The Mystery that is William Ashbless
To describe William Ashbless as an enigmatic character is to considerably understate the case. There seems in actual fact to be no end to the mysteries and bafflements that surround this man and his literary legacy.
Ashbless – a native Virginian – arrived in London during the early part of the nineteenth century – but of his life before that we have little more than hints. He was a poet of fair reputation – indeed a contemporary of no lesser literary figures than Byron and Coleridge, both of whom he was known to have associated with. Some of Ashbless's best known works date from this period, among them "The Twelve Hours of the Night," "Antlered Man Dangles," and the three London "Accounts" (of "London Philosophers," "London Madmen," and "London Scientists").
However unlike Byron and Coleridge, Ashbless did not leave much else besides his poems to biographers. There are a couple of contemporary accounts of his life and works – James Bailey's "Life of Ashbless" written in the 1830's (a remarkably vague and nebulous chronicle that although it does indeed allude to some notable points in Ashbless's life, it also manages to leave an awful lot out) and the frustratingly concise and rather crisp appraisal of Ashbless's works written in 1825 by William Hazlitt – but there is not much else.
We can be certain of a few facts though. It is largely due to the Bailey book that we know of the poet's presence in London which began with his arrival in 1810. We know also that the year after this Ashbless travelled to Egypt, though frustratingly we have no idea why he made this trip. That same year (1811) we know that he married Elizabeth Jacqueline Tichy. Finally we know he died in April or May of 1846, and that his partially decomposed body was discovered ("with a single sword thrust to the belly" ) on Woolwich Marshes. But what is fascinating about Ashbless is what we don't know about him. The extent, for example, with which he was involved in the business of the "Dancing Ape Madness" that afflicted London in the 1800's has never really been established and to this day remains the focus of much conjecture. And as if this were not enough material for, as Churchill might put it, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," there remain yet further twists in the tale of William Ashbless.
A man fitting a similar description to the aforementioned but deceased poet was known to be living in California during the mid-part of the last century. He called himself "William Ashbless" and was also – naturally – a poet! An investigation into this second Ashbless character throws up a number of coincidences that might tempt one to almost believe he was the very same man as his namesake were it not for the fact that this of course would be impossible! It does however seem not entirely surprising though when one learns that this William Ashbless too met with a mysterious end – apparently going "missing" in the mid-sixties after some rather strange and never fully explained occurences that took place in southern California. Though probably unconnected it is also worth mentioning here that the noted Ashbless scholar Brendan Doyle also disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1983 thus inadvertantly and ironically adding to the mystery surrounding his pet subject.
Ashbless conspiracy theorists – of which there are many – have, even in recent years, been able to indulge their suspicions of something funny going on. Occasionally certain writings purportedly penned by someone calling himself William Ashbless – this time apparently a resident of Long Beach, CA – have continued to appear throughout the last three decades. Printed usually in limited small press publications these articles (sometimes no more than a signature) have more often than not served as commentaries or introductions to works by or connected to two other Californian writers, James P Blaylock and Tim Powers. These often rather acerbic Ashbless pieces have not always been complementary about either writer or their various works. Perhaps this is the reason why, when questioned about their association with Ashbless, both authors tend to remain very tight-lipped about the subject.