- Historic Sites
The Oddest Of Characters
Slovenly, impulsive, impoverished, and grotesque, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque was the greatest naturalist of his age. But nobody knew it.
June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
One summer day in 1818 Rafinesque turned up in Henderson, Kentucky. Without forewarning he had come to visit John James Audubon, who was on his way to becoming the bestknown ornithologist in the United States and the greatest painter of birds. At this time the thirty-three-year-old Audubon was eking out a living with a country store and mill but spending most of his time in ornithological pursuits. He described his first meeting with Rafinesque:
“‘What an odd-looking fellow!’ said I to myself, as, while walking by the river, I observed a man landing from a boat.... He ascended with rapid steps, and … asked if I could point out the house in which Mr. Audubon resided. ‘Why, I am that man,’ said I, ‘and will gladly lead you to my dwelling.’ The traveller rubbed his hands with delight, and drawing a letter from his pocket, handed it to me … I broke the seal and read as follows: ‘My dear Audubon, I send you an odd fish, which you may prove to be undescribed, and I hope you will do so in your next letter....’”
The sealed letter introducing Rafinesque as an “odd fish” was from Louis Tarascon, a wealthy flour miller who hoped his friend Audubon would help the visitor in his mad, driving “search for new fauna.”
Audubon continued his account: “We soon reached the house, where I presented my learned guest to my family and was ordering a servant to go to the boat for [his] luggage, when he told me he had none but what he brought on his back.... The naturalist pulled off his shoes, and while engaged in drawing his stocking, not up, but down, in order to cover the holes about the heels, told me in the gayest mood imaginable that he had walked a great distance....” He refused the clean clothes offered to him.
During supper the Audubons enjoyed the “agreeable conversation” of their “ravenous guest” so much they were able to overlook his “singular appearance.” Audubon, himself so often called a “peculiar character,” wrote an interesting description of Rafinesque, including the man’s “exceedingly remarkable attire”:
“A long loose coat of yellow nankeen, much the worse for the many rubs it had got in its time, and stained all over with the juice of plants, hung loosely about him like a sack. A waistcoat of the same, with enormous pockets, and buttoned up to his chin, reached below a pair of pantaloons, the lower parts of which were buttoned down to the ankles. His beard was as long as I have known my own to be during some of my peregrinations, and his lank black hair hung loosely over his shoulders. His forehead was so broad and prominent that any tyro in phrenology would instantly have pronounced it the residence of a mind of strong powers. His words impressed an assurance of rigid truth, and as he directed the conversation to the study of the natural sciences, I listened to him with much delight....”
Rafinesque said that he had come to Henderson expressly to see Audubon’s drawings, which he hoped would include shrubs and plants he had not before seen. After eating, he asked to see the drawings at once. Audubon did not like his visitor’s impatience but laid out his portfolios.
“He chanced to turn over the drawing of a plant quite new to him,” wrote Audubon. “After inspecting it closely, he shook his head, and told me no such plant existed in nature.... I told [him] that the plant was common in the immediate neighborhood, and that I should show it to him on the morrow. ‘And why tomorrow, Mr. Audubon? Let us go now!’ We did so, and on reaching the bank of the river I pointed to the plant. [The man], I thought, had gone mad! He plucked the plants one after another, danced, hugged me in his arms, and exultingly told me that he had got not merely a new species, but a new genus. When we returned home, the naturalist opened the bundle which he had brought on his back, and took out a journal … and wrote [the plant’s] description. The examination of my drawings then went on....”
When it was very late, Audubon showed the visitor to his room and retired. Soon he heard a “great uproar” in Rafinesque’s room. “I got up, reached the place in a few moments, and opened the door, when to my astonishment, I saw my guest running round the room naked, holding the handle of my favorite violin, the body of which he had battered to pieces against the walls in attempting to kill the bats, which had entered by the open window, probably attracted by the insects flying around his candle. I stood amazed, but he continued jumping and running round and round, until he was fairly exhausted, when he begged me to procure one of the animals for him, as he felt convinced they belonged to ‘a new species.’ Although I was convinced of the contrary, I took up the bow of my demolished Cremona, and administering a smart tap to each of the bats as it came up, soon got specimens enough....”
When Audubon complained about his ruined Cremona, Rafinesque said, “Never mind, Mr. Audubon ... I have the bats, and that’s enough.” Audubon made no reply, but he was very annoyed, and by morning he felt the need to avenge the loss of his cherished violin.