In one of his portraits of the convivial octogenarian turf journalist Colonel John R. Stingo, A. J. Liebling writes,
Like most people of pronounced seniority he reads the obituary pages with attention, and had a morning of quiet triumph last winter when two insurance shamans, a past president of the Actuarial Society of America and the vice-president of a major company, died on the same day, aged sixty-two and fifty-four respectively. ‘I bet they avoided excitement, late hours, high blood pressure, tasty food and intoxicating liquors and had themselves periodically examined with stethoscopes, fluoroscopes, spectroscopes and high-powered lenses,’ the Colonel said. ‘The result was inevitable and to be expected, the result of morbid preoccupation. The anxious fielder drops the ball.’
Most antiquarian booksellers of my acquaintance shun morbid preoccupation.
At book fairs and other venues where booksellers gather, one often finds colleagues gathered around the groaning board or even on occasion congregated in rooms where one may conveniently rest a foot upon a brass rail.
Despite my own best efforts, a bit of the morbid preoccupation will on occasion creep in upon me; to combat the cumulative effects of the collegial life I will lace up my running shoes and set off at a lumbering trot of self-improvement through the streets of Ann Arbor. And when the cankering cares of business seem especially grim, I make certain my route takes me up through Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery.
It is there amid the pleasantly shady groves of the dead that I make my usual circuit past the graves of such stalwarts as University of Michigan football coaches Bo Schembechler (1929-2006) and Fielding Yost (1871-1946) and past the remains of such lesser historical lights as Michigan’s wondrously euphonious fifth governor, Alpheus Felch (1804-1896).
But the monument toward which my feet at last always tend is the stately obelisk of Dr. Alvan Wood Chase, M.D. (1817-1885), the grocer-turned-physician and best-selling author who lies buried within sight of the medical school that would not grant him a degree. (Chase did not know the necessary Latin required by the University of Michigan, so he contented himself instead with a sixteen-week course in Cincinnati at the Eclectic Medical Institute.)
Chase was the genius behind the best-selling book that was eventually known the world over as Dr. Chase's Recipes; or, Information for Everybody (Ann Arbor, 1860 et seq., with earlier versions appearing as A Guide to Wealth -- the earliest located copy is dated 1858 -- and as Information for Everybody in 1859). During Dr. Chase’s Golden Age, the compendium’s commodious subtitle promised the purchaser
an invaluable collection of about eight hundred practical recipes, for merchants, grocers, saloon-keepers, physicians, druggists, tanners, shoe makers, harness makers, painters, jewelers, blacksmiths, tinners, gunsmiths, farriers, barbers, bakers, dyers, renovaters, farmers, and families generally. To which have been added a rational treatment of pleurisy, inflammation of the lungs, and other inflammatory diseases, and also for general female debility and irregularities: all arranged in their appropriate departments.
Chase’s book was perhaps the contemporary acme of the domestic medical vade mecum, hitting a historical sweet spot somewhere between such stalwarts as William Buchan’s evergreen Domestic Medicine (first published in Edinburgh in 1769 and published in more than 60 American editions up through the outbreak of the Civil War) and Edwin Bliss Foote’s Medical Common Sense (first published in 1858 but popular through the 1870s under the revised title Plain Home Talk About the Human System -- even after Foote’s arrest in 1876 for violating Comstock Laws by sending contraceptive information through the U.S. mails).
But for a time during the 1860s, Chase stood astride the world of domestic medical and recipe manuals. Each passing edition statement grew gaudier, until it at last approached the heady reaches of the forties and fifties. Chase invested in his own printing plant, and by 1868 oversaw the grand opening his own steam printing house on Ann Arbor’s Main Street. He also launched a successful newspaper to supplement his successful Recipes.
So how did this Colossus topple? Why does his name not stand today upon the lips of all Americans?
The Doctor seems to have fallen prey to his own morbid preoccupations. Such perhaps is the expected occupational hazard of spending your working days amid grim warnings of pleurisy and female debility. Chase explains in his later reworked and relaunched Dr. Chase’s Family Physician (Toledo, 1875, the imprint tellingly situated some sixty miles south of Ann Arbor and across a state line) that his ill health had forced the sale in 1869 of both his printing plant and all the rights to his work to Ann Arbor businessman Rice Beal.
Alas, Chase had not been nearly so ill as his hypochondriacal fears had suggested -- nor were his pecuniary worries realized that the popularity of his manual were waning -- and Beal enjoyed a great success with the title. Chase quickly recovered and attempted to reenter the game (despite having sold his rights) but a lawsuit by Beal successfully put a stop to Chase.
Chase died in 1885. The handsome family obelisk suggests he did not altogether languish in his final years. The small stone that marks his plot reads Alvan W. Chase (which itself suggests the spelling Alvin most usually met on the title pages of his works was not that preferred by the family). His meteoric career may be seen as a peculiar bodily allegory for the powers of the press.
In something of a biblio-coda to this tale, Rice Beal (1823-1883) eventually passed the interests in the erstwhile Chase publishing house to his son Junius Emery Beal (1860-1942). Junius ended up as a Regent at the University of Michigan and one of the members of the Committee of Management for one of the great Americana collections, the William L. Clements Library. It was in this lattter role that Beal fils took his place in one of this writer’s own favorite anecdotes of institutional book collecting (which I have noted elsewhere), taken from the article “Defining Americana” by the late Thomas R. Adams of the John Carter Brown Library in The Book Collector (Winter 2008), page 562:
My father [Randolph G. Adams, the first director of the Clements Library] introduced me to the ambiguities of the term Americana when I was quite young. Soon after he went to the William L. Clements Library in 1923, Junius Beal, a Regent of the University of Michigan, member of the Committee of Management and a close personal friend of Clements, wanted to give the library a 1480 edition of Cicero’s Tusculanae Disputationes. My father demurred, saying it really wasn’t Americana. Beal replied, ‘Young man, make it Americana. That is what you are paid for.’ A passage on Atlantis solved the problem.
For an extensive and entertaining look at the scope of such popular medical manuals as those of Dr. Chase, see the 3-volume Annotated Catalogue of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of American Popular Medicine and Health Reform, compiled and edited by Christopher Hoolihan (University of Rochester Press 2001-2008).
Dr. Chase remains a beloved minor figure here in Ann Arbor. Much of such biographical information as has here been provided is cobbled together from the Atwater catalogue and from a 1993 article in the Ann Arbor Observer by Grace Shackman (found here).
Marjorie Reade and Susan Wineberg’s Historic buildings, Ann Arbor, Michigan (Ann Arbor Historical Foundation and the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, 1992) includes an outline of Chase’s career in its description of Dr. Chase’s Steam Printing House (which still stands today) here.
The papers of both Rice Beal and Junius Beal are found at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan--which sits on Beal Avenue on the North Campus.