“An Advanced Case of Bibliomania”
October 8, 1949
The Kenneth Spencer Research Library’s Ellis Collection ranks as one of the most remarkable collections of natural-history literature ever put together. Counted in its thousands of volumes are first-edition books by Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, Mark Catesby and others. And that is to barely scratch the surface. Among its holdings, for instance, is the world’s largest assemblage of ornithological sketches and lithographs by John Gould, a nineteenth century English naturalist and artist who is to Britain and Australia what John James Audubon is to North America. Today, its value runs to the millions of dollars. It formally became the property of the University of Kansas, however, only after a slew of curious twists and turns, when on October 8, 1949 the Kansas Supreme Court settled a three-and-a-half-year court battle rooted in a document signed more than four years earlier by a man some believed to be insane.
The collection had been put together by Ralph Ellis—an eccentric man of poor physical and questionable mental health, perhaps, but of unquestioned means and drive—whose interest in natural history stretched back to his childhood on Long Island. The son of wealthy socialites, Ellis was born in 1908. Despite his family’s affluence, his childhood wasn’t an especially pleasant one. Their wealth aside, his family was a highly dysfunctional one, to put it charitably. Business concerns and hunting expeditions kept his father away from the family for long periods of time, and his mother indulged in a lengthy affair that continued long after it was discovered. Furthermore as Robert Vosper, KU’s head librarian from 1952-1961, pointed out, young Ralph was “afflicted from birth with obscure, debilitating physical and psychic ills.”
However, the five-hundred-acre family estate on Long Island, along with other family properties in South Carolina and Maine, provided Ellis with some measure of solace. These extensive grounds provided him the freedom to explore the natural world in relative safety. Birds, in particular, seemed to captivate his attention. At the age of 12, for instance, he secured a permit from the state of South Carolina to collect nests and eggs.
In 1921, Ellis’s father acquired a property near the University of California and moved his family there, making Berkeley the Ellis’s primary residence. It remained so for the remainder of Ralph’s life. The move to California, which was orchestrated in part by Ellis’s mother, who wanted to move closer to her lover, proved to be a serendipitous one for the University of Kansas. Indeed, it might be argued that KU acquired Ellis’s impressive library in October 1949 in large measure because of his family’s relocation to Berkeley a quarter-century earlier. For there, Ellis was befriended by a number of scientists affiliated with the University of California’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology—including a then obscure graduate student who had only recently completed his undergraduate work at the University of Kansas named E. Raymond Hall.
Easily the most famous of the men who befriended Ellis was Joseph Grinnell, one of the most influential zoologists of the twentieth century. The most important in Ellis’s scientific training was Adrey E. Borrell. Then a graduate student and later a biologist of some note, Borell was employed by Ellis’s mother to tutor him in the biological sciences. But it was Hall who proved most important to our particular story for reasons which will become evident soon enough.
Ellis, then, spent his late-teens and early-20s studying under Borrell. The two published joint articles together and went on collecting expeditions (sometimes with professional hunters) in the mountains of California and Nevada. Following his father’s death in 1930, the “greatest pressure was put on me to live at Harvard,” he recalled, and so he spent “an abortive semester as a Harvard student.” The experience wasn’t a total loss, as Ellis joined a group of Harvard scientists in July 1931 on an expedition to study Australian fauna. In February 1932, however, he became convinced that the expedition’s doctor was following him “night and day … even for two weeks personal vacation” on his mother’s orders, and so he quit the expedition.
It’s impossible now to say with any assuredness whether or not Ellis’s suspicions were justified in this case, but it is amply clear that this sort of paranoia marked much of Ellis’s life and seriously undercut his relationship with his mother. To be sure, his mother displayed a propensity to be controlling—an understandable impulse, perhaps, given that Ellis’s frequent bouts with sickness extended past his childhood. In 1930, for instance, Ellis was diagnosed with “recurrent agranulocytosis,” which was “marked by a practical disappearance of the granulocytes (granular white blood cells).” As the diagnosis was “unique in medical literature,” the Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital ran a clinical analysis of it in June of that year. Two years later, Ellis acknowledged, “I am always sick during one week in every three—this has been my condition for life.” Regardless of the cause of his mother’s excessive concern for his well-being, it certainly bred his resentment, and his departure from the Australian expedition effectively marked the close of his career as a collector of bird and mammal specimens.
His interest, by that time, was shifting more firmly to natural-history literature. He had begun collecting books on birds and mammals at around the same time the scientists at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology befriended him, and after his eighteenth birthday, he had become more serious in this endeavor. By the time he was 20, he could assert in a letter to a friend: “I have been collecting [books on birds and mammals] from time to time for the last two years and now have the ordinary American works and several rarer items of more particular interest.” But his pursuit wasn’t narrowly limited to books. In an attempt to add a complete library of natural history journals to his collection, he “became a life member,” as Borrell later recalled, “of practically every existing biological organization—more than 500 in all.” Borrell may have overstated the number of organizations to which Ellis belonged, but even so over two hundred journals arrived at his house regularly. For that matter, though Ellis’s interest listed strongly in the direction of birds and, to a lesser extent, mammals, his collection wasn’t exclusively limited in subject matter either. He sought out books about early European explorations of North and South America, for instance, because the explorers often documented the wildlife they encountered.
