The drawings in this series chronicle the life of D. Erich Proprius (1846-1898?), a now-forgotten showman and polymath who wandered the American West in the late-nineteenth century. Professor Proprius, who claimed a faculty appointment at the Academié Voussoir, arrived on the frontier in 1890 and soon won acclaim for his ability to simultaneously play five musical instruments with precise rhythm and harmony, often accompanied by his little dog on strap bells.
By some accounts, Proprius could speak as many as eight languages, held patents on a dozen mechanical inventions, and was a crack shot with pistols. He was also a talented artist, occasionally drawing portraits of audience members while playing music by manipulating a pencil with his mouth. These included “a most endearing likeness”1 of First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, drawn while playing Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major on accordion.
Over the next seven years, Professor Proprius and His One-Man Band appeared in every U.S. state and territory west of the Missouri River. His fame brought him into the circles of the rich and powerful, though Proprius disdained wealth and continued to live as an itinerant minstrel.
In 1898, Proprius accompanied a party of Blackfoot Indians on a trapping expedition in Alberta, Canada. Upon encountering a herd of agitated bison, most of the group turned back. Proprius, however, marched toward the animals while playing a small instrument, probably a harmonica or mouth harp. The bison, allegedly calmed by his music, did not stampede, but Proprius disappeared into the herd. Though rumors of his existence surfaced frequently in the years to come (even as late as the 1930’s), Professor Proprius was never seen again.
- As described by Rose Elizabeth Cleveland to Evangeline Marrs Simpson. In Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900) “Proprius, D. Erich”. Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.