Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Watkinson has a great variety of historical books, records, photos, prints and more. While working in the Watkinson, I have been introduced to the many ways history is recorded. Most recently I organized a collection of British caricatures. The collection contains around 190 prints with ranging topics, but a majority are political and social satire. The popularity of these prints and the impact they had on British society made me want to research more about the evolution of printmaking and why these prints were so important.

The reign of King George III from 1760 to 1820 marked a time of ideological revolution and the rise in satirical prints. The mass production of prints allowed for information to be accessed by the ordinary person, who was most likely illiterate. British satirical caricatures were used to criticize certain political decisions or platforms of political parties in particular the Whig and Tory parties. Prints created in the 18th century use the technique of physiognomy, which is the judging of a person’s character from the depiction of their physical features. These prints have grotesque and distorted images of various politicians, but mainly Charles James Fox (Whig Party), William Pitt the Younger (Tory Party), King George III and Napoleon.

 

A famous printmaker, Isaac Cruikshank, depicts Charles James Fox as a French Revolution sympathizer in his print “A Right Honorable Alias Sans Culotte” which is one of the prints in the collection at the Watkinson. This print contains Fox split into two different outfits. As the spectator of the print, on the right side, Fox is dressed neatly in English clothing singing “God Save Great George our king.” On the left side, Fox is dressed as a French revolutionary in ragged, torn clothes with a bludgeon singing, “Ca ira, ca ira, ca ira,” an emblematic song of the French Revolution. Images such as these were used to ridicule politicians. Some victims of the political satires, like Fox, would buy entire editions or even bribe publishers to stop printing these satirical images in order to maintain a positive public image.


As printing and satire evolved, there was a shift in technique. Around 1820 the grotesque satirical style was phased out and a newer more genteel trend became popular. John Doyle, a famous printmaker who published his work under the initials HB, was known for his mild satire with more naturalistic depictions of political figures. The collection in the Watkinson contains thirty of John Doyle’s prints. Grotesque satirical prints were replaced with comic prints that were made more for family consumption. With the popularization of newspapers and magazines the number of singly published sheets rapidly declined.

In the Watkinson, the prints are mostly from the 1800s. Some of the early prints show the characteristic grotesque form of satire, but most of the prints are more realistic in their depiction of politicians. While processing these prints, I learned a lot about the political scene in Britain at the time. As time passed the literacy rates in Britain rose, which is evident from the later prints in the collection at the Watkinson. Earlier prints do not have much text other than the titles, but speech bubbles and small captions can be seen in the later prints. This shows just how influential the mass production of prints was and how the prints reflect British society in the time period during which they were published.

Just like the Currier and Ives prints that I worked on in January, these prints are both historical in content and historical in creation. Prints are a great way of interpreting history since there is much more behind them than what is seen on the page. The British print collection at the Watkinson is definitely a reason to stop by!

Posted by Student Assistant Meg Huston (2020)

Bibliography

Bury, Stephen J., and Andrew W. Mellon. “British Visual Satire, 18th–20th Centuries.” Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/page/british-visual-satire-18th-20th-centuries. Accessed 25 Apr. 2018.

Donald, Diana. The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III. Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 1996.

George, Mary Dorothy. Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires. The Trustees of the British Museum, 1978.

16
Mar

International Studies and Travel Literature

   Posted by: sdickins


 

The students in INTS401: Senior Seminar in International Studies spent a lively Friday afternoon in the Watkinson Library examining European travel literature on Africa, Asia, and South America from the 18th and 19th centuries.  We had just finished reading Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work directly with some of the books she analyzes, such as Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa (Pratt uses an 1860 edition, but the Watkinson has the original 1799 edition!), John Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), and Maria Graham’s Journal of a Residence in Chile (1824).  — Zayde Antrim

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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23
Mar

Connecting to past lives through music

   Posted by: rring

[Posted by Jared Cowing, M.L.S. candidate at U. of Rhode Island, and Cataloging Coordinator at U. of Hartford, Allen Memorial Library]

As part of an internship in my pursuit of a library science degree, I’ve been cataloging a collection of music from the Watkinson Library.  While I’d expected to find interesting items, I was surprised at just how unique many of the materials were, and how intriguing their history proved to be.  Connecting some items to an interesting person in history took a little research, such as in the case of items signed by previous owners who turned out to have significant local notability.  One item, however, was easily recognizable as truly special at first glance as its history was written out right on the title page.

