The Misadventures of a Letter Sent Across the Atlantic in 1819; or, ‘Get me that Keats’

Brian Rejack
Illinois State University

RE: Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats

I’ve been fascinated by this letter for several years now, despite it being a rather boring letter (sorry, Keats!). Of all the letters sent across the Atlantic to George and Georgiana Keats, it’s certainly the least remarkable. For most of the letter’s first two pages, Keats discusses nothing other than the two brothers’ poor financial straits. Keats regrets that he’s been unable to secure any significant funds for George. He asks George about the fate of his steamboat investment (a venture embarked upon with John James Audubon, and which turned out disastrously for them both). He also expresses a faint hope that Otho the Great might still lead to some cash on hand for its authors, Keats and Charles Brown (it would never be performed in Keats’s lifetime). And Keats even mentions another of Richard Abbey’s suggestions for a potential business idea, this time that Keats might “turn Bookseller” (earlier Abbey had urged the eldest Keats to become a hatter or a tea merchant). All of the financial worries clearly weighed heavily on Keats at this moment in late 1819, so much so that he offered this dismal assessment: “Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent.” This, from the guy who in that “last year” wrote basically all of his best poetry. If “To Autumn” was written under a dampened poetical talent, then what would a more fully ripened verse have looked like??

Now, there’s not that much else going on in the content of this letter. Sure, it’s got a bawdy little lyric from James Rice that Keats relays to George and Georgiana (“Between the two P—x’s I’ve lost every Lover, / But a difference I found ’twixt the great and the small: / For by the Small Pox I gott {pitted} all over / By the other I did not get {pittied} at all”), and it’s got an intriguing mention of Hazlitt and his recent lectures delivered at the Surrey Institution. But the real magic of this letter, and its source of fascination for me, has to do with what happened after Keats wrote it.

Let me set the stage for you. There was no real transatlantic postal system in 1819, so when Keats sent his letters abroad, he did so via commercial ships. Through his friend William Haslam, Keats had a connection to a merchant firm called “Capper and Haslewood.” When commercial ships moved between England and the U.S. (or elsewhere), there would typically be a post-bag amongst the cargo. As you can see below, Keats gave his letter to John Capper, who wrote on the outside of the letter, “Forwarded by the William / via New York. 22d Novem ’19 / John Capper.”

Pages 1 and 4 of Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats. In addition to the address (written by Keats), there are four other inscriptions on what was the outside of the letter (when it was folded and sealed). Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Thanks to knowing the name of the ship, we can learn a good amount of detail about the letter’s travels to America. A shipping notice like the one pictured below can tell us, for instance, that the William took almost two months in transit. This notice also lists the names of merchants in New York who were receiving goods from the William, and it gives some information about the letters included in the cargo: “The letters by the William were put into the Post Office at Old Town, and have not yet reached town.” “Old Town” refers to Brooklyn, and “town” to Manhattan, so the notice clarifies that if anyone is expecting letters in the latter location, they’ll need to wait a bit to retrieve them. From the post office in Brooklyn, Keats’s letter would have traveled over land (probably some of the way via ship on the Ohio River) toward Kentucky and eventually arrived in Louisville.

Notice from the Mercantile Advertiser, 28 February 1820.

Ok, story over—pretty cool, huh? JUST KIDDING THERE IS SO MUCH MORE. If you look back at the shipping notice again, you’ll see that it lists some of the passengers who were on board. Of particular interest to the story of Keats’s letter is this information: “Passengers, Mrs. Ellis and family, and one servant, Mr. Threldeld.” I’ve not yet located any connection with Keats (and/or his letter) and “Mrs. Ellis,” but sharp-eyed readers of the manuscript image above might notice a connection to “Mr. Threldeld.” (Actually it’s Threlkeld.) On the outside of Keats’s letter, there is this additional inscription, along with the address and John Capper’s note (plus two more we’ll get to in a bit): “Lat. 40.23 N / Long. 72 W. / 16th February 1820 / Dane W. Threlkeld.”

Detail from Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

A couple questions arise here. We know from the shipping notice that Threlkeld was traveling as a servant to Mrs. Ellis, but why would he have Keats’s letter? And furthermore, why would he write on the letter the coordinates for the William on 16 February? If you put 40.23 N, 72 W into google maps, you’ll see that it places the ship about 50 miles off the coast of Long Island. The ship was thus not too far from its destination—what reason could there have been for noting this detail, and why would Threlkeld note it on Keats’s letter?

The approximate location of the William on 16 February 1820, according to Threlkeld’s note.
The distance between the location of the William on 16 February and 23 February 1820, according to the inscriptions on the outside of Keats’s letter.

