(May 19, 1920 – April 20, 2000)
Claude Williamson Degler of Newcastle, Indiana, one of fandom’s most infamous figures, was the creator of the notorious Cosmic Circle, which largely existed in his lunatic imagination. He traveled across the country visiting and mooching off fans, trying to enroll them in his absurdly ambitious schemes and absconding with items from their collections.
He used many pseudonyms, including Don Rogers, Doro, Jodine Fear, Rex Matthews, John York, Helen Bradleigh and, likely, Frankfort Nelson Stein. Other fans called him names like Cosmic Clod and Superfan. John Paul Chrisman was a pseudonym Degler adopted during his visit to Philadelphia prior to Philcon in 1947.
|From Fancyclopedia 2, ca. 1959|
|Claude Degler was one of the most influential, ghod help us, fans who ever marched across the Microcosm, and his career deserves to be chronicled at some length:
Degler had been confined in the Indiana Hospital for the Insane from 1936 to 1937, and released against the advice of the doctors (as Speer learned in an investigation after the Cosmic Circle fuss had blown over). He attended the ChiCon I in 1940, and at Denver in 1941 delivered a speech purporting to have been written by Martians. He appears to have had some activity in the Indiana Fantasy Association, and a part in publishing a minor fanzine, Infinite. At the 1942 Michiconference several attendees got bad impressions of him, but he was still virtually unknown when he arrived late at the 1943 Boskone [in Boston]. In the meantime, as the above-mentioned investigation later showed, he had (1942) been forced to leave Newcastle because of illicit relations with a minor.
After the Boskone he appears to have gotten a 4F classification and spent a month hitch-hiking thru Dixie, with his mother in Newcastle Indiana sending money orders to him along the route from funds he had saved. Getting names and addresses from readers' departments in the proz, he contacted various stfnists unknown to fandom and, whenever they were willing, constituted each as a local and state organization, which he hoped would grow. Since Degler was constantly thinking up organization and conference names, they will not be treated elsewhere; for example, on this trip he created a Circle of Aztor (Tennessee), Louisiana Fandom, Alabama All-Fans, Valdosta (GA) Philosophers, and Georgia Cosmen; at the "Live Oak Conference" with Raym Washington and sister he organized the Cosmic Thinkers (a local), the statewide Florida Cosmos Society, and a revived Dixie Fantasy Federation, all with Raym at the head.
From the South he returned to Indiana, where a bunch of locals were supposed to exist already. After earning some more money, he departed late in June for the Schenectacon, and thence visited Boston where he "had a long talk" with Widner on such subjects as Slan Center. After organizing a few more groups -- even one in Quebec, the Future Fantasy French -- he returned alone to New York.
He slept on the floor at Little Jarnevon till some time after Schwartz and Shaw began telling him to leave, and worked on some Cosmic Circle publications which were supposed to be angelled by someone in Indiana. In the Cosmic Circle, which was to be a union of all persons everywhere who had a cosmic outlook, these local and regional organizations Degler had organized were affiliated with the Planet Fantasy Federation, whose council included Don Rogers (the pseudonym for Degler used in all his publications of this period, sometimes shortened to Doro in imitation of the Esperanto crew), Raym Washington, and some people around Newcastle. It is claimed that the movement was tested in Newcastle for years before the missionary work began (1943 was the Year 4 of the Cosmic Concept) but information from others than Degler is very vague.
Larry Shaw was at first impressed by Degler's ideas, and against his wishes was named head of Slan Slum (local) and the Empire State Slans. Degler took down the names and addresses, past and present, on Fantasy Fiction Field's subscription list; this made up most of his mailing list for the Cosmic Circle publications. After Coordinator Claude left New York in August, many of the fanzines from Schwartz' and Unger's collections were missing, and they charged that Superfan had taken them. Because of this, a personal fight, and the fact that the Cosmic Circle had begun to look grotesque, Larry Shaw resigned from the Cosmic ranks and declared feud on Degler.
Meanwhile, the latter's lank form appeared briefly in Philadelphia and Hagerstown, whence he caught a ride west (visiting some unknown stfnists in Oklahoma on the way) to Shangri-LA. There he joined the LASFS and used the clubroom facilities to publish weekly "news" sheets alternately titled Cosmic Circle Commentator and Fanews Analyzer, and some publications written by and credited to others tho reworked by him. In these weekly sheets the Cosmic Circle program reached full form; Don Rogers answered a resounding "yes!" to the old question, "are fans slans?" He proposed to contact cosmic-minded mutants everywhere, even by use of radio broadcasts. Numerous special service bureaus, for functions such as purchasing mimeo supplies cooperatively, supplying fans in the Army with free fanzines and proz, and planning tours for other travelling fans, were announced as being set up by the Newcastle HQ. Publications projected included a directory of fans' addresses, True Fantastic Experiences, Spicy Spaceship Stories, and others. A fanational literature was urged to promote cohesiveness in the new race. It was announced that a piece of land in the Ozarks (owned by Degler's mother) was available for use as Cosmic Camp for vacationing Cosmen. The Slan Center idea was pushed to its ultimate extreme, and the coordinator foresaw the day when those who now "carried" 22 states (that many state organizations were claimed to exist) would inherit the Solar System. The first step was organization of just the sort that grotches Fanarchists. With the demise of the N3F [already moribund in 1944] Degler said, Third Fandom had ended, and the Fourth Fandom was now coming into existence under the aegis of the Planet Fantasy Federation. Pending their consent (which was emphatically not given) prominent fans were named as regional representatives, and almost every actifan he'd visited (and some he hadn't) who received him civilly and listened to him politely was named as a supporter of the Cosmic Circle. The weeklies carried a hodge-podge of policy pronouncements by the Coordinator, recollections of his trips, a few items of general interest and inaccuracy, and Cosmic Circle news like Rogers being shut out of the LASFS clubroom one day or Helen Bradleigh conducting a summer school for Cosmic Children. (Helen Bradleigh was a pseudonym for Joan Domnick, the teenage girl whom townsmen had prevented from starting the super-race with Degler; she tended children for working mothers in her spare time.) The most noticeable characteristic of the publications was that they were the worst-looking legible fanzines ever published; abounding strikeovers, paragraphs nonexistent, stencils crowded to the edges, no spacing after periods, misspelling, overuse of capitals quotemarks and underlines, wandering unplanned sentences, grammatical errors like "can and has went", malapropisms like calling Widner a stolid and far-seeing fan, ad nauseam.
T. Bruce Yerke became alarmed at the prospect of publicity for fandom directed at potential fans and the general public appearing in such garments, and sent several fans a request for information about Degler, on which to base a report on the Cosmic Circle. Degler reacted with violent denunciation of Yerke, but was persuaded to cease firing till the report was prepared and published. In the report, Yerke stated his belief that Cosmic Clod was a nearly precipitated case of schizophrenia, a paranoiac with delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex, and called for a ban on him if he refused to reform his practices. Leading Angelenoes endorsed his report.
While he was new in LA, Superfan had gained James Kepner and other new fen as members, and Ackerman let himself be named honorary member of one more organization. Before long, everyone except 4e had resigned and the branches of the CC set up in California were memberless after Degler left.
Upon learning thru FANEWS[CARD] of the Michiconference date, Degler gave up plans to expand the Cosmic Circle in the West Coast area in order to attend. He arrived on 29 October as the Ashleys were beginning to move to Slan Shack. Al Ashley told him the Conference didn't want him, and tried to explain why, but only got arguments in return. Finally Degler said he had no place to sleep and only 60¢, but the Ashleys refused to loan him anything.
When Superfan came back to Newcastle, Frankfort Nelson Stein (whose existence has been questioned, for obvious reasons) was imputed with having taken over an Oakgrove Fantasy Society and reestablishing Slan Slum there; Frank N. Stein formed a Futurian Alliance to fight the old-fan clique who were responsible for this new Exclusion Act, the Ashley Atrocity, and were trying to keep down the new and young fans (--all this per Claude Degler). The Cosmic One claimed that the CC was neutral in this war, but left no doubt where his sympathies lay in the fight against the "National Fantasy Fascist Federation", and seemed to identify his cause historically with the old Futurian movement. By this time Raym Washington was the only active fan who supported him; Raym had privately deplored the "morass" of publishing, and urged Degler to moderate his statements, but still hoped that some good might be done with the Cosmic Circle. In the face of this situation, a Cosmic Circle Conference (Councilcon) in Newcastle announced the resurrection of the MWFFF.
Meanwhile, a copy of the Cosmic Circle Commentator had come into the hands of Amazing Stories' Ray Palmer. The declaration of existence of a super race smelled to him of Nazism, and the fanationalistic program seemed the horrid ultima of fans' movement away from the proz which he, as a fan of the First Fandom and now a frankly commercialistic editor, decried. Because of this, and because fans were now not the type of readers his publications catered to, he made it known through FFF Newsweekly that fans of fandom would not get into the letter departments in future, originals would not be contributed for auction at fan gatherings, and so on. Some fen reacted by saying that Degler's ideas in some form had all been spoken in fandom before, and who the hell was Palmer to try to dictate to fandom or criticize others as crackpots, and as for Amazing and Fantastic Adventures, good riddance to bad rubbish. But others, alarmed at the possibility that other proz might follow Ziff Davis' lead and cut fandom off from financial, recruiting, and publicity assistance, made haste to inform Palmer that Degler didn't speak for fandom. Palmer modified his statement of the ban, but urged fen to return to the ways of their fathers.