Predictably enough, Ellis’s passion for collecting truly blossomed when he came into the first part of his inheritance—better than $100,000—on his twenty-fifth birthday in 1933. His father had left an estate valued at more than a million dollars when he died in 1930, but much of it was in land and stocks. As the Great Depression was settling in, it was difficult to liquidate those investments at anything approaching a profitable figure. Consequently, despite his family’s affluence, there were periods in which Ellis was extremely cash poor and found himself staving off irate collection agencies or turning to his mother to cover the expenses he entailed at book auctions. But at other times—even during the heart of the Depression—he had the means to drop more than $60,000 on books in a single month.
The most significant period of his collecting came in London, where he stayed from April 1936 through December 1937. “When I return,” Ellis wrote Borrell, “I should have a good library and know something about the subject. London,” he continued, “is the clearing house for books, and by doing things in a big way and attending auctions myself, I can really invest my money safely and have the pleasure of my books while I own them.” And do things in a big way, he did. More importantly, however, as Robert Vosper pointed out, he did so in an “increasingly shrewd and farsighted” manner. Even so, it was a stroke of good fortune as much as Ellis’s farsightedness that netted him the most important and unique portion of his library. For in 1934 Henry Southeran, Ltd., one of the primary booksellers with which Ellis did business, had taken stock of their collection. And in sorting through some long-neglected material, they had uncovered an enormous amount of material by John Gould that they hadn’t even known existed.
Perhaps England’s most renowned ornithologist and natural history artist, Gould had been born on the Dorset coast of England in 1804 and raised in Windsor Castle, where his father served as the foreman of gardeners. Though he lacked a formal university training, he displayed an innate affinity for the natural world generally but most particularly for birds. In 1830, he published the first of his roughly 50 illustrated volumes of natural history, probably the best-known of which were his works on Australia—seven volumes on The Birds of Australia (1840-48) and three on the Mammals of Australia (1845-63). Indeed, he is to Australia what John James Audubon is to North America. Consequently, one of Australia’s leading conservation organizations, the Gould League, bears his name.
Even prior to his Australia volumes, however, Gould was recognized as a well-known authority on birds. Indeed, 47 of his 50 completed folio volumes and all three of his incomplete folios were on birds. In fact, Gould’s stature was such that when Charles Darwin presented the specimens he had collected from the Galapagos Archipelago to Britain’s Museum of the Zoological Society in 1837, Gould was invited to classify the birds in the collection. During the course of this assignment, Gould identified the distinct (and now famous) finch species of the Galapagos Islands that Darwin later came back to when he began to frame the theory of evolution.
But it is for the magnificent lithographic plates of his books that Gould is most famous. Lithography, as the Australian National Museum points out on its Web site, amounts to “the original form of planographic, or surface printing, and offered a new freedom to the artist or printer” inasmuch as illustrations could be drawn directly onto highly-polished limestone blocks with what amounted to a “greasy crayon.” This eliminated the need for etching images into the stone, and made the process of printing images both quicker and less expensive. The stones were generally sanded down and reused, and predictably few lithographic stones remain with images intact. Indeed, only 12 of Gould’s stones remain—all of which are housed atop Mt. Oread and some of which are etched rather than done with crayon.
It is, perhaps, slightly ironic that Gould is remembered primarily for his lithographic plates since his artistic skills weren’t necessarily his forte. Indeed, Gould was in some ways more of a businessman than an artist, hiring a team of some of the leading nature artists of his day—Elizabeth Gould (his wife), Henry Constantine Richter, William Matthew Hart, Josef Wolf, Gabriel Bayfield, and Edward Lear (who is better known for “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” and other children’s limericks)—to work under his direction. These artists transformed his original sketches into the brilliantly colored and shaded images for which Gould is now remembered. For his part, Gould would work with them, correcting and suggesting changes as he saw fit. Antique prints of Gould’s lithographic plates sell for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars today. The original sketches are virtually priceless.
At Gould’s death in 1881, Henry Southeran purchased “the Copyright and the whole remaining Stock of [Gould’s] works [consisting of] many hundred parcels, weighing upwards of thirty tons.” Southeran moved the material to the basement of his business, where for uncertain reasons it lay neglected, nearly forgotten for the next half-century. When the stock-taking began in 1934, a nearly complete record of Gould’s lithographic process was discovered: original sketches, a dozen lithographic stones, plates in various stages, unbound folios, and completed volumes.
