When he was 7 years old, James Thurber and his brothers, William and Robert, decided to act out the tale of "William Tell." Young James was the one who stood with the apple on his head while his older brother took aim with a bow and arrow.
"His brother must have been taking too long to shoot, so James turned around and the arrow hit him in the left eye," said Anne Touvell. "He lost his eye and had a glass eye from the age of 7.
"Eventually, he ended up going blind (at age 47) because the stress was too much on his good eye."
As deputy director at the Thurber House in Columbus, Ohio, Touvell said she sometimes wonders "if James Thurber would have become the prolific writer and humorist if he hadn't gone blind."
As it was, Thurber became a beloved writer and cartoonist whose works are considered American classics. Thurber wrote 32 books including "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "The Catbird Seat." He was also the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons.
Even before I could read, I loved looking at Thurber's cartoons, mostly those involving wacky dogs. My Grandma Georgie had several Thurber books including "Many Moons" and "My Life and Hard Times" as well as magazines with his work. I always would head for those when I visited her Ohio home.
So, when I attended a recent conference in Columbus, Ohio, I put the Thurber House on my list to visit before I left town. Parking in front of the historic house, it seemed as though I had been there before. That's the result of Thurber's writings about the antics of the Thurber family and dogs when they lived at 77 Jefferson Ave.
"This house was going to be torn down," Touvell said. "James Thurber's youngest brother, Robert, was still alive when the house was saved, so he went through the house to get it to look as much like it did when they lived here. "
Saving the home where Thurber once lived
Born Dec. 8, 1894, in Columbus, James Grover Thurber was the son of Charles, a civil clerk, and Mame, an eccentric woman who would influence many of her son's stories.
"The family moved often and rented places to live all over the city," Touvell said.
James Thurber died Nov. 2, 1961, of pneumonia after a stroke and was buried in Columbus. He was 66 years old.
The Thurber House is where the family lived from 1913-17, when Thurber was a student at Ohio State University. Walking through the Victorian house is like seeing Thurber's stories come alive. The living room is where Thurber's Grandmother Fisher was convinced "electricity was dripping invisibly" all over the house.
Thurber's story "The Car We Had to Push" detailed the room in which Grandmother Fisher contested electricity "leaked out of empty sockets if the wall switch had been left on." Off the living room is a small alcove where Thurber's father often slept with the family dogs when his three sons got to be too much for him.
In the kitchen, Thurber's mother made special gifts as an apology for their dog, Muggs, who liked to bite people. Muggs was immortalized in Thurber's story "The Dog Who Bit People."
"James Thurber had over 100 dogs in his life," Touvell said. "I think he might have loved dogs more than people."
The small bedroom where the future humorist and cartoonist slept has the Underwood #5 typewriter that Thurber used while at The New Yorker. The Wall of Fame closet in the bedroom is filled with signatures of authors who have given readings at the Thurber House.
The dining room is where Thurber first heard footsteps of the ghost in "The Night the Ghost Got In." Thurber hid in the bathroom when he heard the ghost running up the back stairs. And Thurber isn't the only one who believes the two-story house is haunted.
"This whole block was once the Ohio Lunatic Asylum, which burned down in 1868," Touvell said. "Six women died in that fire, and one theory is that those women are still walking through this neighborhood."
Another story involves a couple who lived in the house before the Thurbers.
"The man got a mysterious phone call that told him to go home, and he would find his wife in the arms of another man," Touvell said. "He went home, found that and shot his wife and himself."
Still one more tale details the tragedy of a prominent jeweler and his wife who lived in the house.
"He had gone upstairs to change for dinner. He had a pistol laying out on the dresser, and his wife said that could be dangerous," Touvell said. "To show her it wasn't dangerous because it wasn't loaded, he put the pistol to his chest and pulled the trigger. It was loaded. He died."
A ghost dressed in Victorian garb seen around the house is thought to be the careless jeweler, Touvell said.
"Too many people have had ghost encounters here for there not to be some truth to it."
No ghosts came out of the woodwork during my afternoon visit. But I did notice something unusual about the museum besides the fact that admission is free. Visitors are invited to touch anything in the house except the Underwood typewriter. Play the piano, listen to the Victrola, skim the magazines, photograph anything, sit in a comfy chair and even use the old-timey bathroom.
"Make yourself at home," the docent said, welcoming me when I stepped through the door. "We think that's what James Thurber would have wanted."