This item was a collection of piano trios by French composer Ignaz Pleyel.  While written by a composer who is today lesser known, Pleyel’s music is not necessarily rare or difficult to obtain.  However, this particular copy had a sizeable note dated 1861 and written by Elias Nason, a Massachusetts clergyman and author.

According to the note, Elias obtained the piece in 1861 from the ruins of a house belonging to Confederate cavalry captain Mottrom Dulany Ball.  The house had been plundered in the Union takeover of Alexandria, Virginia in April of that year.  Nason refers to the plunderers as the “Garibaldians,” who were the 39th New York Infantry Regiment, known as the “Garibaldi guard” as it was comprised primarily of Italian immigrants who had previously fought under Italian revolutionary Giuseppi Garibaldi.  Interestingly, Garibaldi himself had been offered a leadership position in the war by Abraham Lincoln, which he turned down as he expected both control of the entire Union army and the outright abolition of slavery as conditions of his joining the war effort.  As for Captain Ball, he was captured during the Alexandria campaign and survived the war only to later in life make his greatest contribution to history as the highest ranking US official in Alaska, which was at that time still an unorganized possession of the United States government.  He then went on to become Alaska’s first unofficial delegate to the United States Congress, and then Alaska’s United States district attorney.

What struck me was not only how diligently the history of this piece of music was recorded, as though Elias Nason knew that in the future this piece would make its way to a library where his note would be read with great interest, but also how this item–which at first glance could be disregarded as mundane–represented a tangential intersection of the lives of such a widely separated group of people: a Union regiment of Italian revolutionaries, a Massachusetts clergyman, and a Virginia-born confederate captain who went on to become one of the founders of Alaskan government.  It just goes to prove that it’s not only in movies like “The Red Violin” that you can find a fascinating story of many different people whose lives are all linked together by music.

20
Feb

“Improving” literature

   Posted by: rring

[Posted by Molly Curry (’12), a student in Zak Sitter’s English course, “1816: A Romantic Microcosm”]

Elegant Extracts in Prose: Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons, published in London and printed for F.C. and J. Rivington [etc.] by G. Woodfall & H. Bryer was edited by Vicesimus Knox and published in the tenth edition 1816 (originally in 1783). The publication—composed of four sections, called “books”—is compiled in two separately bound books (anthologies): Prose I and Prose II. Each of the two prose books contains two parts—in Prose I) Book I, Moral and Religious; Book, II Classical and Historical and in Prose II) Book III, Orations, Characters, and Letters; Book IV Narratives, Dialogues. The books belong to a three-part educational anthology series, which gives a sense of the different kinds of late 18th and early 19th century English texts. As evident in the titles of each of the four books, several different types of texts are exhibited in the series, all with some sort of educational service to “young persons,” or students.

The books are in moderate physical condition. They are bound very typically for books of that era—in basic brown leather with hard front and back covers adorned by decorative engravings and gold detailing along the borders. The books are clearly used, with the front and back covers of each either loose or detached completely (but still kept with the pages) from the leather spine. Each book is about an inch to an inch and a half in width, measuring slightly under 8×10 inches across the covers. According to these conditions, it appears as though the books were frequently used. The hard cover binding suggests a sense of quality of text, yet neither the finest nor the most ornate bindings were used. This type of binding seems to propose the notion that this anthology was a part of a respectable series, used by school students in this era.

