Asa M. Abbott

Apparently, yes, he received a reply from LeConte, per Mifflin in The Blue Tattoo. I now have a little fantasy of adding a copy of that letter and LeConte’s San Francisco Herald article to the LeConte Papers. I am not sure if that fantasy falls more firmly in the “archivist” or “historian” category…but either way, I am pleased to have that sort of fantasy. I am also pleased/amused/unsurprised to note contact interest in the subject of the Oatmans (to say nothing of nineteenth century scientific endeavors), contracted as a result of working with the original materials.

The Oatman murders

In the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others category, there is a September 12 letter to John LeConte from Asa M. Abbott regarding the Oatman family. The letter was undated, but given the subject matter and contextual clues (references to a four month wait for the initial news and the general paucity of information) I felt pretty confident dating it as 1851.

Google the Oatmans and you find a familiar tale of Indian savagery and abduction. (Familiar in the sense that the players and themes had stewed in the public imagination for over a century—relocating the stage to the southwest results in only superficial changes.) You’ll also find a couple different editions of Captivity of the Oatman Girls on Google Books, which includes a very nineteenth century description of a brief encounter with a “Dr. Lecount” and his efforts to assist the family (and heroically restrain his apparently suicidal Mexican guide and treacherous Apaches from killing one another—really, all he needs is the hat and the whip and he’ll get down to doing some two-fisted science).

There is something prurient about the letter, which offers apologies and explanations for its existence, then asks for details about the family’s last days. It is somewhat perplexing: why not ask the surviving son, rather than a third party? A desire for an impartial narrative, consideration for Lorenzo’s feelings…there are a host of possibilities, which either reflect well or very poorly upon Abbott’s character and motivation.

As noted in the finding aid, the vast bulk of correspondence is incoming. I wonder whether and how LeConte replied to Abbott’s letter.

Beautiful objects

Last week I was poking through the APS’s oversized files, verifying the existence of a surveyor’s exercise. (Take heart, gentle reader: the mystery map with some connection to the LeConte clan does indeed exist.) When pulling open an it’s-probably-not-filed-here-any-more-but-this-cabinet-doesn’t-need-a-key drawer, I came across a map of the moon.

Death notices

It’s sad to see death notices. It’s especially sad near the end of the correspondence series, approaching the end of LeConte’s own life, when the letters are fewer and farther between (especially after the flurry of 1877 activity, when his supporters wrote Rutherford B. Hayes). “You’ve had your run,” the record seems to say, “now it’s over, nothing more to do.” Depressing. Not simply because it’s a reminder of one’s own mortality, but because there is a certain affection for the writers of this material. Jules Putzeÿs is a great name*; I always felt happy to see it on a folder label—and then there was his death notice, and he would never appear on a label again. It’s rather silly. Obviously nineteenth century correspondents are all safely dead by now. Those folder labels even helpfully inform one of their birth and death dates. But still, the death notices are mournful items.

* Janos Xántus is another great LeConte name. He sounds like an industrialist who either fights crime in spandex or is himself the criminal mastermind.

Victorian Gothic

John L. LeConte’s invite to the opening of the new Academy of the Fine Arts building has an illustration very similar to the Frederick Gutekunst photo currently on the PAFA website; the foreground figures (presumably included for scale) are different and the perspective is slightly off. I wonder if the Gutekunst photo was the basis of the illustration, or if that was simply deemed the most pleasing angle from which to view the building.

He was identified as “John L. LeConte M.D.” (in contrast to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which sent tickets to “Dr. and Mrs.”) I don’t know if he was practicing at this point, but medicine wasn’t a driving force in his professional life; in the 1870s he seems to’ve divided his time between omnidisciplinary publication and lobbying for a federal appointment. Was “M.D.” simply the most convenient title to apply? Was there an intention to harken back to his military service in the Civil War? Was “M.D.” already a marker for social rank in the U.S., and how much of that was a reaction against British conventions?

