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A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Fri Apr 19, 2019 8:34 am
by Gerard Killoran
LONDON'S UNDERWORLD by Thomas Holmes published in 1912 contains the following reminiscence. It seems to describe a real chess player or problemist. Does anyone have any idea who it was?

'Some of my friends have crossed the river, but as I think of them they come back and bid me tell their stories. Here is my old friend the famous chess-player, whose books are the poetry of chess, but whose life was more than a tragedy. I need not say where I met him; his face was bruised and swollen, his jawbone was fractured, he was in trouble, so we became friends. He was a strange fellow, and though he visited my house many times, he would neither eat nor drink with us. He wore no overcoat even in the most bitter weather, he carried no umbrella, neither would he walk under one, though the rains descended and the floods came!

He was a fatalist pure and simple, and took whatever came to him in a thoroughly fatalist spirit. "My dear Holmes," he would say, "why do you break your heart about me? Let me alone, let us be friends; you are what you are because you can't help it; you can't be anything else even if you tried. I am what I am for the same reason. You get your happiness, I get mine. Do me a good turn when you can, but don't reason with me; let us enjoy each other's company and take things as they are."

I took him on his own terms; I saw much of him, and when he was in difficulties I helped him out.

For a time I became his keeper, and when he had chess engagements to fulfil I used to deliver him carriage paid to his destination wherever it might be. He always and most punctiliously repaid any monetary obligation I had conferred upon him, for in that respect I found him the soul of honour, poor though he was! As I think of him I see him dancing and yelling in the street, surrounded by a crowd of admiring East Enders, I see him bruised and torn hurried off to the police station, I see him standing before the magistrate awaiting judgment. What compensation dipsomania gave him I know not, but that he did get some kind of wild joy I am quite sure. For I see him feverish from one debauch, but equally feverish with the expectation of another.

With his wife it was another story, and I can see her now full of anxiety and dread, with no relief and no hope, except, dreadful as it may seem, his death! For then, to use her own expression, "she would know the worst." Poor fellow! the last time I saw him he was nearing the end. In an underground room I sat by his bedside, and a poor bed it was!

As he lay propped up by pillows he was working away at his beloved chess, writing chess notes, and solving and explaining problems for very miserable payments.

I knew the poverty of that underground room; and was made acquainted with the intense disappointment of both husband and wife when letters were received that did not contain the much-desired postal orders. And so passed a genius; but a dipsomaniac! A man of brilliant parts and a fellow of infinite jest, who never did justice to his great powers, but who crowded a continuous succession of tragedies into a short life. I am glad to think that I did my best for him, even though I failed. He has gone! but he still has a place in my affections and occupies a niche in the hall of my memory.'

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Fri Apr 19, 2019 3:14 pm
by John Townsend
An intriguing problem. The nearest to a match I can think of is Robert Barnett Brien (1827 - 1873). He satisfies some of the criteria, but I'm uncertain about "whose books are the poetry of chess". He did edit Chess Player's Chronicle, which was produced annually in book form, but that's not quite the same as a book. So I have my doubts, and perhaps there's a better solution.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Fri Apr 19, 2019 9:18 pm
by Tim Harding
Sounds like James Mason to me.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sat Apr 20, 2019 1:12 am
by Gerard Killoran
These two items from the Islington Gazette sadly fit the description.

Islington Gazette - Tuesday 01 September 1896.jpg
Islington Gazette - Tuesday 01 September 1896.jpg (95.21 KiB) Viewed 1653 times
Islington Gazette - Tuesday 27 July 1897.jpg
Islington Gazette - Tuesday 27 July 1897.jpg (102.27 KiB) Viewed 1653 times

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sat Apr 20, 2019 10:10 am
by NickFaulks
Oh dear, he danced on the pavement. Nowadays the police do that.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sat Apr 20, 2019 12:02 pm
by John McKenna
That's because the police have got the wrong end of the baton - they think they've been sent to perform at a crime-mate-change demo.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sat Apr 20, 2019 2:21 pm
by Matt Mackenzie
"Discovered asleep in the fireplace during a tournament game" is one of many colourful (though possibly apocryphal) stories about him.

Certainly helped explain his somewhat erratic results.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sat Apr 20, 2019 2:58 pm
by John Townsend
Thomas Holmes's "dipsomaniac" had a wife. When did James Mason tie the knot? In the 1881 census, he was described as unmarried (see National Archives, RG 11/590, folio 90). Incidentally, the same record also says he was born in America, which differs from the writers who say Kilkenny.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sat Apr 20, 2019 10:43 pm
by Tim Harding
He was supposedly born in Kilkenny but there is no birth record in the name of Mason. Efforts (by other people) to find out what his original "Milesian" name was were thwarted by a certain journalist on a Birmingham paper (R. J. Buckley?) who claimed to know the name but refused to reveal it to the world. This is all on record somewhere.

I am pretty sure Mason did marry at some point, in England in the 1880s or 1890s, but right now (I am in the middle of arbiting an international tournament) I don't recall what the evidence is.
I believe Joost van WInsen may have told me this in a conversation we had a few years ago in The Hague after his first Mason book came out, but i know that is only hearsay.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sun Apr 21, 2019 9:39 am
by John Townsend
Tim, thank you for your reply. Any information about Mason's marriage would be interesting, not least because his marriage certificate should contain, in theory, the name and occupation of his father, which may in turn shed light on the mystery of his birth.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sun Apr 21, 2019 11:34 am
by John Saunders
That Mason was married seems to be confirmed by the reference to a Mrs Mason in the following snippet from the Morning Post of 23 January 1905...

