Texana, Autographs, and Forgery

The special collections at UHD have never gotten much notice, since there are no Gutenberg bibles lying around, nor any kind of “precious” books that one normally associates with such collections. However, when the collection was physically situated with the University Archives in 2013, we discovered that the core of the collection is actually very special indeed.

Most of the books in the Special Collections are “local” history: Texas and Houston, with a special focus on oil history. Not until we dove into the books and looked at them carefully did we see what all the fuss was about: nearly all the books are from the private library of James A. Clark, a prolific author of many works, the most famous being his 1952 book “Spindletop.”

Clark held different jobs throughout his lifetime, including the public relations manager at the famous Shamrock Hotel, sports editor for the Galveston News,statehouse correspondent under Governor Allred, and the author of a long-running oil column called “Tales of the Oil Country.”

Clark passed away in 1978, and his books came to UHD sometime after that, although it’s unclear how it happened. The collection includes several autographed copies of some very famous Texas history, including one which, it turns out, is a forgery. Clark clearly enjoyed buying or obtaining autographed books, and at some point must have been thrilled to buy a first edition of the now-famous Shamrock and Cactus: the story of the Catholic heroes of the Texas Revolution by William M. Ryan. It was signed by the author with the note “to my good friend H.P.N. Gammel with my best regards…Christmas 1936.”

Karl Hans Peter Marius Nielsen Gammel, or H.P.N. Gammel, was one of the first people in Texas to preserve Texas history (he saved the laws of Texas from fire in 1881 and kept them safe in his home before republishing them a few years later). He was, and remains, one of the most important booksellers and collectors in our history. Having a book like Shamrock and Cactus, signed by the author and to Gammel, must have felt like quite a coup.

Unfortunately, Gammel is known to have passed away in 1931, five years before this book was published. Ryan, if he was indeed a “good friend” of Gammel, would have been well-aware of Gammel’s death. In Houston in the 1960s and 1970s, however, forgery of Texas historical documents, including autographs and other documents, was big business. Without Wikipedia at hand to check the death dates of famous people involved in publishing, scams like this were easy to  implement. No doubt James Clark suffered more than just once at the hands of the Houston forgery rings, just as many collectors of Texana have*. But so far none of the other autographs in our collection have been proven to be false.


*To read more about Houston’s forgery community, read Texfake: an account of theft and forgery of early Texas printed documents, by W. Thomas Taylor (1991).