah was concerned that the extra toes might interfere with his learning to dance, we don’t know if they were ever removed.

Zerah’s remarkable story begins in the fall of 1810 when Abia Colburn, working at home at a joiner's bench hears his son, not quite six years old, playing nearby in wood chips, reciting multiplication tables.  Zerah had only been at school for about six weeks, probably at the school some distance away at the Center of Town.  At that young age, he had not received instruction in arithmetic, but in a small one-room school he no doubt heard the older students reciting their lessons. Abia quizzed the child and found he not only knew the multiplication tables perfectly, he could also do complicated math questions rapidly in his head.  Some sources claim that until that day, Zerah had been considered backward, but in his book, that isn’t addressed.  He goes on to say that his father right away told their neighbors and from that point on, Zerah was put on display and tested repeatedly.   

He writes that for those early questionings he would usually be taken upon someone’s lap and would feel distressed and often cried.  He explained this as “a certain weakness of the mind which prevented him from taking at once such a general and comprehensive view of the subject, as to reduce his ideas to a regular system in explanation.”  After a certain time had passed, and with practice, he said he became better at formulating his thoughts and got used to all the attention.  He also mentioned that some people told him he went through something similar to St. Vitus Dance when calculating in his head, but he said he was not aware of anything more than perhaps wrinkling his brow or maybe moving his lips.   He was asked, for example, which is the most, twice twenty-five, or twice five and twenty, to which the answer of course is “twice twenty-five.”   Although some doubted his exceptional skill, time and again his answers were proven to be correct and his father realized his son was truly unusual.   Everyone had an opinion as to how the boy's talents should be nurtured, but to get the best advice possible, his neighbors suggested Abia take him to the County Seat in Danville, where court was in session.  There, Judges and members of the bar questioned Zerah thoroughly and advised Abia to take his son to Montpelier where the Legislature was in session and more learned men could questioned Zerah, some trying to fool the child by asking him how many black beans would make five white ones. To this Zerah quickly answered, "Five, if you skin them," hardly the answer of a “backward child.”

Montpelier citizens were interested in the “Calculating Child,” as he was advertised.  He appeared several times in that city. The legislators were interested in Zerah’s abilities, but had no answers for educating him. In those early days there were few schools in sparsely settled Vermont, and Cabot had only two schools, one on the Plain and one at the Center, kept only when there was a teacher available, usually a woman sometimes as young as 16, with very little education themselves.  School was in session only a few weeks at a time in between mud season and the deep cold of winter, and depended on whether the citizens could afford to pay for the school’s upkeep, so Abia knew there would be little use in returning home if his son was to receive a proper education.

They went to Burlington and Zerah preformed, but if solutions were offered there, Abia wanted better.  He took Zerah to Hanover where Dr. Wheelock, President of the Dartmouth College, immediately offered to provide for Zerah's care and studies.  It was while they were in Hanover that Professor Adams explained the term root to Zerah who absorbed the knowledge quickly and no doubt would have benefitted from entering school in Hanover, but by now his fame had spread well beyond the towns of Vermont and New Hampshire.   Abia was confronted with many offers in competition for Zerah’s talents, and both were enjoying a lifestyle that Abia had only dreamed about.  As new opportunities were presented, he no doubt supposed the larger the city, the better the opportunities, so without agreeing to Dr. Wheelock’s proposal, they went to Boston. 

While in Boston, Zerah did multiplication of two or three places of figures correctly and more rapidly than it could be done on paper, and when asked how he was able to do this, he at first didn’t know how, but later on was able to point out his method.  Boston produced a group of very interested gentlemen who agreed to raise money to educate Zerah.  They drew up a document explaining the terms of the indenture stating that Zerah would be exhibited during whatever time it took to raise $5,000, the amount they estimated to be enough to allow him to attend school in Hanover, with enough for Abia to remain with him until he was ready to enter college.  

The Colburn family had begun to realize better times after their move to Cabot, and after some thought, Abia reasoned it wouldn’t be right to desert his family for such a long period of time, nor did he want to abandon his son in Hanover for such a long period of time.  He declined the offer. 

The Boston group disagreed publicly, saying Abia should have his son's education uppermost in mind, and very soon people became generally prejudiced against him.  Resolute, Abia and Zerah moved on to New York, Philadelphia and eventually Washington, and in each of these cities were met with interest and appreciation, making enough money from exhibitions to take care of their needs, but not enough to fund a proper education for Zerah, so Abia took his son to Albany and Utica, New York. 

