Text: Anonymous, “Saved by Rare Luck: Strange Adventures and Escapes of a Manuscript,” Johnstown Daily Republican (Johnstown, NY), March 7, 1899, p. 8, col. 4


[page 8, column 4:]




The Checkered History of a Page of Poe's “The Murders of the Rue Morgue” Now Carefully Preserved In the Drexel Institute.

In a covered glass case in the library room of the Drexel institute in Philadelphia are a number of rare literary treasures. In the north end of the case, written in a small hand, but so firm and legible as to look almost like copperplate, 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 or more 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 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, 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 30 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. — Philadelphia Inquirer.



The author of this article has somewhat confused Poe's tales “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” both of which feature Poe's detective hero C. August Dupin. It was the latter of these two stories that was based on the murder of Mary Rodgers, of New York. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” was indeed first published in Graham's Magazine, in the issue for April 1841.


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