Well, one of those other inscriptions from the outside of the letter can provide a bit more guidance. It reads: “Edgartown Ms Feb 23                  Ship 27.” That’s a wholeweek after Threlkeld’s note with the coordinates. Edgartown, Massachusetts is on Martha’s Vineyard, which, you might notice, is sort of out of the way if you’re heading to New York City from the coordinates Threlkeld noted on 16 February. So what happened? Why go back to Edgartown? Hyder Edward Rollins, the editor of Keats’s letters, cites Willard B. Pope’s suggestion that “some emergency must have driven the ship back to Edgartown.” I’ve yet to find weather data for that part of the Atlantic in February 1820 (shameful, I know!), but that could potentially provide a clue. Still, the detour seems an odd one given that there could have been other ports of call where the emergency might have been addressed more quickly. In any case, whatever the cause, we still don’t know why Threlkeld and someone else (the note about Edgartown appears to be in a different hand) felt the need to note these facts on Keats’s letter. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the notes were added to the letter in order to explain the delay in its delivery. But if that was the case, why not provide a bit more information? Was it just to frustrate me in my irritable reaching after the letter’s facts and reasons? Yes, I wager that it was.

Detail from Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

But wait, there’s more! Remember that detail about the letters being left at the post office in Old Town aka Brooklyn? Thanks to Henry Reed Stiles’s A History of the City of Brooklyn (1867), I can tell you a bit about that. The post office in 1820 was at the intersection of Fulton Street and Front Street, which is now basically an empty lot underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Also in 1820, on the other side of the street lived the painter Francis Guy, and he loved the view from his studio so much that he painted the scene in several different versions. The yellow building on the right side of the painting is the post office, which was also a hardware store, both of which were run by Thomas Birdsall. Up close you can even see that the sign above the entrance to the building reads “Post Office / Thos W. Birdsall’s / Hardware Store.” While of course we’re way off in the realm of speculation here, it’s possible that as Guy was working on his painting of the post office in Brooklyn in 1820, Keats’s letter was among the many pieces of mail waiting to be delivered.

Francis Guy’s Winter Scene in Brooklyn (ca. 1819–20).Oil on canvas, 58 ⅜ × 74 9⁄16 inches (148.2 x 189.4 cm). (97.13; Brooklyn Museum, transferred from the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences to the Brooklyn Museum)

At some point the letter did arrive in Louisville, but we don’t know much about its fate between 1820 and 1869. However, there is one curious bit of information from the interval. As fans of negative capability will perhaps know, several of Keats’s letters stayed in America in the care of Georgiana Keats and her second husband John Jeffrey, whom she married after George’s death. In May 1845 Jeffrey saw a notice in a newspaper advertising the upcoming biography of Keats by Richard Monckton Milnes. Jeffrey wrote a letter to Milnes explaining that he had papers (poems and letters) that might be of interest to the biographer. After a reply from Milnes, Jeffrey agreed to transcribe the letters he had in his possession and send the transcripts over to Milnes. Jeffrey made transcripts of 15 letters, including the negative capability letter, one of 6 which still exist only via Jeffrey’s (unreliable and partial) transcripts. Curiously, though, he did not copy the 12 November 1819 letter. Was he simply bored so much by its contents that he deemed it unworthy of copying? Or was it possible that he didn’t actually have possession of it at that point?

The latter option seems rather unlikely, but it is possible that already in 1845 the letter was under the care of the Keats family member who would become the de facto guardian of the poet’s legacy: Emma Keats Speed. She was born to George and Georgiana in 1823, and at some point after Jeffrey made his copies of the letters in 1845, she took control over the majority of those materials. There are a few letters that we know she gave away, and the 12 November 1819 is one of those. The evidence for this one is pretty simple: the recipient explains as much on the outside of the letter. The inscription (in purple ink) reads as follows: “Given my by Mrs Philip Speed / the eldest daughter of Mr George Keats / to whom this letter was addressed, / by his brother John– / Louisville Ky– / February 1869 / Frank M. Etting.”

Detail from Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George Keats. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Frank Marx Etting was a collector of rare books and manuscripts, and upon his death he bequeathed his massive collection to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. It appears he had kept Keats’s letter among his collection since receiving it as a gift from Emma Keats Speed in February 1869. However, the letter had never actually made it into print, despite the fact that by the end of the nineteenth century, almost all of the Keats letters now accounted for in some way or another had been found and ushered into the print record. Even after this letter arrived in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania around 1890, it would be another four decades before it was brought into print. It also happened thanks to a bit of luck and the order of letters in the alphabet.

As the KLP reported way back in 2016 about the fifth extant Keats letter, in 1932 the Melville scholar J. H. Birss was looking through a bibliography in Widener Library, when he opened to the Ks instead of the Ms. He happened to notice a listing for a Keats letter he’d never heard about before, which led him on his search that eventually finished at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and netted him the honor of first publishing not one but two Keats letters!

