An interesting addendum to my recent dive into Orville Livingstone Leach. Parallel to Leach, and probably giving tacit credence to Leach’s quackery, there was another and more high-class purveyor of medical electricity in Providence. This was Dr. William F. Channing (1820-1901), a Providence doctor who was also a free-thinking scientist and inventor. He was the author of the book Notes on the Medical Application of Electricity (1849) which went through six editions. In the back of this book there is a fearsome list of electrical ‘medical’ apparatus for purchase…
Dr. Channing was also Sarah Helen Whitman’s literary executor, Whitman being of course well known to Lovecraft as a romantic interest of Poe.
What immediately struck me is the name Dr. William F. Channing. It is very similar to that of William Channing Webb, the anthropologist found in “The Call of Cthulhu”. Note that I don’t say that Lovecraft’s Webb was based on Dr. Channing. I’ve already established in Walking with Cthulhu what I think is a good case that William Channing Webb was based on the career and activities of the anthropologist Franz Boas.
There seem to have been several William Channings around at that time, seemingly from branches of the same family. Dr. William F.’s relation William Ellery Channing (1817–1901), for instance… “was a Transcendentalist poet and member of the Transcendental Club” and was a bosom friend of Henry David Thoreau. There was also a William Henry Channing (1810-1884) in the family, who was a Fourier socialist and emancipationist. But it is the scientific aspects of Dr. William F. Channing, and his role in Providence life, which mark him as the most likely member of the clan to have had his name borrowed by Lovecraft.
Dr. William F. Channing also had a Charlotte Perkins Gilman connection…
“Charlotte [of “The Yellow Wallpaper” fame] was a frequent visitor at the Providence home of the family of Dr. William F. Channing… [and became a lifelong closer-than-sisters friend of one of the daughters of the house]” (Ann J. Lane, To Herland and Beyond: The Life and Work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, p.137).
Presumably her husband Charles Walter Stetson accompanied her on the Channing visits. Stetson was Providence’s pagan visionary artist, and co-designer with Burleigh of the Fleur de Lys building. I have previously suggested Stetson as the model for Wilcox in “The Call of Cthulhu”, the Providence pagan artist who Lovecraft describes as a… “thin, dark young man of neurotic and excited aspect”.
Like the quack doctor Leach, Dr. William F. Channing also tinkered with inventions as well as medical electricity. Like Leach, he also happened to strike it rich with one of these inventions. He was fascinated by the telegraph, and patented a telegraphic fire alarm which was taken up by a manufacturer and sold widely. At the time some called him the inventor of the fire alarm, although today there are half-a-dozen contenders for that title in the United States alone.
In the 1870s he corresponded with Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), who lived in Boston and who was the inventor of the telephone system. Popular Science Monthly (1877) wrote of…
“Dr. William F. Channing, of Providence, who, with other gentlemen of that city, have taken an active interest in the telephone from the outset, and contributed valuable aid to Prof. Bell in perfecting his invention.”
Channing later seems to have fallen out with Bell. Since he wrote a popular article in 1883 claiming another man had invented the telephone.
Given Lovecraft’s interest in electricity (“From Beyond”), and the telephone (“Randolph Carter”) in some of his stories, and his interest in the history of science and free-thinking in Providence, Dr. Channing seems to be of possible interest to Lovecraftians. There is also the previously mentioned residence in Providence, and connection with Poe.
Finally, I note that in 1869 Dr. Channing was Secretary and Treasurer of Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Industry, and was the Secretary of their Fine Arts committee. Possibly he was also involved with Providence societies for the arts in later decades. One wonders if, in this and similar offices, he was known to some of Lovecraft’s older relatives?