New-York Historical Society

Generations a Slave: Unlawful Bondage and Charles Carroll of Carrollton

This post was written by Julita Braxton, EBSCO Project Cataloger


Portrait of Solomon Northup from his memoir, 12 Years a Slave

Challenges to the legality of bondage, shown in acclaimed director Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave—which won the Best Picture for Drama at the Golden Globes on Sunday night—are not without precedence, as evidenced by a document held in the manuscript collections of the New-York Historical Society: a list of persons to be freed. While the film tells the story of the unlawful enslavement in 1841 of Solomon Northup, a free African American from upstate New York, the N-YHS list is related to an earlier case in Maryland. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie, was kidnapped in 1841 on the streets of Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he labored for twelve years on bayou plantations.

Title page of an 1853 printing held in the collections of the New-York Historical Society (E444.N87)

Title page of an 1853 printing (E444.N87)

His 1853 memoir depicts the horrors of American chattel enslavement from the perspective of a freeborn man who had lived that way for decades. His slave narrative went on to contribute to the national dialogue on abolition. Northup was unsuccessful in his pursuit of legal action against his captors, as the laws of the jurisdiction prohibited his testimony against a white man in the nation’s capital, the scene of the crime.

A half century before, in the courts of the neighboring Upper South state of Maryland, Charles Mahoney successfully challenged the legality of his enslavement. Mahoney brought suit in 1791 against Father John Ashton, an influential Catholic Procurator General, Jesuit missionary, head of the White Marsh Mission, and slave owner. Mahoney received a favorable ruling in Maryland’s Court of Appeals in May of 1799. Mahoney’s counsel had successfully argued that he be manumitted on the grounds that he was a descendant of a freewoman, Ann Joice, who had been unlawfully enslaved. (Joice’s descendants had long asserted their freedom, and in 1770 her grandsons, the brothers Jack Wood and Jack Crane, took an axe to the neck to the man who claimed to be their overseer.)

From the collection of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Manuscript Department, New-York Historical Society

From the collection of Charles Carroll of Carrollton

The 1799 verdict in Mahoney v. Ashton not only freed Charles Mahoney, but also all known descendants of Ann Joice. Her descendants were owned not only by Ashton, but also by several other Maryland planters.

Portrait File, PR 52.

Portrait File, PR 52.

One such person in possession of Mahoney’s relatives was Ashton’s cousin, Charles Carroll of Carollton (1737-1832), a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In compliance with the court ruling, Carroll accounted for Joice descendants currently held at his estate at Doughoregan, and those formerly owned by him.

 “The above is an exact list of all the negroes that were sold and who obtained their freedom belonging to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq.” “I desire that the commissioners may have the above negroes taken off of my assessment and those who have been sold assessed to the respective purchasers mentioned in the above list which is signed by my clerk on Doughoregan Manor”.

“The above is an exact list of all the negroes that were sold and who obtained their freedom belonging to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq.”

In May of 1799, Carroll took an inventory of Mahoney’s relations, including a list of the names of 23 newly freed persons, and “A list of negroes sold on Doughoregan Manor since December the 2d, 1799 by Mr. Carroll.” In consequence of legal reversals, for a few more years, Mahoney’s family continued to petition the Maryland courts for manumission, with a final favorable ruling being delivered in 1802.

“A list of negroes who obtained their freedom of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq., in May, 1799 – in consequence of the verdict obtained by Charles Mahoney against the Rev. Mr. John Ashton, May Term, 1799”

“A list of negroes who obtained their freedom of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq., in May, 1799 – in consequence of the verdict obtained by Charles Mahoney against the Rev. Mr. John Ashton, May Term, 1799”

Mahoney v. Ashton is an illuminating example of late-eighteenth-century abolitionist movement in the Upper South.

A 19th-Century Fad: The Illustrated Gift Annual

This post was written by Miranda Schwartz, cataloging assistant.


Title page from The Token: a Christmas and New Year’s present. Boston: Published by Gray and Bowen, 1828.

The New-York Historical Society’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library has a rich collection of about 500 English and American gift annuals. What is a gift annual? the modern reader may well ask. It’s an annual compendium of poetry and prose, usually heavily illustrated, gilt-edged, and bound in embossed leather or gold-blocked cloth. These annuals were popular gifts for women and children in the mid-19th century. Where today we might give someone a gift card to a big box store, 19th-century gift givers had the option of giving a gift annual.

The annuals, with their sentimental tales of virtuous maidens, heroic gallants, precocious children, devoted lovers, and their over-romantic engravings of dramatic scenes, are more than the sum of their parts. Dated though they may seem to us, we should not dismiss them out of hand; they have real cultural value. Reading them gives a window into what the early and mid-Victorian world designated as appropriate for women. Women were generally believed to have narrow domestic interests—and the stories in the gift annuals gave them just that. Many of these gift annuals were also given to children: They served as vessels through which to foster shared values and standards. Looking at them this way, we see a rich vein of material for researchers to explore.