Ok, now is when things get really wild. A few years ago, I realized that the history of this letter was a fascinating one, so I figured it’d be worth getting an image of it to see if there might be anything else I could glean from it that wasn’t obvious to me from all the details provided about it via Rollins’s and other editions of the letters. I found the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s website, where I proceeded to sort through the digital scans of their old physical card catalog system to, first, make sure the letter was still there, and second, get the catalog information necessary to request a digital image of the letter. Here is one of those images from the card catalog system. Take note of the damage to the card. That’ll be important in a minute here.

Catalog card from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

I requested the image and soon thereafter I received the digital scan of a letter, but one which I quickly realized was not written by Keats. The penmanship was actually far worse (I think, anyway) than Keats’s neat hand, so that was my first clue. In quickly scanning the letter to see if I could figure out anything else, I noticed the name “Keats” at the bottom of the third page. I was intrigued. But what the heck did “Get me that Keats” mean?? Well, it took a second for me to realize it, but the line continues along the vertical axis of the fourth page, where the letter-writer completes the sentence: “Get me that Keats / autograph. I had a splendid Tennyson sent to me tother day by Tupper, written expressly / for this / individual / [signed] BM.” In other words, I’d come across a manuscript-hunter like myself.

Brantz Mayer to Frank Marx Etting, 18 March 1869. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Detail of Mayer’s letter. Image courtesy the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

The letter was from Brantz Mayer to Frank Marx Etting, written just a few weeks after Etting had received the 12 November 1819 letter in Louisville from Emma Keats Speed. Did Etting also receive a cut-out autograph to send along to Mayer? Did Etting promise to do so with the signature from the letter to George and Georgiana, only to change his mind later? But more importantly for our continuing story, why was I sent the scan of this other letter in the first place?

Enter the villains of the tale: Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff. In 2010 and 2011 Landau (the mastermind) and Savedoff (the young apprentice) carried out a months-long spree of cultural plunder from a score of libraries, museums, and archives across the US. By the time they were apprehended in July 2012, they’d stolen approximately ten thousand documents. One of those documents was Keats’s 12 November 1819 letter to George and Georgiana Keats. When the letter was returned to its archival home, it had simply been re-catalogued in a way that meant my information from the old card catalog system now led to a folder holding a different letter from the Etting Papers.

Once again we arrive at many, many questions. Why, and also how, did these two crooks steal so many documents from these cultural institutions? Why did they steal a Keats letter? Was it targeted, or was it just hoovered up in a more indiscriminate fashion? How’d they get caught, and what’s happened to all the stolen materials? And MOST importantly, how come no one made jokes about Savedoff’s mugshot, given that he’d previously had a modeling career, and that the pun “Blue Steal” is right there for the taking?? You know Keats would appreciate the wordplay, even if it would also require explaining Zoolander to him (and also other things, like photography, movies, modeling, the internet, etc.).

The mugshots of Savedoff (on the left with the ‘Blue Steal’ look) and Landau (on the right) after their arrests in Maryland in summer 2011.

I can provide you with a few answers, all of which come from the public media reports about the thefts or from my interview with Lee Arnold, the Senior Director of the Library and Collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. First there is the why. Landau had made a name for himself as a collector and self-proclaimed scholar, particularly of things related to presidential history (he also worked as an event organizer for every presidential administration from Nixon to George W. Bush). It seems his motivation was two-fold: to add even more pieces to his already massive collection, and to make some money by selling some of the stolen items. Before they were caught, Landau and Savedoff had successfully sold four stolen items. (Arnold believes that Landau was just in it for the collecting, and that Savedoff was the one who came up with the idea to steal things they could try to sell.)

The motivation for Savedoff is less clear. According to Lee Arnold, it was clear to him and his staff that Savedoff had little to no experience doing archival work. They were suspicious of his presence, but they eventually assumed he was simply acting as Landau’s assistant without actually having much expertise related to the work. And by “the work” I mean actual archival research, which is how the operation was run. Landau and Savedoff purported to be doing actual archival research, requesting lots of materials, having them delivered by staff, and then returning them once they were finished consulting the materials.

The “how” of the theft is that they sometimes simply skipped this last step by instead pocketing the materials. And they literally pocketed them: Savedoff would put them in a specially altered coat with extra-large pockets sewn into the lining (a la Marge Simpson at the Springfield Candy Convention in the episode “Homer Badman”). In order to help prevent detection, the thieves would take corresponding card catalog records along with the items they stole: hence the damage to the card associated with the Keats letter. To check that they covered their tracks, Landau and/or Savedoff would later anonymously phone the institutions to inquire about a stolen item: when the staff checked the card catalog for a record of the item, they would not find anything and thus inform the thieves that what they were looking for was not held in the archive. On one occasion when Savedoff was nearly caught smuggling out one of the cards, he allegedly ate the card instead of being discovered. Good thing he didn’t eat Keats’s letter!

