The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Wondersmith" (1859)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Wondersmith was created by Fitz-James O’Brien and appeared in “The Wondersmith” (Atlantic Monthly #4, October 1859). Michael Fitz-James O’Brien (1828-1862) is one of the sadder literary might-have-beens: a talented Irish American writer who was killed at a young age in the Civil War, he left behind a series of excellent stories and sad thoughts about what he might have created had he lived as long as Ambrose Bierce.
In a ghetto of New York City lies Golosh Street, a dirty slum full of poor, desperate people and eccentric shops: a bird shop, a second-hand book-stall, an artificial eye store, a fortune-teller, and Herr Hippe’s shop, which is empty. Herr Hippe seems to sell nothing at all. He is known as “the Wondersmith,” though none of the local merchants can or will tell questioners what a “wondersmith” is. One night Hippe meets with his associates: Madame Filomel, the fortune-teller; Kerplonne, the eye-maker; and Oaksmith. Hippe tells Kerplonne and Oaksmith the plan he and Filomel have created. Hippe, whose real name is Waywode Balthazar, the Grand Duke of Egypt, has invoked Abigor, the demon of soldiers, and has crafted dozens of small manikins, all with evil expressions on their wooden faces and each bearing a blade. Filomel has captured dozens of evil souls in a black bottle. Together they will sell the manikins as toys, and at night let the souls loose to occupy the manikins. The manikins will kill all the Christian children, and “we, the despised Bohemians, the gypsies, as they call us, will be once more lords of the earth...."1
Meanwhile Solon, the hunchbacked, crippled book-seller, sneaks upstairs to visit Zonela. Hippe kidnapped Zonela when she was only a child and raised her as his own daughter. She is now a beautiful young woman who Hippe makes walk the streets, playing the organ, accompanied by Furbelow, a monkey. Solon and Zonela are friends, although Hippe does not know about their friendship. This night Solon responds to Zonela’s request to tell her a story by telling her his life story: how he met her, how one night he had a vision of being led into a fairyland by figures shaped like letters, and how, since that night, he has become an accomplished poet, although he publishes under a different name. He also tells her how he loves her, and she is so happy at this (for she loves him too) that they begin dancing together. Hippe then bursts into the room. He is furious with them and kicks poor Furbelow until he is unconscious. Hippe entrances Zonela so she cannot move and then wraps up Solon in a net, berating them both, although Solon attempts to defy him.
Later the four conspirators walk across Golosh Street to the bird-seller’s shop. The conspirators wish to test the efficacy of the manikins, so they animate the manikins with the evil souls and set them loose in the shop. The four watch with great satisfaction as all the birds are killed by the manikins. On New Year’s Eve, the four gather together. Hippe has acquired a special poison and envenoms the blades of the manikins as he and Filomel, Kerplonne, and Oaksmith drink to the future deaths of Christian children. Hippe intends to demonstrate the poison’s potency by letting the manikins kill the Solon, Solon, who is bound and helpless in the next room. But Furbelow crawls through the window to Solon’s room and gives Solon a knife, which Solon uses to free himself. He flees and runs to Zonela. Hippe, Filomel, Kerplonne, and Oaksmith drink too much and pass out. The black bottle slips out of the pocket of the unconscious Madame Filomel. The bottle falls to the ground and breaks, and the souls within the bottle animate the bodies of the manikins. Filled with their usual malice, the manikins attack the quartet. They are repeatedly stabbed and poisoned but manage to throw the manikins in the fire before dying of the poison. Solon and Zonela and Furbelow get away to live as happily as a couple can live in the world of Fitz-James O’Brien.
“The Wondersmith” is colorful, and sardonic. It is written with all the skill and darkly wry asides of Fitz-James O’Brien and is filled with characters easy to like and easy to hate. Like O’Brien’s other work it has not aged at all and is as readable and enjoyable now as it was in 1859. O’Brien vividly creates a memorable slum in his descriptions of Golosh Street. But for all of the story’s virtues, it remains, at the core, a hateful, anti-Romany tract. Many of the negative stereotypes of the Romany are present: Romany stealing Christian children, Romany wanting to poison Christians, and Romany being filthy and unscrupulous. None of O’Brien’s Romany characters are sympathetic or have any redeeming features, and O’Brien makes a point of describing Zonela as a Hungarian and a Christian rather than a Romany.
“The Wondersmith” is notable as an early work of science fiction featuring robots (the manikins). Robots were hardly unknown in the 1850s, of course. There had been human-shaped machines from early in the century, although these, like the famous chess-playing “Turk,” were either clockwork dummies or puppets.
Their counterparts in the fiction of E T A Hoffmann – the Talking Turk in "Automata" (1814) and Olympia, the haunting mechanical doll featured in "Der Sandmann" ["The Sandman"]...present a more verisimilitudinous image, and play a sinister role, their wondrous artifice being seen as something blasphemous and diabolically inspired. The automaton in Herman Melville's "The Bell-Tower" (August 1855 Putnam's Monthly) has similar allegorical connotations.2
“The Wondersmith” stands out among these tales, and indeed nearly all the robot tales of the nineteenth century, in that the automata of the story all have sentience and agency, something not generally featured in science fiction stories about robots until early in the next century. That said, the automata of “The Wondersmith” are not powered by scientific means, but by the trapped souls that Filomel has captured and gathered. Which makes “The Wondersmith” science fantasy (c.f. Star Wars) rather than science fiction (c.f. Star Trek).3
Few stories of bigotry have been as well-written or undeniably entertaining as “The Wondersmith.”
Print: Fitz-James O’Brien, The Supernatural Tales of Fitz-James O'Brien, Volume One: Macabre Tales. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
For Further Research
Gary Hoppenstand, “Robots of the Past: Fitz-James O’Brien’s ‘The Wondersmith,’” Journal of Popular Culture 27, no. 4 (Spring 1994): 13-30.
1 Fitz-James O’Brien, “The Wondersmith,” in The Diamond Lens, With Other Stories (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1885), 41.
2 Brian M. Stableford, David Langford, and John Clute. "Robots". The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, accessed Jan. 19, 2019, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/robots.
3 For a differing view on the science fictionality of “The Wondersmith,” see Garry Hoppenstand, “Robots of the Past: Fitz-James O’Brien’s ‘The Wondersmith,’” The Journal of Popular Culture 27, no. 4 (Spring, 1994): 13-30.