The Most Dangerous Book in the World

Dale Edwin Murray
Dale Edwin Murray

By Oliver Bullough | Illustration by Dale Edwin Murray

For decades, the only thing staving off a worldwide Socialist revolution was a grouchy librarian.

There is no clearer sign of Communism’s decline, Russians joke, than its loss of hair. From Karl Marx’s bushy mane to Mikhail Gorbachev’s shiny pate, the movement went bald and bankrupt at the same time. Perhaps this isn’t a theory to take too seriously. But you have to wonder: If Soviet officials had been aware of Charles Goss’s glorious whiskers, would they have picked a fight with him?

The locks on this English librarian were nothing special, but his mustache, oh, his mustache. The elaborate lip mitten slanted downward a full four inches on each side, far beyond his cheeks, obscuring all but a glimpse of his lower lip. It was a marvel of facial topiary that made Stalin’s well-groomed bristles look like unkempt shrubbery.

The mustache, of course, was also an indicator of his quirks. Goss was precise and eccentric—traits that helped him as an administrator at London’s Bishopsgate Institute, an independent cultural center. But it was his decades-long fight with the agents of the Red Revolution, in a battle that would suck in government ministers, journalists, and ambassadors, that truly demonstrated his grit. The source of that fight: a single book Goss took in as an afterthought—a foolscap notebook from the early 1860s full of semi-legible handwriting.

That notebook was “The Minute Book of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association” (IWMA), a foundational document of the global proletarian movement. Its sacred pages detailed discussions between Marx and Socialists throughout Europe. It revealed the first steps the world’s workers took as they stoked the revolution. As years passed, lore of the book’s power grew. Politicians and intellectuals desperately tried to liberate it from the clutches of this whiskered dinosaur. But Charles Goss was no ordinary guardian.

The Bishopsgate Institute was established in London’s East End in 1895 to improve the neighborhood. Less than a decade before, the bleak streets were Jack the Ripper’s stalking ground. Now, a local rector hoped to curb the squalor by providing books and lectures to the poor. Education, he hoped, would civilize them. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong man to do it.

Goss had worked in libraries across England before joining the institute. He loved reading, but he loved books more. He was so attached to books that he kept his collections locked up. Instead of allowing the public to browse the institute’s shelves, he bought a Cotgreave Indicator, a cumbersome system that specified through code which books were available and which were not.

Goss was a terrible lender, but he had a keen sense for acquisitions. His collections were deep and varied, and he bought books from all over. In 1905, Goss began acquiring the library of George Howell, a trade unionist and politician who spent his life immersed in Victorian politics. When Goss installed the collection on the shelves of Bishopsgate, he was confident he was providing readers with works they could find nowhere else, even if they couldn’t actually see them. Among them was “The Minute Book,” acquired in 1910, an original with no copies.

The Birth of a Movement

The IWMA had been born, as Goss had, in London in 1864. Under the stewardship of Karl Marx, the organization sought to link workers across Europe and America, allowing them to support one another and coordinate activities. Nothing like this had ever existed before. The communist parties that once ruled from Sarajevo to Siberia are the IWMA’s descendants. So are the socialist parties of Europe and the leftist movements of South America.

But despite its revolutionary nature, the IWMA was no underground organization. This was liberal London, and the delegates—Polish, Italian, and Hungarian exiles; American spiritualists; Russian anarchists; British and Swiss trade unionists; and French and German revolutionaries—met openly, in a gaslit hall near Trafalgar Square.

Still, there were reasons to be vigilant. Prussian and French spies dogged the door, noting the radicals’ movements and reporting back to their masters. By the early 1870s, the IWMA was suffering from internal paranoia and external repression. With allegations of ideological deviation and spying on every side, George Howell picked up the council’s “Minute Book,” claiming it was for research purposes.

Although the IWMA—now known as the First International—had collapsed by the time Goss got his hands on the book, its ideas had spread globally. A German Marxist party counted hundreds of thousands of members. British trade unionists were in Parliament. Russian revolutionaries had killed a czar and two interior ministers. In France, Socialists controlled dozens of town councils. They all cherished memories of the First International, marveling at the revolutionary prophets it brought together. Howell’s notebook was their equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they wanted to get their hands on it.

Goss never publicized his acquisition of “The Minute Book,” which was, true to his rules, not on display. Nevertheless, the news leaked. Raymond Postgate, a journalist who helped found Britain’s Communist Party, asked to read it. What happened next confirmed Goss’s prejudice against people who wanted access to his precious literary possessions.

