Someone has given me a fragment of a Harper’s Weekly from February 1, 1868, and it’s fascinating to look through, although there is absolutely nothing local in it.

The bears I understand (it’s New Bern, after all). The pages (69-76) seem to primarily be a reprint of a story called “The Moonstone” by one Wilkie Collins (“Printed from the Author’s Manuscript. RICHLY ILLUSTRATED.”)

I haven’t read the story because it is just one chapter of many, and what if it ends in a cliffhanger? I’ll stay awake nights wondering what happened.

Newspapers often bought serial rights to print an author’s book in installments before they were published; several of Mark Twain’s works appeared first saw the light of a printer’s lamp this way.

The one paragraph I read goes, “Mrs. Threadgall dropped her head right into her tucker, and, in a lower voice still, repeated the solemn words, 'My beloved husband is no more.'”

Questions immediately arose for me, the reader. What is a tucker? How did she drop her head? Who cut it off and handed it to her, and how could she be so clumsy with such an important thing?

My curiosity got the best of me so I started investigating.

Mr. Collins, our RICHLY ILLUSTRATED author, was a Brit who was is credited with setting many rules for modern detective novels. He was not the founding father of detective fiction – no, that title falls to Edgar Allen Poe.

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Collin’s weight wasn’t felt. Among his inventions that this “The Moonstone” introduces readers to such features as red herrings (fake clues, not embarrassed fish), plot twist and the notion of hopeless idiots running the local police force.

Narrated in the first person by several characters, it tells the tale of a valuable stone (not Mick Jagger) stolen from a young lady and how it was finally recovered.

Well, dang. Now I want to read it. I’ve just been sold merchandise by a 149-year-old newspaper.

I’m also really curious about Mrs. Threadgall’s head.

This issue of Harper’s Weekly (which is more of a newsprint in format than magazine, by the way) has other curiosities that were typical of the day. There is a joke section (“What is the key-note of good-breeding? —B natural.” “What would this world be like without a woman?—A perfect blank—like a sheet of paper — not even ruled.”).

In one corner is a totally random collection of illustrations from five of Dickens’ novels. No text, no real explanation. Just engraved illustrations. Oddly, “A Tale of Two Cities” is illustrated by drawings of New York aldermen and Brooklyn churches. The novel takes place in London and Paris.

There are two massive engravings that I found intriguing. On the last page is a political cartoon that shows President Andrew Johnson lying on the ground with two swords sticking through him, one reading “Supreme Court Bill” and the other “Stanton Reinstated.” Leaning over the stricken president is a hook-nosed Secretary of State William Seward, assuring him, quoting Romeo, saying, “The hurt cannot be much.” Johnson replies with Mercutio’s line, “…’Twill serve: aske for me to-morrow and you shall find me a grave man.”

I’m not so sure about the Supreme Court bill, but Johnson, the unpopular Southerner who took over the presidency after Abraham Lincoln had his unfortunate meeting with John Wilkes Booth, despised Secretary of War William Stanton and had him removed from office. He was forced to put him back in his post.

Like Stanton, Seward was a friend of Lincoln’s, though we primarily know him today as the guy who bought Alaska.

The most fascinating part of the whole partial issue is a two-page spread that features the Supreme Court members, all seated in their robes in front of a slew of Corinthian columns. It is an engraving taken from a photograph. Three of the men are crossing their legs as if impatient for the sitting to be done; most of them look a little bored and Associate Justice Clifford, third from the right, looks as if he’s downed a really bad bean burrito. I also wish his wife would have fixed his tie before he left for work that morning.

Then there’s Associate Justice Swayne, second from the right, who is looking quizzically around from under his impressive eyebrows. Perhaps he is wondering about that bad smell? Perhaps, when the sitting is over, he will corral Mr. Clifford in his office and ask, “Have you been eating those burritos again?”

I had meant for this column to be about that history book, instead gave into one of those “Squirrel!” moments. So we’ll try and tackle the book next week.

Contact Bill Hand at, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.