Some Amazing Historic Documents from Bruce N. Johnson
Historic Documents from Bruce N. Johnson.
By Michael Stillman
Bruce N. Johnson, of upstate Liverpool, New York, has issued his first catalogue of Historic Documents (catalogue number 19 overall). This one is filled with manuscript and ephemeral items, and they are truly historic, fascinating, and very collectible. There are numerous broadsides, maps, and photographs, although we will specifically focus on some of the manuscript letters. Johnson has many that were written by ordinary people, but ones who were witnesses to some amazing events. These are the words of people who were quite literally eyewitnesses to history, and their letters will make you almost feel like you were there. Here we go.
This letter was written from Berkeley, California, on April 19, 1906. The previous day was that of the great San Francisco Earthquake. "Yesterday morning at 5:15 we had the hardest earthquake in the history of California. I tried to get out of bed but was tossed from one side to the other...Of course everyone was panic stricken." The writer takes a boat from Oakland to San Francisco, where he observes, "for an area of several square miles the whole city was a mass of flame. The entire water front had burned down in the forenoon." He goes on to say, "Market St. the principal street of the city is simply ruined not a building is left standing for nearly two miles..." He notes that the water mains had burst, so there was no water to fight the fire. "...the Fire Marshall began blowing up buildings with dynamite in hopes of saving the remainder of the City whole blocks of beautiful great large brick buildings were blown down but the fire would jump over." This was in reference to authorities' attempts to create an empty space between the fire and the remainder of the city by blowing up buildings, sort of like back-burning to stop a forest fire. "People by the thousands were sitting on the curbs on the pavements and the Parks are crowded... They are bringing thousands away on every boat and train." This astounding 3 1/2 page letter is item 48. Priced at $975.
Though perhaps better known, the San Francisco Earthquake was a minor event compared to the tragedy which unfolded on the island of Martinique a few years earlier. In May of 1902, a volcano blew out the top of Mount Pelee. Tons of hot ash descended on the town of St. Pierre. Within a matter of minutes if not seconds, virtually the entire population of 29,000 was dead. There was but one survivor, deep in the basement of a jail. The author of this 16-page letter to his mother was evidently a young newspaper reporter in a steamship out at sea. He notes that even five miles out to sea, his ship was covered with a quarter inch of dust. He first describes entering the neighboring city of Fort de France, where residents feared the same fate would befall them. He then proceeds to St. Pierre. "...we were all alone in the city with forty thousand dead bodies laying about us......In trying to go through the streets we would every once and awhile we would step on the burned and charred body of some human being....The people were laying dead where they had stood at five minutes before eight on the morning of May eighth. Women with children in their arms were seen, as if they had been trying to protect the little ones...They [authorities] had started to pour kerosene over the bodies that were lying loose, and setting fire to them..." This letter to Mrs. Reynolds in Rochester, New York, is item 49. $1,850.
Some Amazing Historic Documents from Bruce N. Johnson
A most unusual spiral shaped letter.
Item 20 is a letter dated January 1, 1863, from J.D. McQuade, a Union soldier at the Battle of Fredericksburg. That battle did not go well for the Union army, and this soldier is well aware of that reality. He witnesses the battle from a nearby hilltop. The Union soldiers "were exposed to a dreadful fire I could see the canon balls lighting and the shells bursting among them...and the dead and wounded I could see lying on the fields..." Facing reality, he notes, "...I believe that the loss is heavier than it is put down in the newspapers on our side but I think the rebels loss must be light as they were in rifle pitts and behind earth works." $1,350.
We hear a lot about border crossings from Mexico to the U.S. these days, but the most notable one occurred in 1916. That is when a band of 500-700 men headed by Pancho Villa crossed over to raid the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. It was in response to U.S. support for his rival. When the dust settled, some twenty or so American soldiers and civilians lay dead. The U.S. counterattacked, but called off the fight since its battle was not with the Mexican government. Villa escaped, and survived until 1923 when he was assassinated. Item 51 is a letter dated March 13, 1916, from Deming, New Mexico, about 30 miles north of Columbus. The writer, Vera Chadborn, evidently an older child, writes, "We were out on the ranch when the battle took place but we took to our heels and ran about 2 miles on the other side of the railroad tracks." She goes on, "They set fire to Ritchey's Hotel and killed Mr. Ritchey and threw him in the fire..." Item 51. $325.
Now for a letter that's not so weighty. This is one from June 1858, written by James Hopkins to his father, T.A. Hopkins, in upstate New York. I would love to know the circumstances. He writes, "...has your woman got back yet or have you shipped her and got another. She is just like all the rest of those religus folks under a cloke to save themselves. Salt wont save her, they will try to faun around you till they think they have got you then try to bend you to their will if you wont bend and they find they cant do just to sute themselves they will try to find something against you and throw it to the winds if you are guilty or not." It sounds like T.A. found himself a new woman, but fortunately his brilliant son was there to save his dad from her evil trickery. That's what a good son does. Item 98. $28.50.
Item 101 is a most unusual letter. It is written in spirals. There are 33 circles, the text spiraling from the outer band inward. This must have taken enormous concentration to write, though I have no idea why the writer bothered. The 1890 letter is rather ordinary in terms of content, it containing reminiscences among old friends, but the style is unique. $875.
For football fans, here's a Green Bay Packer program that goes back to when even Vince Lombardi was just a 15-year-old boy entering seminary, intent on becoming a priest. There is no more legendary franchise than the Packers, still surviving in a small city long after all other such communities lost their major sports league teams. This program is dated October 28, 1928, and the opponent was the not-so legendary Dayton Triangles. It is unlikely a football team today would call itself the "Triangles." Among the people illustrated are "Curly" Lambeau, a founder, player, and first head coach of the Packers, leading the team from 1921-1949. Lambeau Field in Green Bay, where the Packers have played for 50 years, is named for him. Item 107. $1,000.
You may reach Bruce N. Johnson at 315-652-3118, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.