Bidding war

Collectors and historians salivate over Civil War-era relics as an auction of slave documents, books and memorabilia from John Brown's hanging go on the block in York, Pa.

October 26, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

YORK, Pa. -- John C. Newcomer is fretting. The slave documents have disappeared, vanished somewhere in this converted garage and basement crammed with 18th century baby cribs, turn-of-the-century graphophones, grandfather clocks, a wooden Indian and the largest collection of cross saws he has ever seen.

"We've got to hunt," he says, going through one box, calling out to colleagues busy sticking labels on brochures. "I just pulled all those boxes up this morning, so we'd have room to work."

The contracts hiring out slaves in the 1840s, the medallion possibly worn by slaves at auction, the sales receipt of a young boy are part of a fascinating collection being sold this week by York Town Auction Inc.

The historical gems are the final legacy of Thornton Tayloe Perry of Charles Town, W.Va., an amateur historian and avid collector. Perry once owned papers from the family of George Washington and had the original deed to Mount Vernon.

"If we had what he had sold off, we would probably have a world record for American history," says Newcomer, appraiser for York Town Auction.

Much of what is going on sale is the stuff of antique dealers and collectors: old typewriters and stereoscopes, a ticket board from the B & O Railroad. Some pieces speak to larger issues.

There is Jacob Lentz, a free black, writing to defend his honor against false claims; there are papers from the arguments for western Virginia to secede. Nothing has captured the attention of historians as much as the items from the trial and hanging of John Brown, the messianic abolitionist who stormed the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, W.Va., in 1859.

Five finger-length pieces of rope used to tie Brown's co-conspirators are going on sale, along with a strand of Brown's hair taken from his pillow, a chunk of wood said to be from the gallows and a powerful letter Brown received while awaiting the hangman.

The letter begins: "Altho' vengeance is not mine, I confess that I do feel gratified to hear that you were stopped in your fiendish career at Harper's Ferry, with the loss of your two sons."

Mahala Doyle, the writer, knew the fury of Brown's violent campaign to end slavery. His men killed her husband and two sons in Kansas, sparing only her youngest son. She knew Brown was not going to hang for those crimes, but he was going to hang. And that was good.

"You can't say you done it to free slaves," she wrote. "We had none and never expected to own one."

The Kansas Historical Society is considering a bid for the letter. People from Harper's Ferry National Historical Park drove out to take a look. They want it not because of its contents, known for years, but because it is a document from the turbulent years preceding the Civil War.

"She talks with great emotion about her feelings about Brown," says Bruce Noble, chief of the park's interpretation division. "What it would add is some kind of physical, tangible connection with something that happened 140 years ago."

Noble is not as interested in the piece of wood from the gallows. The park already has a piece. The piece being sold looks similar to one the park owns, but its authenticity is hard to prove.

"You don't know," says Newcomer. "All you know for sure is that it's yellow pine and that it had a square nail in it."

Newcomer puts his faith in the owner's integrity. He knew Perry. The collector once had him bid against a competitor. Perry figured the opposition would go easy on Newcomer, who was a child at the time.

Perry surrounded himself with artifacts, gave lectures, helped found the Jefferson County Historical Society. He was born into history, says Newcomer. One ancestor knew the country's first five presidents. Perhaps that explains an obsession that filled a three-story house and a one-story museum.

Perry's own life is straight out of the movies. He flew cardboard jalopies over Europe's battlefields in World War I. During World War II he hunkered down in London while V-2 rockets slammed into the city. He married actor Randolph Scott's sister and took trips to Hollywood during the Golden Era of the 1930s. There's a picture of him with Scott, Jack Oakie and Bing Crosby.

"He was the kind of man that, you know, was very vital, very much alive," says Katharine Crane, an acquaintance and archivist for the Jefferson County Museum.

He was a handsome man, a gentleman, they say, persistent and persuasive. After World War II, he came home and served as postmaster for 10 years. He knew everybody, those with collectibles, and those who might want to sell. He became a familiar face at auctions, book sales, yard sales.

"Everybody has a story about Mr. Perry," says Marcia Lance, director of the Charles Town Public Library.

A favorite story is about the time Perry put a particularly valuable volume at the bottom of a box and covered it with inexpensive books, including a copy of the Bobbsey Twins. Maybe the book he wanted was worth $500, maybe more, maybe less. But this much is certain: It was worth more than the Bobbsey Twins.

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