Visit any tourist destination in America and you will inevitably come across a gift shop selling souvenirs, most often in the form of mugs, t-shirts, and cheap toys that will amuse your children for ten minutes and break in twelve. The desire to acquire keepsakes from places visited or events attended has often motivated Americans to travel vast distances to acquire them, especially when it involved the infamous.
Take the assassination of Jesse James by Bob Ford on April 3, 1882. Ford shot James in the back as the latter stood upon a chair dusting a picture. Not long after, James’ widow decided to auction off most of the contents of her St. Joseph, Missouri, home in an effort to raise money on which she and her two children could live. People traveled from as far away as New York City to bid these items, and about one thousand attended. The auctioneer stood on a kitchen table outside a window through which the few people in the house handed him articles for sale.
These included a cane-bottom chair (sold for $2.50), a wash boiler (sold for twenty-five cents), Jesses’ black and tan dog (sold for $15), and the straw mattress upon which Jesse slept (sold for $2). The feather duster he held in hand when killed sold for $4, and the chair upon which he stood during this tragic moment for $3.25. A silver-plated revolver given to James a few days before he embarked on the Blue Cut Train Robbery sold at the auction for almost $17. If this came up for bid today, it would likely sell for a great deal more in comparative value to what the original purchaser paid. The last gun known to belong to James sold in 2009 for $230,000. The James sale proved a success. It earned $149.60 (about $3,500 in today’s money) for items normally auctioned off at about $50.
Those who made acquisitions such as these often marked them with notes or wrote directly on them so future generations would know their provenance. Thomas Jefferson did this when he sent the portable desk upon which he wrote the Declaration of Independence to his niece as a wedding present. With it he included a note explaining its significance, adding he felt this piece of Revolutionary history might in the future serve as a relic of the United States akin to the sort kept for saints.
Souvenir hunters haven’t always filled out their collections in the most ethical of ways. Plymouth Rock, which had no protection from the public until 1859, has lost about one-third of its original size thanks to visitors chipping off pieces they took home as mementos, a practice encouraged by the fact a hammer set on site for those who forgot their town. At large public gathering guests often wandered off with the tableware. At a January 1908 assembly of prominent citizens hosted by a Knights of Pythias lodge in Abingdom, Illinois, thirty-three of the eighty-four borrowed souvenir spoons used for the occasion disappeared.
Appropriating objects found at a place or event of significance remained a habit of Americans well into the twentieth century. In the summer of 1922 Maurice Barres of the Chamber of Deputies of the French Academy asked American veterans of the recent Great War who had made off with pieces from the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame de Reims to please return them. This church, in which many events of significance in French history occurred, first suffered damage from German shelling on September 4, 1914. On September 19 of that same year, another attack started a fire that destroyed the entire structure, melting its roof and bells—about 400 tons of lead and metal. It would take thirteen years and a lot of American money to rebuild it.