Pattye Stringer sent us on a treasure hunt.
Stringer is a guide at East Falls’ historic Laurel Hill Cemetery. She leads people past the graves of the famous and the forgotten, including the cemetery’s “Millionaires Row,” where the bodies of Philly’s former moguls and industrialists rest in their own ornately decorated miniature mansions. Her favorite resident of the row: 19th-century newspaperman George W. Childs.
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“What happened to the many things collected by George W. Childs, 19th century millionaire newspaperman? His collection included a handwritten manuscript by Edgar Allan Poe. He had no siblings or children,” Stringer asked our Curious Philly portal.
Curious Philly is where readers ask us questions, and our reporters track down the answers.
A bit of Googling and a visit to The Inquirer’s archives on Newspapers.com yielded the locations of two of Childs’ prized possessions — the original, handwritten manuscript of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and that of Charles Dickens’ novel Our Mutual Friend.
Tracking them down now is a worthy modern mystery. “Rue Morgue” is considered the first modern detective story. It can now be found in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the city in which Poe wrote it. Our Mutual Friend, also handwritten and autographed by Dickens, is in the Morgan Library & Museum in New York.
How they got there, though, is one those stories that reminds us not only that we can’t take it with us, but that our stuff may not stay exactly where we leave it after we’re gone.
If Childs (1829-1894) was more of a modern-day hero, Tom Hanks might be playing him in a movie.
Though little seems to be known of Childs’ early years — one reference describes him as “born in Baltimore, the illegitimate child of a prominent father” — he grew up fast, becoming someone known for his business savvy, his friendships, and his generosity.
Stringer has done her share of the detective work on Childs. “He joined the Navy when he was 12. ... When he was 14, he decided he’d had enough of the Navy. So his commanding officer at the time arranged for him to have a job as a clerk in a bookstore in Philadelphia,” she said during a recent visit to Childs’ mausoleum.
He saved his money and "went into a partnership with a gentleman by the name of Robert Peterson, who happens to be married to a woman whose father was a prominent judge. So they got into the business of publishing law books,” Stringer said.
The publishing house was in the same building as the Public Ledger, one of a number of daily newspapers in Philadelphia at the time, and George, she said, made no secret of the fact that he hoped to own the paper someday.
The opportunity came in 1864, when the Ledger, the only paper in Philadelphia not to take the Union’s side in the Civil War, was struggling. Childs bought the Ledger with his partners, brothers Anthony and Francis Drexel, and they “turned it around in two years,” she said.
“He would run the presses. He would write stories if needed be, he would sweep the floors, wash the windows, anything — he just wanted the place to run smoothly. And he gave his people benefits. Stuff like this was just not happening in the 1860s. But they got insurance and pensions and paid vacations. And my favorite thing, he paid the women at the same rate as the men.”
The Inquirer, which competed with the Ledger until absorbing its Sunday and morning editions in 1934, wrote frequently about Childs. It was front-page news when he entertained a Spanish duke and duchess at his Radnor “country residence,” Wootton, and when he traveled west on a visit to Denver. When he suffered an attack of “vertigo” — the stroke that would eventually kill him — The Inquirer, as well as the New York Times, posted prominent updates on his condition. Even Childs’ 64th birthday rated a Page One mention.
He hobnobbed with presidents and former presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, but his closest friend appears to have been Anthony Drexel, who named one of his sons George W. Childs Drexel.
And after the older Drexel founded the Drexel Institute — now Drexel University — in 1891, Childs or his widow donated much of his collection to the school, including the Poe and Dickens manuscripts and David Rittenhouse’s Astronomical Musical Clock.
With Drexel they would remain until the 1940s, when the school began to look into liquidating some of its collections, triggering an outcry from alumni, teachers, and students.
In January 1944, Drexel’s president, George P. Rea, demanded to see the school’s student newspaper’s story on the proposed sale “for censorship,” reported The Inquirer. A few months later, Rea resigned, and the paper quoted his denial that it was tied to “the attempt to dispose of such institute treasures as the Rittenhouse clock and the original manuscript of Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ ”
Sometimes called “the most important clock in America,” the Rittenhouse timepiece remains at Drexel today. The manuscripts, however, were put on the block, with “Rue Morgue" fetching $34,000. Sold to Charles Sessler, a Philadelphia collector and dealer, it became part of the collection of Richard Gimbel.
Gimbel, the grandson of the founder of the old Gimbels department stores, was a fan of Poe’s and had bought the writer’s former home on Seventh Street. (It’s now operated by the National Park Service as the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site.) After Gimbel died in 1970, his Poe collection, along with the house, went to the Free Library.
So that’s where Poe ended up.
“It’s definitely a point of pride because there is not a lot of Poe material like the manuscript out there," said Janine Pollock, chief of the Free Library’s special collections division. The title page, which shows that the writer crossed out part of the original title, changing “Rue Trianon-Bas” to the spookier “Rue Morgue,” is somewhat faded, so it’s not on permanent display. But you can still see it: Reservations to see the manuscript can be made through the library’s Rare Book Department: 215-686-5416 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dickens’ manuscript, whose $17,000 sale was hailed by The Inquirer as “ 'Our Mutual Friend’ Comes Back to City,” did not remain long in Philadelphia after its reported purchase by Philadelphia art dealer and book collector A.S.W. Rosenbach.
But Rosenbach was only the intermediary, said Elizabeth E. Fuller, librarian at the Rosenbach, which houses the collections of Rosenbach and his brother, Philip. The real buyer was New York’s Morgan Library.
“Rosenbach got the headlines for the record prices he set by skillful bidding regardless of whose money he was doing it with, and reporters sought him out because [they] knew they’d get good copy from him whether or not he talked about the purchaser, because he was also good at explaining the objects themselves — why they were interesting and important enough to be worth such prices.”