Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2009 Issue

Library Book Returned... 145 Years Later

Matchingw&lbooks

Consecutive numbers showed this to be Washington and Lee's copy.


By Michael Stillman

We don't know whether Mike Dau read the story about the Iowa woman who spent several hours in jail over a six-month overdue library book, but we will guess not. If so, he must have approached the Washington and Lee University Library with great fear and trepidation last month. Mr. Dau was returning a book that had been removed a bit longer ago than six months. It was, in fact, 145 years, or to be precise, 52,858 days overdue. On a fairness basis compared to the lady in Iowa, he probably should have been executed, but instead he walked away a free man. He didn't even have to pay a fine, which based on the current rate of $1 per day, would amount to $52,858. Librarians (excluding those from Iowa) are a forgiving lot.

This story goes all the way back to the Civil War. On June 11, 1864, Union forces attacked Lexington, Virginia, home to what was then simply Washington University. Union soldier C.S. Gates swiped the book, volume one of the four-volume set History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France, by W.F.P Napier. Gates was obviously not a book collector, as it is foolish to take one volume of a larger set, and this is not a particularly valuable book anyway, not even after all of these years. However, Gates did not have time to conduct a full appraisal. A handwritten note from Gates inside the book indicates he thought he was taking it from nearby Virginia Military Institute, not Washington University, and he was probably more interested in sticking it to those rebels. Alternatively, he may have just been trying to save the book, as his note continues, "The Institution was burned by the order of Gen Hunter." Actually, Gates was only half right. Union troops did burn down the VMI library, but not the Washington from which he took the book, but with the two institutions side by side, it is easy to see how he became confused.

Gates made it back home after the war, and while we don't know whether he ever read this book, he certainly did not throw it away. Neither did his descendants. The book was handed down through generations of the Gates family, until it reached the last in the line, Myron and Isabel Gates. When Mrs. Gates died, she left it to her Lake Forest, Illinois, neighbor, Mike Dau. So explains how Mr. Dau ended up with this book so many years later.

In time, Mr. Dau concluded this book belonged with its rightful owner, and after some sleuthing, he determined that it was Washington and Lee. His conclusions proved correct when the book was matched to volume 2, still in the library's possession. In these pre-Dewey Decimal days, the library marked their books with simple numbers. Mr. Dau's volume 1 is labeled, "139," while volume 2 is labeled "140." The reunion was complete. However, it should be noted that the remaining volumes are still missing, and anyone possessing them should be forewarned that Washington and Lee might not be so forgiving of people who hold onto to their overdue books for longer than 145 years.

Legalistic Footnote: For those with a legalistic mind, it is clear that Washington and Lee University was the owner of this book, not Mr. Dau. There have been several cases lately, including one involving North Carolina's copy of the Bill of Rights, taken by a Union soldier in the waning days of the Civil War. The courts found for North Carolina over the most recent possessor, and undoubtedly would have found the same here, excepting the value of this book would not have warranted a suit, and Washington and Lee would have remained in ignorance had not Mr. Dau come forward to return the book.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Gonnelli Auction House<br>Books and Graphics<br>19th, 20th and 21st April 2021</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br>Atlases and Maps</b
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br> Veneto and Venice, a Selection of Books from the XVI to XX century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br></b>Rossini Gioachino, Baguette de chef d'orchestre appartenuta a Gioachino Rossini, dono del Comune di Passy. 1500 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Manetti Saverio, Storia naturale degli uccelli trattata con metodo. Cinque volumi. 1767. 18.000 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Poe Edgar Allan, Double assassinat dans la rue morgue. Illustrations de Cura. 1946.
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Chaim Weizmann. Autograph letter signed, to General Sir Gilbert Clayton, 6 September 1918. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Sir Winston Churchill. Autograph letter signed, to Pamela, Lady Lytton, 1942. £20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Oscar Wilde. Five autograph letters signed, to Alsager Vian, 1887. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Napoleon I. Letter signed to Admiral Ganteaume, ordering the invasion of England, 22 August 1805. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Two autograph letter signed, to Catherine and George Matcham, 1805. £6,000 to £8,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions