Thursday, 14 October 2021 18:25

A very curious book

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Way back in my early days at the Historical Society, I came across this book:

adams book

Now, it looks very similar to many books in our collection, books that usually contain minutes or accounts of an organization or business, but this one was different. The front half of the book contained copies of letters, mostly to or from John Qunicy Adams during the years 1809-1812. Adams was the American ambassador to the Russian Empire during this time.

You might remember from history class that this was the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the Continental System, an embargo Napoleon tried to enforce against British ships in continental Europe. Russia was an ally of France at this time (before the disastrous invasion), and the United States was neutral. So, British ships would pretend to be American by buying official papers from American captains. That was the main issue covered in the letters.

220px Gilbert Stuart John Quincy Adams Google Art Project

J. Q. Adams by Gilbert Stuart, 1818 (Wikicommons)

The second half of the book was a series of written depositions from J. Q. Adams in relation to a lawsuit. It was hard from the depositions to understand what the lawsuit was over or how Adams related to it.

I took some photos of the book and sent them to the Massachusetts Historical Society which houses Adams’ papers. We emailed back and forth a bit, but ultimately they said they didn’t know what the book was.

letter JQA

Well, I had hundreds of feet of undescribed archives and thousands of uncatalogued books, so I put Mr. Adams back in his box, and got on with it.

Recently, however, I looked through it again, and found the page that explained it was part of a lawsuit between Levett Harris and William D. Lewis. This page was in the middle of the book, so it wasn’t obvious the first time I examined it. I found a few mentions of Harris and Lewis in Adams’ diary (which you can read online at the Massachusetts Historical Society), but he doesn’t give any details.


The page identifying the book as part of lawsuit

Then I found an article in the American Archivist (which I’m sure everyone knows is the semi-annual publication of the Society of American Archivists) that explained a lot, but not everything.

In 1953, a Bridgeport boy named Jesse Sohoski found four old volumes under a piece of sheet metal in the woods around King of Prussia. He seems to have held on to them for several years before writing a letter to President Kennedy about them in 1961. Three volumes contained official correspondence between the US ambassadors to Russia and the State Department. The fourth volume was a book of depositions from John Quincy Adams about the Harris v. Lewis case.

AHA! That was our book. Except it wasn’t our book. At the end of the article, the author, James Rhoads of the National Archives, writes that the three volumes of correspondence were determined to be federal records and taken back to Washington. The volume of depositions (i. e. “our volume”) was deposited with the Prothonotary of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Then why do we have it? Well, I think we’re talking about two copies of the same book. Our copy seems to have been with us a long time. It has two labels attached, which are handwritten. Both the labels and the handwriting appear all over our collection on items dating to the early 20th century. Both sides of the case would have had copies of the depositions, so one copy could be Harris’ and one Lewis’ (if you want to read the details of their case, you can do so here). They were both Philadelphia men, so the copies might have stayed in the area, one winding up at the Historical Society and one in the woods.

I could be totally wrong. Most items from that time period are marked with a stamp and usually there’s an accession number written on the inside of the cover. This book has neither. My guess is that the book wasn’t actually donated, but loaned or left here for safe keeping. And if that was the case, we’ve at least done our job.

Read 1164 times Last modified on Thursday, 14 October 2021 19:03