Vicesimus Knox, a headmaster and writer, was a renowned member of a long line of family invested in education. He was a well-educated and religious man, who led a highly accomplished existence. He took over the position of Headmaster at Tonbridge School in Kent (an preparatory school in England for boys) only one year upon graduation from St. Johns College in Oxford, at age twenty-six. The young, zealous, and highly educated young man drew a large increase in admissions. This increase was also partly to do with his writing. Within the first few years of being headmaster, he gained much notoriety from his publications Essays Moral and Literary, published in 1778, and Liberal Education, or, A Practical Treatise on the Method of Acquiring Useful and Polite Learning, published only a few years later, in 1781. He was clearly very passionate about the education of young pupils, which is comprehended through this publication and even further reiterated in several others to follow.

Then, finally, late in his career (shortly after retiring as Headmaster, but still displaying an unyielding fervor for educating the youth), he published Elegant Extracts in Prose: Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons. The publication focused on his profound knowledge of English literature. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, his aim was to compile an anthology of English literature (found important, moral, educational, virtuous, and worth-while by him) that would serve to “[improve] …youthful and middling readership.” He focused more on modern literature (of the time) and less on classical. The anthology also showcased several non-fiction essays (mainly selected from Addison, Johnson, Richard Steele, and Hugh Flair) in additional to modern fictional pieces of literature. What was particularly progressive about this publication was its attention to eighteenth century female writers (such as Anna Aiken, Hester Chapone, and Catherine Macaulay). He believed in and wanted to see an increase the education of girls/women. Knox has cast a lasting influence on the Tonbridge School’s library. It is said in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “Knox’s own literary tastes and their influence, are clearly reflected in the coverage of the Tonbridge School library during his mastership.” A vast selection of the library’s literature was written by authors of the various prose chosen by Knox for this very anthology (and others in its series). Although the anthology was first actually published in 1783, one of its later editions (of which there are several) dates to 1816.

Based on both the physical condition and the knowledge behind the editor’s creation of the books as well as its lasting impact, it can safely be presumed that these books were used a great deal in English upper schools in the late 18th and early 19th century. The anthology series was costly and well known around the time of its publication; hence why they were referenced in novels such as Jane Austen’s Emma, published in 1815. Robert Martin, the character in Emma that reads from the anthology is insinuated to be a man who has money and is learned (simply because of his reading of the anthology, perhaps among other factors). The implications provided by novels such as Emma, which reference the anthology, attest to its esteemed reputation and stature. The anthology, as illustrated by the four books of which it is composed, offers English texts which emphasize religion, classical literature, historical literature, public speaking, use of characters, letters, narrative, and dialogue between characters. These topics were and are still, today, the foundations of English literature.

14
Feb

A “Horrid Massacre” by Pirates!

   Posted by: rring

[Posted by Marc DiBenedetto (’13), a student in Zak Sitter’s English course, “1816: A Romantic Microcosm”]

The Pirates.  A Brief Account of the HORRID MASSACRE of the Captain, Mate, and Supercargo of the Schooner Plattsburg of Baltimore was printed in Boston by H. Trumbull.  The author and publisher are not specified but it is clear that the purpose of the text is as an address to the public to inform them of the “Horrid Massacre on the High Seas.”  The date of publication is also not specified although the account in which the text addresses took place in July of 1816 as several dates are referenced throughout the story-like description of the account.

The writer goes into detail on the mutinous actions of the crew of a ship led by a man known as John Williams.  In short, the vessel departs from Baltimore early in July of 1816 with a cargo of nearly $42,000.  The crew of only fourteen men, led by John Williams, successfully takes over the vessel by beating the captain and first mate and then proceeding to toss them overboard the ship.  They also brutally beat Baynard (the supercargo) to death on the deck of the ship and after seriously injuring the second mate with an ax, John Williams elects to spare his life.  This proves to be a costly mistake when Onion (the second mate) turns the mutineers over to authorities after arriving in Copenhagen.  The proceeding trial and decision of execution caught the attention of many as the courtroom was filled to capacity during every day of the trial as well as thousands being present at the hangings.  The mutineers were found guilty of murder and piracy.  The popularity of the trial no doubt led to the inspiration and decision to make a specific detailed account of the events of the mutiny in the very book I am reporting on.

