Take me home, El Capitan!
The Bible: A Painfully True Story.. or Why I Hate Beagles for Gypsy, Christian, and Bryson

What's worse than hitting a record PowerBall lottery and then losing the winning ticket?  Keep reading. Unfortunately the following is true..

My first marriage in 1973 lasted only 2 years.. We were very young, inexperienced in life, and in love and probably doomed as a couple from day one. An age old story. One of us was stupid and immature and didn't realize the dynamics of the institution of marriage. I won't name names for fear of stating the obvious. Fortunately, we parted friends (and proud parents of a beautiful daughter) and  remain so even  to this day. For whatever reason, her family loved me and at some point while we were married, my mother-in-law pulled me aside and told me she had something she wanted to give to me.. It had been passed down through their family. It was a Bible.. Carried by one of her distant relatives during the American Civil War.  It was a smallish book... maybe 6 x 4" and maybe 2" thick.. Pocket sized.  It had a dark brownish leather cover with a distinct embossed pattern on the spine. Very unique. Very memorable.

At the time I remember thinking.. " this is an odd size for a Bible.. ?"  The pages were somewhat yellowed, but there wasn't a torn or missing page in the book. It was virtually perfect except for all the writing in the margins on most of the pages. As it turned out.. the owner of the Bible was a pastor .. His name, which I no longer recall, was written on the inner cover. Apparently, he was assigned to a certain regiment and wrote detailed accounts of every battle the regiment fought.. As I'm no Civil War buff, I didn't recognize any of the places or events he described except for the Battle of Antietam.  I had heard of that one. A lot of the cursive writing was hard to read, but I do recall accounts of medical procedures, head counts of the dead, what they ate for dinner some nights, names of officers and soldiers who were afraid and had asked him to carry "death letters"  in case they didn't survive, etc etc.. My plans were to sit down one day and document the writer's observations.

Even at the age of 19 I knew the little Bible was important. I remember thinking of it more as a nest egg for the future rather than the cherished keepsake her family had entrusted to my safe keeping. An artifact of value that I could sell at some point as a down payment on a house or college tuition for our daughter. Yea.. I was a crud back then. I blame society.  It was too long ago to blame George Bush. Anyway.. (and here's where the story starts to go south)... soon after this heirloom was put into my possession, my first wife and I separated and shortly thereafter divorced. The process was very civilized and amicable as we had no real possessions. By this time the little Bible had long since been packed away in one of many cardboard boxes and forgotten. Safe with my few other worldly possessions (ie..record and comic book collections, posters, water pipes, bongs, etc) .. Life went on.  

As most slackers do, I moved back in with my parents and they let me store all my stuff in their mostly empty lower level garage until I got a place of my own. Not long after, a young lady friend gave me a dog for companionship. A beagle named Picasso. I must have looked like I needed companionship. She meant well, but in my humble opinion, pets should not be given as gifts. They should have the opportunity to choose one another.. In this case, me and the dog never bonded.. In fact.. I never liked that dog.

The Aitken Bible

One summer day I walked into the garage and  noticed paper all over the floor.. WTF?! Torn boxes...  cardboard everywhere.. shredded comic books .. and the remains of the little Bible.. The dog had chewed the Bible into a frothing mass of pulp. Not a single page remained intact...History wiped away because of this mischievous brown and white beagle.  As you can imagine.. this was not a good day, but what could I do?  The reality of the loss hit me hard.. I think I told my ex what had happened, but never told her mother or father.. God rest their souls.. The year was 1975 .  I chalked it up to life getting even with me for some past transgression(s) and tried to forget about it... and for the most part.. I was successful until....

