The Millionaire and the Bard

Andrea Mays

April 24, 2015 
The following is from Andrea Mays' The Millionaire and the Bard, a literary detective story following the collectors of Shakespeare's First Folio from Elizabethan and Jacobean London to Gilded Age New York. Mays teaches economics at California State University at Long Beach and has had a lifelong Shakespeare obsession.

At the Bodleian, Oxford’s expert on bindings, Strickland Gibson, examined the Turbutt Folio. The binding aroused his curiosity. It was very old, probably dating to the early 1620s, and thus appeared to be original to the book. That alone qualified this First Folio as rare and important. Gibson observed the odd damage to the cover—a long time ago the fore edge of the top board had been marred by a deep, unsightly gouge, as though something once attached to the cover had been ripped off. Gibson concluded that an iron clasp or staple had once been mounted there, and that the staple had been secured to a chain. In the 1600s it was common for libraries, including the Bodleian, to chain a volume to a bookcase to prevent theft. Such a chain was long enough to permit the reader to place the book on a shelf below and to read it while sitting on a fixed bench. It took Gibson only a few minutes to recognize certain idiosyncrasies in the binding—the techniques used to craft it, the color of the calfskin, the type of waste paper used to line the inside of the boards and spine—that identified it as the work of the master seventeenth-century Oxford bookbinder William Wildgoose. It was as obvious as if Wildgoose had stamped his own name on the cover. There was one more thing—in the 1620s, Wildgoose had bound a number of books for the Bodleian. Indeed, as Gibson examined Turbutt’s folio, identical Wildgoose bindings sat on the Bodleian’s shelves. The evidence pointed to one conclusion. The Turbutt First Folio had once been the property of the Bodleian Library. And if that were true, the book must be stolen property.

But had the library ever owned a First Folio? If so, how did it land in the hands of the Turbutt family? Falconer Madan dug into ancient records and discovered a handwritten entry in the Bodleian Binder’s Book of 1624 proving that William Wildgoose had bound and returned to the library a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Madan also consulted the printed 1635 appendix to the Bodleian catalogue, which confirmed the presence of a First Folio in the collection. It was obvious how this folio had arrived in Oxford. In 1602, Sir Thomas Bodley founded the library that bears his name. By 1610, he had arranged for the London Stationers’ Company to deposit with the library one copy of each book printed by its members, much like copyright law requires publishers to deposit copies of all books published in America. He declined to add plays to his shelves, describing them in 1612 as “idle books, and riff-raffs.”7 Sometime before his death in 1613, however, he must have relaxed that rule. In 1623, Jaggard sent one set of unbound sheets of the First Folio to the Bodleian. The library delivered them to Wildgoose, who bound them in 1624. According to Bodleian custom, the copy was then chained to a bookcase.

Falconer Madan discovered something else. A later Bodleian catalogue from 1674 did not include a First Folio, listing only the Third Folio of 1664. That evidence supported an inference that sometime between 1635 and 1674, a vandal had torn the First Folio from its iron chain and made off with the Bodleian deposit copy. If true, then the library might invoke the law to reclaim its long-lost, stolen property. But was theft the only plausible explanation for the folio’s disappearance? Madan dug deeper and excavated a fact that supported a different conclusion. The Turbutt First Folio had not been stolen from the Bodleian Library at all. Instead, the library had judged it worthless and sold it. In 1664, upon their receipt of a deposit copy of Shakespeare’s Third Folio, Bodleian curators branded their First Folio inferior and obsolete and sold it off in a group lot of other “superfluous” and unwanted books. Perhaps they reasoned that the Third Folio, which contained more plays, was superior to the First. The buyer, Richard Davis, bought the discarded copy for £24. Then the First Folio vanished from sight for almost two and a half centuries. Sometime in the 1700s, the book, its history long forgotten, came into the possession of the Turbutt family. Now, 241 years later, it had returned home.

A jubilant Falconer Madan brought the volume to the February 20, 1905, meeting of the Bibliographical Society, where it was publicly displayed for the first time since 1664. The years had taken their toll, and the folio showed signs of heavy use. Countless Oxford undergraduates had read the book in the forty years it had been chained to its case. Judging from the comparative damage to individual leaves, the most read and popular plays included Julius Caesar, The Tempest, Henry IV Part I, Macbeth, and Cymbeline. Suffering more wear and tear than any other work in the folio were the leaves of one play: Romeo and Juliet. And the most well-worn page of that play—indeed the most heavily damaged page in the entire folio—was the one facing the balcony scene in Act II, Scene ii. For decades, students enchanted by that romantic moment had rested their hands or elbows on the facing page and had actually rubbed through the paper. In condition, the Turbutt Folio was far from perfect. In romance, it was irresistible. Madan discussed his research, and proved to the satisfaction of all in attendance that this was indeed the missing Bodleian deposit copy of William Shakespeare’s First Folio. His announcement caused a sensation. Only the Augustine Vincent Folio boasted such an ancient provenance. Indeed, of all the other known copies of the First Folio, none but Vincent and Turbutt could be traced back to their original owners in 1623. Four days after the meeting, The Athenaeum published the news.