The gift annuals (also called gift books or literary annuals) in the N-YHS collection have such delightful titles as: Forget Me Not, Christmas Blossoms and New Year’s Wreath, Keepsake of Friendship, The Poets’ Offering, etc. Though many gift annuals had religious articles in them, some, such as The Rose of Sharon and The Religious Souvenir, contained exclusively religious content.

Title page from The Religious Souvenir, Philadelphia: Published by Key & Biddle, 1834.

Title page from The Religious Souvenir, Philadelphia: Published by Key & Biddle, 1834.

Frederick F. Faxon, whose Literary Annuals and Gift Books: A Bibliography, 1823-1903 was an invaluable resource in the cataloging of N-YHS’s annuals, cites the 1823 publication of The Forget me not as the first British gift literary annual. The annuals quickly caught on and Faxon doesn’t hesitate to call their rapid rise “a fad or craze.” But, he goes on to write, “the decline was as rapid as the rise”: By the late 1850s the gift annual craze had peaked in England.

Early on, intrepid American entrepreneurs saw the lucrative popularity of these English publications and quickly moved to start their own craze. The year 1826 saw the first American gift annual published in Philadelphia: The Atlantic Souvenir. And it was off to the races for these publishers, as they rapidly released scores of their own gift annuals. Though some lasted only a year or two, others carried on for longer than that: The Gift of Friendship (1847-1855); The Token (1828-1842).

As a look at Faxon’s work and at Ralph Thompson’s American Literary Annuals & Gift Books, 1825-1865 shows us, American publishers had no qualms about lifting material, both prose and illustrations, from the gift annuals of other publishers or from their own earlier releases. Copyright was a different matter in those days, and publishers played rather free and easy with their content. That being said, Thompson does note many prominent writers and illustrators who were credited contributors to gift annuals: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Horace Greeley, Henry Wadsforth Longfellow, Margaret Fuller, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example. Well-known engravers such as John B. Neagle, James Smillie, and John Cheney worked from famous paintings by artists like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Edwin Henry Landseer to provide the illustrations.

Sonsof Temperance

Title page from The Sons of Temperance Offering for 1850. New York: Published by Nafis & Cornish, 1849.

In addition to the usual religious annuals, American publishers branched out into covering the anti-slavery movement (The Liberty Bell, Freedom’s Gift), temperance (The Fountain, The Sons of Temperance Offering), and even particular cities (The Amethyst, which had pieces by Baltimore writers). The popularity of American gift annuals declined slightly later than their English counterparts. Thompson’s comprehensive catalog ends in 1865; gift annuals were certainly published past this year but they never regained their earlier popularity.

Cover of The Liberty Bell,  Boston : Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Fair, 1845.

Cover of The Liberty Bell, Boston: Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Fair, 1845.

Both Faxon and Thompson note the ways that gift annuals were treasured in the home. Thompson writes: “For nearly a generation the resplendent gift book was among the most treasured of personal belongings. Unlike other volumes, it was not, once read, forgotten. Thruout [sic] the year it lay upon the parlor table, an ornament awaiting re-examination in an idle hour.” Faxon ends his consideration of the annuals by quoting from the fond reminiscences of a gift annual owner in an 1893 Atlantic Monthly: “They were gifts and often treasured up as the faded rose…because they were haunted with the secret and subtle fragrance of bygone memories.”

The cataloging of the N-YHS library’s collection of gift annuals was part of a grant-funded initiative. 

The X-Rays of Melville E. Stone, Jr.

Portrait of Melville E. Stone, Jr. MS 2954, BV Stone, Melville E.

Portrait of Melville E. Stone, Jr. MS 2954, BV Stone, Melville E.

Scrapbooks are unpredictable. Each page turn may reveal some obscure, interesting piece of ephemera, photograph or letter. But it’s still a bit surprising to unearth x-rays of a man’s head and chest as we found in one of  two enormous scrapbooks of Melville E. Stone Jr.

Born in Chicago in 1874, Stone was an 1897 graduate of Harvard who followed his father, Melville Sr. and brother, Herbert, into the publishing trade. In 1909, he became president of the Metropolitan Magazine Company in what looked to be a major step in a promising career.

Though there is no information accompanying the x-rays, other documents in the scrapbooks and extant biographical details suggest that they are indeed Melville Jr.’s and were made around 1911-1912. Admittedly, since medical x-rays were made rather soon after German physicist William Roentgen’s discoveries in 1895, the x-rays aren’t among the earliest; however, at barely a decade and a half old, it was still a relatively new medical procedure.

X-ray of chest. MS 2954, BV Stone, Melville E. Jr.

X-ray of chest, circa 1911. MS 2954, BV Stone, Melville E. Jr.

X-ray of head, circa 1911. MS 2954, BV Stone, Melville E. Jr.

X-ray of head, circa 1911. MS 2954, BV Stone, Melville E. Jr.









