The Black Orchid of Ohio
An exceptional copy of an important book.
By Bruce McKinney
On December 6th, at Cowan's in Cincinnati, a remarkable book will be offered as part of a sale that is deep
with interesting material. This story is about that book, a first printing of the first book printed in Ohio:
The Laws of the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio, the Aitchison-Wessen-Dush-Emerson copy.
To the cognoscenti this is simply "The Maxwell Code," named for its printer and the short term for laws. It
was purchased by Bob and Dorothy Emerson, then of Connecticut, on December 15th, 1997 at the sale of "The
Americana Library of Joseph F. Dush, of Willard, Ohio," a sale conducted by the Baltimore Book Company in
Timonium, Maryland. No copy in private hands is considered perfect but this copy comes close. It was not
described that way but was known to several bidders to be exceptional. It was described as lacking the leaf
A2, but a recent examination of other copies confirms the A2 was a "cancelled" leaf and never present. The
title page of this copy has a chip missing from the right lower corner and another chip affecting a few letters
on one inside page. It's in "contemporary pasteboard wraps," and the only copy in private hands in original
condition. Other copies that have passed through dealer hands and the auction rooms over the past fifty years
have had more significant problems and have been disbound, rebacked or rebound. It's an extraordinary
survival, the best known copy in private hands of a book that is coveted.
Every book and every copy has a story. This story is particularly interesting.
Ernest Wessen [1887-1974], the great bookseller of Mansfield, Ohio issued 104 well researched catalogues under
the title "Midland Notes" during his career. In catalogue 25, dated December 1st, 1945, he includes both
illustration and description of the only one of four copies he handled that he ever included in a catalogue.
He described it as:
"Undoubtedly the most noteworthy copy extant of the first book printed west of the Ohio River. Imprint
Inventory No. 1. It being wholly uncut and unopened; it becomes the standard by which all other copies must be
measured, and is substantially larger than the dimensions of the largest provided. The missing lower half [of
the title page] is more than offset by the unique characteristics of this copy. At the top of page iii appears
the signature of one EZRA FREEMAN; perhaps a member of the family which printed the next edition of the Laws of
the N. W. Territory..."
Eighteen years later, in 1963, begins the saga of a better copy, the best he ever handled, the volume that now
heads into the auction rooms on December 6th. That spring, one of Wessen's book scouts turned up a copy in
Kansas that he would later describe as "the greatest item to have passed through my hands." He was speaking of
The Black Orchid of Ohio
The Dush correspondance about this copy.
As is often the case, good material sells quickly. In this case, within a week he invited Joseph Dush, a
Willard, Ohio lawyer, book collector and local historian to consider buying it for $2,500. Mr. Dush, an
old-time collector who bought content and was as apt to own a reprint as a first edition, did not shy away from
buying a great copy at a full price when offered the opportunity. And so he bought it.
In November 1967, less than a month after the Thomas W. Streeter copy was sold at Parke-Bernet for $10,000,
Wessen wrote to Yeatman Anderson III, head of the rare book Department of the Cincinnati Public Library, about the
It is "the finest in existence...a copy which for all time will remain a standard for comparison... It
explodes the old yarns about Madam Maxwell wearing her poor fingers to the bone while binding these in
leather. THIS IS THE ORIGINAL BOARD BINDINGS. It has the dated signature of the first recipient...[Jefferson
County, Sheriff?], and so on through the next four [actually three] official owners., Of course it is
untrimmed. It is in the possession of a great collector and fine gentleman...Joseph F. Dush..."
Over the years Dush made his prize feel comfortable by surrounding it with a gathering accumulation of all
things "Ohio history" that would, after his death, translate into five auctions. Along the way into his
sedentary years he wrote a history of Willard, served "of counsel" on an Ohio zoning case argued before the
Supreme Court and was General Counsel to the Lakeside Press. In 1982 his collection survived a house fire with
only minimal damage. We know this from references to water damage in the item descriptions in the 1997 auction
dispersals and from a recent comment from his attorney, Harold J. Freeman. His "Laws of the Territory" must
have been on a higher shelf or in a safer place because this copy was unaffected.
He died in 1997 and his collections were dispersed at auction under the direction of Mr. Freeman who, ten years
later, continues to remember him with admiration. "He was a very good lawyer, always affable, tall with a
shock of white hair, a determined man, someone I was very glad to know." From the attic alone, more than 4,000
pounds of books were brought down. The man was a collector.
A half dozen paintings and his collectible antiques were dispatched to Garth's Auctions in Delaware, Ohio. His
household possessions were dispersed at a house sale. The books, manuscripts and ephemera were dispersed in
three sales beginning in December. The first was a sale in Columbus of Ohio local history heavy on ephemera,
today roaring flames in the collecting world but then, banked coals waiting for the market to ignite. Wes
Cowan, the same Wes Cowan who is conducting the upcoming sale, organized the sale of Dush's Ohio history and
ephemera collection with the help of old time friend and bookman, Ed Hoffman. The general ephemera were so
extensive that bidders were encouraged to organize groups of personal interest and seventy-five lots were set
aside for this purpose. Dush's collection of William Henry Harrison ephemera was dispersed at a separate Cowan
The Black Orchid of Ohio
Joe Dush, the great Ohio collector.
For the Columbus sale, John Block, whose family owns the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was
present. That day he spent $10,000, a tenth of the day's total and a substantial sum for local history. Mr.
Block was also aware of the documented book sale to be held one week later in Maryland. The Columbus auction
was simply the hors d'oeuvre tray.
