Le Plongeon, Alice D. (Alice Dixon), 1851-1910

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Biographical/Historical Note

Augustus Henry Julian Le Plongeon was born on Jersey, Channel Islands on May 4, 1826. After graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris he embarked on a series of adventures in the Americas, beginning with an attempt to sail to Chile with a friend in the late 1840s. Wrecked off the coast, they made their way to Valparaiso, Chile, where Le Plongeon took a position at a local college. When gold rush fever reached Chile, he joined the exodus to northern California. By 1850 Le Plongeon was working as a surveyor and city planner in Marysville, California. To finance further travels he sold the land that he had received in payment for his services, going first to England, where he reportedly badgered Henry Fox Talbot into teaching him his new method for making photographic negatives on paper. From England Le Plongeon went to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to experiment with Talbot’s techniques in tropical climates, and then traveled to Mexico, Australia, China, and the Pacific Islands. He returned to California at the end of 1851, established a photography studio in San Francisco, and also entered the medical profession, perhaps by apprenticing himself to a local doctor. By the 1860s Le Plongeon had appended the title Doctor in front of his name.

In 1862 Dr. Le Plongeon moved to Lima, Peru, where he opened a photography studio and also practiced medicine, specializing in hydroelectric treatments. He traveled extensively throughout Peru studying and photographing Incan ruins, as well as the causes of earthquakes. His reading of Abbé Brassuer de Bourboug’s work on ancient Central American and Mexican cultures led him to consider the notion that civilization had its beginnings in the New World, and, after reading John Lloyd Stephens’ and Frederick Catherwood’s accounts of Central America and Yucatan, to form the notion that perhaps the Maya had disseminated civilization. During this time he also carried out a public debate with a Jesuit priest in the Lima newspapers, and consequently published two anti-Jesuit books, La religion de Jesus comparada con las ensenanzas de la Iglesia (1867), and Los Jesuitas y el Peru (1869).

After eight years in Peru, Le Plongeon returned briefly to California where he presented a series of lectures on ancient Peruvian civilization and on seismology to the California Academy of Sciences (he had become a member of the academy in 1856). From California he traveled to New York to lecture, also hoping to sell paintings by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Juan del Castillo that he had acquired in Peru, and then to London to study Spanish manuscripts held by the British Museum. One day by chance he met Alice Dixon (b. 1851), the young daughter of the architectural photographer Thomas Dixon, who was out running an errand for her father. According to Alice she went home after their meeting and said to her mother, “Mother, while I was out to-day I met him who I know that I shall have to marry by and bye.” By the end of January, 1873 the couple was in New York preparing for their explorations of Maya Yucatan.

While in New York Augustus published his Manual de Fotografia (1873), which he had written in Peru. He also attempted, without success, to reclaim the glass negatives that he had sent to New York in 1863 via Ephraim G. Squier, with whom he had collaborated in Peru, and who had published them as his own work. In July the couple set sail for the Yucatan peninsula, where they were to spend most of the next twelve years searching for the evidence to prove Augustus’ theory that Maya travelers had diffused their culture had throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and that it thus predated Egyptian culture.

The Le Plongeons excavated and extensively recorded the ruins at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, and photographed sites at Izamal, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Cancun, and Ake. Their photographic work was very thorough and inclusive. They took aerial site views, documented individual structures from all angles, and made close-ups of entire facades of structures such as the Governor’s Palace at Uxmal, and also recorded individual architectural details, glyphs, bas reliefs and other sculptures, as well as the artifacts that they unearthed. They made wet collodion glass plate negatives, most often using a stereoscopic camera. Alice was particulary instrumental in the photography work having been thoroughly trained in her father’s studio. At Chichén Itzá the Le Plongeons also discovered a superb Chac Mool figure while excavating the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars, and made extensive tracings of the murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars.

During their time in Yucatan the Le Plongeons sent dispatches about their work to organizations such as the American Antiquarian Society, regularly published accounts of their work in Mexican and American newspapers and journals, and Augustus published his Vestiges of the Mayas (1881). Augustus also became embroiled in debates with scholars such as Daniel Brinton, Samuel Haven, and Philipp Valenti over theories of cultural diffusion. He believed that his discoveries of carved reliefs at Uxmal resembling Masonic symbols proved the link between Yucatan and Egypt. As Augustus was ever one to back down from an argument, his beliefs soon estranged him from his fellow Mesoamericanists, who, in discounting his theories, also overlooked the meticulous work he and Alice had accomplished in the field.

The Le Plongeons returned to the New York in 1885, and settled in Brooklyn where they continued to write and lecture on the Maya and Egypt. Augustus’ published books include Sacred Mysteries among the Mayas and Quiches, 11,500 Years Ago (1886), Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx (1896), and The Origin of the Egyptians (1913-1914). Alice became a prolific writer of articles on a wide range of topics that were published in scientific, popular, and theosophical journals. In addition to writing about archaeology, she also wrote on contemporary Maya and Yucatecan culture, and other ethnographic and natural history subjects. Her books include Here and There in Yucatan (1886), and Queen Moo’s Talisman (1902), an epic poem. She also delivered many popular lantern slide lectures on a wide range of subjects including the ancient and modern Maya, Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the Americas, and the architecture of old London.

Estranged from the academic archaeological community, the Le Plongeons increasingly concentrated their activities in theosophist and spiritualist circles. At some point they met Henry Field Blackwell, an electrical engineer and inventor, and his wife Maude, perhaps through a Masonic connection, as both men were Freemasons. The two couples became close friends, and Maude in particular championed the Le Plongeons’ work. Augustus died in 1908 at the age of eighty-three, and only two years later Alice died at age fifty-nine. The Blackwells inherited the research and writings of the Le Plongeons, promising to make every attempt to continue publishing and promulgating their work. In 1913-1914 Maude Blackwell was successful in seeing Augustus’ The Origin of the Egyptians and The Pyramid of Xochicalco published in The Word, a theosophical journal, but subsequently fell on hard times following her husband’s death. Alone in Los Angeles, where the couple had moved in the late 1920s, Maude struggled to survive through the Great Depression. Although her connections to theosophist circles increased, Maude's efforts during the 1930s to interest archaeologists such as Frans Blom and Sylvanus Morley in the work of the Le Plongeons, came to naught. Nevertheless, throughout the twentieth century the Le Plongeons and their theories continued to be mentioned in scholarly, theosophical, and popular literature, and in recent years the value of their fieldwork and photography has been reassessed.

From the guide to the Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon papers, circa 1840-1937, 1860-1910, (Getty Research Institute)

Direct Relationships
Relation Name
associatedWith Blackwell, Henry Field, d. 1927 person
associatedWith Blackwell, Maude Alice, 1873- person
associatedWith Blom, Frans Ferdinand, 1893-1963 person
correspondedWith Brown, Mary Elizabeth person
associatedWith Brown, Mary Elizabeth, 1842-1918. person
associatedWith Columbus, Christopher person
associatedWith Cook, James, 1728-1779 person
associatedWith Dixon, Henry, 1820-1893 person
associatedWith Hearst, Phoebe Apperson, 1842-1919 person
associatedWith Jesuits—Peru corporateBody
associatedWith Le Plongeon, Augustus, 1826-1908. person
associatedWith Morley, Sylvanus Griswold, 1843-1948 person
associatedWith Stuart, George E. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Mexico--Yucatán
Mexico—Antiquities
Peru–Antiquities
Xochicalco (Mexico)—Antiquities
Chichén Itzá Site (Mexico)
London (England)—Description and travel
Oceanea—Description and travel
Pompeii (Extinct city)—Description and travel
Yucatán (Mexico : State)–History
Yucatán Peninsula—Description and travel
Uxmal Site (Mexico)—Antiquities
Subject
Mayas in polular culture
Mayan languages--Writing
Mayas
Maya mural painting and decoration
Incas
Inventions
Chac Mool
Photography--Handbooks, manuals, etc
Cultural diffusion
Religion
Mayas--Religion
Musical instruments
Maya sculpture
Earthquakes--Peru
Maya language
Maya architecture
Mayas--Antiquities
Seismology
Indian art--Mexico
Occupation
Function

Person

Birth 1851

Death 1910

English

English

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