Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor in Vain

Here's how the mind wanders on a Labor Day weekend... 

While leafing through a 19th century manuscript on naval ordnance 
I became captivated by two superbly rendered pages of ink drawings illustrating the “Parts of a Rifle.” This got me to thinking about what guns were like two hundred years ago and then, of course, what they are like now, and all the trouble we're having, socially and politically, trying to figure out what to do about them.

Everyone has something to say about the matter, and that's part of the problem. We are passionate, polarized, and utterly paralyzed when it comes to actually DOING anything legislatively about the 86 gun deaths that happen every day.

According to the Open Secrets website, the NRA spent nearly $3.5 million in 2013 in its effort to influence Congress on gun issues - $1.9 directly for lobbying, and $2.4 million on something called "outside spending." In April of that year, as you may recall, the Senate failed to round up the necessary votes to pass a mild gun control measure that 90% of Americans are supposed to have supported.

There are 535 members of Congress. Assuming that the 200 liberals who scored C, D, or F on the NRA report card aren't worth wasting any lobbying money on, that leaves about 335 pols in line for the NRA's $3.5 million.

Which works out to a little more than $10,000 per Congressperson... probably more like $8000 after expenses and leakage.

These politicians need to raise somewhere between $2500 and $14,000 per day to finance their campaigns. Could a measly $8000 possibly have persuaded any of them to vote against the gun bill last April?

On a broader scale the Washington Post reports that the NRA spent $25 million in 2012 on what it refers to as “positive advocacy” - support of gun friendly candidates, and “negative advocacy” – the biggest target that year being Barack Obama, on whom they lavished $15 million worth of negativity. This sounds like a lot of money until you consider that $25 million would buy the NRA an hour or two of national prime time television advertising per year. To look at it another way, President Obama is said to have spent $700 million publicizing his health care program... for all the good that did him.

It's not the NRA's lobbying power that accounts for the persistence of guns and gun violence in our society. Nor is money the deciding factor in the ongoing failure of Congress to do anything meaningful in the wake of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Sandy Hook, etc., ad nauseam.

Our politicians aren't doing anything about gun violence because We the People do not want them to do anything about gun violence... not really.

Sure, we'll say the right things when the pollsters come around; we'll flood Newtown with teddy bears, sign email petitions, and forward heartrending gun murder images and stories on Facebook. But as a nation, our core attitudes about guns are so deeply embedded that effecting meaningful legislation will require – and cause - serious social upheaval. More like Civil Rights than the Bottle Bill.

Change will only come about when we do all the things it takes to bring about major social change - picketing a Senator's office for example, or attending and speaking out at a hearing, or even writing a letter on real paper and attempting to hand deliver it.

So rock on, Gabby Gifford and Mayor Bloomberg. We need you to keep doing what you're doing. But you will labor in vain until we get off our behinds.

And I'm afraid that's not going to happen any time soon, because deep down, we're satisfied with things just the way they are.

Manuscript. Naval Ordnance, circa 1860. 4to. 65 leaves of manuscript. 15 pages of b/w illustrations, 13 pages of watercolor illustrations. Primarily concerned with cannons, carronades, mortars, rifle-muskets, and Congreve rockets, featuring detailed instructions for fabrication and use, accompanied by beautifully rendered illustrations of - cannons, carronades, and their carriages, parts of a rifle, steps in making flannel cartridge bags and making and filling rifle cartridges, detonators, and rockets and all their components. Also, canister shot, grape shot, gun platforms, and mortars. These pages are followed by a series of "Gunnery Problems," ricochet tables, instructions for fitting night sights, for fabrication of and specifications for shells of various kinds, sixteen pages of a "Viva Voce Examination" - an oral question and answer catechism on gunnery and, finally, an illustrated treatise on "A Method of Floating Guns Ashore by Means of Water Tanks." The illustrations, especially those in watercolor and ink wash are beautifully rendered. The section on fabricating Congreve rockets is particularly detailed, occupying thirty pages of the manuscript and containing some of the most delicate and visually pleasing color illustrations in the book. The dating of this manuscript is based on one of the drawings of "Parts of a Rifle" which bears the marking, "1858 Enfield." The rifles pictured are typical of the rifle-muskets of that period. Bound in half leather over marbled boards. Backstrip chipped. Sewing broken but text and illustrations in an excellent state of preservation. This manuscript is of artistic value as well as historical importance. Housed in blue cloth clamshell box with leather label. $12,500

