Every once in a while the Minnesota Historical Society Library gets in a great book with a little bonus; not only is the text of the book important or interesting but the story of where the book has been is also fascinating. Very few of these back stories get better than the one for a book I picked up at the antiquarian book fair in St. Paul last month.
The book, Donald McLeod’s History of Wiskonsan[sic]: From its First Discovery to the Present Period. Buffalo: 1846, is significant having been published 3 years before Minnesota became a Territory. The volume is quite rare and contains a map that is lacking in many known copies. Its author would later settle in St. Paul, make his living in the book trade, and die here in 1903.
The back story I alluded to is that this particular copy fell into the hands of two miscreants engaged in what would become known as the “Coachman Forgeries.” Eugene “Pinny” Field (son of the respected writer, Eugene Field) and Harry Dayton Sickles attempted, with some success, to increase the value of books they were selling by making them look like they had come from the library of Abraham Lincoln. The scheme was simple enough. In 1931 a story ran in the national news that William P. Brown, Mary Todd Lincoln’s driver during the years after the President’s assassination, was still alive. Field and Sickles got him to autograph period books and maps. Frank Thatcher notarized and attested to the fact that the signature was authentic after which Sickles forged the name of Abraham Lincoln to the items. The resulting book looked as if it had the all important Presidential provenance and the notary’s imprimatur.
Our copy of McLeod has an inscription that reads “This book is from the collection of Abraham Lincoln and was presented to …William P. Brown in 1866 by Mary T. Lincoln.” Like all the “coachman forgeries” it is notarized but in this instance Lincoln’s signature was never forged on the book. It should be stressed that both the seller and the MHS knew the story of these forgeries (documented in the 2001 book Absolutely, Mr. Sickles? Positively, Mr. Field! By William L. Butts) and the price of the book reflected only the interesting story.
The book was purchased with the help of funds given as a memorial to one of the Society’s dearest friends, Floyd Risvold. Floyd was one of the most significant collectors of stamps, manuscripts, books and maps illuminating local and national history. He was a wise friend and mentor to me and his scholarship inspired me. His practicality too; he once told me that if today’s youth collected stamps they would easily be able to pass the state standards for American history. We are the poorer for his passing. As we Irish say, his likes will not be here again.
Patrick Coleman, Acquisitions Librarian