Restored, perhaps rightfully

The legacy of the Amherst College astronomer David Peck Todd (1855-1939) has been pity and derision. Astronomers know him as the but-for-the-grace-of-God colleague who almost but not quite discovered the moons of Mars and was defeated by cloud cover every single time he tried to observe a solar eclipse. Readers of poetry know him as the husband of Mabel Loomis Todd, Emily Dickinson’s first editor, who betrayed him with Dickinson’s brother. Julie Dobrow sums up the sad story at

In 1924, briefly released from the mental hospital where he spent his last years, David showed up in Washington and attempted to make radio contact with the Martians. I tell that sad story at

But he posed on the occasion in the observatory at Georgetown, and some photographs survive on the record in the Library of Congress. I observe one.

“Dr. David Todd, Georgetown Observatory, 8/21/24.” National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress,

Doesn’t the man in this image deserve to survive as he would have liked to be remembered — smiling and competent, at the controls in chiaroscuro and beautifully shined shoes? In hope for him and for us all, I photoshop.


Asks air silence; seeks sign

In his Amherst years, David Todd (1855-1939) had been the astronomer who almost but not quite discovered the moons of Mars. He was also the husband of Mabel Loomis Todd, who became first the mistress of Emily Dickinson’s brother and then the first editor of Dickinson’s poems and letters. It was David, an obsessive record-keeper, who induced Mabel to start keeping the sex diary which in later years made her one of the heroines of Peter Gay’s The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud — specifically volume 1, the volume subtitled Education of the Senses.

By 1924, David was in retirement, living out his years in a discontinuous series of mental hospitals. In August of that year, however, he was at liberty, and perhaps he was able then to catch the ear of President Coolidge, an Amherst alumnus. At any rate, here he is in Washington on August 21, 1924, with a démarche to Mars, an apparatus for recording the response, and (in the rear) the inventor of the apparatus, the radio pioneer C. Francis Jenkins.

And here is the report he filed from Mars.

And with those words “freak which we can’t explain,” this chapter in the history of air silence came to an end. Ever since, the static noises of freak have been equally a part of air silence’s language with explanation and poem.

Weekly World News, July 6, 1999

But back in Amherst Miss Dickinson’s three apparatuses were tuned to receive silence, only. Mrs. Todd used to visit her house and play Bach for her on her piano, but she saw Miss Dickinson’s face only once: in her coffin. In memory of piano, house, and long prepared deathbed, then,

this antenna array.


Peter Gay, The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. Volume 1: Education of the Senses. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Polly Longsworth, Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.

“Dr. David Todd & C. F. Jenkins, 8/21/24.” National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped. The image is also discussed at