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Wife and Me

Ernest Wessen's letters are a must for aspiring Americana dealers
In his memoir, The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter my idol, Charlie Everitt, refers to his wife as “Mrs. Everitt.” I like the old fashioned formality of that address. Same with Ernest Wessen, the great Midwestern Americanist and author of the legendary series of catalogs called Midland Notes: “Mrs. Wessen and I were returning from a visit to the folks in Maine...” etc.

I would very much like to tell you about the trip Mrs. Gibson and I took recently, but when we married she kept her (Irish) family name – Crotty – and I just don't think “Ms. Crotty and I” comes across with the same archaic charm.

So anyway, the wife and me, we went down to Baltimore last week.

Papermania had been canceled. 
We had a little time on our hands, so we visited friends in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, and drove down Thursday for the opening of the Baltimore Summer Antique Show.
The Baltimore Summer Antique Show still packs 'em in
This used to be a sort of funky affair – diverse, rambling, and slapdash. An Irish guy named Frank was the front man. He'd get on the PA just before the show opened and give endless instructional speeches about what was expected of the dealers, unintelligible owing to the poor sound quality and his Irish brogue. Book sellers were included as an afterthought, but the combination worked. We found things to buy from the antiques people, and new customers were exposed to our wares. The show had a good run through the Nineties, and I became very fond of the city, particularly the Locust Point neighborhood, with a saloon on every corner. I fantasized buying a row house across the street from the Chesapeake Box factory (where I would work the night shift while writing detective thrillers by day) with a great view of the harbor for $75,000. Ms. Crotty, unfortunately, did not care for the heat, and I watched helplessly as the price of those fine old buildings along Fort Avenue doubled and then tripled.

Then the show was taken over by an outfit known as the Palm Beach Show group. Booth rents went up and the show reinvented itself as a fancy-schmancy affair with white carpets, soft music, and high end dealers. 
The book ghetto in white carpetland
Their pre and post show publicity reached frenetic levels, and every year a rumor was floated by “unnamed sources” that a painting or a piece of pottery had sold for seven figures. The booksellers, no surprise, were increasingly marginalized.
Marilyn Braiterman and Greg Davis examine rare tomes at the booth of G. Davis Books
I could have put up with all this nonsense – even the fact that high end customers were more interested in fine bindings and childrens books than in rare maritime manuscripts. In the end, however, the lengthy time commitment was too much. I'd spend a week packing, then leave Tuesday for the Wednesday setup, and then sit there amidst white carpeted antique splendor Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday while the fancy schmancies regarded my wares with incomprehension. Leave Sunday night, get as far as Wilmington, and arrive home on Monday. A week of lost time and road expenses for some good buying opportunities and low sales. Then I figured out that I could just visit the show and still buy books, and that's what I started doing. Even if Papermania was scheduled for the same weekend, I could shop the Thursday opening and then scoot back north to Hartford for setup at the paper show on Friday.

So Ms. Crotty and I did some shopping and visiting among the forty or so book dealers at the Baltimore show, adjourned for lunch with friends at the brew pub across the street, went back to the show to conclude our business, then spent a very enjoyable afternoon and evening with an old Ballmer pal on a stoop just off Fort Avenue in Locust Point,

Greg and Fats solve the world's problems from Locust Point
across from what used to be the Chesapeake box factory, and was now colonized by yuppie joggers with the cutest dogs.

