Shannon Pender

The Rare Manuscript that Saved a Museum

Shannon Pender

I love collecting old books. My favorite piece of this collection by far is a grammar book from the 1800s. It’s nearly falling apart and held together by unraveling twine. On the inside, you’ll find doodles from its original owner, Agnes. She wrote her name in large, antique cursive and even played tic-tac-toe in the margins. When I flip through the pages, I feel like I’m getting a glimpse into the past.

One museum intern in New York City stumbled upon more than just doodles in an old book. She found an original document from the American Revolution that would become the saving grace of the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum.

In July of 2013, intern Emilie Gruchow was combing through the museum’s attic, re-cataloguing manuscripts. It was almost 100 degrees in the attic that day, but she stopped to read one of the documents she found anyway. She soon recognized it as “The Twelve United Colonies, by their Delegates in Congress, to the Inhabitants of Great Britain.”

The address was a plea to the British people. Americans hoped to avoid war by reconciling with the empire’s inhabitants. The final printed copy “reveals the strong, conflicted feelings of the colonists in the spring and summer of 1775” on the brink of revolution. The version Gruchow found turned out to be an original draft with edits and strikethroughs, which now gives historians an even clearer picture of the decisions made during drafting and who contributed the most to the document.

After confirming that this was a historic find, the museum then had to decide what to do with the document. Should they sell this piece of history . . . or keep it? 

At the time, the museum was in desperate need of repairs and had run a deficit of $30,000. Selling the document would not only save the museum, it would also provide the chance that the address would be preserved and stored in a major institution where the country could see it. The museum voted to sell.

The document was auctioned off by celebrity auctioneer Leigh Keno of Antiques Roadshow fame.

After viewing the famous document, Keno said, “when reading the draft, with its many changes in place, one gets a sense of what was going through the minds of our Founding Fathers. It really is a national treasure.”

The museum expected this treasure to sell for around $350,000. Instead, it sold for an incredible $912,500. A shocking conclusion that will provide enough financial stability for the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum to serve the people for years to come.

Did You Know?

The contents of an entire library in Herculaneum, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, were thought to be too corrupted and blackened to read without damaging them. Now, however, archaeologists are hoping to use digital scanning technology to read texts that would otherwise be lost to history.

Photo Credit: Beyond My Ken

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