The Burning of Bleak College

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance


According to William Lyall’s A True History of Mr. Bleak’s College Its Founding Its Purpose Its Sudden Destruction, the original incarnation of Bleak College was remarkable not so much for its curriculum (theology, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as the “technologica,” as the Puritans called earthly knowledge) as for its architectural peculiarities: the tunnels that connected the four main buildings; the tower atop West House that lacked interior stairs, so that the only way to get to the top was to climb the outside. The fact that the college had a total of exactly 30 doors, and this number was so strictly maintained that, if a new door had to be cut somewhere, Mr. Bleak nailed an old door shut. The telescope atop West House, which was trained on the churches of New Haven Green, as though some danger was to be feared from their direction. The shed which no one was allowed to visit until the eve of their graduation, and then only on the condition that they tell no one what they had seen.

It could not stand; it could not stand. Even before the doors opened the alarmed New Haveners were meeting in secret to discuss what could be done about it. And when reports reached the citizenry of students disporting themselves in the field behind West House, wearing black robes, and begging demons to torment them; and when further reports reached the ears of the New Haven elders (Lyall among them) that great numbers of sheep were being herded into the basement of Mr. Bleak’s own house, more sheep than any basement could hold, and when… but there is no need to repeat all the things the New Haveners said about Bleak College as they got up their courage and made torches of rags soaked in oil.

Lyall claims that they moved peaceably on Bleak College: knocking on doors, telling the undergraduates that their studies—and their peril—were at an end. Even Mr. Bleak’s house was emptied quietly, and the servants sent away. Lyall says they were glad to go. The basement, searched, cautiously, by the bravest men of the city, with loaded muskets, was found to be empty. Nothing remained of all those sheep but an ovine smell, and a few wisps of wool which might have come from something else.

Nonetheless, the New Haveners burned all the buildings, one by one—you almost say they burned the college out of disappointment.

At last they came to the shed.

“Upon Prising apart the Lock [Lyall writes], we found within a Great Framework of Ropes and Wheels, with a Fire at the bottom of it, and, suspended over the fire, a Chair, in which my Sonne sat, clutching at its Arms and evidently very Afraid to fall. Over his Head hung various Discs, representing, the Sun and Moon, and a Ravening Wolf, and the Stars, and Birds in Flight, all Drawn as it were from Life, and moving in their Orbits at various Speeds.

“What was stranger still, I dare hardly Tell you: the whole Device was Turn’d by Beasts, or Monsters. A Great Creature with a Lion’s Body and the Head of a Bat pumped the Bellows, while Fluttering Atrocities saw to the Motion of the Stars, and Charles’s rope was held at the Lower Extremity by a Nude Woman with the Head of a Hen. About her feet there slithered Creatures without Legs, although they had Faces, and these Faces they turned to us with an Expression as it were of Contempt. This surely (thought I) was Mistris Hutchison’s brood […]

“When we had Charles down from the Chair, and had tied Mr. Bleak in his own Ropes, we Interrogated him, as to the Purpose of his Machine. ‘It is meant to shew us how providence works,’ said Charles; but Mr. Bleak, who retained the manner of a Schoolteacher even when Bound, chided him with these words: ‘Charles, it is providence.’”

The New Haveners escorted Mr. Bleak out under guard; then they destroyed the machine and set its remains on fire. It burned very hot, Lyall observed, and almost without smoke; and it kept burning until dawn.

Prosperity Bleak was hanged in New Haven on August 14, 1675. Bleak College re-opened five years later, under the direction of a Rhode Islander named Ablet. No one ever saw the monsters again. Perhaps they never existed, or perhaps they were only the expression of something in the people who claimed to have seen them, a kind of outrage, or discontent.


© 2008-2018 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.