Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

Wednesday July 17, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- There is no admission's application. No test scores need to be submitted, and no interviews need to be attended. If you want a PhD from this university, all you have to do is submit a three-paragraph 'dissertation' and pay a $7 fee.

No, the University of Brattleboro is not a degree mill. It's a project that combines fun with local history to create entertainment for the community. The University of Brattleboro, proud provider of numerous "PhDs in fun," will be hosting the first annual T. P. James Writing Contest, in collaboration with Write Action, at the Brooks Memorial Library on Oct. 6, at11 a.m. It will also be hosting a national T. P. James Writing Contest in June 2014.

The University of Brattleboro traces its beginnings to 1811 when a young Brattleboro boy illuminated the night sky with a black kite and a white lantern. According to plan, the lantern exploded after about 20 minutes. The residents believed they had just witnessed a celestial omen and passed on the miraculous story to their children. The troublemaking boy revealed his prank to the media on his death bed in 1873. The University's goal is to continue this tradition of good-humored fun with silly local events. University-founder, Rolf Parker-Houghton, explained with a conspiratorial grin that the University is an "outlet for goofiness." Some of the University's previous projects include pumpkin floats; an instrument-making and tuning workshop in honor of Brattleboro musician, Levi Fuller; a clay-donut-burying expedition in Pliny Park; and the launching of ‘UFauxs' in honor of the 1811 light in the sky.


Right around the time when the black kite hoax was unraveled, another hoax was being built: The story of con man, T. P. James, which begins with a seance. In 1872, Thomas Power James, a printer who had recently moved into the Brattleboro area, was invited to commune with the dead in his friend's apartment. James was reportedly skeptical of the event, but became convinced of its great psychic power after a table waltzed into his lap during the spiritual gathering. James quickly moved from dancing with pieces of furniture to collaborating with the recently deceased Charles Dickens.

Dickens, beloved English author and storyteller, had died in 1870 before completing his book, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Fans were left mid-story without answers to their pressing questions about the novel's murder. As the story goes, Dickens (a firm skeptic during his life) reached out to James during a private seance. The sad, desperate Dickens begged that James complete "The Mystery of Edwin Drood."

James, in a series of dramatic, frenetic and heavily-publicized sessions with the British author's ghost, channeled Dickens to finish writing the novel. After the novel's completion, Arthur Conan Doyle endorsed James' work and believed it was truly the result of a collaboration with Dickens' spirit. Much to James' dismay, Dickens' ghost was not satiated and insisted that James write another book for him, "The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickle-heap." The story of Bockley Wickle-heap was serialized in James' magazine, Summerland Messenger, however only the second chapter survives.

The Oct. 6 T. P.James Writing Contest will challenge contests to write the next chapter of Bockley Wickle-heap's adventures. The event is free. No computers are allowed, and contestants cannot have any parts of the story pre-written. The entries will be judged by Tom Ragle, former president of Marlboro College, and professor of English Literature. The person who best channels James channeling Dickens will win $250, and their story will be submitted to the national contest.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

While admission to the contest in the Brooks Memorial Library is free of charge, there is a $20 fee for entries submitted to the national contest. The idea for the national contest is the same -- write the next chapter to "The Life and Adventures of Bockley Wickle-heap." Entries, limited to 850 words, must be received by June 15, 2014 at Write Action


P.O. Box 822, Brattleboro, VT 05302.

For more information about the contests or the University of Brattleboro, visit


Parker-Houghton is not only the founder of the University of Brattleboro and spearheader of the T. P. James Writing Contest, he also is a scholar on the mystery and scam of T. P. James. After moving to southern Vermont 12 years ago, Parker-Houghton heard about James from Arlene Distler, Write Action board member. Parker-Houghton read a 1969 article in Vermont Life about James and he became intrigued by the web of hoaxes that James had built. Parker-Houghton hunted down leads using local documents in cities around New England. "I followed him around the country," Parker-Houghton said.

James' scams neither started nor ended with "Edwin Drood." As a young man during the Civil War, James enlisted as an army musician. But he was soon demoted to a private when it became clear James could not play an instrument. After fighting many particularly brutal battles in the Civil War, James became a tramp printer. He moved around the country setting up newspapers and running away from accusations of plagiarism. He was heavily involved with printing in Brattleboro, including a stint as assistant to the first editor of the Reformer. James seems to have been more successful in making himself a legend than in scamming people out of their money. Although "Edwin Drood" allegedly sold 20,000 copies, Zappala, believes this to be an overstatement used as an advertising ploy.

Parker-Houghton is working to get a book on James published. In addition, he will be appearing on Travel Channel's Monumental Mysteries on July 18. Parker-Houghton and Zappala are slowly untangling the mess of false testimonials and lies woven by the nomadic James. When asked about an end goal in his T. P. James research, Houghton said that there always seems to be another story with James. "It's just too entertaining," said Parker-Houghton.

Lilian Podlog will be a junior at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass., in the 2013/14 school year. She is visiting Brattleboro this summer as an intern at the New England Center for Circus Arts.