A Mysterious Autograph Hound’s Book Is Up for Auction

With Mary Todd Lincoln, Mark Twain and even Oscar Wilde, a mystery remains: How did Lafayette Cornwell get all these people to autograph his book? The little book is a relic from the years after the Civil War, when autograph-crazy Americans collected signatures, a central building block of identity before fingerprinting, Social Security numbers or credit cards. A jeweler named Lafayette Cornwell collected more signatures than

most people did — 400 or so, starting when he was a teenager.

In time, eight presidents and several first ladies signed Cornwell’s autograph album. So did Mark Twain, Harry Houdini and Thomas A. Edison. For decades, well into his own middle age, Cornwell had a knack for turning up where well-known people were and persuading them to sign. Sometimes they did more than that. Herman Melville wrote a quote from Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde quoted his own poetry. John Philip Sousa wrote three measures of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Mary Todd Lincoln signed “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln,” which David Lowenherz, a collector and dealer, said was unusual. After her husband’s assassination, she usually just signed “Mary Lincoln,” Mr. Lowenherz said. Read more…