Is this a James Barry edition?

Henry More Smith. The Mysterious Stranger. Originally published in New Haven in 1817. Partly set in New Brunswick, the story was very popular in the Maritime colonies and there were at least 8 editions published.

James Barry was a miller, a fiddler, a diarist, an infidel, and a printer. When I began working on him, I was drawn to the miller. I’m now fascinated by the diarist and printer. While presenting at Congress in Vancouver this past June, I noted that Barry “sold Johnny McLeod a whole Back-load of Books” – three dozen of one title, four dozen of another. It presented the possibility that Barry was printing more than broadsheets and pamphlets; that he may have been printing entire books.

Eli McLaren, a historian of copyright at McGill, asked if I was suggesting that James Barry was illegally printing books. My answer then, as I suggested in an earlier post, was that I think so because of some contextual evidence, but don’t know for sure because I’ve never actually seen either a book that directly pointed to him, nor does he ever indicate anything specific in his diary or accounts. At that moment, co-panelist Gwen Davies, Emeritus Dean of Arts at UNB and one who knows more about Maritime books than anyone, piped up “I’ve seen one” and told me the story of an edition that she thinks Barry printed. And it’s in the Bell Library at Mt. Allison University. Last week, I went ot the Bell Library, and here’s what I found.

The book is Henry Bates, The Mysterious Stranger, or the Memoirs of the Noted Henry More Smith. First published in New Haven, Conneticut in 1817, the book tells the story of Henry More Smith, part grifter and part Harry Houdini, whose New England and New Brunswick exploits were widely read in the 19th century. At least nine 19th-century editions were published in the Maritime colonies: one in Halifax (Cunnabell, 1835), six in Saint John, New Brunswick (William Avery, 1840 and George Day, 1857, 1866, 1872, 1878 and 1895), one in Southampton , New Brunswick (George W. Miller, 1855) , and one in Charlottetown, PEI (Haszard, 1855). Later two 20th-century editions were published in Saint John (Bowes, 1910) and Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1912 (no publisher indicated). It’s a fascinating tale and numerous other versions have been published into the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

What, then, of this mysterious edition? At first glance, it’s by George Day, though with the curious addition of “Originally printed by George W. Day”. None of the Day editions include that, and why would they? So who printed this edition? There’s no direct proof that it was Barry, but lots more to suggest it’s possible. First, and most obviously, there’s an annotation on the inside cover signed “G.H.C.” that says so – indeed, not only that this was printed by Barry, but also that this was his second edition.

Annotation by “G.H.C.” claiming the book was published by James Barry, Six Mile Brook, Pictou, County

So who’s “G.H.C.”. Gwen Davies doesn’t know. I’ve begun writing to collectors and Special Collections librarians around the region, but this might take some time. The annotation is striking for its confidence. No “maybes” or speculations: “was printed by James Barry”. He appears to have been local (an American or central Canadian would surely have included “Nova Scotia” in the description). 

There’s lots more that’s curious about this edition and most of these oddities open other possibilities. The title page notes that it was “originally published by George Day” of Saint John, New Brunswick, but the texts are not identical. This edition has a Preface. None of the Cunnabell or Day editions have one, and this Preface is not the same as the Haszard or Miller editions. The title pages, and the full titles are different. There are also some minor modifications in the final paragraphs. This edition also has three types of paper and two fonts (one on very thin paper with a dense font, the other more substantial but a less dense text).

“Henry More Smith” on the spine

What really marks this edition is the addition of material from Pictou County. The final seven pages are three letters from Pictou County residents recalling the time More spent there in 1816. None of the letters add significantly to the story, though in spirit they certainly confirm the pattern of the Houdini-like grifter. Of course, that consistency could mean that these 40-year-old memories are somewhere between imagined and apocryphal, but in any event they added local colour to this edition – a feature no doubt intended spark local sales.

Assuming for the moment, at a minimum, that it was printed in Pictou County, could someone else have printed the work? Possibly, though not this bound version. To my knowledge, there were only two other presses in the County, both for local newspapers, the Colonial Standard and the Eastern Chronicle. Neither appear to have published any books, though both did some pamphlets. An exception is William Harris (who purchased the press of the Colonial Standard around 1875) who published Teare’s Directory of Pictou and New Glasgow (210 pages) in 1879. While the Eastern Chronicle could have printed the work, they don’t appear to have had any binding capacity as McConnell purchased bound volumes of his own newspaper from Barry.

Barry’s diary entry noting the Mysterious Stranger also noted H.B. Skinner’s The Family Doctor, or Guide to Health (both Worldcat and have the 1844, 9th edition from Boston). Barry also gave away several copies of Eugene Becklard’s Physiological Mysteries and Revelations in Love Courtship and Marriage (the edition is New York, Holland and Glover, 1844; Worldcat lists several mid-century editions from Boston and Philadelphia). Were these Becklards also a Barry edition? Further research here and a more rigorous assessment of Barry’s remaining libray in the Public Archives of Nova Scotia may well turn up other possible Barry editions. If so, Barry represents a significant addendum to MacLaren’s work on 19th-century copyright in Canada. His Dominion and Agency details the concerted efforts of the Canadian government to regulate the irregular book trade, and copyright law, often at the insistence of British and later American publishers. Barry may well have been escaping the state’s observance. And if he was, it’s hard to imagine there weren’t other small rural printing presses doing the same.