Postgate wrote a book mocking the stuffy institute and giving instructions on how to penetrate its secrets. “If you know exactly what you want you can get it,” he wrote. “For all I know there may be the crown of King John in it, but there is certainly a little treasure... numbered 331 88. Here is the original ‘Minute Book’ of the General Council, signatures and all, from 1866 to 1869, the most important years for England.” Postgate left readers in little doubt of the book’s significance. “This was the most important event of the century,” he claimed. “Under the powerful and enlightened leadership of Marx it united and drilled the workers. It taught them to march together.”

In the early 1920s, it seemed as if the Red Menace would sweep aside civilization. The Bolsheviks had won Russia’s civil war, defeating the czarist White Army, along with American, French, and British interventionists. Communists were threatening to seize control of Germany. Could this terrible tome provide the spark to set the rest of the world ablaze?

“In the context of the time, it was very tricky,” says Stefan Dickers, the current archivist at the Bishopsgate Institute. “It was ‘Reds under the bed’ time. Everyone was terrified.” Under the circumstances, Goss saw only one viable option: put “The Minute Book” in a cupboard and hope everyone would forget about it.

In 1922, the Soviet delegation in London asked for the book. The institute’s minutes show that its trustees declined the request, worrying about what crimes the Reds might commit in response. Goss promised he “was taking special care for the safe custody of this and kindred books.”

If Goss thought locking the cupboard door would solve the problem, he was wrong. In July 1930, the Communists were back. The minutes read: “the Librarian reported that he had received a request from the Agents of the Soviet government for permission to photograph the pages of the ‘Minute Book.’ ” Naturally, Goss refused. But a more permanent solution would have to be found. After some consideration, the trustees rented a deposit box in Midland Bank and placed the treasure there.

It wasn’t just the Communists who wanted the book. In February 1931, the British Labour Party asked to see it. The Party’s Ramsay MacDonald was Britain’s prime minister at the time, but even that wasn’t enough to persuade Goss of his good intentions. It was clear that the book needed additional security.

Besieged, the institute tried to offload the tome onto the British Museum. But in October 1934, the trustees learned that their counterparts “would not reserve the manuscript from public use, and it would be available to students in the usual way.” That wasn’t the solution they wanted.

The institute’s leadership tightened security on its bank vault—even Goss would now need the trustees’ permission before he could access its contents. But the measure only heightened public interest. Some historians tried to sway the institute by providing letters of recommendation. Professor Nicolaas Posthumus of the University of Amsterdam even arranged for a bishop to forward his request in the hope it would persuade Goss he was reliable.

It didn’t.

By the 1940s, the Bishopsgate Institute was hopelessly out of date, a Victorian time capsule. Students came to study its Cotgreave Indicator rather than its books. Undaunted, Goss maintained his ways. Then came the Blitz, Hitler’s bombing of London. Although the institute was barely scathed by the explosives that shattered the city, it ceased to function normally. The trustees used the opportunity to stage a coup against their dictator. They wanted a new librarian.

Goss was forced out. Heartbroken after 44 years of service, he never set foot in the institute again, but he took comfort in one thing. Everyone would be too busy fighting the Nazis to ask for “The Minute Book.”

In 1941, when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, everything changed. The Soviets were Britain’s allies now. And when they came bearing new requests for the book, the institute no longer had Goss to fight its battles. Soviet officials submitted a request via a journalist, which the trustees stonewalled. But when the Soviet embassy asked—through the ambassador’s wife—it wasn’t to be denied. Finally, Ambassador Ivan Maisky pressed the issue, and Winston Churchill’s Tories were there to back them up.

“His Majesty’s Government would be quite pleased for Madame Maisky to inspect and even to transcribe the whole of the contents of the Minute Book,” the institute’s secretary recorded. The Goss-less trustees were caught in a diplomatic pincer movement. Their defeat was near.

By January 1942, Madame Maisky proposed to visit the book in situ, and the beleaguered trustees were forced to acquiesce. Soviet officials passed through the Bishopsgate Institute’s honey-gold facade, grand even behind air-raid sandbags, and into its sanctum sanctorum. How the mighty had fallen. They hadn’t lost all self-respect, however. A journalist named Louise Morgan tried to come too, only to be informed that “the manuscript was not available for inspection by the public.”

The book’s heft gave it the appearance of a sacred document. It could have been a bible held aloft by a gilded eagle in an Anglican church. When Maisky and his wife lifted it in their hands, they must have laughed with triumph that it was they who, after decades of effort, had rescued this relic from the reactionaries.

But the joke was on them.

