George Warner, the vengeful historian
On Oct. 24 1971, Cobleskill antique dealer and Schoharie County historian Dave Kniskern addressed the Fulton County Historical Society. The Leader Herald reported, “He also displayed a book titled “Military Records of Schoharie County Veterans,” found buried on a farm and reclaimed by bookbinding.”
The book Kniskern brought was written by 19th century Schoharie County resident George Warner, who might well be nicknamed, “The Vengeful Historian.”
Published in 1891, the book’s full title was, “Military Records of Schoharie County Veterans of Four Wars.”
Today, because of what Warner did with his unsold copies, an original edition of this book is one of our scarcest regional history books, prized by both rare book collectors and area historians.
Warner was a young Civil War veteran when he conceived the idea of publishing a book chronicling the lives of every Schoharie County veteran who served in what were then the four wars we’d been involved in, the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican and Civil wars. This information, Warner correctly believed, was historically important: he would gather it, publish it, and in his mind, all his patriotic Schoharie County neighbors, many of whose family names would appear, would gratefully buy it. Warner’s task would prove very difficult: few sources of information beyond state and federal pension records existed then, but somehow George slowly gathered it together over more than 20 years.
For a person of limited education, Warner’s book was well-conceived. Each section gave a brief history of the conflict and prominent battles, followed by factual data on local soldiers involved, their military rank, wartime engagements, plus whatever additional information Warner could glean about them. While the book wasn’t error free and the content was limited to soldiers of only one county, it was a very scholarly reference work by 19th century standards: it remains today a helpful source for local and military historians, that is if they can find it, and why finding it remains so difficult is our real story.
But first, who was George Warner? His own entry on page 289 reads, “George H. Warner, Corporal, Great Grandson of 1776” referring to his Revolutionary War ancestors.
Warner enlisted in August 1862, recording himself as “farmer, single, aged 24.” His service was difficult. Almost immediately he contracted “camp fever” and couldn’t join his regiment until December. He then contracted severe diarrhea, recording that he was treated with “cheese and blackberry root tea.” He recovered, only to be seriously wounded at Gettysburg July 1, 1863, earning a disability discharge. Whatever his disability, it didn’t stop him from spending the next 27 years compiling his book.
In those days, books were frequently sold by subscription, that is, the author or an author’s agent would canvas an area door to door, pre-selling a proposed book and accepting down payments from those agreeing to buy the finished work. This system guaranteed a certain number of sales before publication which helped finance the printing. The system worked fine, unless people who initially ordered a book backed out later.
Warner completed his book in 1890 and sent it away to be printed. Just how many copies he ordered or what he charged per book isn’t known. Warner must have looked upon his patriotic endeavor with great pride on the spring day of 1891 when he took delivery of his books. Finally, he could deliver his masterpiece to what he anticipated would be a grateful public, plus there were all those subscribers from whom to collect the balance owed him. Fame and gratitude, George must have theorized, would be his at last.
Unfortunately, Warner’s theory and reality didn’t jibe. Not only did most Schoharie County citizens greet Warner’s book with apparent apathy, but many of his previous subscribers now reneged on paying the balance owed.
When few copies sold, Warner, disappointed, disgusted, and angry, decided to wreck vengeance on his ungrateful public.
The November 29 1904 Richfield Springs Mercury relates, “Some time since, Elbert Warner of Otego sold Frank Truax the farm formerly owned by the late George Warner. Since buying the farm, Mr. Truax has dug up about $1,000 worth of books on the place.”
The nearby Jefferson Currier also reported, “Mr. Warner, who was a Civil War veteran and a man of some literary ability, published a book titled, “Schoharie County Veterans of Four Wars.” He was a very eccentric man and his book, not finding as ready a sale as he thought it should, he buried all the unsold books in a swamp on his farm about six years ago. Mr. Truax has found this literary cemetery, and now has the soiled volumes drying in his house.”
While burying his life’s work in the soggy swamp, vengeful Warner must have loudly cursed his Schoharie County neighbors. There’s no doubt contemporary newspaper accounts are accurate, because these half-petrified swamp relics do exist. The Nov. 29 1939 St. Johnsville Enterprise, for example, reported that local historian Milo Nellis presented the Margaret Rainy Library with two copies of Warner’s book, one unblemished and the other rescued from the swamp by Truax.
Last I knew, the ‘swamped’ copy was still displayed in one of the Rainey’s basement cabinets. Warner’s book is reprinted, but the prize remains a clean, unburied copy of the original. It has bigger type than the reprint, and besides, it doesn’t smell like a swamp.