As a modest example, the New-York Historical Society holds a small collection of a New York physician’s papers which helps document these early stages of radiography. According to an obituary, Brooklynite Sinclair Tousey was “one of the first men in America to experiment with X-ray machines and radium.” The collection includes the typescript of an essay that appeared in The American Journal of Physiologic Therapeutics in 1911, titled “Protection of Patient and Operator in Radiography and Radiotherapy.” While in the course of the article Tousey presents important details about how to safely x-ray a patient, between the lines, it also reveals a procedure that remained  to be a little rough around the edges. In fact, there is a certain “do it yourself” air that  might cause a 21st Century patient more than a little apprehension at what is today a drama-free medical procedure:

Cover of Metropolitan Magazine, July 1910. MS 2954, BV Stone, Melville E. Jr.

Cover of Metropolitan Magazine, July 1910. MS 2954, BV Stone, Melville E. Jr.

If you are a beginner, find out from the manufacturer or from some friend who has used the same apparatus what is a perfectly safe exposure and what exposure should produce a good radiograph of the hip joint. But don’t let your initial attempt at radiography be upon your patients or yourself or friends. Experiment upon a sugar-cured ham until you can make an excellent radiograph with an exposure that would be safe for a patient.

Returning to Mr. Stone, according to a later editorial, he made great strides in his first two years at the helm of Metropolitan Magazine, during which he turned into a more respectable publication. But his tenure was to be unfortunately short after illness forced Melville Jr. to leave his post in 1911 for a year of “complete rest.” This date would suggest that the x-rays, which were made roughly around that same year, were a part of the investigation into the cause of his ill-health.

The diagnosis was tuberculosis, and despite his attempts at recuperation, which included a move to California, Stone finally succumbed in January 1918. Sadly it was must have been a loss that only compounded the grief already suffered by his parents and sister after losing his brother Herbert on the Lusitania’s fateful voyage in 1915. Like many documents, these x-rays help tell the very personal story of Stone’s life and illness. But they’re unique in that they do so in such a profoundly literal way.

“A Real Santa:” the portrait photography of Theron W. Kilmer

Long before SantaCon, Theron W. Kilmer found — and photographed — “A Real Santa” in New York City.


“A Real Santa.” Theron Kilmer Photograph Collection, PR 30.

Although largely forgotten now, in his own time Theron W. Kilmer was aptly described as “an amazing person.”   He was a distinguished physician, an associate professor of pediatrics, a writer, a lecturer, an honorary police chief, a  major in the New York National Guard and, for a time, the fifth ranking rifle marksman in the entire U.S. national guard.  As if that weren’t enough, Kilmer was also a highly accomplished amateur photographer who won international acclaim for his portraits, many of which are held by N-YHS in the Theron Kilmer Photograph Collection.


“Fireman.” Theron Kilmer Photograph Collection, PR 30.

Born in Chicago in 1872, Kilmer moved with his family to New York when he was 10 years old.  He began his medical practice in 1895, after graduating from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.  In addition to treating patients (he specialized in children’s diseases), Kilmer taught first aid to the New York police and fire departments, devised the “Kilmer test” (an early method of determining whether a driver was intoxicated) and a test for color blindness, wrote three medical books (between 1903 and 1906), and was active in the Society of U.S. Military Surgeons and the American Medical Association.


“Negro with Pipe.” Theron Kilmer Photograph Collection, PR 30.

Despite his demanding professional schedule, Kilmer also made a “hobby” of photography, “carrying his work in this field to the point where its quality was professional” (National Cyclopaedia of American Biography).  Indeed, Kilmer’s portraits were so highly regarded that his work was frequently compared to that of Pirie MacDonald, a renowned professional portrait photographer whose work is also held by N-YHS.  Like MacDonald, Kilmer was especially known as a photographer of men, using soft-focus head-and-shoulder shots to reveal the essential character of his sitters. Although most of Kilmer’s sitters were fellow doctors, he also made studies of certain “types,” including men with beards, African-American men, and such ethnic character types as “The Sheik” and “The Hindu.”


“Rev. Donald Miller.” Theron Kilmer Photograph Collection, PR 30.


According to photographic historian Peter Christiansen, “Kilmer considered the German painter Hans Holbein his greatest inspiration and suggested that photographers would learn more by going to art museums than from reading photographic literature.”  Notwithstanding this advice, Kilmer himself wrote a number of articles for photographic magazines, covering such topics as gum prints and paper negatives.  These writings provide a window into Kilmer’s techniques, as well as his personal aesthetic — including his preference for male subjects. “While a woman’s face is charming and sweet to look upon,” Kilmer wrote, “nothing to me is comparable to the rugged face of a man.”


“The Ash Man.” Theron Kilmer Photograph Collection, PR 30.

Kilmer’s work was widely exhibited, including many solo exhibitions, and won numerous national and international prizes. He was a member of the Camera Club of New York, Nassau County (New York) Camera Club, Pictorial Photographers of America, and was designated an associate of the Photographic Society of America (APSA) and a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society (FRPS). Many of the prints held by N-YHS bear stickers from camera club exhibitions throughout the United States.