A Look Inside the Book

These days, inspecting the manuscript is less of an event. You enter the institute, which is light and airy with double-height reading rooms lined with bookshelves, and you fill out a slip of paper. Those who make the pilgrimage can receive the book or any other item from the institute’s world-class collection on radical history in minutes. Stefan Dickers, the institute’s archivist, brought me “The Minute Book” himself, laying it carefully on a special pillow.

It is worrying to handle something of such historical significance. Staring at its marbled covers, I was nervously aware of all the other tables it had lain upon. This book had witnessed every meeting of the IWMA, when furiously smoking artisans thrashed out the theoretical basis of Communism. It had lain underground in a bank vault as bombs pounded London and the future of humanity teetered on the brink. It had been coveted and feared for generations. And now here it was, waiting to be read.

Its spine crackled slightly when I opened it. The paper was thick, and the ink faded. My urge was to flip through the book, to look and appreciate it without reading. On the early pages, the words are scrawled huge. They look fast and urgent, reflecting the passions the debates aroused. Further on, another writer crammed words together tightly, so driven to communicate his thoughts that he couldn’t bear to omit a thing.

When I began to read those words, however, I was baffled. I could only conclude that Goss and the trustees, who were so terrified of this book, never actually read it. “The Minute Book” was no blueprint for revolution. It was page after page of wrangling over expenses, of descriptions of small strikes by micro-unions such as the English Amalgamation of Cordwainers or the Hairdressers’ Early Closing Association, of negotiations over the price of postage. It is of historical interest for people writing the life of Marx (this was the period during which he was writing his seminal Das Kapital) or researching early trade unionism but no threat to the Western way of life.

In the book, members accuse one another of being “Bonapartists,” of being “intriguers,” of having fiddled their expenses and gained an extra pound. The minutes end before the International’s final collapse into mutual recrimination between communists and anarchists who went on to form rival “internationals.” For committed proponents of Marxist revolution, the book must have been a depressing read. Mostly, it felt empty. It was as if you had pried open the Ark of the Covenant and found not tablets of stone inscribed with eternal verities, but Moses’ tax return, a couple of supermarket receipts, and a note for the milkman.

The Soviet government had its secretaries painstakingly transcribe the whole thing, detailing every cross-out and spelling mistake, and it published the work in 1950, four years after Goss’s death. Goss’s last communication on the subject was a letter in which he relinquished any claim he had to custodianship of the book, adding, “I am sorry there is an intention to publish it.” In his last photograph, taken well into his seventies, Goss’s mustache is diminished, though it still stands firm on his upper lip.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea … In the Middle of Rural Yorkshire

If you lived in Holmfirth, England, in the 1940s, there's a good chance you would've found a tiger like this one wandering around town.
If you lived in Holmfirth, England, in the 1940s, there's a good chance you would've found a tiger like this one wandering around town.
photoguru81/iStock via Getty Images

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. This is especially true in the United States, where backyard zoos and cub petting operations are successful—if controversial—businesses. Big cat ownership is more heavily regulated in the UK than it is in the U.S., but that wasn’t always the case. More than 70 years ago, there was at least one pet tiger living in England.

To the people of Britain, Holmfirth, 20 miles outside of Manchester, is probably best known as the picturesque setting of Last of the Summer Wine, the BBC show that ran for a staggering 37 years from 1973 to 2010 and is now appropriately credited as being the world’s longest running sitcom. But back in the early 1940s, the village was known locally as the home of Fenella the Holmfirth Tiger.

Fenella’s story actually begins more than 8000 miles away in South Africa, where she was adopted by a family of circus performers and acrobats from Yorkshire, the Overends, in the late 1930s. While touring South Africa with a traveling circus in 1939, the Overend family was offered two newborn circus tiger cubs to rear and eventually incorporate into their act. One of the cubs died barely a week later, but the other—given the name Fenella, or “Feney” for short—survived.

The Overends were forced to return to England after the outbreak of the Second World War. They took Fenella home with them to live (albeit after a brief stay in quarantine) in the back garden of their house in Holmfirth. Although she had a specially built hut and enclosure, the tiger eventually began spending just as much time in the family house as she did in the garden, and according to her owners, soon became extraordinarily tame.

The family would take her for walks through the village, including past the local primary school, where she became a firm favorite among the pupils. When the local council began to raise questions over just how tame Fenella really was, the sight of her walking calmly while being petted by all the schoolchildren as they returned from their lunch break was all it took to quash their worries.

Holmfirth viewed from the cemetery
Holmfirth in the 21st century, with nary a tiger in sight.