1905-01-23-Morning-Post.jpg (99.08 KiB) Viewed 1359 times

I suppose there is an outside chance that Mrs Mason could be his mother or sister-in-law but wife must be infinitely more likely.

Mason is hard to find using standard family history research techniques (as his name is very common and he probably moved around a lot) but I did find him lodging at 43 Crozier St, South Marsh, Lambeth in the 1881 census, with his occupation given as "pro'l chess player" and his place of birth (erroneously) as 'America'. He was single at that time.

1881-james-mason.jpg (118.67 KiB) Viewed 1359 times

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sun Apr 21, 2019 12:13 pm
by John Saunders
The Irish Chess Union features an interesting biography of James Mason by Jim Hayes.

In it Jim Hayes tries to narrow down the possibilities for James Mason's birth name.
Jim Hayes wrote:James Mason never revealed his real name save to confide it to his friend Robert J.Buckley, chess columnist of the Birmingham Weekly Mercury, with the comment that it was "infernally Milesian" and "neither James nor Mason"
Jim interprets the unfamiliar adjective 'Milesian' in a footnote:
Jim Hayes wrote:The Milesians were a legendary, prehistoric, Celtic people said to be the first to inhabit Ireland.
He then goes on to record his researches in a footnote:
Jim Hayes wrote: I am grateful to Ken Whyld for his contributions to the accuracy of the foregoing article and to David Hooper for providing me with the results of his investigations to date into James Mason's true name. I am also grateful to the various clergy of the Diocese, and in particular to Fr. Muldowney of St John's parish in the City of Kilkenny, for providing me with access to the relevant baptismal records. I would also like to thank Maurice Buckley of the Kilkenny Chess Club for his assistance.

It was customary in the Ireland of the day for baptisms to be performed as soon as possible after the birth. In practice this meant that a child born on the 19th would be baptised on the 20th or at latest 21st. Any later than this would be most unusual. On that basis, having been emphatically assured by all clergy consulted on this point, I have not considered any children baptised on the 22nd November or later. Within a six day period this consists of the names, Michael Neary, Joseph Brennan, Lawrence Barron, Michael Shallow, Pat Fitzpatrick, and John Byrne. I have also eliminated John Hughes, of Abbeyleix, as this is outside the County of Kilkenny.

Bearing in mind James Mason's statement [2] to Buckley that his name was "Infernally Milesian" and "neither James nor Mason" the records reveal three candidate names fitting the required parameters, with the balance of probability being that Patrick Dwyer, son of John Dwyer with mother's maiden name given as Mary Dwyer, both of Barrack Street, Kilkenny, who was baptised on the 20th of November, 1849, in St John's parish in the city of Kilkenny, was to become the future James Mason.
All of which is extremely well researched and argued but I did have a stray thought. It struck me that the name 'John Byrne' might be playfully referred to as "infernally Milesian" since the name "Byrne" is a homophone of "burn" (which is the thing that happens to people in an inferno) and very Irish. Of course, as a crossword addict, I would say that, wouldn't I...

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sun Apr 21, 2019 12:38 pm
by John Saunders
I have now tracked down James Mason in the 1901 census.

1901 census - 24, Fairlight Road, Walthamstow, Essex

James Mason - married - age 51 - occupation: author & writer of books & chess player - working at home - where born: Ireland, American citizen
Annie Mason - married - age 46 - occupation [blank] - born Swanage, Dorset

1901-census-mason.jpg (29 KiB) Viewed 1328 times
Hopefully this should be enough to track down the marriage in due course.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sun Apr 21, 2019 1:20 pm
by John Saunders
Further delvings into online records show a James Mason marrying an Annie Grant in Hackney in 1896. In the 1891 census I then found an Annie Grant (aged 37, hence within a year or two of the right age, born in Swanage, Dorset) visiting a family in Walthamstow. Quite good circumstantial evidence, perhaps, but not proof.

Re: A genius; but a dipsomaniac!

Posted: Sun Apr 21, 2019 1:48 pm
by John Saunders
Another example of Mason's disorderly behaviour, plus a bonus bit of nonsense uttered in a pulpit...
Quotes and Queries, Ken Whyld, BCM, November 1993 wrote:No. 5165 - There will be much leading-edge chess this issue, so a delve into the past might add variety. In 1888 James Mason was in court charged with breaking windows.

His defence counsel said that "Chessplayers were generally men of intellect, but inordinate drink turned them into beasts. " Mason was fined five shillings.

No. 5166 - R J Buckley was a friend of Mason’s, so close indeed that the Irishman once revealed to him his real name. In his column in Birmingham Mercury Buckley recalled a memorable phrase he heard from a Birmingham pulpit.

"The preacher was a shallow, inaccurate man, with a beautiful voice and a great following that hung on his lips. He said - ‘Alas! my dear hearers, it is too often the case that in this world, rather than helping we are on the look-out to checkmate each others’ pawns.’ And the intelligent congregation shook their heads solemnly, and, with tears in their eyes, declared it was only too true."