Verse case scenario: Researchers unlock poetic mystery
October 31, 2011By Peter Crimmins
This—when I learned about it—revealed a sense of humor and side of [Dr. Harold E. Cox] that I was not aware of.
A collection of documents related to the birth of Philadelphia's transit system has an unusual restriction—researchers wanting to access the Dr. Harold E. Cox Collection must first get through a long poem extolling the heroism of the collection's savior.
It's a joke permanently written into the historical record.
Archivists Celia Caust-Ellenbogen and Michael Gubicza were hired to make sense of the massive trove of documents. They sorted and catalogued financial ledgers, court records, accident reports, and miscellaneous scrapbooks relating to the various companies that preceded SEPTA, consuming more than 200 feet of shelf space.
They discovered an official document from the donor of the collection, Dr. Cox, making it mandatory for any researcher wanting access to the collection to first listen to a 20-minute ode praising someone named Jeffrey Ray.
Caust-Ellenbogen had no idea who that was. Last September, at a digital archiving conference, she heard somebody say his name was "Jeffrey Ray."
"We had a bathroom break," said Caust-Ellenbogen. "I creepily followed him, and I introduced myself."
Ray is the senior curator at the Philadelphia History Museum, formerly the Atwater Kent Museum. Fifteen years ago, he accepted the boxes of unsorted material from Dr. Cox in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., who years earlier discovered the material, destined for the garbage, in a room beneath the Eighth Street SEPTA station.
The records go back to the mid-19th century, when public transportation meant horse-drawn trolleys and many unincorporated private companies.
Later, Ray gave the collection to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which in turn hired Caust-Ellenbogen and Gubicza to figure out exactly what is in it.
They found the document with the poetic restriction, but there was no poem. So Caust-Ellenbogen and Gubicza wrote one, borrowing the cadence of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere":
"Listen, my researchers, and we shall say,
The midnight ride of Jeffrey Ray.
(If it was midnight, to tell the truth,
We don't know) but forsooth
He saved everything in this rich collection,
And for over a decade he gave it protection.
Ray got the collection from Dr. Harold E. Cox,
Who kept it in many a big cardboard box.
Cox found it in the bowels of SEPTA's subway.
Someone had trashed it! But without delay,
He saw it was treasure: maps and reports,
Financial, administrative, and records from courts.
Two-hundred feet of such quality goods!
Cox had no space, and knew that he should
Bring it to Atwater Kent Museum.
He called Jeffrey Ray to come out and see 'em.
Ray saw the treasure and cried in delight,
"Researchers will love this! I'll take all in my sight!"
That was nineteen-ninety: the next thirteen years,
Jeffrey Ray faced bravely, and without fear,
All researchers who came to see
The archives of Philly Rapid Transit and the PTC.
But time does pass, and when the Atwater Kent
Became the Philadelphia History Museum, they sent
Their archival holdings our way:
To the Historical Society of P. A.
Now the collection is processed, finding aid online,
So we hope that you'll come visit some time,
To learn of subways, the trolley and bus,
In Philadelphia—or at least how it was.
Although he held the collection for 15 years, Ray never had the resources to sort and catalogue it. So he never saw the restriction buried in the boxes, and never knew of Cox's intention to honor him.
"This—when I learned about it—revealed a sense of humor and side of him that I was not aware of," said Ray. "I am honored and amused by it."
The collection is now catalogued online and housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The 30-line poem is posted in the elevator.