Ellis’s connection with Henry Southern, Ltd. Gave him an inside track in purchasing the Gould material, and recognizing its value, Ellis bought up as much of it as he could. Though he failed to corner the market entirely, he came into possession of the vast majority of it. This left him in control of the most unique Gould collection in the world, which as Vosper noted, “he proposed to use … as a primary trading stock,” and which he viewed as “a potentially lucrative investment.”
Despite his bibliographical triumphs abroad, not all was rosy for Ellis when he returned to the United States in 1938, his 30th year. Money was tight again, and he had apparently grown estranged from his wife of three years, who had returned to the states two months before he did. By May, he noted that he was living “in [a] hotel alone in N.Y.,” and shortly thereafter found himself driving “alone N.Y. to Berkeley.” In early September 1939, his divorce was finalized.
Less than a week after his divorce, Ellis’s relationship with his mother also imploded when he set fire to the garage of the Berkeley house. Doubtless, the emotional stress of his divorce contributed to his actions, but by that point he had already established a long record of excessive drinking and rash behavior. In large measure, it appears that setting fire to the garage was an irrational response to repeated, obvious and, perhaps, excessive efforts by his mother to monitor his affairs. Not that she was without cause. At one point during his London buying spree, he had overextended himself and she had been forced to liquidate some significant assets to bail him out. However, when he was driving back to Berkeley from New York in May 1938, he came to believe that he was being followed by detectives employed by his mother. In November of that year, she had promised him (or so he believed) $16,000 and the Berkeley house, but he got neither. Whatever his motives for setting the fire, his mother responded by increasing her surveillance of him—spending $4,500 between September 1939 and January 1940 to have his activities monitored by private detectives.
In late January, Ellis was “taken into protective custody” and placed in a “psychopathic ward.” A competency trial ensued, and in February, under a new California law that drew a distinction between mental illness and insanity, a judge ruled him to be mentally ill, but not insane. Displaying considerable wit for a man deemed mentally ill, Ellis wrote a letter to Borrell in which he made mention of the law “unique to California … which says that a person can be mentally ill and not insane. Believe it or not,” he wryly noted, “I am the first victim of it, so am editio princeps [a Latin term meaning first edition, usually appended to books—an apt term, indeed, for a book collector like Ellis to employ] in first, agranulocytosis; second, perhaps the largest bird library in the world; and third, THIS.” “It is to be hoped,” he concluded, “that like the NRA [the National Recovery Act, later declared unconstitutional] this law is no good.”
Ellis had no such luck, of course, and the California law stood. But over time he enjoyed increasing freedom until “he came and left at his pleasure.” By the end of 1942, he was he could spend nights at his family’s house in Berkeley, and by 1943 he could come and go from the sanitarium at his pleasure. This increased freedom coincided with his 35th birthday, at which time he came into another portion of his inheritance, and, predictably enough, began buying up books again. In November of that year, he remarried, this time to Irene Sibell, a 21 year old living in Alameda—the town in which the mental institution where he had been confined was situated.
A year later, Ellis was arrested for committing “acts of destruction” and for throwing an axe at a policeman who came to intervene. Not surprisingly, he was again placed in the sanitarium. With the aid of his young wife, he escaped from the institution on November 25 and headed to Reno, Nevada. There he contemplated what to do with his library, which remained in his Berkeley home, and after considering opening a book shop in New York, decided to find an institution that would be willing to hold his collection for him without requiring him to part with his ownership of it.
Among those he wrote for advice was E. Raymond Hall, who after completing his Ph.D. at Berkeley had accepted a professorial position at the University of California and taken up the charge as director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and a faculty member of the University of California. Ellis and Hall had remained good friends since the 1920s. Hall had taken Ellis’s mother and first wife on private tours of the museum, for instance, and Ellis wrote Hall in 1937 telling him, “I never want to lose track of you and I hope that I can hear from you continually.” Indeed, Ellis had donated his private collection of bird skins and skeletons to the museum under Hall’s charge and had made a more personalized donation of nearly 3,000 taxidermied mammals to Hall himself. Thus, it is hardly surprising that he wrote Hall. But only five months earlier, in July 1944, Hall had returned to his alma mater (with the mammal collection in tow) where he was given charge of the Natural History Museum atop Mt. Oread. Consequently, among the places Hall recommended that Ellis deposit his library was the University of Kansas.
KU, however, was not Ellis’s first choice. He went first to New York where he carried on discussions with several institutions. When it looked like a deal was in the offing with one of them, he sent his wife back to Berkeley to pack up the library and ship it to New York. (As a fugitive in California, Ralph Ellis couldn’t return to Berkeley to oversee the shipping himself.) The deal fell through at the last minute, however, and Ellis wrote Hall to see if the offer to house the collection at KU still stood. Hall arranged a meeting between Ellis and KU Chancellor Deane Malott, who happened to be in New York at the time. Malott affirmed what Hall had earlier told Ellis: KU would be interested in housing the collection. The shipment, which occupied two railroad freight cars, was already enroute to New York, but Ellis had it diverted to Lawrence, where it arrived “about March 6, 1945.”
