The Hunt for History: Behind the Scenes of a Great Collection

An introduction to the emotive power of the Otto Fisher collection, and what secrets it told


Below tells the story of a small selection from the Fisher collection


The heart of seeking out rare historical documents is an emotive process.  The document means more than its component parts.  The hunt is more than it seems on the surface.  Finding great men and women at the pinnacle of their fame or in a moment of great prominence is powerful.  And these documents, written at moments in time, are ideal examples of those moments.

The Fisher collection is one such endeavor, put together by a great collector in the first half of the 20th century.  Fisher had a skill for finding such moments because he bought what he loved.

Sorting through such a collection is filled with moments of discovery, climbing and scrambling until you reach the top and can best survey what you have.  Along the way, you learn a great deal.

Dr. Otto Orren Fisher collected primarily in the 1920s-1940s, a collector of rare books and historical documents.  He was a 1909 University of Miami of Ohio alumnus who went on to the John Hopkins University School of Medicine before settling in Detroit. He was an industrial surgeon for the Hudson Motor Company and established one of the first modern industrial first aid units there. Fisher donated much of his collection, including Shakespeare First Folios to his undergraduate alma mater.  But he kept some of his personal favorites, which he handed down to his family, before they were acquired by Raab.

This hunt is a hunt for inspiration and revelation.  These are essential goals. And in those documents passed down by Fisher we find such moments, sometimes buried deep, other times lying visible on the surface. It’s a dizzying and deeply gratifying endeavor.

And sorting through it involved detailed knowledge of paleography, history, and foreign language.

“Once more unto the breach”

The siege of Harfleur, described from the perspective of the French inside the town and those attempting to save them

A formative battle in the history of the Western World, and a Shakespearean nexus, 1415

When we found this document, what we knew about it was that it was presumably from 1419 and was French.  One of those suppositions was correct.  And here the date mattered a great deal.  Written French during this period was composed in what we now call a regional secretary script, and few today can read it. But we can. The formations of the letters are in some cases familiar but in most cases unrecognizable. The hunt was to identify what we had.

The date was in fact 1415, mid September 1415.  That is during the battle of Harfleur, which preceded the confrontation at Agincourt by just one month. This stretch of time was made famous by William Shakespeare in his great classic, Henry V, where we get the phrase “Once more unto the breach,” spoken by Henry at Harfleur. The painstaking process of transcribing comes next.  That was the easy part.  A paleographer mentor once told me that you cannot “run” into a document. You have to “walk” in.  Such was the case here.  The text meandered between form language and very specific language. And what we found at the top of the mountain was a remarkable moment in time, a description of the peril facing the French at one of the great battles in western history during the English invasion of the Continent.

The name of the recipient was a soldier, Jean Lestot (spelled Jehan).  He was, we learned, responsible for trying to save Harfleur and its commander, M. Gaucourt, who had written to the leader of Agincourt, M. Boucicot, as well as the King’s brother, Guyenne, begging for help against the English.  But the document is more than that: it described the “great peril and danger” of Lestot, and the poor conditions and need of “help and provisions” of Gaucourt and the French in front of the English attack. The very situation Shakespeare pictures in Henry V. We found nothing like it ever having reached the market.

And the skill of Fisher to spot such a treasure was clearly not matched by the next round of people who examined it. That fun fell to us.

Benjamin Franklin and John Adams at the moment of peace with England, 1783:

The first official act of peace between England and America

In the late 1930s, at an auction that no longer exists, Otto Fisher bought a document signed by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay, bearing the seals of all three men, who had been sent to Europe to negotiate a peace with the British during the American Revolution. On its surface it appeared a passport for a vessel, which of course it was. But Fisher knew what we would soon discover: it was so much more.

In January, with peace imminent, the British and American negotiators engaged in their first demonstrable act of peace: they would permit certain ships to re-start commerce and travel between the US and England.  Adams, Franklin, and the British exchanged detailed language to protect vessel and cargo. It was an act of trust between the 2 warring nations, the first that the United States had with its former mother country.

