Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Was A. J. F. van Laer Really Satan's Handmaiden?

Could someone explain to me how after the sudden and unexpected death of George Rogers Howell, (and that's a story we'll save for later,) the archivist of the New York State library who died of pneumonia on April 5, 1899, "A. J. F. van Laer, a native of Holland and a graduate of the Polytechnic school at Delft, and a member of the New York state library school class of 1899," could have been put in charge of oversight of the manuscript collection left vacant? When did the Class of "99 graduate---June?

Library Director Melvil Dewey's 82nd Annual Report, reprints an extract from the minutes of an undated State Board of Regents meeting following Howell's death:
Voted, That the duties of the state archivist be assigned to members of the state library staff who have had experience in this department. 
Under this vote C.A. Flagg was made sublibrarian in history and A. J. F. van Laer sublibrarian of manuscripts.
Dewey says simply, "After the death of Mr. Howell," van Laer was "put in charge of the manuscript division," and that when van Laer "entered on his official duties," his first job was to to make "[a]n inventory of the records in the manuscript division." Since van Laer could only have graduated in May or June, he wouldn't have legitimately even been a member of the library staff, let alone "experienced" in handling manuscripts.

In The Empire State: A History of New York, edited by Milton M. Klein, and published by Cornell in 2001, where on page 738, we're told that "Van Laer, a Dutch immigrant, was hired by the New York State Library as assistant archivist in 1899 and promoted to state archivist five years later." Not only would this be an example of a failed semantic distinction (van Laer sharing "assistant" duties while the "head" position remained temporarily unfilled,) but the time frame exactly overlaps the intense period of political jockeying which started in 1899 when the Regents first asked the Governor to name a special commission to study unifying all levels of education, along with libraries and museums statewide, to the passage of the education act in April 1904, which made the Commissioner of Education the "executive officer" over the Regents, and vesting him with "extraordinary power," according to James D. Folts' History of the University of the State of New York and the State Education Department 1784-1996

The other new sublibrarian, Mr. Charles A. Flagg (B. A. Bowdoin, and a graduate of the New York library school from the class of 1897,) who took over the history half of Howell's former responsibilities, was publishing his first year out of school, (See the texts for Reference list on Connecticut local history, 1900
Bibliography of New York colonial history 1901) Eventually, Flagg became librarian at the Bangor, (Maine) Public Library, and in Proceedings of the Bangor Historical Society, 1914-1915, we find a startling coincidence:
We are under very particular obligations to Mr. Charles A. Flagg who has contributed freely of his time and labor in labelling, classifying and properly displaying the historical exhibits, and suitably preserving our library treasures. Less than five years have elapsed since the destruction in the conflagration of 1911 of the valued treasures collected by the Bangor Historical Society during its first half century.

Although the 82nd annual library report says that "Mr van Laer brings to his work a rare combination of linguistic ability, professional training, accuracy and enthusiasm which will render his services of great value in deciphering the rich collection of Dutch manuscripts, etc. intrusted to his care," van Laer had only emigrated to Albany in 1897, ostensibly to study library science, and after what was arguably a checkered past he was led directly into a senior position. Albany was full of Dutch speakers in the late 19th century, did one need to be imported? How was his English? Did he speak other languages like the polyglot Howell? I find it breathtaking that a newcomer from a distant land would have been elevated directly out of the school room into a trust as sacred as the responsibility for New York State's historical manuscripts.

I should think van Laer was imported from the international coven's "General Purpose" division, to undergo the briefest period of training, to achieve the most minimal amount of credentialing, which would allow him, and that's with one eye closed for the rest of us, to take on the job of first controlling, then gathering up, to eventually eliminating the parts of a documentary record that changing sensibilities would find increasingly objectionable--that is, if they ever knew about them.

The rest of the New York State Library 82nd Annual Report is filled with goodies---like the expressed desire for fireproof safes in which to store manuscripts. This is over ten years before an "unforeseen and unforeseeable " calamity by fire occurred. Then there's this gem:.

It is further believed that under present conditions no better service could be rendered to historical students than to print as soon as possible the calendars prepared by Mr. Berthold Fernow for the following records:
Court of assize, v.2, 1665-72
Council minutes, v. 3, 1668-78
General entries, v.4, 1671-74
Council minutes, v.5-31, 1683-1776
General entries, v.32, 1678-80
Entries, v.33, 1632-83
Orders, warrants, letters, v.2, 1665-69
Warrants, orders, passes, etc. v,3, 1674-79
Passbook, v.4, 1680-91 (incomplete)
Licenses, warrants, etc v.5, 1686-1702
Orders, warrants, etc. 1680-82
But Dewey had fired Fernow over a dozen years before, according to an essay by Joseph F. Meany Jr. Could his completed reference work, ready for publishing, simply have languished?

