Selling Battered Old Books | Newberry

Selling Battered Old Books

One of the things I did when I learned I might be working from home was pack up a few boxes of Bag-Its, my own term for those Book fair donations which are going to need a little help. They aren’t necessarily collectibles which will fall apart otherwise. Sometimes they’re decks of flashcards, or art portfolios, or other things with many pieces which need to be held together.

I was in kind of a rush: I had been getting strong hints for 24 jours that this might happen, then a statement that it WOULD happen. I did not have much time to consider what I was packing: if I had had more time, I would have concentrated on the most valuable items, tucked on a shelf over THERE. I just took whatever was nearest, plus a box full of bags. (The full collection of bags can handle anything from a baseball card to a theater lobby card or newspaper. I don’t keep this assortment in a bomb shelter bag so I can spend my time after World War III bagging things. My mistake.)

In any case, I have been putting things in bags, everything from $200 art magazines with original lithographs inside to those collections of stationery some of you drop off. And I ran across a stack of old books with leather spines, all of which had been kept in one library until the leather dried, and cracked, and the covers came loose.

They were all published in the 1870s and 1880s by a Chicago firm that at that point was still Jansen, McClurg, and Company. If you are a regular reader of this column (and who wants to be an irregular reader?) the name will set off bells. Yes, we deal again with A.C. McClurg, Chicago bookseller whose career was interrupted by the Civil War, during which he rose to the rank of Brigadier General and once charged the Confederate line waving a handkerchief, came back to Chicago to sell books, saw his first establishment burned to the ground in the Chicago Fire, and so on. There is a good chance that these particular falling-apart titles belonged to the General himself. But he didn’t write his name in them, and they’re STILL just old books falling apart.

I grumbled about having to use my bags, which cost anywhere from a nickel to a dime apiece, on such things, but they’re what I have to work with. One utterly forgettable novel held out the promise of mild interest, because there was a letter from the author in it, asking if the General will lend her a hundred bucks. She doesn’t say what General, but it is not unknown for an author to ask a publisher for money. (Sometimes they actually get some.)

The author is identified in the book only as C.M.C., and this particular book was published later with the name “Charles M. Clay” on the title page. But the letter is from Charlotte M. Clark who, I was able to learn, sometimes wrote as Charles M. Clay. So far so dull. I figured somebody MIGHT, if they felt like it, spend fifteen bucks on a letter from an obscure female author of around 1878. But I decided to look and find out whether she had any accomplishments other than writing this book.

Turns out she has. The M stands for Moon: in her heyday, she was one of the Moon Sisters. No, not a cheap vaudeville act, though Charlotte was known as an actress and ventriloquist. Back in Oxford, Ohio, where they knew her as Cynthia Charlotte “Lottie” Moon, she made herself into one of America’s Most Wanted Women. The Federal reward offered for her reached $10,000: the Secretary of War wanted her VERY badly.

See, Lottie and Virginia were, in their hearts, daughters of the South. (Virginia got kicked out of her boarding school for shooting all the stars out of an American flag hanging on a building.) During the War, they worked together, smuggling messages and medicine again and again across enemy lines. Lottie, masquerading as Lady Hull, begged the Secretary of War to help her get to the South, and Stanton actually offered her a lift since he and the President were headed that direction. A frail woman might fall asleep on such a trip, and she pretended to do so, until Lincoln and Stanton assumed she was out cold, and started to discuss military matters. She carried all the information to the improper authorities.

The Moon sisters were captured eventually, by a Union general Lottie had jilted at the altar. (When asked if she accepted Ambrose E. Burnside as her lawful wedded spouse, she said, “Nossirree, Bob!”) Ambrose somehow never got around to having her hanged, and she survived the war. (So did Virginia, who lived to perform in a couple of silent movies.)

So what I had here was a letter from a former Confederate spy to a former Union General, asking for a loan. Kinda glad I didn’t just throw all these junky, damaged books away. (P.S., the book is not in a bag right now. It’s on eBay.)

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