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In search of Sheriff Tuck’s lost library

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

Between 1909 and 1916, the largest library in Nelson could be found in the courthouse basement. 

These weren’t dry legal texts, but rather the extensive private holdings of Samuel Parker Tuck, sheriff of South Kootenay. When, where, and how Tuck’s bibliomania began is not known, nor is his collecting methodology, but it was clearly a significant part of his public persona. 

In a series of caricatures published in the Nelson Daily News in 1913 entitled “Prominent Men of the Kootenay,” Tuck is depicted at his desk leafing through a book while a bespectacled worm crawls along its pages. Another stack of books behind him threatens to topple. 

As his obituary ultimately noted, “Tuck had always been a great book lover and student and had surrounded himself with one of the finest and most complete libraries in the province at his rooms in the provincial courthouse.” 

The collection was said to cover a “wide range of subjects, including works of fiction, history, philosophy, poetry, drama and a certain number of a technical character.” 

Tuck had an interesting and varied career. Although trained as a civil engineer, he dabbled in surveying, local government, and newspapering. And, it’s safe to say, at every step along the way he acquired books. Surprisingly, however, the story of what happened to his library has never been recounted.

Born in New Brunswick in 1837 to a prominent lumber merchant, Tuck graduated from Harvard and put his engineering degree to work on various railway lines while also finding time to serve as business manager of the St. John Sun

By 1880, he reached BC to work on construction of a CPR line, and in 1892 came to the West Kootenay, where he laid out the original Kaslo townsite, served as the city’s first clerk, and briefly ghost-edited a newspaper, the Kaslo Times

However, it’s unclear what qualifications he possessed to merit his appointment in 1899 as sheriff. He was said to have lobbied for the position but local newspapers offered no opinion on his suitability. 

The job in those days had different responsibilities than today, including the administration of estates as well as seizing and auctioning property. Plus there were courthouse-related duties, which in Tuck’s case chillingly included arranging the executions of two convicted murderers. 

Tuck further served as receiver for the City of Slocan when it ran into financial problems. The Vancouver Province reported the story in the style of a Shakespearean comedy with Tuck as the lead character. 

When the present Nelson courthouse opened in 1909, Tuck moved into the basement quarters along with all of his books, which ultimately grew to over 1,500 volumes and on which he reportedly spent between $3,500 and $4,000 ($83,000 to $95,000 today). (It is not known where Tuck and his books previously resided.)

The Nelson courthouse around the time Sheriff Samuel Tuck and his books were occupying the basement. (Image MSC130-1904-01 courtesy of the British Columbia Postcards Collection, a digital initiative of Simon Fraser University Library)

Vancouver Daily World columnist Felix Penne (a pen name for John Francis Bursill) visited Nelson in 1914 and accepted an invitation to visit Tuck’s den. He was astonished by his books and portraits. 

“What a library!” Penne exclaimed. “Here I saw the best profile etching of [English novelist] George Meredith I have ever seen … I have thought about selling Vancouver and buying Nelson — if Sheriff Tuck’s library goes with the bargain it will decide me.” 

Tuck’s library did in fact go up for sale upon his death two years later at age 80.

Penne, upon learning of Tuck’s passing, further recalled how “for some hours I revelled among the books he had collected with taste, judgement and knowledge. His pictures were not many in number, but well chosen … I know nothing of the disposal of his property — but I do earnestly hope that the late Sheriff Tuck’s charming collection will be kept intact.” 

The Nelson public library, not yet a municipal service, was already on the case. They met with Tuck’s widow and executor Sarah to discuss the matter. She had been living in Victoria with their daughter Isla and running a boarding house, blissfully unencumbered by her husband’s compulsive book buying. 

According to the Daily News, the library board thought the Tuck collection “would provide Nelson with the nucleus of a library that would be without equal in the province except at Vancouver and Victoria.” 

The asking price was $1,500 (the equivalent of $35,000 today), so about $1 per book. The first installment of $500 was due upon receipt of the books and their cases and the remainder was to be paid off at $50 per month. 

Despite charging users an annual fee, the public library board was of modest means, so they asked the City of Nelson to buy the collection on their behalf. But council doubted that would make financial sense. 

Alderman William O. Rose said while it would be nice to have the books, he didn’t think it was a good use of taxpayers’ money. The public library wasn’t free, he noted, and he felt there would be a lot of duplication of books they already had. He also felt Tuck’s collection consisted “principally of books of reference, which … would not appeal to the general public.” 

Mayor John J. Malone countered, however, that a public library should consist mainly of reference books, “as in his opinion the citizens could get all the fiction they required outside a public library, whereas occasions often arose wherein the citizens desired to look up and study some special subject.” 