In the Van Laer Papers, 1908-1952, held by the New York State Library (yes, I know, the spelling has changed,) are several intriguing entries:
  • Diagram of shelving against the south wall of the manuscript room showing destruction of manuscripts near hot air register, 1911 (Transferred from single accession 8786)
  • Memorandum contesting charges made by the State Historian that historical papers were being thrown away with debris (Transferred from single accession 4306)
  • Photograph of State Library staff working on document restoration in the aftermath of the Capitol fire, 1911; "Some of the burnt out clerks helping in the restoration" (Transferred from single accession 8775)
  • Correspondence between John F. Tyrrell and Alexander C. Flick, 1933, with photographs regarding the restoration of documents damaged by fire
How anyone could possibly reconcile a scenario of fire entering the document room through the heating duct and leading to only a partial destruction of documents, with the eyewitnesses who saw flames shoot half-way across State Street out the half-moon window of the room, or the narratives (like van Laer's own) of total destruction contained within the confines of the narrow room, would be a neat trick.

The "Photograph of State Library staff working on document restoration in the aftermath of the Capitol fire, 1911; 'Some of the burnt out clerks helping in the restoration,'" refers to an image that Mercer and Weiss published on page 71 of their little book. The caption reads:
"William Berwick, an expert in document preservation, came from the Library of Congress to help in the work of salvage and restoration of what he termed "Mr. Van Laer's treasures." He also documented the restoration in photographs. He titled this image, "Some of the burnt out clerks helping in the work of restoration."

The clerks don't look burned out to me. The women are sitting erect, many with smiles on their faces. The men slouch in casual poses, with hands in their pockets, or placed on their hips, or arms across their chests. There is nary a dirty hand or blouse to be seen in the room, with no sign of the mountains of volumes and tens of thousands of pages of rescued manuscripts. Just a few tidy wicker baskets. And apparently Berwick's documentation of the restoration in photographs was limited to only this one image.

But it is the "correspondence between John F. Tyrrell and Alexander C. Flick, 1933, with photographs regarding the restoration of documents damaged by fire," which I find really intriguing. When John F. Tyrrell testified for the prosecution in the Richard Hauptmann Trial, (he also testified in the Leopold and Loeb case,) he described his profession as "Examiner of questioned documents." In the transcript he sounds like an eminently sensible and honest witness. Why correspondence between Tyrrell and Flick would be in von Laer's file raises more questions than it answers. Maybe it's wishful thinking on my part, but it sounds like von Laer was in a defensive posture here, much like in his "Memorandum contesting charges made by the State Historian that historical papers were being thrown away with debris."

John F. Tyrrell Examining Evidence

John F. Tyrrell Examining Evidence
Original caption: Handwriting expert who testified at Hauptmann trial. John F. Tyrell, Milwaukee handwriting expert who testified for the prosecution in its trial of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, is pictured examining specimens of handwriting in the Hunterdon county court at Flemington, Jan. 15. Image credit: Corbis.

On page 72 of Mercer & Weiss: "The only known photograph of Arnold Johan Ferdinand van Laer, was taken for this Albany Evening News article in 1932. At the time of the fire, Van Laer, the state archivist, was a world-renowned authority on colonial Dutch records and history, especially known for his translation." (Mercer & Weiss use the variant spellings Van/van only 19 words apart in the same sentence.

First of all, don't you think it's s p o o k y that van Laer would leave no photographs of his life other than this? Do you think he cast a shadow at noonday?

