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Lot 107: Lengthy Pastor J.F. Oberlin (Oberlin College Namesake) 1772 letter on Entomology
Presidential Letters, Free Franks & Speeches: Washington to Bush + Important Autographs in History, Science & the Arts
26 October 2016
New York, NY, USALive Auction
Description: OBERLIN, JOHANN FRIEDRICH. (1740-1826). Alsatian Lutheran Pietist minister and humanitarian. ALS. With two small illustrations of beetle larvae. (“Oberlin”). 2pp. 4to. Waldersbach, September 3, 1772. To Monsieur Herrman (probably French naturalist JOHANN HERMANN, 1738-1800). In French with translation. ********** “You can see that what I have collected and have had collected by others is not worth presenting to you. The Lepisma [silverfish] (I do not know what to call them in French) I am sending you are all missing parts, with the exception of one. They were brought to me in a box, and when I opened it, the bottom was littered with arms and legs like a battlefield. I pinned up the Lepisma and put the detached antennae, legs, and tails in a small round box between sheets of white paper. I went myself to have them look for more in my presence, but we found only two, one of which had lost its antennae, the other the tail. They can be found in the hemlock near Fouday [a small village in Alsace, where Oberlin was buried], under the small stones. You have to pick up one stone at a time, very carefully if there is anything underneath. They are quite rare, and often, before you can spot them, they have run away. – The brown butterfly with two white stripes on the wing, got out of the long tube that you will see in the square box. The Ichnemon Gigas, or sirex, [wood wasp] was brought to me from Rothau [another small village in the same area] by my boarders. They had a nasty little guy on the hat, a Cicindela [tiger beetle] that did not do well there. I scolded the boy about it, but what was done was done, and since then, I have had no more. I think they must have taken it from the stove of the Rothau parsonage. Mons. Schweigh promised to have any that may yet be found, caught and brought to me. I have lingonberries in my orchard, and one of my people found two roosters on one of the shrubs, flying onto it, making it bend over. A hen was on the ground, holding the tip in its beak, so the chicks around her could eat, but neither the hen nor the roosters were seen to eat of it. My boarder has a trough [?] in front of the window, without cover, and a few pieces of lead in the bottom. A few days ago, when I wanted to close the shutter, I saw two sparkles at the top of the box, taking them for two Noctilucas [lightning bugs]. When I wanted to touch them, there were several, and they stretched out long and seemed to flow or slide slowly to the bottom. I didn’t catch any of them, but under my finger it felt like a cold and damp worm, as thin as a thread, and just a second after these spots and glowing threads stopped sparkling, I had someone bring me a light, and there wasn’t a trace to be seen. The soft yellowish beetles that are wrapped along with the rest of their kind in a leaf that they chew up and then in a scribbled piece of paper, are no doubt the same species as the red ones in the small round box. But being imprisoned and lacking fresh air, they didn’t do very well. The larvae of these adults are remarkable. [Two small drawings] They are black as long as they are small, turning white as they grow, and on each side, they are covered by a double row of small black pustules which, as soon as you get close, fill instantly with white drops, to a really stunning effect. We did enjoy that part at least, but they spread such a strong, unpleasant odor that you soon cannot take it. The smell is somewhat similar to that of “Tästelkraut Wasser” [?] but much harder to tolerate. I took some of them with me, but they died quickly. There is nothing left of them but what’s in the miserable leaf I mentioned. NB. I placed the little square box, which holds the even smaller round one, in a box that I sent to my nephew. So you will be able to retrieve it from my sister-in-law. Very respectfully, Your humble and obedient servant…”********** Born in Strasbourg, in 1766 Oberlin became pastor of a Lutheran church in the poor Alsatian city of Waldbach (modern Waldersbach). However, in addition to attending to the spiritual needs of his congregation, he sought to improve the material conditions of the impoverished Ban de la Roche community, located in the Vosges mountains, which included Waldbach and four other towns. The isolated protestant community, surrounded by hostile Catholic neighbors, had been plundered by the feudal system and devastated by the Thirty Years War. Oberlin undertook such tasks as improving roads, building bridges, improving agricultural methods, and introducing industry. He founded a library, a bank, and schools, taking such revolutionary steps as mandating attendance and employing female teachers. “He himself made a collection, along with a classified descriptive index (according to the then new system of Linné) of all the flora of the valley. He also made plant ecology one of the basic courses in the schools, beginning in the infant schools, and thereby eventually eliminated the unwitting ingestion of toxic plants as a frequent cause of death. He promoted the beautification of the landscape by requiring the planting of fruit and ornamental trees: two for every marriage ceremony performed, one for every baptism, one for each confirmation, etc. By all his exertions taken together, Oberlin transfigured the quality of life for his people,” (“What’s in a Name: Why Oberlin?” Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Kurtz). Our letter shows Oberlin’s level of enthusiasm for the subject of entomology. ********** Despite believing in the aims of the French Revolution, he eventually ran afoul of it. “Even the interdiction of all religious organizations and services, which brought two of the great issues of his life in conflict, the religious and the political, did not disconcert him; he just transformed each congregation into a citizens’ club, changed his own title from minister to president, renamed the churches club houses, the prayers discourses, the sermons lectures, the liturgy and hymnody community singing, and carried on essentially as before. When, because of that ruse, he was arrested and carried off to prison by the Committee of Public Safety, he went without protest. The incident, which might have culminated at the guillotine, was providentially terminated by the prior sudden death of Robespierre. Twenty years later the nation conferred on Oberlin its highest honor: he became a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor,” (ibid.). Ohio’s Oberlin College is named in his honor as are several cities across the United States. ********** Beginning in 1769, Hermann was a professor of medicine at the School of Public Health of Strasbourg, where he also taught philosophy beginning in 1778. In 1784, he became chair of chemistry, natural history and materia medica. In addition to his academic duties, he supervised Strasbourg’s botanical garden and amassed a large collection of zoological and botanical specimens. His vast reference library formed the foundation of Strasbourg’s Natural History Museum, which contains a reconstruction of his cabinet of natural history. ********** The address leaf indicates that the letter was sent “with a bottle.” Folded and age-toned with some professional restoration to the wax seal tear. In fine condition.