Treasure Tales

Treasure Tales

As University archivist, David Crawford is responsible for cataloging, preserving and adding to Creighton’s rich and varied historical collection. But, every once in a while, he also plays the roles of sleuth, discoverer and even finder of lost loves.

The latter came a couple of years ago as Creighton University Medical Center was preparing to close. Crawford, the University’s archivist for 12 years, was tasked with going through the hospital in search of any items of historical significance he might add to the permanent collections of the University Archives.

In the hospital’s mechanical room, Crawford discovered a painting of one of the most influential figures in the University’s history — Sarah Emily Creighton, a member of the University’s founding family and wife of early Omaha business leader and philanthropist John Creighton.

“It was sitting on a metal shelf and there was kind of a box with a cover over it protecting the top of it, then stuff piled on that,” Crawford recalls. “It had been damaged and it had some holes poked through the back.”

How it came to such a sorry state isn’t clear.

“It was on the wall over there at some point and got taken down, and by that point, nobody knew,” Crawford says. “I’m wondering how many people, if they saw it, knew who she was.”

Crawford had the painting restored, with generous support from an alumni couple, Katie Wadas-Thalken, BA’04, EdD’18, and Mark Thalken, BA’12. Now, it hangs in the Rare Books Room next to a similar painting of her husband that had been in storage — a lost love reunited.

“From the size and from the frames, I think they were done together,” Crawford says. Most likely by the same artist.

John and Sarah now keep watch at one end of the Rare Books Room, not far from paintings of fellow University founders Edward and Mary Lucretia Creighton. Not so obvious are other historical treasures in the room — and elsewhere on campus.

The pieces speak through the ages of transformational times both epic and obscure. Some of the items are head-shakingly old. Like cuneiform tablets in Creighton’s Klutznick Law Library that are from the Third Dynasty of Ur during the Neo-Sumerian Empire. They’re essentially purchase receipts.

“If we’re at Year 0, they’re already 2,000 years old at that point,” says Troy Johnson, interim director of the law library and an 18-year Creighton veteran. “It’s just crazy to have a document that traveled around the world for 4,000 years and now is sitting here.”

The collections grow with gifts from alumni and others. Yearbooks are most commonly offered. More recently, photos arrived of the liberation of Manila during World War II, a gift from alumnus Kenneth Conry, MD’59, from his father’s personal collection.

Other pieces come by chance finds. A silver serving set used by the Creightons was found in a staff member’s closet, wrapped in paper towels and plastic shopping bags. Also found were photos of Bob Gibson, ARTS’57, visiting campus after his 1967 World Series triumph with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Crawford has more than 1,500 volumes in the Rare Books Room and the Archives collection. On one table is a book from the Rev. Greg Carlson’s massive collection of fables; on another, also from Fr. Carlson’s collection, a hand-carved Russian toy depicting the tale of the fox and the crow; and near that, a marble piece from the Creighton Observatory, which once linked the observatory via telegraph to other observatories nationwide, including the U.S. Naval Observatory.

These pieces matter.

“I think that it’s important for us to be able to look back and see our heritage, but also see how we got to the point where we are,” Crawford says. “And sometimes, that can provide us some good insights about how we should move forward. Sometimes, it’s a good reminder so that we don’t stray away from our values.”

Following is a look at some of the oldest, most unusual or least known items to be discovered on Creighton’s campus.

Spiked Punch

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was such a monumental task for the time that you had to see it to believe it. Fortunately, visitors to Creighton can do just that, thanks to a book of photos taken by Andrew Russell that documents the ribbon of steel built through what then was seen as wilderness. Few such books remain — they were given as gifts to congressional representatives and others of influence. Edward Creighton likely received a copy because of his role building the telegraph line alongside the railroad. When Edward died, it went to his brother, John, who gave it to the University. “Just an amazing piece,” David Crawford says. “This is one of the earliest photo albums of the American West.”

The Blackstone Commentaries

Imagine a time when everything one needed to know about the law could fit into a single four-volume set. That was the Blackstone Commentaries, several sets of which are in the law library.

Troy Johnson calls them the most important pieces in his care.

“That was what you would read to get up to speed if you were going to be a lawyer,” Johnson says.

Daniel Boorstin, the late American historian and librarian of Congress, in his book The Mysterious Science of the Law, writes, “No other book except the Bible played a greater role in the history of American institutions.”

The Blackstone Commentaries at Creighton include several printed in England, and an American edition that predates the Revolutionary War. The latter was sold to subscribers, listed inside the book.

“It’s like a ‘who’s who’ of all the major people in the American colonies at the time,” Johnson says. “You had to be someone to subscribe to Blackstone, not just some Joe Blow. The first name is John Adams, barrister of law, Boston. Half the signers of the declaration are in the subscribers’ list.”

It’s not clear how the American set came to Creighton. Johnson suspects the English Blackstones came when a Creighton librarian traveled to England in the early 1900s to buy books at estate sales. The library has about 600 pre-1900 British books among the 1,500 volumes in its rare books room.

“A lot of the big estates in England were breaking up because of the (failing) economic model of those big houses,” Johnson says. “Those big houses had libraries in them. Americans came over to buy them up; they needed the cash.”

Signed, Abe … Honest

One graduate passed on to Creighton a keepsake that had been in his family for years — a receipt signed by a gentleman who would become the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The receipt is for a paycheck Lincoln, just an attorney at the time, was asked to retrieve for an Illinois judge. The judge’s descendants kept it until the 1980s, when it made its way to Creighton.

Map Quest

What did the world look like 250-plus years ago? Take a gander at the world atlas Creighton has. Documentation authenticates it was created for a friend of George Washington. And it was done well. It’s amazing, Troy Johnson says, “to actually see these world maps made in 1760 at a time when you know they didn’t have satellites and didn’t have that top-down view. But the details of the United States are largely there, and quite a few of the rivers are already accurately on there.”

Tokyo Trials

Among the more recent donations from a graduate are papers related to the International Military Tribunal for the Far East of 1947-1948. They were owned by alumnus Thomas Ronald Delaney, JD’30, an attorney and part of the Tojo prosecution team.

The Law … 500+ years ago

The Blackstones aren’t the oldest books of law in Creighton’s law library. That honor goes to the 1529 edition of Justinian’s Institutes.

Although unique from the civil law systems of other European countries, England’s common law system has a Roman influence. Roman law was taught and studied in the 12th century by English lawmakers of the day. Justinian’s Institutes, written in the year 533 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Flavius Anicius Justinian, is a text that would have been part of that study.

Ur Cuneiform Tablets

The oldest piece tablet, a receipt for barley, dates to 2,350 B.C. A scholar in Germany heard of them and made translations for Creighton, which made them available online.

It’s Surreal

In Creighton’s Health Sciences Library are three pieces by Salvador Dali. One is a silver sculpture depicting Christ on the cross; the other two are lithographs, one of the Last Supper, the other of Abraham Lincoln.