A math wiz who couldn’t read

  • Boston John Clark pictured at the Shaker Village in Enfield in 1874. Courtesy of Kimball Studios

For the Monitor
Published: 7/21/2019 11:00:14 AM

Some people travel through life and remain in the comfort of their routines as the years pass. Others leave the comfort of this journey and encounter situations that will challenge them on many levels.

Such was the case with a gentleman named “Boston” John Clark from Franklin. Where others failed, Boston John always succeeded.

John Clark was born in 1791 and resided most of his life in the town of Franklin. He was a respected gentleman without fault, he never learned to read or write, and he served time in the United States Army back in 1814. He lived a relatively simple life and was known as a farmer within his community in Franklin. If it was not for his very unique gift, perhaps his years would blend and his words would have remained anonymous.

You see, Boston John did indeed live the simple life of a farmer, but he was also born with the ability to figure things out quite nicely. He was one of the most gifted mathematicians known far and wide and welcomed the challenge that his gift presented. He lived his days in the mid-19th century on his farm surrounded by peace and tranquility. As he farmed, he worked the land while consistently thinking about solutions to problems that he was subjected to.

Our ancestors knew about the odd man in Franklin that could solve any equation. People knew that he could not read or write, but they also knew of unique ability with math and sought him when others could not resolve the issue. When a bridge needed to be built, a dam constructed, a railroad righted or a dome constructed – the people would seek Boston John. He hired people to work for him when he was challenged to solve problems and word of his genius spread across the entire state. Because he could not read or write he kept all of his records in his mind relating to his employees and projects.

Boston John relied on only one instrument to assist himself when working on mathematical problems. His constant companion was his 10-foot pole. As he walked about the community, he was never seen without his 10-foot pole. He traveled to Concord to assist with the construction of the New Hampshire State House dome, 10-foot pole in hand, he entered the construction site on Main Street and listened as the carpenters said the dome could not be built because it was too difficult. Boston John listened and remembered as he set about giving directions to the builders that led to the successful placement of our beautiful gold dome sitting high atop the State House. He traveled the Merrimack River and its tributaries building numerous dams that provided early hydropower and built a 400-foot-long bridge over the Pemigewasset River connecting Franklin with Franklin Falls.

Boston John was a large man and carried his strong body quite well. With his unique ability and intelligence there were people that did not support this gentle person. There were a group of boys that sought entertainment by playing a prank on Boston John. While he worked in the fields on his farm the youths snuck into Boston Johns home and sawed off one inch of his ten-foot pole, rendering his computations useless or faulted in their opinions. They observed him returning to his home, picking up his pole and walking out the door. Within a few steps Boston John stopped and examined his pole. He looked perplexed, walked to his field and cut a new pole measuring exactly ten feet.

As the years progressed, Boston John remained very active with his abilities and projects. It was in January 1861 that he was enjoying a walk down to a frozen portion of the Merrimack River. As he approached, he noticed footprints on the snow-covered ice so proceeded with caution across the frozen river. When he reached the middle the ice broke and he fell into the cold river water. A person observed this near-death experience from the other side of the river and ran towards the submerged Boston John with fear in his heart. The 71-year-old man resurfaced with a bewildered look at the man that was trying to help him. Boston John, with great strength and composure bellowed to the man and requested a long board. The would-be rescuer retrieved a long board, handed it to Boston John and watched with amazement as he placed it strategically across the broken ice, gently climbed from the river and resumed his walk with a tip of his hat.

Boston John aged well, lived a good life and constantly sought complicated problems to allow his mind to engage. At one point he experimented with hypnosis on his own and practiced with perfection. The doctors of the day did not know about hypnosis when a gentleman in Franklin caught his arm in machinery with severe injuries. Boston John visited the injured farmer and placed him in a deep sleep with hypnosis allowing the man to heal slowly while sedated naturally.

Boston John also claimed to converse with spirits on a somewhat regular basis. The spirits would sometimes give Boston John information that resulted in many a trip. There was one instant when he was advised by a spirit to travel to Cape Cod in search of a buried treasure. Boston John arrived with shovel in hand and started to dig for his treasure as a very agitated land owner arrived to confront him. Boston John, ever the gentleman, apologized and returned to Franklin without concern.

Boston John Clark spent his last years living at the Shaker community in Enfield. The Shakers were quite industrious and lived simply, much like the life that Boston John enjoyed. There were no confrontations in Enfield or judgments. He lived his last years engaging each and every riddle that passed his way.

Though no portrait was ever taken of Boston John Clark, he was found years later in the background of a photograph taken at the Shaker Village in Enfield. The Kimball Studios from Concord were at the village photographing and found Boston John in the background of one print. The exceptional quality of the photograph allowed Kimball Studios to enlarge his image.

Boston John Clark died on October 30, 1874, at the Shaker Village in Enfield. A gentle man that lived a good life, helping others in need with his unique ability. A legend that is now committed to the pages of history.

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