Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Narrative of the Life and Travels of John Robert Shaw, The Well-Digger (1807)

Reading John Jeremiah Sullivan's wonderful Blood Horses recently, I was delighted to be introduced to the extraordinary misadventures of John Robert Shaw, Well-Digger, pictured above sans a few body parts. I was equally delighted to discover that his madcap 1807 autobiography is available in full here.

Sure, I know what you're thinking. How interesting can the exploits of a Kentucky Well-Digger be? Well, consider this: Shaw was also, to borrow Sullivan's phrase, a "career alcoholic", and digging wells required him to handle (literally) large quantities of explosives. And hey, he wasn't just a well-digger anyway. He spent a miserable time in the (British) army too, and was also an accomplished, um, basket-maker. In short, a marvellous lost gem. This snippet gives a good sense of the gonzo nature of things: