Get The Prospect Seated … And Keep Talking”

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Chicago was the undisputed capital of this business. In eight years, from about 1869 to 1877, the subscription publishers made $3,000,000 out of Illinois on the atlas bonanza alone. Several county history houses grossed over $1,000,000 a year between 1870 and 1890, with forty books in preparation at a time, and twenty crews in the field.

No practitioner of this school of biography was more accomplished than the historian Bancroft—not George, but Hubert Howe—who mass-produced West Coast history on the fifth floor of a San Francisco building. A solicitor named Fowler, working southern California, landed a big fish, former Governor John G. Downey, who had escaped to America from a mud house and a life of turf-cutting in Ireland. Fowler invented a fancy tale about Downey’s castle in Munster and his noble descent from King Brian Boru. The proof sheets of this biography are still extant, in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, docketed in Bancroft’s hand: “Hold till 5M is paid.”

When a friend remonstrated with Downey, the old gentleman replied, in substance:

“Well, I’m rich now. I would rather pay five thousand dollars to be lied about in this way than to leave the five thousand dollars for a lot of hungry Munsterians to fight over when I die.”

The work in which Downey’s touched-up life story appeared was Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth: Historical Character Study , in seven volumes and index (San Francisco: 1891–92). It was one of the great “mug books” of all time. The total subvention amounted to $219,225. Bancroft went to California to participate in the Gold Rush. He did. One can almost hear in imagination the smooth chatter of the Bancroft canvasser making his rounds, well drilled in Information for Agents to Assist in Selling the Works of Hubert H. Bancroft:

“It may sound to you, Mr. ———, something like exaggeration, or at least superabundance of enthusiasm, what I have said about Mr. Bancroft and his work. But I can assure you, sir, the half of the truth has not been told.”