Text: Anonymous, “Story of a Manuscript: Its Strange Adventures and Escapes,” Philadelphia Times (Philadelphia, PA), whole number 8,512, January 22, 1899, p. 18, cols. 1-2


[page 18, column 1:]



Its Strange Adventures and Escapes.


A Page of Poe's “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” in the Drexel Institute and Its History.


In the library room of the Drexel Institute, at Thirty-second and Chestnut streets, there are no more interesting objects than two glass covered cases in which are preserved precious pages from the pens of those whose names are writ high on fame's immortal scroll. These manuscripts, whose authors shed lustre upon the world of letters, the domain of science, of statesmanship, philanthropy, benevolence, year, and the grim theatre of war's iron game, are kept under lock and key, guarded with jealous care by the custodians of the library, who never allow them to be disturbed from their dignified and honorable repose. The collection was added to the treasures of the Institute by Mr. Drexel's lifelong intimate and fellow philanthropist, George W. Childs, scarcely a year before the latter's death, and Mr. Childs in his memoirs devotes considerable space to an entertaining recital of the circumstances under which many of the famous papers came into his possession.


Some of the illustrious signatures of great statesmen, famous generals, distinguished litterateurs and others who lived and moved in an atmosphere far above the humdrum commonplace of the work-a-day world, are private communications to Mr. Childs, and these have an indefinable personal charm not to be overestimated. But it is the page that has gained and held a place in the permanent literature of the world, the classic that has stirred the thought, quickened the imaginations and swayed the hearts of countless millions of the children of men of every clime and of all known tongues, which possesses enduring value not along to the bibliograph, the chirographist or the student of literature in a professional sense, but to the “plain people,” known and honored of Lincoln, who find within the walls of the Drexel Institute those opportunities for the acquirement of knowledge elsewhere denied them. In one of the glass cases are pages just as they left the hand of the great Sir Walter, the “imperishable Scott” —

“Whose spirit woke the dust of nations into life,

That o’er the waste and barren earth spread flowers and fruitage rife.”

Close by lay the flowing characters of Bulwer Lytton's “Preface to the Pilgrims of the Rhine,” while arranged in graceful confusion were pages of Dickens’ “Mutual Friend” in the great novelist's own handwriting; poetical lines from the quill pens of Thomas Gray, of Samuel Coleridge, Robert Southly [[Southey]], Fredericka Bremer and others not less illustrious in belles letters. In the north end of the case, written in a small hand, but so firm and legible as to look almost like copper plate, is a manuscript that attracts general attention. It is a page from Edgar Allan Poe's weird story of “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” a story which caused a sensation when it was first published half a century ago, and which was not, as many uninformed readers believe, a product of Poe's wonderfully active imagination, but founded in its main incident upon the mysterious murder of Marie Roget, the New York cigarette girl, which puzzled the best police talent of the country, and furnished a problem in the solution of which Poe's marvelous faculty of deductive analysis evolved the queer story that has thrilled and chilled tens of thousands of readers through the succeeding years. The manuscript as it lies in the case is flanked by the original copy of Charles Lamb's “Essay of Elisa on Witches and Other Night Fears;” Harriet Martineau's “Retrospect of Western Travel,” and William Godwin's “Cloudesley,” all of them classics in their respective fields of modern literary composition and of elevated thought.


The manuscript of the strangely thrilling tale, “The Murders of the Rue Morgue,” was for many years the property of the late J. M. Johnston, a well known newspaper man of Lancaster, Pa., who died about ten years ago. He disposed of the precious pages of Poe some years previous. The manuscript came into his possession about the spring of 1842. At that time he was an apprentice in the office of Barrett & Thrasher, afterward Barrett & Jones, printers, at 33 Carter's alley, Philadelphia. Mr. Johnston believed that it was in the pages of Graham's Magazine, printed by the firm named, that the story of “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” first appeared, while the revised proof was read in The Saturday Evening Post office, which was then located on Chestnut street, above Third. He had himself struck the type for a part of the since famous story.

After the proof had been read the manuscript found its way into the waste basket, along with a bunch of other apparently unimportant copy. But the young printer boy, who had developed a high admiration for the literary genius of the author, a respect which he maintained throughout the succeeding years of his life, picked the copy out of the receptacle into which it had been ignominiously cast and asked an obtained leave to keep it. He took it to his home, where it was put away so carefully that the owner lost sight of it for many years.

In 1846 Mr. Johnston's father, Dr. William Johnston, removed to York county, subsequently to Maryland and thence into Virginia, [column 2:] carrying with him on these various pilgrimages the pages of Poe. Neither the elder Johnston nor his son knew that the manuscript was snugly stowed between the leaves of a large book in the library — in fact, it had been neglected so long that it was actually forgotten altogether. Determining, after a residence of some years in the south, to return to Pennsylvania, Dr. Johnston made a sale of his personal effects, and among a lot of books offered at the auction was found this much traveled Poe manuscript. It was at once recognized, rescued from oblivion and forwarded to Mr. Johnston, who had continued his residence in Philadelphia until 1847, removing hence to Lancaster, where he regained possession of the long neglected pages, none the worse for their peregrinations.

Mr. Johnston started business as a daguerreotypist at Lancaster, being the first man to permanently established the occupation of “picture taking” in that ancient town. Twice his gallery took fire, and on one of these visitations of the destroying elements (March 8, 1850) almost all of his books, papers, pictures, apparatus, etc., were consumed but the Poe manuscript, folded within the leaves of an old music book, escaped the wreck.

About 1857 a grocery store occupying the first floor of the building in which the photography rooms were located took fire and burned furiously. The flames did not reach the gallery, but the smoke did, and the firemen drenched everything with water, destroying books, papers and other property, but by rare good fortune this Poe manuscript again escaped injury beyond a slight discoloration.


When the civil war broke out, Mr. Johnston enlisted and led a company of Pennsylvania volunteers through the arduous campaigns. On his return to the pursuits of peace he found the Poe manuscript safe within the pages of the music book where he had left it.

In 1865 Mr. Johnston became the proprietor of the Swan hotel, one of the venerable and historic hostelries of Lancaster, which years ago disappeared before the advance of trade, though the ancient building still stands, remodeled to serve the purpose of a large mercantile establishment. Retiring from the hotel in 1869 to don the newspaper harness, in which he passed the remaining 20 years of his life, the ex-boniface consigned a great quantity of rubbish to the ash heap, the old music book, with its precious contents again, alas, forgotten, sharing the fate of a number of other supposed worthless articles. The book was seen sticking amid the ashes by a neighbor, the late John R. Watkins, who, thinking it had been inadvertently overlooked, picked it out of its undignified and undeserved bed and placed it in the owner's hands. When the latter turned over its leaves, he again disclosed to his astonished gaze the much neglected and long mislaid manuscript which nearly thirty years before he had carried away in pride from the Philadelphia printing office. Resolved that these really valuable and historic pages should no longer be exposed to the risks of which they had successfully survived so many, he had them bound for permanent preservation, to which precaution is probably due the fact that thousands have the privilege of beholding the actual handwriting of one who has been aptly described as “the buried genius of romance,” and that, too, in a masterpiece that will ever hold a front rank in the class of literature of which it is a shining example.

The late George W. Childs secured the Poe manuscript in 1882, the transfer of the pages being attended by interesting correspondence between the great publisher and Mr. Johnston. It because one of the cherished treasures of Mr. Childs’ library and was regarded as a chef d'œuvre of that splendid collection of works of the kind which now graces the Drexel Institute library.





[S:0 - PT, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Story of a Manuscript: Its Strange Adventures and Escapes (Anonymous, 1899)