You get books on all sorts of subjects – granted my collections attempts to keep to theology, philosophy, poetry, and history – but sometimes an odd subject appears that catches the eye and just has to be read. There’s plenty of these that came out of the bizarre curiosities of past ages, and this next book is one of them – Select and Remarkable Epitaphs on Illustrious and Other Persons.
This octavo volume was written by John Hackett, a mysterious antiquarian with a slightly morbid interest in epitaphs who was himself dead by the time the book was published. I own only one volume of the two volume set, a first edition from 1757.
The book is essentially a survey of graveyards and churches across the country and a record of their curious memorials as they were in the first half of the 18th century; whenever the author found a gravestone that he thought was particularly interesting or witty he wrote it down. Some are touching, others heroic, and others even humerous:
On an Unlucky Woodcutter
The Lord saw good, I was lopping off Wood
And down fell from the Tree,
I was met with a Check, and I broke my Neck,
And so death lopp’d off me.
On an old Hawker found dead in the Highway
John Sherry lies here, whose fixed abode
Before was no-where, for he lived on the road;
And when with Age grown scarce able to creep,
He there laid him down, and he died in a Sleep.
But some Friends who lov’d him soon heard his Mishap,
And hither remov’d him to take out his Nap.
On the Parson of an Unrecorded Parish
Come, let us rejoice, merry Boys, at his Fall;
For, egad, had he liv’d, he’d a bury’d us all.
It was printed for Thomas Osborne and John Shipton, two booksellers who regularly worked together in the 1750s to pay for books to be produced, which would then be sold between the two of them. Osborne was the son of a bookseller – a family trade – and had worked with men including Samuel Johnson earlier in his career. At the time he helped produce my book he was working to start shipping some of his stock to the Americas. His partner, Shipton, sadly is far more obscure and it is beyond my minor research to present his history.
My copy was owned, possibly originally and almost certainly during the 18th century, by Edward Brock. I can’t tell you much about him either. What I can tell you about, though, is the actions of a particularly impressive 19th century bookseller, who has had a good play around with my poor old book.
It was last bound in the first half of the 19th century, and I entirely blame a single bookseller for the appearance of the book, since only someone who wanted to disguise its faults would have changed the book in the way that it has been changed. Since the ultimate benefit of disguising the book’s damage would seem to be to sell it for a better price, I blame an unknown bookseller for the wonderful lengths that have been gone to:
Firstly, this is one volume of a two volume set, but the binding has only the title on it and no volume number. Odd, perhaps, for a book that should be part of a pair, but not any real proof that someone has tried to purposefully disguise that its partner is missing. However, at the end of the book where the final page should say end of the first book, the page has been scratched out, making it seem like the book naturally finishes.
The most incredible disfigurement, though, appears where page 75/6 should be. These pages have been cut out, but to try and disguise that a very careful circle has been cut into pages 73/4 around the page number to neatly remove it, so that it now takes a double check to see that the pagination is in fact incorrect.
There isn’t any evidence of the book’s history after those changes, but the book is very scuffed and worn – I’ve done a little restoration work on it myself to pull the binding back together. It’s a well read little book and one that, though a truly peculiar and gothic subject, is well worth perusing for the range of odd and sometimes magnificent epitaphs of history’s figures – both well known and obscure.
Adieu, my Kindest Reader.