On the theory that the Cosmic Circle could best be laughed out of existence, the Boston Boys had issued a Trivial Triangle Troubador, F. T. Laney produced the Comic Circle Commentator, Kepner followed with Caustic Square Commentator, and Tucker announced formation of the Cosworms. When the Z-D affair broke proceedings were started to expel Clod from FAPA, which he had lately joined (Laney and others made up specimen batches of surplus CCCommentators Degler had left in LA to send around FAPA in illustration of their criticisms of the Coordinator.) And Clod found it expedient to let his LASFS membership lapse because of the overwhelming sentiment against him there. It wasn't a joke any longer.
After the war the Cosmic One, using a new pename of "John Crisman", published Weird Unsolved Mysteries, a flying saucer review thing, which he circulated at the Philcon. Future issues (which apparently never appeared) were to feature such articles as "E. E. Smith is Earthbound and Unimaginative". He also announced Monster Stories, to feature "Behind the Super-Nova" ("a tale of sheer cosmic horror and weird vengeance"). Later he crossed out the "Crisman" and inserted a new pseudonym, "John York", and used WUM to exchange for fanzines. Any further history he may have made is unknown to your Gibbon.
|From Fancyclopedia 2 Supplement, ca. 1960|
|Degler showed up on the West Coast circa 1950; Van Couvering, he of the library door, was one who Met and Talked With Clod during this later incarnation. He was at the Norwescon, offensive in some ways, but showing no sign of reviving the Cosmic Circle. At some time he must have gotten a court order restoring his competency, for Ackerman has remarked that Degler was the only fan around who had papers to prove he was sane.
A possible error is in attribution of the Martian Message to the Denvention. Tucker claims that this happened at the Chicon I, and Roy Hunt -- the last surviving actifan from the Denvention Committee -- doesn't recall the event there.  However this may be, the message was delivered anonymously to the chairman, who read it in meeting. Everybody dismissed it as an obvious gag except the Cosmic One, who stood up and said we ought to treat it seriously, because who knows, maybe it's real. ("The Cosmic One" is a fannish put-down, never used by Claude himself; it shows more of a delusion of grandeur than he ever exhibited.)
Also worthy of mention is the furor which arose when a relative of Degler's did hisself in; every body thought it was Cosmic Clod until Sam Moskowitz phoned the Newcastle chief of police and found it wasn't.
Speer takes me to task for not pointing out explicitly rather'n by implication and ridicule, Claude Degler's real significant to our more devoted fans: by his antics, and especially his serious intent, Degler show horrifyingly how close any seriousness in fandom really is to paranoia.
Claude Degler, Man of Mystery
One of the strangest stories of Philcon, or any con for that matter, has to be the tale of Claude Degler, J. P. Chrisman. Claude had somehow gotten the idea that the Philcon was to be held over the July 4 weekend, rather than Labor Day, and consequently arrived in Philadelphia two months early. Rather than going home, as most of us would do, he took up residence in Camden, NJ, and waited for the convention. What he lived on for those two months, we have no) idea, and his living arrangements remain a mystery. However he managed, he was pretty busy during his stay. He paid frequent visits to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society (at that time they had a clubhouse), where no one recognized him, although they apparently knew of him. Adopting the name "John Paul Chrisman", and using equipment belonging to the Prime Press, he published the first issue of Weird Unsolved Mysteries (devoted to flying saucers); organized Alta Publications; published the Alta Advertiser; announced that "Frank N. Stein" would publish Expose and The Damp Thing; began organization of the Central States Science-Fantasy Society; and planned other projects. One might expect this whirlwind of fanac to be a hyperactive type, but in the opinion of at least one member he was the quietest, most well-behaved attendee! When rumors of "Chrisman's" actual identity surfaced at the convention, Degler clarified the situation by wearing a button that read, I'M RICHARD SHAVER, WHO ARE YOU?
Degler was born in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, and was based in Newcastle, IN, during most of the time he was active in fandom, although at times the community made him unwelcome, such as forcing him to leave town after statutory rape charges regarding Joan Domnick.
He was the son of Virgie Allen and Howard L. Degler, who married in 1918. Besides Claude, they had a younger son, Robert. Virgie and Howard divorced in the mid-20s. Howard had been briefly married before he married Virgie, and had a son, Trevor, from his first marriage. He remarried in 1928, and lived until 1976. Virgie raised her sons while working as an assembler for Chrysler.
According to the 1940 census (when Claude was 19), Claude only finished 6th grade and did not work for pay in 1939.
