FAIRFIELD – A rare collection of annotated Massachusetts newspapers from the Revolutionary War era is going home.
The collection, one of four such volumes, was sold Thursday morning at the James D. Julia Auction House for $345,000. The winning bidder, participating by telephone, was the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The Boston-based organization already owns the three other Harbottle Dorr newspaper volumes and plans to eventually hold an exhibit featuring the complete collection, said President Dennis Fiori.
“This new acquisition is a wonderful complement to the society’s collections,” Fiori said. “This was a rare opportunity to acquire a piece of such historical importance. Not only are we reuniting a set of significant resources on the Revolution, but we are ensuring that it remains part of the public domain.”
Boston shopkeeper Harbottle Dorr Jr. wrote in the margins of the newspapers, which date from 1775 to 1776, offering an unprecedented look at the American Revolution as it happened by someone in the middle of it.
Auctioneer James Julia said what’s most incredible is that the newspaper-turned-diaries come from “the man on the street, an everyman.”
“There’s nothing known to exist like this,” Julia said.
Dorr indexed the contents of the newspapers and since he was well-versed in the heated politics of his day, he often noted the identities of anonymous contributors, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Dorr did all of this in the middle of the Stamp Act controversy, accumulating 3,280 pages in the four volumes.
The annotated papers, the society says, provide insights of an ordinary man as the Revolution unfolded around him. Dorr’s newspapers include a July 18, 1776 copy of the Boston Gazette, which reprinted the entire Declaration of Independence on its front page — one of only a dozen or so such reprintings of the declaration known to exist.
In the introduction to the fourth volume, Dorr writes, “I have thought it worthwhile to collect them, tho’ at considerable expence, and VERY GREAT TROUBLE, in hopes that in future, they may be of some service, towards forming a POLITICAL history of this country, during the shameful, and abandoned administration of George the third’s despotic ministry.”
In a prepared statement, the historical society quotes a former board member and professor at Harvard as noting that Dorr’s records “reveal what the Revolution meant to ordinary men who experienced it.”
“The more ordinary the mind and the more typical the career, the more valuable the documentation,” he wrote. “And there is no more ordinary active participant in the Revolution and no one who left behind a more revealing record of the inner, personal meaning of the Revolution than a Boston shopkeeper with the unlikely name of Harbottle Dorr. His passionately patriotic scribbling in the margins of the newspapers and pamphlets he collected and his comments in his superbly confused indexes to his volumes are unique in the literature of the Revolution.”
Bidding on the collection began at about 10:50 a.m. in the Julia auction hall in front of more than 50 people.
One member of the audience, Sally Beaudette of Walpole, said she drove an hour and a half just so she could witness the rare historical documents being sold.
“I came not for my own interests, but because it’s my country,” she said. “These are my people.”
Julia called the collection incredible, especially in an age of technological advancements that have left such documents far from memory.
It appeared that three bidders vied for the collection — none of them were there in person — and the opening bid started at $100,000. The winning bid was $300,000 by buyer No. 209, who was later revealed to be the Massachusetts Historical Society.
Audience members erupted in applause when the bidding ended after just a minute or so.
The final selling price was listed as $345,000 when a buyer’s premium charge was factored in.
Fiori said the historical society has had an interest in Dorr since the organization was founded in 1791. The Bangor Historical Society has owned Dorr’s fourth volume for nearly 100 years because a Bangor resident bought the collection in Massachusetts and donated it. The Bangor society decided to sell the collection because of a lack of money.
Fiori said his organization had the fourth volume on microfilm several years ago, but it was poor quality. The collection has been at the top of the organization’s wish list for a long time, he said.
The Massachusetts Historical Society is a research library that has the most extensive collection of American history items aside from the Library of Congress, Fiori said.
It has about 13 million manuscripts, 15,000 pieces of furniture and relics, and 150,000 photographs.
The purchase was made possible through a combination of gifts to the society from anonymous donors and from the society’s acquisition fund, Fiori said. He said the organization was willing to be aggressive in bidding on the collection and “we were reaching the end of our aggression” at $300,000.
“In the scheme of materials, this record is extremely rare, almost unheard of,” Fiori said. “It’s one of the finest in our collection.”
Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Scott Monroe can be contacted at 861-9239 or at: