It’s a story that won’t stop haunting me. A mystery in need of answers. I try to let it go, and then it creeps back in—as all the best stories do. Because the best stories are a kind of haunting. The best stories won’t let us go.
It’s the story of the King of the World.
You might know bits of it from reading this publication and others in the Moab area and the blogosphere. Perhaps you have seen the namesake King World rock. For decades, though, we’ve understood so little. Who, exactly, was the King of the World?
Moab locals knew him as Aharon Andrew, but his imperial nickname was derived from a rock inscription and bas relief he created on a boulder above town in 1935. The rock depicts a militaristic figure astride a horse accompanied by the inscription:
About a decade ago, this boulder was moved to the parking lot of the Grand Center (Moab’s senior center), making Aharon’s mark on Moab more visible. It was around this time that I became aware of the remaining fragments of his story and started digging deeper. I intended to crack the King World code.
After a year, I relented. I solved nothing. I moved on.
However, recently, I read a book that reminded me of Aharon. Inland, by Téa Obreht, introduced me to Lurie, a “hirsute Levantine” who takes refuge in the U.S. Army Camel Corps that was formed to explore the arid deserts of the Southwest. This brought to mind Aharon: a man of indeterminate origin, always seen as Other, roaming a foreign yet familiar desert that eventually claimed him.
With this, my passion for Aharon’s story was reignited. And this time, my passion has been rewarded.
Prior to now, what we’ve known was that Aharon arrived in Moab around 1934 or 1935 with a small goat herd and a few horses. He and his stock were bedecked in handmade medallions and other decorative metalcraft. He eventually set up camp on land belonging to the Parriott family, and they showed the itinerant artist great kindness, inviting him to dinner and making sure that his diet of goat’s milk and meat were supplemented with fruits and vegetables, conversation and compassion.
Dale Parriott, who then operated the old Taylor Ranch (which stretched from the homestead on the highway—now Moab Springs Ranch—across the sloughs, and to the South Portal), situated Aharon’s camp on an access road to their orchard. This was near the former Doxol site. Aharon built his shelter of canvas scraps and branches. He cooked Dutch oven-style, making simple breads, eating rabbits, and canning goat meat.
In camp, he crafted medallions and coins out of brass, iron, and tin, embossing them with his profile, his name, and maps of the world. He gifted these to area residents, though they all seem to be lost to history now.
He spent most of his time working on the carving above town, using broken farm implements as his engraving tools. Some locals claimed he would chase them away when they came to watch him work, but others say he was happy for the company. His reaction likely depended on the onlooker’s intentions.
He also helped the Parriotts at haying time and would lead Dale’s load of hay to town, decked out in full regalia—including a handmade greatcoat, hat, and medallions—clearing the way for the wagon. He bonded with the Parriotts, and they with him; yet, he remained silent on his past.
On Sundays, Aharon would parade down the highway in his finest clothing, armed with sword, rifle, and spear. Though all accounts describe him as a kind and gentle soul, this militaristic routine continued through the months. And that was likely his undoing.
His eccentricities eventually become intolerable to Moab’s leading families—particularly (rumor has it) Helen M. Knight—and he was expelled from town. When Dale gave him the news, Aharon left without argument.
He headed north and was soon committed to the Utah State Hospital where he died. The Parriotts visited him there shortly after his confinement began and found him bound by ropes, sobbing at the sight of their familiar faces. They embraced, and that was the last anyone knew of him.
I always found this snippet of story alone worth contemplating, worth writing about. Worth remembering. And I found it heart-wrenching. Yet, now that his world has expanded before my eyes, I find him more remarkable—and tragic—than ever.
It turns out he was born Aharon Andrikian in 1877 in Malatya, a town in present-day Turkey at the base of the Taurus Mountains. At the time, the area was under Ottoman Rule but was considered part of Western Armenia by the Christians who populated it. Christian Armenians there were persecuted for decades leading up to the Armenian Genocide, which began in earnest in 1915, killing as many as two million people. (I won’t go into the genocide here, but if you don’t know much about it, you should. The stories are horrific and are further reasons to be fearful of the rise of nationalism.)
Aharon, a blacksmith by trade, managed to escape the massacres and deportations by fleeing into Russia. Armenian men didn’t often survive the genocide, so his successful escape is remarkable. However, the Russian Revolution soon began in 1917, and he again found himself in a dangerous war zone. He traveled across Siberia (no small feat), and ended up in the village of Vladivostok, so far east, it sits on the Sea of Japan. Vladivostok is 6,665 miles from Aharon’s hometown, and though a part of Russia, it is actually closer to both Anchorage, Alaska, and Darwin, Australia, than it is to Moscow.
I know nothing of Aharon’s epic journey except that it took years and he arrived alone at his destination. Did his family perish along the way? Or did he lose them early on to the genocide? Did he walk or ride wagons or trains? I don’t know. I can only imagine.
From Vladivostok, he crossed to Yokohama, Japan, and boarded the S.S. Kashima Maru, bound for Seattle. He landed on American shores September 22, 1920, finally free of mortal fear. He was 43 years old, beginning a new life with $50 to his name, trying desperately to leave his harrowing history on the boat. I don’t think he fully did. A history like that follows a person.
From Seattle, he made his way to Haverhill, Massachusetts, to meet with a distant relative, Mardiros Gulezian, who worked in a shoe factory there. Aharon learned the cobbler’s trade over the course of a year in Haverhill and then moved on to Clinton, Massachusetts, where he hung up his shingle as a shoemaker. This lasted until 1925 when he had an awakening that changed the trajectory of his life.
