Fragments of Gutenberg in Chicago

Thomas J. Joyce


C

hicago — if it existed at all — consisted of some teepees near the spot where the Chicago River emptied into Lake Michigan circa 1455 when Johann Gutenberg first displayed sheets of his immortal Bible. For the next three centuries, Chicago remained little more than a mosquito-breeding ground with some temporary shelters.

When the city was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871, a new, powerful colossus rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a singular celebration of the city’s achievements and prospects. But, just prior to that, in 1891, another significant mark of Chicago’s coming-of-age in culture and wealth was the arrival of the its first Gutenberg Bible. It was the second copy of the Gutenberg Bible to reach American shores, and James H. Ellsworth bought it at auction for $14,800. One wonders if it was that acquisition more than anything else which propelled Ellsworth to be elected the first president of The Caxton Club when it was founded in 1895. Did that make him first among equals? (The Ellsworth copy of the Bible is now at Princeton University Library).

A fragment of a Gutenberg Bible was sold by Caxtonian David A. Randall, ace bookseller of Scribner’s Rare Book Room, to Chicagoan George A. Poole. It consisted of four books of the New Testament. Subsequently, Randall re-acquired it when he became the Curator of the Eli Lilly Library of Indiana University. Randall purchased Poole’s collection en bloc. The deal was brokered by Caxtonian Frances Hamill of Hamill & Barker, Chicago’s pre-eminent rare booksellers.

In 1961, Don Cleveland Norman, one of our distant Caxtonians, had published his The 500th Anniversary Pictorial Census of the Gutenberg Bible, an exhaustive effort to document copies of the Bible in whole or in significant parts.

Significant parts is applicable because many of the fewer than 50 copies which have survived half a millennium were lacking one or more leaves, or even a volume. Some of these missing leaves were able to be replaced from the Sulzbach-Mannheim-Munich copy of the Bible. New York rare bookseller (not a Caxtonian), Gabriel Wells, acquired that in 1920. He broke that copy up, and sold (mostly) individual leaves in a leaf book, with an introduction by A. Edward Newton.

A copy of that book, A Noble Fragment, containing an original Gutenberg Bible leaf from the Second Book of Samuel, recently surfaced in the Chicago area. It is the Feustal Copy. It was purchased in the 1920s by Mr. Feustal, a Hoosier, who was described by a descendant as “a small-time William Randolph Hearst.” That leaf is currently for sale and can be seen on exhibit during October and November at the Chicago Rare Book Center, 56 W. Maple St., Chicago (one block north of the Newberry Library).

 

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