William Henry Burr: Gloversville’s ‘Great Literary Detective’


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DSC_0147Many people probably remember that at the end of the 19th century the city of Gloversville, in Fulton County, was recognized as the glove-making capital of the world. However, one of Gloversville’s famous sons, William Henry Burr, has been all but forgotten.

Referred to as “the great literary detective” by one of the 19th century’s foremost orators and political speechmakers, Robert G. Ingersoll, Burr was born in Gloversville on April 15, 1819. His father, James Burr, was one of the founders of the glove industry in the community, once known as Stump City.

Having a talent for painting and playing the flute and violin, William went to New York City for artistic instruction after graduating from Union College in 1838. From 1841 to 1859, he worked as a portraitist and genre painter and often exhibited his work at the National Academy of Design, the American Art-Union and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

WilliamHenryBurrFinding it difficult to make a living as a full-time artist, Burr studied Isaac Pitman’s system of shorthand and began work as a verbatim reporter in 1845. Over the next 24 years, Burr divided his time between New York and Washington, D.C.

In New York, he reported the lectures of Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, Louis Kossuth and Professor Louis Agassiz, as well as the important political proceedings of his day for the Albany Atlas, New York Tribune, and The New York Times. He also worked for several years as an official court reporter for the New York Superior Court. In Washington, Burr worked for the Washington Union writing verbatim accounts of proceedings in the U.S. Senate, and later, did the same thing for the Congressional Globe in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1869, Burr retired from the world of verbatim reporting and began a career in literary research where according to the Washington Herald, “he became an intimate correspondent with many famous thinkers and philosophers of his time.” Burr investigated significant historical claims by examining the authenticity of the documents upon which the claims rested. Sometimes he relied on the work of outside experts and at other times he conducted the investigation himself.

titlepageBurr probed American and English history and many of his findings, which he printed in numerous articles, pamphlets and books, were controversial. For example, he argued that De Witt Clinton had committed suicide, the Masons had murdered William Morgan, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets had been written by Francis Bacon, and Thomas Paine had drafted the Declaration of Independence and was the author of the Letters of Junius.

Some of Burr’s best work involved detecting and exposing fraudulent letters supposedly written by prominent American religious figures. Two of such hoaxes were well publicized by Burr and were probably the reason why Ingersoll, the Great Agnostic, bestowed the title of “the great literary detective” on Burr.

The first hoax was a letter allegedly written by Cotton Mather on September 15, 1682 about how the Massachusetts General Court had given secret orders to capture William Penn and at least 100 more “malignants called Quakers” who were coming on a ship to America from England, and sell them into slavery in Barbados for rum and sugar. The letter was quoted in full in an article written by James F. Shunk in April, 1870, in his Easton, PA newspaper, the Argus. Following an investigation of the claims concerning the authenticity of the letter, Burr pronounced it a hoax largely because Mather was only nineteen in 1682 and unlikely to be privy to such a scheme.

The second hoax exposed by Burr concerning a religious figure was a letter supposedly written in 1846 by the Bishop of Boston, Benedict Joseph Fenwick, to his brother, Enoch. It described what Fenwick purportedly saw and heard when he and another priest visited Thomas Paine on his deathbed in New York City in 1809. The Fenwick letter states that Paine had been heard screaming in “paroxysms of distress ‘God help me! Jesus Christ help me!’” The letter was seized upon by Paine’s religious antagonists to prove that the author of The Age of Reason had accepted the divinity of Christ as he was about to die. Burr investigated the facts and arguments surrounding the letter and declared it a fraud. It had been written to Enoch in 1846, the year Bishop Fenwick died—eighteen years after his brother Enoch had died in 1828.

burr-scissorsBurr continued investigating and writing until his death in Washington, D.C. on February 28, 1908. He was in his 89th year. On the following day, the Washington Herald printed a lengthy obituary and his photograph. The headline read, “Death of W.H. Burr. Noted Philosopher, Savant, and Oldest Inhabitant.”

Today, William Henry Burr’s legacy can be found in the major online bookstores where his 1860 book, Self-Contradictions of the Bible, is for sale. It was reissued by a new publisher last year. In addition, Burr’s paintings continue to attract attention. “The Intelligence Office,” which he painted in 1849, is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society and Sotheby’s recently sold “The Scissor Grinder,” which he painted in 1856, at an auction for $34,375.00.

Illustrations: From above, William Henry Burr’s “The Intelligence Office, 1849.” (New-York Historical Society. Purchase, Abbott-Lenox Fund); a portrait of Burr taken in the late 19th century; the cover page of Burr’s Bacon and Shakespeare book; and Burr’s “The Scissors Grinder, 1856″.

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