Rosenberg Library Remembers Harry Bennett

By most accounts Harry Bennett was a modest man: a shy bibliophile who kept to himself. A friend described him as having broad shoulders with a stocky build. He was perpetually tan from his life at sea, and had striking blue eyes. Bennett didn’t have a wife or much family, but his career as a merchant marine left him ample time to pursue his true passions of books and history. During the month of July the Rosenberg Library displayed two items donated by Bennett: a Portuguese signal gun and an excerpt from a typescript of Charles W. Hayes’ Galveston: History of the Island and the City.

Born in Orlando, Florida August 8, 1892, Bennett was orphaned at an early age. He was taken in by the Galveston Orphans’ Home and began a life at sea around 1915. While he dabbled with invention (he held several patents), the ocean’s allure proved irresistible. A friend wrote of his life “His love of the sea and of books were conflicting passions; but happily he had solved the struggle. The ship on which he sailed carried him to a port where he might find a rarity for which he was searching.” He lived an austere life on land. His home had simple furnishings with books, maps, portfolios, etchings, color plates, and all manner of printed matter throughout. He read nearly everything in his collection and enjoyed the art of printing almost as much as looking at books.

In the late 1930s Bennett befriended William Manning Morgan, President of the Rosenberg Library Board of Directors, as well as Morgan’s father George, and head Librarian Joseph Ibbotson. His life at sea meant spending stretches away from the island, but he slowly began donating or selling, at a great discount, his collection of rare books to the library.

In the summer of 1942 Bennett set sail on the Tillie Lykesmerchant vessel as 2nd mate. The ship was headed from Galveston to San Juan, Puerto Rico but, on June 28th, just south of the Dominican Republic it was struck by a German torpedo. The ship sunk after just 2 ½ minutes. A few crewmen survived the initial attack. The remaining crew were interrogated by the Germans and left at sea. No one survived. The USS Club, a hotel and club for merchant marines at 1914 Market in Galveston, was later named in Bennett’s honor.

George Morgan was deeply moved by Bennett’s death. He wrote a touching memoriam highlighting his friend’s contribution to Galveston. He recalled receiving Bennett’s books at the library, but a number of rare Jack London and Mark Twain first editions were absent. These works were some of Bennett’s most prized books, but he traded them for a typescript of an extremely rare book, Galveston: History of the Island and the City by Charles Hayes.

Hayes, a long time journalist in Galveston, wrote one of the earliest (1879) and most comprehensive histories of the island. However after Hayes sent the book to the publisher in Cincinnati, it was lost in a fire. Only a galley-proof copy of survived, and Bennett obtained a typed copy to share with the library. From the time of his donation in the 1940s to 1974, when the book was finally published, scholars from all over the state came to the Rosenberg Library to view the book. A copy of the work is available to researchers in the Galveston and Texas History Center on the 4th floor of the Rosenberg Library.

Also on display was a unique signal gun that Harry Bennett acquired in Hong Kong from an owner of a Chinese junk. Signal guns were used in sailing to communicate in low visibility areas by firing loud blasts to alert other ships. Although it looked and functioned much like a cannon, the signal gun was not used as a weapon. The large flared tip would have made lots of smoke and a bright flash, but the thin barrel could not have withstood very large explosions. Bennett believed it was from a Portuguese merchant ship which had been raided by pirates.

Past Treasures