Any cultural institution worth its salt attracts more than a few apocryphal stories regarding its founding and evolution. The following, however, do not qualify as such. They are facts (in some cases, facts pertaining to the actual existence and circulation of apocrypha) about the Newberry’s history that, lack of fictional embellishment notwithstanding, might surprise you.
The Newberry’s founder, Walter L. Newberry, died at sea in 1868. A rumor circulated at the time that Newberry’s body had been preserved shipboard, sent home, and eventually buried in an empty rum-cask. In truth, Newberry’s remains were initially preserved in the cask and then interred in a proper casket in Chicago.
Eliphalet W. Blatchford, the first president of the Newberry’s board of trustees, took a very hands-on approach to library administration, even personally instructing Newberry janitors in his preferred method for sweeping the floors.
John Vance Cheney became the Newberry’s second librarian in 1894. He was a well-known poet and newspaper critic of his time. In 1909 he retired to California to continue to write poetry and to manufacture hair tonic.
Case Wing Y 4902 M27 is the call number of the book commonly referred to as the “human-skin binding.” The book launched its own mythology: an inscription on the first leaf of the volume actually says “bound in human skin.” But after careful lab work, the Newberry Conservation Department would determine that the book’s binding material is not human skin but highly burnished goat.
The Newberry’s first Shakespeare First Folio, acquired in 1890, was sold in 1965 after the library acquired another First Folio in the purchase of the private collection of Louis H. Silver, which rendered the 1890-acquired folio a saleable duplicate.