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The Life of Emmett Lee Dickinson

Emmett Lee Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s third cousin, twice removed (at her request), was born on October 12, 1803, in Washert (pronounced “WAS-herst”), Pennsylvania. 


Known as “the Boor of Washerst,” Emmett Lee was the 13th of 13 children.  His father, Emery Dickinson, was an ice delivery man in Washerst , and is thought to be the inspiration for a title of a Eugene O’Neill play.  His mother, Emalee Incross, was a cosmetician at the Perish & Begone Funeral Parlor, owned by brothers Eberhard and Egan Perish and Caldwell Begone. 


The Dickinson family lived in the basement of the funeral parlor, and this is possibly one reason why Emmett Lee developed an intense fear of the light (heliophobia), became a recluse, and dressed almost exclusively in shades of black.  His reclusivity might also have been brought on by a sluggish liver and biliousness.


Emmett Lee Dickinson was a prolific writer of poetry, and penned such poems as, “After Formal Feedings, a great pain comes,” “Because I could not stop for Debt,” and “There’s a certain slant of Art.”    





Emmett Lee Dickinson was born on October 12, 1803, to an obscure, indigent family.  Almost two centuries before, Dickinsons arrived in the New World.  Half of the family prospered under Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, a founder of Amherst College in Massachusetts.  However, Emmett Lee Dickinson’s side of the family did not fare as well.  Lemuel Dickinson, Emmett Lee’s paternal grandfather, struggled to make a living as a tinker, traveling from place to place mending pans, kettles, and other metal utensils.


Emmett Lee’s father, Emery Dickinson, also moved from place to place and  job to job as a young man.   For most of Emmett Lee’s youth, though, Emery settled his family in Washerst, PA, where he worked as an ice delivery man (and he is thought to have been the inspiration for a title of a Eugene O’Neill play).  Emery’s brother Hobart owned a novelty shop in town, and he also managed an entertainment partnership (with Dooley Dawson, known to the citizens of Washerst as “Doo-Daw”  Dawson) that provided clowns, magicians, and balloon artists to children’s parties.  Hobart often contracted Emery to provide ice for the parties and other social events in Washerst (including Washerst’s annual Moss and Hornwort Jubilee).


Emmett Lee’s mother, Emalee Incross, was a cosmetician at the Perish & Begone Funeral Parlor, owned by brothers Eberhard and Egan Perish and Caldwell Begone.  In later years she contracted out her services to the various funeral parlors in the area under the name “Curl Up and Dye.”  Due to her relationship with the owners of Perish & Begone, the Dickinson family was able to rent and reside in the basement of the funeral parlor.


Although there were several rooms in the basement, accommodations were tight, as Emmett Lee was the 13th of thirteen children:



1          Qwerty Anne (named after Emery’s great aunt)

2          Lewis Clark

3          Penelope Laine

4 & 5    (Twins) Muttley James and Jefferson

6          Esme Pearl

7          Ethelene Etheline

8          Polly Esther

9 & 10   (Twins) Lucas and Darth

11         Pythagoras

12         Zebulene Jean

13         Emmett Lee


Life was not easy for the Dickinson family, and this was particularly so for young Emmett Lee.  Since he was the youngest sibling, he wore tattered clothes that had been passed down from son to son to son to son.  Since he was the smallest child, he sat at the end of the dining table and always got “what was left of what was left.”  Emery Dickinson tried to save on the expenses associated with having a large family, so he would often provide left over chipped ice from his work as the family’s mid-day meal.  However, the ice chips would often melt before reaching young Emmett Lee, so his meal was more often just a beverage.


Life was not without adventure, though.  Every summer, the Clemens family would visit Washerst, and Jane Clemens would hire Qwerty Anne Dickinson, Emmett Lee’s oldest sister, to watch over her son Samuel.  As a result, Emmett Lee would spend with young Samuel.


At first the relationship between Emmett Lee and Samuel Clemens was a bit strained, as Emmett Lee would always try to hoodwink Samuel.  Once, Emmett Lee tricked Samuel into white-washing a picket fence for him.  On another occasion, Emmett Lee convinced Samuel that he should sneak into a graveyard at midnight with the stiff body of a dead cat in a bag, all in an attempt to rid himself of a nasty wart.  After a few spats and donnybrooks, though, the two developed a friendship that lasted for many years. 


During one summer visit, Emmett Lee convinced Samuel to help him fake their own deaths.  They staged enough misleading and false evidence by the riverbank that the townsfolk thought the two had drowned in the Monongahela River.  The two took delight when they heard cannon fire as local officials tried to raise their missing bodies from the bottom of the river. Later, they even snuck into their own funerals and laughed at all of the trouble they’d caused.  Later that night the two rafted down the Monongahela to the Ohio River to the Mississippi River.  Once in Cairo, Illinois, Emmett Lee piloted a river boat up and down the Mississippi for several weeks under the assumed name of Emmett Lee Abagnale.


