500 years of real news: how history unfolds on paper
As a collector, Eric C. Caren sought out newspapers, posters, broadsides and eyewitness letters that got as close as possible to major events of modern history. Here, a small selection from our 15 June sale in New York, ranging from a letter relating Custer's last stand to an early plan for Woodstock festival
This on-the-spot report of Custer’s last stand was written by his close friend, Otho Michaelis, the 7th Cavalry’s chief of ordnance. Michaelis nevertheless places the blame for the debacle at Little Big Horn squarely on the general’s shoulders.
In the letter, Michaelis describes, in vivid detail, his discovery of Custer’s body: ‘The General’s body is untouched — his expression is serene and peaceful... Bad generalship on Custer’s part the cause & do not like to say this — but I do — He divided his command and the five companies with him were butchered to a man.’
Michaelis describes the terrible scene he witnessed on his arrival at the battlefield on 28 June 1876: ‘Oh darling Sunshine, how can I ever write the horrible events of the past few days — The 7th Cav’y is all up — 300 hundred men and officers butchered... I do not know that we could have done much there were over 3,000 well armed, well organized Indian warriors — better armed than our cavalry… I cannot describe the horrors I have seen.’
This report of electrical experiments and lightning in Franklin’s own paper on 5 March 1754 carries a long report on the death of Wilhelm Richmann, who was electrocuted while attempting to repeat the experiments of Benjamin Franklin.
The report concludes that ‘the new Doctrine of Lightning is, however, confirm’d by this unhappy Accident and many Lives may hereafter be sav’d by the Practice it teaches’, and then explains the principal of the lightning rod which Franklin had invented in 1749.
The 1763 paper also offered bears an advertisement: ‘For the Entertainment of the Curious: A Course of Electrical Experiments’, described over about a third of a column on the second page. It also offers news concerning the close of the French and Indian War.
Written by an anonymous apparent eyewitness, this is a translation from the Paris newsletter report, which appeared on 4 August 1535. The full title translates as: ‘Of the Condemnation and Death of the Great Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, since he had refused to follow and support the same Kingdom’s counsel and new law. Not unworthy to be read by everyone for the man’s outstanding courage and constancy.’
This German version is remarkably humanist, describing More as a paragon of constancy rather than a martyr, and includes a description of More’s daughter, Margaret, clinging to her father as he is led to the Tower. No copies of this title or any other printed version of the Paris newsletter account are known to have been offered at auction.
Video: The struggle for liberty
This broadside — the only extant copy known — is dated Monday 6 January, 1777, and relays the news of General Washington crossing the Delaware with 3,000 troops and winning a decisive victory at Trenton. The tidings of his success in a battle that lasted just 35 minutes had been received by Governor Trumbull in Connecticut and then sent on to the Massachusetts Council on Saturday 4 January. The broadside was issued immediately following the Sabbath.
The printer of the broadside, Ezekiel Russell, employed enormous type. He also had proven a flair for dramatic headlines — having also been responsible for the famous ‘Bloody Butchery’ broadside issued following the Battle of Bunker Hill. The attractive woodcut of the Continental soldier with communiqué and cutlass seems to be Russell’s own.
Although misprinted and torn, this copy of a Confederate field-printed broadside is particularly evocative. It reads in part, ‘You have fought a fierce and sanguinary battle, which, if not attended with the success that has hitherto crowned your efforts, was marked by the same heroic spirit that [h]as commanded the respect of your enemies, the grati-[tu]de of your country and the admiration of mankind. / Once more you are called upon to meet the army [from] which you have won so many fields a name that [will] never die…’
General Lee’s stirring words, however, could never have fully succeeded in rallying the spirits of the Confederacy after the epic losses at Gettysburg.
Approximately 80,000 of these handbills were printed on the same Sunday in 1888 that Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were killed within an hour of each other in the so-called ‘double event’. This was enough for distribution to every household in Whitechapel, the impoverished East End neighbourhood where the murders occurred.
Despite the large print run, these handbills were inherently ephemeral and their existence would hardly be known of were it not for the police records. Apart from newspapers, we can trace no other original source material from these murders that has been offered for public sale.
Video: Eyewitness accounts of history
This full account of the events of 16-17 December 1773 in Boston, offered as a ‘carrier’s address’, details the mass-meeting in Boston that erupted into one of the most famous acts of vigilantism in American history. Following the final word from the owner of the ship Dartmouth that he would be unable to leave port until his tea was cleared by the customs house, the meeting voted to dissolve and immediately ‘repaired to Griffin’s wharf, where the tea vessels lay, proceeded to fix tackles, and hoisted the tea upon deck, cut the chests to pieces, and threw over the side...’
A report by the Boston Committee of Correspondence is also reprinted and worth quoting in large part: ‘Yesterday we had a greater Meeting of the Body than ever. The country coming in from twenty miles round, and every step was taken that was practicable for returning the Teas. The moment it was known out of doors, that Mr. Rotch, could not obtain a pass for his ship, by the castle, a number of people huzzaed in the street, and in a very little time, every ounce of the Teas on board of Capts. Hall, Bruce and Coffin, was immersed in the Bay, without the least injury to private property’.
This broadside is perhaps the only extant copy in private hands, with the last copy to appear at a major auction being offered at Parke Bernet in 1942.
‘These are the times that try men’s souls....’ Thomas Paine witnessed the retreat of the main force of the Continental Army to the Delaware River and wrote this essay among their camps. It appeared in newspaper and pamphlet form soon afterwards, and George Washington found it so effective that legend has it that he ordered it to be read to the troops as they prepared to cross the Delaware and attack Trenton, turning the tide of the war.
This printing fills the entirety of the front page and just over a column on the second page, making it perfect for display. We have been unable to find previous examples of front-page newspaper printings being offered at auction.
Jean Val Ernst, a staff member of Woodstock Ventures, discovered this planning chart in a trailer behind the stage after the conclusion of the festival. The chart suggests the festival was, at one point, intended to have run an entire week from Wednesday 13 August to Wednesday 20 August 1969.
The plan lists each day horizontally, and each row is divided into smaller, but unspecified time intervals (perhaps 10 minutes per slot). Only the prime nights (Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday) were scheduled, and many of the planned acts, including Joan Baez, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and The Who, were scheduled to play four nights in a row — each consuming generous amounts of time. Oddly enough, only two slots were allotted for Jimi Hendrix (Sunday night) followed by an equally short set by Johnny Winter.
Other acts that would perform at the Bethel, New York festival mentioned here include Canned Heat, Ravi Shankar, Janis Joplin, Ritchie Havens, Sha-Na-Na, Country Joe and the Fish, Crosby Stills & Nash, Sweetwater, Incredible String Band, Mountain, and Arlo Guthrie. Proposed acts that did not perform in August 1969 include Spontaneous Sound and (pencilled in at the close of Sunday evening) Iron Butterfly (who failed to make the festival).