Every Book has its Story
Goodspeed June 1968
By Bruce McKinney
The history of a book, even just a piece of it, can tell an interesting story.
In New Paltz, New York in the mid-1950s the Mauer Brothers, Bill and Tom, mowed lawns and I occasionally trimmed for a quarter. We were neighbors and they the senior partners. We lived on Plattekill Avenue Extension, I at 67 and they at 66, they DeVinci to my Michaelango. From them I learned the value of full employment. They were always working, raking leaves in fall, shoveling snow in winter and of course mowing from May to September. One property they worked on belonged to Esther Bensley at 3 Excelsior Avenue, a street that disappeared into the local college's maw thirty years ago. In the 1950s it was still there, a remnant of the town's early 20th century expansion, innocent of the 9, 8 7, 6... of time.
The Mauers moved to Glens Falls by '57 and I lost track of Miss Bensley until an auction notice of her "possessions" was posted in August, 1959 in the local papers.
Auctions were infrequent, bargains common and auction babble an often honest if wry commentary on country life. Hence there were many reasons to attend, lack of alternative entertainment among them as New Paltz was small, quiet and conservative, the fire department sponsored carnival each July the Everest of annual occasions, chewing road tar an honorable high summer activity possible only on the hottest days.
That 29 August, a Saturday, was bright and the auction, it turned out, sparsely attended. By bike from home Miss Bensley's house was a four minute ride; left on S. Manheim, right on Mohonk, left on Excelsior. For the sale I was there only for books and saw, to the right of the fireplace, amid non-descript recent printings, three octavo volumes of something that turned out to be Bigelow's Botany, printed in 1817, 1818 and 1820. I knew nothing about it but there were sixty prints of plants in early color, in very good condition, not listed in my Howes' Usiana but interesting nevertheless.
I next placed them in a difficult to discover corner and biked home to negotiate with my mother for money to bid, soon returning with some bills and coins in exchange for my promise to clean the basement and garage.
The auctioneer was Fred Palmateer, the audience small, a bidder's minyan of 6 men standing on the lawn, and if you saw something you wanted you carried it to the auctioneer who translated your acquisition glow into "Seems this fella wants this bad. What am I bid? He said "You want this, do you? What are you prepared to pay?" I said I had $3.25 and he looked hard at the men standing around and said in an insistent way, "Is anyone going to bid against this young man? Sold for $3.25!"
In time I would learn that the set was valuable and, when I was in college, sell it to Goodspeed's in Boston in 1967 for $225 to buy a 1956 Austin Healy 106.
Every Book has its Story
Miss Bensley: the woman with glasses, 1937
Recently on AE we have been adding the 40 year run of "The Month at Goodspeed's" to the AED and I ran across their description of the set I sold them. It's in the June, 1968 issue. For the buyer of the Bensley-McKinney-Goodspeed copy, whoever that may be, this is additional information about this set's provenance and evidence that every book has a history.
The auction I attended preceded Miss Bensley's death by three years, notice of her passing given in the New Paltz Independent in mid-February 1962.
Feb 14, 1962
Miss Esther Bensley
"Word has been received of the death of Miss Esther Bensley late this afternoon after a long illness. Funeral services will be held on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. at the Pine Funeral Home Inc. Friends may call at the Funeral Home Friday evening.
Miss Bensley was head of the Art Department at State University College, New Paltz, from Sept 1923 until June 1946. She was active in community affairs. She had worked at Syracuse University and Applied Arts Summer School in Chicago and design at Gloucester, Mass. She also attended the University of Vermont and had done graduate work at Teachers College, Columbia."
Esther Bensley taught at the New Paltz Normal School for more than twenty years including the last decades of the school's more casual approach to education. Dr. William J. Haggerty became President in 1944 and brought a mandate to broaden and strengthen the college. Miss Bensley retired, at age 62, in 1946. Fifteen years later Lang's history of the university "In a Valley Fair" doesn't mention her; an odd omission given her many years of service and responsibility. In the 1925 Paltzonian [New Paltz Normal School] yearbook she is described as:
"Esther A. Bensley----Head of Art Department
In 1937-1938 she was unwell and away from school for an extended period. Her student assistant Millie Radley [later Hague] who today is 88 and still lives in New Paltz, remembers this period and recalls grading papers during her absence. In time Miss Bensley returned in a different capacity as she was no longer mentioned as head of the art department. Dorothy Harkness, who graduated the following year, does not clearly remember her as a teacher that year. The college was a community as much as an employer and seems to have adjusted its expectations and requirements to her changing situation.
Graduate Syracuse University Normal Art Course; Summer sessions at Chautauqua School of Arts and Crafts, Prang Summer School; Applied Arts Summer School, Chicago."
Every Book has its Story
The author with his Austin Healy in 1968
Years later Ms. Radley remembers seeing her at the Huguenot Bank in the village. She wasn't well, was uncertain of herself, depending on others to treat her fairly. In this way she remained self-reliant into the ‘50s. At around 1958, after a more serious bout of distress, she moved to a nearby facility where she lived out her final years.
