The Double World: One Man’s Search for Meaning in the Seattle Public Library
Published April 9, 2013
Filed in Field Notes
I knew Orrill Stapp before I met him.
The thin man with the wire-rimmed glasses, battered briefcase, and scuffed shoes. The black woman with the long tweed coat, red lipstick, and bulging shoulder bags. The elderly man who looked like John Bolton, only with a droopier mustache. The woman with plastic bags wadded up around her feet, the surgical mask strapped to her face. I’d seen them all during my time at the Seattle Public Library, scribbling in notebooks, sitting in the same seats day after day, waiting for the elevator with me. I knew them and they knew me, but we never acknowledged each other.
Orrill Stapp was one of them, although he died before I was born, and he wrote, every day, in an earlier incarnation of the same library. The day I discovered his manuscript, my own months of writing were over. I had just had a photograph taken at a friend’s studio, and was killing time between downtown appointments by exploring the library’s Seattle Room. “Room” is perhaps overly generous: the space has no immediate ceiling and no real walls, just panes of glass and steps that lead to an enclosure housing the older, stranger books, many devoted to local history. City directories line one set of shelves, alongside a pile of fragments from deteriorating covers and spines, as if the volumes are shedding their skins like snakes.
Perhaps since it was around Halloween, I walked over to the section with the books about ghosts. Wedged in among the newer works, most with lurid covers and poorly thought-out font choices, was a volume I’d never seen before. It was thin, bound in canvas and fake wood, with black letters on the spine announcing the title in all caps:
THEORY OF A DOUBLE WORLD.
I flipped it open. It was immediately apparent the book had never been published. For one thing, it began with a typewritten letter addressed to the head librarian:
Dear Mr. Young, Here are the two copies of the manuscript ‘Theory of a Double World’ of which I told you on the 17th. The Foreword explains why I wish to have them in the library before publication, which may be long delayed.
The author went on to express his desire to have the original copy of the book placed into the library’s Reference section, a place he was quite fond of. “It was just eighteen years ago today, in this same room,” he wrote, “that certain patterns in events coming together first made me aware of the true significance of phenomena I had been watching in the many preceding months, the significance being verified over and over in the subsequent years.”
Toward the end of the letter, the author said he was “curious about a point in cataloging,” since the work bridged the fields of religion, philosophy, and science.
The unique problem is that the Other World of these papers is conceived not merely as spiritual, but as a physical world. This justified a listing under pure science, which would also be apt to the scientific method which established the Theory. But I am no Dewey expert, and you have a room full of them!
I pictured the library’s 1940s staff of “Dewey experts” as a crowd of men in crew cuts and bow ties, and tried not to laugh in the middle of the hushed enclosure. Who was this man who wrote books about “other worlds,” and then pondered their call numbers?
The letter was dated October 21, 1949 and signed, in midnight blue ink, Orrill V. Stapp.
As it turned out, Stapp was intimately familiar with the Seattle library. At the time he wrote the letter, he was in the midst of an almost forty-year period of reading and writing at the downtown branch, five days a week. Most of that time was spent at the massive, Carnegie-funded sandstone building that opened on Fourth Avenue in 1906, later to be torn down and replaced by a boxy modernist structure in 1960. The librarians at each spot probably knew Stapp by sight, as some of them today know the woman with red lipstick, the John Bolton doppelgänger, and me.
Someone exclaims ‘I had an uncanny experience yesterday’ and goes on to relate the story to a friend. The friend listens sympathetically, but in the end dismisses the tale with the meaningless expression, ‘It was only a coincidence.’ Nevertheless, it is true that the uncanny, the ghostly, and the mysterious, are proper subjects for scientific study and research; and the word ‘coincidence’ explains nothing, but merely states a condition…
Most of my life has hardly been different in this respect. I also have listened to such experiences, and I have had them. But it is necessary for me to establish a distinction, and to do this I shall divide my life into two periods, the first occupying the two decades 1910 to 1929, the second, the years 1930 to the present, 1949. In the first period, my life was not greatly different from others. In all that twenty years I had only a few uncanny experiences. … The second period of which I have been writing has been marked by an astounding and well-nigh incredible change. In the second score of years my own uncanny experiences amounted to ten or twenty thousand times as many as in the period 1910 to 1929. That kind of a jump in any graph is something requiring explanation!
