Back in 2008 I had the opportunity to research the Voynich collection at New York’s Grolier Club. My daughter and I made several interesting discoveries, including Ethel’s personal notebook of plant identities. This find implied that she was quite convinced of the Voynich Manuscript’s authenticity, which had been a question in some quarters. Some of the correspondence in the collection colored out some smaller aspects of the Voynich business, but there really was nothing groundbreaking in nature. Of course I was only able to look through two of the boxes (#6 & #8), and really did not have the time I needed to explore even those to the extent I would have liked. And ever since then, I wanted a chance to look in box #5, which contains much correspondence between Anne Nill, Wilfred and Ethel’s business manager, and Herbert Garland, the manager of the Voynich London office.
Since 2008, it had been suggested to me that box 5 might be important in giving us insight into the provenance of the Voynich Ms., because it was thought that if Anne Nill knew something about this, she may have revealed it to Garland. I was given permission in the summer of 2012 to examine these letters, and went down on July 24. Again, I could not say that the letters altered the Voynich landscape to any great degree, but there were some interesting revelations. Most importantly there was a shift in my understanding of the place and value the Voynich manuscript had to Wilfred, Ethel, Anne and Herbert. It was not simply one of their properties, nor even simply the one which was most potentially valuable. It went beyond that. It seems the Voynich, or “Bacon Ms.”, had become in a way the identity of the firm, and even a part of their own identity. They all seemed to place a great deal of hope, through troubled times, that they would survive a fate of destitution and obscurity, when and if they could properly validate the precious possession. I think that this attitude, this hope, may have even caused them to lose focus on the business as whole. The book business itself was a house of cards tenuously built around the Voynich ms., which was almost preserved despite it being a burden, while fostering the belief that the mysterious cipher manuscript would come to their rescue, and pay off all debts, and secure their future… but only if they only could resolve its true author, and purpose. At the same time it was clear that they felt themselves protectors of it, not only for this potential monetary value, but also for the intrinsic, romantic value. It was their treasure, and it was their legacy.
The Nill/Garland letters cover a period between about 1928 and 1935, and include copies of Ms. Nill’s letters to Garland, and many of his letters to her. The two became friends over the years, and it is easy to see their relationship change and develop over that time. It went from a connection of business associates who have a sort of camaraderie, and into a more personal one, in which the share their views of family, life, politics, the Great Depression, personal hopes, successes and failures, illness, and death. It seems that the decline in the book trade, the death of Wilfred in 1930, and the aging, illnesses and injuries of Ethel Voynich and Mrs. Garland, all led Anne and Herbert into closer terms. As the years wore on, they had a sort of emotional huddle “across the pond”, through the dozens of letters, where they could commiserate on a personal level, but also plan their way out of an increasingly hopeless business situation. Rare books were not selling in the depression, of course. But even by 1928, before the Stock Market Crash, Anne reveals, Voynich had already borrowed $8,500 to keep the business afloat. And after he died, after the Crash, and the book trade began to diminish along with everything else, it was up to Anne to figure out the best way to market and sell the stock, pay the rents on the offices, retain the reputation of the Voynich legacy, pay estate and sales taxes, and at the same time, care for her dear friend, Ethel. She lamented that she worked “every day and Sunday”, and late into the night to fulfill her responsibilities as she saw them. And she handled her lot in life with dignity, intelligence, grace and humor.
During the Depression, Anne related that she needed to sell a baseline of $1,000 of books a month to keep the Voynich business afloat, and meet the needs of the household. She was not always able to do this. In the very letter in which she describes the death of Wilfred- in a very touching and personal way – she goes on,
“Now about business, since life is such a jumble that we must think of accounts when faced with death… …Of course I haven’t had time to try to raise cash this week but I shall take up this burden next week to see what I can do. Just now there is some $3000 in the bank (of which I propose to send you at least £200 for rent and office expenses) but I shall not be able to touch it until the will has been probated.”
However, less than a year later, it the estate taxes were demanded, and they amounted to $3,400. She then told Garland that she could only pay $2,000 toward those taxes, as she needed the other money in the account to pay expenses, and would have to owe the remaining $1,400 to the State at 12% interest. And book sales continued to decrease, and bills piled up.
