Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Ebenezer Scroggie: Urban Legend?

The notion that Charles Dickens was inspired by the gravestone of a real-life character named Ebenezer Scroggie to invent a character called Ebenezer Scrooge may be an urban legend--a good story that's taken on a life of its own.

Last Friday, I posted some "Thoughts on Ebenezer Scrooge," which told the story. Tim Worstall linked to the post here at the Adam Smith Institute website, with some details of his own about Adam Smith. Worstall e-mailed me earlier today to say that he has been told on good authority that the story is an invention, "created entirely out of thin air by Peter Clarke back in 1996 as an amusing tale and no more. Bit of a pity really but there we are....." Tim adds: "Oh, and the signifier that it must be a spoof? The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Open even now only to priests, elders or deacons. And back then, most certainly not including women so there would be no Countess there to goose. I should have realised that before I ran with the story..."

With Tim's note in hand, I then asked a Dickens expert, who acknowledged having heard the Ebenezer Scroggie story, but was professorially reluctant to opine on whether it was actually true. He wrote: "I've read the same legend about Scrooge but can't say for certain if it's accurate or not.  I suspect not:  the name is too perfectly Dickensian, I think, to be anything other than his creation."

I suppose one lesson here is that of simpleton colonials (that would be me) being snookered by that sophisticated British sense of humor. But a number of newspapers, websites, and the city of Edinburgh might be wise to get this straightened out, too. A 2010 article in the Scotsman newspaper reported the Scroggie story with this information: "Now a memorial may be erected, along with interpretation panels charting Scroggie's fascinating life story. Scroggie, who died in 1836, may also feature in material promoting Edinburgh as a Unesco World City of Literature. Edinburgh World Heritage, the Cockburn Association, the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and tour guides all want to see more done to raise awareness of Scroggie's claim to fame."