David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books has printed a new catalogue of Rare Americana. This is their Catalogue 183. It primarily covers the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries in America. There is much on the early days of independence, and the long deterioration in national unity up to the Civil War. Let us hope we can get past this current period of disunity without such a drastic conclusion. Here are a few items from this latest selection.
There weren't a lot of protections for slaves in the Old South. Owners could pretty much do as they pleased with a slave, maybe short of a truly vicious killing of one. For example, the 1858 Code of Tennessee (offered in this catalogue as #105) says the willful killing of a slave is prohibited, but not if the slave dies while “under moderate correction.” One can only imagine the meaning of “moderate correction” in this context. However, there was a case where action could be taken against the mistreatment of a slave. Unfortunately, it was not the slave's right to take action. It was the slave owner's cause when the mistreatment was performed by someone else. Item 37 is Complaint, State of Tennessee...by David G. Willis, Alleging that Henry D. Carter Violently Assaulted “Dick a Slave Property of the Said Plaintiff and in his Possession” with Cow Hide, Stick, and Fists, Rendering Dick “Bruised, Wounded and Ill Treated.” This is from 1856 and written in manuscript. Willis is not arguing from humanitarian grounds for the mistreated slave, but for $1,000 in damages as he was “deprived of the service of said slave and servant and of his earnings to the said servant.” Willis claimed Carter had done this on two occasions. Priced at $875.
It was one of the worst disasters New York had ever seen. On March 25, 1911, fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. It was located on the 8th-10th stories of a building. The inhabitants were garment workers, mostly women, many still girls, primarily recent immigrants with a large percentage Jews. Under normal circumstances, most would have quickly escaped to the stairwells and exits. However, management was concerned that some of them were sneaking out for unauthorized breaks. To prevent this, they locked the doors. The women had no escape. Most perished inside from fire or smoke, while many plunged to their deaths by jumping out the windows. In all, 146 people died, the youngest just 14. Item 64 is “Mameniu”! [dear mother] Including an Elegy to the Triangle Fire Victims, published the same year. The words are in transliterated Yiddish using English letters. The music was written by A Schorr, the music by J. M. Rumshisky. This terrible tragedy led to the establishment of regulations requiring accessible fire exits in public buildings. $1,500.
Next is a broadside for the Funeral Honors of the Late President. This reflected an unexpected tragedy the nation was not really prepared to handle. The President was William Henry Harrison, who had only been in office for one month when he died. He was the first U.S. President to die in office, and the nation did not fully understand what happened next. Was John Tyler the new President or an acting President, did he have the right to fire Harrison's cabinet secretaries, with whom he had many differences? However, at this early moment, the focus was on arrangements for the funeral procession. The notice says, “The citizens are requested to close their dwellings and places of business – it is farther requested that the bells of churches, and of all public places be muffled and tolled, and that the flags of the shipping and at all public places be at half mast.” Item 57. $850.
President Harrison died too early to avail himself of this final transportation. Item 98 is Rates & Fees for the Use of the Hearse Belonging to the Quaker Society of Friends, from 1900. This came from a Friends mission in western New York serving the Seneca nation. However, they had limitations when it came to the Indians. The rules state, “Indians shall have their bodies carried for Christian burial only. The Society's Hearse shall not be let for any Heathen ceremonies.” Take that, you heathens. $350.
This is a remarkable decision from a federal district court in Georgia from 1904. The judge was Emory Speer, a Confederate veteran. The case was brought by Henry Jamison, whom the Judge described as “a respectable colored man between fifty-five and sixty years of age.” He had been arrested for what the Judge called a “trivial” violation of a minor municipal ordinance (drunk and disorderly conduct). The Judge notes he was arraigned “without any indictment, accusation, or written charge of any kind and without any semblance of a judicial trial, he was sentenced to pay a fine which he was wholly unable to pay, and then to serve a term of two hundred and ten days on the county chaingang of Bibb County.” His time on the chain gang included whippings and other punishments. The 13th amendment prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This exception was used in the South as a way to get around the prohibition of involuntary servitude. Judge Speer was having none of it. “A magnanimous people, a just people, they owe it to themselves to be magnanimous and just to the colored people,” he writes. He points out, “It is a negro today. It may be a white man, aye, a white child or a white woman tomorrow. In this court the law is equal for all.” The decision is accompanied by a letter Judge Speer wrote to a newspaper editor concerning the case. Item 103. $1,750.
Item 72 is a letter Union General Nathaniel McLean wrote to his wife on March 27, 1865. McLean was serving with Gen. Sherman. Lee's surrender was only two weeks away. McLean wrote that Lee's situation was hopeless, with Sherman coming at him from one direction, Grant another. He writes, “I cannot understand how the rebels can much longer prolong the contest unless we meet with some great and unlooked for disaster.” Whichever of his options Lee chose, McLean saw it as hopeless. He adds that Lee's “men are out of heart, and they will melt away from his column by thousands on any long march.” McLean understood the situation well, and it would not be long before Lee did too. $875.
David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books may be reached at 203-389-8111 or email@example.com. Their website is www.lesserbooks.com