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Our Brutus - Part 2 - The Sheet
(Published in The Railsplitter, Volume 13, #1/2, 2007/2008)
By Kevin Lynch

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2. The Sheet

While well into the 11 hours I would spend over two days viewing the amazing collection of Mr. X, a gentleman who prefers anonymity here, my dazzled eyes were mesmerized by the items of lithographic art parading by in front of me. Granted, these are eyes more used to the tepid weekly offerings on eBay or the standard lack of prominent music material found at a typical bookseller’s convention. Yet these were items of significant worth and wicked scarcity, of historic interest and national concern, examples of artistic power and graphic artistry. In point of reference regarding scarcity, the greatest rarities have to be the examples that are known to be published but not known to exist. But beyond those impossible items any single digit scarcity, a collectible where less than ten are known to exist, demands significant consideration.

Soon the time arrived for displaying one of the most astonishing pieces in the collection, which itself may be one of the three greatest sources of 19th century illustrated American music in private hands. When I first looked at the litho adorning the title page I couldn’t place it in memory. The title, “Our Brutus”, brought up images of Caesar and Shakespeare, but nothing specific. The words, the music front announced, were from La Crosse Democrat with the music by E. B. Armand, the music being published by A.E. Blackmar in New Orleans. And again, I had no particular associations to go on except knowing that Armand was the first name of publisher Blackmar. With a twinkle in his eye, Mr. X pronounced the name of Booth and explained it was one of perhaps only two copies known to exist.

“Our Brutus” was a paean to John Wilkes Booth, published three years after the assassination, lionizing the man. It was both pro-Booth and post-assassination.

Being collectors, of course, the extraordinary drama of viewing such a great rarity can outweigh any relationship to a cause. Neither of us would espouse the publishing of such a piece. What astounds is the realization that one is standing in a moment of time where both great history and great scarcity are beheld. It takes the breath.

The song was written at a time, as its prologue states, “when it was proposed to bury its illustrious subject (Booth) in the ocean, so that no trace of his resting place could be found by those who might wish to honor his remains”.  The song responded with these stanzas:

“He hath written his name in letters of flame
O’er the archway of liberty’s portal,
And the serfs that now blame shall crimson with shame
When they learn they have cursed an immortal!

He hath died for the weal of a land ‘neath the heel
Of too many a merciless Nero;
But while there is steel, every tyrant shall feel
That God’s vengeance but waiteth its hero.”

Though for many years only a single copy of the song was known to exist, at the current time we know of at least four copies extant, complete with music. The Lincoln Memorial University’s Lincoln Library and Museum, in Harrogate, Tennessee, claimed for many years it had the only copy. Indeed, its press magazine stated in the fall of 1977 that the printing plates were seized by the federal government, “but not before one copy was printed”. Obviously, this was in error. It was no doubt exciting to think that it was possible, and when no other copies turned up after so many years it must have seemed plausible. But like other areas of antique paper, eventually other copies surface. A respected dealer in Pennsylvania, Bruce Gimelson, advertised “Our Brutus” in a sales listing from the late 1960s. “Only two copies are known [to exist]”, it stated.  

My acquiring Gimelson’s sales booklet last year pushed me further in the search for more copies in an attempt to discover how truly rare the item was. I discovered that a copy in excellent condition resides at Delaware University and another, though surprisingly just a facsimile, at the venerable Library of Congress (LC), the supposed place of deposition, by law, for all publications of music in America since 1870. In 1868, when the music was published and deposited in the “clerk’s office of the district court for the Eastern District of Louisiana” there was no mandate that the music be sent to Washington, D.C. Given the nature of the piece, it comes as no surprise that it was never sent. When it came to the attention of the LC in 1951 that the music existed, a facsimile copy was requisitioned. The valuable David Rankin Barbee Papers at Georgetown University have the LC ordering document, and Barbee apparently made the copy from his own facsimile a year later. “We give you wherewith our formal order for the following”, the LC requisition states.

For whatever reason, the LC’s copy is a negative print, where light is shadow and shadow light. It’s spooky. Odd, too, is the LC purchase order, which fails to list the vendor (Barbee). The fourth complete and original copy of ‘Our Brutus’ lies in my home state of Washington in Washington State University’s Special Collections, as part of the impressive Butler Collection. Robert Cushman Butler, cousin of famed actress Charlotte Cushman, collected music lithographs late in the 19th century and early in the 20th, up until about 1930, and so his collection is one of the earliest major gatherings of 19th century music lithos. Perhaps because of this many of the pictorial lithographs adorning the covers are near pristine, on paper devoid of hardly any fading or foxing. He specialized in theatricals, and has music lithos of Edwin Booth as well.

