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Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

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Welcome to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library blog! As the special collections and archives library at the University of Kansas, Spencer is home to remarkable and diverse collections of rare and unique items. Explore the blog to learn about the work we do and the materials we collect.

A “Dead Rank Jonah”: The Unlucky Travels of Guy Hatfield

October 25th, 2023

The letters of Guy Hatfield are a collection of 50 letters written by a traveling salesman to his wife, Nell, living in Kansas City, Missouri. He made his living traveling throughout the Midwestern United States. His letters document his travels between Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma Territory, Colorado, Missouri, and Illinois, all in the hopes of making a quick buck. Though little is known about Guy Hatfield’s life outside of the collection of letters here at Spencer Library, he is associated as a contemporary of the better-known George B. McClellan, a traveling medicine man and Wild West showman. [i]

Guy’s letters to his wife, Nell, give a window into his business life as a traveling salesman. Rarely was business good. Inclement weather would keep the townspeople in their homes and slow business. Sometimes “biz” (as Guy called it) in company towns was centered around payday; setting up shop at the right time was key. Risk of illness and outbreak of the “grip” (also written as grippe, an old-fashioned term for the flu) could also be a detriment to business.

This image has handwritten text.
In a letter written from Davenport, Iowa, in September 1891, Guy’s typically neat handwriting is shaky and the message short. Is Guy in the grips of the Grippe? Letters of Guy Hatfield. Call Number: RH MS 1371. Click image to enlarge.

The letters give a wealth of information beyond Guy’s correspondence to his wife. His travels, most often by train, show the rail network in the Midwest and Great Plains around 1890. The stationery and envelopes, bearing the names and proprietors of the hotels Guy stayed at, give us a list of the hotels and innkeepers that served travelers as they crisscrossed the country.

Black-and-white map of Kansas and border areas, with red dotted lines between cities.
Guy Hatfield’s travels in winter 1889/1890 outlined on a Kansas railroad map. Based on the order of his letters, he traveled to Wymore and Beatrice (Neb.) and south to Manhattan and Salina (Kan.). He then headed up to Red Cloud (Neb.) before going to Wichita and Winfield (Kan.). From there, he ventured into Oklahoma Territory. He returned, stopping in Emporia and Osage City (Kan.) before returning to Kansas City. Call Number: RH Map R452. Click image to enlarge.
This image has text.
The back of an envelope for the St. James Hotel in Manhattan (Kan.) features a verbose ad for Merchant’s Gargling Oil Liniment, November 1889. Letters of Guy Hatfield. Call Number: RH MS 1371. Click image to enlarge.

So what exactly did Guy Hatfield sell? His letters mention glasses and figurines (mislaid and broken by the railroad company), wigs, a mummy, a gorilla, a skeleton (in one letter, a gorilla skeleton), and medicine (though he does not say if it is for resale or personal use). In one of his letters, he mentions his attempts to sell his whole museum to one or more interested parties in Wichita, but bad luck seemed to prevent the sale from going through. He blames an associate named Converse, who he calls a “dead rank Jonah.”

Whatever it was Hatfield was trying to sell, few were interested in buying. With a few exceptions, the common thread through the letters are complaints of low revenue, high expenses, and excuses for why he cannot yet come home. The letters begin in October 1889 in Sioux City, Iowa, where Guy complains about losing lots of money. In the last letter, dated February 25, 1892, he is staying in Pittsburg, Kansas, a couple days longer with hopes of making a few dollars. As to his association with the famous George McClellan, a letter from January 22, 1891, suggests the nature of their friendship: “George has not answered any of my letters at all nor sent me a cent[.]”

Beyond these three years of flourishing (if we can call it that), little is known about Guy Hatfield or his wife Nell. The Kansas City addresses on the envelopes no longer exist. A search of digitized newspapers reveals two stories of a Guy Hatfield, who may or may not be the same as our ambitious and unlucky letter-writer. A newspaper report in the Kansas City Journal from January 1898 tells the story of a salesman of the same name attempting suicide in a saloon; a report from the Topeka State Journal from July of the same year reports on the impending execution of a soldier bearing the same name, who, “in a drunken row soon after pay day,” stabbed another soldier to death.

When we think of archival collections, we often give too much credit to the movers and shakers of history. It makes sense that the Kansas Collection at KU’s Spencer Library would hold the personal and professional papers of governors, senators, and other pillars of the civic community. But there is much to learn about the world of the past in collections like the letters of Guy Hatfield. He lived during an era we like to call the Gilded Age. But through his own words, we are reminded that to many, it may not have been so gilded.

Phil Cunningham
Kansas Collection Curator

[i] Finch, L. Boyd. “Doctor Diamond Dick: Leavenworth’s Flamboyant Medicine Man.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 26 (Spring 2003): 2-13. Available online at

Meet the KSRL Staff: Phil Cunningham

April 18th, 2023

This is the latest installment in a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Today’s profile features Phil Cunningham, who joined Spencer Research Library in February 2023 as Assistant Librarian and Kansas Collection Curator.

Headshot of a smiling young man.
Kansas Collection Curator Phil Cunningham. Click image to enlarge.

Where are you from?

I was born in Tacoma, Washington, and as a child have lived in Los Angeles; Fort Polk, Louisiana; and Fort Riley and Manhattan, Kansas. Before coming to Lawrence and KU, I lived in New Orleans.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I recently joined the Kenneth Spencer Research Library as the Kansas Collection Curator. The Kansas Collection documents the history and culture of Kansas and its peoples; it is one of the largest regional history collections in the Great Plains. In my role as curator, I lead collection development, instruction, and outreach efforts for that collection. That means I work to support preservation and access to the collections held at the Spencer, team up with instructors to connect students to the multitude of resources available here, and work with donors to help the Kansas Collection grow.

How did you come to work in libraries/archives/special collections?

While working towards my B.A. in history, I began to learn more about the unique history of Kansas and how it came to be what it is today. After graduating, I was eager to continue my studies in history but hesitant to jump into graduate school. I came to see academic librarianship as a desirable route to stay in academia, so I pursued my masters in library and information sciences (MLIS) at Pratt Institute in New York. I was fortunate to intern at the Schomburg Center, a research library part of the New York Public Library system, and the Gilder-Lehrman Archive at the New-York Historical Society. Those experiences helped shape my interests in special collections libraries and archival work.

What is one of the most interesting items you’ve come across in Spencer’s collections?

I am still quite new to the Spencer Library, however, I have already started to come across fun and interesting collections in the Kansas Collection! One fun collection is the Agnes T. Frog collection, which documents efforts in Lawrence in 1986 to symbolically elect an amphibian as Douglas County Commissioner. The campaign was a protest against the then-proposed southern Lawrence bypass and its environmental effects on the Baker Wetlands to the south of the city. Another fun item I have come across is a high school diploma awarded to a pony named in Pansy in 1931. Pansy was the primary means of transport to school for a family in Brown County, Kansas. After “attending” school for 22 years, she graduated in 1931 and was given her own diploma!

A Kansas public school diploma awarded to Pansy, 1931. For twenty-two years, the piebald pony carried the children of Tom and Flora Hart to school in the Padonia Township of Brown County, Kansas. Call Number: RH MS P782. Click image to enlarge.

What part of your job do you like best?

As I settle into my new role at the Spencer Library, the list of things I enjoy about my job continues to grow. In no particular order, some of the things I enjoy about working here are: having an office with a window, the welcome that I received from my colleagues and in general how friendly everyone is, exploring the collections at the Spencer, and the joy of learning something new every day. I am also excited to work with classes and students to introduce them to archival research and the archives profession.

What are some of your favorite pastimes outside of work?

Outside of being a curator, you’re likely to find me on cycling around town or at a concert. Some of the bands I have seen are Kansas (of course!), Lamb of God, 3OH!3, Metallica, George Clinton & The P-Funk Allstars, Mastodon, Tool, Tech N9ne, and Gogol Bordello to name a few… don’t ever trust me with the aux cord!

What piece of advice would you offer a researcher walking into Spencer Research Library for the first time?

I think research libraries and archival research can be daunting for the uninitiated as it requires prior preparation before one even steps foot into the library. But in fact, the opposite is true. If anyone wants to drop in, they are more than welcome to do so. The permanent displays in the library’s North Gallery are fun and interactive, and they give an idea of the variety of collections here. The rotating exhibitions mean there’s always something new to see and learn about with each visit.

Phil Cunningham
Kansas Collection Curator