Most of our famous natives achieved their renown in the world by virtue of their accomplishments: what they made, or what they wrote, or what they did.
We have, however, one local who became well known all over the US, yet he never made or wrote anything; and all he really did, in the way of doing, was be himself. Being himself was enough to make him unforgettable. Immortal, in fact.
That’s what they called him: The Immortal J.N.
That is the exact term that was in headlines of newspapers all over the country; in the conversations of everyone who ever met him: from bums on the street to waiters in high class restaurants; to Congressmen and Governors. Even the President. It was said that he personally knew, and called by name, every editor of every newspaper in every town he ever set foot in.
At the end of his life, in a retrospective biography, a NY newspaper said, “He has probably spoken to more people publicly and oftener than any other living man.”
He made a life out of spreading good will. He would arrive at a town on the train—any town of any size in America; stroll into the newspaper office to have notice printed that he would make a public address; and people were so curious about this famous man that a crowd would assemble.
Sometimes his speeches made sense, in a way, but no one was exactly sure what he was taking about. He expounded great truths, and claimed to be “lifting the veil” on profound cosmic certainties that he alone could comprehend. He spoke in public halls, city chambers, bandstands, and courthouse steps; or just as comfortably, to cluster of folks on a street corner while standing on a barrel.
A news clipping from Fredericktown reported his widely advertised appearance there: “In dignified posture the speaker of the evening, the “Immortal J.N.” sat upon the platform and calmly watched the gathering of the crowd. When the seats were all filled and the time had arrived for the opening of the lecture, J.N. arose, and after stating that it was necessary that he be excused for a few minutes, he went out of the door and that was the last ever seen of him by the audience, as he disappeared from the village without further ado.”
You see, the Immortal J.N. was not entirely anchored into common reality as we generally experience it—he operated in a sphere of cognition all his own. That was his charm: he was a little cracked. He was the most famous person in America whose fame was entirely predicated on his unpredictable and half-lunatic endearing personality. He was clearly nuts most of the time, but he made enough sense, and approached his encounters with such earnest intention, that everyone had to take him seriously. Sort of.
The Immortal J.N. was famous for, well, for being famous. He visited every state where the train went, and introduced himself to famous people, and to public figures: striding into their offices as one celebrity to another. After he had departed, the office holder would turn to his secretary and ask, “Now, who exactly was that man?”
There were several times in his life when newspapers around the US reported his death: once, in the 1890s, by drowning in a Missouri river; at least twice, in the 70s and 80s, by falling to a mysterious sudden illness. He used to walk into newspaper offices to search their files, looking for his obituaries, to see what they had written about him.
Worth the ink
There are a thousand examples of how his fame played out in the daily life of the 1800s, and in fact, his fame was established and maintained through the decades almost entirely by the myriad anecdotes everyone had to tell about the famous man. Some of them were true, some were not, but it hardly mattered because even the true stories were barely believable.
He one time gained an audience in the White House, and explained to Abraham Lincoln with his earnest and convoluted logic, that the war could have been avoided because, “both sides of the conflict entirely believed they were right and, as such, were true patriots, and worthy of forgiveness.” He was certain that if he had the opportunity to similarly speak with the President of the Confederacy, that he could end the war.
It was reported that J.N. “pleased the President by his quaintness and eccentricity,” so much, that Lincoln provided him with a letter of safe passage through the battle lines in order to visit the Confederate Capitol. The Immortal J.N. accordingly had his sit-down with Jefferson Davis, and the Rebel President received him with all the due courtesy accorded a visiting dignitary. It would not be difficult to assume J.N. was a statesman of high honor, because he presented every appearance of noble intellect, and highly presentable dignity.
After a few minutes of conversation, Mr. Davis found a way to have J.N. escorted courteously away from his presence, and then turned to his aides and demanded to know how this crazy man had gotten past the guards.
J.N. was subsequently arrested as a Northern spy, and would have been imprisoned or executed except it became clearly evident to his captors that the man was, though scrambled in his head, entirely innocent as a child and guileless in his intentions. He was given a few dollars and sent home.
Assuming and unassuming
That was the thing about J.N.: no matter what crazy thing he was saying, or what skewered logic his rabbit-hole conversation was leading, there was such a purity and innocence in his eyes that he was entirely disarming; and even a little hypnotic, and it made people take him seriously. Kind of.