Exhibition stickers. Theron Kilmer Photograph Collection, PR 30.


Kilmer’s compelling portraits not only reveal the character of the individual sitters, but also provide a fascinating glimpse of cultural attitudes toward ethnic and professional groups in the first half of the 20th century, and deserve to be as widely admired now as they ever were.

The Everywhere Footprints of Captain John Montresor

This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

John Montresor, print from a portrait by John Singleton Copley, a family friend, PR 052 Box 94

John Montresor, print from a portrait by John Singleton Copley, a family friend, PR 052 Box 94

Fictional works—movies, most memorably—depict characters like Forrest Gump or Woody Allen’s Zelig who manage to turn up at every major historical event alongside the world’s movers and shakers.  A nominee for such a real-life character in 18th-century America would be John Montresor.

Unlike his fictional counterparts, Montresor was not mentally or emotionally challenged.  As a confident engineer with the British army in America, he was merely doing his job.  He first appears to American history enthusiasts in 1755 when he was wounded at the British disaster known as Braddock’s Defeat, the engagement at modern-day Pittsburgh that also featured the young George Washington.  John Montresor would continue to be seemingly everywhere during the French and Indian Wars:  serving under Jeffrey Amherst at the capture of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island and later through the besieging of Detroit during Pontiac’s Rebellion.  While stationed at Quebec in 1759, Montresor drew a sketch of General James Wolfe, no doubt the last depiction of this officer before he met his hero’s death two weeks later on the plains of Abraham.

The Death of General Wolfe, engraving from the well-known painting by Benjamin West,  PR 052 Box 154

The Death of General Wolfe, engraving from the well-known painting by Benjamin West, PR 052 Box 154

In New York City during the violent opposition to the Stamp Act in 1765, Montresor’s hurried construction of temporary defenses around Fort George at the tip of Manhattan Island saved the hated stamps from destruction by the rioting colonists.  Within this volatile situation, Montresor was assigned to sketch a “Plan of this Place on a large Scale.”  The result was Montresor’s attractive 1766 plan of New York City and environs, produced, he claimed “Sub Rosa as observations might endanger ones house and effects if not ones life.”

A Plan of the City of New-York & its Environs to Greenwich on the North or Hudsons River, engraved by P. Andrews; London:  Mary Ann Rocque, 1767, M33.1.19

A Plan of the City of New-York & its Environs to Greenwich on the North or Hudsons River, engraved by P. Andrews; London: Mary Ann Rocque, 1767, M33.1.19

At the same time, Montresor was appointed barrackmaster for North America, pitting him against the Sons of Liberty in New York,  Boston, and Philadelphia in their years-long campaign against the quartering of British troops in colonial cities.

As barrackmaster, Montresor had to outmaneuver Paul Revere and his counterparts in New York to bring carpenters to Boston, Broadside SY 1774 no. 23

As barrackmaster, Montresor had to outmaneuver Paul Revere and his counterparts in New York to bring carpenters to Boston, Broadside SY 1774 no. 23

On April 19, 1775 Montresor found himself securing the bridge over the Cambridge River for the redcoats as they advanced toward Lexington, Massachusetts; this was followed by action at Bunker Hill.  Evacuating Boston with the British, he hovered around patriot-controlled New York City long enough to make it his business to recover the leaden head of George III:  When the equestrian statue of the reigning monarch was torn down by New Yorkers as news of the Declaration of Independence reached them on July 9, 1776, the statue was famously melted into bullets for the colonists’ cause.  A few pieces survive, the largest among them in the collections of the New-York Historical Society.  George III’s now-disfigured gilded head, however, was stolen at Montresor’s behest from a Yankee tavern in upper Manhattan, hidden, buried, then recovered by him and sent to England “to convince them of the infamous disposition of the ungrateful people of this distressed country.” (it was last seen there in 1777).

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, "Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C., ca. 1859, 1925.6

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, “Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C., ca. 1859, 1925.6

Now named Chief Engineer in America, Montresor also served as General William Howe’s aide-de-camp at the Battle of Brooklyn, from where he suggested Kip’s Bay as a beachhead for the successful British landing on Manhattan.  His next task was to bring up artillery to the Battle of Harlem Heights.  With Manhattan thus secured for the British, Montresor was stationed near Howe’s headquarters where he took pity on a young American, captured as a spy and about to be hanged.  The prisoner was denied access to a clergyman or Bible, and Montresor invited him into his tent to spend his final moments, supplying him with pen and paper to write his last letters.  When American officers came on two visits under a formal flag of truce to speak of other matters, Montresor related to them the circumstance of the capture, death and last words of Nathan Hale.  Years later, one of the American officers and a friend of Hale, William Hull, would cite John Montresor as the witness to Hale’s “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

The following year, Montresor was in Pennsylvania participating in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown.  In occupied Philadelphia he constructed fortifications but also had charge of the fireworks and ballroom decorations for the “Meschianza” (Italian for “medley”), the extravagant farewell fête for his commander William Howe.  His fellow party planner was John André, the urbane British officer whose life would end by noose when captured as an accomplice of Benedict Arnold in 1780.   When the British abandoned Philadelphia in the sweltering June days of 1778, Montresor, bothered by his old wound, chose to travel with the fleet to New York rather than march with the Army, and thus—for once—missed the Battle of Monmouth in central New Jersey.

