Rare Book Monthly

Book Catalogue Reviews - April - 2008 Issue

The Latest Unusual Americana from David Lesser Antiquarian Books

Lesser103

The latest from David Lesser Antiquarian Books.


By Michael Stillman

David M. Lesser Fine Antiquarian Books has issued a new catalogue of Rare Americana, this one number 103. Lesser specializes in the obscure, often strange, pamphlets and broadsides of early America, almost all of this group ranging from colonial times to Reconstruction. These catalogues are always fascinating as they give a look at America from the eyes of the pamphleteers, who were generally more in touch with the feelings of the average citizens than were the highest leaders. Of course, some of these writers, like some ordinary citizens, were rather oddball characters, but that just adds to the fun of reading their works, from the safety of being centuries away. Here are a few.

A major battle over segregated schools occurred in Boston over a century before the landmark Supreme Court case outlawed the practice. That battle is recounted in item 12, Report to the Primary School Committee, June 15, 1846, on the Petition of Sundry Colored Persons, for the Abolition of the Schools for Colored Children, coupled with the Report of the Minority, published in 1846. The petitioners had argued that "all experience teaches that where a small and despised class are shut out from the common benefit of any public institutions of learning and confined to separate schools...neglect ensues." The School Committee ruled against this claim under Massachusetts' "Free and Equal Clause." They ruled that separate schools did not create an "inferior" or "degraded caste." They stated that the schools for colored children were in fact created "at the urgent and repeated requests of the colored people themselves" (ignoring that at that time the black children had no access to public education at all). The Minority Report agreed with the petitioners, stating, "Race or color is an unlawful and inhuman reason for restraining his right of choice." It was essentially this same argument that would finally prevail in 1954 when segregated schools were outlawed nationally. Priced at $2,500.

Item 80 is a less momentous, though still fascinating legal case. It concerns America's first bank robbery. Isaac Smith robbed $162,000 from the Bank of Pennsylvania, a very substantial sum in 1798. The lack of signs of forced entry led the bankers to conclude that the locksmith who had installed the locks must have been in on the crime. Ignoring the fact that the locksmith, Robert Lyon, had warned them that the materials they used were inferior, the Bank charged him as being Smith's accomplice. Lyon countered with a suit for defamation, and won a $12,000 verdict from the Bank, which resulted in "an universal clamor of exultation...among the audience..." The item, published in 1808, is entitled, Robbery of the Bank of Pennsylvania in 1798. $450.

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