It was not wise of Falconer Madan to publicize his discovery. His excitement had trumped his prudence. He was desperate to obtain the book for the Bodleian. Chief librarian E. W. B. Nicholson wanted the book back and offered to purchase it, but the Turbutts were not inclined to sell, hoping to keep it as a family heirloom. Furthermore, the library did not possess the funds to purchase the folio, which consensus opinion seemed to value at about £1,000, or about $5,000. No one knew that two years earlier Henry Folger had paid ten times that for the Vincent Folio. Coningsby Sibthorp had kept his word, and had not disclosed the sale or the price. No one in England—save Sibthorp and Sotheran—could imagine how valuable a special First Folio could be, or how much Henry Folger might pay for one. Madan’s work had enhanced the value of the Turbutt Folio and had advertised the discovery all over the world, but he had failed to secure the book for the Bodleian. It would have been better to acquire the folio first, and only then publicize it. Madan would come to regret his naïve enthusiasm.

When news of the rediscovered Bodleian First Folio reached Folger, he decided that it would make a perfect mate to his precious Vincent Folio. Henry knew that if he could buy it, he would own the only two First Folios in the world that could be associated with their original owners. Folger suspected that the Bodleian must have already tied up rights to its former property. Still, it was worth inquiring.

Again, Folger turned to Sotheran, writing to declare his interest. Sotheran learned that the book was no longer in Turbutt’s possession. It was still at Oxford. He had not sold it yet, but had left it at the Bodleian during meandering discussions about a possible sale to the library. In October 1905, perhaps reluctant to offend officials at the library, Sotheran called on Falconer Madan to assess the situation and gather intelligence about his intentions before making an offer on the book. To the firm’s surprise, the Bodleian did not seem “keen” to pursue the folio. So Sotheran contacted Turbutt, who allowed them to call upon him. In the meantime, the firm advised Folger to prepare to make a high bid, adding that they hoped to acquire the book for a price “as low as possible.” Henry cabled an offer of £3,000, close to $15,000, which Sotheran considered sufficient. Turbutt declined, but revealed that, although he had granted the Bodleian the first right of refusal on the folio, Sotheran’s impressive offer had given him second thoughts.

On October 23, the firm cabled Folger that Turbutt would take one month to consider his offer. Sotheran believed—and advised Henry—that it would be difficult for the Bodleian to match his price. Folger agreed to wait until November 23, the day on which his agents had led him to believe he could quietly purchase the Turbutt Folio.

In mid-November, an article in the London Standard took Sotheran by surprise. The Bodleian had gone public. The story revealed that the library hoped to raise money to buy back its old folio, but editorialized that the cause seemed hopeless. On November 15, Sotheran mailed Folger a copy of the article. Near the end of the month, Turbutt informed Sotheran that he wanted to give the Bodleian more time to raise the funds, and declined to sell the folio on the agreed upon date of November 23: “I wish the Bodleian to become the possessor, or failing them, your client.” Henry was furious. He dashed off an angry cable to his agents: “Offer for folio made for immediate acceptance cannot extend time cancel if not accepted.” Henry, having second thoughts, followed with another cable on the same day: “Do not cancel if you think unwise.” But Sotheran had already threatened Turbutt, receiving no reply. Then, on December 1, Sotheran reported outrageous news to Folger. Turbutt had extended the November 23 deadline for four months and given the Bodleian until March 31, 1906, to raise the £3,000. “This is regrettable and is doubtless owing to Mr. Turbutt’s son being at present an undergraduate at Magdalen and mixing in literary circles at the University.” Then Sotheran gave what would turn out to be fateful advice: “We doubt if a higher offer at this stage would be advisable.”

Sotheran was wrong. This was precisely the moment when Folger should have dispatched the kind of cable he dictated when the Vincent copy was at stake: “Buy without fail even at ten thousand cash.” A new offer of £5,000 or £10,000 might have compelled Turbutt to succumb. Instead, Henry heeded his agent’s advice and did nothing.

Sotheran wrote again on January 6, 1906, giving Folger the good news that the library was nowhere close to raising the money. The Bodleian had less than three months left. On February 19, the Lancashire Evening Post reminded readers that the folio would set sail for America in less than two months, at the end of March. The article had little effect. Then, in a masterpiece of propaganda, librarian E. W. B. Nicholson reframed the Bodleian’s predicament into a referendum on British patriotism by publishing a public appeal in the Times of London:

Unless [the Bodleian copy] can be recovered there will be an indelible blot on our scutcheon. At present about £1300 has been received or promised in hundreds of subscriptions . . . but I do not think that they can raise the total to £2000. That after two and a half centuries we should have the extraordinary chance of recovering this volume, and should lose it because a single American can spare more money than all of Oxford’s sons or friends . . . is a bitter prospect. It is the more bitter because the abnormal value put on this copy by our competitor rests on knowledge ultimately derived from our own staff and our own registers. But from so cruel a jibe of fortune this appeal may perhaps yet save us.