John Montresor had married a native New Yorker, Frances Tucker, and they and their ten children had country quarters on Montresor’s Island, the East River feature now known as Randall’s Island.  They would return to England in late 1778 where he resigned his commission.  He spent much of his remaining years seeking reimbursement for expenses incurred during  military service that he characterized as “Eighteen actions and Thirty-two voyages.”  He died in 1799, overburdened by debts and unresolved claims, leaving his sons to restore his reputation.

Charlotte:  A Tale of Truth (Philadelphia, 1794), Y 1794 .R

Charlotte: A Tale of Truth (Philadelphia, 1794), Y 1794 .R

Montresor’s many adventures also included the amorous variety; through one of his liaisons he is said to be the father of Ethan Allen’s second wife.  Montresor’s first cousin, Susanna Rowson, earned fame for her wildly popular 1791 novel, Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, that features a “Lieutenant John Montraville” who seduces Charlotte Temple and brings her to New York, only to abandon her, ill and pregnant.   Rowson manages, however, not to make the remorseful officer the villain of the novel.

Given his movements on fields of battle, six loses of luggage, and multiple fires, John Montresor’s papers had a difficult time surviving.  The partial writings that remain were published by the New-York Historical Society in 1882 while the charred papers themselves remain in family hands.  He is still awaiting a full-length biography.


A Wintry Dionysiaca

This post was written by Joseph Ditta, Reference Librarian.

Pick any contentious global issue. Drinking red wine with fish, perhaps. Or wearing white after Labor Day. Do you hang a paper towel roll over or under? You’re either on one side or the other (always the right side, of course). No shilly-shallying.

How do you feel about snow? Does the sight of the white stuff trigger an adrenalin rush? Or do the words “winter storm watch” make you dread trudging to work? There seems to be a definite (and totally unscientifically proven) correlation between a person’s age and whether or not s/he welcomes winter. One nineteenth-century New Yorker who lived for a good snowfall was Edward Eugene “Gene” Schermerhorn (1842-1922), who brought to life the joyous winters of his youth in a letter to his nephew, Phil, composed and illustrated on January 23, 1887:

Edward Eugene Schermerhorn, "Sleighing on Broadway." {BV Schermerhorn}

Edward Eugene Schermerhorn, “Sleighing on Broadway.” {BV Schermerhorn}

It seems to me that we had a great deal more snow then [i.e., 1848-1856], than we have now: there used to be good sleighing in Broadway for weeks at a time, and all the stage lines ran huge open sleighs, in place of the usual stages. These same sleighs were the means of our having some of the jolliest times we ever had. In the evenings, large parties would get on the sleighs and ride down to the South ferry and back and oh! what fun: such shouting and snow balling and such a good time generally. The sleighs all had at least four horses and sometimes six, eight, or ten. I have known sixteen and twenty on some of the larger ones. People used to crowd in and hang on the outside, while there always seemed room for one more. Someone would shout “Come right up here by the stove.” Of course there was no stove but they would crowd up all the same. On the box were sometimes men dressed in fancy costumes or like old women. I remember once seeing some men with huge tin trumpets eight or ten feet long. Every small boy who could not ride, seemed to feel like taking it out [on] those who could by pelting them with snow-balls; but no one seemed to mind it much.

Little did Gene know that the following year — 1888 — would bring New York’s greatest snowstorm to that date.  He left no written reaction to the twenty-one inches the Great Blizzard dropped on March 12-13, but  he must have relished every blustery minute.


I. Baker, “LIFE IN NEW YORK! (Sleighing in Winter)” (New York: J. Dorival, 1830-1832) {PR-020}

And now for a word from someone who surely would have cursed every flake had he lived as late as 1888. In 1856, diarist George Templeton Strong (1820–1875) viewed the identical scene that Schermerhorn found so thrilling through a decidedly darker lens. Perhaps he got hit by one snowball too many:

Tuesday, January 8, 1856. This is a stern winter. Saturday’s snowstorm was the severest for many years past. The streets are like Jordan, ‘hard roads to travel.’ One has to walk warily over the slippery sidewalks and to plunge madly over crossings ankle-deep in snow, in order to get uptown and down, for the city railroads are still impracticable and walking (with all its discomforts) is not so bad as the great crowded sleigh-caravans that have taken the place of the omnibi. These insane vehicles carry each its hundred sufferers, of whom about half have to stand in the wet straw with their feet freezing and occasionally stamped on by their fellow travelers, their ears and noses tingling in the bitter wind, their hats always on the point of being blown off. When the chariot stops, they tumble forward, and when it starts again, they tumble backward, and when they arrive at the end of their ride, they commonly land up to their knees in a snowdrift, through which they flounder as best they may, to escape the little fast-trotting vehicles that are coming straight at them. Many of the cross streets are still untraveled by anything on wheels or runners, but in Broadway, the Bowery, and other great thoroughfares, there is an orgasm of locomotion. It’s more than a carnival; it’s a wintry dionysiaca.

