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The Coney Island House Register: a literary mystery

Jan 26, 2012 12:19 PM | 22 comments

The register of Coney Island's first hotel, Coney Island House, is a hefty volume. Its morocco leather trim, raised bands, gold-leaf detailing and marbled endpapers proclaim it as the record of an establishment that is unpretentious yet of solid worth. Coney Island House was built by the Gravesend and Coney Island Road and Bridge Company on land procured from Court Van Sicklen in the 1820s. Those who know the area today may find it hard to imagine the shore as it must have been then--a wild beach with a single road leading up to it, frequented only by clammers and beachcombers from nearby Gravesend. With the establishment of this hotel and others, a few tourists would come out to enjoy the sea air and the long vistas.

Page after and page of elaborate signatures could easily lull one into a reverie on the brevity of human life, or a reflection on the extraordinary changes that would take place in Coney Island over the course of the next century and a half. But then, every now and again, one turns a page, and the eye lands on a name that looks familiar. Can it be...? Yes, that is Jenny Lind, with P.T. Barnum's name right below it! 

And yet, one has to wonder...the signature preceding these at close of day, Thursday 12th September 1850, is that of "Bill Blunderbuss, Shirttail Bend." There are other spoofs.  Some wag --perhaps a hotel employee--signs in as Solomon Frizzlepipes, traveling in the company of Judith Snuffs. On another day a Longsnoot family comes to stay. Friday 13th September 1850 opens with the arrival of these two illustrious personages--or are they perhaps fictitious additions, intended to raise the status of the hotel?

But it is a page in early September of 1849 that really arouses wonderment. Mrs Bostwick and her friend Mrs Clement, now long gone, left their signatures as proof of a long-ago day spent by the sea. And so too, if we are to believe our eyes, did Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and friends. According to Melville's biographer, Hershel Parker, "There happens to survive no known record of Melville's ever having seen Poe, although he describes Poe to the life in The Confidence Man (ch. 36)." Well then, if we believe in the authenticity of these signatures, here is proof that Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville and a handful of other literary figures met at Coney Island on Wednesday September 5th, 1849.  Also among the company was their mutual friend Evert Duyckinck,  writer Cornelius Mathews, and William Gilmore Simms who, with Duyckinck and Mathews had formed a literary group called Young America in the 1830s. Poet and satirist Fitz Greene Halleck completed the party.

Handwriting experts! Speak up and let us know what you think!

Doubt has been cast on the authenticity of these signatures.  The Poe Log, a meticulously researched day-by day account of Poe's life, locates him around Richmond VA on this date. Researchers at the Poe Museum tell us that "Poe’s whereabouts at the time [are] well documented by his letters as well as by newspaper notices of his lectures and his initiation in Richmond into the Sons of Temperance." 

A similar volume on Melville makes no mention of trips to Coney Island, but then, its author had not seen the Coney Island House Register! In 1849 Melville had not yet published Moby Dick, and even that masterwork failed to lift him from obscurity, so it is hard to imagine any motivation for a contemporary forgery.  I am no scholar of handwriting, but something about the natural flow of these signatures, their position on the page, their characteristic and unforced energy, suggests to me that they are genuine.

And so we are left to wonder what these men of letters got up to on their putative day by the sea. Poe had just recently joined the Sons of Temperance. Did he abstain as his friends quaffed ale and port, or did he succumb to temptation, plunging into the downward spiral that would leave him dead in a Baltimore gutter only a month later? Did they don bathing attire (or not!) and frolic in the September surf? Did they pair off, perhaps, for more intimate conversation on long shoreline strolls, stooping now and then to pick up a colored pebble or a shell? Or did they simply sit on the hotel verandah in their summer hats, gazing out to sea, watching for ships and charting the passage of clouds? 



1/26/2012 6:55:38 PM #

Thrilling!  I hope someone can authentic Poe and Melville meeting at the hotel.  Did they get together on any other occasion?

Debbie Carter

1/27/2012 10:35:04 AM #

WOW! This is amazing.

La Toya

1/27/2012 11:19:10 AM #

Based on the "A." shown in the Poe signature at I would say that the signature in the hotel register is a fake.

Jerry A. McCoy

1/27/2012 1:07:15 PM #

Maybe. I like our A better. It's more honest.


1/28/2012 2:03:21 PM #

Well, on 5 September 1849 Evert Duyckinck wrote a chatty letter to his brother George in which he mentioned Irving, Powell, Thoreau, and others. I can't believe he wrote it early in the day then impulsively went off to Coney Island and he certainly did not write it late in the day. The HM signature I don't like, and the Mathews signatures is not much like the one in the Duyckincks' Cyclopedia. I would tend to give credit to the POE evidence that EAP was not in town. And I would suspect someone had a lot of fun doctoring an old register, maybe one that started out with real pages. Someone is having a lot of fun, I'll bet. NOT $10,000, but two bits.

