Born in Chesterfield, N.H., about 1781, he spent the last 50 years of his life mostly in the east village of Brattleboro. His parentage was respectable, but he was partially blind and so unfortunate in his general organization, he had not the ability to properly take care of himself. The labor he engaged in was generally for those least able to reward him. He found lodgings in some barn or out-house, and during his last years depended mainly upon charity. If any boy insulted him, as they frequently did, Johnson always felt certain the father of that boy would in some way come to grief, by failure in business or some family affliction. We heard him state: "Hon. James Elliot and his excellent wife always treated me well; they were the best friends I ever had in Brattleboro, but I am sorry they are Universalists. Why, if that doctrine is true, there is no hell for them Shaddocks."
But notwithstanding his menial occupation, lack of culture and unprepossessing externals, he often attracted attention by his quaint remarks and ingenious poetical compositions. Returning disgusted from Nauvoo, whither he was enticed by a Mormon brother, he encountered a fearful storm on Lake Erie, and wrote:
I fearfully was driven,
I thought each billow was my grave,
And pray'd to be forgiven.
Then did I promise to my God,
If safe again on shore,
I'd be submissive to his rod,
And leave the land no more."
Johnson was not a sot, but like many sons of genius that have preceded him, had a fondness for liquid sources of inspiration and yellow snuff, that may have been indispensable to his peculiar mental exercises. The great orator of Kentucky never made a brilliant display of oratory until he inhaled the aroma from his gold snuff-box. But however much the artificial aids may have assisted our poet, no voice came to his inspiration until he had for some moments intently gazed upon his wrinkled right hand. When urged, as he often was, to produce verses applicable to circumstances, he would sometimes pound his head with his fist, and a suspension of this exercise would be followed by bringing the inside of his expanded hand in contact with the end of his nose. Aster seemingly writing with his nose upon his hand, he, on one occasion, enlightened his audience upon the history of an individual who urgently requested a rhyme about himself.
To State's Prison he has been;
And if I could have my way,
He would be there again."
Slightly personal as was this production, the person poetized was with difficulty prevented from laying violent hands upon our author, and it was not long before it was made known there was more truth than poetry found upon the wrinkled right hand on this occasion.
Johnson wished for independence, and once tried to improve his fortune by peddling. He made several efforts before he could find any one who would furnish him goods on commission. His success and failure can best be given in his own language.
"John Leavitt let me have a basket of clothes pins, almanacs, and some other articles, that I was to sell or return. I went as far north as Putney, and had very good luck selling my stuff, but when I got back I hadn't got quite money enough to pay for the goods I had sold. I couldn't always tell when I got the right money, and no doubt some folks cheated me. Mr. Leavitt was very kind to me and said, 'Johnson, don't give it up so; perhaps you will do better next time.' He fitted me out with another stock of goods, but I didn't do so well as I did the first time. If the devilish boys would let me alone, I guess I could do something. One boy hit my side with a hard snowball, and you have no idea how it hurt me. I fell down and bruised my bones to all intents."
And but fifty cents in cash,
When I fell upon my basket
And broke it all to smash."
"Parents are more to blame than their boys. When I do find out the name of a boy who has insulted me, it is no use to tell his father, for when I have done so the answer generally is, 'Guess he didn't hurt you much; he only wanted a little fun; you'd better go on the town and get the boys."
But his happiest efforts were reserved for New Year's or Fourth of July. He was ever seeking for some sin with which to charge the Democratic party. From the days of Jackson, in 1829, to President Polk's administration, in 1847, we frequently heard his denunciations. Soon after Van Buren became president, Johnson gave him the following compliment:
With Andrew Jackson laid the plan
To make retrenchment but a sham,
And stain our country black as Ham."
In 1847 we were fighting Mexico. News came of the bombardment of Vera Cruz. Invited, on July 4th, to give his toast, his bent, aged frame shook with emotion, tears flowed down his withered face, and from quivering lips came feebly forth his first four lines. Warming with the theme, firmer and firmer rose his voice as he proceeded, and when he recited the last line his upraised right foot came down with a vengeance to the floor.
The proudest day for freedom's son,
For then a tyrant's galling chain
Broke on the soil of our father's won.
But now the cries of Mexan daughters,
With mangled limbs at Vera Cruz;
They tell how freemen's hands can slaughter,
How Independence they abuse.
Go, Democrat! bow low your head,
Heaven may forgive you this disgrace,
But history's page you've made so red,
All hell and Polk cannot efface."
If all our Johnsonian works has been preserved they would probably be enough to fill a good-size volume. We give one specimen of his efforts on the first of January, 1847:
To cheer my pathway to the grave,
Nor early love nor Cupid's wing
Can brace my heart life's scenes to brave.
"Yet I can say to rich and poor,
To old and young, to grave and gay,
Accept my hand, I have no more,
A Happy New Year to you this day.
"Improve this time your alms to give--
First day of eighteen forty-seven--
For you this time may cease to live,
And your reward be hell or heaven."
Enwrapped in cast-off clothing, Johnson felt his way about these busy streets nearly half a century. From him came to us often the first intelligence of the advent of joys or sorrows to the homes of near or distant neighbors, and, ever on some errand for the sick or well, he considered himself indispensable to the welfare of others. He believed his mission to this suffering world of great importance, and the many gilded flies of fashion, high in the world's regard--but nobody could tell why--had less apology for living.
