Joel Munsell – a genealogist & publisher who went to jail to protect his sources

Joel Munsell was an active genealogist, publisher, printer and journalist. He’s always been one of my “heroes” for his legendary contributions to genealogy and local history. (Photo – Munselle’s Picassa Gallery)

I was looking on GenealogyBank and found his marriage to Jane Caroline Bigelow (1812-1854)

17 June 1834 Independent Inquirer 28 Jun 1834

Look at this article from the New York Herald – 28 Feb 1845.

Munsell published a small pamphlet in 1845 – Pulpit Sketches, or Dreams of a Pew Holder. The author was not identified. The pamphlet by innuendo subjected prominent citizens to “libelous ridicule”.

Real controversy erupted and following a Grand Jury Munsell was found in contempt and had a “choice to pay two hundred and fifty dollars or stand the imprisonment” …. all for not revealing the author’s name. He went to jail.

This case is held up as one of the early cases where journalists went to jail rather than reveal their sources.

But dig a little deeper.

This pamphlet was pointed and barbed – on page 27 the new chapter compares “Rev Dr. J.N.C. to “Judas Iscariot”. Tough stuff.

Who was the Rev. Dr. J.N.C.? Why attack him?

As in our day when the President’s team had moral problems they called on the minister’s of the day to resolve the issue. In Andrew Jackson’s day his cabinet was deeply involved with a scandal involving Peggy Eaton – that drove cabinet members to resign.

The President called on the Rev. John Nicholson Campbell (1798-1864) to examine the situation and counsel with the parties involved. Read the details here in the San Jose Mercury 3 May 1903.

Those actions in 1831 resulted in Munsell’s pamphlet in 1845.

But, who was the author?

Librarians and historians have concluded that the author was Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1937). So it was a 13 year old boy who wrote this pamphlet attacking the most learned and respected clergy of his day.

My question is: Did Joel Munsell refuse to say who the author was from journalistic zeal to protect his sources or because his source was a 13 year old boy? Or – was someone else the author of that pamphlet?

Write me and tell me what you think.

.

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Written by Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp

Thomas Jay Kemp is the Director of Genealogy Products at GenealogyBank. Tom Kemp is an internationally known librarian and archivist – he is the author of over 35 genealogy books and hundreds of articles about genealogy and family history.

He previously served as the Chair of the National Council of Library & Information Associations (Washington, DC) and as Library Director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An active genealogist, he has been working on his own family history for 47 years. With the rapidly growing online archives at GenealogyBank – it is a great day for genealogy!

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