The Library has recently received from Mr. Walter Beinecke, Jr., a collection of manuscripts and printed material relating to a minor figure of considerable tangential importance for the study of socialism in England and the United States in the latter half of the last century. William Harrison Riley seems to have received little attention but with this collection there is enough material to compile a considerable footnote to intellectual history.
A man who received and kept letters from people like Karl Marx, John Ruskin, Walt Whitman, William Rossetti, Walter Besant, Rudyard Kipling, Justin McCarthy, and Edward Everett Hale must have interest to more than the Yale Library – although this list may sound like a list of our special collections. Mr. Riley was editor of a large number of periodicals, many of which are present in the gift. In 1871 he was editing the Leeds Critic. He proceeded to London where he concerned himself with the Herald and Helpmate, the Republican, the International Herald under the auspices of the British Federal Council, becoming in 1873 the Republican Herald. This London period was followed by a half year spent editing the Sheffield Socialist . Two pamphlets were issued in London, An Appeal to Reason to Reform Itself (1872) and Yankee Letters to British Workmen (1871 [?]) in eleven parts. These are the comments of a Boston machinist traveling in England, written in the homespun tradition of Jack Downing continued by Will Rogers.
In 1880 Mr. Riley returned to American and from 1889 to 1896 was a resident of Lunenberg, Massachusetts. Two more substantial works are present in manuscript and I find no record of their publication: "Literary Cranks By One of Them," on 112 pages, and "Radical Jack" on 212 pages. During his later years in America Riley seems to have written under the name William Freeland. He retained his interest in cooperative colonies and workingmen's associations as is documented by nearly a hundred newspaper clippings –most of which need to be identified. Such a man was naturally the recipient of numerous "crack-pot" letters. George Francis Train writes from the Tombs in 1873 and signs himself "The Coming Dictator." One Peter Swenson writes from Caddo, Texas suggesting setting up an agricultural commune. F.G. Evans answers a request for information on the Shaker Community in Mount Lebanon. Ernest Jones, ringleader of the Chartists, sends a frantic appeal for funds (1854). One folder is inscribed "Feuds within Feuds" and contains letters to Riley from such radicals as John DeMorgan, Charles Bradlaugh, and John Hales.
From Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 36, October 1961.
From the guide to the William Harrison Riley papers, 1844-1899, (Manuscripts and Archives)