Poe, Dickens and Drexel: The Epic Story of the University’s Former Literary Collection
This article is part of the DrexelNow "Faces of Drexel" series honoring Drexel's history as part of the Universitywide celebration of the 125th anniversary of Drexel's founding in 1891.
Once upon a time, a generous donor gave the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry a magical gift during its quest to educate students. The benefactor was newspaper publisher George W. Childs, a lifelong friend of University founder A.J. Drexel. The gift was a collection containing more than 250 autographed manuscripts and letters from notable literary and historical figures.
Think back to all of the 19th century writers you’ve read: Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Mark Twain. Works from those authors and so many more were included in this collection. The most prestigious items were autographed manuscripts of Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” regarded as the first detective story ever written, and Dickens’ last completed novel, “Our Mutual Friend.” Both of these valuable manuscripts were stored in a vault at the Centennial National Bank, which is now Drexel's Paul Peck Alumni Center on 32nd and Market Streets.
Childs bequeathed most of his collection to the school upon his death in February 1894. The items were part of the Drexel Museum (now The Drexel Collection) for 50 years. In 1944, however, the then-Drexel Institute of Technology sold all of these amazing wonders to raise funds and support the war effort. Over $90,300 (about $1.23 million today) was raised during an auction.
How did Childs obtain such an esteemed collection? He loved to collect autographs and manuscripts, especially from writers and politicians he admired and had befriended — of which there were many. As publisher of one of the country’s most influential newspapers, The Public Ledger (which he ran for over 30 years with A.J. Drexel as a silent partner), Childs was a huge figure in America’s literary and journalistic circles. Before that, he was a book publisher and owned the literary publication that later became Publisher’s Weekly.
Part of the collection contained Childs’ personal correspondence with U.S. Presidents James Buchanan, Rutherford B. Hayes, Martin Van Buren and close friend Ulysses S. Grant. Childs also corresponded with poets Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He purchased letters written by historical figures including William Penn and the first 16 American presidents, as well as writers like Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Other signed manuscripts included a section of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad,” Benjamin Franklin’s written history of Pennsylvania Hospital and Jonathan Swift’s poem “Apollo to the Dean.”
Some items were gifted to Childs, like a desk used by Lord Byron to write “Don Juan” and a letter written by Nathaniel Hawthorne that was given to Childs by the author’s son.
Childs purchased Poe’s manuscript of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1881, 40 years after the story first ran in Graham’s Magazine. As described in “The Manuscript of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and Poe's Revisions,” the 17-page bounded manuscript featured Poe’s numerous grammatical and narrative edits, most notably his decision to change the title from “The Murders in the Rue Trianon Bac.”
Childs, a native Baltimorean, had an affinity for Poe, who lived and died in that city. Plus, he famously donated $650 (what would be about $14,000 in 2016) to erect Poe’s current memorial site more than 25 years after the author was buried in an unmarked grave.
Poe’s manuscript sold for $34,000 — an astounding $465,000 in today’s money and what would have been an even more eye-boggling amount for the impoverished writer. After all, Poe had earned $56 for the story, which was a fortune compared with the reported $9 he received for “The Raven” in 1845.
The purchaser of Drexel’s Poe manuscript was Richard Gimbel, a rare books collector and heir to the Gimbels department store. Gimbel was an avid fan of the author: He purchased and restored the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia and had his own collection of Poe materials and correspondence (including the raven that inspired Poe’s famous poem). He donated everything to the Free Library of Philadelphia after he died in 1971.
Drexel’s other impressive item, Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend” manuscript, sold for $17,000 (over $231,000 in 2016). Completed in 1865, the piece was one of the very few complete Dickens manuscripts available outside of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Dickens had personally given the manuscript to Childs, whom he had befriended during a trip to Philadelphia.
The manuscript was purchased and is still held by the Morgan Library and Museum, which already had a collection of Dickens manuscripts including “A Christmas Carol.” Interestingly, this institution houses the historical, literary and art collections of J.P. Morgan, who worked as a partner and mentee of the University's founder at their banking company Drexel, Morgan & Co.
Childs’ vast collection might have been distributed and sold, but there is still a happy ending to this story. Drexel’s loss was the gain of many happy collectors, institutions and museums. In return, the raised funds were enough to keep Drexel, and its war efforts, afloat during the tumultuous times of World War II. Childs, who died while presiding over Drexel’s board of trustees, probably would have been glad to help Drexel during its time of need.