This document was that very step, the very reason why it had to be signed by all three men as a formal step: it was more than a ship’s passport. It was the embodiment of peace.  This was, on analysis and with research, a document of great importance in the history of the American nation, signed by men instrumental in its creation, 2 of whom had signed the Declaration of Independence.

Nelson departs his friends for Trafalgar, 1805:

An unpublished letter of Lord Nelson, bidding farewell to his friends before Trafalgar
One of Fisher’s acquisitions was a letter of Lord Nelson, someone whose handwriting can be difficult to read though it’s in English. What caught us was the date.  Being able to recognize the events in world history is crucial to knowing in what context to place a document. Pieces such as this were not written in isolation. They formed a fabric with the life going on around the author, and in this case, it is no different. What seemed at first to be a letter merely mentioning Lady Hamilton, was an apology for his absence from an upcoming gathering, along with a vague reference to his fate being determined by others.
So what was Nelson referring to?  The date gave us some clue: it was before Trafalgar but not much.  And a biography from that period gives us a nearly minute by minute account of Nelson’s decision to accept the call of country, leave England and head to Trafalgar, from which battle he would not return.  In fact, by scanning this day by day, minute by minute account, it becomes powerfully obvious that Nelson, just prior to writing this letter, had decided that duty was calling and he would go.  So this wistful farewell was more than is obvious and more, in retrospect, than he knew.

Herschel and the modern era’s only planetary discovery in our solar system, 1792:

Herschel’s diploma, signed by many leaders of the Scottish enlightenment

In the late 18th century, William Herschel, one of the great early astronomers, discovered the new first planet in our solar system since the ancient Babylonians thousands of years ago.  He did so using a lens in a telescope of his own creation. It was a powerful scientific moment and was noticed by the scholars of his era, including the men of the great Scottish enlightenment at the University of Glasgow, the 4th oldest English speaking University in existence.

They determined to honor him and summoned him in 1792 to receive a diploma.  He went and received that diploma.

Fast forward nearly a quarter millennium later and we were looking at a document giving a diploma to Herschel from that university.  It was written in Latin entirely, signed by professors there.  The script was more legible than some, written well after the humanist script revolution, although it was stylized as diplomas from that period were. But hints in the Latin script promised a more compelling find.  The reference to his new telescope, the planets, and our solar system were tantalizing.

In translating this Latin diploma, we realized that the diploma was awarded to Herschel precisely for his discovery of Uranus.  It was no general diploma. It recognized his discovery and lauded him for it.  And it was the diploma Herschel himself had gotten that day in 1792 in Glasgow.

Catherine the Great at her coronation, 1762:

The original of Catherine’s letter, alongside its publication in an autograph book from before the American Civil War
Rewind 30 years, and we are with Catherine the Great, in September 1762, just 3 days after her coronation and mere weeks after the suspicious death of her husband the Czar. The letter mentions her occupation with her coronation, something we had never seen before, and re-assures an ally of her husband that he is safe and can travel without fear.
It is in French, a stylized and early form of French. But we know that Catherine could write in French. Indeed, she was not Russian but rather married into the family, a product of alliance building not uncommon at the time. Translating the letter was a journey back in time to the hours and days after she assumed the throne. It was a powerful journey that Fisher surely followed and noted. 

And it turned out that the letter was famous. It appears in a rare book, published in 1856, which illustrates the letter alongside others of European leaders collected in the early part of the 19th century. The book, perhaps one of the first illustrated autograph books ever, identifies the owner and prints the transcription of the letter itself.

Finding early provenance on something is remarkable. Finding its owner and an image of the letter nearly 200 years ago is close to unprecedented.

Fisher had an ability to spot such special things. He had the knowledge of history and the attraction to the more interesting documents that is required of great collectors.

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