Here's what we bought, the wife and me:

Broadside. At the Court at St. James's, The Seventeenth Day of December, 1794... Printed folio sheet, 15 x 19 1/2 inches, with manuscript additions. b/w engraved royal seal at top. In 1794, with the outbreak of Britain's prolonged war with revolutionary France, the number of men required for the fleets rose to 85,000 and then to 120,000 in 1799. The most common methods of increasing manpower was paying a bounty for service and pressing men into service. This rare broadside covers both approaches. Enlistments of experienced seamen were to be rewarded with bounties between five pounds and two pounds ten, depending on experience, and thirty shillings for landsmen between twenty and thirty-five years of age. Furthermore, a reward of twenty shillings was to be paid to "any person who should discover any Seaman or Seamen who might conceal him or themselves..." This policy led directly to the practice of seizing American sailors on the pretext that they were English and pressing them into duty in the Royal Navy. That policy and America's angry reaction to it, was one of the causes of the War of 1812. This broadside has been updated in manuscript to June 20, 1799. The sheet is split along an old central fold at top, with no loss.$750
Manuscript. Signal Book. 12mo. 27 pages of hand colored signal flags and significations. Ten flags in combination with nine others yield dozens of messages spelled out in the text. Pages are sized and cut away so that the combinations can be viewed with their significations. These refer to fighting ships under sail, and date from the early nineteenth century - probably of War of 1812 vintage. Two different systems of combinations are presented. With forty-seven hand colored illustrations of flags and pennants. Very good condition, bound in scuffed half leather over marbled boards. $1500
Mayhew, Experience. Narratives of the Lives of Pious Indian Children, Who Lived on Martha's Vineyard More Than One Hundred Years Since. Boston: James Loring, (1829). 24mo. 108 pp. b/w engraved frontispiece. Mostly records of exemplary piety and great tedium, but some genealogy and local history included. "This is a reprint of the fourth division of Mayhew's "Indian Converts,"or rather of extracts from it for use of Sunday Schools" - Field 1046. See also Sabin 47125. VG in original printed boards, lightly rubbed. Front hinge weak. $200
Wilkes, Charles. Synopsis of the Cruise of the U.S. Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, '39, '40, '41, & '42. To Which is Added a List of Officers and Scientific Corps Attached to the Expedition. Washington DC: Peter Force, 1842. 56 pp. 37 x 23 3/4 inches. This pamphlet was published three years before the official account was issued. Wilkes addresses the controversy over his appointment and, according to Howes, adds some material was “not in that work." Howes W-415. Haskell 275. This copy is bound in its original printed wrappers which, although they show some chipping along edges and backstrip, are legible and complete. With the ownership signature on the front cover of Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts Congressman who also served as minister to China and who helped negotiate the treaty of commerce with Japan. Some light tanning to pages. Bookplate of Levi K. Fuller library on inside of front cover. Call number in ink and upper right corner of title page. No other markings. As one might expect, the pamphlet has solid institutional holding both in hard copy and microform, but is rare is the trade. A rebound x-lib copy appeared in 2013; the last one prior to that was offered by John Howell in 1979. $2000

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Classy Move

In what I hope is not a trend going forward from the canceled Philadelphia Book Show, exhibitors received word last week through the grapevine that the summer Papermania show in Hartford CT had been called off.

In a phone conversation with Gary Gipstein, son of the show's originator Paul Gipstein, Gary said that the managers of the XL Center

(the new name for the venue in which the show is traditionally held) were, per their management agreement, making improvements to the building. Gipstein had been notified that this work was coming, and had been assured that it would not conflict with the August Papermania show.

Indeed, in his walkthrough weeks prior to the opening date, everything seemed to be in order.

Then Gary and co-promoter Arlene Shea got a call from the management company. The air conditioning system was not yet functional. The vast dungeon where the show was held - known as the Exhibition Hall - would be uninhabitable. The promoters scrambled to find a new venue, to no avail.

Gary and Arlene worked the phones (they are not the most technologically advanced operation, and do not seem to have bulk email capability to exhibitors) and the afformentioned “grapevine” - I first heard of the cancellation in an email from SNEAB (Southern New England Antiquarian Booksellers) president Peter Masi. Word was also spread on social media and through print and digital journals such as Antiques & the Arts Weekly. So it's likely that all of the 140 exhibitors at this mammoth event have gotten the word.

I asked Gipstein if he'd simply credit my booth fee toward the winter Papermania show and he replied, "Since we've put you exhibitors to so much trouble, we thought it would be better to give you a prompt cash refund." A classy move, in my opinion.