It’s too soon to say this is an accurate picture. But if Barry was pirating copyrighted materials, then he presents a challenge to a national and trans-Atlantic literature on colonial book publishing. More interesting to me, though, is what this means for our understanding of the production and consumption of local knowledge. If he was publishing and selling these works, then the local networks of books, reading and ideas were much more complex than we’ve imagined – indeed, still more so than I’d argued in Vancouver. Textual modernity arrived in the countryside not as an outside force, but something more carefully and locally mediated than we’ve seen before. And James Barry, no friend of the state, may have been even more subversive than I’ve imagined.

Update: While in Halifax in September, the good (and knowledgeable!) folks at Schooner Books in Halifax identified G.H.C.


Eli MacLaren, Dominion and Agency: Copyright and the Structuring of the Canadian Book Trade, 1867–1918 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2011).

James Barry’s Transatlantic World of Books and Ideas

D. M. Bennett, Champions of the Church: Their Crimes and Persecutions (New York, 1878). Bennett was a radical tree thinker, and publisher of the Truth Seeker (1873-1883): “Opposed to: priestcraft, ecclesiasticism, dogmas, creeds, false theology, superstition, bigotry, ignorance, monopolies, aristocracies, privileged classes, tyranny, oppression, and everything that degrades or burdens mankind mentally or physically.” Exactly the kind of truth James Barry sought! Image source:

Co-published with Acadiensis blog.

James Barry (1822-1906) was a Six Mile Brook, Pictou County miller, printer, fiddler, iconoclast, and curmudgeon. Born, like so many Pictou County folk, into the Presbyterian church, over his life he became intensely critical of Christian theology. His route is visible in outline, but the details are less clear; his diary, detailed in so many ways, offers no “Eureka” moment. But there are clues. Most of those clues, I argue, stem from his immersion in text – that is, that he saw text as defining the world, and thus critical engagement was necessary to properly understanding it. Very early in life, Barry distanced himself from both free church and Church of Scotland Presbyterianisms. By the time he was in his 30s, he was describing himself as a Morisonian, a small sect of Scottish Presbyterians defined mostly by their rejection of any form of church government. In the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, his Morisonian thinking was certainly more radically individualistic and textually-focused than that of his Free Church neighbours. But this was not that far outside dissenting Presbyterianism; his critical engagements were within Presbyterian theological controversies. 

By the 1870s, however, that had changed dramatically. Where in 1857, for example, he celebrated and strictly observed Sunday as “the Lord’s Day, [as] a day of rest for man and beast”, by August 1879 he maintained that “Sunday is only a manmade day … All religion is of man’s manufacture”. Even his early focus on the universality of the Atonement – a significant feature of Morisonian theology – came under critique: “I am reading works on the Atonement”, he recorded in December 1853, citing particular biblical passages as textual proof of his position:

Barry’s daily diary spanned over 56 years, from 1849 to 1906. Source: MG1, vol 1219, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

“I am firmly of the opinion Christ died and thereby made Atonement for every man – every human being. For the sin of Old Adam sunk the human race and the apostle says “that where sin abounds grace did much more abound’ [Romans 5, 20] and ‘that Christ tasted death for every man’ [Hebrews 2, 9] and ‘he is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world’ [John 2, 2]”

By the 1870s his reading patterns were quite different. And by 1883, after six or seven years of reading Charles Watts, Robert Ingersoll, and other free thinkers, Barry’s thinking had shifted ground significantly:

“I was in my Shop all day setting type for an article by Charles Watts entitled ’The Fall and Redemption’ and an able handling he gave it. In fact he knocked the fall and redemption into nonsense, which every sensible man and woman can easily see ….  ‘Fall’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Inspiration’, ‘Atonement’, in fact the whole jumble of incoherent nonsense in ‘Theology’ is absurd … and ordinary people are coming fast to see it, and reject it in toto.”

If not explaining to us in any detail how Watts “knocked” these ideas “into nonsense”, Barry was absolutely clear in highlighting his own shifting worldview. Equally clear is his textual evidence, citing first the bible then later Watts. Indeed, text also enabled what might normally be experiential evidence. The “ordinary people … coming fast to see it”, upon whom Barry rested his belief in progress, were ordinary people in New York and Chicago, not Six Mile Brook – the people of his textual world.

