At 512 May Avenue in Ewing, down by the Essex rubber factory, there was once a shack. If you were to pass by the shack late at night, when its occupant was home, you might see a faint light glowing from a small window.
And if you were to go up to that window and look inside, you would see its sparse furnishings. There was no bed. Just a dresser and a small stove, and a chair, where the shack’s occupant sat.
The man had a big mustache and wore overalls and an engineer’s hat. He was reading a newspaper. And as the night wore on, he would set down one paper and pick up another. In this way he would go through a whole stack. When morning came, the man would rise out from his chair and go to work.
The man’s name was Albert Herpin, and he was known throughout the world as the man who never slept.
At least, that is how the story is commonly told. Herpin was a local legend for nearly 50 years, from 1904 when newspapers first reported on “Trenton’s Sleepless Wonder” to his death in 1947.
The story, part history and part folklore, was the subject of frequent newspaper articles in the early 20th century as well as an entry in Ripley’s Believe it or Not and other encyclopedias of questionable facts.
As late as 2017, a local author, Robert Quinn, wrote a semi-fictional account of Herpin’s life in the book The Man who Never Slept.
The story has captured imaginations for obvious reasons: If Herpin’s claim was to be believed, he would be superhuman. In fact, biologists have yet to find a single animal that doesn’t sleep in some form or another. Because of sleep’s many evolutionary disadvantages, it stands to reason that it performs an essential if not completely understood biological function, and that going without it for too long would be impossible. Yet, Herpin claimed to have done just that. Could there be any grain of truth to the legend?
The Papers of Record: Herpin’s life was documented in contemporary newspapers.
Unfortunately, much of what they say is contradictory or disputed. The first articles published about Herpin describe him as a Frenchman born in 1862. Quinn, after digging through public records, concluded that he was actually born in America and was the son of a traveling patent medicine salesman.
Quinn also puts forward the theory that he was born Alexander but changed his name to Albert in his early 20s.
The first articles were from Trenton papers, but the story was picked up by the national press and was published widely. The New York Times of February 26 1904 wrote: “Albert Herpin, born in France in 1862 and for 15 years a hostler in the employ of Freeholder Walter Phares of this city, declares that he has not slept a wink during the past 10 years. Notwithstanding this, he is in perfect health, and does not seem to suffer any discomfort from his remarkable condition.” (A holster is someone who takes care of horses).
A later article from the Times Picayune of New Orleans described him as a delivery wagon driver and quoted him saying he had not slept for the last 16 years since his son was born: “I was nervous I suppose,” says he. “Four years afterward my wife died and the shock must have affected my nerves, because I have not been able to sleep since. I have been treated in hospitals and privately, but to no purpose. At bedtime I go to bed like everybody else but not to sleep. I simply lie down to rest. I get up about 5 o’clock in the morning and then go to my work. I feel just as I did when I slept every night.”
In August, the Trenton Evening Times reported that he had refused an offer of $10,000 from a scientific organization in Vienna to undergo observation and tests of his condition. Later articles describe how marriage proposals had poured in from all over the country, all of which he declined.
Throughout his life, there were more articles in various publications. In 1908, a trade magazine called the Clay Record wrote about how Herpin, then working as a pottery decorator, had invented a new technique for printing photos beneath the glaze of pottery.
At some point his life apparently took a turn for the worse, and later articles describe him as living by himself in a ramshackle shed with no bed in it, reading newspapers all night before rising in the morning to work in Trenton, where he did odd jobs and was a street sweeper.
Other articles claim that Herpin was observed by a team of doctors who saw him stay awake for seven days straight, and were baffled at his lack of fatigue. According to one Trenton Times article, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World, sent a team of doctors to observer Herpin at one point in the 1890s, and were similarly unable to learn anything after a week of observation.
When the New York Times wrote his obituary in 1947, he was described as being 94 years old, which is inconsistent with being born in 1862. For the last half of his long life he was a local legend, and in his book, Quinn describes how he, at age 10, encountered the then-ancient Herpin and became fascinated by him.
There is very little evidence to suggest that Herpin was studied under rigorous scientific scrutiny that would say one way or another if his claim of not sleeping was true. If doctors who examined him made any records of such a study, they remain hidden from the eyes of history.
It is plausible, however, that he did stay awake for a week straight at least. The current world record for a healthy person staying awake under scientific scrutiny belongs to Randy Gardner, who, as a 17 year old in 1964, stayed up for 11 days for a science fair project.
Scientists have documented many ill effects that normal people endure when going without sleep. After 18 hours awake, many people experience impaired reaction times similar to being drunk. After 36 hours, the brain begins to lose its ability to make new memories. Some people even begin to experience hallucinations, confusion or symptoms similar to psychosis. At some point, the brain will go to sleep on its own for brief periods of time regardless of what the subject is trying to do. The phenomenon of “microsleep” has been blamed for numerous accidents.
Scientists have also discovered that many people can be asleep while thinking they are awake. Those suffering from “paradoxical insomnia” will complain of insomnia, lying up all night aware of their surroundings, but when their brain waves are studied, turn out to be asleep after all. “Sleep state misperception” is one possible explanation for Herpin’s insistence on having not slept for years on end.
Science does offer the extremely slim possibility that Herpin’s strange condition was at least partly real.
In 1974, French sleep scientist Michel Jouvet studied a man suffering from a rare condition called Morvan’s Syndrome. Jouvet observed the 27-year-old man stay awake for four solid months. He never slept, but experienced vivid hallucinations for 20 minutes every night.
From this study, Jouvet came to the remarkable conclusion that most of the disorders people experience while going without sleep were not the result of lack of sleep but the result of the body’s sleep system trying to force them into unconsciousness. According to Jouvet, this case disproved the scientific consensus that sleep is a vital function.
Sleep… is “not necessary for life,” he wrote. “A man can read the newspaper, make plans on the future, play and win cards, easily find recent memories or old, learn a complex labyrinth and lay all night on a bed, in the dark, without having sleep”
Listen to our podcast for more about Albert Herpin, and whether or not it’s possible he went decades without sleeping. Forgotten History, hosted by Diccon Hyatt, is available on every major podcast platform or by visiting soundcloud.com/forgottenhistory.