No formal agreement between Ellis and the University had been arranged when Ellis’s freight cars reached Lawrence, though by the end of the month discussions about the terms governing the arrangement were well underway. In the meantime, however, the University began to house his collection in Strong Hall, where Ellis was allocated five rooms for storage as well as an additional room to use as an office where he could begin cataloguing his library. He and his wife took up residence in Lawrence, living for two months at the Eldridge Hotel, then in an apartment on Tennessee Street, and finally in a house on Massachusetts Street.
On May 3, 1945, University officials and Ralph and Irene Ellis signed a contract drawn up by the dean of KU’s Law School, Frederick S. Moreau, setting up the provisions of the agreement. The collection was to remain Ellis’s private library. He was free to “loan, sell, or otherwise dispose of portions of said library, and make changes by making new additions or substitutions.” He could withdraw the library from KU at any time, but if he did so before the end of three years, he was required to reimburse the school for any expenses it had incurred in housing it. For its part, the school was to provide “heat, light, janitor service and general maintenance” of the “quarters in which said library is housed,” but was not responsible “for any losses occurring” to it. Students were to have access to the library, but in a limited capacity inasmuch as the “use of the items therein [were] subject to the control and permission of either Mr. Ralph Ellis or the Director of the Museum of Natural History.” The final provision of the contract stipulated that in the unlikely event of Ellis’s death while the University still housed the collection, “the ownership of said books shall pass absolutely to the University of Kansas,” and that by signing the agreement, Ellis was signing “a testamentary disposition of property,” more simply known as a will.
The agreement, which wasn’t formally announced by the Chancellor until June, was a good one for both parties. Ellis maintained proprietary control over the collection, but no longer had to worry about providing suitable facilities for it. For its part, the University suddenly housed one of the most impressive ornithological libraries in the world, and, apart from the nominal expense of providing rooms in which to store it, hadn’t spent a dime for it. Following Chancellor Malott’s announcement, the Lawrence Journal-World ran a piece on Ellis’s collection. “A library of 65,000 volumes valued at $200,000, which is probably the largest and most valuable collection of books on birds and mammals under private ownership in the world,” the article began, “has been loaned for an indefinite period to the University of Kansas.” The newspaper’s description of the library’s holdings was glowing, and rightly so.
In addition to the Gould material, the library included myriad rare and valuable works: the 1859 edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (and numerous subsequent editions of the same); William Turner’s Avium Praecipuarum … Historia (1544), the first known book about birds written by an Englishman; various works by Carl von Linné, better known simply as Linnaeus, who is remembered as the father of modern taxonomy; English naturalist Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731-1743), a work John James Audubon later held up as a model; Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (1808-1814), the first serious American ornithological work; early works of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, an eccentric scientist who anticipated Darwin’s theory of evolution; one of the world’s best collections of books on falconry; and assorted manuscripts, some of which dated to the reign of Henry VIII. And to the ornithological works were added some of the classic travel and exploration accounts: a contemporary edition of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle; the monumental Napoleon’s Egypt, a collection of atlases, accounts, and images of the exploration that followed Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt amounting to the first scientific assessment of Egyptian antiquities; Bernhard von Breydenbach’s Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam (1486), a remarkable work that included the first accurate illustrations of the Holy Land available in Europe; Travels in the Interior of North America (1843) by Prince Maximilian, with the plates of paintings done by the renowned artist Karl Bodmer who accompanied him; and comparable works besides.
Indeed, it looked as though a mutually satisfactory arrangement had been worked out, but then Fortuna spun her wheel again. On December 17, 1945—only seven months after the contract had been signed—Ellis died mysteriously of pneumonia, alone in a hotel room on a duck-hunting trip in California at the age of 37. His death, of course, rendered the final provision of the contract the most significant, and when in February 1946 KU filed a petition in the Douglas County probate court to establish the validity of the contract as a will, Irene Ellis contested it, setting in motion a series of lawsuits to determine whether she or the University would retain control of the valuable collection.
Irene Ellis’s legal team included well-known lawyers from both California and Kansas. Her attorneys held that the document signed on May 3, 1945 could not be considered a will for two primary reasons. First, the legality of the document was in question. Its formatting deviated from that expressly laid out in Kansas for valid wills and the chief beneficiary of the “will,” the University of Kansas, had drawn up the contract and, so they contended, had pressured the Ellises into signing. Second, Ralph Ellis, they claimed, had been mentally incompetent at the time he signed the contract. KU, on the other hand, maintained that it was a valid will, signed by both Ralph and Irene Ellis, that the Ellises had declined to take the document to outside lawyers despite being advised to do so, and that while Ralph Ellis was undoubtedly eccentric, he was of sound mind.