Tim Green, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fenella was sometimes permitted to run in the fields around the village, where she reportedly made friends with a local cart horse—which is surprising, given she was raised on a diet of horse meat and fish (fish and chips were one of her favorite treats). She apparently also had a fondness for climbing trees to take a nap, and supposedly had a habit of dropping down from the branches and, fairly understandably, surprising passersby. But soon the sight of a fully grown 9-foot Sumatran tigress casually idling her way through the village’s cobbled streets became the norm for the people of Holmfirth.

Fenella was intended to be a performing tiger. Similar to the cub petting operations that still exist in the U.S., visitors could pay sixpence to sit and pet her while the family was on tour. She was also worked into the family’s circus performances by staging a mock wrestling match with her owner. But though the Overends put the big cat to work, they considered her a beloved family pet rather than just another part of their act.

Sadly, Fenella died of a kidney infection during one of the family’s tours in 1950 when she was just over 10 years old. She was buried in the neighbor’s garden, which was said to be one of her favorite hunting grounds. Fenella is still remembered fondly in and around Holmfirth. In 2016, she was a highlight of the Holmfirth Arts Festival, which celebrated the cat’s life with an exhibition of photographs and archival footage of her and the Overend family. Exotic pets might not have remained as popular in the UK as they once were, but Fenella’s popularity at least remains intact.

15 Facts About John Brown, the Real-Life Abolitionist at the Center of The Good Lord Bird

John Brown, circa 1846.
John Brown, circa 1846.
Augustus Washington/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, was meant to start an armed slave revolt, and ultimately end slavery. Though Brown succeeded in taking over the federal armory, the revolt never came to pass—and Brown paid for the escapade with his life.

In the more than 160 years since that raid, John Brown has been called a hero, a madman, a martyr, and a terrorist. Now Showtime is exploring his legacy with an adaption of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Like the novel it’s based on, the miniseries—which stars Ethan Hawke—will cover the exploits of Brown and his allies. Here's what you should know about John Brown before you watch.

1. John Brown was born into an abolitionist family on May 9, 1800.

John Brown was born to Owen and Ruth Mills Brown in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800. After his family relocated to Hudson, Ohio (where John was raised), their new home would become an Underground Railroad station. Owen would go on to co-found the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and was a trustee at the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, one of the first American colleges to admit black (and female) students.

2. John Brown declared bankruptcy at age 42.

At 16, Brown went to school with the hope of becoming a minister, but eventually left the school and, like his father, became a tanner. He also dabbled in surveying, canal-building, and the wool trade. In 1835, he bought land in northeastern Ohio. Thanks partly the financial panic of 1837, Brown couldn’t satisfy his creditors and had to declare bankruptcy in 1842. He later tried peddling American wool abroad in Europe, where he was forced to sell it at severely reduced prices. This opened the door for multiple lawsuits when Brown returned to America.

3. John Brown's Pennsylvania home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The John Brown Tannery Site in Pennsylvania
The John Brown Tannery Site in Pennsylvania.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Sometime around 1825, Brown moved himself and his family to Guys Mills, Pennsylvania, where he set up a tannery and built a house and a barn with a hidden room that was used by slaves on the run. Brown reportedly helped 2500 slaves during his time in Pennsylvania; the building was destroyed in 1907 [PDF], but the site, which is now a museum that is open to the public, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Brown moved his family back to Ohio in 1836.

4. After Elijah Lovejoy's murder, John Brown pledged to end slavery.

Elijah Lovejoy was a journalist and the editor of the St. Louis/Alton Observer, a staunchly anti-slavery newspaper. His editorials enraged those who defended slavery, and in 1837, Lovejoy was killed when a mob attacked the newspaper’s headquarters.

The incident lit a fire under Brown. When he was told about Lovejoy’s murder at an abolitionist prayer meeting in Hudson, Brown—a deeply religious man—stood up and raised his right hand, saying “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery."

5. John Brown moved to the Kansas Territory after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which decreed that it would be the people of Kansas and Nebraska who would decide if their territories would be free states or slave states. New England abolitionists hoping to convert the Kansas Territory into a Free State moved there in droves and founded the city of Lawrence. By the end of 1855, John Brown had also relocated to Kansas, along with six of his sons and his son-in-law. Opposing the newcomers were slavery supporters who had also arrived in large numbers.

6. John Brown’s supporters killed five pro-slavery men at the 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre.

A John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry
A John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On May 21, 1856, Lawrence was sacked by pro-slavery forces. The next day, Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, was beaten with a cane by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor until he lost consciousness. (A few days earlier, Sumner had insulted Democratic senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler in his "Crime Against Kansas" speech; Brooks was a representative from Butler’s state of South Carolina.)