In the months following his return home, Emmett Lee spent time at Camp Wattchulukinat for Troubled Youth in Fort Crook, Nebraska.  There he met the Redenbacher brothers, Orville and Wilbur, and he forged a friendship that would last for years due to their one common passion:  corn.  Emmett Lee was, at times, consumed by corn.  He was fascinated by the many uses of corn, from food and beverage recipes to personal care and health and wellness remedies to pharmaceutical and industrial products.  He was obsessed with analyzing the calendar and weather patterns associated with the planting season.  He imagined the creation of a magnificent corn palace, decorated with crop art.  For years he headed up letter campaigns to elected officials in towns across Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and other western states, until he finally succeeded in convincing the city elders of Mitchell, South Dakota, to build his grand and glorious Corn Palace.


For complete biographical information on Emmett Lee Dickinson, please refer to Great American Poems - REPOEMED, Volumes 1 and 2.




Unhappy Time & Failed Marriages

Corn & Spirits

Attempting to Get Published

The Later Years

Dickinson's Poetry Almost Lost to the Ages




Inspiring Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
A Bar Room Blitz (an Encounter wth Henry David Thoreau)
A Night in Jail (with Susan B. Anthony)
An Encounter with Ms. Mary Todd Lincoln
...and more!


An Outboor Barbeque Compliments of Emmett Lee Dickinson


Dickinson was generally high-spirited, and he was quite the ardent prankster.  When he enrolled at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, he knew that he had met his match when it came to mischief-making and tomfoolery when first he connected with his roommate, Charles T. Pepper.


By the end of the first month of school, he and Charles had released chickens in the Dean of Students’ terrace, they lined the footpath to the student latrines with hundreds of oyster shells, and they cut the wicks off all of the candles in the student infirmary. Their greatest and most disastrous prank occurred on a still evening in October when Emmett Lee, “Dr. Pepper” (the nickname Dickinson bestowed on his friend during their lark in the infirmary), and a school chum of theirs, James Patrick O’Leary, led a cow up the stairs and onto the roof of the University’s Rotunda, which Thomas Jefferson had modeled after the Pantheon in Rome.


The three spirited comrades shared quite a laugh from their adventure until they realized that the frightened cow had kicked over a lantern that O’Leary had left on the rooftop (coincidentally, on the very same night, a cow owned by O’Leary’s mother kicked over a lantern in a barn in Chicago). Soon, the structure was engulfed in flames.  Though much of the building was lost in the conflagration, the students who gathered on the lawn to witness the calamity enjoyed quite an extravagant barbeque.


Baby Care & Aqueducts:


For a brief period following the death of his fifth wife, Emmett Lee Dickinson worked in Utica, NY, as a child psychologist with Drs. Mezmer, Mezmer, and Spellbind.  One morning a rather distressed woman by the name of Anna Lloyd Wright entered his office.  Dickinson was perplexed at first as the woman had no child with her, but he came to realize that she was expecting a child.  Mrs. Wright was seeking advice on how to rear the child.  In particular, she sought career counseling for the unborn child.


Dickinson endorsed two expanding job opportunities, that as a lapidary since news from the California coast was that gold was flowing in the rivers; and second was that as a lathe technician, since Dickinson was soon to register a patent for a wood turning lathe that he was sure would revolutionize the newel post industry.  Dickinson also advised Wright on medical supervision of the baby, prevention of diseases, proper care for diapers and petticoats, routines for sleep, remedies for disturbed sleep, phases of toilet habits, and effective methods of bowel training.


Following the session Mrs. Wright thanked Dickinson and departed for the Utica train station.  As she approached the depot, Dickinson had one last career suggestion for her so he shouted down the street, “Mrs. Wright, I strongly recommend a career for your child in aqueducts!  Aqueducts!”  However, the thunder of the approaching train overpowered his voice and Mrs. Wright could not hear him. 


“What?  What are you saying, Mr. Dickinson,” she hollered back.  “You cannot be heard.”


“Aqueducts!” he bellowed.  “Aqueducts!”


Mrs. Wright shook her head in acknowledgement, and with that, her mind was made up with what she heard—although  what she had heard was “Architects!”  When her son Frank Lincoln Wright (later known as Frank Lloyd Wright) was born she told him that he would grow up to be a famous architect, and she followed all of Dickinson’s advice on rearing the child to encourage her son’s ambition.



Therapeutic Treatment For PTPZS

Late in his life, Emmett Lee Dickinson began advancing theories of the unconscious mind, experimenting with treatments for neuralgia, and inventing therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association and phrenology.  He took in a young apprentice by the name of Sigmund Freud, and together they advanced the “mind over matter” school of cogitation (“What is mind? No matter.  What is matter? Never mind.”)  The two also pioneered treatments for Sorghumitis, a condition whereby an individual suffers from rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations when exposed to fresh corn, usually when corn is particularly plentiful and flavorsome.


