An account of a 19th century New York alchemist.
The account was written by Gulian Crommelin Verplanck for the literary historical annual The Talisman in 1829. He wrote a series of pieces under the name Francis Herbert. Whether it is based on any real person or was entirely a piece of fiction cannot be determined, but it is a good story.
Who would suppose that the exploded science of alchemy had ever its professor in the United States, where the easy transmutation of the soil of the wilderness into rich possessions renders unnecessary the art of converting dross into gold? Yet such is the fact. Everybody who has been a frequent walker of Broadway, in any or all of the forty years preceding the last five, must recollect often meeting a man whom at first he might not have particularly noticed, but whose constant appearance in the same part of the street at the same hour of the day, and the peculiarities of whose dress and person, must at length have compelled attention. He was a plump looking man, somewhat under the middle size, with well spread shoulders, a large chest, a fair complexion, a clear but dreamy eye, and a short, quick stride, and had altogether the signs of that fulness of habit which arises from regular exercise and a good appetite, while a certain ascetic expression of countenance at once forbade the idea that it owed anything to festivity or good cheer. His age, which never appeared to vary, might, from his looks, be estimated at five years, on the one side or other, of fifty. His dress was that of an old-fashioned, respectable citizen, educated before the age of suspenders, pantaloons, and boots, and who had never been persuaded to countenance those innovations of modern effeminacy. Notwithstanding its obsolete cut, it showed no signs of poverty, except perhaps to those who occasionally met him sweltering, with a laudable contempt for the weather, in a full suit of thick Prussian blue, or Dutch blackcloth, in a hot August day; or striding through snowstorm, in nankeen breeches and white cotton stockings in December. His name was Jan Max-Lichenstein; he was a Pomeranian by birth, who, early in life, going to Amsterdam to seek his fortune, became employed as a clerk in the great Dutch banking and commercial house of Hope & Company, where he proved himself a good accountant, and rendered himself useful in their German and Swedish correspondence.
Afterwards, by some accident or other, he found himself an adventurer at St. Petersburg. What led him to that city I cannot say; I have never heard it accounted for among his acquaintances in this city; at Amsterdam I forgot to inquire, and St. Petersburg I have never visited. But thither he went; and, having the good fortune to become known to Prince Potemkin, received an employment in his household, and finally came to be entrusted with the management of his finances. The prince, as everybody knows, like many others who have millions to dispose of, had constantly occasion for millions more; and, as everybody also ought to know who knows anything of his private history, when his funds were so reduced that he had nothing left but a few millions of acres and a few thousand serfs, took most furiously to gambling and alchemy. These liberal employments were divided between him and his treasurer. The prince rattled the dice-box in the gilded saloons of Tzarzko Zelo; and the Pomeranian, in spite of his remonstrances and his own better judgment, was set to compounding the alkahest, or universal menstruum, in the vaults under the north wing of Potemkin's winter palace. We soon get attached to the studies in which we are obliged to employ ourselves, and Lichenstein gradually found his incredulity yielding and a strange interest stealing over him, as he read the books, and sweltered and watched over the operations of alchemy. The result was, that at length he became a believer in the mysteries of imbibition, solution, ablution, sublimation, cohabation, calcination, ceration, and fixation, and all the martyrizations of metals, with the sublime influences of the Trine Circle of the Seven Spheres.
Lichenstein, however, with all his diligence and increase of faith, could neither coin gold nor get it out of the prince's tenants in such quantities as it was wanted, and he was now destined to learn how much the favor of the great depends upon the state of their stomachs. One morning Potemkin, after a run of bad luck, plenty of good champagne, a sleepless night, and an indigestible breakfast of raw turnips and quass, called upon him for an extraordinary sum, and, not finding it easily furnished, flew into a passion and discharged him on the spot. As the oprince never paid any debts but those of honor, Lichenstein knew that it would be vain to ask for his salary, and walked into the streets without a penny in his pockets. The late Chief Justice Dana, of Massachusetts, then our Minister at the Court of St. Petersburg, was about to return to America. Lichenstein had heard the most flattering accounts of the prospects held out in the United States to active and intelligent adventurers from the Old World, and readily believed all he heard, which, for a believer in alchemy, was no great stretch of credulity. He had some little acquaintance with the American Minister, in consequence of once or twice negotiating for him small bills on the bankers of the United States at Amsterdam. He threw himself upon his generosity, and requested a passage to this country - a favor which was readily granted. Here he was fortunate enough, almost immediately on his arrival, to be employed in the first mercantile house in New York to answer their Dutch, German, and northern correspondence, with a salary which, though not half so large as that allowed by Prince Potemkin, he liked twice as well, because it was regularly paid. He had scarcely become well settled in New York, when his old dream of alchemy returned upon him. He carefully hoarded his earnings until he was enabled to purchase, at a cheap rate, a small tenement in Wall Street, where he erected a furnace with a triple chimney, and renewed his search of the arcanum magnum. Every day, in the morning, he was occupied for two hours in the counting room; then he was seen walking in Broadway; then he shut himself in his laboratory until the dusk of the evening, when he issued forth to resume his solitary walk.
Year after year passed in this manner. Wall Street, in the meantime, was changing its inhabitants; its burghers gave way to banks and brokers; the city extended its limits, and the streets became thronged with increasing multitudes-circumstances of which the alchemist took no note, except that he could not help observing that he was obliged to take a longer walk than formerly to get into the country, and that the rows of lamps on each side of Broadway seemed to have lengthened wonderfully toward the north; but whether this was owing to the advance of old age, which made his walk more fatiguing, or to some other unknown cause, was a problem which I believe he never fully solved to his own satisfaction.
Still the secret of making gold seemed as distant as ever, until it presented itself to him in an unexpected shape. His lot in Wall Street which measured 28 feet in front and 87 feet in depth, and for which he had paid 350 pounds in New York currency, had become a desirable site for a newly chartered banking company.
One day Lichenstein was called by the president of this company from his furnace, as he was pouring rectified water on the salt of mercury. He felt somewhat crusty at the interruption, as he hoped, by reverberating the ingredients in an athanor, to set the liquor of Mars in circulation; but when this person had opened to him his errand, and offered him $25,000 for the purchase of his lot, his ill-humor was converted into surprise. Had he been offered $5000, he would have accepted it immediately, but $25,000! the amount startled him. He took time to consider the proposition, and the next morning was offered $30,000 by a rival company. He must think of this also, and before night he sold to the first company for $33,000. He was now possessed of a competency; he quitted his old vocation of clerk, abandoned his old walk in Broadway, and, like, Admiral Landais, 'disappeared' but not, I believe, like him, to another life. I have heard that his furnace has again been seen smoking behind a comfortable German stone-house in the comfortable borough of Easton - a residence which he chose, not merely on account of its cheapness of living, nor its picturesque situation but chiefly for its neighborhood to Bethlehem, where dwelt a Moravian friend of his, attached to the same mysterious studies, and for its nearness to the inexhaustible coal mines of Lehigh.