On the trip up the river by steam boat, a man by the name of Hopkins taught Zerah the names of powers of the nine units, but it turned out that was the only benefit of the trip and they returned in April to Norwich, Vermont, where Mrs. Colburn and the family had come to live temporarily. It was also on this trip that Amos Kendall became acquainted with Abia and Zerah as they traveled from Windsor, Vermont to Hanover, New Hampshire.  Kendall later described Abia as “an ignorant man” and said he had been spoiled by all the attention he and his son had received and that Abia and Zerah were “obnoxious to the other passengers.” He said it was obvious Abia was more interested in money than in Zerah’s education.

Although Zerah didn’t give a reason in his memoir why his mother brought the family to Norwich, it would seem she may have come there to persuade her husband to return home to Cabot.  Abia obviously enjoyed the generosities he and Zerah were experiencing and probably had lost sight of his original intention.  After about a week in Norwich, he realized people were beginning to mistrust his motives and this may have made him even more determined to find fame and fortune.  He gave Elizabeth $500 and left again for Boston.  Elizabeth returned with her children to the farm in Cabot.

Mrs. Colburn tried for a while to manage on the farm, but it was a huge burden.  The money Abia had given her was used to pay bills, and with four or five children to support by herself, life must have been very difficult.  Two children had died since the family had moved to Cabot, a daughter, age 3 had died just before Zerah was born, and a nine year old son, Johnathan, a twin, died on September 17, 1811, around the time she was in Norwich, so when Abia wrote to her from Boston in December asking her to "make such a disposition of her children and the farm" that she could join him in going to Europe, it is not surprising that she declined. 

Years later she wondered whether, had she gone to Boston and pleaded with her husband, he might have abandoned the idea and returned to Cabot and life on the farm.  Having made her choice, she set about finding ways to provide for her family.  She gave up the farm and moved to a more suitable place.  She probably supported her family by working as a seamstress or laboring for others doing housework, and her oldest son, who was 14, was probably able to find work on neighboring farms.

Abia and Zerah had traveled to most major cities all along the eastern seaboard without finding a great deal of interest, so on April 3, 1812, they departed aboard the "New Galen," landing at Liverpool on May 11th with high expectations.

In London they were introduced to an impressive array of dukes, lords, princes, kings and military officers, among them inventor Sir William Congreve and statesman William Wilberforce.  Zerah’s abilities in calculations had improved immensely with so much practice at exhibitions, and there was a great deal of interest in him in London.  However, Wilberforce was more interested in Zerah's education than exploiting his rare abilities.  He gave Zerah some books which were the extent of his education for several more years while the public exhibitions continued.  People willingly paid to see him, but there was little profit after expenses were paid, and Abia had a constant need for money.  Some of his new friends thought the publication of a likeness of Zerah would be profitable, so Thomas Hull was engaged to make a drawing which Henry Meyer engraved, and copies were sold for one guinea each. 

The engravings sold well, so a plan was made to publish a memoir of Zerah and they began seeking subscribers.  There was no interest in London in a memoir of a nine year old, so Abia took Zerah to Dublin.  That was in September of 1813, and while people there were kind to them, nobody there had the price of the book, about $8.  From Dublin they went to Belfast and then to Scotland, all with the same results, and in the spring of 1814, they went back in London.

Probably a smarter man than Abia would have begun to realize things weren’t turning out as he’d thought and that the “friends” who directed him to travel further to seek funds did not have his and Zerah’s best interests in mind, but when these same friends suggested he go to Paris, Abia and Zerah set off for France.

In Paris he met some Americans living there and they convinced him Zerah should learn the language.  A French teacher was engaged, and after only three or four months, Zerah was proficient in the language and the teacher was dismissed.  He went on to learn German, which was harder for him, but he was accepted into a seminary which would provide for his education and keep.  During this time he had not been “exhibited” in order for him to concentrate on his studies and he had lost some of his ability to make math computations quickly, but at least now, with the help of their American friends, Abia was able to enter Zerah in school.

Since arriving in Paris, Zerah and Abia had been living way beyond their means so Abia was unable to make full payment to the school.  He went back to London to consult with the friends who were supposedly promoting subscriptions for the memoir.  He found that the man authorized to look after the funds had used the money for himself and the committee of men who had agreed to canvass to raise money had lost interest.  Londoners, disgruntled that Zerah’s education was taking place in France instead of England, wanted nothing to do with Abia and Zerah unless Zerah returned to England to be educated. 

In February of 1816, Colburn took Zerah out of school, back to England. Zerah wrote in his memoir that he felt sure he would never have been asked to leave even if his father couldn’t pay.  He described his father’s state of mind at that point: “It is not strange that Mr. C. was at a loss what course to take in this critical juncture—without money, without friends, and ignorant of any art or calling by which to support himself in London.”

Back in London, they had no luck raising money so Abia took Zerah to nearby Birmingham.  Their luck didn’t improve, however, a phrenologist there, Franz Joseph Gall, made a cast of Zerah’s face in order to study the structure to possibly learn the origin of the boy’s talent.  If Gall paid for this privilege, it wasn’t much, for Abia remained destitute.

Desperate to find a way to continue his son’s education, Abia thought if Zerah disclosed his methods of calculation, interest in sponsoring his education might be renewed. He approached the Earl of Bristol about this in July of 1816.  The Earl was not interested in how the boy was able to calculate, only in seeing that he got a good education.  He’d gotten to know Zerah for several days and introduced him to other influential men—the Duke of Norfolk, Lord Calthorpe, and Lord Templeton—and provisions were made for Zerah to attend Westminster School, all expenses paid, for the eight years it would take for his education. 

Zerah was 12 years old, and entered into the lowest class at Westminster School, but he learned quickly and within a short time he had advanced.  A long-time practice at Westminster was “fagging,” which required underclassmen to serve the older, and in Zerah’s case, wealthier students.  Zerah was subjected to this practice and when he failed to please the older students, he was severely beaten. His father protested to the headmasters at the school, but was told fagging had been the custom for years and it was essential to show the students both ends of the spectrum of service.   

Abia then told Zerah not to comply with this servitude.  Zerah did as he father instructed and was again beaten up by the upper classmen.  This time his father demanded that the school administrators intervene saying, “when I placed my son under your care, I did it in confidence that as a father you would watch over, govern and protect him.”   The headmasters were obviously unimpressed by the American’s outrage, and seeing this, Abia told them if they would not do their duty, he would handle matters himself “by the law of Nature,” and he marched off towards the boarding house.  After consulting briefly, the headmasters sent a messenger with a note to Abia, but remembering their supercilious attitude, Abia threw the note on the ground unopened.  The headmasters then rushed out to Abia and assured him Zerah would be exempted from fagging in the future.

While the Earl of Bristol was paying for Zerah’s expenses, Abia was subsisting on whatever few donations acquaintances saw fit to give him.  He reasoned that by having Zerah live with him instead of boarding at the school, there would be enough from the Earl to support them both.  So, Zerah became a day student and resided with his father, and if the Earl knew of the change, he let it pass.

Zerah was at Westminster School for three years until his father removed him due to a disagreement about a proposal which would have Zerah’s schooling turned over to the Rev. Henry St. John Bullen, in Dunton, some 100 miles north of London.  Zerah had spent two summers with the Rev. Bullen where he had continued his studies with three other young men.  Zerah enjoyed country life in contrast to the bustle of London, but the Rev. Bullen had a quick temper and even though the Earl offered to support Abia financially if he agreed to the change, neither Abia nor Zerah liked that idea which Abia was sure came from Bullen, not the Earl.

With no prospects for Zerah to continue school, no funds, and now little interest in Zerah by anyone in London, Abia was again looking for money.  This time he decided Zerah should go into the theater.  Zerah, 15 at the time, was used to being on display, so went along with the idea and instructors were engaged to teach him acting. When no acting opportunities came about in London, the pair headed again for Ireland and Scotland, traveling for many months from place to place but finding few acting opportunities.  Finally, hungry and poor, they returned to London in the fall of 1821.  Prospects on the stage there were still slim, so Zerah tried his hand at writing plays, with no success.

Zerah writes that when they were so down on their luck he often felt the urge to return to America.  However, they remained in England and in October of 1821, he entered a three-month term at Highgate School.  There, Zerah conceived the idea of starting a school himself, which he did the following January.  He was 18 and this was his first experience of actually earning his own money.  His earnings were not enough to support them, so they went again to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast hoping to find subscribers for Zerah’s new school.  Again, their mission failed.

