Monday, February 3, 2020

A Collection History Mystery

It has been a busy winter! Among several projects, besides my day job, I have been developing an Access database of my insect collection. It is slow progress and although I have over 800 specimens cataloged so far, I have another estimated 4000-5000 to go. One reason it is taking a long time is because I have been investigating and learning all kinds of information about a portion of my collection that was given to me nearly 19 years ago.

The story begins when I was around 12 years old. My life-long passion for insects was turning into a dedicated study with a focus on butterflies and the start of a collection. My first mentor was Mr. Terry Ely, a friend from church and the local USDA plant quarantine officer. Terry was primarily interested in moths but had a collection of many insects from all over the world and gave me tips on how to preserve the bugs I was starting to collect. He gave me my first Banded Alder Borer beetle (Rosalia funebris), my first California Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis californica) butterfly, a giant grasshopper he collected in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and any other interesting insects he came across in his work. When I found a dying female poplar sphinx (Pachysphinx occidentalis) in my backyard that was tattered but so exciting to 14-year-old me, Terry brought me a perfect specimen less than a month later that he had found while working in eastern Washington. Throughout these few years, Terry told me stories of his childhood, that his family would take trips across the country, that his mother had corresponded and traded butterflies and artifacts with people all over the world, including a prince, and that Terry had collected a lot in New Hampshire. I loved hearing the stories, but as a teenager I didn’t think to ask questions and learn more details about the collection I was hearing of.

My insect collection in 2001, after 5 years of collecting and a few dermestid beetle infestations. The giant grasshopper (below center) and one of the moths (top right corner of the upper left display) were collected by Terry Ely.

One day in the summer of 2001, Terry told me that he was retiring and moving to Arizona, that his mother’s collection had already been moved long distances at least twice and was in rough shape, that he couldn’t see doing that again, and that he knew I would treasure and care for it, if I was willing? I was shaking with excitement and don’t remember much else of that conversation, but with permission from my parents, the collection was mine! We met at his office and I was blown away as we emptied a large metal cabinet with drawer after drawer full of butterflies and moths. Fifteen drawers, 18x22 inches each of solid oak with glass lids. I was told that the cabinet and drawers had been surplus from a university back east. 
Antique cabinet and oak drawers from Terry Ely.

Once home, I began the painstaking task of evaluating the specimens and repairing everything as best as I could. Many specimens were damaged from previous moves, a little dermestid beetle damage, and several rusty pins and moldy specimens from exposure to humidity at some time in the past. I replaced as many pins as I could, gently cleaned off dried mold with a soft paintbrush, and became an expert at carefully matching up and gluing broken wings and bodies. Most of the specimens didn’t have any identification labels, only general locations and dates at best, thus I had to comb through books to identify the hundreds of butterflies, organizing them into taxonomic groups, rapidly widening my ability to recognize key features helpful to securing an identification. A couple years went by and then I received news that Terry had passed away suddenly at his home in Arizona. Although I lost a mentor, a new chapter opened when in the same year I met Jonathan Pelham, who quickly filled the role of mentor and later colleague. However, without Terry to ask questions of, I had to piece together the history of my collection solely on his few stories and the tidbits I could gather from the specimen labels.

In the early years, internet searches came up empty for Terry Ely, his mother, Rachel, and a few of the names on the specimen labels. Over time I came to recognize certain labels as coming from the same person, either by the handwriting, the location and date, or the style of label. This allowed me to piece together little vignettes of history since one label might include a person’s name with a date and location that matched other labels with the same data but no name. One specimen still in a paper triangle bears the stamp of “J. C. Hopfinger, Brewster, Wash.” with handwriting in pencil of “E. anicia hopfingeri”, which I’ve been told matches Hopfinger’s handwriting seen in other collections. Considering that Hopfinger traded widely it is no surprise one of his specimens ended up in Rachel Ely’s collection.
Euphydryas anicia hopfingeri specimen from J. C. Hopfinger.

One piece of the puzzle continued to confuse me: Terry had talked about New Hampshire so much that I had assumed that’s where he grew up, yet many of the specimens with labels in Rachel’s handwriting were from Wisconsin. Recently my curiosity climbed again and I started searching the internet for any trace of Rachel’s history or information on some of the other names on the labels. I was able to find a few tidbits on two of the names, both associated with the University of New Hampshire, but it was my mom who had the brilliant idea to search for Rachel Ely along with the keyword “lepidoptera” instead of the “butterflies” or “New Hampshire” that I had been trying. Up popped a link to an old Lepidopterists' Society archive and the floodgates were opened! Turns out that Rachel was a member of the Lepidopterists' Society from 1951 to at least 1955, first under her married name of Mrs. Frank Ely and then as Mrs. Rachel Ely after her husband passed away. Through the archive I discovered she was actually from Endeavor, Wisconsin and after searching with those additional keywords, I came across a newspaper article (Wisconsin State Journal, November 23, 1952, section 2, page 13) that talked about this extraordinary family of Rachel, 13-year-old Terry and his younger sister Cindy, who lived in a house that was so like a museum of natural history artifacts that the local schools would take kids to visit it. The article has pictures with some of the butterfly specimens in the background, and I easily recognized ten specimens that are in my collection, and several others that resemble specimens in my collection but are too small to positively identify to a particular specimen. The article also mentions that she traded curios with many foreign collectors, including an African prince, corroborating my memory of what Terry told me.

