Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - April - 2009 Issue

Historical Autographs and Documents from Profiles in History

Profiles47

Autographs from Profiles in History.


By Michael Stillman

We have received our first catalogue from Calabasas Hills, California, autograph dealer Profiles in History. For those in need of directions, Calabasas Hills is in Los Angeles County, near the city of the same name. Profiles in History specializes in important historical autographs. Not only are the signatures from important people, but many of the documents on which they are offered are historically significant. This is an outstanding collection of items, all of which come with Profiles in History's guarantee of authenticity. Presented is Autograph Catalog 47, and as you will see, it is filled with a truly amazing selection of important autographs.

Item 30 ties together two of the most noted of American abolitionists, the former slave Frederick Douglass and the extreme activist John Brown. Douglass fought for the cause with eloquence of speech, while Brown fought with guns, his final act being an attempt to liberate the arsenal at Harper's Ferry to support a slave revolt. Brown has long evoked mixed emotions for great support of a righteous cause but with violent means toward a noble end. Even Douglass could not approve of Brown's tactics, and yet as these words he penned and signed in 1883 attest, he could not help but appreciate Brown's dedication to the cause: "John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Priced at $15,000.

President Millard Fillmore was not a man of such enduring principles. Nine days before the Dred Scott decision was announced, Fillmore responded to a question from Ohio Free Soil Congressman Edward Wade concerning the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise with this letter. The Missouri Compromise, agreed to by Congress in 1820, had prohibited the expansion of slavery into most of the West, but this limitation on slavery was about to be struck down in what most would agree was the worst decision ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court. Pens the ever-decisive Fillmore on whether he believed the Missouri Compromise to be constitutional, "I understand the question is now pending before the Supreme Court of the United States, where it has been ably argued, and will soon be decided. Under such circumstances it would be arrogance in me to assume to give an opinion. My duty is to submit to this decision as the last appeal known to our Constitution." Not exactly Lincolnesque. Item 41. $12,500.

Item 70 is a letter from the great magician, Harry Houdini, to the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The two had become great friends, but this letter reveals the breakdown of that friendship. Doyle was a spiritualist, who believed it was possible to séance with the dead. Houdini, being a magician, knew all the tricks of the trade, and believed spiritualism to be nonsense. The break occurred because Doyle's wife was a medium, and Houdini made the mistake of letting her attempt to contact his dead mother. Houdini quickly suspected she was a fraud, and was left with the delicate task of trying to explain his disbelief to his friend. Doyle's wife had written out what Houdini's mother supposedly told her, but as the great magician observed, "...the letter as received was written in the English language, and although my sainted mother lived in America for fifty years, she could not read, write or speak English." Though trying to be gentle with his friend, Houdini recognized the fraud from the start when his mother, a rabbi's wife, supposedly began the séance with the sign of the cross. $25,000.

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