An Overdue Book from the King’s College Library

On September 6, 1950, Enos M. Johnson returned to the Columbia University Libraries a book last checked out in 1772 from the King’s College library, long before it was known as Columbia. Johnson found this historical item in the attic of his aunt Susan Ruggles’ home in Binghamton, NY. Johnson’s donation joined the few other King’s College library volumes which somehow survived the Revolutionary War.

Book Returns to Columbia Library After 178 Years, 1950. Photo by University Photographer Manny Warman. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

King’s College opened its first building in 1760 and the new three-story structure featured a library on its second floor. The library’s first major collection was a generous gift from Joseph Murray, Esq., who was also a Governor of King’s College (as the Trustees were known then). Murray donated one of the finest private collections of books in the province and £ 8,000 in 1756. A few years later, Rev. Dr. Duncombe Bristowe of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel bequeathed his library to the new College. Thanks to his gift, about 1,200 volumes arrived in New York in 1763. (Both of these gentlemen and their gifts are listed as “Benefactors of the Library” at the entrance of the old Low Library reading room.) With the two sizable gifts on hand, the Governors named mathematics professor Robert Harpur as the first college librarian and he was ordered to make a catalog of the library’s holdings.

No such catalog was ever produced but there seems to have been about 2,000 volumes in the library, mostly on law and theology, when the Committee on Safety ordered the College to close in April 1776. The library books and the mathematical and philosophical apparatus were moved to City Hall, along with the books from the New York Society Library and the Union Library Society. In September 1776, the British troops took over City Hall and plundered the library collections. British soldiers were said to have used the looted books to pay for beers or grog at local taverns. In 1777, at least 4 military proclamations were printed in the local papers, in both English and German, to recover the stolen volumes. Not much came from these notices. In May 1778, Rev. Dr. Charles Inglis, Rector of Trinity Church, reported to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel that he had recovered some books from City Hall and that he stored them in St. Paul’s Chapel. In 1803, somewhere between 600 to 700 books belonging to the various libraries were “rediscovered” in St. Paul’s, where they had been stored and apparently forgotten. 

Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) bookplate found in the King’s College Library books.

Nowadays, almost 40 books from the original Joseph Murray, Esq. gift can be found in the Law Library. An additional 112 books from the King’s College library are now part of the Columbiana Library, the book collection at the University Archives. Many of the books still bear the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel bookplate. In addition to Enos Johnson’s attic find from 1950, other volumes have since been added to the Columbiana Collection. For example, in 1960 Mabel P. Smith presented the Libraries with a 1755 edition of Demosthenes’s orations which not only has the SPG bookplate but also Robert Harpur’s signature on the title page. In 1970, Aaron Rabinowitz donated a 1734 copy of George Cheyne’s “An Essay of Health and Long Life.” This particular volume was originally donated to the King’s College library in 1772 by John Rawbone, who was the Vice Principal of St Mary Hall, Oriel College at Oxford University. Today, the King’s College books, those rescued in 1803 and the later additions, are easily findable in the library’s online catalog CLIO.

A special thanks to Thai Jones who suggested the Enos Johnson photo as the subject for a post.