Richard Jones was famous in the early nineteenth century has been described as “the most prodigious intellectual freak that ever came out of Wales … He had the gift of tongues, and a mania for acquiring them under discouraging circumstances, developed to a degree that gives him a place to himself among village prodigies. He was the son of an illiterate carpenter, and the descendant of generations of rude Lleyn peasants.” It is unlikely any of his ancestors could read or write, but by his death at about 60 year of age, he had mastered thirty-five languages.
He was described as “a frowsy, dirty peasant, or worse … filthy in person, part mendicant, part medicine man: one quarter idiot, three quarters genius.”
“Dick fell foul of his parents, or they of him, at a tender age. He had no schooling, but hung about the village school room, and by the help of books he found lying about there, and of good-natured boys who had mastered the art, he learned to read in Welsh.” Soon afterwards, he likewise acquired English. He failed to learn his father’s trade so took to the road. When he met a pedlar from Italy or Germany, he learned their languages. From books he taught himself Hebrew, Latin and Greek, followed by French, Russian and Scandinavian tongues. His skill attracted patrons, from bishops to tradesmen who paid him for gardening or other work he never completed, and leant him books and writing materials. But his filthy appearance prevented his entry to polite society and he was widely mocked by street children. He refused to work or wash, and his clothes were ragged, but no matter how poor he was he refused to be parted from his books. For a time he wore a silver and blue cavalry jacket with a cap of hare’s skin with ears sticking up from it. Pieces of cloth inscribed with Greek and Hebrew sentences hung from these ears. In this strange attire he would recite the song of Moses in Hebrew to astonished Welsh villagers. At inappropriate moments he would blow loudly on a ram’s horn hanging round his neck.
Dick became famous in North Wales, but travelled as far as Dover and for a time lived in London. He never begged or drank, and only rarely did he work when driven by extreme hunger. He expected the public to provide his minimal wants, and they generally did.
An eminent scholar from Oxford visited him in Wales and tested his knowledge of Homer and the Iliad, which he passed with flying colours. Towards the end of his life public support faded and he survived by telling fortunes.
He was buried in St Asaph churchyard, followed by many eminent people who would have helped him throughout his life had he not been such an inveterate vagabond.
This man sounds incredible, but there is no way he could exist in our present world. Prodigies were seen as gifts from God, as Jesus was the ultimate example, so parents of them were seen as being blessed. Though Dick’s parents clearly didn’t agree.