Ephemeral Assays: George the First

Spring 2004 (Vol V, No. 1) Table of Contents

They sleep in attics, less frequently in lower rooms, silent survivors of the ravages of expediency and modernism. Most of these ephemerons, “hovering over a pool for its one April day of life,” disappeared shortly after birth. The remaining population dwindles on a regular schedule. Like ancient Anne Rice vampires, they grow weary of prolonging fate, and molder away or burst into flames. The final survivors rely on the initial act of preservation, dry storage space, rag content, and the serendipity of discovery and restitution. An undiscovered sole survivor has little chance of research-level reacquaintance with the modern world around it. And yet these ancient ones do rise to prowl the earth again on occasion. “Found: the Long Lost ‘Ulster County Gazette’!” by Henry S. Parsons appeared in Antiques (1/1931, Volume 19, No. 1, pp. 14-19), as follows.

When does an old newspaper cease to be a bibliographical rarity and become an antique? The question was recently raised at the Library of Congress in connection with the receipt of a document so rare as to be perhaps unique: a genuine specimen of the Ulster County Gazette for January 4, 1800. Accompanied as it is by a specimen of the preceding issue, for December 28, 1799, and one of the succeeding issue, for January 11, 1800, this happy discovery constitutes the most noteworthy recent addition to the Library’s large collection of early American newspapers.

The Ulster County Gazette was established May 5, 1798, at Kingston, New York, by Samuel Freer and Son, as a weekly paper supporting the Federal party. Publication in the original form continued until 1803, when the title was changed to Ulster Gazette and the publisher became Samuel S. Freer, the “Son” of the original partnership. Among the two hundred or more purveyors of news in the states along the Atlantic seaboard, this journalistic effort occupied no very important position. Its news items, aside from local gossip, may be found duplicated in the pages of many of its contemporaries. Yet, today, one issue of the Ulster County Gazette commands a wider and more interested attention than all of its once more influential rivals put together. This is the issue for January 4, 1800. On its second page appears John Marshall’s address on the death of Washington, delivered before the House of Representatives. Marshall concluded with the House resolutions drawn up by General Henry Lee, father of General Robert E. Lee. It is here that we first encounter the famous phrase, “the first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his country.” Then come[s] an address of condolence by the Speaker of the House, delivered to President John Adams, and the President’s response, the Senate’s message on the same subject, and its official acknowledgment. The latter is continued on page three, where, in addition, we find a dispatch from George Town, under date of December 20, giving a full account of Washington’s funeral.

This number of the Gazette has, on many occasions, been more or less faithfully reproduced; and has become famous largely because no original from which the copies might have been made has hitherto been found. The Library of Congress itself has examples of twenty-six different versions of these reprints. A recent Bulletin of the New York Public Library (April 1930) carefully compiled by R. W. G. Vail from available collections, lists a known total of sixty-four spurious editions. This extensive series began during the first half of the nineteenth century, perhaps as early as 1825. In 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, thousands of fresh copies were sold as souvenirs. Meanwhile, librarians had so long watched for the discovery of a genuine original that they had given up hope of such a miracle.

As time passed and the fame of the Ulster County Gazette was spread abroad through the medium of newspaper write-ups and more weighty articles, innumerable bogus specimens began to appear as claimants to the honor of acceptance as originals. Many an insistent owner brought a treasured sheet to the Library of Congress, only to learn, incredulously, that what grandfather had preserved in the family Bible might be of some faint interest as a curiosity, but was quite lacking in appreciable monetary value. It was sad to disappoint the widow who hoped to give her son a college education on the proceeds from the sale of her supposedly priceless heirloom; but hers was only one case among many.

Yet the reprints are usually easy to recognize because of their modern presswork and the inferior quality of their paper. They are not printed on the rough-surfaced, durable, and rather soft rag paper of the eighteenth century. Their typography betrays the distinctly outlined letters of a power press instead of the blurred edges common to hand-inking and hand-pressing. In most instances, too, their appearance is far different from the known aspect of the original as the latter has been determined by examination of the few, very few, genuine copies of other issues of the Gazette–that of May 10, 1800, for example. In these early issues the title is set in italic capitals, whereas most reprints use Roman letters. The original, too, must have employed the old style long s in many words, whereas most reprints reveal the modern s throughout, or substitute a lower case f.

Another test sometimes applied concerns an estate item headed Last Notice on page 3, column 2. In this, the name of the deceased as reprinted is “Johanais Jansen,” and that of the executor “Johannis L. Jansen.” Librarians were sure of the incorrectness of these forms, because the same notice reappears in the Gazette for April 26, 1800 (in the collections of the New York Historical Society), giving the names, respectively, as Johannis Jansen and Johannis I. Jansen, Executor.

Over a period of some decades, the Library of Congress has encouraged the submission of copies of the Gazette for examination. Always the specimens that came proved to be spurious, until the hope of finding an original grew so faint that its expression could elicit nothing more than a pitying smile. A moment of optimism dawned when it was learned that the Freer Art Gallery in Washington had unearthed a copy among the possessions of its founder, Charles Lang Freer, a relative of the Kingston publisher; but it quickly subsided into the usual disappointment. Hence, when a modest note from Mrs. James Lydon, Jr., of Suffern, New York, asked for an opinion concerning three copies of the Ulster County Gazette, it was only the magic three that differentiated her request from hundreds of others. When Mrs. Lydon’s package was opened, it revealed copies for December 28, 1799, January 4, and January 11, 1800.

And these met all tests. They are printed on rag paper, with the same watermark throughout, slender parallel lines, 1 1/16 to 1 3/16 inches apart. The title is set in italic capitals. The print shows the blurred edges of hand-press work. The old-style s appears where it should. Spelling and initial are correct in the Last Notice.

In a subsequent letter from Mrs. Lydon, the Library received the following history of these papers. Mary Crawford Lydon (Mrs. James Lydon, Jr.) is descended from Petrus, or Peter, Decker, a Revolutionary soldier from the northwest side of the Shawangunk River, in Ulster County. He served in the New York militia, was ensign in the Fourth Regiment, and was promoted to a first lieutenancy under Captain Mathew Jansen, March 9, 1773 (New York State Archives, Vol. 1, pages 301-302). In early days the family attended church at Kingston, and thus Peter Decker came to have copies of the Ulster County Gazette, three of which have been preserved to the present time.

So the long search for the lost Ulster County Gazette for January 4, 1800, ends triumphantly, with the discovery of three missing copies instead of one; for, though only a single member of the trio had risen to fame, its companions had also been counted among the irretrievable strays. Consigned now to the safe-keeping of the Library of Congress, they bring a long-standing mystery story to a satisfactory ending.

Shawn Purcell

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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