He talked Conductors of trains into letting him ride free almost his entire life—in fact he talked the owners of the railroads into issuing him free passes to ride anytime, anywhere he liked. He carried those passes with him in his pocket, and could produce them for almost any line in the US.
If a Conductor balked at the audacity of it, and put J.N. off the train, he would simply wait for the next train and climb aboard.
He stayed at hotels across the United States and never paid: even the finest hotels. There are famous stories about his various encounters with hotel clerks that always end with J.N. walking cheerfully away without paying the bill.
People fed him, feted him. He was a social phenomenon all to himself. He rode free, stayed free, he ate free. In fact, that was his name: J.N. Free.
Born to fame
He was born in 1828 and, according to whose version of the story you read, he was born in Mansfield, or perhaps in Pennsylvania; or any number of other places. Towns were quite willing to claim him as a local legend in order to enhance their own legacy. A writer from Athens County said J.N. was from Lancaster; a newspaper from Toledo said he was born in Tiffin.
There is one small clue that lends powerful credence to Mansfield’s claim for him though, and that is the man’s very name: he was Jacob Newman Free; and Jacob Newman was the founder of Mansfield and highly respected in early Richland County as its first pioneer.
J.N. grew up here. Records and witnesses show his parents lived in Mansfield in the 1830s and 40s; and the young man worked at a pharmacy on North Main Street.
He left here for the California Gold Rush, and after that he never again belonged to any single place. He became a professional itinerant. He was introduced as “The Immortal J.N. of Nowhere and Everywhere.”
Folks who knew him early in life attested to his tremendous intellect and mental acuity and capacity. He supposedly spoke 12 languages; memorized the entire Bible. They all predicted a brilliant future for him in national affairs. There was no one who knew him as a young man who didn’t imagine he would become famous.
In later years, after the Immortal J.N. had been a public figure for several decades, it became a common part of every newspaper column about him to speculate as to what, exactly, happened to the brilliant young man that broke his fabulous mind.
Some said that he was jilted in love, of course, some even provided her name, as a familiar plot line for any eccentric. Some said it happened in California: where he amassed a terrific fortune in gold but was double-crossed by his partner; or that he lost everything in a great boomtown fire of 1851 and it drove him crazy.
The most commonly told tales involved a famous murder trial that took place in Cincinnati, or in Chicago, or in Decatur; when J.N.—as a lawyer—turned his astonishing intellect to the purpose of defending a young man in the case. After J.N. exhausted himself in having the accused set free, the man told J.N. he actually had committed the crime. Then his mind snapped. There are many more stories of what made him snap.
Folks began to recognize that J.N. had snapped sometime around the onset of the Civil War. That was when he began his career of public speaking. In 1860 there are public notices published in newspapers across the Midwest advertising free public lectures where J.N. Free would explain how the war could be averted.
That was also when he started having himself voluntarily incarcerated in municipal jails as a public service. He wanted to be placed in manacles and locked into “dungeons,” because only through this action could he “lift the pressure” of the community. He was jailed 43 times from New Jersey to Missouri, until the jailers caught on.
He came to believe he could control the weather; and there were other people who came to actually believe it as well. He once averted a meteor shower that would have destroyed Kansas City.
J.N. never paid for his hotel accommodations or meals or train rides because he believed “his transcendent genius radiated value in every moment’s time he gave to others.”
It is a genius of a whole brightly illuminated level of reality that is incomprehensible to those of us who live in the crude and dimly lit world.
One day the Immortal J.N. strode into the Legislative Chamber of the Ohio Statehouse and announced he wanted to reserve the hall to make a speech. The Speaker of the House had just released all the Congressmen for the day, but he had them resume their seats and told J.N. to go ahead and make his speech at once.
J.N. was so surprised at the suddenness of it, he stammered and spun his wheels in wholly uncharacteristic speechlessness. It took a few minutes of rambling before his mind took traction, and Congressmen muttered and started to walk out.
But then J.N. suddenly lit up from within, and launched into a stunning oration about how he fought the Civil War not on the battlefields of America, but in his own mind. The lawmakers stopped in their tracks and stared at the old man as he explained how the war was fought with guns because Grant, Sherman, Lee, Lincoln and Davis did not use the power of their own minds to resolve the conflict with reason.
It made no sense at all, and it made perfect sense; and the Ohio Legislature burst into spontaneous applause and cheered loudly for the man whose words defied simple mortality.