Taissumani, June 22
Eskimo Welzl Achieves Perpetual Motion
This is a somewhat modified version of a story I wrote some years ago, which was a favourite of readers.
Some years ago, when the ambassador of the Czech Republic was on a tour of northern capitals – Iqaluit, Yellowknife and Whitehorse – he told me that from Whitehorse, he would make a pilgrimage to Dawson City to visit the grave of a Czech hero, Jan Welzl, who had died there in 1948. I surprised him by telling him that I knew a bit about this unusual man.
A few years earlier, a Czech woman, recently arrived in Iqaluit, said to me, “I understand you know a bit about Arctic history. What can you tell me about Eskimo Welzl?”
I admitted that I was stymied. “Who, or what, is Eskimo Welzl?” was my reply.
She told me that Welzl was a Czech national hero who had traveled throughout the Arctic, had written books about his experiences in the north, was studied in schools in the Czech Republic, and she assumed that everyone in northern Canada would know of him.
Alas, I knew nothing. And so I set out to learn what I could about Welzl.
Jan Welzl was born in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1868. He apprenticed for a short time as a locksmith, but tired of that quickly. In his late teens he wandered eastern Europe for four years, before signing on as ship’s stoker for a return trip across the Atlantic. Then he headed to Siberia, and the rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?
Back in Europe in the 1920s, Welzl went on a lecture tour, telling his preposterous tales of life in the Arctic. He described how he traveled about the north from his base in the New Siberia Islands.
His travels — or his imagination — took him to Nome, numerous places in Siberia, the Mackenzie Delta and the Yukon. Welzl tells that he was elected chief of the local Eskimos, and that he had found a race of pygmy Eskimos who had arrived from Mars on a meteor. He proposed a theory that kangaroos would be better at hauling sleds than dogs are.
He became known as Eskimo Welzl, and the public ate up the tall tales he spun. Eventually he came to the attention of two journalists, Bedrich Golombek and Edvard Velanta. They decided that Welzl’s tales would make a great book, and so the old man dictated his stories to them.
Welzl had no doubt seen more than his share of scoundrels in the gold-fields of the Arctic, but he could not have been more badly ripped off than he was at home by his two fellow-countrymen. They paid him 2,000 Crowns – at the time about one hundred dollars – for all rights to his first book.
That book, “Thirty Years in the Golden North,” sold modestly in his homeland, but the scoundrels then succeeded in having it published in the United States in 1932 as a Book of the Month Club selection. Astonishingly, it sold 150,000 copies. The book was promoted as fact and a gullible public swallowed it.
In the meantime, Welzl had gone back north. He ended up in Dawson City in the Yukon, a town that had been built during the Klondike Gold Rush. In a community that had always been known for its eccentrics, even among these Welzl was something of a standout.
In his old age there, he busied himself trying to construct a perpetual motion machine. The contraption ended up taking up most of the space in his small shack. Town boys like Pierre Berton would go there to visit the old man and gaze in awe at his obsession-in-progress.
Jan Welzl died in 1948 at the age of 80. His grave in Dawson’s old cemetery has become a shrine for visitors, not all of them Czech, who pay tribute to the free-spirited old man who wrote, “There is true liberty up North… Whatever you see, you can go after, everything is yours, there is nothing to stop you.”
I made my own pilgrimage to his grave in August of 2006. It’s an eye-opener, to be sure. Numerous gifts hang from the cross. Someone’s single boot sat atop the grave marker, perhaps a tribute to the wandering life.
But I wasn’t prepared for the Cadbury’s chocolate tin sitting at the foot of the grave. Of course, I had to open it. Inside was, of all things, a guest book! The entries started in 2003. About half were in Czech. One visitor, who signed his entry “with great respect and curiosity,” wrote, “I hope you have found peace… and may heaven imbue you with perpetual motion.”
Two recent books should be mentioned. A Czech-Canadian author, Peter Sis, wrote a delightful children’s book about Welzl in 2001. Beautifully illustrated, it is titled “A Small Tall Tale from the Far North.” And “Thirty Years in the Golden North” was reissued in 2004 and again in 2007.
Why, you might ask, would anyone today bother to buy a new issue of Welzl’s tall tales? For the introduction, in the 2007 edition, by veteran Arctic story-teller, Lawrence Millmann, who puts Welzl’s life and adventures, both physical and imaginative, in hilarious perspective.
Jan Welzl, ripped-off adventurer and teller of tales, lived a life stranger than fiction. It’s not surprising that it ended in Dawson City, a town filled then as now with eccentric characters. And in a way he did achieve perpetual motion because the asteroid “15425 Welzl” is named after him.