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Exhibit about ‘First Citizen’ of N.Y. opens at Union’s Schaffer Library

Tuesday, December 20, 2011
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Bruce Connolly, head of public services at Union College's Schaffer Library, is seen Monday with a new exhibit on Union slumnus John Bigelow.
Bruce Connolly, head of public services at Union College's Schaffer Library, is seen Monday with a new exhibit on Union slumnus John Bigelow.

— Before LinkedIn and Facebook, there were people like John Bigelow.

Bigelow, a Class of 1835 Union College Graduate who died 100 years ago Monday, was the social networker of his day — corresponding with people like President Theodore Roosevelt, businessman Andrew Carnegie, novelist Mark Twain and Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who co-designed Central Park.

“He was a consummate networker and strategist and a great writer,” said Annette LeClair, a librarian and head of technical services at Union College’s Schaffer Library.

Bigelow played a major role in the creation of the New York City Library and served as consul-general to Paris during the Civil War. He was also a newspaper editor and a New York secretary of state.

“He was known in his life as the First Citizen of New York for all his contributions to the city and state,” LeClair said.

College officials on Monday unveiled an exhibit about Bigelow titled “Remembered First Citizen,” which includes 4,000 titles from his personal library, a journal he kept in the last months of his life before dying at age 94, his death mask and a typewriter and draft papers for the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin that he compiled.

The exhibit takes its title from a biography of Bigelow of the same name by Margaret Clapp.

The college is also in the process of compiling a digital index for Bigelow’s more than 20,000 letters from prominent people. The public will be able to search for this material when the index goes online, which is expected to happen in February.

Public service was part of Bigelow’s outlook on life, according to LeClair. He worked only briefly in law before beginning his career as a writer. He was later a co-owner and editor of the New York Evening Post. Through his journalism career, he connected with the dignitaries of his day.

President Abraham Lincoln later appointed Bigelow consul general to Paris and he helped dissuade a number of European countries from supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War.

During his time in Paris, Bigelow discovered a lost manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, which he edited and published in 1868. Bigelow also served as New York’s secretary of state and did battle with boss William Tweed’s corrupt Tammany Hall political machine in New York City.

“It’s truly extraordinary what he was involved in and what he accomplished,” LeClair said.

Bigelow believed very strongly that libraries should be free to the public and was instrumental in the creation of the New York City Public Library. The plaza in front of the library is named for him.

Much of this material was donated to Union College in the 1950s by Bigelow’s heirs, according to LeClair. The exhibit also contains Bigelow’s death mask, the result of a Victorian-era custom that made a mold of a person’s face when they died. His family received a sympathy telegram from President William Howard Taft.

Bigelow also kept a diary all his life and Union has the final volume. In his last days, Bigelow was still active and preoccupied with trying to get the new volume of his autobiography published, according to LeClair.

Another case shows a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt about the construction of the Panama Canal.

The exhibit, which runs through February, will be open to the public anytime the Schaffer Library is open at the college.

Matthew Connolly, an assistant to the library’s digital projects staff, said the most difficult part was trying to choose which of the more than 4,000 artifacts to display. “There was just such a wealth of material,” he said.

He wrote brief biographies of some of the people with whom Bigelow corresponded. “He knew all the famous people from that time period,” Connolly said.

Despite his interaction with these famous figures, Bigelow himself has not gotten a lot of recognition. “For some reason he has kind of been lost to history,” Connolly said.

Jim Underwood, a retired faculty member, was among the people who stopped by to see the exhibit on its first day. He said it was fitting that Bigelow was selected because he was also named a “notable” on their wall of distinction.

The college has an endowed professorship in Bigelow’s name and in 2008 created the John Bigelow Medal to recognize friends of the college who have contributed to the advancement of humanity.

Underwood said Bigelow took a stand on his core values and left the Democratic Party because of its pro-slavery stance. “There are not many people like him,” he said.

Helen Willis of Niskayuna helped work on the project last summer and came back to see its unveiling. “He’s a really fascinating historical figure,” she said. “It’s amazed me how long he was active in public life.”

 
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