My concern is more with the hundreds of attendees. Americanist Michael Vinson, for example, and his non-refundable airplane tickets from New Mexico. Guess he'll be doing a New England tour next weekend! And what about all those little folks, private collectors, who swarm in from all over the northeast and happily spend the weekend poking through bins of paper. Have they all gotten the word? Do Gipstein and Shea keep an up to date contact list of attendees? Stay tuned.

Just a note of history here. Gary told me that this was the first cancellation in Papermania's 40 year run. That would put its opening in 1974, the year the XL Center – then called the Hartford Civic Center – opened. The roof collapsed in the winter of 1978, but the show dodged that bullet. The summer event started sometime in the 1990s and, though it was always the weaker of the two paper shows (Hartford in August makes Hartford in January look good) it managed to attract a healthy group of exhibitors, and remained an event where great finds might be made. Ah, well.

Here's an item that would've knocked 'em dead at next week's show. Now it's bound for the Brooklyn Book Fair in September - unless you buy it first.

Manuscript. SHIP BUILDER’S REFERENCE BOOK. CA 1840 - 1860. Folio, unpaginated. About 100 pages. This remarkable document is a reference book compiled by English shipbuilder George Munro in the mid-1800s. It contains accounts for various jobs, ephemera and sketches documenting those jobs, lists of materials, rules and formulae for ropemakers, riggers, and sailmakers, lists and tables of various sorts of timber such as English Oak and American Elm, rules for drafting, laws for admeasurement and essays on stability and speed in design of ships. These are supplemented by detailed drawings of blacksmith work, coppering, and construction details of merchant vessels. Finally there are pencil drawings and colored drawings of vessels such as the “Barque Lousia Munro going into Shields.” This was clearly compiled by Munro over a period of years, as a reference work to assist him in his shipbuilding business. As such, it highlights matters of concern to a shipbuilder of that era, and shows practices that were actually used in the shipyards. It is a remarkable collection. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Old boards detached, text and illustrations are clean. $7500

Monday, August 11, 2014

Middle River, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, August 9, 2014

Ledyard bleeding out upon the sands of Egypt. Maybe a quick flashback montage of Dartmouth, Captain Cook, John Paul Jones, Jefferson in Paris, those seductive ladies of the night, Joseph Banks, the Nile (“Do you know the river Connecticut? Of all the rivers I have seen it most resembles it in size.”) The sand.

But I'm done with that. With Ledyard, too, long before his final, fatal African adventure. Now it feels as if the man had only been an excuse – a typically preposterous one – for dragging myself out of the house into the … what? 

Well, maybe not “into” or “out of,” either. All I did was climb up on my hobby horse - as I had seen Ledyard do, as he had learned to do from his writing teacher Laurence Sterne - and clop down the road following the American Traveler and his dream of becoming “the Man” (his words, 1786), on the heels of Sterne who was following his wry vision of the “sentimental man” through Europe, discovering new modes of seeing, feeling, being. I trudged through small towns and shopping malls, imagining the lines linking Ledyard to China Trade fortunes, to the railroads, to the telephone, to the computer, to precisely those shopping malls in their clownish iterations - as hot on the trail of a fantasy as Ledyard or Sterne - all this while, I say, doing nothing more than, or nothing so much as, tracking my own life. Not to see what got me here, but to understand, to the extent I could, what “here” was.
Thus the river in her many guises, my beautiful highway, and the kingdom of my departed loved ones, culminating in an improvised and heartfelt post ribeye whiskey and cigar ceremony behind a crummy Days Inn, landing me in the post wilderness wilderness America had become, as savvy and tough, I hoped, as Daniel Boone ever was in the forests of his day. Thanks, Mister Ledyard. I feel better now.

I am not speaking in any figurative, metaphorical, or poetic way. I believe in my beautiful highway and the wilderness it traverses as much as I believe in the chair in which I am sitting, or the computer upon which I am typing – it has gigs of ram and a solid state hard drive and a zillion megahertz whatever. I believe in it and can use it. I do not understand it.

