Rare Americana From Chapel Hill Rare Books
Freed slaves, some looking more white than black, on the catalogue's cover.
By Michael Stillman
From Chapel Hill Rare Books comes their 174th catalogue: Rare Americana: Recent Acquisitions Including Civil War. Items range from colonial times to the twentieth century, with the bulk fitting in the period from the Revolution through the Civil War. Many are extremely rare, and all are interesting for the windows they provide on their times. While a few items of fiction are included, the great majority are at least truthful in the eyes of the authors who wrote them. Now for a few samples of the over 200 books, broadsides, manuscripts, maps and photographs offered within.
Following the old maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words, we start with item 203, a mounted photograph of freed slaves from Louisiana taken in 1863 (click the image of the catalogue cover to the left to enlarge). These pictures were sold to raise funds for the education of emancipated slaves. However, a quick look at this photograph reveals that it was designed to tell people more than they probably realized. Several of the children appear to be white. Of course, parentage issues quickly become clear. In one case, the child is described as having a mother who was a "bright mulatto," along with a father who was fighting in the "rebel army" (which identifies his race). One can only guess that this photograph was intended to have a particularly strong impact on northerners who would have identified more easily with the plight of these children who looked so much like their own. Priced at $6,850.
Item 14 is a card photograph of a most remarkable pair of conjoined twins, Millie Christine McKoy (they frequently went by this singular name without an "and"). Born into slavery in 1851, they were sold off to be exhibited. For a while, they appeared with P.T. Barnum, but were eventually taken back by the man who financed their original purchase, a Joseph Smith. Smith reunited them with their family on a North Carolina plantation, while his wife undertook their education. Smith died in 1860, and with emancipation, Millie Christine decided to go on tour. They proved to be far more than a standard "freak" show. They were very talented, speaking several languages, singing duets, playing the piano, and even dancing in an extraordinarily graceful manner (though always back to back). They were so successful that they were able to buy the plantation on which they were born, support their family and that of Joseph Smith, which had fallen on hard times. The twins died in 1912, at the age of 61. Their picture can be seen on page 2 of this review. $375.
Item 150 is a letter that ties together two of America's early leaders. Circa 1815, Secretary of State James Monroe writes the U.S. Minister to Britain John Quincy Adams. Monroe would be elected president the following year, Adams nine years later. In it, Monroe informs Adams that Colonel William Drayton of South Carolina will be visiting England, and requests Adams "extend to him your good offices." Drayton was a highly respected veteran of the War of 1812 that Andrew Jackson unsuccessfully later urged Monroe to appoint Secretary of War. Jackson would make Drayton that offer when he became President, but Drayton declined.
Rare Americana From Chapel Hill Rare Books
The remarkable Millie Christine McCoy.
Drayton served several terms as a Congressman from South Carolina. While opposed to the tariffs which led to the Nullification Crisis and South Carolina's first attempt at secession, he was also strongly pro-Union, a position which brought his political career to a close. However, he did settle into a successful private career, including a stint as President of the Bank of the United States, after moving to Philadelphia. $5,500.
Item 197 is another letter to an early American leader, this time George Washington. On December 18, 1785, his cousin William Washington wrote the General concerning some seeds and plants the latter had requested. George Washington was in semi-retirement at the time, between his stints as leader of the revolutionary forces and president. The mail must have been very slow in those days, as General Washington did not receive the letter until April 7 of the following year. Although not signed by George Washington, the letter is docketed in his hand, including his writing of the name "Washington" as he wrote, "from Col. Wm. Washington, 18th Dec., 1785." In the letter, William Washington writes about the various seeds and plants he sent his cousin. William Washington also served in the Revolution and his cousin George would stay at his plantation in South Carolina during a tour he made as president in 1791. $4,850.
Item 122 is a broadside from an era when punishment was a bit harsher than it is today. The heading is Execution of Stephen Merrill Clark. Clark was just 16-years-old when he was convicted of arson in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1821. No one under 18 may be executed today, arson was long ago dropped as a capital crime in Massachusetts, and the death penalty does not even exist in that state today. However, arson was punishable by death in 1821, and that despite the fact that no one was injured in the fire. Young Clark apparently started the fire in a stable, which then spread to a nearby home, at the behest of a lady of questionable morals. The broadside is somewhat sympathetic to Clark, but the law was the law, and nothing could be done to save him. Not even the Governor would grant clemency, though this case was later used to repeal the law that punished arson with death. The broadside noted the "imperfection of the law" which allowed the woman who encouraged Clark's action to later become his accuser and get off unpunished. The broadside adds a poem of warning: "Be warn'd, ye youth, who see my sad despair; Avoid LEWD WOMEN, false as they are fair..." $1,500.
Chapel Hill Rare Books may be visited online at www.chapelhillrarebooks.com, telephone 919-929-8351.