At the age of 48, Aharon was “reborn” as “the Imperial King of America, and King of All the World.” In this vision, he was told to travel west to California. And so he did, adding thousands more miles to a life that had already covered over 10,000.
This revelation was likely a psychotic break related to what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. However, back then, we didn’t understand such things. We didn’t have words for it. Back then, we didn’t care why he went mad. It was the imperative of insane asylums of the era to protect the public from maniacs rather than to cure the mentally ill. Aharon, in his brokenness, was an asylum incarceration waiting to happen.
His whereabouts are unknown until 1934. At that point, he was residing in Shiprock, New Mexico, and had apparently spent time with the Navajo. From them, he likely learned the art of goat tending. The Navajo would refer to their livestock as their “children,” and Aharon did the same with his goats. Leaving Shiprock, he headed north to Cane Springs (near Hole ‘n the Rock) where he left an inscription recently discovered by Jim Stiles (see ALBERT CHRISTENSEN & AHARRON ANDEEW: Eccentric Sculptors…& Kindred Spirits?). And then on to Moab. But what happened next?
Nothing good, it turns out.
Aharon and his herd of stock animals arrived in Ogden in mid-November 1935, and he was soon arrested. Families in the neighborhood where he camped grew fearful of him and the weapons he carried. The Ogden police held him in jail for a night and then released him, finding him “slightly demented but entirely harmless.” However, his freedom was short-lived. On Christmas Eve, he was committed to the Utah State Hospital. It is possible that someone in Moab saw the article in the Times-Independent about Aharon’s arrest and release and alerted the hospital. Or perhaps Ogden tired quickly of his presence.
He languished in that hospital for 19 years before dying of a heart attack at age 77, entirely alone and misunderstood.
At that time in history, the conditions at the State Hospital were abysmal. The facility was overpopulated and underfunded. There were far more residents than there was ward space, so patients slept in hallways and alcoves. There was no room for people to keep personal effects, so they weren’t allowed any. Also, this was the era before psychiatric drugs, so Aharon’s “therapy” likely consisted of electroconvulsive treatments or hypoglycemic therapy wherein patients were put into diabetic comas.
The hospital knew little of Aharon. On the 1940 census, they listed his name as Andrew Ahasson. His death certificate names him Harlan Andrew. If officials at the hospital didn’t have the time or resources to learn his given name, what else did they neglect in his care? Without a name, was he even seen as a fellow human being? Or was he simply a danger to society and a burden on taxpayers?
The State Hospital’s historian has confirmed Aharon’s residency at the hospital and his diagnosis as schizophrenic but is unable to share any of his medical notes. Only a family member may access that confidential information. As Aharon has no known descendants (when he arrived in the U.S. he listed himself as single with no wife), and his distant relative in Haverhill has no descendants (his children didn’t have children), the likelihood of ever seeing his files remains small. It pains me to know that another piece of his story exists but is inaccessible. It pains me to know that his files will simply gather dust, never looked at, while some of us desperately try to keep his story alive.
After his death, Aharon’s body was donated to the University of Utah for research. His remains rest in an unmarked grave in a Salt Lake City cemetery.
By donating his body to science, the Utah State Hospital likely hoped to advance the understanding of schizophrenia. Unfortunately, an uninhabited body can tell us nothing of the soul’s suffering. A corpse reveals nothing of the heart’s pain, the stomach’s churning, the mind’s anguish, the man’s journey. The hospital would have done better to try to understand Aharon in life than in death, but resources were limited. Psychiatry was limited. We humans are forever more limited than we perceive.
There are mysteries that yet remain regarding the King of the World. Both inscriptions include “M.C.F. HHAESUSS.” I believe that “haesus” is a reference to Jesus, as it is the phonetic spelling of Jesus in Armenian. But M.C.F.? I don’t know. There is also a part of the Cane Springs inscription that is indecipherable but reads something like “1o iy 29.” And there are mysteries I’ll probably never unravel, like his time in Malatya, his journey across Siberia, his travels from Massachusetts to Utah.
There are rumors he left rock carvings elsewhere, but I’ve been unable to track them down. I know more now than before, but I am struck with the still-smallness of that knowing. All I have are these pinpricks of light amidst the dark unknown of his trajectory—immigration papers, census forms, phone directories, photos, newspaper articles—that allow me to connect the dots of a life. Sadly, the gaps are still far larger than the facts.
Yet, with greater understanding comes greater heartache. I mean, to survive the genocide, to travel so far, to beat such great odds—to triumph!—and then to be locked in an insane asylum for two decades, all for being uncomfortably different? It’s tragic. Aharon was left broken by a broken world.
Another part of the sadness for me is that Aharon spent his entire life as Other—a persecuted Armenian, an immigrant, an eccentric, a (perceived) madman—yet, by all accounts, he was kind and generous and loyal and gentle. I can’t stop thinking about how we failed him, and how we continue to fail many others like him today.
I plan to continue my research on Aharon Andrikian. Like the boulder he left in Moab, I hope my work will ensure he won’t be forgotten. His is a story worth knowing.
Jen Jackson Quintano has written for High Country News, Mountain Gazette, Inside-Outside Southwest, and Moab’s Times-Independent. In 2014, she published Blow Sand in His Soul: Bates Wilson, the Heart of Canyonlands, a biography of Bates Wilson, father of Canyonlands National Park.
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