ON VOYNICH'S LIFE AND DEATH, BY ONE OF HIS FRIEND
The medievalist James Westfall Thompson (1869-1941) was a professor in the University of Chicago then in the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote many books in his field, including one on cryptography (1). He was one of the five persons who had to agree any buyer of MS 408, as stipulated by Voynich before his death (2). One of his letter to Voynich (1922) is preserved in the Grolier Club (Wilfred M. Voynich and Ethel Lillian Voynich Papers, 1916-1948, box 6 ).
In 1931, he wrote an " in memoriam " on Voynich, probably his friend, in Progress of medieval studies in the United States and Canada (3).
From the information found in Thompson, Garland and Senese (related in this site), I come to the conclusion that the rapid reputation and success of Voynich as a bookdealer is largely understandable by the faculties and the determination of Voynich himself.
Here are some extracts of the Thompson's paper :
- on Voynich's death (March 19, 1930)
- on Voynich's life before his arrival in London
- on the first activities of Voynich as bookdealer
- on Voynich's personality
On Voynich's death
"The late Wilfrid Michael Voynich, the world-famous dealer in rare manuscripts and incunabula, died over a year ago, in New York, on March 19, 1930, at the age of sixty-five (4). His decease occurred too late for a tribute to his memory to be inserted in the last issue of The Progress of Medieval Studies (5). This belated memorial is none the less sincere, despite its delayed appearance."
This is a first hand information on the Voynich's date of death, which remained
On Voynich's life before his arrival in London
" A native of Lithuania, he was educated in law, chemistry, and the natural sciences at the universities of Warsaw and Moscow. Early in life he became imbued with the liberal ideas subterraneously current in the Russian Empire, and for his active revolutionary course was exiled to Siberia. His intimate friends who have heard from his lips the story of his Siberian experiences will never forget the impression. Twice he made his escape and twice was re-arrested. The hardships which he endured as the result of prison discipline and the privations which he suffered had a permanent effect upon his health. His third effort to escape was successful. In Mongolia he joined a caravan bound for Peking and after more than a year of wandering Mr. Voynich entered China through the " back door". From Peking he made his way to England and became a British subject. In London he opened a modest bookshop for the sale of rare MSS and rare books."
The same story of an escape from Siberia to China is narrated by Herbert Garland (6), who joined the Voynich's firm as a cataloguer, in Shaftesbury Avenue, between 1909 and 1916 : " A year or more of wandering, during which in Mongolia he joined his fortunes with those of a caravan bound for Pekin, brought him to London.". The source of this story his very probably Thompson himself, as Garland quote him in his paper, written one year later.
Thompson is silent on the first London's years of Voynich.
On the first activities of Voynich as bookdealer
" All through his life Mr. Voynich displayed an almost sixth sense of
divination for the discovery of manuscript and book treasures. An excursion
to Corsica, which until then had not been penetrated by the book-hunter, resulted
in the acquisition of a remarkable collection of over 600 incunabula, most of
which were purchased by the trustees of the British Museum. This achievement
founded Mr. Voynich's reputation. In the ensuing years he wandered far and wide
in search of manuscripts and books. His ability to speak every European language,
his genial personality, enabled him to go everywhere and everywhere to make
The purchases in Corsica are mentioned by Garland (6): " A visit to Corsica, for example, produced upwards of one hundred incunables ".
On Voynich's personality
"The range of his knowledge and interests was enormous, and his conversation threw a spell upon his auditor. Only one who has been privileged can understand the influence he possessed. His discourse touched story, literature of every kind, linguistics, science, art, men, and events. His almost omniscient knowledge, the volume and variety of which no one but his close friends could appreciate, his genial humor, his kindliness, his inimitable accent and curious turns of phrase, endeared him to all who knew him. His acquaintance with men of scholarship probably surpassed that of any man of the time. He had known His Holiness, Pius XI, ever since he was librarian of the Ambrosian Library in Milan. He knew cardinals and bishops, academicians, university professors, librarians, artists, musicians, and litterateurs of many lands".
Voynich seemed to be a great seducer, with a large knowledge. Theses qualities
seemed not to be appreciated by his revolutionary friends, who found him "brash
and rude", as reported by E. A. Taratuta and D. J. Senese (7).
1 : Secret diplomacy espionage and cryptography, 1500-1815, by James Westfall Thompson and Saul Kussiel Padover, New York, Frederick Ungar, 1963, originally published in 1937.
2 : René Zandbergen mentions James " Westphal " Thompson, very probably the same person.
3 : Bulletin nº 9, pp. 90 - 92.
4 : Birth in 1865.
5: The Progress was published annually, by the Mediaeval Academy of America and the University of Colorado.
6 : "Some Famous English Bookshops, III -Notes on the firm of W. M. Voynich", Herbert Garland, The Library World, vol.34, April 1932, p. 225.
7 : See Voynich in London, Biographical details from "S.M. Stepniak - Krachvinskii, the London years", by Donald J. Senese, 1987 and ref. 6.
June 4, 2003