And so it went, month after month, year after year. It was a rough time, and there was always talk of closing both offices, and the business. But apparently Ethel wanted to continue it, and had high hopes. Anne tried to meet those hopes, to no avail. There was often talk of closing the London office, and the possible termination of Garland. At first it looked as though that would happen soon after Wilfred’s death. But within a short time, Anne and Ethel came to the decision the London office, and Garland, could stay in business, and help to sell off the London stock, if not simply continue indefinitely as a going concern. Anne was able to offer several batches of books from the US, and London, through Sotheby’s auction house in London, which helped. It seems that like Wilfred before, Anne too, now had misgivings about the New York book auctions ability to get a fair price, or even describe the books properly. Anne did her best, and was proactive in representing the stock. She often suggested titles to collectors, both new, and previous customers. So she quickly and by necessity evolved from an office manager into a book dealer herself, and even made attempts to replenish the stock… although with meager assets, and multiple duties and concerns, this was very difficult for her. But because of all the hurdles they faced, and the income from the auction and private sales was often disappointing (never even reaching the level of their daily needs), Anne was never able to accumulate the nest egg she had hoped.
But there was the promise that they may have a way out of this dismal spiral, and it lay in two treasures they still possessed. Throughout these difficult years, Anne and Ethel held out hope that two books in their collection might be sold, and save the business and all of them. These were referred to as the “Bacon” and the “Valturius”. Of course the “Bacon”, which was often also referred to as the “cipher mss.”, was the Voynich Ms.. The Valturius was one of WMV’s great finds… a manuscript copy, on vellum, of De re Militari, by Robertus Valturius (interestingly, Voynich concurrently owned a second copy of this book, which neither Anne nor Wilfred seemed to ever actively promote. In fact, it seems to be somewhat of a secret, outside of a brief, later mention in the DiRicci catalog of 1937). As I understand it, the printed versions, with woodcut illustrations, are and were quite rare and valuable. Having an actual manuscript copy of this book was therefore quite a potential asset for Voynich. Up until his death, he held hope that he might get as much as $100,000. However, after he was gone, Anne and Ethel apparently only had it insured for £7,800. This modest number seems to be to save on their insurance premium, as the Voynich they only had insured for £4,000. But still, “The Bacon” and the “Valturius” were the engines of hope for Voynich and Ethel, and after Wilfred was gone, the only real hope for Anne Nill that she might save the company, herself, and Ethel from poverty. Of course they never sold while Ethel was alive. And as we also now know, Anne eventually inherited the Voynich, and sold it for a mere $15,000, not long before her death. The “Voynich Valturius’s” were eventually sold by Kraus to Lessing J. Rosenwald, and then bequeathed by him to the Library of Congress, where they both reside today.
And to her credit, and yet sadly, it seems Anne put her own dreams on hold for all these years. She never married, and seems to have had a somewhat troubled life. It is clear that her responsibilities to the Voynich concern, and to Ethel, were a great part of the cause of this, as much as the time she lived in. It was ironic that Wilfred’s will stipulated some substantial inheritance for her, but that Anne would not collect, for that would mean a further hardship for Ethel. Anne wrote,
“As for me, Mr. Voynich has made a more than generous provision, which I feel that I can accept only if Bacon and Valturius go through. But like you I have always felt that Valturius will not bring $100,000 nor anything like it. If they go through it means it would be possible for me to continue the business in some way if I care to, and perhaps this is what he wanted, but at present I see nothing clearly. There is such a void. However there is no need to go into anything of this nature just yet and all I know is that Mrs. Voynich and I will be in harmony and that is important”.
Friendship and trust and duty came first for this woman, and she stuck those principles through the increasingly turbulent times of the Great Depression. It was her character which held it together for her, Ethel, and to the end of the employment and after, for Herbert Garland, her friend.
The letters relate these difficulties, but also the small triumphs- such as Ethel wishing for a piano, which they could not afford- and having a friend fortuitously mentioning they were moving without theirs, and so Ethel and Anne got it for the $12 moving fee. Anne was happy that Ethel had the piano to play, although she felt it was out of place in the apartment, and too large. But it was surprising to me the importance both women placed on the Voynich Ms., and the interest they had. As I mentioned, in my last visit to the Grolier I learned the extent that Ethel delved into the mystery, in the form of her personal notebook of plant identifications. But it went beyond this, as box 5 now reveals. The interest was deep, and shared by both women. It was bred of from concern for the value of the manuscript, which they felt relied on preservation of the “Bacon attribution”, but their fascination was also one of the romance and mystery of it, just as much as it has held for hundreds or thousands of others over the centuries. They were hooked on it, just as so many have been since, and still are.
