The Man Who Jumped in the Canal
On a winter’s day in 1898, a stocky young man with a handlebar mustache was hurrying along the banks of a canal in Hamburg, north Germany. Pohl, as the world would come to know him, was in his early thirties then, a dapper individual who liked to carry a cane or umbrella and to wear a stovepipe hat over his oiled, ink-dark hair. At this particular instant, though, such considerations were far from Pohl’s mind. He moved along in a private cloud of fear, rushing to escape the mysterious agents who tormented him. He didn’t know who these men were—they could pop up in any guise, anywhere, at almost any time—but he did have a pretty good idea who sent them.
It had begun in Strasbourg, a German city at this time, at a moment of great professional humiliation: his sacking from the city’s School of Arts and Crafts. The school’s director, not content with ruining a brilliant career, had sent spies to snoop on Pohl, to listen at his keyhole, forcing him to change lodgings again and again. In the end there had been nothing for it but to leave town altogether. Pohl moved to Hamburg, at the other end of the country, and tried to lose himself in the louche entertainments of the city’s vast red-light district, spending heavily on prostitutes and peep shows. Somehow his enemies tracked him down even here. Strangers threatened him in the street. He was accosted on the horse-drawn tram, singled out by the conductor, who yelled “He’s crazy!” in front of the other passengers. Pimps shouted “Rascal!,” “Thug!,” “Kill him!,” and the like. Even at the theater, he noticed the actors onstage delivering odd, barbed messages, targeted directly at him.
On this March day, he knew they were closing in.
Hamburg, the great port city on the river Elbe, the “Gateway to the World,” home to the fleet of oceangoing liners that carried Germans to Boston and Baltimore, Hoboken and Hong Kong, was a latticework of inlets and lakes, channels and streams. Pohl now found his escape route barred by water. There was only one option: He must swim. At the end of winter, the canal was close to freezing, but he plunged in anyway. The dark liquid engulfed him in its shocking embrace, then he was splashing out for the far bank.
When, at length, he was hauled out onto dry land, soaked and shivering, it was clear to passersby that not everything was well with the strange swimmer. There was no sign of a chasing pack. No one, in fact, seemed to be following him at all. He was disturbed, confused, perhaps insane. So he was brought to the gates of the Friedrichsberg “madhouse,” the giant institution that stood on a hill in the northeast of the city, and taken inside. He would remain in the dubious care of the psychiatric system for the next forty-two years, one of hundreds of thousands of inmates who lived precarious, near-invisible lives behind the walls of Germany’s asylums.
“Pohl” was the alias used to spare his family the taint of mental illness. The man’s real name was Franz Karl Bühler. He was a blacksmith by profession, though that word hardly does him justice. In fact, Bühler was one of the world’s leading metalworkers at a time when the Arts and Crafts movement had pushed the form to unprecedented heights. Working with the 2,500-degree heat of the furnace, he could transform coarse pig iron into something malleable and delicate. By drawing it and bending it, upsetting, punching, and welding it, he was able to mimic flowers, grasses, and reed stalks so perfectly you had to touch them to know they weren’t real. But something had happened to Bühler, an inner derailment of sorts, which interfered with his sense of reality and put him at the mercy of his own fictions and delusions. Doctors examining him over the following months and years would attach different labels to his condition, but the one that would stick was “schizophrenia.”
Schizophrenia, the most severe of mental illnesses, remains the hardest to understand. Even articulate people with the condition find it difficult to explain the condition, beyond a sense of strangeness, alienation, or uncanniness. It is “a country, opposed to Reality, where reigned an implacable light,” according to one account, where “people turned weirdly about,” making nonsensical gestures and movements. Others describe it as a feeling of disintegration, or like looking at the world through a telescope backward. Some psychiatrists believe that where most people organize their perceptions into an overall picture of the world which they then act upon, those with schizophrenia combine unrelated pieces of sensory data that can only be understood by making irrational intellectual leaps. Hence Bühler, obsessed with his persecutors in Strasbourg, might hear a tram conductor shouting “He’s crazy!” when he was just calling out the next stop. But not all manifestations are alike, and not everyone affected finds the condition debilitating. Some view it as an “enhancement” that gives them unusually deep insight. Only around a third of cases are now considered progressive, and most people with schizophrenia live full and active lives. When Bühler was hospitalized, however, the diagnosis was brand-new, and was thought to herald an irreversible decline. There was nothing to be done, his doctors believed. It was just a matter of time.
Bühler had always been unusual. He was born on August 28, 1864, at Offenburg, a picturesque town of chiming clocks and steep-pitched roofs in the valley of the Upper Rhine. His mother, Euphrosyne, died young, and his father, who ran a blacksmith’s shop from their house on Glaserstraße, married a second time, to Theresia. Where Bühler senior was calm and polite, Franz Karl was boisterous and eccentric, and heard voices from the age of sixteen. He was also intelligent and well-liked, and performed well at school. He enjoyed music and played the violin in a chamber ensemble. But it was at the forge that he would make his reputation. There he was a virtuoso.
In 1871, the Grand Duchy of Baden was incorporated into the new, unified Germany, ruled over by Kaiser Wilhelm I, and Offenburg went with it. The bold imperial nation demanded bold imperial architecture, and Bühler & Son became leading suppliers of ironwork for the castles and grand buildings that were being thrown up all around the region. At the schools of applied arts in Karlsruhe and Munich, Bühler learned to create the most elaborate and fashionable rococo forms. He had a subversive side, too. When the kaiser commissioned a great palace to be built at Strasbourg, in territory conquered from France, Bühler incorporated a caricature of the emperor’s face into every handrail, with a mighty nose and Don Quixote mustache. His creative flair soon won him craftsmanship competitions around the country, and in 1893, when he was still in his twenties, his career hit a double high: He was appointed head of the workshop at the Strasbourg School of Arts and Crafts and chosen to represent Germany at the Chicago World’s Fair. That summer, as he boarded a liner bound for the United States, this entertaining, brilliant, and somewhat overbearing young man was on course to become one of the most highly regarded artisans in Europe.
The industrial world at that moment was in the midst of transformation, and nowhere in 1893 embodied the change more fully than Chicago. As one contemporary writer put it, the world had changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it did in the decades before the First World War. In 1870, most people in Western Europe and the United States lived and worked on the land; by 1910, most lived in the cities, drawn in by a raft of new urban professions. London, Paris, and Vienna doubled in size; Munich tripled; Berlin quadrupled; New York grew by a factor of six. Chicago was the most supercharged of them all, expanding faster than any town in history. Barely sixty years old, it was already laying claim to the title of America’s second city, and beating out New York to host that showcase of technological and cultural prowess, the World’s Fair.
The World’s Columbian Exposition, as the 1893 event was officially billed, was the latest of a series of world’s fairs that had begun with the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. As Bühler discovered, Chicago’s show would be bigger and brasher than all the rest. A seven-hundred-acre site on the shore of Lake Michigan was filled with the fruits of humanity’s most technologically advanced era. Twenty-seven million people would visit, the equivalent of almost half the U.S. population at the time. In Paris four years earlier, fairgoers had been astonished by Gustave Eiffel’s tower, an ironwork lattice that pierced the sky to the height of a thousand feet. The American riposte, the first Ferris wheel, was also vast—as high as the tallest of the new skyscrapers—but this construction moved. Powered by thousand-horsepower steam engines, it could lift up thirty-eight thousand visitors each day for a view few had ever seen: that of the human world from above.
Copyright © 2021 by Charlie English. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.