The book itself is clearly very fragile and I used extreme caution when handling it.  There are stains of different kinds of every page of the text as well as dozens of smudged and/or faded words that were particularly difficult to read and required some deciphering of sorts.  I decided to choose this specific book because of its title and subject matter.  I have personally always loved pirate stories and adventures and to read about an event that actually took place was very interesting for me, and even more so that I got to read about the account from an original text.

I was also surprised to find this type of text as its own independent book.  It seems like something that would likely be found as a newspaper story and not something that received its own book and binding.  It would be interesting to find out how often these types of pieces, going into great detail on specific stories, were published and printed.  It could be compared to a sort of modern day TV special on a contemporary topic.  Such as a news station going into greater detail on an injured soldier returning home after war or a child rising from poverty to prosperity.  While the book I selected is clearly meant to inform the public it is clear that it also has an entertainment value that motivated the story to have its own independent text.

I guess this could be considered a modern day news special for 1816.

23
Nov

The Fairy Family

   Posted by: rring

[Post be Georgia Summers, ’15, for Jonathan Elukin’s History of the Book Course]

The Fairy Family: a series of ballads and metrical tales illustrating the fairy mythology of Europe was written by Archibald Maclaren and published by Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts in 1857.  It is a collection of poetry based on the fairy folk, some of which are familiar and some of which are entirely new.  It was illustrated by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, who was known for being part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.  This was his first commission received and later on, he would deny any involvement, due to the amateur nature he perceived within his drawings.   The illustrations for the book were recently displayed in the Pierpoint Morgan Library as the earliest examples of Burn-Jones’ work.

The binding itself is green, with gold colored decorations, most of which are nature-themed.  On the spine, there is a picture of a fairy, as well as various creatures, including a snail and bird. On the inside, the title page is a wonderfully complex illustration, with fairies representing the letters. Unusually for a book of its time, the introduction retains the usage of the “long s” which looks like an unfinished ‘f’ instead of an ‘s’ at times.

Some of the creatures mentioned inside are common characters in children’s stories.  The brownie, for example, is described as a “houfehold Spirit of the Scottifh low-lands and Borders.”  Indeed, most of the creatures described here are specific to certain regions of the country.  There are also plenty of others that are less commonly known, such as the Rafalki, or river nymph.  Attempting to find out more proved difficult; the name does not turn up on any search engine, suggesting that this is a creature either entirely forgotten, or perhaps even made up by one of the poets in the collection.

This book is particularly unusual when placed in context with other books that Maclaren wrote throughout his lifetime. Maclaren is best know as the founder of the Oxford Gymnasium and his emphasis on exercise routines in the mid-19th Century.  While the Oxford Gymnasium was originally used by the British Army for their training exercises, Maclaren spread his knowledge of the benefits of physical education, going so far as to write Military System of Gymnastic Exercises (1862) and Physical Education (1895), among other similar works.

So how is it that a medical man fixated on physical education came to write a book about fairies?  There is little known about him that isn’t attached to his work on physical education.  He was a scholarly character, not an artist.  Perhaps, as his earliest work, it could be an attempt at a different career, or maybe a frivolous activity that occupied otherwise free time.

Maybe we’ll never know.  We can only speculate.

11
Nov

Memoirs of Musick

   Posted by: rring

[Posted by Francis Russo (’13), for Jonathan Elukin’s History of the Book course]

When we first went down into the Watkinson stacks I came up with a gigantic, vellum bound volume filled with pages printed side by side in both Greek and Latin. The massive book was Plutarch’s Life of Alexander—at least, that’s what I could decipher at first glance before I ended up abandoning the monstrosity.  In connection with another project, my attention was drawn to another volume quite the opposite of the Alexander text.  This new book was small and plain. The spine was no thicker than an index finger and the cover lacked any elaborate design.  The simply stamped title, however, was intriguing:  Memoirs of Musick. Is this a story of a musical experience, or an autobiography of a musician?  Perhaps it’s a history of music or tract on music theory…

I hoped to find an answer in the title page, but that only added a whole new dimension to the mystery with each line: Memoirs of Musick … by the … Hon. Roger North … Attorney-General to James II … Now first printed from the original MS. and edited, with copious notes … by Edward F. Rimbault, LL.D. F.S.A. … Member of the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm; Secretary to the Musical Antiquarian Society of London, Etc. Etc. … London … 1846.

