Saturday, June 21, 2014

Dr. Leonardo Cerebelli, 1830—1897(?)

Although no official written documents remain, credible accounts indicate that Leonardo Cerebelli was born in 1830 in New York’s Flatbush community to grocers Enzo and Aurora Cerebelli.  Nevertheless, Cerebelli was dogged for much of his life by rumors he was truly the son of notorious Cosa Nostra mafioso Nunzo “Il Capo” Tosto, fearsome patron of a post-feudal Sicilian cosca, or crime family.  Il Capo had reputedly sired dozens of illegitimate children and sent them abroad to appease his domineering spouse.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that Leonardo was spirited out of Sicily as an infant, hidden in a shipment of castelvetrano olives bound for New York.

Clever and industrious, young Leonardo excelled in his schoolwork but chafed at his duties in the family business.  This fractious state of affairs was typified by one of Leonardo’s earliest experiments, an inquiry into chaos theory in which the eight-year-old prodigy dropped hundreds of fragile inventory items to the floor and took detailed notes.  His father was horrified, as was his instructor, who labelled Leonardo’s pioneering work “unadulterated rubbish.”  Leonardo’s wry humor began to emerge as he coined derogatory Latin nicknames for regular customers, until his sly linguistic indiscretions were detected by one of his father’s business associates, after which time Leonardo took up Ancient Greek.

In 1848, still at loggerheads with his father, Cerebelli was accepted to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.  Upon his arrival, the previously aloof Leonardo became more prone to socializing and extracurricular activities.  While he continued to maintain impeccable scholastics, he also began to forge lasting friendships with his peers despite his unusual demeanor and often cruel sense of humor.  He delighted in vexing his classmates with his puckish brand of irreverence, flouting social norms in general and the constrictions of academia in particular.  He studied Aristotelian rhetoric and a vast range of mathematical and scientific disciplines, delighted to find a more receptive audience to his innovative theories.  He also took up classical fencing, soon mastering the foil, sabre and épée.

In his sophomore year, he challenged upperclassman Oliver Howard to an unsanctioned fencing match on campus.  Howard, a decorated U. S. Army general, had lost his right arm in battle at Fair Oaks, but grudgingly agreed to the match.  Cerebelli repeatedly slashed his foil at Howard’s missing arm, crying, “There now, I’ve cut your arm off!”  Howard eventually managed an awkward but successful trompement and cut Cerebelli’s face with a whip-over flick, ending the impromptu match.  Despite this awkward first encounter, which earned Cerebelli the nickname “Black Card,” the two men became fast friends.

Cerebelli also befriended Joshua Chamberlain, another former Army general, and Melville Fuller, who would eventually serve as the eighth Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court.  These and other connections formed the core of what would become a sizeable circle of influential associates, tempering the dashing young Cerebelli and his acerbic tongue.

After graduating, Cerebelli was introduced to former U. S. Senator Franklin Pierce, who had recently secured the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination.  Sensing an opportunity, Cerebelli campaigned for Pierce and insinuated himself into the campaign, despite earlier having publicly excoriated Pierce on the topic of the Fugitive Slave Act.  After Pierce’s win, Cerebelli disappeared from the political machinery of the day but continued to socialize with well-connected politicians as well as prosperous entrepreneurs in the burgeoning rail industry.  He later lamented his political endeavors as a “triumph of deception over authenticity” but continued to relish the gilt trappings and influence of powerful elites.

Although socially adroit, impeccably attired, and a renowned ladies’ man, the eminently eligible Cerebelli never married.  As his fortunes grew, he was increasingly targeted by associates who wished to marry off unappealing daughters as a prelude to business negotiations.  Cerebelli began to travel extensively and indulged his interest in scientific inquiry by attending notable universities, quickly earning his doctorate from the University of London.

In 1856, he returned to New York, settling in a modest home in Clarkstown.  He took a job as a structural engineer for the New York and Erie Railroad, where he made the acquaintance of rail tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt.  His tenure was cut short when he began removing the wheels from locomotives in preparation for a test of magnetic levitation and propulsion, but Cerebelli remained undaunted by the seeming setback.  He commissioned the construction of an enormous laboratory adjacent to his home and began conducting independent experiments.  When questioned by a local reporter as to why he was building such a facility, Cerebelli replied, “Why, to amuse myself, of course!”  The nature of his work was confidential, but he managed to pen an extraordinary quantity of monographs, such as “Acoustics and Physics of Bagpipes and other Insufferable Instruments” and “Inquiry into the Efficacy and Olfactory Aesthetics of Vulcanizing Couscous.”