The contest proved to be something of a media circus. There were a large number of compelling angles that lent themselves to good journalism. The very nature of the case—the University versus a young widow and the value of the collection (estimated to be, so the papers said, between $100,000 and $400,000, though those were probably low numbers even at the time) provided a nice beginning point. Added to that was the profile of the attorneys. Among those representing Irene Ellis were the most senior member of the Kansas bar and the most flamboyant and entertaining of the attorneys, Edward B. Kelly, whom the newspapers dubbed “the star performer,” who “delighted” KU’s law students with disparaging “remarks … about the dean of the school of law and other members of the University” and by “good-naturedly” answering their questions “during every recess.” The University, on the other hand, could boast a former state attorney general and a former state representative among its legal team. What’s more, a number of locally prominent figures, including Chancellor Malott, Dean Moreau, E. Raymond Hall, and Hubert Brighton, the secretary of the Kansas Board of Regents, were called to testify in the trial. But above all, there were the eccentricities of the deceased Ralph Ellis, which attracted disproportionate coverage over the course of the trial.
The University, which clearly expected to win the case, began by parading Hall, Malott, Moreau, and several others who had signed the document before the court to testify concerning the history of the arrangement and the competency of Ellis. They even brought in an attorney of Ellis’s from New York, who produced correspondence attesting to the fact that it was “the intent of the deceased to lend the library to some institution and bequeath it upon his death to that institution.” Irene Ellis’s lawyers, however, won the first major battle of the case on a legal technicality when the judge ruled that the document signed on May 3, 1945 was not a will since it was improperly formatted, “although there was some argument that the instrument was a contract to make a will.”
As a contract, however, it might still be enforceable, and so the Ellis team set out to prove that Ellis was mentally incompetent, calling their own witnesses to the courtroom. A University operator testified that Ellis had called him in April 1945 to inform him that he had thrown a bottle at his wife, but had missed and broken a window in his office, and, consequently, needed the Building and Grounds crew to come and fix it. Indeed, Ellis’s proclivity for throwing bottles and breaking glass was substantiated by other witnesses, including both of his landlords in Lawrence, and a Mrs. J. J. Lavery “who told of an incident when the deceased broke out a window in the Edmonds’ Grocery,” an incident verified by “Joseph Rogers, a colored taxicab driver, who drove Ellis from the scene.” But the star witness was Irene Ellis, herself, who testified that her husband had threatened his mother’s life, her life, and his own, and that he often told people he owned things which he did not, like “a big black car with a bar in the back end.”
The evidence that Ellis had been of unsound mind seemed persuasive indeed, and two months after the close of the testimony in the trial, the probate judge issued his ruling. Not only was the document not a will, but on “May 3, 1945 Ralph Ellis was so mentally ill that he was incapable of entering into a valid contract.” Consequently, the provision of the document bequeathing the library to KU was void. Anticipating an appeal from the University, the judge appointed the Lawrence National Bank as the administrator of the estate while the contest for control over it played out. Appeal the case the University did.
On April 21, 1947, the second round of the contest opened in the state’s Douglas County District Court. This time KU was more prepared. As he had before, Hall provided the background to the case from the witness stand, but he also laid out some of the background on Ellis’s physical ailments. Apart from his agranulocytosis, Ellis had been diagnosed with “diabetes insipidus, a disease which makes one very thirsty.” Ellis “satisfied this thirst,” Hall maintained, “with any liquid available” and that “the liquid was occasionally intoxicating liquor.”
The director of the Natural History Museum confessed to having seen Ellis drunk several times, and acknowledged that “whenever Ellis became intoxicated the collector had a compelling urge to destroy things, manifested usually in throwing objects through windows.” Asked directly by Kelly whether or not he believed Ellis to be competent to make a will, Hall replied, “Very definitely so. He had wonderful resiliency. The next morning he was bright as a dime.”
Thus, the University contended Ellis’s erratic behavior could be explained by his drinking. When he was drunk, “he acted like a crazy man,” but in fact, he was “an amazingly brilliant man” and “entirely competent in the fields of ornithology, bibliography and zoology,” and in everything else related to his library, including his intended will for it. KU was remarkably consistent in its strategy. Chancellor Malott, for instance, conceded that Ellis “was eccentric” but added that he had been “a recognized authority on birds and mammals” and “an amazingly brilliant person.” “Ralph Ellis,” the chancellor declared, “fully understood the agreement. He said that this was exactly what he wanted.”
For its part, Irene Ellis’s legal team stuck with the strategy that had won the first trial for them. They continued to maintain that the document was not a will—a contention the District Court judge agreed with them in, though he concluded that was, in fact, a contract to make a will and thus was enforceable if Ellis was competent at the time he signed it. Indeed, their strategy differed chiefly in the number of witnesses they brought before the court to testify concerning Ellis’s competency. The months between the first ruling and the second trial had evidently enabled to find even more people who had observed Ellis’s unusual and erratic behavior.