The Fred Palmateer auction of her personal property in 1959 was simply the "accounting" of the physical details of her life. Edgar Beebe, who taught at the college, took an interest in her paintings and is thought to have acquired them. Their whereabouts today are unknown. The set of books I bought were not simply chance items setting upon her shelves. They in fact reflected her life-long interest in art, painting and flowers. That this set is quite valuable today is less important than that it apparently mattered a great deal to her.
Here is Goodspeed's description of the set which today might bring $12,000 to $15,000. [see below] To this record I have added this note:
This set was purchased at the auction dispersal of Miss Esther Bensley' s possessions on August 29th, 1959. Miss Bensley, for many years, ran the art department at the New Paltz Normal School. She retired in 1946, became seriously ill in the late 1950's and moved to a managed care facility where she died on February 14, 1962. Bruce McKinney purchased this set of Bigelow's Botany for $3.25 and sold it to Goodspeed's in 1967 for $225 to buy a car. Goodspeed's featured this set in the June issue of The month at Goodspeeds. The buyer is unknown. Their asking price was $350.
Today this set brings a great deal of money. Copies are around but few are as nice and complete as the volumes I bought in 1959. In 2007 this set may be in a library or private collection. If it's yours appreciate it. It has passed through the hands of people who valued it. It will pass on to others in time. People die, books live and they all have their stories.
The Goodspeed record
Bigelow's Medical Botany
The arts-and-sciences of medicine and horticulture get along famously within one man's mind if it is good and commodious enough – as in the case of Dr. Jared Eliot, and now again in the case of Dr. Jacob Bigelow. He was graduated from Harvard in 1806, just one hundred years after Dr. Eliot left Yale. Dr. Bigelow studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania under another great botanizing physician, William P. C. Barton [who had great influence on his pupil's career], and then practiced medicine in Boston under the famous Dr. James Jackson. In 1812 Dr. Bigelow gave a series of lectures on botany at Harvard, in preparation for which he did field-work around Boston and taught himself to draw. Out of this came a hand-book which was the standard for New England botany until the appearance of Gray's Manual in 1848.
Every Book has its Story
A Christmas card from the Bensley sisters
In 1817 Dr. Bigelow was appointed professor of medicine and botany at Harvard and he played a major role in the preparation of the first American Pharmacopoeia . In subsequent years he won distinction for lectures at Harvard and before medical groups in which he argued against the common prescription of ill-chosen drugs and of correct drugs in excessive doses. The theme of one of these lectures – that disorders would sooner disappear by the patient's natural recuperative powers than by over-dosing – was the source of his Nature in Disease , which Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared "had more influence on medical practice in America than any similar brief treatise."
Dr. Bigelow, also a mathematician, coined a now familiar word, which appeared in 1829 in his Elements of Technology. He was famous, too, as an educational reformer, and for about sixteen years was President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
D.A.B. says that in his last years this remarkable man's "intellectual faculties became somewhat impaired" but nevertheless at this time he had a Latin translation of the Mother Goose rhymes, which he called Chenodia [chenerotes, a species of small goose]. Kelly's Cyclopedia of American Medical Biography differs with D.A.B. on one point, saying that Dr. Bigelow "was blind at the last for nearly five years; bed-ridden, but with mind undimmed at ninety-two." Kelly also tells a Bigelow story: "He speaks laughingly of his first lesson in botany given when as a little boy he asked a learned gentleman the name of the plant, Star of Bethlehem. "That? Why that's grass, you little fool."
The D.A.B. article on Dr. Bigelow was written by Donald Culross Peattie and John F. Fulton, who say: "Bigelow's most important botanical contribution, the American Medical Botany, in three volumes, began to appear in 1817...This work contained sixty plates colored by a special process of the author's invention." Which at last brings us to the point – we have a fine set of this scarce botanical masterpiece.
AMERICAN MEDICAL BOTANY...By Jacob Bigelow, M.D....60 colored plates [some foxing on protective tissues]. 3 vols., quarto, half green morocco, fore and lower edges uncut. Boston, 1817, 1818, and 1820. $350
Many people contributed to this article. I had the chance to speak with Lincoln Igou several times. He taught at the college for many decades. At 98 he's remarkably clear and precise. Marion Pine of New Paltz is approaching three digits and retains clear memories of a half century ago. She provided insights and suggestions. Millie Radley Hague at 88 provided very clear detail as did Dorothy Harkness who graduated in 1939 and now lives in Canandaigua. Marion Ryan and Carol Johnson researched records at the Elting Library's Haviland-Heidgerd Collection, Donald Allen, who taught at New Paltz in the 1940s and '50s, offered advice and perspective. Morgan Grenwald of the Sojourner Truth Library was too short handed to provide direct resources but offered access to their records. Finally I need to mention T. Craig McKinney, my brother. He provided the clues and connections to make this a complete story.
There are errors and omissions and they are mine. Where two memories confirmed a fact I have treated such recollections as fact. Where there is a printed record I have relied upon that as well. Where there is a single memory I have relied up on it when other recollections by that person are consistent with the facts I've uncovered.
Should you have information, perspective or opinions I'm happy to hear from you.
Email me at email@example.com or call 415 823-6678.