A Lincoln trove lands at the library (pie safe included)

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A Lincoln trove lands at the library (pie safe included)
Campaign ribbons from Jonathan Mann’s collection at the New York Public Library in New York on Jan. 19, 2024. The New York Public Library is acquiring the collection of Jonathan Mann, an Abraham Lincoln expert who died last summer after a random attack on the Manhattan Bridge. (George Etheredge/The New York Times)

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- The New York Public Library’s grand research library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street is home to Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Charles Dickens’ desk chair and the original Winnie-the-Pooh.

But one evening last week, a crowd in one of the library’s elegant public rooms was milling around a goofier treasure: an Abraham Lincoln-themed pie safe.

The safe — a large cabinet made to store pies, inlaid with decorative punched-tin panels celebrating the president — was probably created for one of his campaigns. It was on view at a memorial for Jonathan Mann, a collector whose trove of rare letters, photographs, banners, ballots, ribbons, campaign songbooks and other sundry bits of Lincolniana is being acquired by the library.

“There are all these individual gems,” Julie Golia, the library’s associate director of manuscripts, archives and rare books, said at the event, which drew about 200 friends, family, collectors and figures from the auction world. “But they tell a story together.”

Mann died in August, at the age of 61, after suffering a head injury during a random attack by a disturbed stranger while on a daytime walk across the Manhattan Bridge. Two weeks later, when he was recuperating at a friend’s house, he suffered a fatal aneurysm.

The news sent the close-knit world of Lincoln collectors reeling. Last fall, the family worked with that friend, James Olinkiewicz, himself a collector of material relating to Buffalo Bill Cody, to find a home for Mann’s holdings.

“Jonathan had always said to us, ‘If anything happens to me, don’t let the vultures pick my collection apart,’” Olinkiewicz said.

After considering several institutions, they went with the New York Public Library, in part because of its commitment to public access and digitization.

“We felt it would get the collection out to more people,” Olinkiewicz said. And now, at the library, “it will live forever.”

Brent Reidy, the library’s director of research libraries, called Mann’s trove, which is being acquired entirely by donation, “rich and all-encompassing.”

“Some collections are very focused,” he said. “But he had pretty broad taste when it came to anything relating to Lincoln.”

Mann got the collecting bug at an early age, after his father showed him a collection of old 20th-century campaign buttons. After graduating from Vassar College, he moved to New York City, where he got a Master of Business Administration at New York University and worked for a time in finance.

He later became a business ethics consultant, working in a half-empty federal office building, where, friends recalled, he somehow commandeered extra offices to stash his growing collection of Lincolniana.

In 2009, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, Mann organized “Abraham Lincoln in New York,” an exhibition at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan, featuring many little-seen artifacts drawn largely from private collections. (A television clip shows him wowing Martha Stewart with stories about Lincoln’s dogs, and a chance to touch the keys to his Springfield, Illinois, law office and Mary Todd Lincoln’s mourning veil.)

Mann’s other labor of love was The Rail Splitter, a journal for Lincoln fanatics that he founded in 1995 with Donald Ackerman, who remains editor-in-chief. Now a website, it offers articles, book reviews, announcements and gossipy “splinters,” geared to the particular interests of collectors, whose relationship with historians often involves plenty of mutual side-eye.

“Simply put, we offer in this forum exactly what WE want to read,” the founders declared. “New finds. Details on items in the market. What something sold for in an auction. Who are the players? And how do we know if something is a fake?”

The community, they continued, “has no borders but enjoys the commonality of a shared passion: the love of Lincoln, the love of American history.”

During the memorial, speeches by friends and family included little talk of Honest Abe but plenty of tributes to Mann’s wit, intelligence, prankish spirit and love of New York City.

More than one speaker recalled five-block walks that took two hours, thanks to his habit of stopping to pet every dog, inquire after every neighbor, inspect every Chinese menu.

One former assistant described how, after a real estate company tried to brand his neighborhood as “NoPeSta” (as in, North of Penn Station), he formed a fictional local historical association and started bombarding it with calls from “members,” using different voices.

During the reception, Scott Russo, a freelance book designer and self-described fellow “crazy collector,” recalled the first time he encountered Mann, at the old Chelsea flea market.

“There was this strange man who was berating two dealers I know very humorously,” he recalled. “He just had me in stitches. We became friends after that immediately.”

Russo also recalled Mann’s memorabilia-crammed loft on West 37th Street, where the famous 1860 broadside by The Charleston Mercury with the headline “The Union Is Dissolved!” hung in the kitchen, “like it was a Thomas Kinkade or something.”

In the bedroom, a large framed item concealed a “secret door,” which opened into a room where much of his collection was kept in gray acid-free boxes, stacked neatly on metal shelves. “It was immaculate,” Russo said.

At the memorial, a sampling from the collection was arrayed in display cases, where guests (many wearing Victorian-style elastic mourning bands on their sleeves, with a button featuring Mann’s photograph) could ogle them. There were handwritten letters by Lincoln and associates, as well as a generous sampling of campaign tickets and ribbons, including some printed with photographic images.

Not on view: a strand of Lincoln’s hair, which Mann acquired from John Reznikoff, a leading purveyor of presidential hair. But there were rarities such as a neatly folded oilcloth cape once worn by a member of the Wide-Awakes, a Republican political club for young voters formed in 1860, known for their dramatic torchlit nocturnal rallies. The capes, Golia explained, protected their clothes from dripping lamp oil.

One photograph showed a group of Wide-Awakes — young men in shiny capes and matching caps, posing with their torches. But she also noted a ribbon featuring a portrait of Lincoln, under the words “Wide-Awake Girls.”

There were some female Wide-Awake chapters. But who were these “girls,” Golia asked? “There are so many great research questions here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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