The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, a rare early 19th century chapbook, has been donated to The Ames Library by Eric Gardner, class of '89.

IWU Alum Presents Rare 19th Century Book to The Ames Library

November 9, 2005

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - What can a dream of fish or flowers reveal about the future?  What must a young woman do to attract a husband? The most recent addition to Illinois Wesleyan's Special Collections, which is located on the fourth floor of The Ames Library (1 Ames Plaza East, Bloomington), contains the nearly 200-year-old answers to these questions.

Eric Gardner, class of '89, presented the university with The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, a rare early 19th century chapbook (a small, inexpensive paperback publication common in the 18th and 19th centuries) originally published in Boston in 1824.  The work is bound with five additional independently published chapbooks into a hardcover volume, which was released in 1827.  Gardner, associate professor of English at Saginaw State Valley University in Saginaw, Mich., suggested that the publisher might have tried to earn a profit on works that were no longer in high demand individually by marketing the publications as a collection.

The donated copy of The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book is one of only four known extant versions of the work; the other three are owned by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., the Boston Athenaeum and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

The title page lists the contents of the book, which include "astrology, physiognomy [determining a person's character based on his or her facial features] and palmistry," as well as "anatomy, geometry, moles, cards and dreams."  According to Gardner, this is typical of 19th century chapbooks, which often dealt with fortune-telling, the occult, humor, or sensationalist descriptions of local trials.

Historical chapbooks, like modern tabloids and pamphlets, "were meant to be ephemeral," Gardner said.  Small books with simple paper covers, the texts were not built to last and, as a result, are difficult to find today.

Gardner, who specializes in 19th century African American literature, said that Ebay.com has been a useful resource for acquiring the lost and ignored texts that most interest him.  In December of 2002, Gardner discovered the Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book on the auction-style Web site.  Intrigued by its unusual byline, "By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour, in the State of Massachussetts," Gardner bid on the book and began a quest to uncover the identity of the alleged author.

By examining early 19th century Boston census records, city directories and property tax lists, Gardner determined that a woman named Chloe Russel, almost certainly of African descent, did live in Boston at the time that the book was published.  However, the level of her involvement with the publication of the book, as well as the reliability of biographical details provided in one version of the book, remain a mystery.

Although the different versions of the book vary slightly in terms of content, suggesting several printings over a number of years, all four versions list Russel as the author.

According to an article Gardner published about his research, "even if [Russel] merely collaborated with the publisher or her name was used without her knowledge, the work raises fascinating issues concerning the role of African Americans in the antebellum literary marketplace."

Meg Miner, university archivist at Illinois Wesleyan, agreed, saying that the historical figure of Chloe Russel is as interesting and important as the textual content of the book itself.

According to Miner, The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book is unlike any other works currently held by Special Collections.  "[It] is unique, being from the perspective of a woman who claimed to have been a slave and a freedwoman, especially because it is pre-Civil War," she said.

Miner added that the book will complement the library's new domestic science collection, which includes approximately 30 books, published between the 1560s and the 1830s, that offer a wide variety of domestic, romantic and superstitious advice to homemakers and young people.

The domestic science books were acquired from the collection of the late Minor Myers jr., former University president, which Illinois Wesleyan purchased after his death in 2003.  IWU librarians inventoried the collection, approximately 12,000 volumes in all, carefully selecting works appropriate for incorporation into Special Collections.  This fall, the University held an auction of the remaining 11,000 books.

Illinois Wesleyan's Special Collections consists of individual items and collections that must be carefully preserved due to their historical significance, physical format, subject content or other distinguishing features.  The purpose of Special Collections is to encourage creative teaching and learning through the use of the materials it offers.  As soon as the new book is catalogued in the collection, it will be available for perusal by all patrons of the library.

"My wife [Jodie Betts Gardner, class of '91] and I are impressed by the University's focus on building a strong library," Gardner said of Illinois Wesleyan.  Explaining his decision to donate the book to the University, he added, "This is really the place that I began to practice literary archaeology, digging through remnants for forgotten works that were missed the first time around."

Contact: Rebecca Welzenbach, (309) 556-3181