Why they stole the Keats letter remains a mystery to me, but I suspect it was simply caught up in the dragnet. The Etting Collection included thousands of autograph manuscript materials (many of which included signatures), so I suspect that collection was a target, and it just so happened to include Keats’s letter among the holdings. The 9 October 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke was not stolen, perhaps because it was not in the Etting Collection. In any case, the theft of one Keats letter but not another right there for the taking seems to suggest that it wasn’t Keats that they were after.

According to Lee Arnold, the manuscript thieves aroused suspicious at many of the institutions they visited, but they were not caught until the staff at the Maryland Historical Society got them in the act. From that point law enforcement was called in, and because one of the institutions they stole from was the Library of Congress, federal agents (including special detectives from the National Archives) were tasked with supervising the arduous work of sorting through thousands of documents, figuring out to whom they belonged, and then returning the documents to their rightful owners. The documents were taken to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland where agents and archivists worked to inventory and eventually return all of the materials, and to care for them with proper archival standards during the interval. Unsurprisingly given the scale of the thefts, it took several years before all the stolen materials were returned (including the four items that had been sold before the thieves were caught).

One of the details that struck me in my conversation with Lee Arnold was the way the documents were returned. It sounded to me like a ritual ceremony, the gravity of which I think points toward a significant takeaway from this story (which, I promise, I’m starting to wrap up here). The federal authorities brought the documents to the Historical Society, along with their ledger cataloging all the items. A federal agent would read aloud the details for each item as another person would physically hand the document, each one in an individual folder, to Arnold; upon physical receipt another HSP staff member would read back the catalog info as the document was refiled appropriately. The emphasis on the necessity of physical touch—that the folder had to be handed from the federal agents to a representative of the institution—points at the material insistence of archival work in an era when it’s all too easy to assume that digital reproduction will displace and replace the need for original documents themselves.

So what are my takeaways? With respect to the last part of this letter’s story—that is, its theft and eventual recovery—I would stress the importance of physical archives and the people who make them work. It’s tempting to just assume that once material like a Keats letter makes its way into an archive, it’ll be there forever and not really require much attention. Obviously theft is an extreme version of changed circumstances, but archives are living institutions in all sorts of other ways, and they require constant labor and vigilance to continue doing what they do. I spoke with Lee Arnold more than five years after Landau and Savedoff were caught, but Arnold acknowledged that he was still angry. The acts of theft were a fundamental betrayal of the trust that institutions like the Historical Society of Pennsylvania cultivate and rely upon. Archives trust that their patrons will respect the work that they do, and we trust that they will in turn act as effective cultural stewards. Archives are also affective as much as they are anything, and Arnold’s anger persisted in part because the thefts struck at the affective bonds—between institution and public, between institution and its staff, between people and the objects in the archives—that animate, among other things, work like what we do here at the KLP. The stories of Keats’s letters are rooted in feeling and desire, and those stories continue to unfold. Archival institutions are crucial actors in ensuring that those stories can keep being told, transformed, and transmitted.

As for the earlier parts of this letter’s story, the broadest point to make is that the meanings of epistolary texts like Keats’s are inextricably tied up with the histories of their movements. Even for a poet who only ever left Britain to go die in Italy, his textual production and reception were and are global. While it’s easy to think of Keats’s letters as provincial in their concerns and movements, there are also ways, as with this letter, that they become deeply entangled with a broader contexts like that of empire, transatlantic commerce, and, especially with Keats’s American letters, slavery and white supremacy. In part, Keats’s legacy was fostered by and has endured because a significant portion of his letters and manuscripts were cared for by his brother George, who became a prominent citizen in Louisville as his sawmill profited off of the labor of enslaved people, and later by his niece Emma, who married into the Speed family, owners of the Farmington Plantation, where enslavement remained the norm even as the Speed brothers empathized with their friend Abraham Lincoln’s position of abolition.

From the beginning I’ve been telling a story of desire. I love Keats, that much should be clear, and I love his letters. It’s part of what impels me to track the movements of a single letter like this one, as if it were a sort of talismanic object capable of bestowing magic on whoever knows it most fully. Well, to love Keats and to love his letters means also recognizing how they come to us. While it’s true that basically any text of the nineteenth century is entangled in some way with slavery, empire, and whiteness, it also matters what are the specific entanglements of a particular text. So many stories about Keats’s letters have been told before, but as I hope I’ve demonstrated with this one letter, plenty more remain to tell.