Interestingly, all four copies of the Wilkes Booth piece that are complete with music are in very nice condition, none ragged and none showing the effects of disbinding. Book binding in personal collections was the way the vast majority of collectible 19th century music still survives today. Alas, the eventual disbinding leaves a rough and punctured left edge to the music, the music’s spine quite literally punctured in the sewing into bookman’s history. It was both their fate and preservation. But what really spurred my research was a simple store sellers stamp on Mr. X’s copy, which is alluded to in Gimelson’s sale and I quote directly from their catalogue:

“This piece was published by Blackmar from private subscription and was meant for circulation in Washington D.C.” This, then, explained the store seller’s stamp on their copy.  Mr. X’s copy has this stamp and is likely the copy sold by Gimelson, who states today that noted collector Emmanuel Kean believed all copies were destined for Washington distribution (Manny Kean, oddly, is the third Kean/Keene to find their way into this article). Why, though, would only one copy of the music have a store seller’s stamp? Were others sold from non-music venues? Certainly, word would have gotten out rapidly that the music was being marketed just minutes from the Capitol and action would have been taken to collect them.

There is some question whether the music was actually printed in New Orleans where Blackmar was based, or Washington D.C., where it was distributed. The store seller’s stamp gives prompts the question. John F. Ellis was also a music publisher in the Capitol and well might have published the music there.

Also at issue is the artist who lithographed the image of Booth. It may have been Ernest Crehen, who lithographed a number of Confederate sheets during the war years, including sheets published in Savannah, Georgia not far from where Blackmar was publishing in Augusta. Or it may have been Charles G. Crehen, probably related, who lithographed a gorgeously detailed portrait of Edwin Booth on music in 1869, dedicated to him, the year after “Our Brutus” was published. It’s simply titled “Genius”. Charles, a well known portrait painter who hailed from Paris, lithographed many fine music sheets in the late 1840’s. His painting ‘America’ is to be found at the New York Historical Society. He returned to music illustration to do the sheet on Edwin Booth in 1869. It’s unclear why, after years building a reputation as a painter, he would resurface as a music lithographer and draw what may have been a single additional music litho. Charles, who lived with a relative (Lewis Crehen) in the lithographic business, worked in New York from 1846 until at least 1863. In 1860, Ernest was in Richmond and in 1861 he executed 14 plates for “Uniform and Dress of the Army of the Confederate States”. So, there is nothing definitive to point to in terms of determining the artist but interesting connections exist.     

How remarkable, if no other copies surface in private hands, that there would be just a single copy not found in an archive. And among all music published during that century that had historical implications of significant weight, you would have this item of wicked scarcity with just one copy floating out beyond the boundary of any library or museum-housed collection. And it’s interesting if indeed this is the ONE with the D.C. seller’s stamp, its address so near to the capitol at 306 Pennsylvania Avenue, an address now occupied by a bank. How could this have happened? As unconscionable as the murderous deed is in the first place, how could you market a song about the event in the nation’s capitol, praising the assassin, just three short years after the tears that “drown[ed] the wind”? Here are the lines spoken by Macbeth before he kills Duncan, lines which foreshadow the likely outcome:

“If it were done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly. If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease, success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come.”

                                 “Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition (the jump?), which o’erleaps itself,
And falls on th’ other –”

Booth found the “spur to prick the sides” of his intent and wore two of them to aid his getaway on horseback. His “vaulting ambition” did indeed o’erleap itself. The correlations between Booth’s position and Macbeth’s are stunning: art aping  history. Just weeks after quoting the lines from Macbeth in this article I visited Washington and in the Library of Congress found an exhibit with a broadside published within days of Lincoln’s demise linking the play to the event with the very same words, “that tears shall drown the wind”. Lincoln, who loved Shakespeare and often read aloud to friends and staff members from the plays, was most taken by the tragedies and histories. He had seen Edwin Booth perform Richard III, and Edwin Forrest the lead in King Lear at Ford’s Theatre. Just five days before the assassination, reports Adam Gopnik of New Yorker magazine, Lincoln read aloud from Shakespeare to those on the Presidential yacht, traveling up the Potomac. Among all of the Bard’s plays, Lincoln found none more powerful than Macbeth and is quoted as saying “I think nothing equals Macbeth”.

Those who have had a life in the theatre can often sense the ghosts beyond the bare bulb that often stands upon the stage at night, offering a light at 3 a.m. to whom…? “The earth hath bubbles, as the water has/ And these are of them. Whither are they vanish’d?”, says Banquo about the witches and their vanishing - those bearded, gray-maned prognosticators who predicted Macbeth’s doom. The thane replies, “Into the air; and what seemed corporal melted/ As breath into the wind. Would they had stay’d!” It could be said of Lincoln as well, or of many among the countless losses over time.

Most of the music printed in the Civil War years was on rag paper, with the exception, notably, of much of the music printed in the south. Paper came to be scarce during the war years. Rag paper, as its name suggests, came quite literally from rags and is the reason why a number of music sheets from that period exist today with little or no foxing. There is no wood pulp, with its acids, involved in the process.   

Song itself was a huge part of the Civil War and served as a great release for men in camp who were shouldering the massive physical and emotional burdens of the war. Lincoln’s death produced a prodigious number of song sheets written as funeral marches and dirges, celebrating his place in American history and the hearts of many in the north.

The ‘Assassin’s Vision’, a song published in 1865 by J.W. Turner, is one of those that couples Lincoln with Booth. It tells the story of Booth’s flight toward Richmond after the murder, with Booth seeing apparitions of Lincoln in the trees on his wild ride south.
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