Friday, October 4, 2013

"13-15-14": the "Gem Puzzle" craze (1880)

"Puzzle poems are very rare. But there are many poems about the 15 puzzle"


He sat and gazed with a placid mien

        And a cheerful and confident smile

At the little square box with the "gem fifteen,"

        And he said he'd bet his pile

That he could finger it out right thar;

        So he jumped the blocks about,

And then he remarked: "It's simple, I swar,

        And I reckon I'll work it out."

So he tackled it sharp for an hour or more,

        And his hands he ran through his hair

As he jumped right up and fearfully swore,

        And his eyes had a maniac's glare,

That he'd "be dashed if the dash, dashed fool

        That invented this game was here

He'd smashed his dash, dash, dashed skull

        And chaw off an end of his ear."

But after another hot hour had flown

        The bead drops down 'gan to roll

And he raved in a way that, the people all say,

        Struck terror to each watching soul.

For Thirteen-Fifteen-Fourteen-alas!

        Were all that he got for his pains,

So he frantically swallowed of poison a glass

        And with a bullet he bored to his brains!

                -Philadelphia Press.

Weekly Saratogian. March 18, 1880: 4 col 4.

Daily Saratogian. February 25, 1880: 2 col 1. (image from

The game, some articles stated, cannot be ever solved when the tiles are in certain positions. As such, it's a game more like Solitaire (where one can get stuck) than like a Rubik's Cube.

13, 14, 15.

Of all the sad words uttered by men

Are these "13, 14, 15" might have been.

"Oh, hubby dear, I've called you twice,

        Your dinner is quite done."

"Just wait a moment," shrieked the man,

        "I've got 'em all but one!"

William goes a courtin',

        With her silent sits,

Both engaged in sortin'

        Wood in little bits.

Not a word they utter—

        Cur'ous kind o' courtin,—

Now and then they mutter,


Push, brothers, push with care,

Push the 14 to the 15 square;

The 6 to the 7, and you've got it there;

The 10 to the 9, or you don't care whewre,

But the 15 and the 14 they will stick there,

Push, brothers, push with care,

Till your minds are all a jumble and you tear your hair.

O'er the puzzle Brown is bending,

        Never once his strained eyes liftin'—

Gee! he thinks at last he's triumphed;

        No! 'tis 14—13—15.

Once again he tries the puzzle,

        Puzzle that there's fatal "sport" in;

Ha! He's got it now! Not much he

        Hasn't, 13—15—14.

Long he pauses, long he ponders,

        Now he thinks he's got it certain,

Moves the figures very slowly—

        Pshaw! 'tis 15—14—13.

Gee! hs eyes dilate and glisten!

        Into madness he is driftin'!

One more victim for the asylum,

        Crazed by 13—14—15.

Do not weep for Jason Rogers,

        He has gone away for good.

Quickly passed his latest moments,

        Shoving little blocks of wood.

When was brought that awful puzzle

        To his happy fireside,

Little thought his wife and children

        That from them he soon would glide./p>

Daily Saratogian. March 19 1880: 2 col 5.

"A Sioux Indian has been arrested in Syracuse with the gem puzzle in his pocket. The case is to be investigated."

"Onondaga County." Utica Morning Herald. March 19, 1880: 4 col 3.

"First it was firewater, and now, it is alleged, the post traders have begun to supply Indians with the block puzzle.

"We suggest that everybody drop the discussion of the gem puzzle and try and find out why bass viol players are always fat.-Bridgeport Standard.

"The Graphic's International." N.Y. Daily Graphic. March 26, 1880: 229

-The proper thing to do when you call upon a friend is to ask him whether he will hear you whistle 'Pinafore,' or join you in a friendly tussle with the gem puzzle.-Bridgeport Farmer.

        -Put away the new prize puzzle,

            'Twill be never needed more

        'Fifteen, fourteen, botheration!'

            Bang! there goes the asylum door!

-N.Y. Express.

"Wit and Wisdom." Holley Standard. April 8, 1880: 2 col 7.

"Washington never told a lie, but if the gem puzzle had existed in his day we fear that he might have-have said, 'Oh, I've done it, done it lots of times; but I can't tell just how'-Boston Transcript."

Mount Morris Enterprise. March 20, 1884: 1 col 8.

The poems and questionable jokes were perhaps not so far-fetched.

"Daniel Conroy of Erie, Penn., has gone raving mad over the 'fifteen puzzle.' He is a strictly temperate man, a devoted husband and kind father. For several days he neglected his business and applied himself constantly to the game, until his brain gave way under the attempt to master the 13, 15, 14. On Monday morning he grew violent, seized his infant child and was dumping it on a hot stove when the neighbors rushed in. He was overpowered, and a body opf police carried him to jail, a raving maniac, scratching the game on the wall and shouting 'Thirteen, fifteen, fourteen.'"

"Mad Over the Puzzle." Republican Watchman [Monticello, NY]. April 2, 1880: 1.

"His Brain Turned by '15'; A Stonecutter in Erie is Alleged to Have Been Made a Murderous Maniac by the 'Gem' Puzzle." Oswego Palladium. March 27, 1880: 2 col 6.

According to the above article, Conroy had gone quite insane, in prison shrieking "I have it, I have it at last. Oh, thank God, I can do it—13, 14, 15. Where's my children? I'll cut 'em into fifteen blocks, 13, 15, 14. Oh, my God in heavy, what shall I do?"

"ERIE, Pa., Aug. 2—Daniel Conroy, who became insane over the 15 puzzle two years ago and was committed to Dixmont Asylum for the Insane, was released on his supposed recovery. Today John Bowden alleges that while working on the tower of the new cathedral, 135 feet from the ground, Conroy became furious over a trivial matter, and after threatening to throw him down from the tower proceeded to put his throat into execution. A terrible struggle ensued, and the men rolled and tumbled about on the narrow scaffold until Conroy was overpowered by other workmen who came to the rescue of both from being dashed to pieces. Bowden was seriously injured and caused Conroy's arrest."

"Crazed by Fifteen Panic." Buffalo Evening News. August 3, 1883: 4 col 2.

Anyone who was supposedly driven insane by the puzzle presumably had a pre-existing problem. Whatever ultimately set the person off could have been just about anything had it not been the puzzle.

"Violence on the screen increases violence in people only if those people already have sick minds. I once read somewhere that a man admitted killing three women and he said he had killed the third woman after having seen 'Psycho.' Well, I wanted to ask him what movie he had seen before he killed the second woman. And then we'd ban that movie, don't you see? And then if we found out that he'd had a glass of milk before he killed the first woman, why then we'd have to outlaw milk, too, wouldn't we?" - Alfred Hitchcock

Donohue, H.E.F. "Remembrance of Murders Past: An Interview With Alfred Hitchcock." N.Y. Times. December 14, 1969.

Curiously, a university administrator charged with risk assessment who also serves as the university's Clery Act Compliance Officer reportedly believes that a student or alumnus liking Hitchcock's films is a sign that the person is dangerous. When the university has a professor who's published several works concerning Hitchcock and teaches a course about it, the university's located in a city whose mayor introduced a zombie film and welcomed a horror convention - well, one has to wonder how much of a risk that the risk assessment administrator himself poses to the university! (He has nothing to worry about from brain-eating zombies, at least, be they fast or slow ones.)

"HORRORS! FantaCon comes back from the dead." Saratogian. September 11, 2013.

"Zombie fans in Albany for convention." FOX23 News. September 12, 2013.

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