Which brings me to the problem confronting me as I begin this essay. Although I am pretty much finished with John Ledyard, the American Traveler, 1751 – 1789, I am by no means finished with my walk along the Connecticut River, tracing his famous escape from Dartmouth College to his family in Hartford in 1773 (and meditating, as I walk, upon America in his day and America in my own, etc., etc.), I still have about thirty miles to go as the crow flies, from West Springfield, Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut. But it's really more like forty-five because, as I have already suggested, crows do not fly as the crow flies. Nor do I.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guest Blog

Dawn in my field, sometime last summer
I'm on the way up to my field in Cape Breton to work on the last essay about my walk down the Connecticut River, tracing the journey John Ledyard made in 1773, and thinking about America then and America now. The walking can be hard, but writing about it is always harder.

Anyway, there's no Internet, or electricity, or running water up there, and not many people either, which is why I go there. So I thought I'd better post this week's blog entry from the comfort of my Comfort Inn in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia tonight, since I won't be able to do it tomorrow.

Only trouble is, I don't have anything, bookwise, to write about - just seething uncertainties of ideas about Ledyard and the last bit of my dance with him churning beneath the surface in an utterly unpresentable manner.

So I'm going to link you to a guest blog this week. It's written by my old pal, science fiction writer  Rudy Rucker, AKA "the Godfather of Cyberpunk," about his visit with an old friend of ours named Dick Scheinman. When we knew Dick he was the scion of a lovely, funny, but mostly mainstream Jewish family that lived up in a very nice Bronx neighborhood known as Riverdale. As you will see, he's come a long way since then.

Rudy's blog is also an excellent example of what a good blog should be. He's been blogging for a long time, and he's one of the masters of the form.

Here's the link. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Little History

I'm writing from the magnificent pile of stone and anguish known as Chapter 11 Books, situated between a Jiffy Lube and a drive-thru mortuary, and patronized primarily by people who'll have to come back when they've got more time. At the moment I'm wondering how one retires from a trade that most people take up after they retire. No answers are forthcoming. It's beginning to look as if I'll die with my books on.

The dream ends. I wake to find myself in a slightly too comfortable chair at the edge of my booth at the Twenty-Fourth, or Twenty-Fifth, or Twenty-Sixth Annual Antiquarian Book Fair at John Dewey Academy, in Searles Castle, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It's been a slow day, but days at this show are always slow.
People drift in and out - polo shirted upper middle class people with frighteningly well behaved children, men in pink shorts, a lady with a Service Dog in a baby carriage.
These folks are on vacation, and they've got all the time in the world. They poke around, consult one another, amble off, return, ask questions. They seem to be intelligent, sophisticated people. They're here in the Berkshires from places like Boston and New York, for the Tanglewood Music Festival or to visit the area's many galleries and museums, and we entertain their questions because, occasionally, a question will lead to a purchase. Often the question is, “Can you do any better on the price?” If you say it right, I suppose, it sounds intelligent and sophisticated.
The "line" a few minutes before opening
Because everyone's on vacation, no one is on a schedule. That means customers wander into the book fair all day long. Today, however, not enough customers have been wandering in, or they've been wandering in too slowly. Bernice Bornstein, the show's promoter, is concerned. 
Beauty & the Beast - Bernice Bornstein and Peter Stern
Almost every dealer has sold something, but several have not sold enough. (In this context “enough” means enough to pay for travel, room and board, and booth rent. Not meeting these basic expenses is a bummer. We've all been there, and none of us want to go there again. Hearing such a report from a colleague evokes feelings of sympathy and solidarity rather than superiority.)
The road to Searles Castle was a long and winding one for Bernice - crowded, initially, with camper vans and portapotties. She and her first husband got their start hustling antiques at the Brimfield shows. It was, Bernice conceded, a rough life, but it had its benefits. The Bornsteins became fast friends with Paul and Arlene Gipstein, who went on to found the famous Papermania shows in Hartford, CT. This association inspired Bernice to to start a long running antique show at the Northeast Trade Center, a huge, decrepit barn in Woburn, Massachusetts. I got my first taste of antique show culture at this show in the early 1980s, and it was scary. The dealers were mostly squabbling, middle aged couples. They ate their lunches out of plastic coolers and were constantly on guard against theft of goods or reputation by their colleagues, other squabbling, middle aged couples.

