The Black Orchid of Ohio
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 this copy.