The first question that these letters posed was, clearly, who was my mystery student?
All of these letters are addressed to his father (John A. Weber) and mother, who lived in Caledonia, Ohio.
They are all signed, most with James Weber and his middle initials. So far, so good. BUT what were those middle initials? His hand, often rushed and cramped at the end of a letter, varied and left this up in the air. Here are some examples, from the first several letters:
I wound up deciphering and verifying the initials in two ways--one taking advantage of high-tech skills, the other drawing on my background in paleography.
For the first, my boyfriend Mike took to the web, and found a google books scan of early Ohio Wesleyan alumni directories, and in particular the officiously named Quinquennial Catalogue of the Ohio Wesleyan University, 1842-1886, available here.
Because scanning and word recognition (OCR, as he has taught me) is so good now, these are searchable, so I keyed in “Weber” and lo and behold, there is an entry for a “James Knox Polk Weber.” So, James K. P. Weber it is! Now, back to the letters:
In a letter from October 30, 1868, James signs his name
He also explains to his parents that he had received a written excuse for a recent absence (more on that later) from the President of the University:
Confirmation of his P! (This is a way that paleographers work to decipher unclear letters and abbreviations in a particular writer’s “hand” or handwriting--you identify words you are certain of that contain the mystery letter, and work from there).
So, who was James Knox Polk Weber? According to the alumni guides, he returned to Caledonia and became (briefly) a superintendent of schools and then an “experimental farmer and florist.”
Armed with his full name and the digital fruits of contemporary America’s fascination with genealogy, I took to the web, and found: his grave.
So I now have a full name, birth and death dates (by means of backwards reckoning), and, remarkably, his OWU student ID number: