Found in a Garage: A First Edition of Thomas Paine’s “American Crisis”

Only four copies of the first edition of Thomas Paine’s morale-boosting pamphlet, The American Crisis (“These are the times which try men’s souls...”) were known to survive, but a fifth has come to light and heads to auction in New York on April 12, estimated to reach $75,000.

Where did this Revolutionary War-era rarity turn up? In a garage in Mount Pleasant, Utah.

Am Crisis.jpgIn the summer of 2015, Lynn and Joan Varah decided to tackle some old boxes that had been taking up space in their garage for years. One box contained “hundreds of aging letters and documents,” according to a local news report. So they called in a friend, David Foster, who has some expertise with documents and genealogy. With a bit of online research, Foster soon realized what they had, and they decided to sell it and split the profits.

744346_view_03.jpgPublished in December 1776, this copy of The American Crisis was first owned by postmaster and tavern owner Thomas Wallin (1754-1835) of New Jersey. According to Swann Galleries’ cataloguing, it then passed to his granddaughter Margaret Wallin Ivins McKean, a Mormon convert who moved from New Jersey to Salt Lake City sometime before her death in 1886. From there, the next known owner was Donald Drake, who had acquired a box of McKean family papers before he moved to Mount Pleasant, Utah, in 1976. Drake apparently left the papers in the corner of a garage on his sister’s property. When he died in 1991, the papers were inherited by his wife, who may not have known of their existence, and upon her death in 2015, they became the property of her sister, Joan Varah, and her husband Lynn.  

Some staining and soiling betrays the book’s long journey. As Rick Stattler of Swann Galleries told KSL.com, “It looks like it was carried on a wagon train out west -- which, apparently it was ... That’s probably the most interesting thing about it. It was carried across the country and I think that’s just a very compelling artifact.”

This first state copy contains parts I and II (lacking the third) and is bound in waste-paper wrappers made from an 1831 advertising broadside selling books. A first state copy of The American Crisis was last seen at auction in 1955. Swann sold a second (but complete) edition in 2014 for $125,000.

As the author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, I can’t help but be thrilled by a discovery of this magnitude. As David Foster put it to KSL.com, “Who knows what’s in anybody’s garage, right?”

Images courtesy of Swann Galleries

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