For Chris Bready, the Baltimore cataloguer and auction entrepreneur, the upcoming sale was a milestone. He had
started out with Harris in 1979 and established Baltimore Book Auction in 1989. Eight years into life on his
own this sale was significant. The Dush collection had been waived at Christie's and later Swann where
interest was expressed only in selling the marquee items. A complete solution was needed and Mr. Bready,
already known to Robert Freeman, was chosen. He was a logical choice and did not disappoint. He produced a
100-page catalogue of 6 and 8 point type detailing 412 lots that were deemed the better material. Lot 305,
"Laws of the Territory", was the best book in the sale. The only lot that brought more would be lot 315, an
early broadside pertaining to the Ordinance of 1784 which brought $90,000. The full sale would bring $417,080
plus hammer, ten percent in those days.
Months ahead, John Block had spoken with Bill Reese, the Connecticut dealer, about the upcoming sale. He in
particular was interested in lot 305. The estimate was set at $15,000 to $25,000. Mr. Block, over the ensuing
weeks set his limit at $40,000 and then increased it to $55,000 when he learned there was "buying interest in
Chicago," at $50,000. Two days before the sale he further raised his limit to $70,000. It seemed sufficient.
At the sale there was a good crowd. It was well publicized and most of the important Ohio dealers were in the
room. As well, many dealers from distant places: Reese, Bauman, Respess, Frank and Andrea Klein, Clarence
Wolf, Bartleby, Palinurus and certainly others were in the hall. There were of course order bids and strong
voices on the six phone lines set up for the sale.
At lot 305 the bidding quickly moved to and through all levels predicted. At $65,000 Reese had the bid. At
$70,000, Bob Emerson, then of Connecticut and now partner in Emerson-Hoffman of Columbus, raised him. Reese
then threw in his commission to take the bid to $75,000 and Emerson silenced the opposition at $80,000. He had
set a limit at $85,000. Neither he nor Reese was deterred by the statement in the description, "This copy
actually lacks leaf A2" as they believed the A2 to be a cancelled leaf. Thomas Streeter had included this book
in his 1952 classic; Americana-Beginnings, and the odd pagination was detailed.
The Black Orchid of Ohio
This copy; the Wesson blessing.
For Mr. Emerson, at that time 76 and still an active bookseller, Ernest Wessen was a man whose career he
admired and whose opinions he valued. To him, the book that Wessen described in a letter to Dush in 1963 as
"the greatest item to have passed through my hands" was simply a book to own. He set his limit, took a
seat in the first row and bought the book against all comers.
In the spring of 1998, after learning that John Block was the under-bidder, Emerson's partner Ed Hoffman
offered him the book at $100,000. Nothing came of it and Mr. Emerson only ever showed it one other time -
later that year in Northwest Ohio. That spring Bill Reese ran across rebound copies of both this volume and
the second volume printed in Ohio: the Freeman Laws. Soon after, for Mr. Block's maximum bid at the Baltimore
Auction, $75,000, he bought the set from Mr. Reese.
I recently asked Dr. John Dann, Emeritus Director of the William L. Clements Library, about the importance of
this book. He said, The North-west Territory "was the first territory created by the United States, the first
time any federal government in history had established a new entity equal to its original parts, and these were
its first laws." Beyond matters of scarcity and condition, this is one of the most important printed documents
in our nation's history.
Bailey Bishop, long of Goodspeed's and for the past two decades a Cambridge, Massachusetts bookseller,
remembers Joe Dush as a gentleman, a very good Goodspeed customer, knowledgeable and a pleasure with whom to do
business. He also remembers the Dush copy of the Maxwell Code. "Over time we booksellers recognize and
remember great copies of great books. This copy of the Maxwell code is one I particularly remember."
On December 6th, this famous copy returns to the rooms with an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000; now rightfully called the
Aitchison-Wesson-Dush-Emerson copy. Times change and auctions deliver uncertain outcomes. No doubt, if Wesson
were alive he'd be in the room and bidding.
Emerson, at 86, no longer takes out 30 year mortgages and will in time be able to talk with Dush and Wesson
about it himself. In the mean time we'll be waiting to see who adds his or her name to the hyphenated owners
list that already reads like a who's who of informed collecting. It took courage and intelligence to buy this
exceptional copy. In doing so, Bob Emerson trusted the judgment of Ernest Wesson. In December we'll see if
that trust is repaid.
Here is an AE Footnote
link to 7 related records in the AED.
Here is the
link to Cowans's Auctions, Inc.
1. The Americana Library of Joseph F. Dush, of Willard, Ohio [with Additions], a sale conducted by the
Baltimore Book Company on December 15, 1997. The entire catalogue is in the AED.
2. The Joseph F. Dush Library of Ohio Books, Pamphlets, Manuscripts, Broadsides and Ephemera, a sale
conducted by C. Wesley Cowan Historic Americana Auctions on December 6, 1997. The entire catalogue is in the
3. I quote a Wesson letter that appears on pages 223-224 of Rare Book Lore, Selections from the Letters of
Ernest J. Wessen, edited by Jack Matthews. This book was first printed in 1991 and reprinted in 1992. Copies
are available online.
4. I quote a Wesson letter to Joe Dush dated June 9th, 1963 is which he discusses this copy of the Maxwell
Bailey Bishop, John Block, Chris Bready, Cincinnati Public Library, Dr. John Dann, Bob Emerson, Robert Freeman,
Ed Hoffman, Ken Nebenzahl, William Reese, Joel Silver and Wes Cowan.