J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Steal Not This Book for Fear of Shame

Yesterday folks at the Seth Kaller firm in New York sent me a link to their catalog of the early American documents related to Boston now for sale. (Click on “Boston Catalog” at the webpage linked above.) They’ll be at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair on 16-18 November.

One item that caught my eye was a copy of Brady and Tate’s New Version of the Psalms of David, printed in Boston in 1765 and signed as shown here: “John Hancock’s / Thou shalt not Steal Saith the Lord.”

Hancock’s inscription reminded me of similar warnings I’d seen in textbooks from the South Latin School, which the merchant had attended starting in 1745. For example, in 1774 Joshua Green signed his copy of the Accidence, the beginners’ textbook, and two years later he added:

Hic liber pertinet [This book belongs to] Josua Green
Steal not this book for fear of shame
For in it is the owner’s name 1776
Other surviving eighteenth-century schoolbooks are also inked with multiple signatures and dire warnings against theft. Charles Chauncy (who had entered the same South Latin School in 1712) was straightforward in a history of Rome: “Steal this book if you dare.” He grew up to be Boston’s senior Congregationalist minister.

Inside a Greek-Latin text that school required of older students, Peter Oliver (entered school 1719) warned in Latin, “Here I place my name, since I don’t want to lose this book; If anyone steals it, he will be hanged by the neck.” Appropriately, he grew up to be the last royal Chief Justice of Massachusetts.

With all those warnings in all those books, you might think that pre-Revolutionary Boston suffered from a wave of textbook and hymnal theft. But no newspaper, court records, or memoir of schoolboy life mentions that problem. And I doubt there were many thieves who could read a warning in Latin anyway.

Rather, I think the schoolboys’ signatures and inscriptions simply showed their pride of ownership. Even upper-class children had few possessions of their own, but the scholars’ Latin textbooks not only belonged to them but signified their place in society.

As for why one of Boston’s richest merchants was still signing a book that way years after he graduated, I couldn’t say. But for $85,000 you can own that book yourself.


Bob said...

These are actually living examples of an ancient tradition:


To steal this book, if you should try,
It's by the neck that you'll hang high,
And ravens then will gather 'bout
To find your eyes and pluck them out.

Anonymous said...

A particularly poignant example of the fly-leaf anathema appears in Josiah Atkins's diary of the Southern campaign of the Rev. He writes that those who find his body may take his shoe and belt-buckles, but that they must send his diary home to his wife or suffer his curse from beyond the grave. He died four days before Cornwallis's capitulation at Yorktown ... but evidently, someone took his admonition seriously, and sent the book home, preserving his deeply moving diary for future ages.