Truth in Fiction 2021-03-19T09:34:22+00:00

Author’s Note (…or What Really Did Happen)

‘Love Watching Madness’ is inspired by the true story of a very odd fellow: Francis Abbott. This is the only known image of Francis Abbott, from a sketch by James Alexander (c1830). The picture, to the right, is a highly zoomed-in close-up. In it, you can see the silhouette of Francis dangling over the brink of the Horseshoe Falls, at Niagara.

In case you had any doubts: truth is stranger than fiction. I made up a lot of this story, but I didn’t make up this…

Francis Abbott really did hang by his hands from a beam that protruded four yards beyond the brink of the Horseshoe Fall; bathed in winter rapids while blocks of ice hurtled past; wore a slate around his neck so that he could chalk answers to questions rather than talk to the locals; composed poetry in Latin; and daily painted pictures that he showed to no one. And it is also true, that at night, he wandered the Upper Niagara islands with his dog, playing his violin while wearing nothing but a brown blanket tied at the waist. Also true: William Blake saw angels clustering in trees and talked daily to the ghost of his dead kid-brother; and Blake’s follower, the young artist Samuel Palmer, paraded the streets of London in a bizarre coat with art supplies stuffed in a dozen pockets. Nineteenth century bon-vivants really did experiment with the intoxicating effects of Pure Oxygen; Lord Byron really did scratch his name on a pillar in the Chateau de Chillon (which you can see to this day); there really were fully circular rainbows in a cave behind the waterfall at Niagara and if you looked a certain way, you really could see a totem of faces in the rocky cliff of Luna island.

Close-up of Francis Abbott hanging over the Falls

Here’s the full, un-zoomed, view of Alexander’s sketch. Look for Francis in the upper left corner. And note: that’s not just any water fall Abbott is hanging over — it’s one of the mightiest waterfalls on the planet, the Horseshoe Fall at Niagara, Canada.

In order to write Francis’ story I researched the following: Niagara Falls during the years 1829-1831; the 19th Century ‘Quietest’ period of English Quakerism; the visionary artist William Blake and his suffering wife, Catherine; the practices of The Ancients—a club of Blakian devotees, which included the nascent artists, Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert and George Richmond.


Left (Catherine Blake by George Richmond) – Centre (William Blake by Thomas Phillips) – Right (Samuel Palmer by George Richmond)

I delved into the pseudo-sciences that circulated in the parlours of early 19C England, including phrenology and animal magnetism, as well as spiritual theories of reincarnation and communication with ghosts. I immersed myself in the romantic poets, especially Shelley and Byron, whose poems let me roll around in the heart of early 19C Romanticism. I puzzled through the cryptic symbolism of alchemy in order to use it as a metaphor for spiritual transformation.

Splendor Solis by alchemist S. Trismosin

Dictionary definition of phrenology – 1895

I researched rainbows, lightening strikes, daredevils, pre-Victorian pharmacies, northern English dialects, old-fashioned names for colours, and the grandmother of the modern film projector, the Lanterna Magica. I even found an authentic call used by an oyster-wife on the streets of London two hundred years ago: ee-shee kee-lee kaul-er oysters.

Athanasius Kircher Lanterna Magica


And finally—young couples did get married in the midnight woods of Goat Island under full moons; and somebody really did discover a pillow-shaped rock on Luna Island, carved with these words: All is Change. Eternal Progress. No Death.

And while walking alone in the woods, it is also true that crows may really follow you.

Janet Turpin Myers


All is Change, Eternal Progress, No Death