Today I want to tell you something about the life of Alexander Cruden, who was born in 1699 in Aberdeen and died on this day in 1770. Alexander was a very focused sort of a man, which made him ideal in his job as proofreader. But at some point he decided that just correcting mistakes in print wasn’t using his talents to their fullest. He thought he ought to be a correcter of peoples’ lives. It is this and a couple of his other eccentricities that I want to tell you about today.
Alexander loved the Bible, he thought everyone should live their lives by its teachings. To this end, he began to train for the priesthood. His ambitions were thwarted when he was admitted to a private asylum for paying unwanted attentions to a young lady. To what extent this was due to his behaviour or to the wishes of the lady’s family is difficult to determine when I don’t know the details. But while public asylums were there for people who were considered to be a danger to society and themselves, anyone could be sent to a private asylum just for being a bit inconvenient.
After his release, he moved to England and by 1732, was living in London working as a bookseller and proofreader. In his spare time he wrote and published a concordance for the King James Bible. It was intended as a guide to help people study the Bible. It is still in print today and is something of an outstanding, but very peculiar achievement. What he did was list every word in the Bible alphabetically along with a note about where it appeared. There are 777,746 words in the King James Bible. Cruden’s Concordance has 2.4 million words. As well as listing the words and noting where they appear, he also wrote explanations for certain words. For example there is a four thousand word essay on the meaning of the word ‘synagogue’. It took him ten years. It’s impossible to imagine how a human could take on such a massive and tedious task. But you see what I mean about him being focused.
In 1737 he was again imprisoned in a private asylum. This time it seems to have been because of a widow who he wanted to marry. We don’t know the details of what he did that was so upsetting, because the only account we have is his own. In a lengthy pamphlet listing his grievances, it seems that all his neighbours suddenly became ‘silly’, attacked him and carted him off to the asylum. He was there for almost ten weeks. He was refused writing materials, beaten and chained to his bed. He escaped by sawing through his bedstead with a carving knife. He appeared before the judge still in chains. He wanted compensation and he wanted better conditions for asylum inmates. Sadly he pleaded his own case and it didn’t go that well.
In the 1750s he assumed the title of Alexander the Corrector. He decided that he was the person to correct people’s morals. He would go about on Sundays suggesting to everyone he met that they went home and observed the Sabbath properly. He also told people off for swearing and carried a sponge with him everywhere, which he used to wipe off graffiti which he considered to be of an immoral nature. Cruden took a particular dislike to a republican called John Wilkes and his radical journal ‘The North Briton’. Most particularly issue 45. To be fair to Cruden, a lot of people had a problem with that issue, but he used his little sponge to wipe out the number 45 wherever he found it. He honestly believed that God wanted him to do these things, which is so often a dangerous assumption. He petitioned Parliament to give him the official title of ‘Corrector’. He was a bit of a nuisance about it and most people ran away when they saw him coming, apart from one poor man who suffered from gout and couldn’t get away fast enough.
In 1753, he was again sent to an asylum, this time by his sister, after he got involved in a street brawl. I say ‘involved’, ’caused’ sounds nearer the mark as he was telling off some soldiers for swearing and hit one of them over the head with a shovel. In 1755 he was in trouble again for bothering a lady. Elizabeth Abney grew very tired of all his calls and endless letters but he didn’t know how to take a hint. If she went out anywhere, he would distribute ‘praying bills’ to various churches asking ministers and congregation to pray for her safe return. When she went home, he issued similar ones asking everyone to thank God that she was home safe. He even told her that he would pray day and night until she said yes. All very strange and it’s not at all surprising that Ms Abney wanted nothing to do with him.
For all his oddnesses, he seems to have been quite well liked by those who met him. It’s his Herculean task with the Bible that has really won him a place in history. It’s a pity they didn’t listen to what he had to say about asylums though…