There’s an intriguing tradition of a “crocodile mystery” on the Folger Shakespeare Library blog, “The Collation,” which periodically posts the mystery in question, awaits comment, and then posts an explanation a few days later. Earlier in May, we were intrigued by a crocodile mystery image that looked like a page from the 1611 King James Bible. What was so mysterious about this image? Was something not as it appeared? The answer, from Collation author Sarah Werner, Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger, concerned a fascinating nineteenth-century phenomenon, the “pen facsimile.” We wanted to share the following excerpt from her Collation blog post, which you can read in full here:
As the commenters on our May 3 crocodile guessed, the mystery image shown there, and repeated here, shows writing masquerading as print or, to use the more formal term, a pen facsimile. (Click on any image in this post to enlarge it).
The book in question is the Folger copy of the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible, also called the King James Bible. The last leaves of the book are increasingly damaged—the corners are missing and repaired with blank paper—until the final original leaf is entirely gone. In its place is a pen facsimile, a hand-drawn copy of what the original leaf would have looked like.
As you can see by comparing the facsimile with the original leaf, shown here from a copy at the University of Pennsylvania, the facsimilist did a very good job. But you can also see, when you’re looking for it, that the pen facsimile is just a bit wobblier than the print original. The kerning (the adjustment of spacing between letters) is just slightly irregular; some long-s’s are missing their crossbar; and the three capital-G’s starting the instances of “God” in the third verse are all just slightly differently shaped.
Once you know which is which, it’s hard to “unsee” the details that reveal it as a facsimile.
Adding pen facsimiles of missing or damaged leaves was not unusual in the nineteenth century for collectors who preferred their works to be pristine and perfect, a common preference. Adding such a facsimile was referred to as a way of perfecting the copy. The verb “to perfect” is one of those odd bibliographical terms that shows how much standards and tastes have changed since we’ve been studying rare books and similar objects. To perfect a book was to supply any missing or damaged leaves with leaves from another copy of that book or with facsimiles of those leaves. By our modern-day standards, of course, this is far from a perfect practice and one that libraries today don’t follow.
It’s not clear who the facsimilist was for the Folger’s King James Bible, or when the work was done. There’s a note in the catalog of the former owner, W.T. Smedley, from nineteenth-century Bible expert Francis Fry, attesting to the book’s good condition and noting that “The last leaf is repaired. It is very rare. They are so often lost.” Either Fry was using “repaired” as a euphemism for “facsimile” (although this seems unlikely, since he accurately describes the volume’s title page as a facsimile) or it was done after Fry examined the book.
Facsimilists, including the unknown figure who created the final page of the Folger’s KJV, were not intending to deceive anyone by passing off copies as originals. Rather, the intent was to make as close to complete as possible copies of works that were missing leaves. While I’m astounded by the talent of such a facsimilist as we just saw, my favorite pen facsimile, shown here, reveals not remarkable skill, but remarkable desire. This title page is from one of the 82 copies of the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare in the Folger collection. It’s not what I would do if I owned a First Folio with a torn title page, but then again, I can’t begrudge the desire of this long-ago owner to make clear what this book is.
Sarah Werner is the Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
To read the rest of this article, including additional amazing images of pen facsimiles and their print equivalents, read the full blog post on The Collation. For more information about another facsimilist, John Harris, and a bibliography of books and articles related to the practice, consult this interesting page from the British Library.
To explore more of the Folger first edition of the 1611 King James Bible, complemented by notes and read-aloud audio, consult our online feature Read the Book. Since the Folger copy lacks an original title page, as co-curator Steve Galbraith explains in his title-page audio comment, Read the Book uses the original 1611 title page from a Bodleian Library copy.