The Great Cyclone

Even though it only lasted about twenty minutes, the Great Cyclone of May 27, 1896 was the single deadliest event in St. Louis history. The tornado created a ten-mile path of devastation that cut through south St. Louis city, starting west of Tower Grove Park and continuing east across the Mississippi River into East St. Louis. It killed 255 people, leveled 311 buildings, and damaged thousands of other structures. It also sank almost twenty riverboats, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The aftermath was swiftly and extensively documented by local newspapers and photographers. Several of these photographers capitalized on the sensation by publishing souvenir booklets containing photographs and illustrations of the destruction. Special Collections owns a copy of one such booklet, Pictured Story of the St. Louis Tornado, which contains forty-four images of some of the most heavily damaged buildings.

Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content

Special Collections also owns three copies of The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis, May 27, 1896: Being a Full History of the Most Terrifying and Destructive Tornado in the History of the World, with Numerous Thrilling and Pathetic Incidents and Personal Experiences of Those who Were in the Track of the Storm. It is a compilation of stories and photos from local newspapers chronicling the days immediately following the tornado. The text includes eyewitness accounts, descriptions of the disaster, a list of the people killed or missing, and an estimate of the insurance losses caused. The publisher’s notice details the community’s desire to document faithfully the disaster and to raise money for those affected; ten percent of the book’s sales were designated for a relief fund for victims. 

The book was issued in at least three colors of cloth binding, with varying degrees of blind-stamped or gold-stamped lettering on the cover and spine, offering the buyer a range of price and quality. 

Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content

Posted in Collections, Rare Books, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

William Cowper’s Anatomy of Humane Bodies

Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content


The Anatomy of Humane Bodies (1698) by the English surgeon and anatomist William Cowper (1666–1709) is one of the most visually striking and controversial medical books ever published. Its engravings show individualized cadavers in a state of dissection, a departure from the classic depiction of the anatomical figure as idealized sculpture. Special attention is paid to the tools used for the examination and dissection of bodies, emphasizing the meticulous and manual aspects of the process, as well as creating a sense that the viewer is inside the operating theater alongside the surgeon. Objects and surfaces are represented in a naturalistic manner, but also with an artifice that invokes Dutch still life painting. Arrangements of drapery focus the viewer’s gaze on the inner workings of an opened abdomen or the sinewy structure of a limb. Everyday objects like books, jars, and even insects bring scale and balance to the compositions. These artistic choices blur the line between medicine and fine art, moving the anatomical illustration beyond the realm of educational tool.

These compelling engravings, however, were made originally for another book. The artist designer Gérard de Lairesse (1640–1711) was a Dutch painter influenced by Rembrandt and Poussin, and the engraver was Abraham Blooteling (1640–90). The author was the Dutch physician Govard Bidloo (1649–1713), whose Anatomia humani corporis was published in 1685. Bidloo’s anatomy sold so poorly that his publisher tried to recoup his losses by selling sheets of the engravings pulled from the copper plates to Cowper, who used them in his own work. Bidloo accused Cowper of plagiarism, leading to a famous and vitriolic exchange of pamphlets, the “Bidloo affair.” Complicating matters was the fact that Cowper’s English publishers had simply pasted a label with the new title and author over Bidloo’s name on the engraved title page! But Cowper’s text was original and valuable, and the book became a standard work, republished in English and European editions through 1750.

This copy from Special Collections is a later edition from 1739, translated into Latin, but still using the beautiful engravings from Bidloo’s original 1685 Anatomia.

Posted in Collections, Rare Books | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant


Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content

Special Collections owns two first edition copies of the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, a narrative that summarizes Grant’s life as a series of extreme swings in fortune from failed farmer to Commanding General of the Union Army. The events leading up to and surrounding its publication were equally dramatic, forming a worthy tale in its own right.

After two terms as president a restless Ulysses S. Grant embarked on a savings-draining two-and-a-half-year tour around the world with his family. Upon his return to New York he started the brokerage firm Grant and Ward with his son Buck and business associate Ferdinand Ward. Unbeknownst to the financially naive Grants, Ward turned the firm into an elaborate Ponzi-style scheme; by the spring of 1884 the business had collapsed, leaving Grant publicly humiliated and in serious debt.

That same spring Grant was diagnosed with terminal throat cancer. Bankrupt with months left to live, he was approached by the Century Company’s senior editor with an offer to publish his memoirs. Grant’s longtime friend Mark Twain caught wind of the pending deal and paid Grant a visit on the day he was officially to commit to the Century Company. Twain read over the contract and was appalled by the proposed ten percent royalty. He immediately offered to more than double it if Grant signed with his publishing house instead. Grant initially felt obliged to honor the contract with the Century Company because they had asked him first, but Twain reminded him that he had been begging Grant to publish his life story for years. This sentiment along with Twain’s plan to market and sell the book by subscription swayed Grant to sign with Twain’s publishing house, Charles L. Webster and Company.

Grant spent the next year writing his memoirs, producing as many as fifty pages a day, while Twain began taking advance orders. Newspapers openly speculated about the book, Grant’s finances, and his deteriorating health. Twain capitalized on this public interest by sending out over ten thousand canvassers to sell the book door-to-door. He told book agents to hire Civil War veterans whenever possible and have them wear their old uniforms, making them harder to turn away. Each canvasser was given a thirty-seven-page manual entitled How to Introduce the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which included sales tactics such as assuring the customer that the value of the volumes would only increase with time, playing to their sense of patriotism, and reminding them of the dire financial situation of Grant’s family. Sales began in March and by May sixty thousand two-volume sets had been sold.

Grant finished his manuscript on July 20, 1885 and passed away three days later. Published that December, the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant was instantly successful. The first check his widow Julia received was for $200,0000, the largest royalty check ever paid to an author up to that time. She ultimately was paid royalties of about $420,000 (more than $11 million today) from the 350,000 copies sold.

Posted in Collections, Featured Book, Rare Books | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

George Cruikshank

Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content

Satirical cartoons by the prolific nineteenth-century British caricaturist and book illustrator George Cruikshank often circulated in popular periodicals, where he would ridicule all aspects of Victorian life, from social behavior and customs to fashion to medicine to politics with great success. In the late 1820s, during a period of some personal financial distress, he began self-publishing his cartoons in hopes of making more money. He published collections on Phrenological Illustrations (1826) satirizing the Victorian obsession with this pseudoscience, Illustrations of Time (1827) giving droll and punning depictions of popular sayings, and four volumes of Scraps and Sketches (1828-1832) containing various vignettes on drink, the dangers of outlandish fashion, and other subjects. Demand, however, was not as high as he had anticipated and he ceased publishing his own cartoons in the early 1830s.

The SLU Rare Books Division holds a collection of all of Cruikshank’s self-published cartoons from 1826 to 1832 bound together into a single volume. Such volumes were created by individual collectors and reflect their interests or their successes in finding Cruikshank’s published prints. Ours is complete and its original owner has also pasted or added other materials about Cruikshank into the front and back — newspaper clippings, Cruikshank’s obituary and photo, bookplates, inscriptions and a handwritten table of contents. The page edges bear smudges and general evidence of use, suggesting that this unique piece didn’t just sit on a shelf, but was actively handled and augmented over time.

The front endpapers contain bookplates, a handwritten table of contents, and a newspaper clipping added by previous owners.

Cruikshank’s obituary and photo attached to the back of the book.

Posted in Collections, Rare Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

44th Saint Louis Conference on Manuscript Studies

Organized annually since 1974 by the Vatican Film Library, part of the Saint Louis University Libraries Department of Special Collections, this two-day conference features papers on a wide variety of topics in medieval and Renaissance manuscript studies — paleography, codicology, illumination, book production, texts and transmission, library history, and more.

