by james bezerra
Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1794 when he was twenty-nine years old and it - sorta - changed the world. Overnight it made Upland Short cotton into ‘King Cotton’ and elevated the Antebellum South as an agricultural and therefore economic powerhouse. It inadvertently kicked off the Industrial Revolution in the United States. By mechanizing and expediting the tedious process of removing the seeds from the cotton, it also created a greater demand for more raw cotton. Which created the demand for a larger agricultural labor force, which could have been very expensive. But wasn’t. Not the way America did it.
Later in his life, Whitney manufactured muskets for the Continental Army. He died in 1825, when Abraham Lincoln was 14 years old.
In the darkest days of the American Civil War, President Lincoln, a student of history, would sometimes mumble frustratedly to his staff, “This is all that damn Whitney’s fault.” An early draft of the address Lincoln gave at Gettysburg included a section where the long-dead Whitney was to be personally excoriated. The President later decided not to include the section in his speech, “This is the wrong time to speak ill of the dead,” Lincoln told one of his aids before crossing the former battlefield to make his address.
Lincoln’s erstwhile forgiveness was not felt by all Americans however. Sometime in 1867 Whitney’s remains were stolen from the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven Connecticut, where they had laid at rest since 1825. To this day the Yale-owned cemetery officially denies the theft, however many students and faculty have claimed to have seen Whitney’s unhappy ghost standing impatiently under the Egyptian Revival gateway to the cemetery. Some students claim that he bummed cigarettes from them. The cemetery officially denied this as well and cautioned Yale students against smoking regardless.
A precocious and insomniatic Yale undergrad names Fox Luckner made a short- form documentary about Whitney’s ghost. She interviewed him every Tuesday night for four weeks (he tended to be most corporeal on Tuesday nights). The first two sessions were primarily dedicated to figuring out exactly how to light a ghost. Whitney, imbued with natural curiosity and an engaging mind, offered many suggestions, but owing to his inexperience with electric lights, this only served to annoy Luckner. By the third session Whitney quietly stood off to one side while Luckner set up her lights. He puffed unobtrusively on the Pall Malls that she had brought him.
“Were you aware at the time of the massive repercussions that the invention of the cotton gin would bring?” Luckner can be heard asking in the final documentary.
Whitney’s round, smooth face crinkled a little, “I really just want my body back,” he replied. “I thought you were going to help me get my body back.”
“Surely you must have thought about the ramifications?” Luckner pressed.
“Don’t be one of those people who blames me for the Civil War, okay? I was dead by then. I had nothing to do with it.”
“But when you patented the cotton gin you set in motion a whole series of events which led inexorably to the institutionalization of slavery and eventually the war.”
“Not every place that had slavery had cotton and I kind of resent the implication,” said Eli Whitney’s ghost. “You know, I also invented interchangeable parts, do you want to talk about that?”
“No,” said Fox Luckner.
“Fine. Do you have any more cigarettes?”
The documentary cuts quickly and when it comes back Whitney is reveling in a Pall Mall. He smokes it, it is quite real in his ghost hand, held between his ghost fingers, but after he inhales the blue smoke just billows out and away like a thin cloud.
“Do you have any opinions on the modern age?” Luckner can be heard asking.
“I think that people have no respect for other people’s remains anymore.”
“With all due respect, your body was stolen more than a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Probably by Jews.”
“You’re anti-Semitic too?” Luckner asked.
“I don’t know what that word means.”
“It is actually not a word, it’s a compound word.”
“Nothing, forget it.” Luckner can be heard off camera flipping through her notes. “Do you know what the internet is?” She asks almost as a lark
“Of course I do. You think we don’t get the internet?”
There is a pause as Whitney smokes and Luckner tries to recover from her shock. “I’m sorry, did you say that you ‘get the internet’?”
“Yeah. Sure we do.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“You know, all the dead people.”
There is another long pause. Then Luckner can be heard to ask tentatively, “Could you explain that a little more? Please …”
Ultimately Luckner chose to premier her documentary at Cannes rather than peddling it as an academic oddity on college campuses. She would later explain in a NEWSWEEK magazine interview, “I felt that the world at large needed to know about these revelations.”
“How did you feel,” the NEWSWEEK interviewer asked, “upon initially hearing Whitney’s description of the ghost presence on the internet?”
“Well, I was quite taken aback, as you might imagine. I mean, when you watch the documentary, you can hear me stuttering.”
What Whitney had described while puffing agitatedly on his Pall Mall, was the remarkable confluence of the afterlife and the internet. “I can pass more freely from my dead state to the internet than I can from my dead state to this one, where I am at with you right now.”
“You’re not always in a ‘dead state’?” Luckner had asked.
“Not at all. Do I seem dead now?”
Luckner had not responded.
“It is all just …” Whitney took a long drag, thought and then went on, “… energy. It is all just energy. The flicker of a candle, or a ghost or those light things you have so much trouble setting up. The internet too.”
“What do you do on the internet?” Luckner had asked.
“Mostly we watch all of you. It is amazing how much you can be aware of when you don’t have a physical body to limit your perception. We watch you buy things, we watch you type to each other. Sometimes we just watch you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, all your computers have those cameras on them now. Sometimes I like to just sit there and watch.”
“What do you mean?” Luckner asked again, her voice had the sound of little creaks and waves in it.
“Just that,” Whitney puffed, “we can see you, through the cameras. Next time you sit down at your computer, spend a second to let you eyes flick up to that little camera lens up there above your screen. You can’t see past it, but you never know, one of us could be there. Looking out at you. Watching you. Maybe it is someone dead who loves you, who is watching over you. Maybe not. There are a lot of unpleasants out there, floating in the ether, watching you. All of you.”
Luckner said nothing. It is the most tense moment in the documentary.
Finally Whitney said, “Look, are you going to help me get my body back or not?”
At that point in the documentary it cuts to Luckner racing back to her dorm room (she always claimed that she hadn’t realized that the camera was still recording, that it was a happy accident discovered in the editing process) where she covers the camera on her computer with a piece of electrical tape.
Following the release of the documentary a mild hysteria ensued. The sales of electronics dipped for two straight fiscal quarters. The U.S. Congress passed multiple laws seeking to restrict the access that ghosts had to the internet, though none of the laws offered clear technical suggestions as to how this might be down. People started unplugging their computers and wireless routers at night. Google promised to make their websites more secure against ghosts.
Eventually the hysteria subsided. Luckner went on to make another documentary, this one decrying the habitual properties of high fructose corn syrup.
Soured by his experience with Luckner and the newfound modern fame that she had brought him, Whitney refused to grant any more interviews to anyone who couldn’t help him find his body.
Interestingly, Whitney’s sudden notoriety gave rise to new debates over whether his invention of the cotton gin had in fact lit the long fuse to the Civil War in America. Without fail, whenever these discussions took place online the websites always crashed.