Mike Getto, the manager of the Eldridge Hotel where Ellis had stayed for his first two months in Lawrence, testified that Ellis had thrown a bottle through his room window and had been abusive to hotel employees, who “hated to see him come in.” Had “it not been for Ellis’s connection with the University,” Getto asserted, “he would have been ejected from the hotel.” In Getto’s opinion, Ellis was “off somewhere” or, perhaps, “spinning his wheels.”
Both landlords again took the stand, embellishing their previous testimonies with more lurid details. Ellis not only broke windows in his first apartment, he had “once acted in a threatening manner” to his landlord. In fact, 10 days after he’d moved out of the apartment, he broke back into it and stomped around some before going to his former landlord, asking her to call the police and offering to pay for any damage he’d done. Hardly sane behavior, but then, as she acknowledged, “he was drunk on this occasion.” His second landlord revealed that “she [had] found five hundred Coca-Cola and beer bottles in the basement.” She would never have rented him the house, she maintained, had she met Ellis before agreeing to let him and his wife move in. She wasn’t sure “whether Ellis was sane or insane, but she … had thought he might have been a drug addict.”
Irene Ellis also expanded her testimony, telling “of numerous occasions on which her husband had thrown bottles, telephones, keys, and even a fire axe through windows.” On such occasions, she noted, “he was just sort of mad, not angry at anyone, just mad.” His erratic behavior had increased according to his widow following a spat with his mother that led her to cut off his monthly allowance of $887.50. At one point, Irene Ellis broke down on the stand “after saying she could see her husband falling apart.”
Most significantly, however, she recalled that on the night of May 2, 1945, her husband had returned late, and after pacing anxiously, had “picked up a large steel frying pan and saying he was going to throw it thru the window of the American Railway Express company office rushed out of their apartment.” Some time later he returned (sans frying pan) “in a depressed state of mind—a mood in which he remained until after 2 o’clock in the morning. The next morning,” she continued, “he awakened in a nervous state and rushed off to the 9 a.m. meeting at K.U., without eating his breakfast.” A short time later, he phoned her from the chancellor’s office, and told her to hurry over so they could sign the agreement. When she arrived, she asked her husband if they ought to have their own lawyers look at the document, but he told her there were no worries. It was written in a simple language and he trusted Dean Moreau, who had drawn it up. Thus, she established that his behavior the night before he signed the document (and even the morning of the agreement) had been somewhat unusual.
Others added to the accounts calling into question Ellis’s competence. The KU landscape foreman, who had helped Ellis unpack the books, told of Ellis unexplainably ripping up books and repeatedly singing “in a boisterous manner … a song entitled ‘God, Have Mercy on My Soul.’” Not surprisingly, he thought Ellis “incompetent.” A rare-book dealer in Kansas City argued that Ellis had had “an advanced case of bibliomania” and had “made several scenes” in the bookshop. A maid asserted that she was “constantly” called on to clean up broken glass while Ellis’s employ and that “he broke dozens of full and empty beer bottles and drinking glasses by throwing them at the fireplace.” She added that “on occasion, Ellis would come into the house swearing and shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ and ‘down with the government’ and, running his hands thru his hair, would pace up and down ‘in a wild manner.’”
In addition to these testimonies (and others like them in which “Lawrence citizens were called up to relate how Ralph Ellis would throw bottles, frying pans, and other objects through windows”), Irene Ellis’s legal team reminded the court that Ellis had, in fact, been committed to a mental institution and that his freedom hadn’t come at the will of his doctors, but that he had escaped from the sanitarium. In fact, his “mental illness commitment order … was still in effect at the time of his death.” (Irene Ellis explained her complicity in his escape by claiming that “she wanted to get him away for treatment with a doctor in whom he had confidence,” since “he hated … Dr. Mack, head of the institution.”)
But if the Ellis team’s strategy differed primarily in the number of witnesses they introduced, the trial had an entirely different—a far more bitter—tone. Irene Ellis’s lawyers alleged that there had been a conspiracy to trick Ellis into signing an unfavorable document. If at the May 3 meeting the school had recommended that Ellis take the document to his own lawyers, as the University maintained, why did they have a notary at the meeting? An employee of the Natural History Museum testified on their behalf, claiming that she had approached Hall to tell him that “Ellis had gone to Texas to see about taking his library there and Dr. Hall replied that he wasn’t worried because they wouldn’t put up with Ellis in Texas”—an indication, perhaps, that Ellis hadn’t intended to permanently house the collection at KU.
