If someone points out a typo in an online Finding Aid or a Hamnet catalog record, we gratefully say thank-you, fix it, and (usually) move on.1 Sometimes, though, a big enough mistake has been around for a long enough time that we can’t just move on. We have to take extra steps to find the source of the mistake, and make sure its ghost doesn’t come back to haunt scholarship. Take “Edward Themilthorp” for example. This was, supposedly, a letter from him:
The letter is Folger L.d.586, dated 28 November 1616, and it had been described as “Letter from Edward Themilthorp to Nathaniel Bacon” in the online finding aid to the Papers of the Bacon-Townshend family of Stiffkey, Norfolk.
A while back, a researcher in England contacted email@example.com to say that he had done extensive research on the Themilthorp family of Norfolk, and knows of no “Edward” who would fit the context. Nicholas Themilthorp, on the other hand, would make perfect sense. What was the evidence for this letter being from an Edward Themilthorp? We didn’t know, so we set to work.
Sometimes, a reported error can be traced to the fact that early modern handwriting has some very different letterforms than modern cursive. “Edward” and “Nicholas” are about the same length. Was it possible the current researcher or a long-ago cataloger had misread the first name? Nope. A quick look at the signature in LUNA, the Folger’s digital image collection, showed that the signature only had a first initial, not a full name:
The signature had so many decorative flourishes that it was hard to untangle the capital letters at first, but there didn’t seem to be a capital E anywhere. It definitely looked like an elaborate N joined up with the T at the start of the surname—but maybe the writer just had a really strange way of writing the letter E? Maybe other instances of E (or N) in the letter would tip the balance? Nope. The handwriting in the body of the letter is completely different from the handwriting of the signature. Themilthorp’s secretary presumably wrote out the letter, then gave it to him to sign.
Maybe the name “Edward” came from the brief summary provided by the recipient or his secretary, after folding the letter into a tall skinny rectangle for storage with other correspondence? Known as a “docket” or “endorsement”, these summaries at the top of the back of a folded letter sometimes give important clues about the letter’s content.2 Nope again. The person who docketed the letter just wrote “Mr. Themelthorp” on the first line:
In the end, the only evidence we could find for the sender being “Edward” was the sixth line on page 30 of the Calendar of the Bacon-Townshend collection of manuscripts in the Folger Library, a finding aid compiled by Folger curator Giles Dawson in 1958.
Now we had a new question. Where did Giles Dawson get “Edward” from? It seems quite extraordinary that someone with his expertise would have misread the first letter as an “E” when writing up the arrangement of the papers. Here’s where knowledge of past practice comes in handy: Giles Dawson would not have done his own typing. He would have written up his notes by hand, then given them to a typist. Sometimes the handwritten versions survive in the curatorial files, like this description from 1960.3
Now that you know the original finding aid was handwritten, take another look at the entirety of page 30 of the typed version. See all those Edwards in a row?
My best guess is that Giles Dawson correctly handwrote “N.” (or “Nich.” or “Nicholas”), but thanks to the typist’s eye-skip while transcribing, “Edward” landed there instead. I haven’t found the original handwritten version of the typed finding aid, so I can’t prove any of this, but I’m confident enough that I gave it as a possible reason when updating the online finding aid. It now has the note “Sender misidentified as Edward Themilthorp in Calendar of the Bacon-Townshend Manuscripts, compiled ca. 1958 (perhaps an error of the typist). Corrected 2018-10-15.”
Given that “Edward Themilthorp” existed at the Folger for sixty years before we discovered he was a typo, we didn’t want to make a silent correction. It’s important that his name remain keyword searchable, alongside the date of his demise. If someone’s research notes refer to a 1616 letter by Edward Themilthorp at the Folger, and no one can find that letter, we want them to know that it’s Edward who disappeared, not the letter. We do the same thing with corrections in Hamnet records. If someone notices that Hamnet has “drawnigs” instead of “drawings” we just fix it. But if the record says “includes 36 original pen and wash drawings by Francis Hayman” instead of “31 by Francis Hayman, 5 by Hubert Gravelot,” we leave a trail of breadcrumbs.4
In conclusion, in case it wasn’t already obvious: if you find a mistake, please tell us! Catalogers are human, all humans make mistakes, therefore Socrates is a cataloger. No, wait… that’s a mistake.
- For more on the differences between Finding aids and Hamnet records, see Manuscripts in libraries: catalog versus finding aid.
- For details of the various ways early modern paperwork was stored, including letters that were docketed then tied into bundles, see Filing, seventeenth-century style.
- A few years ago, Folger catalogers started a folder of handwriting samples like this one, to capture institutional memory. When I came to the Folger in 2000, two of the people I worked with had been there since the 1950s. If anyone found an unsigned note or set of instructions, we’d just show it to one of them and ask if they had any idea who’d written it, so we gradually learned who was who. After they retired, new staff members relied on our second-hand knowledge for the same thing. This obviously couldn’t go on indefinitely, so we finally began collecting and labeling examples.
- Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly when the five Gravelot drawings were publicly misattributed. We made the correction in February 2017. For more on these drawings, see Drawn by Hayman, etched by Gravelot, preserved in Folger ART Vol. b72.