Paul Girardet after Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron, “Winter Scene in Broadway / Scene d’Hiver dans Broadway,” 1857. {PR-020}

Paul Girardet after Hippolyte Victor Valentin Sebron, “Winter Scene in Broadway / Scene d’Hiver dans Broadway,” 1857. {PR-020}

[Many thanks to Barbara Cohen, editor of Letters to Phil: Memories of a New York Boyhood, 1848-1856, who first compared the views of Gene Schermerhorn and George Templeton Strong.]

“Speak to the past and it shall teach thee”: Wilberforce Eames, the Self-Taught Bibliographer

Sotheby's Auction Cataloge for the November 26, 2013 sale of the Bay Psalm Book.

Sotheby’s Auction Catalogue for the November 26, 2013 sale of the Bay Psalm Book.

Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

Last week a copy of The Whole Booke of Psalmes, the first book printed in English in North America, set a record as the most expensive book ever sold at auction – for $14.2 million. Published in 1640 by Stephen Daye in Cambridge, Massachusetts, only 11 of nearly 1700 printed copies of this first edition survive. Commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book, this book was the product of the New England Puritans’ desire to retranslate the psalms from the original Hebrew text. Yet, as the Sotheby’s catalog states, “it is as a book and not as a text, that the Bay Psalm Book is best known, celebrated, and revered.” The history of its printing has long fascinated book collectors, antiquarian booksellers, and bibliographers, including former New York Public Library bibliographer and librarian Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937).

A List of Editions of the "Bay Psalm Book" compiled by Wilberforce Eames, 1885.

A List of Editions of the “Bay Psalm Book” compiled by Wilberforce Eames, 1885.

Those seeking further information about the Bay Psalm Book, its subsequent editions and various copies, would be well advised to consult Eames’ 1885 bibliography A List of Editions of the “Bay Psalm Book” or New England Version of the Psalms. While some information is outdated – only 9 extant (surviving) copies were known of the 1640 edition at the time – the amount of detail given by Eames in his physical descriptions of the books provide insight into their printing, as well as the provenance, or ownership history, of the identified copies. Indeed his descriptions and accounts are still used as sources for current discussion of these copies, as illustrated by Sotheby’s recent census of the Bay Psalm Book copies: The New-York Historical Society holds two of the twenty five original printed copies of Eames’ List of Editions, one of which was a presentation copy from the author.

Eames' inscription to the New-York Historical Society, 1885.

Eames’ inscription to the New-York Historical Society, 1885.

Eames also contributed the introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of the 1640 Bay Psalm Book, which was created from two copies: those currently under the stewardship of the NYPL and the Huntington Library. Expanding upon his census of 1885, this introduction provides updated provenance information and more extensive discussion of the Bay Psalm Book’s history. The New-York Historical Society holds what Eames’ colleague Victor Hugo Paltsits described as an “unusual memento of the great bibliographer”: the galley and proof pages of Eames’ introduction, with corrections in his own hand. These annotations allow us to chart the evolution of his bibliographical descriptions, through his charming marginalia.

An excerpt of the galley proof pages to Eames' introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of The Bay Psalm Book.

An excerpt of the galley proofs to Eames’ introduction to the 1903 facsimile reprint of The Bay Psalm Book.

Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937) in 1904. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Manuscript Department, N-YHS.

Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937) in 1904. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Manuscript Department, N-YHS.

An expert on Americana, Eames was a self-taught scholar, having never finished high school or attended college. Yet over his career at the Lenox Library and then NYPL he compiled and contributed to a multitude of bibliographies, including Joseph Sabin’s A Dictionary of Books relating to America from its Discovery to the Present Time, still a standard reference source for American imprints. Well respected during his lifetime, Eames earned a reputation for his devotion to scholarship, inspiration to others, and dedication to the study of books as material objects. Presented with three honorary degrees from Harvard, University of Michigan, and Brown, he was described by the latter as “enrich[ing] our generation and show[ing] us the meaning of the ancient scripture, ‘Speak to the past and it shall teach thee.’”

In addition to these academic honors, Eames’ dedication to bibliography was also recognized by a published series of bibliographical essays by his colleagues in 1924, as well as gold medals from both the Bibliographical Society of England and the New-York Historical Society. Accepting his medal on November 20, 1931 from N-YHS, Eames beautifully described his view of library work in his address (a handwritten copy of which is held in the manuscripts collection):

Eames' handwritten address to the New-York Historical Society, November 20, 1931. Wilberforce Eames Papers, Mss Department, N-YHS Library.