It was one satisfaction of his life to think an aching void would be occasioned and sadness, like a cloud, come down upon this people, when it could be said of poor, abused, unappreciated,
No more we hear the echo of thy cane;
On thee no more boys play mischievous tricks,
For thou hast crossed the fabled river Styx."
His last song ceased, his feeble life went out, as liberty was buckling on her armor for the last great deeds of '61-'65, and peacefully he sank to sleep in his native town.
Our bard, to whom we have elsewhere alluded more definitely, rarely smiled. Not a day passed when he did not have a grievance, some record of abuse or charge against some one, to send up to the high court of heaven. Homeless as he was, and wandering in abject poverty from house to house, and passing the long winter nights in a stable, caused some observers of his condition to advise him to apply to the town for relief. Upon one such occasion he replied, "Don't fret yourself about me. I lodge in a more comfortable place than General Washington did when he was surveying in the forest; and when he was fighting the battles of his country I guess he would have sometimes been glad to find as good a place as Mead's barn to sleep in. If my shoes do let in the water, there is as good a chance for it to run out as there is for it to get in, and there is as good a chance now for you to mind your own business as there ever will be."
Henry Burnham, Brattleboro, Windham County, Vermont. Early History with Biographical Sketches of some of its Citizens (Brattleboro: Published by D. Leonard. 1880), pages 117-119 and 169-170.
Death of an Old Citizen.---Eliphaz Johnson, late of this village, and well known to not only our own citizens but to those from other towns who do business in Brattleboro, and more familiarly recognized as "Blind Johnson," died at Chesterfield on Thursday. Two weeks previous to his decease he was run against by a wagon, thrown down and his thigh bone broken in two places near the hip, which accident occasioned his death. He was a man of a good deal of shrewdness and ready wit, which occationally found its outlet in verse.
Vermont Phoenix, September 3, 1859.
For the Vermont Phoenix.
Ed. Phoenix:--The current discussion about the New Version Bible, in which "Sheol" and its various interpretations have a prominent place, and the recent enlargement and general improvement of the Universalist church edifice in this village and the marked vigor and prosperity of the society under the faithful ministration of its present earnest and much esteemed pastor, give pertinence to the subjoined narrative and anecdote.
For forty years preceding 1860, or thereabouts, Eliphaz Johnson--"Old blind Johnson," as he was commonly called--was a familiar figure in this locality. He was a queer compound of sense and nonsense, of shrewd cunning and half idiocy, in about equal proportions. Those of our citizens whose memories go back to any part of the period named will readily recall his tall, thin, bent form and shambling gait as, half blind, he went peering about our streets and by-ways, staff in hand, repeating from door to door his rhymes and jingles, some of which had both pith and sharp application, in return for which small donations in food, cast off clothing or money were always expected. In this way he picked up the scanty pittance on which he subsisted, always sturdily, and even angrily, resisting any suggestions that he should become a permanent guest of the town. In the main, when not provoked, he was a harmless and inoffensive, tho' an irascible and unwashed old mendicant, with exceedingly vigorous personal likes and dislikes. His unbounded admiration for and confidence in the Hon. James Elliot, ("Squire Ellet," as he called him), who was, or recently had been, a member of Congress from this district, whose lightest word was both law and gospel to Johnson, was an instance of the former; while the latter-found energetic expression in his utter detestation of "the Shattucks," a large family of boys and girls then living on High street, who, in a spirit of frolic and mischief, were accustomed to poke fun at and annoy him beyond his powers of endurance, insomuch that he finally came to hate each particular hair on their several heads with an intensity that knew no limits. So much by way of preface.
When the Universalists first began to hold meetings in this village and to discuss plans for erecting a house of worship, Johnson, who had been brought up a rigid Presbyterian, was greatly wrought up about it. For weeks and months it was the daily, almost hourly, theme of his discourse and denunciation. He maintained vigorously that the civil authorities ought to take the matter in hand and crush out the pestilent movement by the strong arm of the law, and not permit these false teachers to lead the unwary astray and so to perdition. On one occasion, after giving utterances to his customary denunciations, in his quaint manner and language, he seemed to soften somewhat, saying, in a soliloquizing tone: "But Squire Jim Ellet, he's a Universeler, and if Squire Ellet is a Universeler, there must be suthen tew it; there--must--be--suthen--tew--it." Instantly, another thought appeared to strike him, when, stretching his tall form to its utmost height, ungovernable wrath shooting from every feature and angularity of his quivering face and frame, he shouted: But if Universalism is true, then there ain't no Hell for them Shattucks!"
It is needless to add that thenceforward, even unto the day of his death, his loyalty to the faith of his fathers never faltered. And herein poor old blear-eyed, half-witted Johnson typifies the human race. All men have their Shattucks; and every unregenerate son of Adam, however little use he may have for "Sheol" for himself and friends, takes solid comfort in that thought that a place has been provided where his own particular "Shattucks" will find it hot.
B. D. H.
Vermont Phoenix, December 25, 1885.
The Hon. Broughton Davis Harris is the author with initials "B. D. H."
Universalists rendered the Biblical "Sheol" as "grave"---not as the Orthodox "hell".