Anne requested a copy of a book on Roger Bacon from Garland (and made a point that that book, for 8 shillings, and the copy of The Gadfly which he procured, would not be billed to the business). She mentioned finding “parallels” with Bacon’s work in the Voynich. And meanwhile, Ethel consulted with botanists from all over the world, to help her with her plant identities. Anne mentioned that Ethel found comfort in this work, and spent hours with the Photostats spread on a table before her. And reference to her hope that the various members of what she termed the “Voynich team” of experts… among them Manly, Garrett, and Thompson… would determine that this was, in fact, a Roger Bacon work. On June 20, 1930, she writes,
“Professor Manly called this week, on his way back from London to Chicago. Mrs. Voynich came for the occasion and we had an interesting two hours. Do get her to tell you all about it and what he thinks of the Ms. and Carton, etc. etc. Of course he continues not to believe in Professor Newbold’s work, but he does believe that the Ms. is of great importance. He seems to have discussed it with everyone in Europe, including Bernard Behrenson (who, he says, is very much interested in it). he also discussed it with Little, who, he says, considers it is an important Ms.”.
And Manly, though he did of course later discredit Newbold’s work, continued to have a relationship with Ethel and Anne, and let them know in advance of his work and interest relating to it. This work on the part of Manly, with the Voynich Ms., had a direct effect on the decision to keep the business open through 1931 and 1932. About his 1931 review of the Kent-Newbold book in Speculum,
“[Manly] sent us both copies of this “offprint” of the review, which he said he was sending to various scholars, in the hope of reviving an interest in the MS. Amond others he said he had sent it to Steele, Kenyon and Flower. He appears to be doing what he can. He asked for a list of those to whom we would like it sent. This is one of the reasons we feel that the office should continue at least this winter. It may be impossible to do anything, if business continues to be bad, but we have the feeling that Manly (and perhaps Bishop and Thompson) will do what they can this winter, making use of the “Speculum” article. If nothing happens then, it looks like an indefinite delay.”
There second hope, the “Valturius”, figured in also. Anne continued,
“Another reason for continuing the office for the winter [1931/32] is the Valturius. We want to try to work up an interest in N.Y.P.L. [New York Public Library] quarters if possible. This is, of course, a bare possibility. Years ago Mr. Kane would not have listened to a suggestion that it be considered for the Spencer Collection, and he may not now, but I have at last got him to the point that he has asked to borrow the Hutton book upon his return to town this autumn. If one can once get him interested in Malatesta’s life one would be able to risk showing him the MS, even though it is mostly on paper, which he will be sure to note as being against it. I do not see how Mr. Garrett can contemplate its purchase in anything like the near future, as his fortune, as I have said before, is bound up with the railroads, and railroad news continues to be as bad as possible.”
What good are treasures such as these, if there is no one to buy them? As for the interested in “Malatesta”, this refers to Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, 1417 to 1468, the nobleman who commissioned the Valturius. Anne was doing her part as salesperson, a role she had been thrust into.