During their groundbreaking work on Sorghumitis and other corn-related disorders, they met and  counseled Louis Comfort Tiffany who suffered from Insecticidits (an unfounded and unsettling fear of insects, particularly lady bugs), batanophobia (a fear of plants, also known as “Wysteria Hysteria”), and Miss-Muffetitis (an alarming fear of spiders, named for Miss. Mary Margaret Muffet who suffered countless spider bites during Boston’s Great Spider Infestation of 1807). 


Dickinson and Freud experienced a harsh falling out, though, over disagreements of their diagnosis of and treatments for Tiffany.  Freud insisted that Tiffany suffered from an Oedipal complex, and that his fear and use of the word “insects” was really just code for another unpleasant and disagreeable psychological term.  Dickinson maintained, however, that Tiffany suffered from PTPZS, Post-Traumatic Petting Zoo Syndrome, stemming from a distressing and horrific encounter in his youth with a small goat outside a corn crib.  Tiffany had tried to feed a baby goat a cob of corn, but the goat dismissed the cob. Tiffany was devastated and traumatized for life.  Dickinson prescribed radical treatment whereby Tiffany worked on Dickinson's farm and had to unload hand-picked corn from horse-drawn carts. 


Thanks to the untiring and persistent efforts on the part of Emmett Lee Dickinson, Tiffany was able to overcome his unfounded fears of flora and fauna, and he went on later in life to produce beautiful stained glass lampshades which depicted the very terrors of his youth.


Pictured below:  1) Louis Comfort Tiffany on the fateful day when "the goat dismissed the cob."  2) Tiffany posing before he unloaded a cartload of hand-picked corn.  3) A detail from a beautiful Tiffany stained glass lamp shade featuring a corn motif. 



Qwerty Dickinson’s son, Lee Thaddeus Dickinson, married Velvalee Blucher in the early 1930s.  Lee T. Dickinson was a doll maker, and in 1937 he and Velvalee opened a doll shop in New York City, catering to affluent doll collectors.  In 1944 Velvalee was convicted for espionage against the United States on behalf of Japan by sending secret information in her dolls to contacts in Buenos Aires.  Lee T. Dickinson escaped prosecution due to the fact that he died in 1943.


Information about Velvalee Dickinson is here and here.


American Poetry Month traces its roots back to 1830 when it was first founded by Emmett Lee Dickinson as the Metrical Composition Hour.  At that time Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s third cousin, twice removed (at her request), worked as scavenger in a textile factory.  As a “scavenger,” he had to pick up loose cotton found under the machinery.  Since this was a particularly dangerous job (as the task had to be performed while the machinery was in operation), the company generally filled the position with children.  As a result, Dickinson worked twelve- to fifteen- hour shifts with teams of ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds.  He thought it would be enjoyable for the children to hear rhymes and sing ballads on their breaks, so he finally convinced the factory’s manager to allow a one-hour cessation of work during the middle week of July.  Therefore, the first Metrical Composition Hour was hosted on July 15, 1830.


The event grew so popular so quickly that Dickinson realized more needed to be done to increase the awareness and appreciation of poetry in America.  In 1833 he moved the celebration to February 14, and he called it Versification Day.  However, as success and recognition for the observance grew, the union leaders of the powerful and influential IBHFIAWBCWBGCWJBHCWACWPUA (the International Brotherhood of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers, Bakery and Confectionery Workers, Bookbinders and Greeting Card Writers, Jouneymen Barbers, Hairdressers, Cosmetologists, Welders, Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Proprietors Union of America) pressured Dickinson to change the date because Versification Day was beginning to surpass Valentine’s Day as a mid-winter tradition.


Yielding to this pressure, Dickinson moved Versification Day to the first week of September and called the celebration A Week of Balladry, Poesy, and Rhyme, and later—at the suggestion of Walt Whitman’s brother Wink—shifted the event to the month of April and designated the entire month American Poetry Month.  He promoted poetry month by heralding, “Metaphors be with you!”





Did you know that the origin of “Poem In Your Pocket Day” also traces its start to Emmett Lee Dickinson?

Dickinson’s mother worked as a cosmetician at the Perish & Begone Funeral Parlor owned by brothers Eberhard and Egan Perish and Caldwell Begone. For a short time, Dickinson helped out by acting as a cadaver model for his mother.  During that time, Dickinson would slip short poems into the pockets of the dressed stiffs as his mother prepped them for their funerals.  Frequently, one of the Perish bothers would remove a poem from a pocket and read it at a funeral or wake.  The poems often added a much needed bit of comedy relief at the services.  

All Emmett Lee Dickinson research, information, and poetry © 2011 by Jim Asher