Dickensian Detective Work

Being a book collector, I always find it intriguing to discover some trace of a volume’s former owner. Usually, it’s in the form of a signed bookplate or a “Happy Birthday” inscription. Occasionally, I’ll find a bookmark, a shopping list or even a dollar bill within the pages. These are tantalizing clues. Who was David, to whom this copy of Barchester Towers was given? Did he enjoy the book? Did he even read it? And who in this day and age gives Trollope as a birthday gift, anyway? (I wish I had such a friend!)

Sometimes, you get just a little more than a glimmer of the old reader. Recently, I was able to positively identify a book’s former owner through the Internet, and what I discovered about him was quite interesting.

I have accumulated several shelves of books relating to Charles Dickens. Particular editions of the novels, Edwardian picture-book adaptations and books about his influence on social reform have all found their ways into my house.

However, perhaps my favorite Dickens book collection is my assortment of old travel guides. In Dickens’s London and About England With Dickens are favorites, as is a small guide to the places Dickens toured on his 1842 visit to Boston. I like these old books for the information they contain about my favorite author, but I also enjoy the glimpses of neighborhoods that have been modernized or demolished in the last few decades. So much the better if the books contain grainy photographs of falling-down city buildings that have long been bulldozed!

A couple of years ago, I ducked into a tidy and well-organized used bookshop in Harpers Ferry, W.V. Predictably, there were lots of books about the Civil War, but on a shelf near the front door was a row of Dickensian subjects. One caught my particular fancy: The London of Dickens by Walter Dexter. It was published by E.P. Dutton & Co. in 1924 and still had its original dust jacket. The book cost more than what I usually spend, but the delightful description on the cover promised “15 carefully compiled rambles.” Who was I to resist?

When I got home, I noticed that there were a few bits of paper stuck between the yellowing pages. They appeared to be shipboard messages of some sort, but I was tired, so I stuck the book with my other Dickens guides and left it for a rainy day.

A few months ago, that rainy day finally arrived. I discovered that there were actually five pieces of paper in the book. The first was a crumbly clipping from an ancient New York Times Book Review. It was a review of yet another Dickens guidebook, The London of Charles Dickens by E. Beresford Chancellor. That book is not yet on my shelf – I need to find it!

The next piece of paper was a stationery card bearing a Midtown Manhattan address. “My Dear Dr. Berg,” it read in a florid, authoritarian script, “This book is crisp, complete and correct. Yours sincerely, Hattie G. Frankel.” A cursory Google search on Ms. Frankel informed me merely that she was involved in a 1914 lawsuit involving bequeathed property, and that she owned an automobile in that same year. Obviously, though, she knew her Dickensian “rambles.”

The other three papers were marconigrams. Marconigrams were sent shore to ship and ship to ship by a wireless telegraph. The messages were handwritten in pencil on red and white paper. All three of these marconigrams were dated Aug. 16, 1924, and were “handed in” in New York. They were addressed to “Dr. A. A. Berg” aboard the Majestic, the largest ship on the sea in the 1920s and the jewel in the White Star Line’s transatlantic crown.

“Meant to introduce friend Tinsley May. Please meet her aboard. Bon voyage. Sam Levy,” read one. “Bon voyage and safe return to you and your brother. Hope you enjoy well-earned rest. Jaches,” said another. And the last one stated: “Greetings from us to you. Mary Rose, Dannie, Amy Goodinsky, Devore and Enoch.”

A quick search on the Internet led me to find a Tinsley May who lived from 1891-1974, but not much about Dr. Berg’s message-sending friends. That left Dr. Berg himself.

He was easy to find. Albert Ashton Berg was born in New York City in 1872 and died in 1950. A photograph in an online text of Colon and Rectal Surgery shows him as a rather dapper man with a high, starched collar, pointed beard and glasses. A long-time surgeon at Mt. Sinai Hospital, “he is credited with having performed the first gastrectomy for peptic ulcer disease in the United States,” the book says. Interesting enough, but a sentence further down really caught my eye. “Along with his brother, he amassed a library of 50,000 rare volumes of English and American literature.” Fascinating! One of the marconigrams had mentioned his brother.

And then I found it. There, on the New York Public Library’s website, I read information about the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The collection was gifted to the library in 1940 by Albert, in memory of his brother. According to the website, “The original collection, confined primarily to Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, with selected highlights of English literature, numbered 3,500 items.” The collection includes rare and first editions of Dickens’ novels, as well as the author’s diaries and a prompt copy that he used for public readings of A Christmas Carol.

Now, when I crack open The London of Dickens, I think about Dr. A. A. Berg. A hard-working, pioneering, Dickens-reading New York surgeon taking a vacation with his brother to visit Dickens’ England. At home, they had thousands of books. Yet Hattie G. Frankel presented him with this volume, which he took onboard with him. Did he read the book, cruising in luxury across the wide ocean, planning his Dickensian rambles? I’d like to think so. After all, the first line of Walter Dexter’s preface reads, “This is a book for the fireside, or the deck-chair.”