Members of the Bunker Hill Monument Association call three guest books now up for auction a “National Treasure” and are wondering very loudly just how it was that the items came out of their possession and have ended up at an archives auction this week – and previously as well in 2019.
The Monument Association goes back hundreds of years and are the original caretakers of the Monument when it was a privately-funded historic site marking the Battle of Bunker Hill. Later it was transferred to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and then later became the National Park Site it is today, but at the same time the Monument Association still meets every June 17 to commemorate the battle and the erection of the Monument. Another part of their storied history are the tremendous archives they’ve amassed over the years, including meeting minutes, souvenirs, speeches and even guest books.
The guest books used to be a part of visiting the Monument – as people would sign the books before touring the structure. Those books were kept by the Monument Association as they were the operators of the site in the early days, and the books in question have several interesting signers – including Mary Todd Lincoln, potentially Prince of Wales Edward Albert, and Civil War military officials like William Steffe. All of the signers are from the Civil War era and the books are from 1860, 1861 and 1865. The online auction lasts through this week, and by Wednesday, there had been nine bids on the books and the high bid was $8,000.
Monument Association long-time President Arthur Hurley said they are likely the property of the Association, but he has no idea how they left the care of the Association, or when. It was likely long ago, he said, but he and other Board members said they would like to see them back in Charlestown.
“It is the alleged property of the Bunker Hill Monument Association,” Hurley said. “How it got out of the possession of the Monument Association is a great question. I have no doubt that it wasn’t sold or given away…The Monument was a big New England tourist site. It was really big back then. It was a skyscraper in 1861. It was the biggest building around and the biggest in New England for sure.
“(The books) are a national treasure,” he continued. “They should be in the hands of the Monument Association. That’s who I think owns it, but only God knows.”
Monument Association Board member Julie Hall, also president of the Charlestown Historical Society, said she felt that the right thing would be to have the guest books back in the possession of the Association so they can be viewed by the public, rather than a couple of people in a private collection.
“I can’t understand how they got it; it seems like it belongs with the Monument Association,” she said. “I would like to see them come back here. I’m happy the Monument Association is getting a lot of attention right now…We’re kind of a sleepy organization, and I say that with love and as a member. We have all the minutes of all the past Association meetings…They even detail what the lunch was after the June 17 meetings…The Monument stands for a united country and a united nation. These books were signed by Mary Todd Lincoln and others who are important people. They are important to the Monument and should be in Charlestown for the public to see them.
“If we got them back, that would be incredible and we would open them up to the public on June 17 – put them in under glass in the Lodge for everyone to see on Bunker Hill Day,” she continued. “If we don’t get them, we’ll survive. We’ve been around a long time.”
John Reznikoff, president of University Archives – which is hosting this week’s auction of the guest books, said he feels a little unfairly targeted regarding the books – as they’ve gained a fair amount of media attention. He said they have a long-standing record of being careful about selling artifacts.
“We have a longstanding record of being very careful about what we handle in terms of title,” he said. “I would hope that if there is a title issue that those people (in Charlestown) would contact the police and file a report if this was removed illegally as opposed to using reporters to pressure an agenda. We cannot withdraw an item without proof of ownership that is other than the consignor. You can understand that many items of historical importance are discarded or sold along the way, and anyone can make a claim. Sometimes, as we have learned in 42 years in business, the culprit, if there is one, is the person who works in the institution and more often than not the powers that be want to sweep the incident under the rug to save face and recover the item at the same time.”
He said they have a long-standing policy of insisting there be a police report so the culprit is punished to prevent it from happening again. He said this is something that all reputable people in his line of business support. He mentioned that the three guest books came from a rare book dealer, and a small auction house.
“Having said all this, I would love to see the books get back to Boston and if the Association ends up with them I will donate $1,000 of my Commission towards the purchase and will absorb the cost of expedited shipping,” he concluded.
The Monument Association said it isn’t the first time things have gone missing over time, including a prized musket from a Black man who purchased his freedom and then fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Likewise, a painting of Lafayette somehow left their possession and got to the private market.
Members of the Board said there were a lot of things that disappeared from the grounds when the state had possession of the Monument and it was patrolled by the old MDC Police. Now, however, is a different time and members said they would like to try to get help to reclaim their old property when such things show up in auctions or on display.
Hall and Hurley said they have started a fundraising effort over the last week to try to get the winning bid for the three books, but at $8,000 right now, they are not able to afford that much from their own funds.
Hall said they are raising money and have set up a Go Fund Me page.