Following a brief discussion, council passed on the request. 

Consequently, Sarah Tuck placed an ad in The Daily News which first appeared on Oct. 9, 1916: 

The display ad ran for a couple of weeks, then was reduced to a classified ad with similar wording that continued to appear daily through mid-August 1917. It’s not known if there were any offers. 

Finally, Sarah turned the books over to the Vancouver auction house of Harvey and Gorrie (no word on the shipping logistics), who proceeded to sell them on Sept. 12, 1918. However, their ad in the Vancouver Province said there were about 500 volumes, not 1,500. Was that a typo, or had two-thirds of the collection already been disposed of? 

The ad also gave us the best glimpse of what the collection actually consisted of.

Felix Penne attended the auction, which lasted four hours, and observed a who’s-who of librarians and book collectors snap up the “splendid and interesting” collection. There were bargains to be had among the more common and less-popular titles and “several gentlemen ‘furnished’ libraries … with beautiful looking books at absurdly low prices.” 

But then came what Penne called the bric-a-brac, the out-of-the-way, and bought-with-literary-taste books that made bibliophiles take sit up and take notice. 

Felix Penne (Wikipedia photo)

“My heart thumped with joy when I saw books I never dreamed would ever reach Vancouver bought, not by ‘dealers’ for the other side, but by public institutions here, and by citizen ‘collectors,’ who are forming libraries which will bring fame to Vancouver,” he wrote. 

Vancouver’s Carnegie library bought several volumes of Canadiana. UBC librarian John Ridington came with a Prof. Ashton “whose eyes sparkled over the French belles-lettres” and they bought “many splendid volumes … at very low prices” for their institution. 

Lawyer/historian Robie Reid, A.M. Pound, and a few other collectors of Canadiana acquired some rarities. Another prominent jurist/historian, Frederick W. Howay, was not in attendance, and Penne imagined his anguish upon discovering the items he’d missed. 

One veteran of literary sales in London, New York, and San Francisco called it “the first real book sale I have seen in Vancouver.” 

Penne himself “purchased to the last dollar my friends could lend me” and felt he would have been perfectly justified in robbing a bank to buy other books by John Masfield, Augustin Birrell, Bliss Carmen, and Walter Pater. But he didn’t record any specific prices, and it’s not known how much the auction fetched overall. 

As the final hammer came down on the Tuck collection, Penne wondered “How did the city of Nelson come to let those lovely books go?”

More than a century later, it’s hard to say if the city erred, but it’s interesting to wonder how the Tuck collection might have altered the local library’s development.

When the library finally came under the city’s auspices in 1920, the first chair was Dr. William Rose, one of the aldermen who mused about acquiring Tuck’s books before concluding it wasn’t a good idea.

While Tuck’s books were dispersed to many different collections, they appear to have principally remained in BC. Some are presumably still with UBC and the Vancouver Public Library, although identifying them isn’t easy, since provenance doesn’t normally show up in catalogue listings, and there’s no guarantee Tuck wrote his name on them all anyway.

However, the Wallace B. and Madeline H. Chung collection at UBC has an 1883 memo book of Tuck’s as well as his copy of Sandford Fleming’s pamphlet General Instructions Respecting Measurement of Streams, which Tuck would have used in his railway work. An inscribed note indicates he acquired it in July 1870. 

An online search also finds what appears to have been his copy of an 1845 volume by John Charles Fremont called Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-44 — just the sort of thing that would have appealed to Tuck as he made his way west. Someone in New York is selling it for $2,500 US. 

Helpfully, the seller included a scan of a page inscribed “Saml. Tuck, Nashua, New Hampshire.” While that’s not a place Tuck is known to have lived, he probably had relatives there, since the Tuck family came from that state. The handwriting is similar though not identical to Tuck’s signature on the UBC items. 

This book had a noteworthy later owner as well. It bears a bookplate from American businessman and amateur archaeologist William H. Claflin Jr. with a notation he received it as a Christmas gift in 1928. Coincidentally, Claflin, like Tuck, was a Harvard graduate and went on to serve as treasurer of their alma mater. 

I also ordered Tuck’s probate file from the BC Archives, on the slim chance it might contain a list of his books. 

Alas, there was only one line about his library, on the same page where miscellaneous assets such as “horned cattle,” “sheep and swine,” and “farm produce of all kinds,” were supposed to be recorded (Tuck had none). His library was valued at the asking price of $1,500, while the total sum of his estate was pegged at $3,664, so even at a sacrifice, the books accounted for about 40 per cent of his net worth. 

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Bob Herring
Bob Herring
02 apr. 2023

Well, that story seems to have been tucked away, until now! Thanks, Greg.

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