Why did a former Attorney-General to James II (the one gently booted off the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688) write a piece on Music?  And what did a Member of the Royal Academy of Music find in it over a hundred years later that warranted the trouble of editing and printing it?

Before things get too confusing the book explains itself and tells its own history in a short preface.  This three-page introduction is a wonderfully detailed tale of the life of North’s original manuscript.  It claims that the Memoires of Musick was “first made known to the world” when selections of it appeared in a certain Dr. Burney’s General History of Music.  Charles Burney, who received honorary degrees in Music from Oxford in 1769, was an early music historian intent on writing a general history of music and drew on many sources to complete it.  After this initial appearance with Burney in the 1770’s, North’s manuscript was bought, sold, inherited and passed down through the hands of more than five people and over a hundred years, having a “very narrow escape from destruction” before finally reaching the “present editor.”  The preface also tells us about the book’s contents.  The volume is formed from half of North’s original manuscript, a 1728 “sketch of the progress of the art [of music].”  It leaves out its counterpart, a “treatise on the Science of Musick.”

After putting the book into some kind of context, two general strands of thought emerge.  One is North and his writings about Music and the other is Rimbault’s heavy editorial hand.  North is first described in a biographical note as an amateur lover of music, noteworthy for his knowledge on a subject not usually associated with his background of law and politics.  North’s writing covers all sorts of musical topics from performance, theory, philosophy and more, reaching back as far back as Ancient Greece.  He organizes the work without chapters or any subject headings and seems to ramble on whatever subject amuses him.  However, North is aware of his scattered nature and admits at the beginning that he is “not pretending to a full History, a work for Herculean shoulders, but only to collect and modify some Historico-critical scraps.”

Interestingly, Rimbault is also aware of his own work: “The notes which have been added are the result of much reading, and the peculiar facilities which the editor enjoys of consulting rare works.  If their minuteness be sometimes uncalled for in explanation of the text, the new and curious information they convey will, it is hoped, be some excuse for the insertion. [signed] E.F.R.”  The reason for this apology in advance becomes abundantly clear once you page through the text.  Rimbault formats each page as a grid with separated spaces for North’s text, annotative commentary, decorations, a title heading, pagination, and subject markers in the margins.  The commentary is truly overwhelming at many points, to the extent that some pages contain only four or five lines of North’s text and the rest filled with Rimbault’s annotations.  It seems Rimbault takes up the “Herculean” task North sought to avoid.

North’s original reference to Hercules brings us to another characteristic of the work.  Both North’s text and Rimbault’s commentary are filled with references to the Classical world.  What is most interesting is that the book goes to great length describing the music of Ancient Greece and considers Classical myth as well as scholarship as explanations for musical concepts.  Discussing the origin of scales, North mentions an “Orphean Harp,” which Rimbault picks up on: “according to several traditions preserved by Greek historians, it was Orpheus who completed the second tetrachord, which extended the scale to a heptachord, or seven sounds.  The assertion of many writers that Orpheus added two new strings to the lyre, which before had seven, clashes with the claims of Pythagoras to the invention of the octachord…”  Rimbault’s dense discussion goes on for much longer, in this case and throughout the entire book.  It would be fascinating to find the other half of North’s manuscript and see what he considers to be the “Science of Music.”  Do the physics-based principles of harmony and sound we know today come out in North’s explanation?

Rimbault’s extensive and thick commentary also brings out another color of the book.  It seems that Rimbault’s printing of such a fragmentary and unknown work is more of a scholarly project than anything else.  His interest is to explain and organize the work in a way suggesting that contemporary audiences would not be able to understand North’s 100+ year old original if it were not for him.  In this sense, the book also becomes an effort in historical preservation.