Eames’ handwritten address to the New-York Historical Society, November 20, 1931. MS 188, Wilberforce Eames Papers

We librarians can learn much from people who come to us for information. In trying to help others in this way, we often help ourselves to a better knowledge of the material under our charge. It is really a great privilege to meet the inquirer personally, and a sufficient reward to succeed in finding the information desired.”

I couldn’t agree with you more, Mr. Eames.

Assassination in the Adirondacks: the murder of Orrando Perry Dexter

Posthumous portrait of Orrando P. Dexter by Charles Ayer Whipple for Henry Dexter, 1906.1

Posthumous portrait of Orrando P. Dexter by Charles Ayer Whipple, 1906.1

On the afternoon of September 19, 1903,  49-year-old millionaire lawyer Orrando Perry Dexter met his end on the road leading from his estate to the town of Santa Clara, NY. As usual, he had been on his way to collect his mail when a man stepped into the road from behind “a clump of hemlock bushes” where he fired two shots from a .38 caliber rifle. The first missed Dexter, instead ripping through the dashboard of his buggy and into his horse; the second struck him squarely in the left shoulder. Despite an estate employee riding ahead and another a short distance behind, Dexter had been shot dead in broad daylight in the middle of the Adirondack wilderness.

It was a shocking crime, but possibly not entirely unexpected. Since his original purchase in the early 1890s, Dexter had built a vast estate — upwards of 10,000 acres — which he closed off to bemused locals, generations of whom had used it for hunting, fishing and timber. This act, and the zealousness with which he defended his property from transgressors, made  him a fairly unpopular figure around Santa Clara.

Detail from the Franklin County map in the Atlas of the State of New York, Bien & Co.: New York, 1895.

Detail from an 1895 Franklin County map  showing Dexter Lake  and rail line providing access from New York City to the Adirondacks. Atlas of the State of New York, Bien & Co.: New York, 1895.

Though painted in the press as slightly eccentric, and a bit of a loner “who cared nothing for society,” Dexter’s passion for the Adirondack wilderness was hardly an exception. With wilderness preservation already building a head of steam, a number of others with the financial means and desire were amassing their own private preserves in the Adirondacks. A notable example is financier William Rockefeller, who ran afoul of the local population too. Like Dexter, he faced similar acts of intimidation, a common tactic among the locals, only he was spared a comparably violent end.

While even the most superficial pieces of evidence collected, such as the caliber of the rifle, suggested a disgruntled local, no one was ever convicted for the murder. Not even the hefty reward posted by Dexter’s elderly father Henry, head of the American News Company, could suss out the shooter’s identity.

The Orrando Perry Dexter Memorial at the New-York Historical Society, NYHS 5, New-York Historical Society Pictorial Archives

The Orrando Perry Dexter Memorial at the New-York Historical Society. New-York Historical Society Pictorial Archives, NYHS 5

Given its mysterious circumstances, the story itself remains fairly well-known today. But the public’s fascination with the intrigue often obscures its broader historical relevance. The tensions between Dexter and the those living in the vicinity of Santa Clara represent an fundamental reality for nature conservation: the appreciation of nature is a luxury that not every member of society can afford.

This was especially the case around the turn of the twentieth century when the time and money to visit places like the Adirondacks remained a venture limited mostly to those economically better off. In contrast, the inhabitants of the Adirondack wilderness, who eked out a living from the land, had understandably more narrow concerns. Sadly for Dexter, his good intentions and the energy with which he pursued them only widened the existing socioeconomic gap between himself and the local population.

Henry Dexter was clearly very troubled by the loss of his son and, in addition to the reward, did his best to ensure Orrando would not be forgotten. Towards that end, he contributed an enormous sum (in the vicinity of $250,000) towards the construction of the New-York Historical Society’s present home on Central Park West. That generous act led to a memorial for his son on the doorway of the Robert H. Smith Auditorium.

Unfortunately, one piece of Orrando Dexter’s legacy, the house he had built as part of his estate (a copy of  the 16th Century home of German artist and printmaker Albrecht Durer), came to a similarly ignominious end as its first owner. Newly restored, it was purchased in 1994 by Shania Twain and her husband, who subsequently knocked it down to build an entirely new house and studio only to sell it soon after.

Rare photographs of Hart Island, New York’s potter’s field

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Off-limit to the public for over 35 years, Hart Island — a mile-long island off the eastern coast of the Bronx — has remained one of New York City’s most closely guarded secrets.  It is the home of New York’s “potter’s field,” for those who can’t afford to pay for burial, or whose identity is unknown.