Degler was married in 1944 in Arkansas to Alta Doris Smith, who lived in Indiana. While she stated her age on the marriage certificate as 18, she was only 15 — her birth certificate said she was born in 1929. The Deglers remained married and lived in the Indianapolis area, even though Claude was often traveling and spent some time hospitalized for mental health issues in 1947. (Degler's mental health issues are discussed in Fancyclopedia 2, above.) By the 1950 Census, though, Alta Doris was living with her parents using her married name. She worked for Goodwill in the '70s and '80s. Although Degler was then still alive, his wife’s 1995 death certificate said she was a widow. Her obituary listed as survivors only two of her sisters.
Fandom’s last sighting of Degler was in 1981, when Bob Tucker reported that Claude showed up at InConJunction I and said he was living in an Indianapolis suburb, but didn’t stick around long enough for Tucker to find out more.
Claude Degler died on April 20, 2000, one month short of his 80th birthday, and was likely homeless at the time of his death. He had been using the name John Paul Christman.
In 2023, FamilySearch made the US Social Security NUMIDENT files available, which led to the discovery of a record matching Degler in nearly all details, including his known alias of “John Paul Chris(t)man”:
|Name||John Paul Christman|
|Name Note||Name and form dates: Application: JOHN PAUL CHRISTMAN (Nov 1956), Application: JOHN PAUL HARVEY CHRISTMAN (18 Apr 1988), Death: JOHN CHRISTMAN (20 Apr 2000)|
|Alias||John Paul Harvey Christman|
|Second Alias||John Christman|
|Previous Residence||Indianapolis, Marion, Indiana, United States|
|Previous Residence Postal Code||46201-3203|
|Death Date||20 Apr 2000|
|Birth Date||19 May 1920|
|Birthplace||Waterbury, Connecticut, United States|
|Father's Name||Howard L Christman|
|Mother's Name||Vergie V Allen|
The differences from corroborated facts, other than Degler's new name, are marked in bold: he gave his birthplace as Waterbury, Connecticut and he gave his father's surname as Christman, to match his own.
The ZIP+4 of his last known mailing address, 46201-3203, corresponds to the east side of a half-block of Eastern Avenue in Indianapolis, which notably includes the Good News Ministries homeless men's shelter.
See also: Cosmic Circle.
Publications about Degler
- “Looking for Degler” by David B. Williams.
- “The Degler Legend” by Dal Coger.
- “The Cosmic Circle” by Harry Warner, Jr.
- Claude Degler and the FAPA by Larry Shaw.
- Investigation in Newcastle by Jack Speer.
- The Cosmic Circle & Fandom by Jack Speer.
- Report to Science Fiction Fandom: The Cosmic Circle by T. Bruce Yerke.
- Alta Advertiser
- Bixel Bunk (as by Doro)
- British American Bulletin (as by Don Rogers and Raym Washington)
- CAPA Mailing (as by Don Rogers and Raym Washington)
- Cosmian World (as by Rex Matthews)
- Cosmic Circle Commentator (as by Don Rogers)
- Cosmic Circle Monthly (as by Don Rogers and Raym Washington)
- Cosmic Circle White Paper (as by Don Rogers)
- Cosmic Digest (as by Don Rogers and Raym Washington)
- Cosmique (as by Don Rogers)
- Damned Degler
- Dixie Phoenix (as by Helen Bradleigh)
- Fanews Analyzer (as by Don Rogers, Jimmy Rogers, Raym Washington and Helen Bradleigh)
- Fantasy Forum (as by Helen Bradleigh)
- Future Fandom Stories
- Futurian Advance (as by Don Rogers and Helen Bradleigh)
- Futurian Daily Planet (as by Frankfort Nelson Stein)
- Futurian Letters (as by Helen Bradleigh)
- Ghu (as by Frankfort Nelson Stein and Martha Matner)
- Infinite (with Leonard Marlowe)
- Intelligence Quotient (as by Doro)
- Invictus (as by Helen Bradleigh and Raym Washington)
- Jack Speer and Fandom
- Jody's Comic Courier (as by Jodine Fear)
- Membership Report
- Modern Michelist
- National Futurian Wkly
- Report to Science Fiction Fandom: Jack Speer and the Anti-C. C. Campaign (as by Donald G. Rogers)
- Troy (as by Helen Bradleigh)
- Weird Unsolved Mysteries (as by John Crisman)
- But the mid-late 1941 issue of Degler's fanzine Infinite describes the event as happening at the Denvention. While it is Degler writing the article and he might have changed the year and the venue for some reason, he specifically describes:
- Delivering a speech at the banquet about the "Message".
- Denvention con chair Olon F. Wiggins as reading the message as well and handing it over to Degler as a souvenir.
- The envelope having the date, time, and room in the Denver Savoy where the con was held.
- See Personal Life.
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