The aggressive Irene Stella pushed Bernice out of that loop in the early 1990s, which was when dealer Rex Stark helped reinvent her, sort of the way Rex Harrison reinvented Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. Well, at least he got her organized, and she soon started a paper and ephemera show at the Holiday Inn in Boxborough, Massachusetts.

Bernice, always a fountain of energy, will readily admit to being somewhat disorganized. The fact that this Searles Hall book fair is advertized as being the "24th annual" on her website, and the "26th annual" on her promotional literature is evidence of that – as are the several shows in which she inadvertently rented out more booths than the venue could accommodate – occasions hilarious for everyone except those dealers involved. And Bernice, of course. And crossword puzzle savant Bill Hutchison,who with Garry Austin figured out how to squeeze 42 booths into a space designed for 40, and spared Bernice from being tarred and feathered.

The success of the Boxborough show led Bernice to explore other possibilities. Interestingly, she was also motivated by a desire to raise the tone of her shows. “No disrespect to paper people,” she says. “They're wonderful, but they're schleppers. Now, these book people, when they get their booths set up, they're nice and tidy.”

Searles Castle was one of Bernice's brainstorms. She knew about it because she'd been born and raised in the area. But the fact that she's taken this show through two sets of Castle owners, and from antiques to books and paper, is a tribute to her ingenuity. It should also be noted that, in the course of her experiments with venues in the 1990s she opened a show in her husband's parking garage on Dalton St. opposite the Hynes Convention Center.
My memories of that show feature the queasy, spiraling, vertiginous, hungover journey down five flights of concrete stairway on opening morning, accompanied by the awful smell of auto exhaust, and frigid blasts of November air from street level. But more important is the fact that this event pioneered the so-called “Shadow Show” idea. Her infamous Garage Show was held on the same weekend as the big ABAA book fair in the Hynes next door. It offered a less expensive alternative for non-ABAA dealers, and a terrific buying opportunity for those dealers exhibiting at the big show.

Bernice might have the Goldie Hawn thing going, but she's been pretty savvy about her shows. After she and Marvin broke up, Bernice saved her show by moving it from the parking garage to the Park Plaza Castle and the Radission Hotel down the street. A lot of dealers made a lot of money thanks to Bernice.

At the time of its inception, Bernice's idea for a second show faced stiff resistance. Many ABAA people felt she was cutting in on their action or slurping up free publicity. They feared that buying dollars would be spread too thin, and that a second, non-ABAA show would water the product down. However, after a couple of years it was clear that this was a classic win-win situation. Now a “Shadow Show” accompanies the New York ABAA fair and, in a way, the California fairs as well.

So, here's to you Bernice! Thank you for 26 years at the idyllic Searles Castle.

Or is it 24?

The buying wasn't so hot, but I did find one thing that played into my China Trade obsession.

Chinese Repository, Volume III. May 1834 – April 1835. Canton, 1835. 584, viii (index) pp. This periodical was published in Canton by Protestant missionaries, notably Elijah Coleman Bridgeman, between 1832 and 1851. These early volumes are of particular interest because they document the increasingly troubled years leading up to the First Opium War in 1839. This volume includes articles on missionary work, social conditions, politics, the British presence, current events, the Chinese written language, and such topical subjects as “Chinese Pirates.” It lacks a plate of Chinese written characters, but contains the b/w lithographed map measuring 13 x 18 ½ inches of “the Choo Keang or Pearl River,” from Ladnrone Island to Canton. The book is rebound in full green morocco with raised bands and gilt spine lettering. $750

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Novel I Never Wrote

Last month I bought three pamphlets about a murder that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1830. It was a sensational affair in its day, a victory for prosecutor Daniel Webster, and an interesting sidelight in the history of American jurisprudence.

But that was not why I bought the pamphlets.