Since 1976, Hart Island has been operated and maintained by the Department of Corrections, which transports inmates from Rikers Island to dig and fill the graves — as many as 2,000 new ones each year, organized into 70 foot long plots that can hold about 150 adults each, or 1000 children. Somewhere between 850,000 to 900,000 poor, homeless, or forgotten people are buried there, making it the largest public cemetery in the world.  Yet , aside from the inmates working there, only a very few have ever visited this burial ground.

One obvious reason is that until recently, the Department of Corrections restricted access to relatives in possession of a death certificate. But there is another factor at work as well: in life as well as in death, the mainly indigent and anonymous people who are buried on Hart Island are all too easily overlooked. Photographer Claire Yaffa has devoted her career to focusing attention on the lives of neglected individuals, especially children.  In the 1990’s, she embarked on a decade-long project to document the fate of a growing number of “crack” babies born with HIV/AIDs, most of whom did not live to adulthood.  Many of these abandoned children were buried at Hart Island, and in 1991 Yaffa was granted the rare opportunity to photograph some burials there.  Her images, held at N-YHS in the Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, provide a powerful memorial to a few of history’s forgotten children, and a singular glimpse of one of New York’s least-visited sites.

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290


Horse Thieves Beware!


Minutes of the Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing, MS 2913

This post is by Brenna McCormick-Thompson, Print Room Reference Assistant

In the autumn of 1815, a group of concerned citizens in Westchester County, New York banded together to put a stop to one of the most egregious crimes plaguing the region: horse stealing.    Having identified a very real threat to their homes and communities, a committee of seven men set about drafting a constitution for a new society to protect themselves from the despicable acts of these thieves.  Thus began the Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing.

The Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing, whose original records are housed in the Society’s  manuscript collections, was not the only organization of its kind to crop up in the 1800s, nor was New York the only region faced with this crime.  Horse thieves freely roamed the countryside in much of nineteenth century America.  Making off with another man’s animal was, of course, illegal, but law enforcement was often too ill-equipped or preoccupied to catch these bandits.  Accordingly, in many places locals found the need to take the reins of justice into their own hands.  For the price of a dollar or two, you could purchase peace of mind, resting easy in the knowledge that should any dastardly deviant try to steal your steed, a group of your neighbors would be in immediate pursuit.

Advertisement for a stolen horse outside of Alexandria, Virginia. SY 1825 no. 17

Advertisement for a stolen horse outside of Alexandria, Virginia. SY 1825 no. 17

For the first half of the century, the number of anti-theft organizations grew until it began to rival the number of horses available to be stolen.  So, what sets the M.A.S.H.S. apart from the herd?  It’s most famous member: Washington Irving.

Broadside announcing a meeting of an anti-theft society in Clermont, NY. SY 1869 no. 2

Broadside announcing a meeting of an anti-theft society in Clermont, NY. SY 1869 no. 2

At first glance, it may seem like a bad joke.  The author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, who gave the Hudson Valley its most famous equestrian villain, is now looking for protection against marauding horsemen?

Though Irving was not a founding member of the Association, the organization’s early papers often read like one of his stories, conjuring dramatic imagery of terrorized villagers suffering from “the numerous depredations [which] have of late been committed, by persons unknown.”  The language is consistently striking, detailing the manner in which suspected criminals were to be hunted down by a group of men known simply as the “Riders.”   The Riders received their orders from an assemblage referred to in the papers as the “Committee of Vigilance,” which was set up as a watchdog for justice, detecting missing horses and dispatching any number of Riders in pursuit.

Washington Irving PR 012-002-851

Washington Irving
PR 012-002-851

Washington Irving crossed the threshold into this thrilling world when he joined the Association in the early 1850s.  Surprisingly, he came to the organization with a fair amount of expertise.  Previous to settling in Westchester County in 1835, Irving had travelled extensively along America’s western frontier, where horse stealing was a part of daily life.  He wrote in his journals about one particularly memorable adventure, in which he and his fellow travelers came across “a tall, red-haired, lank, leather faced settler with one eye habitually closed,” who was missing his horse.  This man accused a member of the Osage Tribe, claiming they had been known to “steal horses and then bring them home, pretending to have found them and claiming a reward.”  After riding out in search of the missing horse, Irving and his friends determined that the settler was not to be believed and returned in time to prevent this questionable individual from seeking out retribution on his own.

Whether these exploits influenced Irving’s actions as a member of the Mutual Association is unclear.  The Mutual Association for the Suppression of Horse Stealing eventually disbanded in 1874, 15 years after Irving’s death.  In 1903, The Tarrytown Argus remembered the group fondly as having stalwartly stood against the “evilly disposed persons from the outside world, who occasionally, quite too often we may infer, made predatory raids into this law abiding and peace-loving community.”  It’s nice to know that after terrorizing Westchester residents with the idea of a headless horseman, Washington Irving was able to help bring some tranquility to the region.

Irving’s name as it appears on the group’s roster. MS 2913

Irving’s name as it appears on the group’s roster. MS 2913


This is a blog created by staff members in the library to draw attention to the richness and diversity of our collections.


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