And yes, I have been thinking lately about contemporary conventions of addressing M.D.s as “Doctor” and J.D.s appending “Esquire” when other practicing professionals, to say nothing of Ph.Ds, are in a more uncertain position. I don’t think it’s sour grapes, just bemusement at how fashions change and a frustration with cultural priorities and the popular regard—or lack thereof—for education and learning for its own sake. Even the APS is dedicated to “promoting useful knowledge.” What about useless knowledge? That’s pretty cool, too.

Baa baa black…calf?

Much mid-1870s verbiage is devoted  to the issue of “calf-hair” or “half-hair” goods. I am of course amused (from my specialist-steeped twenty-first-century perspective) to see an entomologist engaged in debate over the scientific classification of fiber and the commercial implications (non-woollen products were exempt from certain import duties). Even knowing that later in the decade LeConte made a bid for Commissioner of Agriculture, for which knowledge of livestock was presumably something of a prerequisite, it is still a good illustration of the Omnidisciplinary Scientist in action.

Uninformed font speculation

I came across an interesting 1874 font choice. Exterminator B. Pickman Mann* printed up letterhead outlining, in a few paragraphs, his services. Name in large, fancy gothic above, block caps in the unadorned serif font of the body. (I should become a font geek, then I’d be able to describe it more accurately.) But the office address and hours are in a larger, bolded, sans serif. Is that just intended to call attention to the relevant information? Is the dissonance just a matter of my offended design sensibilities? It is reminiscent of fields pulled from elsewhere, which now don’t need to be differentiated but sometimes still are (because that somehow makes it seem like a personal form letter?)…so was it perhaps the same thing? The paragraph text is pretty specific to Mann’s business, so I have a tough time imagining anyone else using the template. Maybe he did, or planned to in case he ever moved his office? Perhaps investigation into 1870s printing technology would shed some light (or at least eliminate possible explanations).

* Did he have a model? A gigantic creepy cockroach of dubious geometry, perhaps?

Descriptive demons

I skimmed a letter from Sarah to Helen (niece and wife, I believe), and almost described it as “gossip.” Which is not untrue, but such a dismissive term; using it—especially in what is already an overwhelmingly male-dominated context—would feel like ovarian betrayal. I said “interpersonal news” instead.

Labels and folders are, currently, precious. I resisted the temptation to leave uncorrected a physical label and AT entry dated March 21, 1874. It’s clearly the 31st—clearly written on the page, and clear from the scope and contents note in AT that it’s the same letter. I am sort of proud of myself, but at the same time recognize I’m just being anal because any user would’ve easily been able to find the letter even with the minor discrepancy. But somewhere down the line maybe it means one fewer snarky footnote about misdated materials.

I studiously ignore the semicolons at the end of item titles. This is presumably an artifact of importation from Access. (Although other fields, like date expression, lack deliminiting characters, and you’d really hope they’d pick something a bit less fraught, at least a carrot. I have not yet asked Access to talk to AT.) I cleaned up the Frazer collection manually, because it’s small. LeConte requires either an automated clean up or someone far more anal and masochistic than me. I don’t fret about the persistent “Le Conte” or inconsistent rendering of dates (though I think about both). Nor have I worried my head about accent marks (another presumable side effect of importation), except on the labels I type up myself. “Lacordaire, The#odore” is eminently human readable.

Delightful things from the early 1870s

I am charmed that on occasion (twice now) George Henry Horn started his letters with a colorful little flower above the salutation. I wonder if this spontaneous illumination made John L. LeConte’s day, too.

Thrifty authors sometimes sliced paper in half. Several times I’ve come across a full, folded sheet of 5×8 paper accompanied by a half-sized second page. I say “thrifty,” and there may have been concern over material or postage cost. But it could also have been a conservatory streak or a social convention—perhaps blank space was considered less polite. I am now curious about nineteenth century correspondents’ relationship with their stationery.

Per the pre-printed “Directions for Sending Insects” on the letterhead of the Missouri State Entomologist: “Botanists like their specimens pressed flat as a pan-cake, but entomologists do not.”

Whenever I read “My dear Doctor,” the voice in my head is Anthony Ainley’s.