For its part, KU intimated that Irene Ellis had been interested in Ralph primarily for his money—Chancellor Malott described her in the trial as a “gold-digger”—and that she wasn’t genuinely interested in her husband’s wishes but in her financial well-being. And the University’s legal team exploited an obvious flaw in her argument, questioning the sincerity of her attachment to a man she believed to be insane. Predictably her lawyers took this as an assault on her character. Deftly parrying KU’s intimations, lead attorney Edward Kelly responded, “We must remember that the Chancellor himself says he was captivated by the man’s personality. And, of course,” he continued sarcastically, “we dare not intimate that the Chancellor’s interest was in the library and not in Mr. Ellis as a man. It seems,” he concluded, “that not all of the acquisitive instincts can be attributed to Mrs. Ellis. The University had some too.”
Irene Ellis’s team wasn’t above making intimations of their own. Kelly decried the “‘Patronizing attitude’ which all professors seem to have for a person the age of Mrs. Ellis,” who was 23 at the time the document was signed in 1945. Any objections she might have had to the document would have been pooh-poohed by the University administrators who wrote and signed the document. Taking up a “town vs. gown” motif, Kelly pointed out that the witnesses his team had called were “of the common people” and characterized the case as one pitting the “the opinions of the common people” against those of “men within the cloistered halls of the University.” For his part, he maintained, he preferred “the testimony of the town to that of the gown.” On occasion the personal attacks were more than intimated. In his closing argument, for instance, Kelly took a not-so-subtle jab at Dean Moreau: “It’s hard for me to see how any man with a legal background could be so dumb as to get mixed up in a thing like this.”
At the end of May, a month after the trial had ended, the judge handed down his decision in the case. According to the judge, although Ellis had been “a spoiled, violent and uncouth individual [who] often displayed vicious outbursts of temper,” Ellis had known “how to and did behave himself when the occasion required.” Despite “his disreputable conduct,” then, he had been mentally competent when he signed the agreement, and thus the library rightly belonged to KU. The University’s strategy of portraying Ellis as a brilliant man who had a proclivity to become a badly behaved drunk had worked beautifully.
Irene Ellis, predictably enough, protested the decision and petitioned for a new trial, arguing that under Kansas law a wife had to give her consent before her husband could will away more than half of his estate. Ralph had apparently told his wife that she had no rights, and no one from the University had bothered to inform her of any rights she might have. For its part, KU’s attorneys recognized that the decision had left a small loop-hole through which Mrs. Ellis could still gain control of the collection. Since the judge had ruled that the agreement was not a will but a contract, there was a chance that she could legally take the library by paying KU the expenses it had entailed in housing the collection. Consequently, the University appealed the judge’s ruling that the document was not a will to the Kansas Supreme Court toward the end of June 1947.
Irene Ellis’s attorneys on the other hand petitioned for a new trial on July 21. The judge’s consideration must have been very deliberate since he didn’t hand down a decision until December—and when he did, it wasn’t to announce a new trial. Though his decision had precedents that reached back to King Solomon, it left neither party happy: “the two contenders [KU and Irene Ellis] should share equally the … natural history library of the late Ralph Ellis.” Both parties responded by again petitioning for a new trial, but in February 1948 the judge stuck to his decision and denied their motions. Though it took until early May, both sides filed appeals to the Kansas Supreme Court. A little over a year later, the state’s highest court took up the matter.
On June 7, 1949, attorneys for both sides laid their arguments before six of the seven Supreme Court justices. (One justice, J. Arn, was a member of the state’s Board of Regents, and so recused himself. Four months later, almost to the day, the court filed its decision. By a vote of four to two, the justices ruled in favor of the University.
Despite the split vote, the case could not have turned out more badly for Irene Ellis. To begin with, the court found that the “very course of dealing whereby Ellis sought to find a depository for his library … shows that he had a keen appreciation of his ownership and the worth of the library.” Thus while “Ellis was guilty of conduct which, to say the least, was out of the ordinary, there was evidence that on other occasions he was possessed of full capacity.” And so they upheld the District Court’s ruling that Ellis was mentally competent when he signed the agreement. But it didn’t end there.
The justices held that both lower courts had wrongly ruled that the contract was not a will. “There was only one document, both contractual and testamentary,” went the majority opinion, “and he signed all, not merely a part, of it.” Furthermore, her contention that Ellis hadn’t had adequate legal representation was rejected inasmuch as he had chosen Moreau to represent him, even if the Dean of the Law School also represented the University. As for her contention that she hadn’t been apprised of her rights under Kansas law, the court ruled that there was no indication that she had attempted to learn them and so held that she had either “acted intelligently or that she was willing to act unintelligently.” And, as if to add a measure of insult, the court decided that the estate of Ralph Ellis would be taxed for the court costs.
The two justices that dissented pointed out that no copies of any drafts of the agreement had ever been “given either to Mr. Ellis or his wife,” and that neither “saw them until the morning they were [signed].” They suggested that perhaps it was unreasonable to expect a woman who “had been a resident of Kansas not to exceed six weeks at that time the agreement was signed” to have discovered on her own her legal rights under Kansas law. Ultimately they concluded “that to ignore the trial court’s conclusion and to hold that Mrs. Ellis acted freely, intelligently and understandingly, or that she indicated a willingness to act unintelligently, does violence to the record presented for our consideration.” But as a dissenting opinion, of course, it offered no material relief to Irene Ellis.
