One of the great joys of cataloging is figuring out who the folks were who wrote, edited, illustrated, printed, published, or owned the books that cross our desks. In most cases we don’t have time to delve into the lives of these people, and wistfully think that someone ought to write a dissertation on this person or that. But occasionally a life is just so fascinating that we can’t help but look beyond the usual vital statistics.
When I took up The Columbia Speaker, and Juvenile Orator (New York, 1815) to upgrade the cataloging record, the heading for the compiler had been entered as Brower, Benjamin, d. 1818. I noticed that we also had a heading in the online catalog for a Benjamin Brower without dates who printed the New York Daily Telegraph in 1812-13. It seemed likely that the printer and the compiler, who signed the preface “Benjamin Brower, Washington Academy, 236 Greenwich Street,” were one and the same, but I wanted to verify this assumption before adding the death date to the printer’s heading.
I began in Ancestry.com but found no record for a Benjamin Brower who died in 1818. Nor did FamilySearch.org have a record for him. Next I searched the America’s Historical Newspapers database where a May 6, 1818 obituary in the New York Gazette confirmed that the compiler of The Columbian Speaker had indeed died in 1818.
Died yesterday morning, after a painful illness, Mr. Benjamin Brower, in the 43d year of his age. His relations and friends are invited to attend his funeral this afternoon at 5 o’clock, from Washington Academy, no. 236 Greenwich-Street without further invitation.
Obituaries for Brower were included in four other New York City newspapers and a notice of his death was published in the Essex Register, Salem, Mass., suggesting that he was a man held in some regard.
None of the obituaries mentioned that he had ever worked as a printer, but what did grab my attention as I was scrolling through the database results was a series of articles beginning in the Mercantile Advertiser on September 10, 1803.
The circumstances which have come to our knowledge respecting the reported embezzlement of money, by a person in the service of the Manhattan Company, are these—In consequence of the indisposition of Mr. Hunn (one of the tellers) and the absence of the first book-keeper, the situation of temporary teller on Saturday the 27th ult. devolved upon Mr. Benjamin Brower, who had been received into the bank with very respectable recommendations, and at that time filled the office of second book-keeper, to the entire satisfaction of the Directors, whose opinion of his integrity was highly flattering.
On the day above-mentioned, Mr. Brower received, in his capacity of teller, upwards of 70,000 dollars. The money delivered by him to the cashier, in the evening as the closing of the accounts fell 10,000 dollars short of this sum; but as the money and the written statement of receipts had been made to correspond in the sum total, no suspicions of fraud were entertained. Mr. Brower was absent from the bank on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday following; still from the tenor of his former conduct, and from the sickly state of the city, no one entertained a sentiment injurious to his reputation, or supposed his absence to be occasioned by any other circumstance than some derangement in his own health or the health of his family.
The adjustment of the accounts of the Bank, preparatory to its removal to Greenwich, took place on Wednesday evening the 31st, when a deficiency to the amount above stated was discovered, ‘and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack.’
An enquiry was immediately instituted respecting Mr. Brower. The result was, that he had left the city on Sunday, with his family, but no person could give information to what part of the country he had absconded. Messengers were dispatched in different directions in search of him; but we understand all their vigilance has hitherto been unsuccessful.
The Manhattan Company have offered a reward of 500 dollars for his apprehension, and ten per cent. upon such part of the embezzled property as may be recovered.
The New York Evening Post included the story on September 12th and within days it was reprinted in newspapers North and South. A widely copied description of Benjamin Brower appeared:
About 26 or 27 years of age; 5 feet 10 inches high; dark complexion, with some black or dark brown freckles on his face; of a thin or meager habit and face; nose and features sharp; dark blue eyes; black hair, short and combed over his forehead; has a remarkable tuft or lock of grey hair just above, or on a parallel line with his left ear; long neck, arms and lower limbs; walks actively; swings his arms much while walking; treads on his heels; and is somewhat knock-kneed; tone of voice pleasant and agreeable, though apt to hesitate when questioned closely.
Quick arithmetic proved that someone who died in 1818 in his 43rd year would have been born about the same time as someone who was 26 or 27 years of age in 1803 – in 1775 or 1776. I skipped many articles, jumping ahead to learn what had happened to Benjamin Bower.