Two weeks ago (and 37 years later) I was in Nashville visiting my mother.. It was late and I was watching TV just before bedtime.  I was channel hopping mostly as she doesn't have any movie channels so the visual pickens were slim... I landed on a Glen Beck special celebrating our American Heritage.  He's a little too right wing, even for me, but the show caught my attention. He was on stage sharing some prized artifacts from American history which were on loan from museums and private collections. One item was an original painting a soldier had made of George Washington just  hours after he crossed the Delaware.. it was magnificent.. They went into detail about the painter and the difficulty of producing the painting under such harsh conditions.. The second item was one of the early versions of the Declaration of Independence.. He gave a brief history of this particular document.. The next item he pulled out of a glass case. It was a little Bible.  It was a smallish book... maybe 6 x 4" and maybe 2" thick.. Pocket sized.  It had a dark brownish leather cover with a distinct embossed pattern on the spine.  It was called the Aitken Bible. Stunned, I got up out of the chair and went over to the TV to confirm, up close, that this was identical to the one I had had.  It was.  He went on to give a brief history of the Bible and what I heard kept me from sleeping that night.. and the next.. and the next.. Once I got back to Nashville I Googled this Aitken Bible apprehensive of what I might find.  My search for info was both enlightening and heartbreaking in it's implications. Here are the juicy parts....

Apparently, prior to the end of the War of Independence, the United States was still under the rule of England and thus not legally allowed to print the King James Version of the Bible .. a job reserved solely for the King's printers. English Bibles were imported to the New World from England. Quaker Robert Aitken had fled to Ireland to escape English persecution, finally moving to the United States and settling in Pennsylvania, where he became a printer in Philadelphia.  War had shortened the supply of English Bibles. Aitken supported the Revolution and determined to publish a Bible in English. In 1781, he sought Congress' approval and financial aid. Congress recommended the publication of 30,000 Bibles, at a cost of ten thousand dollars. Only 10,000 were actually printed. Called the Bible of the Revolution, the Aitken's Bible became the first English-language edition of the Scriptures to be printed in the United States. This was the only time in history that the US government sanctioned, ordered, and actually paid for printed bibles. They chose the small size deliberately as to make sure it fit into a soldier's uniform pocket. 

As fate would have it... just 12 months after the Bibles were printed, the Revolutionary war abruptly ended and virtually none of them found their way into the intended soldiers pockets. George Washington, one of the greatest supporters of the Aitken Bible, regretted that the Revolutionary troops had been disbanded before he could provide them with such an appropriate symbol of his gratitude. Writing to a friend, Washington lamented, "It would have pleased me well, if Congress had been pleased to make such an important present (a copy of the Aitken Bible) to the brave fellows, who have done so much for the security of their Country's rights and establishment."

So what happened to these 10,000 Bibles? I spoke with some rare book experts and not one knew exactly what happened to them. All seemed to think that most were distributed to the public sometime after 1784. This is where the facts end and my sleuthing and theories begin.. As best as I can surmise, the little Bible I had been given was indeed one of these Aitken bibles. It traveled through the years and ended up some 78 years later in the hands of a pastor, a relative in my ex-wives family, who got caught up in the Civil War. He carried it from battle to battle and camp to camp sometime between the years 1861 and 1865.  All along writing detailed notes of each event. I checked and the aforementioned Battle of Antietam was fought on September 17, 1862, near Sharpsburg, Maryland so I can place the little Bible there on that date.  More than 23,000 combatants from the North and South were reported dead, wounded or missing after 12 hours of carnage in that battle. It has the distinction of being the bloodiest battle in American history. The Bible and the pastor survived the event.

At the time of the Civil War, the little Bible was already 84 years old, but what's interesting to me is that it had actually found it's way into the hands of a serving soldier as originally intended. Destiny? Divine intervention? Who knows. Id like to think that George Washington would have been pleased. By the time my dog ate it it was around 194 years old.... Geeezz..

O, yea..  I found the following blurb on one rare book website.. "Although 10,000 copies of the Aitken Bible were printed, it is extraordinarily scarce today. 20th-century estimates place the number of extant copies between 30-40, with possibly five (certainly no more than ten) in private hands. It is one of the world's rarest books, significantly rarer than even the Gutenberg Bible. "  Virtually priceless.. I should add that the last Gutenberg bible sold at auction for 9.4 million dollars.

Not that it matters at this point, but I wonder if the copy I had was worth more with all the Civil War documentation in it? Or was it merely priceless?

The Battle of Antietam, by Kurz & Allison, depicting the scene of action at Burnside's Bridge.
Before I sign off to go in search of my trusty tanto blade for a Seppuku ritual I'll be performing later, I'd like to reiterate... I never liked that dog.

And that's all I've got to say about that....
Jerry D. Finley
Captain / Pirates' Lair