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George Merritt Family – Part II

August 23, 2022

Ernest Merritt, born in Indianapolis two weeks after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, would grow up to become the head of the physics department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He worked closely with Edward Nichols, with whom he co-founded the important physics journal Physical Review. His biographical memoir on the National Academy of Sciences website concludes, “In his research he did not make momentous discoveries but in his associations and activities he made a large contribution to American physics.” Ernest had a significant career as a prominent and respected physicist. As a boy in the 1870s, young Ernest already showed promise as a scientist, spending much of his time drawing, painting, writing, and reporting on his surroundings.

Within the Merritt Family Collection (M1498) are the results of these boyhood endeavors, including Ernest’s graphite and watercolor drawings, poems, and his own miniature monthly newspaper. The paper, titled The Mountain Echo and later Sea Breeze, began as hand-drawn and written but was later printed on Ernest’s own printing press. These were distributed to his subscribers, who paid 3 cents per issue.

Printed Sea Breeze cover

A trip through the western territories and California when he was 8 inspired Ernest to write a serialized story for his paper titled “The Utes.” In a later issue, he advertises that he will be selling peaches and candy at a stand on West Street. In another, he humorously describes the sudden attempt by Indianapolis Democrats to gerrymander the city wards a week before an election in 1876: “Hundreds went to sleep in one ward and waked up in another. One gentleman waked up all wearied out, and didn’t know what the matter was, till he found he had moved five wards in the night.”

The August 1875 edition of Sea Breeze contains the following poem by Ernest, titled “Monsters of the Deep”:

As I slowly pick my way
Down the light house hill;
I hear the sea dogs play
And sport round at their will.
And there–

I see the monsters of the deep
Squirt water in the air
Twelve or fifteen feet.

I’d like to take one home;
If I only could;
For in case of fire.
They would be very good.

Another poem includes an illustration by Ernest:

O! Look at that man! I’ll try to see him if I can. Without my glasses. I guess he’ll fall down, in that town. Pretty soon on the grasses!

Ernest’s knack for detail and scientific observation come through in his drawings of his natural surroundings, with every small tree branch accounted for. Some are full-color watercolor paintings.

Watercolor

Ernest’s creative endeavors within the Merritt Family Collection provide a rare look at 1870s Indianapolis (and the country) through the eyes of a grade-school boy. They are available in the Merritt Family Collection (M1498).

Matt Holdzkom is an archivist at IHS. He's a circus history enthusiast, dog person, puppeteer, casual cyclist and karaoke nut.

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