November 24, 2010

Where is Bill Johnston's Scrapbook?

Updated April 2013
The Holy Grail for Bill Johnston researchers is locating his lost scrapbook. Bill started the scrapbook while in jail in Albany in 1839 and added notes and clippings for the rest of his life. One of the last entries is said to be a newspaper notice about his eldest brother Andrew's death at 103 in 1866. Andrew died just a few months before Bill.

What little we know of the scrapbook comes directly or indirectly from the Watertown Daily Times (WDT). In 1931, the WDT publisher,  Harold Johnson, borrowed the book from Bill Johnston’s granddaughter, Josephine Unser, 72, a daughter of Kate Johnston and Charles Hawes. Johnson had the book rebound and he loaned it to two writers.

In November 1931, Harry Landon wrote a four-part series for the WDT based on the contents of Bill’s scrapbook.

Walter J. Wraith (a.k.a. John Northman) was an editor and writer for the Toronto Telegram in the 1930s.  He wrote the only published biography of Bill Johnston. It appeared in the WDT in 120 installments beginning September 8, 1938.  Wraith researched the biography for at least seven years and viewed the scrapbook in 1931. According to a letter he wrote to historian Dr. Herbert C. Burleigh, Wraith made copies.

I have found a so-called copy. It is not an exact copy; rather, Wraith made a transcript. It sometimes describes what was on a page of the scrapbook, and others times provides verbatim text. Wraith's transcript is typed; whereas, the original was hand-written.

That still leaves the mystery of where the original lies.

In a letter dated July 24, 1931, Frederick H. Kimball, a writer and editor at the WDT, said to his publisher: “I am sure that Mr. Unser would be very grateful to you for having the scrapbook bound.” He added that Unser wished to have it placed in the Jefferson County Historical Society (JCHS).

Josephine Unser died in 1933 followed by her husband John in October 1934. They had no children to pass the scrapbook to. Where did it go?

Fellow Bill Johnston historian James Eagan of Canandaigua, NY—a former police officer and genealogist extraordinaire—has spent considerable effort over decades trying to locate the scrapbook. The Unsers’ belongings were sold at auction, he says: “Chances are no one realized [the scrapbook’s] true value and it was thrown away. Either that or it is presently in a private collection, because I have looked everywhere."

Bill’s scrapbook may have been destroyed, it may be in private hands, or it may lie forgotten in the JCHS.

In 2010, Jim Eagan and I visited the JCHS, an ornate old mansion a short walk from the WDT office in downtown Watertown. We found and reviewed part of the original typewritten Wraith biography of Bill Johnston. Apparently, the mansion has an attic stuffed with uncatalogued historical donations. It is possible that the scrapbook and other dust covered Johnston family artifacts lie in its dark recesses.
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