Hershel Parker

1/28/2012 10:17:09 PM #

I tried to post a comment on this blog several hours ago. It may yet appear. Here I will point out only that in my THE NEW MELVILLE LOG (electronic) I have transcribed a letter from Evert A. Duyckinck to his brother George dated 5 September 1849. In it he chats about various people including Irving and Thomas Powell but says not a word about an excursion to Coney Island. Could he have written it very early, before being asked out to Brooklyn? Certainly he could not have written it at the end of the day. I suspect that the register is a very funny hoax, maybe by some modern wretch who found an original register and saw he could have great fun doctoring it up. They should put up images of several full pages so we can check newspapers and

Hershel Parker

1/31/2012 8:38:44 AM #

I am the archivist for our local historical society in Wappingers, Dutchess County, New York.
At the moment I am winding up my research on 2 ledgers from a 19th century hotel in the Village of Wappingers Falls--Rush's Hotel.
The owner's children had a fine time registering as travelers from foreign lands and their friends did the same.
On holiday eves, adult members of the local populace wrote personal sentiments in the registry.
I doubt whether these entries in the ledgers were done by other than pranksters in the time period. No city administration was watching hotel records at the time!
Certainly experts in ink composition could pinpoint the era.
This is a wonderful blog.Kudos to Joy Holland.


2/1/2012 4:24:38 PM #

Rena Corey, what a fascinating account of the Rush's Hotel register!

So the literary names may have been inscribed in 1849 or at least in that era rather than by a modern prankster.

Some registers were carefully maintained. The one at the Wilson Hotel-Curtis Hotel in Lenox certainly was, at least until the 1890s. None of the local archivists could run it down when I pushed hard a couple of years ago. Anyone here know? It's a treasure, worth money.

Hershel Parker

2/1/2012 4:29:25 PM #

All the literary names mentioned could have been in an ad in a Wiley and Putnam book like the 1846 TYPEE--all except the differently inscribed Halleck. Just a possibility.

Hershel Parker

2/1/2012 4:43:18 PM #

Oh I don't think there's any way this could be a modern prankster. I'll try to get a good scan of the whole page up here in the next couple of days.


2/2/2012 1:04:47 PM #

I look forward to the scan.  I'll try to see if there was some news item around 5 Sept. 1849, if indeed that was the date of the inscriptions. A scan of the whole page would help a lot. We can all check the censuses and see how many are phony. No matter how this turns out, if the inscriptions are contemporary it's all good fun and interesting about reputations. What writers were not named might be as interesting as what writers were named.

Hershel Parker

2/7/2012 2:21:19 PM #

Joy Holland has been in touch with me. As she recognized, the misspelling of Evert A. Duyckinck's last name is sufficient indication that the signatures are not genuine. There remains the question of just what had been going on that would have brought particular names to the attention of the happy pranksters.

Hershel Parker

2/7/2012 4:19:35 PM #

Just to continue my role as devil's advocate: one can imagine a scenario in which the guest says his or her name to the desk clerk, who then tries to write down what he hears; so the misspelling may not be an intentional prank.  (Although in this case it is a rather weird misspelling.) At other times, the guest simply picks up the pen and signs in. People could also sign in for their companions. On this page, to my eye, the Melville and Mathews signatures are by the same hand. Further down, one person seems to have signed  Geo Hedges and R. Lefferts.


2/7/2012 8:22:21 PM #

The Melville signature looks genuine and he may well
have signed in for Mathews -- not an uncommon practice.
The Poe signature has several signs that it is genuine but
the A is problematic.
Could not Poe have taken train from Richmond to NY
for this social friendship gathering ?  Would that have been
so difficult or time-consuming ?

Brad Parker

2/7/2012 8:35:35 PM #

Also -- The Barnum signature is not his.

Brad Parker

2/7/2012 8:43:46 PM #

PLUS:  The J. Lind signature is not genuine.  Looks like
the same hand wrote Lind's name & Barnum's name.

Brad Parker

2/7/2012 9:54:08 PM #

On the page you scanned there are only a few Boston and New York names but I will try to get time to run some of them down in to see if any of them are in the 1850 census. Not that that would prove anything . . . .

Hershel Parker

2/9/2012 1:38:05 PM #

Judging from the 1850 census some of the names are real, although whether the people with those names signed the register is not clear.

I trust Joy to find out more--and perhaps to share more scans of other pages.

What fun!

Hershel Parker

2/9/2012 10:09:18 PM #

Fitz Greene Halleck also appears to be genuine.

Brad Parker

2/10/2012 9:12:49 AM #

YES -- Please, Joy, do scan more pages !!

Brad Parker

2/11/2012 10:57:43 AM #

Not yet posted (??)

Wm. Gilmore Simms wrote a letter to Poe in
the summer of 1846 -- so there is a connection
between those two men.

Brad Parker of Boston

2/13/2012 10:07:17 AM #

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