Orrill Stapp was born in 1878 in Nebraska, the son of an itinerant Baptist minister. When he was seven, his mother died in a fire. After that, he was shuttled from place to place, attending school when possible and learning to play the organ so that he could assist his father’s services. In time, music became both his passion and his vocation, and after coming to Seattle in 1902, he started a school training students in voice, piano, violin, and organ. He was active in community affairs, and the first meeting to organize what became the Aurora Bridge, one of Seattle’s most important arteries, was held in his living room. His son Milton, barely out of high school, began a small advertising circular that grew into The Outlook, a prominent North Seattle community newspaper.
His youngest son, Stan, later told the historian Janet Ore that on Saturday nights his family often had an English couple, the Surrys, over for dinner. After the meal, the children would doze on orange cushions by the fire, while the adults brought out the Ouija board. Stan recalled that Mr. Surry would always take one side of the planchette, while his mother took the other. “It got to be that there were a number of characters who would visit through the Ouija Board every Saturday night,” Stan said. One character who appeared frequently was Swedish, his accent apparently recognizable even through the letters Mr. Surry called out while his hands flew around the board.
According to Stan, the Ouija board was at least partly to blame for his father’s obsession with the idea of a “Double World.” In August 1930, Stapp began keeping a diary devoted to what he thought were strange occurrences in his life. He also started poring over the journals of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in London in 1882 to investigate “that large body of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical and ‘spiritualistic.’” Like the founding members of the society—philosopher and economist Henry Sidgwick, poet and classical scholar Frederic Myers, and psychologist Edmund Gurney—Stapp considered himself rational, skeptical, and scientific. His Double World was not some shadowy phantasm of the ether, but a physical place, here, alongside us.
When I really got to work on the psychic problem I soon saw that the first question should be, not, Does the soul survive death? But, Is there a place, another world, where the soul might survive?
I doubt if there could have been in physical science any score of years more fertile towards the fruition of my new hypothesis than the second and third decades of this century. It is true that during this time the world was very much with us ‘late and soon, buying and selling …’ Who does not remember October of 1929? But also during this time it was not only the world of the Odyssey that was always escaping. During this time, as all physicists know, our own supposedly very material world was fading away. Classical physics became ever more tenuous.
That very dense substance, gold, not only faded away on the exchanges of 1929; it faded away so that one physicists could speak of it as pretty much a mere cloud of particles. … [a]s our seemingly very material world forever receded, I reflected a good deal on the notion that where our world grew thinnest another world might begin to take on substance. Heretofore the orthodox had talked vaguely of a heaven that was somewhere else, and the more sophisticated talked of life on other planets. A philosophical inertia held me closer at home. When the physicists taught me that so much space was going to waste in our world, I saw no need of traveling vast distances. I saw the possibility of another world right here where our world is!
It was also during the 1930s that Stapp’s family began to suspect he was having a nervous breakdown. Although still involved with the family business, he became more interested in reading esoteric journals than writing editorials for The Outlook. And while immersed in this research, Stapp was impressed by several things:
I have spent hours, days, months, years, studying the printed records of psychic research. I solved a thousand and one things here and there; but I was ever more strongly impressed by certain puzzling characters in what I studied. One of these characters I may best indicate by the three words ‘ever not quite.’ Time after time as one scans the endless scripts and the interminable comments, a strong feeling is engendered as if one should say: Now, surely, comes the denouement, the illumination toward which all seems to have tended. But it does not come. Always the episodes, the phenomena, the text, stops just short of convincing evidence.
Stapp was also struck by what he called all the “piffling.” “No word could be better!” he wrote. “The purported talk from the Other World was too often puerile, trivial, and seemingly utter nonsense. I recall a paper by William James on purported communication with Richard Hodgson, the ‘Zeivorn’ matter. The eminent psychologist and philosopher was bewildered. He wrote that it seemed only so much ‘bosh.’ So also was I constantly impressed with this seeming triviality, with words misspelled or used wrongly, with many other puzzling things.”
But instead of deciding that the “ever-not-quite,” the piffling, and the bosh were evidence against psychic phenomena, Stapp found them meaningful. “Very often I had the feeling that what I read had a style as if someone, ‘something’ behind the scenes were trying to do two things at once, reveal something, and at the same time conceal it,” he wrote.
At some point after 1930, Stapp’s life became suffused with meaning. Everyday occurrences—from the time displayed on his watch when he woke up, to the news on the radio, the books at the library, the movies at the theatre—convinced him that events dismissed by others as “coincidences” were in fact part of deep patterns hinting at the existence of a Double World that slowly, surely, shyly, wanted to reveal itself.
He found meaning in the length of car rides, in the numbers on license plates. Stan remembered that his father always wanted to know what time it was when they set off in the car, almost down to the split-second. (Orrill himself never drove.) “Clocks and time!—how long that story would be!” Orrill wrote, explaining that as a child, his brother had died on a December 2nd at 3:55 am, and afterward, for several years, he always awoke at that time. “The Other World can know the time by my watch in my pocket or under my pillow in the darkness of night,” he concluded.
Time was not the only thing fraught with meaning; Stapp also found the spectral hands of the Other World guiding his interactions with books:
I work regularly in large libraries. Many thousands of books are shelved all around me. I want something in a book. I cross the large room, get the volume, and return. At my table I make a motion to open the book. Flop! It opens precisely at the page wanted, no effort to find the place, no fumbling.
But that wasn’t all, Stapp wrote: often the very book he needed was waiting for him at his table when he returned from lunch, or he’d go to the dictionary in search of a word only to find it lying open in precisely the right place.
Time after time, writing at the library, have I thrown my pen down and gotten up to walk the floor, to move about the department, too full of wonder and awe to attempt expression of my feelings. … I walk the floor in amazement. I see the This World things, whatever that means, so solidly about me. I see the This World persons, whatever that means, so real and alive about me. Over and over I exclaim to myself: Where is that Other World so evidently here?
Stapp admitted that he could never figure out where the Other World existed, and in fact, when he tried to focus on it, it receded further and further away, like the end of a rainbow.
In 1946, Stapp was institutionalized at Northern State Hospital in Sedro Woolley, Washington state. Unlike other regional insane asylums, later known for their ice baths and electroshock therapy, Northern State focused on occupational therapy, with patients tending crops and milking cows. Stapp was released after almost eight months; as Stan tells it, his father didn’t really belong there, among “guys pushing blocks around on the floor.”
Estranged from his wife, Stapp returned to the family home, but slept on the downstairs couch. He spent the later part of his life in rented rooms, taking the bus to the library. Even as the family’s newspaper flourished, Stapp increasingly spent his time on his theories, eventually compiling what he said was “ten million words” of evidence in support of his Double World. According to Stan, his father was legally declared incompetent.
“But the peculiar thing is,” Stan said, “if that you talked to him and he didn’t get on that subject he would be very normal, very learned.”
Orrill Stapp died in 1968 at the age of ninety. He left behind his papers, copies of a journal he’d published called The Triton, books of his poems, and very little else. In an Outlook column written a few days after his death, Stan calculated that his father had spent five days a week, 52 weeks a year in the library for a least 38 years—about 9,880 days.
“He knew he would die when he could no longer make it down to the library,” Stan wrote. “His diary reveals the struggle it was in the last few weeks of his life, but he kept going anyway. ‘This must be my last day at the library,’ he wrote last Friday. ‘No, it isn’t,’ he argued with himself.”
These days, I often write on the floor below where Stapp’s manuscript is kept. After repeated readings, I still don’t understand it. Is it the ramblings of an ill man? A fossilized remnant of a time when the study of other-worldly phenomena was a more accepted strategy for understanding our universe? Part of a larger stash of documents, perhaps stowed in some attic, that might prove Stapp’s life was as unusual as he experienced it? Or all three, and something else besides—an attempt to find significance in the mundane and overlooked, to re-enchant a disenchanted world. For now, I just think of Stapp as another presence in the library with me, in This World; in suit jacket and spectacles, head bowed over his books, alive with his own pursuit of meaning.
I’d like to thank Janet Ore for her invaluable assistance with this project.