In 1829 William Low of Salem was sent to Canton to manage the affairs of Russell & Co. the great American China Trade firm. He brought his wife along and, to keep her company, his twenty-year-old niece, Harriett Low.
Harriett Low, as painted by George Chinnery
Happily for posterity, Harriett kept a detailed diary of her years in China. The Low household was a center of social life for American traders in Canton, and Harriett saw, and wrote about, everyone of importance in that group. Her diary was excerpted in Emma Liones's classic book China Trade Post-Bag, and reprinted in its entirety about fifteen years ago as Lights and Shadows in Macao Life.

She met Robert Bennet Forbes, AKA “Black Ben,” author of one of the great American autobiographies, 
 his brother John Murray, who would go on to become one of the great commercial minds in American history, and George Chinnery,
Self Portrait
the eccentric and gifted painter (the old lech was sweet on Harriett and painted a lovely portrait of her. I visit it every once in a while at the Peabody Essex Museum), and Robert Morrison, 
Morrison by Chinnery
the great missionary and translator, and William Hunter, a young American who went native and penned one of the liveliest accounts of China Trade life. 
She fell in love and suffered a broken heart. She entertained an endless stream of diplomats, missionaries, navy men, and famous American sea captains (quite a few of whom wrote about her in their diaries and letters).

She met everyone and recorded everything in the tumultuous and exciting years leading up to the First Opium War. But she never talked about what Russell & Co. were actually doing over there.

That question is answered (not that there was ever any doubt!) in the journal of the Salem trading ship Sumatra,
which I will be offering for sale in my next catalog (see my blog entry for March 30, 2014). The Americans were importing opium from Turkey and offloading it to Black Ben's receiving ship on Lintin Island. The drug was used as a substitute for specie (in desperately short supply in Britain and America) to obtain Chinese goods.

But back to those pamphlets.

It turns out that the convicted murderers were the brothers of Harriett's aunt. When the news arrived in China the poor woman was devastated, forced to keep her connection to the terrible crime a secret lest her social standing be ruined.

Nothing more than historical trivia, I know. I'll probably never sell those pamphlets, and they'll go into my China Trade reference collection, 
already brimming with books about characters like Ledyard, Morris, Shaw, McGee, Perkins, Cushing, Russell, the Low family, the Forbes brothers, Hunter, Green, and Delano.

Maybe those are just names to you. But to me they are as real and present as people who live in my town. I know them all  - the whole clan - and their quirks, and their families, and the people they knew, and I can see the places and feel the times they moved through as clearly as if I were watching a movie or reading a novel.

In fact, it is a novel – one I've been trying, and failing, to write for twenty years. It's called Opium Lives and it stars Harriet and Black Ben, with a supporting cast of those dozens of remarkable New Englanders who lived and worked in the looming shadow of the First Opium War.

I've got half a dozen outlines and at least three false starts. My problem is that the story is too big, too close. I need to get some distance on it. But how much farther away can I get from events that took place halfway around the world two centuries ago?

More often than not, when I'm out scouting books, I'll come across something like those three pamphlets, and I'll find myself right back in Macao, having a drink in Chinnery's studio, watching him ogle Harriett, or sailing up the Pearl River with Black Ben.
A Report of the Evidence and Points of Law, Arising in the Trial of John Francis Knapp for the Murder of Joseph White, Esquire... Salem, 1830. 74 pp. b/w plates. Half title present, but lacks wrappers. (and) Appendix to the Report of the Trial of John Francis Knapp... on the Second Trial. “Salem Edition”, 1830. 72 pp. In original printed wrappers (and) Biographical Sketch of the Celebrated Salem Murderer... Boston, 1830. 24 pp. Lacks wraps and frontispiece.

John and Francis Knapp had a wealthy uncle named Joseph White, from whom they hoped to inherit a large sum. Impatient for the money, they hired a hit man who did the deed, throwing Salem into a panic. Eventually a fellow criminal ratted out the killer who promptly ratted out then Knapps and committed suicide. Daniel Webster prosecuted a tricky murder trial in which the murderer was dead and the conspirators had not been present to the crime. In a precedent setting argument Webster convinced the jury that the mere proximity of the brother was tantamount to having been present for the murder. The two were found guilty and executed. These three pamphlets are typical of the flurry of publicity generated by the murder. The lot $350

Next week - Bernice!