In response to those events, Brown led a group of abolitionists into a pro-slavery settlement by the Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24. On Brown’s orders, five slavery sympathizers were forced out of their houses and killed with broadswords.

Newspapers across the country denounced the attack—and John Brown in particular. But that didn't dissuade him: Before his final departure from Kansas in 1859, Brown participated in many other battles across the region. He lost a son, Frederick Brown, in the fighting.

7. John Brown led a party of liberated slaves all the way from Missouri to Michigan.

In December 1858, John Brown crossed the Kansas border and entered the slave state of Missouri. Once there, he and his allies freed 11 slaves and led them all the way to Detroit, Michigan, covering a distance of more than 1000 miles. (One of the liberated women gave birth en route.) Brown’s men had killed a slaveholder during their Missouri raid, so President James Buchanan put a $250 bounty on the famed abolitionist. That didn’t stop Brown, who got to watch the people he’d helped free board a ferry and slip away into Canada.

8. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was meant to instigate a nationwide slave uprising.

On October 16, 1859, Brown and 18 men—including five African Americans—seized control of a U.S. armory in the Jefferson County, Virginia (today part of West Virginia) town of Harpers Ferry. The facility had around 100,000 weapons stockpiled there by the late 1850s. Brown hoped his actions would inspire a large-scale slave rebellion, with enslaved peoples rushing to collect free guns, but the insurrection never came.

9. Robert E. Lee played a part in John Brown’s arrest.

Artist Thomas Hovenden depicts John Brown after his capture.
Artist Thomas Hovenden depicts John Brown after his capture.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Shortly after Brown took Harpers Ferry, the area was surrounded by local militias. On the orders of President Buchanan, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee entered the fray with a detachment of U.S. Marines. The combined might of regional and federal forces proved too much for Brown, who was captured in the Harpers Ferry engine house on October 18, 1859. Ten of Brown's men died, including two more of his sons.

10. John Brown was put on trial a week after his capture.

After his capture, Brown—along with Aaron Stevens, Edwin Coppoc, Shields Green, and John Copeland—was put on trial. When asked if the defendants had counsel, Brown responded:

"Virginians, I did not ask for any quarter at the time I was taken. I did not ask to have my life spared. The Governor of the State of Virginia tendered me his assurance that I should have a fair trial: but, under no circumstances whatever will I be able to have a fair trial. If you seek my blood, you can have it at any moment, without this mockery of a trial. I have had no counsel: I have not been able to advise with anyone ... I am ready for my fate. I do not ask a trial. I beg for no mockery of a trial—no insult—nothing but that which conscience gives, or cowardice would drive you to practice. I ask again to be excused from the mockery of a trial."

Brown would go on to plead not guilty. Just days later, he was found “guilty of treason, and conspiring and advising with slaves and others to rebel, and murder in the first degree” and was sentenced to hang.

11. John Brown made a grim prophecy on the morning of his death.

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown passed his jailor a note that read, “I … am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” He was hanged later that day.

12. Victor Hugo defended John Brown.

Victor Hugo—the author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who was also an abolitionist—penned an open letter on John Brown’s behalf in 1859. Desperate to see him pardoned, Hugo wrote, “I fall on my knees, weeping before the great starry banner of the New World … I implore the illustrious American Republic, sister of the French Republic, to see to the safety of the universal moral law, to save John Brown.” Hugo’s appeals were of no use. The letter was dated December 2—the day Brown was hanged.

13. Abraham Lincoln commented on John Brown's death.

Abraham Lincoln, who was then in Kansas, said, “Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a State. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.”

14. John Brown was buried in North Elba, New York.

John Brown's gravesite in New York
John Brown's gravesite in New York.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1849, Brown had purchased 244 acres of property from Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist, in North Elba, New York. The property was near Timbuctoo, a 120,000-acre settlement that Smith had started in 1846 to give African American families the property they needed in order to vote (at that time, state law required black residents to own $250 worth of property to cast a vote). Brown had promised Smith that he would assist his new neighbors in cultivating the mountainous terrain.

When Brown was executed, his family interred the body at their North Elba farm—which is now a New York State Historic Site.

15. The tribute song "John Brown's Body" shares its melody with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

It didn’t take long for Brown to become a martyr. Early in the 1860s, the basic melody of “Say Brothers Will You Meet Us,” a popular camp hymn, was fitted with new lyrics about the slain abolitionist. Titled “John Brown’s Body,” the song spread like wildfire in the north—despite having some lines that were deemed unsavory. Julia Ward Howe took the melody and gave it yet another set of lyrics. Thus was born “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Union marching anthem that's still widely known today.

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