Born in 1707, he grew up as a fairly ordinary boy in Elmton, Derbyshire with close family connections to the village; his father was a local farmer and Elmton’s schoolmaster and his non-biological grandfather was the vicar. Despite the position of his father, Jedediah appears to have received a very limited education during his childhood, so much so that he remained illiterate all his life. While this lack of education was not uncommon for a child of his age or status, what was unbelievable were the cognitive skills that he taught himself and the way he could apply to them to his work. It was this skill that would make him infamous in his native county.
Life in Elmton and his extraordinary talent for numbers.
Jedediah Buxton had a aptitude for mathematics from a very early age and his skill and understanding of the way numbers worked continued to grow as he aged and began to work in the fields. He was able to make calculations in his head with extraordinary ease and he soon began to relate his skill to his work, measuring fields and distances by simply walking them and giving the results in a range of area types from acres right down to the square inches. It seemed no conversion was too difficult and he also had an extraordinary memory. It was said that he could could start and stop conversations and thoughts with surprising ease, picking up where he left off a week later as though he simply stored all the information away. His mathematical feats were effortless and this remarkable skill lead to an achievement that seems incomprehensible to most of us – he measured the whole lordship of Elmton with just his feet and his brain.
The life of Jedediah Buxton was a fairly straightforward one for the majority of his years he may have been famous within his village for his mental skills within the field but he was nothing more than a simple farm labourer and family man. He married Alice Eastwood, a woman 6 years his junior from Kirton, Nottinghamshire, and they are believed to have had three children together – John, Susannah and Sara. It was only after his wife passed away that Jedediah become more famous and it all began with a remarkable journey to London.
His status as a remarkable savant and his infamous journey to London.
When Alice died in 1754, Jedediah embarked on a long journey, by foot, into London. He had travelled with the intention of seeing the king, however he found that the king was not in London when he arrived. This disappointment soon led to a chain of events that would enhance his fame and showcase the extent to which his unusual mind differed from that of his audience. First he found himself addressing an audience at the Royal Society. Here the members were amazed by his abilities and he was asked to perform a series of seemingly impossible calculations to test his powers. Following this appearance he was taken to the theatre on Drury lane to see a performance of Richard III. Although his hosts viewed the event as a great, sensory experience and no doubt thought it would be a welcome treat for a rural farm labourer, Jedediah revealed that he was perplexed by the production of the musical sounds and he found himself compelled to count words and dancers steps.
Jedediah Buxton and his family may not have realised it at the time but there was more to his skill than a simple talent for maths. It may have been a clever party trick to his audience in the Royal Society but his ability and reaction to the theatre production suggests that Buxton was in fact a savant. Savants have highly enhanced mental abilities in one specific area but are lacking other, more basic cognitive and social skills. This would explain Buxton’s talents and perhaps account for why he had such trouble understanding the music and remained illiterate. When he returned from London he was not able to make a career out of his talent because he lacked the skills to teach and he was forced to remain a farm labourer. Today the condition is seen as a neurodevelopmental disorder and it is possible that Buxton may have been suffering from a form of autism but it is impossible to make an exact diagnosis.
The extraordinary death of Jedediah Buxton and his ongoing legacy.
Despite returning to his old position in the fields and leading an ordinary life, Jedediah had one final mathematical trick up sleeve that ensured that he would be remembered long after his death. On a visit to the see the Duke of Portland in 1772, at the age of 65, he made a premonition about the exact date of his death, claiming he would be dead the following Thursday. Initially, the Duke put this declaration down to too much beer but, sure enough, Buxton was found dead that Thursday evening having apparently died at the time he predicted. While the exact cause of death is uncertain and the story cannot be fully verified, it begs the question whether Jedediah was somehow aware of his impending death and able to form some mathematical formula for the exact time or if he instead managed to stage an elaborate suicide.
Whatever the truth behind his mysterious death, there is no denying that Jedediah Buxton led a unique life and will remain a celebrated figure in his native Derbyshire. He deserves to be remembered for his achievements in the field and he is rightfully revered as one of the most fascinating savants that ever lived. Today a copy of his portrait from 1764 still hangs in his local church in Elmton and he was awarded a blue plaque in 2011 that celebrates his life as a self-taught mathematical genius, farm labourer and lifelong resident – a simple and fitting tribute to an unassuming man with a remarkable mind who turned his apparent disability into a celebrated talent.