Friday, November 4, 2016

A happy ending as an old, inscribed book returns home

As someone who tries, on occasion, to reunite old books with their rightful owners, this is as good as it gets.

The August post "She was proud of her father, the bookseller" featured a 1924 edition of A Little Maid of Massachusetts Colony that included multiple inscriptions, including some by Heath McCawley.

Diana Thebaud Nicholson, who wrote the obituary for Heath's sister, Mary Yorke McCawley, first got in touch via email in late September. She also knew the girls' father, and wrote:
"E.S. McCawley was my mother’s older brother and one of the world’s delightful people. He graduated from USNA Annapolis, where he was my father’s roommate, in the Class of 1913. He was a prolific and gifted writer of letters and poems to mark any — or no — occasion, and had a highly tuned sense of humor. I remember frequent visits to the bookstore in Villanova, which no doubt contributed to my own love of books."
Diana also confirmed that Heath McCawley — they call her "Heathie" — is alive and living in southeastern Pennsylvania. That spurred some correspondence with her niece, Sally. As a result, I was able to mail the book to Sally, and she was able to share it with Heath.

This is the wonderful piece that Sally wrote about the experience and has kindly allowed me to share here on Papergreat:
A small, book sized package came in the mail Saturday. It was addressed to me with a York, PA return address. York, PA?
I didn’t remember ordering anything from York, PA.
Who would have sent me something from York, PA?
The only person I know who lives in York, PA is my cousin, Rob Parker. Why would he be sending me a package?

The return address only said Otto with a street address I didn’t recognize. That didn’t help. I don’t know anyone named Otto so I left the yellowish package on the table and went for a walk.

While walking I remembered the emails from last week about a book that had probably belonged to my aunts. Perhaps this odd package was the book in question.

I needed sharp scissors to start removing clear tape that had been carefully wrapped around the yellow manila envelope. The envelope itself had been folded over sideways and from the bottom to surround the contents in a solid, protective shield. As I poked with the points of the scissors to get create a small opening in the tape. My fingers held a tight grip as I ripped and pulled the tape hoping whatever was inside could withstand such abuse. When the outer layer was finally cut away and removed the little green book was fully clothed in bubble wrap held together with small strips of regular scotch of tape.

Exhausted from the struggle with the tape and envelope I decided to leave the final unveiling until my aunt and I could do it together.

Mr. Otto had pieced together family information by searching obituaries on the internet. He learned my grandfather had owned a book store in Haverford, PA and located both of my aunts. He knew one had died and hoped the other was still living so he could return the book he’d emailed about to her.

Apparently Mr. Otto collects old books. I guess that’s a hobby. His joy in life seems to be reuniting original owners with the books he collects. Clues left in the written inscriptions on the inside front cover and/or stamps placed in the inside back cover help him. If I’d taken the time to read his blog, a link to which he included in his email, I would have understood more about the process. I read it after I received and delivered the book in question to my 90 year old aunt in Villanova, PA.

In order to get in touch with me Mr. Otto, the book sleuth, ferreted out my cousin Diana who lives in Montreal, Canada via her website. How he connected those dots to her is a mystery. Diana directed him to me in Pennsylvania because about 13 years ago I took over my mother’s job of keeping track of family information.

I drove to my aunt’s where we opened the package together. It was fun to unravel the mystery together. On its voyage this 90 year old, little green book with tenderly turned pages and worn binding had traveled from Ithan to Virginia to York and finally back to Villanova. Ithan became a part of Villanova when postal zip codes were invented. My aunt has lived all 90 years in the same location. She was born in the house next door. Her parents gave their extra land to my aunt and uncle when they were married in 1948 where they built a house that has served many generations.

My aunt was delighted to uncover the 1924 edition of A Little Maid of Massachusetts Colony by Alice Turner Curtis. She touched the cover carefully, her thin skin and long fingers caressing an old friend. Her smile told me she had adored reading these stories as a child. She said there had been a complete series of books with stories of all the colonies and she’d owned all of them. She said the books, though written for girls, were a good source of history and wondered if the rest of the series is available! She’d like to share these favorites of hers with her great-granddaughters.

The inscription on the inside front cover reads Mary Yorke McCawley Christmas 1926 from Dady. We both laughed about the spelling of Dady. Mary Yorke McCawley, also my aunt, was the oldest of my father’s siblings.
Who had written in the book?
Her mother?
Her father?
Her sister?
Mary at age 9 and her parents would have known how to spell Daddy correctly. My aunt laughed and decided it must have been her mother who wrote the inscription quickly on Christmas eve. At the bottom of the same page ‘and Heath McCawley’ was penned with a different nib. Clearly this was done years later as Heath, my 90 year old aunt, was born in April 1926 and hadn’t yet learned to write by Christmas that year! The penmanship is indicative of a well-trained student from the Shipley School.
Her sister must have relinquished the books to her younger sister when she outgrew them.
At the top of the page it’s signed by John Brake of Virginia with the date of 1976 and in pencil the price of $12.00 is marked. My aunt thought the book must have cost at least that when brand new and found it amazing that a used book of this nature would be worth $12 fifty years later.
Now that I’ve gone back and read Chris Otto’s blog and checked the data he collected from obituaries and I did some searching of my own. I found a book my uncle had published in 1965 called Shotguns and Shooting. He worked for Remington Arms so it makes sense he would write about guns. The dealer says it’s in good condition.

