Richard Geoghegan as a young man.
The name Richard Geoghegan (pronounced GAY-g’n) is a familiar one in the early history of our language. As the first English speaker to learn Esperanto, he went on to translate Dr. Zamenhof’s “Unua Libro” and other works, and introduced the language into both England and Ireland, and later into our own Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
Geoghegan’s place as an Esperanto pioneer is well recognized; but until now little else has been widely known about this man’s remarkable career, both as a preeminent linguist and an unlikely participant in the colorful post-gold rush era of Alaska.
He was born in 1866 in Birkenhead, England, the eldest son of an English mother and Irish father; but it was always his Irish heritage that he particularly treasured. An accident in infancy left him with a badly disfigured leg, so that for much of his life he needed crutches or canes to walk. A shy and retiring nature was another lifelong result.
But almost as a kind of compensation, fate also endowed him with an inquisitive mind and unusual mental powers, especially for languages. Latin and Greek, staple subjects in the schools of those days, were child’s play to him, as were the chief European tongues. And when other boys were on the playground, Richard might well be found in the school library, copying out Chinese characters or the mysterious alphabets of other, little-known languages.
In the fall of 1887 he was at Balliol College, Oxford, studying Chinese and other Asian tongues. One day a fellow student and language hobbyist (with whom he had been learning Volapük) showed him an article in a London paper about the recent appearance of a new international language project by a mysterious Dr. Esperanto in Warsaw. A letter to “Esperanto,” written in Latin, brought a German translation of Zamenhof’s little booklet. The friend lost interest (or maybe didn’t know German) but Geoghegan mastered the new language in short order and was soon corresponding in it with Zamenhof himself, and many others.
A short time later Zamenhof sent him the newly published English edition of his little book, the work of one Julius Steinhaus. Geoghegan took one look and warned the good doctor that its stilted, error-filled English would only make his project a laughing-stock in England. Zamenhof quickly withdrew the book (its few surviving copies are true rarities today) and asked Geoghegan to make his own version, which he did.
After college, Geoghegan set himself up in London for a time as a freelance teacher of languages (including Esperanto, Chinese and Hindustani). Then in 1891 his mother, now widowed, decided to take the rest of her family and emigrate to the northwestern corner of the United States, to be near a brother who had located on a little island there called Orcas. After some hesitation, Richard agreed to come too.
Geoghegan, dressed for the winter trail.
Orcas proved to be a densely forested island of rolling hills and tranquil bays, populated largely by farmers, fishermen, loggers and quarrymen. A pleasant enough place but with few prospects for an intellectual like Richard Geoghegan. So he moved to Tacoma for a while, learned shorthand and worked on and off as a secretary for, among others, both the British and Japanese consulates there. Meanwhile, repeated efforts to secure a teaching post at Seattle’s University of Washington came to nothing. His lack of an actual degree from Oxford (Chinese didn’t qualify at that time) was cited, but friends suspected the prevailing prejudice against cripples played the greater part.
In late 1899 or early 1900 he was back on “the isle” when he received a visit from another early Esperanto pioneer, Wilhelm Trompeter of Germany, who was on a world tour. He met Trompeter’s boat when it came in and, the hour being late, led him to a nearby inn where they ordered dinner. They were chattering away in Esperanto when another traveler asked what language they were talking in. Geoghegan, ever the promoter, told him all about the language; but the man became first indignant and then angry, convinced his leg was being pulled. Geoghegan told that story frequently over the years as an illustration of the kind of skepticism and even abuse early Esperantists faced.
(The inn, now called Outlook Inn, is still there and has been the venue in recent years for several regional Esperanto get-togethers.)
While in Tacoma Geoghegan became friends with an attorney, James Wickersham, through their mutual interest in the native languages of the region. Wickersham had political ambitions, and in 1900 he was appointed to a federal judgeship in Alaska. He may well have considered taking Richard along as his clerk/secretary, but feared Geoghegan wouldn’t be up to the rigors of the place. But he regretted the decision. The man he did take didn’t work out and in 1903 he sent Geoghegan a terse telegram: “Come to Valdez on first boat. Good salary. Wickersham.”
The Alaska of that time was a pretty lawless place. With some hard-working miners striking it rich, envious others angled to make their pile in an easier way. Claim-jumping, thievery and general thuggery were rampant. Armies of crafty lawyers, big-shot politicians and even one district judge were parties to some of the more imaginative scams. Wickersham had been sent to clean up the mess.
In Valdez, Richard Geoghegan was set to work taking testimony in a series of sensational trials ranging from murder to million-dollar civil suits. But Wickersham’s jurisdiction was huge. So sometimes “Wick and Dick” — as the duo came to be known — would also have to hit the frozen trails and hold court in the budding towns and gold camps of Alaska’s interior.
Despite the harsh climate, Geoghegan found the frontier atmosphere and live-and-let-live lifestyle of the territory appealing. With rare exceptions he spent the remaining 40 years of his life in Alaska, serving variously as a Federal court reporter, in law offices, or as a court official. (One of those exceptions was his “outside” year of 1906, when he did some court reporting in Seattle, and incidentally helped found the Esperanto Society which is still active there.)
Geoghegan was a keen observer of Alaskan life and an indefatigable correspondent. His surviving letters — and there are many hundreds of them, in all sorts of languages — along with his diaries and other papers — chronicle the many colorful events he was witness to with humor and rare insight. There is an entire collection devoted to them in the University of Alaska’s library in Fairbanks. Shamrocks on the Tanana: Richard Geoghegan’s Alaska is based largely on this material.
Along with his professional career, Geoghegan carried on a parallel life as a world-class linguist. He admitted to knowing “something about” two hundred or so tongues, but that was surely understated. The good people of Fairbanks, where he lived in his later years, were dimly aware of his prowess in that line, and he was frequently called upon to translate things for them. (One long-time resident recalled that he could “translate anything into anything.”)
Geoghegan in his late years.
His scholarly work, which was voluminous, was carried on by mail which flowed in rivers into and out of his simple log cabin in a nondescript neighborhood of the town. His “correspondential” (his playful word) colleagues included professors, students, Esperantists (as well as untold promoters of rival schemes), a head of state, and just plain curious hobbyists. He answered every letter, often at great length, sharing his vast knowledge with pleasure.
Geoghegan remained a staunch supporter of Esperanto, often stating that it was the only really practical one of the many interlanguage proposals that had been put forward. He had corresponded with just about every early pioneer of the language from Zamenhof and Trompeter to Grabowski, and “scores of others literally from Iceland to Peru.” He was elected to the prestigious Lingva Komitato in 1906; while for years on end, sentimental samideanoj in Keighly, Yorkshire, kept naming him honorary president of their society.
Apart from Esperanto, Richard Geoghegan’s principal published work was his grammar and dictionary of the Aleut language. He had begun it in his Valdez days, taking notes in the margins of shorthand pads as Aleut speakers testified in court. The work had continued through all those later years.
The Aleut Language was accepted for publication in 1943; but Geoghegan never saw a printed copy. He was already in ill health and passed away a few months before its appearance the following year.
The little book that introduced Esperanto to the English-speaking world.