Secondly, Mercer & Weiss say that "[a]t the time of the fire, Van Laer, the state archivist, was a world-renowned authority on colonial Dutch records and history," but you certainly wouldn't know that from his publishing history. Klein, in his The Empire State: A History of New York, displays a level of hypocritical hagiography that I've come to recognize as diametrical opposed to the truth, and possibly a Satanic hallmark:
Van Laer threw himself into the task of translating and publishing all twenty-two volumes of the colonial manuscripts. His forty years of work produced over a dozen volumes. Of special importance for this study has been the four-volume collection titled New York Historical Manuscripts: Dutch (Baltimore, 1974). Volumes 1-3 contain the Register of the Provincial Secretary for the years 1638-60. Volume 4 contains the Council Minutes for the years 1638-49. Van Laer's work, published nineteen years after his death, was based on O'Callaghan's manuscript translation of the Register of the Provincial Secretary and the Council Minutes. Van Laer had originally planned to prepare his own translation of these documents and had nearly completed the first volume when disaster struck. On March 29, 1911, the New York Capitol suffered a terrible fire that spread to the wing containing the state library and manuscript division. Van Laer's translation was destroyed as was the original register. Thousands of documents burned or were damaged by water, but O'Callaghan's translations of volumes 1-4 of the colonial manuscripts survived, and, with his own translation still fresh in his mind, Van Laer annotated O'Callaghan's translation from memory. Over the next ten years, he worked tirelessly to preserve and rescue over 12,000 pages of Dutch documents. He also completed the translations of volumes 2-4 before financial support for the project was terminated. Van Laer's four stacks of typescripts lay in the New York State Library until 1974, when they were finally published under the direction of the Holland Society. 

The four volumes Klein says he found so useful to his 2003 book weren't published until 30 years after von Laer's working life had ended in the 1940's, but the fundamental work of translation done by O'Callaghan, which van Laer had to rely on, was completed a 100 years before, only to then remain hidden from public view within the privileged bowels of the New York State Library.

Using the online resources,, and HathiTrust, it is possible to establish a fairly comprehensive bibliography for Mr. van Laer, which I've posted here. It shows us that in his decade as the state manuscript archivist before the fire in March 1911, Mr. Laer had published only one "scholarly" volume, the Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts, and it's scholastic merit is highly questionable.

VAN RENSSELAER BOWIER MANUSCRIPTS: Being the Letters of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer 1630-1643, and Other Documents Relating to the Colony of Rensselaerswyck, Translated and Edited by A. J. F. van Laer, Archivist, With An Introductory Essay by Nicholaas De Roever, Late Archivist of the City of Amsterdam, Translated by Mrs. Alan H. Strong, ALBANY: University of the State of New York, 1908 (Full Text at

These documents constitute very satisfactory primary evidence of many of the doings of the Dutch authorities; of Kiliaen van Rensselaer, the patroon, and of the settlers of the Hudson river valley, particularly that part in the neighborhood of Albany, in the thirty years following the beginning of the year 1629. Their particular value is not in the fact that they tell us what the history writers think the first settlers of our State did, but in the fact that the chief actor, the man who dealt with the first settlers, tells us about the everyday matters which the bookmakers have not thought of sufficient public interest to search out and print. The original documents were found in Holland. There is no lack of both external and internal evidence of authenticity and the fact that they have been translated and arranged by, or under the personal direction of, Mr Arnold J. F. van Laer, the Archivist of the State Library, leaves no room for doubt of their accuracy as here presented. The State of New York can well afford to publish such a selection of interesting historical documents. A happy incident connected therewith appears in the fact that the committee of the Board of Regents who arranged with the owners of these papers for their publication was composed of two direct descendants of early settlers of the regime concerned, viz, Dr Albert Vander Veer and Mr Robert C. Pruyn, now much respected residents of the city of Albany. Publication at a time when elaborate preparations are being made for celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of
the discovery of the Hudson river is both opportune and timely.

Commissioner of Education
Albany, N. Y., June 21, 1907

New York State Library


TRANSLATED AND EDITED BY A. J. F. van Laer, Archivist


The present work contains translations of a collection of manuscripts which on examination will prove one of the most valuable sources of information for the history of early Dutch settlement in the state of New York. The collection comprises a great variety of papers, including journals of voyages, deeds, leases, contracts, accounts and inventories of cattle ; but the most important item is a volume containing copies of letters, memorials and instructions written between the years 1630 and 1643 by Kiliaen van Rensselaer, the founder of the colony of Rensselaerswyck, to his colonists, to officials of the West India Company, to his copartners and to the States General. Nearly all the papers relate primarily to the establishment and the early development of the colony of Rensselaerswyck, but incidentally they touch on many matters relating to settlement in other parts of the province of New Netherland as well. History of the manuscripts. The papers have been handed down in the Holland branch of the van Rensselaer family and are at present owned by Jonkheer H. J. J. van Rensselaer Bowier and Jonkheer M. W. M. M. van Rensselaer Bowier, the surviving sons of the late Vice Admiral van Rensselaer Bowier, who inherited the papers from his mother, Sara van Rensselaer, the last of the name in Holland.

