Poe Bugged
The Gold Bug

skull courtesy Terry Thomas

The first story by Edgar Allan Poe I ever read was The Gold Bug.
It's almost as much of a classic as Stevenson's Treasure Island.
But on re-reading it, I found more than one awful blunder.

The version I read, way back then, was in Dutch, which by now really makes me wonder how the translator handled that cipher code. But that's not our concern here. Neither is the fact that the plot also revolves around a nigger who's too comically stupid to distinguish left from right. That Book should Be Banned and Burned!

Cutting the plot down to size, somebody finds a document written by Captain Kidd the infamous pirate, giving the location of his treasure; because our forementioned friend Sambo drops a weight through the wrong eye of a skull nailed to a tree branch, parallax causes them first to dig in the wrong place.
For starters, it's a bit weird that the document just sits there on the beach next to the wreck of a boat presumably used by Kidd to come bury the treasure. Pretty stupid to go through all that trouble of writing a cipher document and then forgetting to take it along. By the way, so how did Kidd get back to his ship? By another way, did he write that document, cipher, invisible ink and all, on the beach there after he'd buried the treasure and murdered a couple of fellow pirates? We have no choice but to humor Poe and to go along with all that.
To avoid many tedious explanations, check the drawing below.

AutoCAD drawing based on Poe's statements; dimensions in mm

On the end of a tulip tree branch sits a skull. As Poe sets the story in, to him, modern times, that tree should be well over a century old because Kidd was hanged in 1701, eight years before Poe was born. Let us assume the tree has reached its maximum height1, 200'/61m; after all, let us be reasonable. Kidd would hardly have selected a sapling2 to nail the skull to; anyway, the larger the tree, the more it helps Poe's reasoning. A branch could then be 65'/20m long, with a trunk diameter of 6'/1.8m. (I can't help remarking that it's hard to blame Kidd or Poe for using feet and inches, but it is a hassle.)
Now, a weight (the Gold Bug) is let down through the eye-socket of that skull. This is not so easy; matter of fact, it's quite impossible: there are all sorts of bony obstructions inside the skull—like a palate.
Where this effective plumb touches the ground, a 50'/15m line is drawn through it from the nearest point on the stem. Poe doesn't make clear if that distance is from the stem or from the plumb; I've presumed the latter to give him an undeserved break. The end point of that line becomes the center of a 4'/1.2m circle, later enlarged to 6'/1.8m.
They don't find a thing, because that black ass has dropped the plumb through the wrong eye. Then, of course, they start digging at the right spot and Lo and Behold! The Treasure.

Well, even without resorting to geometric proofs, it's easy to see from that drawing that it wouldn't make much of a difference. The center point of that second, red left (right) 4' diameter hole/circle would be at the very most 5.16"/13.1cms removed from the green right (wrong) one and the second circle would have fallen completely within the 6' diameter first one.

Here the situation, more or less, as Poe describes it in the final stage. Mark size of skull needed.
Alternatively, the line should be extended for 500' more; or maybe less. I leave it at that.

Now that I've made my case, I'll graciously rest it.
Enjoy the story, it's still a classic.

1 - If the tree is smaller, Poe would be even farther off the mark. [back]
2 - For the sake of argument, we'll overlook the fact that, in Kidd's time, the skull must have been closer to the tree stem.
Not to mention that most branches don't grow straight.
Much later after writing all that, I discovered I had been wrong. Alas, this does happen. Where I went askew, is that tree branches grow from the end, so the skull's distance from the trunk would not have changed; nor would it's direction relativel to the trunk. But, lucky me, that wouldn't have changed my argument!
In the Sherlock Holmes story, this doesn't need to be considered.

Sherlock Holmes
Conan Doyle


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