I will end this brief overview of this truly fascinating and multi-faceted book with an anecdote North provides.  Although much of his discussion is technical, sometimes confusing, and I suspect in many cases inaccurate, he does sometimes speak to a certain universally.  When posing the question of why perfectly good contemporary music was forgotten, “laid aside” and even “contemned,” North says that “This would be harder to answer, if it were not a great truth, and notorious, that every age since Apollo did not say the same thing of the musick of their owne time. For nothing is more a fashion then musick.”

11
Nov

Poor Richard’s rich reprint

   Posted by: rring

[Posted by Julia Falkowski (’13), for Jonathan Elukin’s History of the Book course]

While exploring the Watkinson for a book to examine for the course, a small, elaborately decorated leather spine caught my eye.  The pattern on the spine consisted of alternating suns and moons, giving the book a gypsy-like feel.  In size, the book was 5”x2 ¾”or about the size of a deck of cards.  Something about the romantic decorations combined with the petit size gave the book an air of mystery and magic.

I picked it up not knowing what to expect.  Examining the cover, I was somewhat shocked to learn that this mystical looking book was actually an 1898 edition of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.  The leather cover was decorated with a mix of horoscope signs and pastoral American scenes.  Upon inspecting the inside, I found that it was a sort of “Best of” Poor Richard’s, with selections from editions of the Almanack ranging in year from 1733 to 1758.  In the back was a facsimile re-print of Franklin’s very first 1733 Almanack.

I discussed my find with Watkinson curator Rick Ring.  He mentioned that the Watkinson possesses an original copy of Franklin’s 1756 almanac, and suggested I take a look at that as well.  Rick brought the original almanac out and I realized that, despite the fine quality of the 1898 edition, the 1756 edition was the more exciting find.  The 1756 edition has an actual connection to a living Franklin.  One can imagine the industrious Franklin working diligently at his press into the late hours of the night to produce the pages I held in my hand.  Of course, this fantasy neglects the likelihood that Franklin had hired drones to do the bulk of the printing work by that time of his life.  Regardless, the fact remains that Franklin lived at the time this almanac was produced, and was intimately involved in overseeing its production.

Comparing the two almanacs proved an interesting exercise.  The original looked older (of course) but it also looked much more used.  The 1898 version, though over a hundred years old, looked almost as if it came straight from the bookstore.  The more recent version also appears nicer; the pages are gilded and cut exactly to be exactly the same size, the paper is thick and sturdy.  Comparatively, the pages in the original are thin and not all cut to the same size.  No effort to achieve luxury seems to have been made with the original edition; it is quite utilitarian.  Interestingly enough, though the original seems more suited to everyday use, it is substantially larger than the reprint, with dimensions of 7”x4”.  The reprint seems more pocket-sized, and therefore, more convenient for everyday use.  But then again, the work that has to go into making something small often indicates luxury.  Take for example the ever-smaller cell phones and ipods of today.

One question that came to mind about the re-print was a simple: Why?  What about the culture of 1898 America created a market for this product?  Unlike many modern reprints of books, there is no long-winded introduction explaining the cultural situation that accommodates publishing.  One hint at why the almanac was put out can be found in the publisher.  This re-printed almanac was produced by the Century Company, a New York publishing enterprise that began in 1881 and was particularly successful around the turn of the century.  In 1930, the company was absorbed by another, and disappeared for a while.  The company was revived in 2007 as a branch of Grand National Media.  All the information I learned about the Century Company, I found on the modern Century Company’s website.

In its heyday, Century Publishing was famous for its periodical, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine.  The company showed a particular interest in producing historical works.  Their most successful endeavor was an 1880s series of articles on the history of the Civil War.  In 1898, the company was at the pinnacle of its success. They had the resources to put out luxury facsimiles of any books they wanted to.  And what better for a company concerned with the preservation of American history than a re-print of one of the most famous publications by one of the most prominent men of early America?

As I looked at the two almanacs side-by-side, I was reminded of Franklin’s efforts to create a cohesive American nation.  I felt like the success of his endeavour could be seen in the two books in front of me. The luxury Century edition, printed over one hundred years after Franklin’s death in 1790 combined my reverential interest in both of the almanacs seemed a testament to the continued existence of the patriotism that Franklin worked to foster.

10
Nov

That Mansion Called Bridewell

   Posted by: rring

[Posted by Beck Prigot (’14), for Jonathan Elukin’s History of the Book course]

When I first discovered Skillman’s New-York Police Reports while wandering around the law section of the Watkinson’s stacks, I was a little unimpressed. The book was rather plain looking, and looked like something practical, not entertaining. Little did I know how misbegotten my assumption was.

The title page is simple–“SKILLMAN’S NEW-YORK POLICE REPORTS. ILLUSTRATED WITH ENGRAVINGS. WRITTEN IN 1828–1829.”–quotes Shakespeare (“the sheriff with a most monstrous watch is at the door.”), and gives the publisher and year (“New-York: PRINTED BY LUDWIG & TOLEFREE, CORNER OF GREENWICH & VESEY-STS. 1830.) However, its dry, terse title belies what ended up being an amusing read, which I soon realized after I read the preface, which explains that Skillman included a preface because he had to; that “Custom, all-prevailing custom, hath decreed, that a Preface shall accompany, (as a sort of pioneer,) every original work or compilation, which issues from the press. Whether it imparts wisdom, wit, or folly, still, a preface is requisite” (i).

Unlike traditional police reports, the book takes a viewpoint more akin to the Hartford Advocate’s “News of the Weird” by devoting a paragraph or less to each report (save for the more interesting and involved stories, like the saga of the dandy) and summarizes the reports with a more humorous bent; Skillman especially likes making puns or small jabs at the perpetrators’ names. On August 7, for example, we find out that “A. Vampire was brought in. It is a curious Vampire — sucks no blood — and is considered a harmless Vampire. — Let go” (39). Skillman also occasionally imitates the offenders’ speech, as when he writes about two cases of people selling “yarbs”. Usually, the offenders are sent to Bridewell; after a while, Skillman stops referring to it by name, as when he writes that a Mr. W.W. “is now sent where he will probably learn better manners” (68). Occasionally, a report is accompanied with a small illustration, such as that of John Devoe (“long beard, no clothes, no money, no friends, no bail. We leave our readers to guess his fate”(22).)

Sometimes, I found that not much has changed since the 1820s. For example, a Mr. Jasper Smith, age 17, was brought in for creating a mob on Hudson Street. Skillman describes Smith as “something of a roving sprig (after night fall,) and plays ten-pins, and possesses considerable forensic eloquence” (21). Other times, I found that the 1820s were not as “proper” as most might have thought them to be, as when I read the report of four young women, “neither beautiful nor otherwise,” brought in for what was most likely indecent exposure; as Skillman phrases it, they “exposed themselves in such a manner as rendered them amenable to the laws, and are now in a situation by no means to be coveted” (68).

Skillman’s Reports were a little unusual, even as a contemporary work. A 1907 legal bibliography published by the Boston Book Company describes it as “certainly a curious volume”, and finds the preface “so out of the ordinary” that the publishers of the bibliography opted to reproduce it in full. Although it was notable enough to be published in the Boston Book Company’s bibliography, however, demand must not have been high enough to warrant annual editions, as there is no evidence that an 1829-1830 edition (or later) was published.

An interesting historical puzzle arose when I reread the book from cover-to-cover: that of a previous owner, a Mary A. Stedman, whose name is neatly pasted on the inside cover. My informal online research led me to two possible conclusions: either she was Mary ApOwen (Shields) Stedman (1815-1877), mother of Hartford’s Civil War hero (and Trinity College alum) Gen. Griffin Alexander Stedman, or she was the Mary A. Stedman who married Elias Gates in 1833 and was mentioned in Albany’s 1887 American ancestry register.

Though Skillman’s Reports look unassuming on the outside, their contents prove to be a humorous glance at everyday New York life in 1828 and 1829, as well as proof that not much has changed since then. People still argue over insignificant things, stay out late at night, and drink heavily. In a way, it’s comforting to read such a humorous take on the petty crimes of the time: it shows that not everyone took the law seriously, or lived boring lives. Perhaps in 180 years, people will read our “News of the Weird”s with a similar viewpoint.

[Posted by Katie Joachim (’12), for Jonathan Elukin’s History of the Book course]

The book I found at the Watkinson was not marked by an ‘X’, but nonetheless I found it to be a buried treasure.  Trinity’s copy of The History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Street Robbers to which is added, a Genuine Account of the Voyages and Plunders of the Most Noted Pirates is attributed to Captain Charles Johnson and was printed in 1814.  However, after doing some research I have discovered several interesting facts about the book’s origins.  The Boston Public Library has a copy of the book printed in 1742, which lists several different authors: Daniel Defoe, Charles Johnson and Alexander Smith.  In the description of the book, the Boston Public Library notes that earlier editions were attributed to Daniel Defoe, while others were ascribed to Charles Johnson.  Yale too attributes a 1742 edition to Defoe, but also lists three other editions by Charles Johnson from the years 1734, 1814, and 1839.  Much debate has ensued about whether or not Captain Charles Johnson was a real person or if Defoe was the actual author.  Some historians believe the book was written by Defoe, who wrote “Robinson Crusoe,” based on the style of writing, and the fact that he had been a merchant and “would have heard of the accounts of pirates.  His novels also featured the low life of pirates, prostitutes, thieves and murderers.” [1] Perhaps Defoe penned the earliest editions, and later on a ‘Captain Charles Johnson’ either ‘pirated’ the book, or became a nom de plume.

Although its author may remain uncertain, we cannot deny the book’s popularity.  It was reprinted at least four times, which tells us that at this time, there was a market for tales about the high seas and miscreants within the literate English community.  The Watkinson’s 1814 edition is 539 pages long, which makes it over 90 pages longer than the 1742 version.  This is because more stories were added to the book as it was reprinted over the years.  These additions were made as new highwaymen, thieves and pirates emerged over time, and could possibly have been used as a marketing tactic to encourage individuals to purchase the ‘new and improved’ edition.  In the preface, the author goes on to say that the book is “long esteemed the only authentic history of men…who, spurning the restraints necessary to uphold the fabric of civilized life…carried on their depredations for a time until the law doomed them…” There is clearly a moral message embedded in these tales, although many of the readers were likely drawn in by the mystery, intrigue and possibility of reading about real life criminals.  Amidst the tales of lesser known thieves and miscreants lie the stories of some more famous plunderers.  As I paged through the almost two-hundred-year-old book, I was pleasantly surprised to see the tale of Robin Hood.  This story stuck out from the rest for several reasons.  First, I had heard of Robin Hood before, and seeing his name was like seeing a familiar face out of context.  Was Robin Hood as widely known back then, and written into the book as a way to up readership?  I think that by including such ‘high profile’ characters, we can discern that this book was penned primarily to entertain readers.  Learning about people who break the social norms was then, and remains today, a popular pastime.  Even today millions of people are enthralled by T.V. shows such as Law and Order or Dateline NBC.

The book’s 120 stories are all listed in the table of contents, which has different symbols for the different types of criminals (P denotes pirate, and an H highwayman).  Some of the stories are about captains, while other stories are about pickpockets, murderers, thieves, and pirates.  There is a note at the bottom of the table of contents, which states “many of these denoted highwaymen began their career by picking pockets, petty thefts, and house breaking.  Those names that have a dagger after them committed murder in the course of their depredations: those distinguished by two daggers, were guilty of numerous or atrocious murders.”  By reading the table of contents the reader immediately encounters a pictorial representation of the danger that lies within the stories.  Physically, the book remains in good condition, printed on paper and encased in what appears to be its original binding with ink typeset.  There is one solitary picture at the very beginning of the book, and the formatting and word choice suggests that the book was directed towards an adult audience.

[“Sir John Falstaff: with his companions at Gad’s Hill”]

Upon first glance, The History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen appears to be commonplace, yet after further research I have learned that this book has an interesting history.  From the debate about authorship to the societal inferences that can be drawn from its popularity, this two hundred year old book has proven to be worthy of recognition at the Watkinson.