The little book is a relic from the years after the Civil War, when autograph-crazy Americans collected signatures, a central building block of identity before fingerprinting, Social Security numbers or credit cards. A jeweler named Lafayette Cornwell collected more signatures than most people did — 400 or so, starting when he was a teenager.
In time, eight presidents and several first ladies signed Cornwell’s autograph album. So did Mark Twain, Harry Houdini and Thomas A. Edison. For decades, well into his own middle age, Cornwell had a knack for turning up where well-known people were and persuading them to sign. Sometimes they did more than that. Herman Melville wrote a quote from Shakespeare. Oscar Wilde quoted his own poetry. John Philip Sousa wrote three measures of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Mary Todd Lincoln signed “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln,” which David Lowenherz, a collector and dealer, said was unusual. After her husband’s assassination, she usually just signed “Mary Lincoln,” Mr. Lowenherz said.
“Cornwell somehow ingratiated himself into so many different situations,” Mr. Lowenherz added. “It was unusual to get more than a signature. He must have said more than, ‘Mr. Melville, would you sign my book?’” Mr. Lowenherz plans to sell the Cornwell autograph album on Wednesday through the online auction platform invaluable.com. The presale estimate is $30,000 to $35,000.
When Cornwell approached the actress Sarah Bernhardt, she made a demand, to which he complied: She insisted that her signature be the last in the album, even though it was far from filled when Cornwell boarded her private rail car in 1911. “I write the last!” she had announced, according to Cornwell, who spoke to The New York Times for a 1927 article about the album. She signed the last page and then pasted that page to the inside back cover. “No one must write after me.”