Nicholson tried to shame donations from Oxford men by taunting them that “Cambridge men have asked leave to contribute and so have men and women from no University” (italics added). Nicholson’s appeal worked. On March 6, the Times of London printed an indignant letter from one Mr. Edmund Gosse: “Who is this millionaire? Why does he offer a sum three times larger than has hitherto been the market value of the book? Is he a private person? Is he a tradesman? Is he a syndicate? Does he offer his prodigious sum that he may add a treasure to his personal collection, or that he may sell again at a profit?” It was bad enough to lose the folio. But God forbid, Gosse implied, that this impertinent American be “in trade.”

Snobs like Gosse and Sidney Lee might have asked why American collectors like Folger, Perry, and Morgan were so successful at buying English books. At public auction, books went to the highest bidder. Anyone could bid against the Americans. And the London dealers would have been happy to sell books to wealthy Englishmen. Henry Folger was hardly the richest man in the world. Many English gentlemen were wealthier, but not one of them devoted his resources to outbid him or the other top American collectors. Indeed, few Englishmen could be bothered to rally to the Bodleian’s cause. The slow progress of Nicholson’s fund-raising drive was excruciating, and many an Englishman who could have single-handedly saved the First Folio “in one fell swoop” sat on the sidelines in a studied pose of disinterest. In all of Great Britain, not one man or woman volunteered to put up the £3,000 necessary to ransom the Bodleian First Folio and save a national treasure. It was a national embarrassment. Because the English wealthy did nothing to interrupt the one-way, transatlantic trade in rare Shakespeariana, Lee proposed that the government intervene in the free market and provide the money that English gentlemen refused to give. But he was like a zealot preaching to an indifferent congregation.

Still, the Bodleian’s cause acquired momentum among smaller donors. On March 13, 1906, the Western Daily Press echoed Nicholson’s plea: “On every ground of national sentiment and literary expediency the volume that is now on the market should not be allowed to quit this country.” Even in America, the New York Times Book Review attacked the “reprehensible American millionaire” who coveted this British national treasure.

Folger had never seen a campaign like this before. His most important previous purchases had been transacted in private, without public attention or pressure. Some of the English papers had groused about his purchase of Titus Andronicus, but the chatter did not amount to much, given that he was taking the book out of Sweden, not England. This was different. It was the time for Folger to confound his foes with a stunning cash offer, impossible to match. But on March 16, Sotheran reassured him that the campaign against him “up to to-day . . . had apparently not succeeded.” The firm prepared to inform Turbutt that its offer was good until Monday, April 2.

On March 17, the Morning Leader newspaper went to battle and published a contemptuous cartoon depicting a nameless—and faceless—Henry Folger, dressed in a fancy suit and silk top hat, crawling on his belly in pursuit of the Bodleian First Folio. Surrounded by sacks of money, a fat roll of bills, and gold coins strewn upon the ground, the undignified American slithers through his spoils of English treasures—paintings and sculptures—as he grasps for the Bodleian’s pride. Captioned with the boldfaced demand “WHO IS THIS MILLIONAIRE?” the cartoon reprinted f rom the Times Edmund Gosse’s imperious questions about what kind of man dared to bid for England’s prize.

By March 24, the Bodleian had collected just £1,967 in donations and pledges. Nicholson resorted to the London Times for a last appeal: “When this book is on the way to America, which I apprehend will be on April 2, some of you will agree with your paper that ‘a grave scandal’ has befallen, and will regret a mistaken confidence in other people’s promptitude hindered them from averting it.” He stated that it was too late now for small donations. Only gifts “from many men who can give hundreds [of pounds] without missing them” could ransom the folio in time.

On Thursday, March 29, the Morning Post published a notice that should have alarmed Sotheran. Folger’s opponents were closing the gap:

The fund to restore to the Bodleian Library, Oxford, its First Folio of Shakespeare has reached £2594. A London resident (not an Oxford man) has guaranteed £300 for himself and relatives. Just over £400 must now be guaranteed by the librarian by Saturday to save the volume for Oxford and this country.

It was an emergency, but Sotheran failed to cable a warning to Standard Oil headquarters in New York City. Instead, Sotheran asked Henry to cable only £3,000 to London so the firm would be ready to close the sale on Monday, April 2.

But on Friday, March 30, the Times of London announced a stunning reversal of fortune. A notice headlined “SHAKESPEARE AND THE BODLEIAN” carried a triumphant message from E. W. B. Nicholson: “The Shakespeare is saved.” A handful of pledges, including £200 from Turbutt himself but foremost £500 from Donald Alexander Smith, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, High Commissioner of Canada, had put the Bodleian over the top. Nicholson admitted that not all the cash was on hand: “Nearly £1000 of the total is in promises, some of them running in terms which render payment a matter of uncertainty.” But the Bodleian had done it.


From THE MILLIONAIRE AND THE BARD. Used with the permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2015 by Andrea Mays.

More Story
LitHub Daily: April 24, 2015 Helen Macdonald’s falconry as therapy, and a reading from The Goshawk by T. H. White. | Literary Hub Gregory...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.