When the court refused to grant her a rehearing, the case was finally concluded and the library was KU’s, though some office equipment and a handful of books “designated as part of a family library” were set aside for Irene Ellis. The acquisition of what became known as the Ellis collection marked a significant moment in the history of the University’s libraries. Though scattered rare books had been donated to the library as far back as the 1880s, Ellis’s bequest amounted to the first major acquisition of rare material, and to date it remains the largest.
Like the proverbial man with a tiger by the tail, however, KU didn’t quite know what to do with it. Indeed, a department of Special Collections wasn’t organized until 1953. But with the arrival of librarians Joseph Rubinstein (the first head of Special Collections) and Robert Vosper (probably the most influential of KU’s librarians) in the 1950s, a coherent plan was developed to deal with the enormous amount of material in the collection—a plan that entailed disposing of duplicates and “completing the collection as Ralph Ellis would have done had he lived.” In fact those two aims were closely linked, as Robert Mengel, the University’s bibliographer who had charge over the collection at the time, pointed out. “The very richness of the collection in expensive duplicates will allow it to grow extensively, on the assimilation, as it were, of its own fat,” Mengel wrote in 1953. (The plan to add to the collection was materially aided when Ellis’s mother bequeathed a substantial sum to add to the library at her passing.)
At its heart, however, the plan centered on the publication of a bibliographical catalogue of the collection that Rubinstein believed “would be a milestone in ornithological and bibliographical history.” When the catalogue was completed, it would complement the world’s two comparable ornithological catalogues, “the three forming a trinity no member of which would be dispensable in ornithological work.” Progress, however, was slow.
In 1954, Vosper noted (in his characteristic style) that Mengel was almost through the letter B in the collection, “which portion contains a much larger proportion of titles than any comparable section of the alphabet, including such bibliographical tortures as Bewick and Buffon.” Adding that it “is slow work,” he acknowledged that the library would have to “delay the original timetable.” In his annual report for the following year, he observed that “Mengel has now almost completed the final revision of the first part of his bibliography, through the letter B (with a few exceptions). … In the meantime,” Vosper continued, “we have found some books in the Ellis collection, which makes Mr. Mengel’s job larger than thought.” The task was much larger as it turns out. In 1994, when the Spencer Library published A Silver Anniversary: The first 25 years of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library, former head of Special Collections Alexandra “Sandy” Mason noted, “Work on a catalogue of the ornithological portions of the Ellis Collection was begun … in the early 1950s” but to that point only the bibliographic “volumes covering authors A-D [had] been published.”
Of course, funding for such projects tends to prove at best irregular, and more often inadequate. It is not surprising then that KU’s libraries have had difficulty securing sufficient funds to do all that they hoped with the Ellis Collection. In 1955, Vosper’s frustration with this was evident: “Let me say once again,” he opined, “the lack of a regular sum to fill the Ellis gaps is a shame, a nuisance, and a constant frustration.” Among other things, the lack of adequate funding (and perhaps more significantly in recent years, appropriate staffing) for the collection limited the library’s ability to publicize it, which has rendered it, perhaps, underused. To be sure, some scholars, most notably Dr. Gordon C. Sauer (a Gould biographer and affiliate of University of Kansas School of Medicine) have utilized it (and in Sauer’s case contributed to the collection itself). Even so, its use to date hasn’t equaled (or even approximated) its value. Recently, however, the library completed the daunting task of entering the books into the online catalogue of the library—a step which should increase the awareness about what is housed in the collection inasmuch as it makes it possible to search the collection online and in so doing might well stimulate its use. (In doing so, the step also makes the completion of the catalogues originally undertaken by Mengel less necessary, and, indeed, there are at present no plans to complete them.)
Whatever work KU may have left to do in making the public more aware of its Ellis Collection, there is no doubt that fate smiled on the University in bringing so impressive a library to it. From the friendship struck up between a graduate student and a 15 year old amateur naturalist in Berkeley, to Ellis’s good fortune in buying up the Gould material, to another deal falling through and the rerouting of the library to Lawrence, it was no single, simple twist of fate that brought the remarkable library to Mt. Oread, but a series of curious turns. In that sense, the collection is a reminder that the present is shaped by historical contingencies, sometimes quite improbable ones.
By the same token, however, Ellis’s deliberate and shrewd buying offers a reminder that history isn’t inevitable, that people shape it in a meaningful way, that individual decisions matter. Though in many ways, Ellis was a tragic figure, the collection stands as a monument to his farsightedness. As E. Raymond Hall noted after the court handed down its decision in October 1949, “Much of Ralph Ellis’s life was unhappy, but the result of his devotion and service to science is more than ample reward for any man’s lifetime.”
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas