See the authors! Get their autographs!
How my collection works, Part I
This is how my collecting has gone over the decades.
I buy a book.
I look at to see if it has some special aspects: an autograph, a nice dust jacket or maybe a book plate.
I read it.
I place the book on a shelf.
And for a long time, it will sit there, being pulled out on occasion as I find something that links it to something else, or I need to check my memory against the information in the book.
And that's what happened to this book, Chicago Murders, which I've owned for more than a decade.
Published in 1945 by Duell, Sloan and Pearce, it was the second in the "Regional Murder Series," coming after New York Murders and before San Francisco Murders.
The book is an anthology of murder stories, drawn from the pens of seven authors who represented a wide range of talents and experiences. One of those authors was Vincent Starrett. We'll look at his part in just a moment.
In his preface, editor Sewell Peaslee (what a name!) Wright said his most difficult task was in deciding which of Chicago's many infamous murders should be represented in the anthology. As he notes, the city's reporters and historians love writing about the abundant tales of crime and "Chicago people buy and love these books."
"The selection of cases for this volume was a monumental task because of the richness of the field in which we worked. Chicago is, and always has been, a lusty, brawling, violent city; a polyglot city, a rich city, a city powerful and unafraid."
The Gruesome Tale of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream
I've written a bit about this book before, so I'm going to quote myself, if you don't mind:
Starrett's contribution to this little volume is the opening story in the anthology, "The Chicago Career of Dr Cream — 1880."
Dr. Thomas Neill Cream was a Victorian era murderer who, like Starrett, was a one-time resident of Canada. (Note that I am not claiming that Starrett was a murderer, although as a mystery writer he had killed off many people in his career.)
Dr. Cream was an abortionist, in a era where backroom abortions resulted in the death of the mother with alarming regularity. At least three Chicago deaths are attributed to Cream, and he served time in prison for the poisoning death of one Daniel Stott. Stott's wife, Julia, was Cream's mistress.
Despite their relationship, Dr. Cream had no difficulty tossing Mrs. Stott under the horse-drawn carriage. "I believe Mrs. Stott poisoned her husband," he said in a newspaper interview. "I knew her to be a bad woman, and I kept away from her as much as I could." Except when he was sleeping with her, of course.
After being released from prison, Dr. Cream went to London, where he continued his unsuccessful career as an abortionist and his all-to-successful practice as a poisoner of prostitutes. He was hanged in Newgate Prison in 1892. There have been some efforts to identify him as Jack the Ripper, but Starrett does not dignify the old murderer with the serial killer's mantle.
The Autograph Production Line
To celebrate the book's publication, an autograph party was held in the book department of Marshall Field and Co. As you can see from the photograph at the head of this entry, Starrett acted as the MC for the event.
Writing about it in her "The Literary Spotlight" column for June 17, 1945, in the Chicago Tribune, Fanny Butcher said Starrett was a delightful MC who regaled the crowd with bookish humor. For example, he reminded the audience that "most of Shakespeare's plays turn on murder," and quipped, " 'Macbeth' is even more suggestive of Scotland Yard than of Scotland."
Afterwards, he took up a seat at the table and happy buyers presented their books to be scribbled on by the authors, after plunking down their $2.75.
You can see a sample of the result of this process. For an autograph hunter, it's not a bad day's haul. But there is one special book produced that day that has a spectacular series of inscriptions.
This is a page from my copy of Chicago Murders. The copy was clearly once owned by the book's editor, S.P. Wright. Five of the seven authors are represented here, along with Marie F. Rodell, whom we will discuss a bit later.
The inscriptions are:
S.P. — fun to work with! Marie F. Rodell
To my friend Sewall P. Wright, than whom there is no finer writer or better boss, Otto Eisenschiml.
Endorsed. Vincent Starrett. His mark. (waving hand)
To S.P.W.: Who had to put up with us all. Elizabeth Bullock
Signed in the fraternity of BLOOD to S.P.W. Nellise Child
Regard's S.P. Who helped me with my first venture as an author. Buddy McHugh.
Eisenschiml, Starrett, Bullock, Child and McHugh all had chapters in the book. They were a diverse bunch, and if they are not household names today, they were all active in their professions at the time. Here's a bit about each.
- Marie F. Rodell was the Regional Murder Series editor for Duell, Soan and Pearce. For nine years, Rodell was associate editor in the mystery department for Duell, Sloan and Pearce. She later branched out as a literary agent with the brilliant Joan Daves. Among their clients was Martin Luther King Jr.
- Otto Eisenschiml was a chemist and highly successful businessman by profession and an amateur historian whose special interest was the life and assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Why was Lincoln Murdered?, his most controversial book, speculated that Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, was responsible for the conspiracy that resultd in the President's death.
- Elizabeth Bullock was mystery editor for Farrar & Rinehart and reviewed mysteries for the Chicago Sun, later the Chicago Sun-Times. She went on to write mystery reviews for The New York Times Book Review alternating with Anthony Boucher.
- Nellise Child wrote several mystery novels and became a successful playwright.
- LeRoy F. "Buddy" McHugh spent most of his life writing about crime for Chicago newspapers. Like Starrett, he worked with Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur when they were newspaper reporters. Hart and MacArthur immortalized McHugh as the reporter "McCue" in their play, "The Front Page."
How my collection works, Part 2
As I said, I've owned the editor's copy of Chicago Murders for more than a decade. I've occasionally fantasized about the signing party that must have produced such a volume.
Last month, while discussing Starrett items with a dealer who had purchased the collection of a Starrett fan from Dublin, Ireland (Yes, Dublin, Ireland!), the dealer said he had some ephemera. Would I like to see some photos?
YES!, I texted back.
He sent me a few pictures of stacks of papers and one photo that seemed to show Starrett and others at a book signing party.
Could it be the same party where my copy of Chicago Murders was signed?
I bought the items and waited impatiently while an unusually heavy snowstorm in Ireland delayed posting of the package and the international delivery services made their slow but sure rounds.
And then they were here: Two black and white photos showing the packed room at Marshall Field. The pictures were taken by Allison-Lighthall Photographers of 222 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The company's name and address are stamped on the back.
I'm guessing either the publisher or the department store hired the firm to shoot the pictures. How the collector in Dublin came to own the photographs of a book signing party in Chicago, I can't say.
What I can say is this: It pleases me to be able to put all the pieces together in one place: The book, the photos and inscriptions.
I get equal pleasure out of sharing them with you.