2017 Guest Speaker:

Dr. Marianna Shreve Simpson (Visiting Scholar, University of Pennsylvania)
“Persian Manuscripts and the Meaning of Masterpiece”

2017 Conference Sessions:

  • Antiquity Reimagined: Medieval Commentaries on Ancient Authors
  • Islamic Manuscripts
  • Manuscripts from Greater Asia
  • Oriental Manuscripts Encountering European Traditions
  • Manuscripts from Little-Studied Contexts
  • Manuscript Patronage in Medieval Bologna
  • Editing the Antique: Copies of Illustrated Antique and late Antique Manuscripts in the Long Tenth Century

Conference Program and Registration Information

For further information, visit the conference webpage or contact or 314-977-3090.

Posted in Events, Public Programs, Vatican Film Library | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde

Claire Peterson: a poet, a dancer, a thinker, and, for the past three years, Rare Books’s student assistant. Next month, she will add “SLU graduate,” to this list, earning a degree in English, Spanish, and International Studies. (Congratulations, Claire! Life in 307 will be duller without your positive energy, sense of humor, and inquisitive mind, but we can’t wait to see where you go from here!)

The ornate title page of SLU’s copy, printed in brown ink. (SLU Spec Coll Rare Bks PR 5818 .B2 1910z)

First published in 1898 under the alias C. 3. 3. (for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3), The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem Oscar Wilde wrote in exile after he was sentenced to hard labor for sodomy.

The poem’s dedication page.

Indignant about the injustices and inhumane conditions of the prison, Wilde tells the story of C.T.W., the prisoner to whom the book is dedicated. The poem opens with the image of the man, who “did not wear his scarlet coat, / For blood and wine are red.” The man is found with the body of his murdered wife, “And blood and wine were on his hands.” Declaring that “all men kill the thing they love,” the speaker identifies with C.T.W. and metaphorizes the despicable conditions of the prison: “A prison wall was round us both, / Two outcast men we were: / The world had thrust us from its heart, / And God from out His care.”

The binding of SLU’s copy: artistic, yet subdued.

The format of SLU’s copy, printed around 1910 by Barse & Hopkins in New York, and its subdued, brown cloth publisher’s binding, results in an elegant book of deep melancholic indignance. The material object is a reflection of the work’s intellectual content, and the book itself is a testament to the power of poetry to witness. A manifestation of mourning, the poem concludes with the man’s execution on July 7th, 1896 and his fellow inmates’ somber commemoration. The work’s poetic resonance is achieved in the speaker and subject’s position on the margin: “For his mourner will be outcast men, / And outcasts always mourn.”

Posted in Featured Book, Rare Books, Students in the Stacks | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Negro at the North Pole by Matthew A. Henson

In A Negro at the North Pole (1912), African American explorer Matthew A. Henson recounts his experiences as the personal assistant of Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary during his eight expeditions to the Arctic. In the twenty-three years that Henson traveled with Peary, he was welcomed into the rear admiral’s family circle; he developed expertise in necessary survival skills, including blacksmithing, carpentry, sledge-building, dog sledding, navigation, and camp cooking; and learned the language and culture of the Inuits. He rose through the ranks to become Peary’s most trusted and able companion, and was the only other American to accompany the rear admiral when, after years of near misses, Peary finally reached the pole in 1909.

Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content

Both Henson and Booker T. Washington (author of the book’s introduction) frame Henson’s journey to the North Pole as one of many historical instances in which people of color powered “white men’s” discoveries. Aware of his race’s absence from history books, Henson is careful to recognize the contributions of other underrepresented groups to his own adventures. He acknowledges the women who braved Peary’s expeditions (including Peary’s wife, who, during an 1893 trek, gave birth to one daughter and adopted another), and writes extensively about Inuit friends and colleagues, listing them by name and celebrating not only their contributions to Peary’s expeditions, but also their individual personalities.

Posted in Featured Book, Rare Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

“Exploring the Manuscript Page: Scripts and Decoration around the World”—VFL Exhibition

Exploring the Manuscript Page: Scripts and Decoration around the World
An exhibition in the Vatican Film Library in Pius XII Memorial Library
13 February – 30 June 2017

The Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library—part of Special Collections in the Saint Louis University Libraries—announces the opening of an exhibition of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, “Exploring the Manuscript Page.”

Figure 1, Special Collections, VFL MS 043, from a book of prayers. In Syriac, written in a script called Nestorian.

This exhibit provides a survey of different handwritings and decoration styles in manuscripts from all over the world, dating from the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Numerous writing systems were used for communication in the medieval period, each generally related to one or more spoken language. Early in the West the Roman alphabet was mainly used for texts in Latin, and later for literature produced in the vernacular languages of each country. In the East there was not the advantage of a universal language such as Latin for the West, but rather multiple vernacular languages or dialects from region to region, and often in the same country. Many of them developed specific writing systems, while other languages remained strictly oral. In Case 1 we learn the technical names of many Western and Eastern scripts.

Figure 2, Special Collections, VFL MS 003, a book of hours, written in textualis rotunda.

On display in Case 2 are decorative features devised in European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries to articulate handwritten manuscripts—that is, to provide a visual guide for the reader to navigate the text. Colored ink and painted letters of graded sizes identified major and minor text divisions and distinguished individual sentences, at a time when there was little if any punctuation. Ornamental touches could also enrich the reading experience. Vertical borders, wide or narrow, incorporating vegetal elements and gold-leaf details could partially frame the text and add colorful, gleaming accents.

Figure 3, Special Collections VFL MS 004d verso, from a book of hours, written in a script called bastarda.

Sometimes large initials or stand-alone pictures would be historiated—by supplying an image that would illustrate the content of a passage or a chapter, such as this miniature representing the Betrayal of Christ, with Judas kissing Christ and Saint Peter cutting off a soldier’s ear with a sword.

In some cultures certain manuscripts have no figured decoration. As a highly regarded element in Islamic art, calligraphy itself becomes ornament in many Islamic manuscripts, particularly religious texts. In a Book of Litanies leaf, in Arabic, we find the text written in black ink within the small inner sections, while the headings at top, middle, and bottom stand out for their larger size and execution in gold and blue, with red and blue details.

The exhibition is free and open to the public and will be on display Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, through 30 June 2017 in the Vatican Film Library of Pius XII Memorial Library (Room 105). For further information, contact Susan L’Engle, Assistant Director of the Vatican Film Library, at 314-977-3084,

Posted in Exhibitions, Vatican Film Library | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

METAscripta: VFL Digital Humanities Project






METAscripta is a large-scale digital humanities project of the Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library (VFL) in the Department of Special Collections of Pius XII Memorial Library. The METAscripta team includes library faculty, staff, graduate fellows, and undergraduate student workers from the VFL and the Archives Digitization Center, with essential support from IT/Library Systems and the Center for Digital Humanities. The immediate goal of the project is to digitize 37,000 pre-modern manuscripts originally photographed at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) in the 1950’s.

Since then the approximately 10,000 master negative rolls have been stored in a vault in the basement of Pius XII Library, while the working positive films have been available for study in the VFL. After two years of planning, testing, writing grant applications, purchasing equipment, and organizing the documentation, data processing, and workflow for the project, the first box of 18 rolls, comprising 78 manuscripts, was finally digitized right before semester break of December 2016. The team celebrated by gift-wrapping the first box of microfilms like a Christmas present.

The METAscripta project will ultimately produce a crowd-sourcing website where registered users will be able to add metadata to the records for BAV manuscripts, many of which are unstudied and lack basic catalog descriptions, even in the catalogs of the Vatican Library. More than just a digitization effort, the METAscripta project applies innovative cataloging methods to improve access to Vatican manuscripts, including indexing by language, century, and country of origin. This discovery metadata will allow users to search for manuscripts as historical artifacts without the traditional library access points of author/title, which for many of these ancient manuscripts remain unidentified. Then controlled vocabulary crowd-sourcing will further enable scholars to add to this information by contributing metadata about manuscripts in their area of expertise. The website will allow users to see all data input for any given record and decide for themselves which data is most accurate.

