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An Onion or a Nut

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I believe it was a philosopher who first asked which a human was more like, an onion or a nut? Like an onion, just one layer after another, with nothing at the center, or like a nut: underneath the rough husk and the hard shell, there is the true kernel, the heart meat. Those citizens of Belleville, Illinois, across from St. Louis, who had anything to do with Dr. James Robinson, might choose "onion."

The story begins in early spring of 1840 when a stagecoach drew up to the hotel in Belleville. A young stranger checked into the hotel as Charles Mount, New York City. He had his Yale diploma with him and claimed to have come west to explore before settling on a life's work. Charles hung out with the town’s doctors and lawyers, and was a favorite of the young ladies, although the avoidance of tobacco, booze and swearing cause some to imagine he was a woman in disguise.

Then suddenly, Charles Mount disappeared. When he returned to Belleville in 1847, he had undergone a strange transformation. He was now Dr. James D. Robinson. He explained that a rich Scottish uncle who was dying had offered free medical training if Charles would take the uncle's name.

After a brief stay, Dr. Robinson was off to the Mexican War, where he performed heroically. He did not appear in Belleville again until 1857. He married a wealthy young lady about whom there were dark rumors and set up a very successful practice in nearby St. Louis. For one year.

Then, a stranger from the East appeared in Belleville with a warrant for Dr. Robinson's arrest. He claimed that Robinson was a fraud. There was no Scottish uncle. Just before coming to Belleville in 1840, he had married a wealthy older woman who had put him through Yale. After graduating, he had run out on her—to Belleville. He had returned to beg her forgiveness in order to use her money for medical school. Then, he headed west again, using the pretext of the Mexican War. Now, he was wanted on a number of charges back East.

Charles Mount, James Robinson, or whoever he was, must have known the law was close. The warrant server found him sitting in his carriage outside his office in St. Louis, dead from a self-administered dose of prussic acid. We will never know if, under all those layers of onion, there lurked a real human being.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.