Abia’s health was beginning to fail and Zerah was forced to close his school in order to take care of his father.  An acquaintance of Zerah’s, Dr. Thomas Young, was, in addition to being a medical doctor, secretary of the Board of Longitude.  Dr. Young offered Zerah a job and within a few months, underYoung’s  tutelage, Zerah received his “first payment for calculations made by him in ascertaining the places and variations of certain stars.”  Zerah enjoyed the work and hoped that with better food and a more stable life, his father could regain his health and they could return to America.  Dr. Young attended Abia during the last of his illness, but the disease had progressed too far, and in February, 1824, Abia Colburn died of consumption at age 54. 

Zerah immediately began making the rounds of those who had befriended them over the years to let them know of his father’s death.  Most were courteous, but it seemed evident they held Zerah’s father in low esteem.  When Zerah called on the Earl of Bristol, the Earl was sympathetic and told Zerah if he were not now in his 20’s he would be willing to see to his education.  Zerah explained he was returning to America, and although Zerah had asked for nothing, the Earl insisted on giving him funds and urged him to call upon him should need more when back in America. 

Zerah left on May 25th from Liverpool, bound for America.  When he landed in New York, Zerah took the letters of introduction some of his London friends had given him around, and was encouraged with the prospects of job offers and expected to return after a short visit to his family in Cabot. 

He took a steamboat from New York to Albany and then a stage to Whitehall where he hired a man to take him to Cabot.  There had been no communication with his family all those years, and Zerah had no idea if he would even find them.  They arrived in Cabot on July 3, at about sundown, and unsure if they had the right house, the man knocked on the door and asked the woman who answered if she knew where widow Colburn lived.  She answered that she was Mrs. Colburn, and at that point Zerah got out of the carriage and introduced himself.  After 13 years apart, mother and son were strangers.

It would seem that Zerah’s older brothers and sisters must have been on their own by the time Zerah came home, but he wrote in his memoir that he found his home town and family “very agreeable,” and although he might have been able to help his mother more by taking employment in New York, he decided to stay in Vermont. In order to contribute to the family, he started a school in Cabot, which he closed two months later in order to pursue a job offer in Fairfield, New York. 

The job wasn’t what he’d expected, so he returned to Burlington, and while there he received a message from the Earl of Bristol saying he had made funds available to Zerah; also there was a letter with a donation of ten pounds from Robert Dickson of New York.  From these funds, Zerah gave eighty or ninety dollars to his mother and decided to remain in Burlington to study. To support himself, he gave private French lessons. 

Zerah had not studied religion and said with exhibitions, he’d had no time for “sober reflection,” but now he had serious questions and contacted the Rev. Mr. Preston in Burlington for “instruction and conversation.” In due course, he joined the Congregational Church even though he found some of the Congregational doctrine troubling.  Sometime later, after speaking with Methodists in Cabot, he resigned his membership in the Congregational Church and became a Methodist minister. 

For several years Zerah was an itinerant preacher serving communities in the eastern part of Vermont. He married Mary Hoyt of Hartford, Vermont, in 1829, and they had five daughters and one son.

In 1833, he began writing his memoirs, finishing about two years later.  There was no lack of self esteem about Zerah as he wrote about his life.  He notes there were others with talents similar to his, but said none matched his abilities.  Jedediah Buxton, a farmer with remarkable memory, was often mentioned when they were in London.  Buxton was not living in Zerah’s time, but Zerah believed there was not much comparison.  There was also Lady Frederica Murray, daughter of the Countess of Mansfield, who was said to have “a certain degree of mental quickness uncommon in her sex and years.”  She was about Zerah’s age but was not on exhibition, and he never met her.  He said George Bidder came closest to his own accomplishments, being exhibited after Zerah’s time.  Zerah saw Bidder perform in 1818, and wrote “he could answer some questions that the American [meaning himself] would not like to undertake; but he was unable to extract the roots, and find the factors of numbers.”

His book has chapters explaining the rules he used in calculations and examples of the calculations he was able to do in his head.  It also contains several poems he wrote over the years.

In 1835, he was appointed Professor of Latin, Greek, French and Spanish languages and English Classical Literature at Norwich College, in Norwich, Vermont, a post he held until his death.  Zerah died of consumption, known today as tuberculosis, on March 2, 1839.  He is buried in Norwich's Old Meeting House Cemetery, as is Mary.

      Note:  This story first appeared in the March, 2011 issue of the North Star Monthly.  Brown, a native of Cabot, is a freelance writer and volunteer archivist/historian for the Cabot Historical Society.  She resides in Cabot, near Joe's Pond, with her husband.