This little green book has opened up more insight into the past. My aunt said her father’s book store in Haverford (the building still exists on Station Road) is where his mother lived in an apartment above the store. Apparently she lived many other places including Paris, New York and California. My aunt said she bought and sold houses the way some people change our clothes, seasonally. She’d been the only surviving daughter of Edmund Smith of the Pennsylvania Railroad who built Stoneleigh in Villanova, a home that has only been owned by three families. The last of the three, The Haas family, recently donated the house and estate to the Natural Lands Trust.

When I asked my aunt about what happened to the money left to my great grandmother my aunt said she spent most of it. She bought and sold houses for herself and her children. She educated her grandchildren. She travelled with her youngest daughter who married her son’s roommate from Annapolis. Her son-in-law became an Admiral in the Navy. Her son was a Commander. The Admiral and his wife were married for 19 years before their daughter Diana (Montreal) was born in 1939.

Coincidentally, my aunt mentioned a story about the Titanic.
Had I ever heard the story? she asked.
No, I said.
A number of years ago my aunt received a letter from a Scottish man. While cleaning out the attic he’d found old letters from his sister who had come to the United States on the Titanic. Yes, she’d been saved from the disaster and had written back to her family in Scotland about her life in the United States. The letters ended abruptly and the Scottish man wanted to know if my aunt knew anything about his sister after she left Pennsylvania. He knew she had gone to New Jersey, but that was all. He shared the letters with my aunt who said the Scottish woman described the buildings, roads and surroundings with impeccable detail, even mentioning the apartment over the book store in Haverford where she had lived. My aunt said the specifics in the letters could only have been written by a person who had spent time in the urban and suburban areas around Philadelphia, including Haverford. So this was no hoax. In fact, my aunt thinks the Scottish lady may have worked for and/or lived with my great grandmother. We wondered if, perhaps, this Scottish woman could have been a nanny to our cousin, Diana, who is in my aunt’s generation, but only four years older than I. The mysterious Scottish woman may have travelled with Diana, her parents and my great grandmother.

Thank you, Mr. Christopher Otto not only for reaching out to us and sending us the little green book but also for opening up another line of dialog with my dearest aunt.
* * *
Some final notes:

1. With reference to over-wrapping and over-taping packages, I am guilty as charged.

2. With reference to collecting old books as a hobby, I am guilty as charged.

3. Here is the information on the entirety of the "A Little Maid" series by Alice Turner Curtis, as mentioned by Heathie. There were two dozen of them published between 1913 and 1937.

4. Diana Thebaud Nicholson, who was copied on Sally's email, adds the following information and clarifications, which I think are important to include:
The second story that Sally relates is, I am afraid, not as accurate as Heathie might have been some years ago. In fact, it sounds more like my paternal grandmother who believed there was no point in telling a story unless you made it a good one. Afraid there were no vivid descriptions of the bookstore, etc. and I cannot remember ever hearing that my grandmother lived in an apartment upstairs. She did, however live near-by at the Mermont (sp?) Apartments as did Mum and I in, I think, 1942-3.

I was quite deeply involved in the Clear Cameron (the Titanic survivor) story and corresponded with her nephew, Ted Dowling, for some time.
The initial enquiry about a possible connection came through another of our cousins, Pauline York McGrath via some sailing friends. Pauline sent it on to me because I had inherited scrapbooks and diaries of my mother’s.

Clear did indeed work as a lady’s maid for Sally’s great grandmother, Mary Belle Smith McCawley. Sally’s grandfather was already at Annapolis (in fact he and my father graduated in 1913 and went to sea) and the elder daughter, my Aunt Betty (York) was engaged and very involved in social events. The ‘baby of the family’ (my mother), eight years younger, had come home from boarding school to keep her newly widowed mother company and Clear seemed to have quite liked her. (She wasn’t too keen on Aunt Betty!)

There was no explanation of why Clear left as she seemed to have been quite happy. However, the mystery was later solved; she left for the best of reasons – to get married.

“Clear had married in Philadelphia on 29 April 1914 to Ernest William Francis, an English butler over a decade her junior. Having never enjoyed her experience much in America, Clear and her husband left the USA in December 1914 aboard the Baltic, arriving in Liverpool on New Year's day. The couple settled in Surrey, living in Worcester Park for many years, but had no children. It is not certain if Clear and Nellie Walcroft maintained contact.” —

So, no, she never looked after me or traveled with any of us. In fact, she had returned to England more than 25 years before I was born.

Ted Dowling and his wife privately published a charming little book, Clear to America by Titanic and Beyond, which was an annotated collection of her letters.

Sadly, they both died without ever finding out what happened to Clear, as is explained in the article linked above.

I just came across this which wraps up the whole story quite neatly... A Titanic Survivor's Story in Haverford: One woman's journey from London to the East Coast was more than she bargained for. Her legacy remains on the Main Line.


  1. Great story. I've only had the opportunity to reunite someone with their lost items once, but it was very rewarding.

  2. Thanks for this little bit of information. I am the great niece of Nellie Walcroft, Clear Annie Cameron’s traveling companion. I have wondered about Nellie and Clear’s friendship. I don’t know when it began but it may have been a long standing friendship from well before their trip on the Titanic. Nellie had a younger sister named Clara Annie Walcroft who was born when Nellie was 15 years old. Nellie was 37 when she and Clear were on the Titanic. Nellie didn’t marry until she was 47 years old and then she lived with her husband in Brooklyn, NY. If Clear lived in the UK and Nellie lived in the US their friendship would have had to continue mostly via correspondence.