assistant university archivist, holds a rare book, which was featured on
PBS's History Detectives in July. The book is stamped with the name
and address of a 19th century female anarchist and possibly belonged to a
deceased Wesleyan alumnus.
History Detectives Helps Solve Wesleyan Book Mystery
In June 2006, a book was discovered in the
Wesleyan stacks related to the Chicago Haymarket Tragedy marked with an unusual stamp
on the cover.
The book, written by August Spies, was titled Auto-Biography, and
appeared to be stamped with the name and address of Lucy Parsons, a 19th
century bi-racial anarchist who promoted better labor conditions. Parson’s
husband was among those convicted and executed in 1887 for bombing police
during the Haymarket riot; police kept her under surveillance for the rest
of her life. Parsons died in 1942 from smoke inhalation, and about 1,500 of her
books and papers were confiscated by police and disappeared.
1887-published artifact to Special Collections and Archives, where the book
encountered a deep investigation.
“How, then, did one of her books end up in the Wesleyan stacks,” asked
Valerie Gillispie, assistant university archivist, who received the book.
“Did this book actually belong to Lucy Parsons? Is the stamp authentic? Is
the book rare?”
Gillispie called the producers at PBS’s History Detectives, who
agreed to investigate. In January 2007, a crew came to Wesleyan to see the
book and film. For 12 hours, History Detectives filmed scenes on the front
steps of Olin Library, the Smith Reading Room and College Row.
The show aired on July 16 with surprising findings.
Although the late 19th century book was declared authentic, based on the age
of the paper and typography, the stamp did not prove it ever belonged to
“It turns out, Lucy was selling several copies of Spies’ book to raise
money, and she probably stamped her name and address on the books so people
who bought the books would know where to go for more anarchist materials,”
Gillispie says. “So, the book probably didn’t belong to Parsons, but it
still was a big part of that historical movement.”
Nevertheless, the book and stamp are both rare finds. An antique book dealer
interviewed on the show said he’s never seen a Lucy Parsons stamp before,
and for good reason. In the 1920s, the attorney general raided hundreds of
5radical headquarters and destroyed anarchist-related reading materials.
Somehow, this Parsons-stamped copy survived – and ended up on Wesleyan’s
In a world-wide catalog search, Gillispie says she can only locate 30 copies
of the Spies’ autobiography. And based on the History Detectives show, she
believes Wesleyan owns the only copy with the Parson’s stamp inked on the
“All evidence of Lucy Parson’s existence was discarded, so it is amazing
that this book with her name and address survived. It’s probably passed
through many, many hands and that alone makes it a very significant piece,”
But how did the book end up at Wesleyan? That’s one answer History
Detectives was unable to find.
Olin Library records show Spies’ book was added to the stacks collection in
the early 1970s, and it was checked out six times in the past 10 years.
Gillispie suspects the book might have belonged to Harry Laidler, class of
1907. Laidler, who wrote many books about the labor movement and socialism,
died in 1970, and left his personal library of 800 books to Wesleyan. Many
of these books and pamphlets were related to labor movements.
“It would make sense, based on the time the book was catalogued, that
Laidler owned this book. It’s just a hunch, but it’s the best guess we
have,” she says.
The book will be recatalogued and stored at Special Collections and
Archives’ rare book collection. The book cannot be checked out, but it is
available to the public for viewing.
The Wesleyan Connection editor