Mr Nicolaas de Roever, late archivist of the city of Amsterdam, to whose prolific pen and keen interest in matters pertaining to 17th century Dutch history so many valuable articles are due. Mr de Roever learned of the existence of the papers in 1888 and in 1890 published in Oud Holland, a periodical devoted to the history of Dutch art, literature and industry of which he was the editor, a few of the most important documents, as appendixes to two articles on Kiliaenran Rensselaer en rjijne kolonie Rensselaerszvijck, which in narrative form give a summary of the contents of the papers up to 1641. Other articles were to follow, but owing to Mr de Roever's death were not written. The articles appear to have attracted attention in this country about 1896. They contained much that was either new or at variance with long accepted notions as to events in the early days of the colony and hence aroused curiosity as to the extent of the collection and the nature of the material which remained unpublished. In 1902, Miss Ruth Putnam made a special trip to Holland to investigate the matter, and on her return gave an account of her experiences in the November number of the Bibliographer. It proved that the papers, shortly after the death of Mr de Roever in 1893, had been returned to the family and in 1895 were loaned by an elder brother of the present owners, since deceased, to a friend by the name of J. F. Pieters, who took the papers to America and there, assuming the name of Pieters van Wely, attempted to dispose of them at private sales. Mr Pieters however did not succeed and finally, leaving the papers in the hands of Mr George Waddington of New York, returned to Holland, where he shortly after died. Efforts were made by the van Rensselaer Bowier family to recover the papers from his widow but not sufficiently pressed to disclose where the papers had been left and for some years nothing more was heard of them. In January 1903, the present editor learned from the late Mr John V. L. Pruyn that manuscripts of doubtful origin, relating to the colony of Rensselaerswyck and going by the name of van Wely papers had been left in the hands of his friend Mr Waddington. Concluding that these must be the missing van Rensselaer Bowier papers to which Miss Putnam had just called attention, he secured through Mr. Pruyn permission to examine the papers at the State Library and, by comparison with the documents published by Mr. de Roever, removed all doubt as to their identity. The fact was reported to Mr. Waddington and his permission obtained to communicate with Mrs. van Rensselaer Bowier, the widow of the late admiral. It so happened that just then Mrs. Bowier and her youngest son were on their way to make a brief visit to this country. They were expected to stay a few days with. Mrs. Alan H. Strong, of New Brunswick, N. J., and news of the whereabouts of the papers was sent to them there. The owners immediately replevined the papers but, finding that no one intended to contest their claims, abandoned further legal action and entered into the following amicable agreement with the Regents of the University of the State of New-York : an agreement entered into July 29, 1903 between John De Witt Peltz of Albany, N. Y., representing Hugo Jan Jacob Van Rensselaer-Bowier and Marten Wilhelmus Marius Magdaltts Van Rensselaer-Bowier, and the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, concerning the custody, use and disposition of certain documents and papers obtained by Mr Arnold J. F. van Laer from one Waddington of New York City which have been the subject of litigation in the Supreme Court in Albany county.

First. It is agreed that the documents above referred to shall be translated and published as a bulletin by the Regents of the University, together with so much of the original as the library committee may deem desirable, together with Mrs. Strong's translation of the unfinished DeRoever printed articles relating to these documents with a preface by Mrs. Strong, but such translation and preface shall be subject to the revision and approval of the library committee of the Regents before publication.

Second, Mrs Strong shall be permitted to copyright her translation and preface before publication by the State, if it can be done under the laws of the State and rules of the Board of Regents.

Third. Mrs. Strong and the Messrs. Van Rensselaer-Bowier shall each receive free of charge 25 copies of the completed work, being 50 copies in all.

Fourth. The original documents shall be left in the custody of the Regents until February 1, 1904, for the purpose of the translation and publication above referred to and for no other purpose, and shall then be re-turned to John De Witt Peltz, Esq., as representative of the owners.

Fifth. This agreement shall not be valid until it receives the written approval of Mrs Strong.

The historical publication program of the State of New York, by Milton W Hamilton; Albany : University of the State of New York, State Education Dept., Division of Archives and History, 1965. [Missing from the New York Public Library: Your entry OCM4239856 would be here.]

Flagg, Charles Allcott, 1870-1920. Bibliography of New York colonial history submitted for graduation by Charles A. Flagg and Judson T. Jennings (New York State Library School, class of 1897). Albany. University of the State of New York, 1901

1 comment:

  1. A.J.F. van Laer was my great great grandfather. I have a few pictures of him.