Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife, signed the guestbook during the Civil War. So did Dr. Mary Walker, a Union physician who was the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. George Arth, a Marine Corps bass player who was in the orchestra at Ford’s Theater the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, also signed.
Their names are among 42,000 signatures in three guestbooks kept at the Bunker Hill Monument from May 1860 to February 1865, an extraordinary collection of 19th-century Americans ranging from leading politicians to captains of industry to a 6-year-old boy from Brookline.
On Wednesday, in a move that has startled Charlestown historians, the guestbooks will be sold at auction. The Bunker Hill Monument Association, a 198-year-old organization that built the granite memorial to the Revolutionary War battle, learned only after the auction was announced that the guestbooks no longer were in its possession.
“They belonged to us,” said Arthur Hurley, the association president. “Who knows what happened to them? They should be on exhibit at the Bunker Hill Museum.”
But somehow, at some time, the guestbooks made their way into private hands and are now scheduled to be auctioned by University Archives of Wilton, Conn., beginning at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“In our world, this would be like one of the stolen Isabella Stewart Gardner paintings appearing at auction,” said Julie Hall, president of the Charlestown Historical Society. “It shouldn’t be in somebody’s library. It should be where hundreds of thousands of visitors come to see our beautiful monument, to see this history there.”
Neither the Monument Association nor Hall knew the guestbooks were missing until they were notified recently by an Americana specialist in Plymouth that he had seen them listed for auction. The association keeps the bulk of its records and artifacts at a storage facility in Charlestown, Hurley said.
“However it left the hands of the Monument Association wasn’t a good idea,” Hurley said. “I’m assuming it was stolen. What else could have happened to it?”
John Reznikoff, who owns University Archives, said the auction house practiced due diligence in tracing the provenance of the three guestbooks, which were assembled by one consigner and came from two sources. The ledger with Mary Lincoln’s signature came from a rare books dealer in New York, he said. The other two came from a small auction house.
Reznikoff expressed surprise when told some members of the Monument Association are questioning whether the guestbooks had been stolen over the last century and a half.
“I hope they end up going home,” Reznikoff said.
However, he added, two of the guestbooks had been auctioned as recently as November 2019 by Skinner, the Boston auctioneers.
“That was right under their noses. I’m surprised they would have missed them then,” he said of association members and others who want the guestbooks back.
“I’ve found that institutions are less than careful sometimes with things like this, and they get discarded,” Reznikoff said. “If there’s a legitimate claim, that needs to be proved, that needs to be in their papers, and they have to prove it was never discarded. That’s a hard thing.”
Association officials acknowledged that the organization, which owns many artifacts from the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, has lost some items since it conceived and then dedicated the 221-foot-high tower of Quincy granite in 1843. At the time, it was the tallest structure in the United States.
The state took ownership of the monument site from the association in 1919, after which the former Metropolitan District Commission Police patrolled its grounds. In 1976, preserving the obelisk passed to the National Park Service.
With stewardship of the monument changing hands, the artifacts were dispersed and not all of them could be kept at the storage unit, said John Alves, a former association president. As a result, some were distributed for safekeeping among members of the group.
Afterward, an original portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, who laid the monument’s cornerstone in 1825, made its way to market, Alves said. A prized musket disappeared that had belonged to Salem Poor, an enslaved Black man who had purchased his freedom and fought at Bunker Hill.
“People had things in their homes which they should not have had,” Alves said. “And things were disappearing when the MDC was up there.”
Reznikoff estimated the guestbooks would sell for $8,000, which breaks down to about 20 cents per signature. Mary Lincoln’s alone is worth about $3,000, he said. As of Tuesday evening, nine bids with a high of $8,000 had been received by University Archives.
Paul Howell, who alerted the Charlestown Historical Society to the auction, said he hopes the guestbooks can be repatriated by a local bidder.
“They’re vitally important because they are Civil War-era, a hugely important era in our history, and the range of signatures is just extraordinary,” said Powell, who is an associate at J. James Auctioneers & Appraisers in Plymouth.
The Civil War resonates deeply with Powell, who served as project historian for the restoration of the David Wills House, where Lincoln stayed during his visit to Gettysburg, Pa., to deliver his famed address.
“I would be extremely eager to have these back where they belong,” he said of the guestbooks.
Hall, the Charlestown Historical Society president, shares that hope and is working hard in an 11th-hour effort to raise money. But it’s a hope that hinges on the uncertainties of an auction and its unpredictable bidding.
“The fact that people would come and visit this monument and treat it with such reverence and sign the guestbook says something,” Hall reflected. “It’s a part of our heritage, a part of our history at a time when our democracy is so fragile.
“These should be there under glass.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.