With enthusiastic support from the Vatican Library, METAscripta will help provide new opportunities for scholarship about pre-modern manuscripts and create a sustainable resource for interactive scholarship. We are very grateful to all members of the Pius XII faculty and staff who have helped us develop this project and hope that in a few years we will have an exciting digital humanities product for international use.

Posted in Collections, Digital Collections, News, Vatican Film Library | Tagged | Leave a comment

An Artist’s Catalog: Collier’s Human Passions Delineated

The engraved title page of Collier’s Human Passions Delineated.

Human Passions Delineated in Above 120 Figures, published by John Heywood of Manchester in 1773, is a collection of caricatures and poems by “Tom Bobbin” – the pseudonym of Lancashire author and caricaturist John Collier. Peopled with grotesque characters “Design’d in the Hogarthian Style,” Collier’s prints include a self-portrait of “Bobbin,” 38 small (18.5 x 11 cm) caricatures positioned two to a page, and six full-page caricatures paired with satirical verse. Explanations of the smaller engravings are appended on the final five leaves.

In this attack on the fashions of the well-to-do, Collier depicts a wealthy man trying on a ludicrously pointed wig while a flattering wig maker presumably tells him how well it suits him. Collier ends his later explanation of the image with the hope that such fashions will be short-lived, remembered only by those “Who liv’d in George the Third’s mad fluctuating reign.”

Throughout the volume, Collier unreservedly pokes fun at the failings and foibles of men and women at all levels of society. Among his leering subjects are vomiting drunkards, doctors delighting in the painful extraction of teeth, and wealthy aristocrats flaunting laughably overdrawn fashions (such as towering wigs that do nothing to distract from their pronounced, hairy facial moles). The tone of the images ranges from lightly mocking (as in an illustration of an old woman using her cane as a lever to break up her granddaughter’s would-be tryst) to bitingly satirical. Some of Collier’s harshest critiques are reserved for hypocritical clergymen, and he dedicates a full-page caricature and an entire leaf of text to attacking pluralists (priests who took livings in multiple parishes, then notoriously underpaid the curates hired to preach in their place). He clearly also has a bone to pick with the printers who pirated “Bobbin’s” first and most successful work, A View of the Lancashire Dialect (1746). In a memorable caricature/verse pairing titled “Fratres in Malo,” Collier attacks the offenders by name and fantasizes about a future in which they must labor as “Chaise Horses sweating in bad roads / Whipp’d hard by Authors, and prick’d on by Goads.”

A broadside skewering pirating printers who have reduced “Bobbin” to poverty. (In reality, Collier’s money troubles had just as much to do with a habit of eating and drinking his income.)

Interestingly, Human Passions Delineated was printed to be a kind of catalog of the author’s artistic wares. While Collier held traditional jobs throughout his life (he was school-master in his hometown and, briefly, clerk of a woolen textile manufactory), he became increasingly focused on expanding his side-trade as a sign-painter and caricaturist. The publication of this “Book of Heads,” which readers could purchase as a bound volume or by the leaf, was a clever bit of self-promotion, and served to advertise Collier’s talents to publicans and other potential clients throughout the north of England.

A portrait of “Tim Bobbin” (really John Collier).

If Collier’s somewhat crass style is not to your taste, Human Passions Delineated still has much to offer. His illustrations are infused with references to contemporary politics, social stratification, and church politics, as well as with subtle plugs for the author’s other works, which appear as books drawn into the images. As a side effect of the subjects’ wandering hands and immoral behaviors, we are given insight into the workings of eighteenth-century clothing, from how men’s wigs were affixed to how corsets were laced and petticoats were designed to allow access to pockets worn beneath.  Material culture (such as the gentleman’s standard equipage of long, thin-stemmed pipes, snuff boxes, quills, and ceramic drinking vessels) is depicted in fine detail. The layers of meaning and historical evidence packed into this deceptively slim volume are rife for explication, and I encourage you to visit Rare Books yourself to peel them away – or just to get a good chuckle.

Previous Image
Next Image

info heading

info content

Posted in Collections, Rare Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment