A rare find in the book world

On March of 1985, student Mark Hoffman was browsing through the Argosy Book Store in New York City

Mike Selby

On March of 1985, Salt Lake City resident and pre-med student Mark Hoffman was browsing through the Argosy Book Store in New York City. The Argosy’s second floor was home to their “print” section—where they sold various maps, etchings, and single pages torn from antique books. Hoffman bought two sketches of George and Martha Washington for $12.50, and a broadside (a single sheet of paper) titled ‘Oath of a Freeman’ for $25. Purchases of this sort were not uncommon for Hoffman. He had become fascinated with books and documents relating to American history while serving as a Mormon missionary in England. Unlike their North American counterparts, used bookstores in Europe had books which were not only centuries old but also affordable.  For only a few dollars Hoffman purchased a 1668 King James Bible. An exciting enough purchase on its own, when Hoffman examined it back in Utah he found a small piece of paper glued into the back of it. Experts he showed it to identified it as an original document handwritten by Joseph Smith—founder of the Mormon Church.

Although seen as priceless to the Mormon Church, Hoffman was happy to trade it with them for some rare books. Although on his way to med school, he had hoped one day to be a rare book dealer. And for Hoffman, lightning was about to strike twice.

Perusing a book catalogue on the flight home from his 1985 New York trip, he saw for sale a copy of John Child’s 1647 ‘New England, Jonas Cast Up In London’ (which is an odd title for a list of court proceedings in Boston). While asking $2,000 for the book, the catalogue also noted that this copy “also provides the earliest reprint of ‘The Freeman’s Oath,’ the first issue of Stephen Daye’s Cambridge press, of which no original copy survives.”

What Hoffman had in his hand was the first document ever printed in North America. The oath itself is simply a promise to defend the chosen government of New England. Daye was a locksmith by trade, and a single page document was possibly all he felt comfortable printing at first.  He went on to print the “Bay Psalm Book,” the first book ever printed in North America.

What does one do with the most important item in bibliographic history? The first thing Hoffman did was to try to return the item to the Argosy Book Store. Explaining that they had unwittingly sold him something of immense historical value, the Argosy staff simply shrugged and said, “That’s nice.”

Hoffman then took it to a rare book dealer, who was skeptical to say the least. Finding the Holy Grail at a yard sale seemed much more likely. But the dealer could find nothing to discount the document’s authenticity.  The two then had it examined by a variety of document experts, historians, and rare book librarians. It was then sent to the Conservation and Testing Offices of the Library of Congress for scientific analysis. All concluded Hoffman had discovered the real thing.

What was the “Oath of the Freeman” worth?  Hoffman admitted he was out of his depth, and partnered with the rare book dealer who had helped him so far. The book dealer offered it to the Library of the Congress for $1.5 million, which he would then split evenly with Hoffman.

For such a huge sum, the Library of Congress asked for one more thing: provenance.

Finding it at the Argosy wasn’t good enough. Before they handed over $1.5 million of tax-payers’ money, the library wanted to know where the Argosy got it, and who owned it before them.

Unlike works of art, provenance in the book world isn’t used to guard against forgery. It is used to protect against bad title. The last thing an institution wants to do is purchase an item from someone who doesn’t legally own it.

Unfortunately, no provenance would be forthcoming. On October 16, 1985, a car bomb went off in Hoffman’s car.  Two car bombs had gone off the day before, killing two prominent Utah business owners. Hoffman was the third victim. Although alive, he remained in critical condition at a hospital in Salt Lake City.

Unbelievably, the killings were indeed related to the true owner of the ‘Oath of a Freeman.’

But that is for next week.

Mike Selby is reference librarian at

Cranbrook Public Library.

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