So, we can see that Barry had undergone a radical change in his thinking on theology, and that that came about through his engagement with new ideas in the books he was reading. It also coincides with a shift in local booksellers moving their primary suppliers from Edinburgh and London to Philadelphia and New York, a shift that no doubt was related to the dramatic rise of coal trade shipping to the eastern seaboard. Can we see that trans-Atlantic shift in Six Mile Brook? Can we see him transmitting those old and new ideas into Six Mile Brook, the West River, and beyond? The typically asocial Barry was not a prime candidate for promoter of the unfaith, or much of anything really. He had some regular reading friends, notably Dr Murdoch Munro, with whom he had a generally amiable friendship clearly centred on books and discussion. He admired educated men, and judged them accordingly. When his neighbour William Sutherland died in the summer of 1857, Barry commended his faith, but not his education. “I think he was a true Christian, although not a very learned one”. Barry’s Christianity was profoundly textual and like most evangelicals he explored this faith through “the Word” of the bible; unlike most evangelicals, however, that deep, critical immersion in text and reading eventually pushed him to free thought. For Barry, learned status competed with faith as a marker of worth, but with his faith rooted in textual criticism the door to abandoning faith was wide open. 

List of books lent, ca. 1877. Bennett’s Champions of the Truth is listed four times. Source: Barry Diaries, MG1, volume 1223, Public Archives of Nova Scotia.

The diary gives us a very clear picture of the mill as a community hub. Barry certainly could be less than charming but most everyone in the community went there either to grind their grain, saw their wood, or purchase shingles, staves, or fenceposts. These conversations are almost completely inaccessible to us, but we get glimmers in the diary. “Kenneth Irvine was here at the mill and we had a long chat about the Bible and some other things”, reads a fairly typical entry from November 1877. Religion, and increasingly over the years, anti-religion, was the most common topic. “Many about the mill today”, he reported, in July 1883, “talking about the Bible, they are superstitious”. Politics too was common, notably in the period between the Quebec Conference in 1864 and the death of Nova Scotia’s anti-Confederation movement around 1870. Here, some of the talk was based on local public meetings, but the vast majority stemmed from their readings of the newspapers.  The bases for his long discussion with his employee, Sandy Sutherland, in May of 1854 about “Nova Scotia railways and the war in Russia” [the Crimean War] no doubt also came from newspapers.

The focus of discussions, like the focus of his reading, was shifting. By the late 1870s, free thought and a fundamental critique of Christian theology also seem to have become common conversations around the mill. One evening his friend Munro came by and they discussed D. M. Bennett’s recent book: “Dr Munro was here this evening”, he noted in August 1877. “‘Champions of the Church’ was the book that occupied my attention most. It gives fearful accounts of Cruelty practised by one Christian on another. They are all tarred with the same stick it seems”. It’s hard to say how influential Barry was here – in other entries, Munro seems more intrigued than invested – but the miller was certainly bringing new ideas to everyday conversation in Six Mile Brook.

In all these discussions, Barry was always right. In town buying supplies in 1883, he “had some talk about Bible stories to various persons but [I] always came of conquerer [sic] by a long chalk. Most don’t know much, they are stupid and ignorant”. He wasn’t much of a proselyte, typically dismissing the ignorant and praising only those with whom he agreed. But he tried. “McDonald the miller came by this morning. I presented him with a Book of Tracts on free-thought. He is no bigot not a pious fool. He will learn”. There were numerous such discussions and it’s still clear that most involved an exchange of ideas and Barry loaning, selling, and sometimes even giving a suitable book. If he suffered no fools, and thus often spoke only to those already onside, Barry was nonetheless an active agent of intellectual exchange. In the market for ideas, he had a product and some willing customers.

We have a less clear sense of how many then purchased those ideas. The diaries and an account book give us only fragmentary clues on Barry’s reach, but if we take into consideration his place at the centre of the community (that is, as a miller, not as a social person!), his frequent trips to town where he almost always reported engaging with someone, and combine that with the fact that he was printing and binding dozens of the free-thought works (among much more), then he certainly had the potential to reach a lot of people. 

Part of the “backload” from 1884? The Mysterious Stranger was republished dozens of times over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This edition is the 1st US edition published in New Haven in 1817. I think, but can’t yet prove, Barry printed his own edition and this then would give us some sense of the volume of his work. Source:

Precise numbers are scarce. But a single entry in the diary from April of 1884 offers a hint. “I sold [Johnny McLeod] a whole Back-load of Books – Henry More Smith and the family doctor, 3 doz of the former and 4 doz of the latter”. We don’t know that he printed these, but he was printing books and here at least he’s selling dozens of copies. He printed a wide range of materials and neither of the titles noted here were free-thought works. But he was tight with his money and however much he loved printing (a point he made several times) he wouldn’t cast type, print and bind works purely for the pleasure. It suggests that the miller on Six Mile Brook, who spent much of his time in his “little shop”, as he termed it, was not only a miller but also a printer, a bookseller, and very much a critical node in this tiny corner of the transatlantic world of books and idea. A decidedly uncharismatic proselyte, he was nonetheless an able aggregator and disseminator of everything from domestic self-help guides to radical free-thought works. James Barry brought distinctly modern ideas and debates into the back-country world of the West River. Six Mile Brook was a tiny place far from the colonial metropolis, but it was it was very much a centre of the modern world.