I was struck with the familiar nature of the response to this problem, by these people, and by the people they shared it with. It was familiar not only in all the many stories we can read about from the past- from the very first letters by Marci, in the 17th century, and the time spent after these letters, by Friedman, and all the many other experts and not, in the decades since- but also in posts I see today, on the Voynich Net, and around the web, in blogs and forums and personal emails and articles. The questions really have not changed, the approach and attitudes toward the mystery are much the same, and the hopes and dreams for seeing an answer were shared long before any of us knew of it. Anne herself had her own theories about the manuscript, which were related in a letter to Garland- but for some reason she chose not to share them with posterity, replacing the letter which outlined them, in 1936, with a note, listing the letter’s contents, among them, “C) me my work on cipher ms.” But there are references to her own ideas, and other’s, sometimes referenced in a way to make it difficult for me to know the source, or if she is referencing the cipher ms. or the Valturius… It seems she thought Bellini would be attributable to one or the other (I later learned that Wilfred hoped the “boy sketch” in his better Valturius might be a lost Bellini). But the quest was a frequent topic, as it was in this passage,
“I could go on and on about one thing and another, but I must not bore you too much. However I do want to tell you about the latest development with regard to the cipher manuscript. Mrs. Voynich has been working at the Morgan Library, and Miss Greene continues to be most friendly and helpful. A short time ago she volunteered the opinion that she did not think any scholar in this country would be able to help us with the problem and asked why we did not try Germany for example. She mentioned the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg at Hamburg (see Minerva if interested) which, according to her, is a perfectly amazing hotbed of learning. She seemed to feel that if they cannot help us no-one can. Of course that doesn’t follow. Well, the upshot of it was that a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky of that institute is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think. So Mrs. Voynich met him at the Morgan Library where she showed him the photostats (note that they are negatives and now in poor condition, having greatly faded in some parts). He became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century. He asked to see the original, which we showed to him last Friday [they must have taken him to the safe deposit box]. His first impression was that it was early, but as he came to the female figures (in conjunction with the colors used in the manuscript) he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century! The more I think of it (always making allowance for my slender knowledge of art) the more I think that his contention is sound. I cannot think of a single early MS. or painting which contains such “shapely” female figures as those in the MS. Furthermore he is convinced that the MS. is Spanish (or something southern near Spain) and shows strong Arabic and Jewish influences. He thinks there is some influence of the Kabbala in it.!!!!! Well, all that would make it interesting, anyway. You know both Professor Thompson and Professor Manly have been suggesting Spanish for some time (thought there might be something Lullian in it). Early 15th century would make it too late for Lull, but it might easily have something Lullian in it. Dr. Panofsky examined the two more or less visible sentences (one on the key page and one on page 17 [r]) which are apparently not in cipher and seemed to think they were Spanish rather than Latin (or rather something that had to do with Spanish). I am inclined to think he is right. He also noticed, what I am pleased to say I had noticed before, that the names of the months written in the plates of the signs of the Zodiac, and undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish. For example April is written “Abril”. October is “Octembre” (or Octember I forget which), which certainly suggest some form of Spanish, rather than Latin or French or Italian. The upshot of it is that we have given him a whole set of photostats for his institute, as he wants two men there to work on it. One of them (I thiink Professor Salomon or Liebeschutz) it seems identified some remarkable Vatican manuscript (written in a senseless sort of Latin if I remember rightly) which had defied scholars for a long time. Perhaps they will not react to it as he seems to think they will, but if they do, we have achieved at least one of the things Mr. Voynich wanted- it was just this method of attack, in an institute, that he always hoped for and didn’t think was possible to secure for it unless the MS. was sold to an Institution. It now looks as if it might be possible to start some work of this sort on it even if we cannot sell the MS. at this time.”
As it turns out, and long after the date of the last letter in this collection, she struck a deal with her later employer, H.P. Kraus. He reveals in this autobiography that he gave Ms. Nill $15,000 toward the manuscript (which she had inherited from Ethel), and offered it for sale for $160,000. He says that he came up with this number because that is what Wilfred asked before WWI. Kraus was going to split the amount with Nill, but did not sell it before her death. It is a tribute to him, and his respect for Anne, that rather than continue to try selling the Voynich Ms. after she died, he donated it to the Beinecke.
What strikes me most in the Nill/Garland letters is that one might have trouble seeing any difference in the excitement, the type of varied conclusions and guesses, the hope and sense of an imminent solution to the problem, that we find in all the Voynich attempts in eight decades since Anne Nill wrote her words. And I’ve no doubt that similar thoughts will still be written on the Voynich, just like Nill had, and all the thousands of others have, for centuries to come, should it still not be solved. But I also get a melancholy feeling for the life of Anne Nill, and the person she was. She held admirable standards for herself, and held her head high during the most difficult times, never abandoning the responsibilities thrust on her, and doing her best, with few complaints, to the very end. She was an important “keeper” of the Voynich, and we owe her a debt for that, as she never gave up hope. And it was that hope, at great personal cost to her, that saw the manuscript through the storm of the depression, to the safe home it has today.