Although Cerebelli had carefully cultivated a sterling reputation in the press and among his well-heeled peers, rumors persisted about supposed underworld ties.  In 1859, shortly before Italy’s annexation of Sicily, one of Nunzo Tosto’s horses had awakened to find his master’s severed head in its stall and burst out of the barn to canter through town with the bloody appendage dangling from a tangled rope.  The event sparked a turf war among rival clans, as well as renewed speculation regarding Cerebelli’s questionable ancestry, an uncomfortable situation exacerbated by his unexplained and poorly timed voyage abroad.  The unrest in Sicily ended abruptly for reasons that are not altogether clear, and Cerebelli returned to Clarkstown shortly thereafter, revealing to close associates that he had divested sizeable estates “in the Mediterranean.”

Already quite affluent, Cerebelli’s prosperity had reached its zenith.  In September of 1860, his craving for scientific knowledge and kinship led him to attend the Karlsruhe Congress, a meeting of chemists held in Germany.  There, he met Dr. Yngve Hogalum, who goaded him into attending unrelated festivities at a local biergarten.  Cerebelli had been a sharp and derisive youth but—at thirty years of age—his demeanor had mellowed to a placid self-assurance punctuated by occasional outbursts of rapier wit, a combination Hogalum found endlessly engaging.

At length, Hogalum divulged the secrets of the nascent Hogalum Society, which was then called simply “the Society” and which consisted of Hogalum, Anton Karswell Valkusian, and François Boileau.  Valkusian was not in attendance, but Boileau arrived on the last day of the conference to discuss his recent purchase of fabulously ornate household furnishings.  Cerebelli took an immediate dislike to Boileau, and the antipathy was quite obviously mutual.  Nevertheless, Hogalum nominated Cerebelli for membership in the organization, a motion Valkusian eventually seconded.  Boileau demurred unwaveringly until he learned of Cerebelli’s immense wealth, whereupon he abruptly reversed his position.  The two men maintained a fragile détente for several years until Boileau’s dementia—which was then just beginning to assert itself—worsened with stunning rapidity, forcing his ejection from the Society.

Although Cerebelli claimed no fondness for animals in general, he was well-known for his faithful canine companion, a miniature Schnauzer he dubbed Baron von Hundmund.  As a puppy, Baron had growled continually whenever in the presence of François Boileau, such misconduct utterly charming his master.  Boileau’s attempt to soothe the dog backfired when Baron bit his outstretched hand, thus cementing Cerebelli’s enduring devotion to the high-strung creature.

Cerebelli met Henry David Thoreau shortly before the writer’s untimely demise and soon began to associate with other literary notables of the day.   He was introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the wife of one of his former professors, and struck up friendships with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  By his late thirties, Cerebelli had begun to fancy himself a writer and his interest in the sciences began to wane.  He never absorbed any of the talent with which he was surrounded, but later claimed to have been guided through difficult times by Emerson’s wisdom.

Cerebelli was an inestimably prized asset to the Hogalum Society.  His associations with innumerable influential world leaders provided critical inside information and unprecedented access to the levers of power.  His keen mind and extensive range of knowledge often proved critical to the success of Society missions. 

Although he held his fellow Hogalum Society members in the highest esteem, his sense of superiority was revealed in an unpublished memoir found in 1906.  In it, he referred to Dr. Hogalum as a “drunken prat” and called his friends “useful idiots.”  He reserved his most disparaging remarks for Phineas Magnetron, whom he referred to as “a stammering, bungling dilettante,” and a “breathtakingly soft-headed bumpkin.”  Nevertheless, he also professed an “enduring respect” for the group’s “integrity and single-minded devotion.”

Cerebelli disappeared in late 1897 and was presumed dead.  Again, rumors began to circulate.  In the months following his disappearance, dozens of Sicilian crime families claimed responsibility for his death, by methods ranging from gunfire to drowning in a vat of rancid besciamella sauce.  Fellow Hogalum Society member Anton Valkusian told a reporter that Cerebelli had been killed in a sabre duel in the Maltese city of Valletta, but no contemporaneous news accounts corroborated his story.

When Cerebelli’s unfortunate memoir was found, the son of Ralph Waldo Emerson reputedly stole the manuscript and destroyed much of it.  According to courtroom accounts, Edward Waldo Emerson claimed his father had passed on Cerebelli’s wishes regarding the potentially scandalous text and he was obliged to carry them out.  In his own defense, Edward cited one of Cerebelli’s favorite Emerson quotations, saying, “Good men must not obey the law too well.”

Despite the lack of physical remains, a spectacularly well-attended ceremony was held in Clarkstown to memorialize Cerebelli's life and philanthropic deeds.  He was eulogized by a staggering array of prominent figures, including Mark Twain, who said “While reports of Leonardo Cerebelli’s death have not been exaggerated, reports of his life have been scandalously understated.”  In keeping with Cerebelli’s wishes, a gravestone was set bearing the words “Decomposition experiment in progress—do not disturb.”

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