Milton Halsey Thomas’ passion for bibliography and history began early. As a high school student in Troy, New York, he spent his free time working on projects for various libraries that included gravestone transcriptions and genealogical research. In 1920, he became “Chatham’s Local Historian” and eventually went on to study library science at Columbia University. While working as an archivist at Columbia and Princeton, he became the editor of numerous publications including the Diary of George Templeton Strong. A frequent diarist himself, Thomas maintained nearly 120 volumes of personal and travel diaries from 1919 through his death in 1977.
Not surprisingly, his earliest diaries are reminiscent of a typical teenager going through high school. He writes about his involvement with his church youth group, the school play, movies, and, of course, his crushes. During his final year of school, he falls in love with a girl named Esther. Naturally, the love is very innocent. Halsey, already building up a career as a historian and bibliographer, was in the midst of putting together his volume Gravestone Inscriptions of Columbia County, New York for various institutions including the New-York Historical Society. It was within the volume he was writing for the Library of Congress that he included a little puzzle for future researchers to solve:
DEDICATED TO XVII – II – VII – VIII – XXII – XXIII – XXIV – XXV
Vita sine amore mors est.”
Halsey had written a number of puzzles in his diaries with the hopes that his grandchildren and descendants would learn multiple languages. This one, however, was more of a fun piece for the public to figure out. It’s difficult to say just how many people have seen the dedication or tried to figure it out. However, the entry in a diary at the New-York Historical Society provides a fun link to a document held by the Library of Congress. Halsey did provide the answer in the diary entry:
The notation refers to Esther, the 17th book of the Bible, 2nd Chapter and 7th verse and to the 8th & 22 to 25th words of that verse which are ‘Esther was fair and beautiful.’ The motto means ‘Life without love is death.’ I figure that the Library of Congress will keep this book of mine for at least three hundred years. I wonder if anyone in that time will solve this. If they do, they will know that I was at this time crazy over Esther. I certainly am justified.”
This post is by Erin Weinman, Manuscript Reference Librarian.