Newspaper photo of some of the Ely Collection in 1952. Some of the butterflies within the white outlines (middle/right) are easily recognizable as specimens Terry gave me, see below.
Ely Collection specimens seen within the white frame on the right in the newspaper image.
Ely Collection specimens seen within the white frame on the left in the newspaper image.

Further searching revealed that Rachel wrote a short note on finding and rearing Hemileuca maia in Wisconsin that was published in the LepSoc News in 1954. Learning that she was a member of LepSoc at the same time as J. C. Hopfinger, I wondered who else might have been a member she had traded specimens with. Several of my specimens are from Malta, all with typewritten labels on glassine paper, so I started with those. According to the LepSoc membership lists from 1951-1955, the only member from Malta was Anthony Valletta. A quick internet search showed he lived from 1908 to 1988, was a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, had the largest collection of butterflies and other insects in Malta, and wrote several nature books including The Butterflies of the Maltese Islands.

Other names on specimen labels have ties to the University of New Hampshire, which appears to have been where Terry went to college, although I haven't been able to confirm this. Most of the moths in my collection were collected by him there circa 1963. I suspect that some New Hampshire moths with older dates were given to him by his university acquaintances, including a handful of specimens with dates ranging from 1889 to 1919!

In an incredible twist of the story, I also discovered a tie to my own northwest Lepidopterist connections. Around 2006 or 2007, I began attending the Northwest Lepidopterists’ Workshop in Corvallis (OSU) each fall, where I met Ann Albright. Her husband Ray had passed away a few years prior and she was giving away hundreds of papered specimens from their many collecting trips. I jumped at the chance to add to my collection and brought home several dozen specimens from Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Arizona and elsewhere. All had typewritten labels with handwritten species identifications. During my recent searches through the LepSoc membership directories, I noticed that Ray Albright of Dayton, Oregon was listed as a member during the same time as Rachel Ely. I remembered that I have some specimens from Oregon in Rachel’s collection and seemed to recall Dayton as a location on one of them. Sure enough, a papered specimen of Coenonympha tullia from 1957 has “Dayton, Ore” written in pencil. Likewise, a specimen of Speyeria zerene gloriosa from O’brien, OR in 1958 and one of Parnassius clodius baldur from Mount St. Helens, WA in 1956 bear the same handwriting. The handwriting looked very similar to the specimens I had obtained from Ann. I sent the images to her and she confirmed that it does look like Ray’s handwriting, that he collected in those locations, but these were dated before she knew him so she couldn’t confirm if Ray traded with Rachel or if Rachel might have obtained these from a mutual acquaintance.

Albright specimens: the top three in paper envelopes were collected by Ray and found in the Ely Collection. The bottom specimen was collected by Ray and Ann and acquired by me from Ann. There are some slight differences between the handwriting but that is not surprising considering there is a 40-year gap between them.

Continuing my investigation into the Ely Collection, I ran a search for “Rachel Ely” on SCAN (, which turned up five specimens in the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM):
  • Smerinthus jamaicensis, July 1952 (has a note that reads “this specimen photographed for Sphingidae of Wis.”)
  • Dolba hyloeus, June 29, 1958 (has a note that reads “this specimen photographed for Sphingidae of Wis.”)
  • Hemileuca maia, October 4, 1953 (x2)
  • Catocola whitneyi, July 1958
I reached out to the collection manager to request images or more information about those specimens and she emailed me images several days later. In addition to the labels that looked exactly like Rachel’s labels in my collection, the specimens also had labels stating they were from the William E. Sieker collection, confirming the following details.
While waiting for the photos, I searched for the book Sphingidae of Wisconsin without any luck, so I started reading about the museum, hoping to pick up any other clues. I quickly recognized the name of one of their major donors, William E. Sieker, and how he had one of the most complete collections of worldwide Sphingidae which was donated to their museum. I remembered Rachel had mentioned him in the Hemileuca maia note published in the LepSoc news: she and Sieker netted a bunch of H. maia after she and Terry had found numerous maia larvae crossing the road earlier in the season. In researching more about Sieker, I learned that he founded the Wisconsin Entomological Society (WES). Then I came across his obituary and in the same 1982 WES newsletter there was a list of upcoming speakers, one of whom was Michael Collins, a Saturniidae researcher I know. I emailed him to see if he could shed any light on the Sphingidae of Wisconsin book or if he might have even known Sieker. He responded that while he had briefly corresponded with Bill (Sieker) about silk moths, they had never met, but he put me in contact with Les Ferge from Wisconsin. Les informed me that Bill mentored him from 1971 until Bill’s death, Bill spoke of Rachel occasionally and lamented her tragic early death from an automobile accident. According to Les, the Sphingidae of Wisconsin was a manuscript Bill was working on until his death, but it was never published. Les also suggested that my sphinx moth specimens from Door County, Wisconsin were actually collected by Bill, who owned a vacation cottage in Door County. He said that Bill would run lights and collect moths up there and frequently traded or gave specimens to people, so it is more likely that he and Rachel traded specimens rather than Rachel collecting the Door County specimens herself. This would explain the five specimens of Rachel’s in the MPM, which were donated to the museum as part of Bill Sieker’s collection after his death.

Sphinx moths in Rachel's collection that were presumably collected by Bill Sieker in Door County, Wisconsin.

Ely Collection contributors are as follows with information found through public records searches, LepSoc archives or museum websites:
  • Rachel Ely: 1911 (WI) – 1959 (NH), lived in Endeavor, Marquette County, WI.
  • Terry Ely: 1939 (WI) – 2004 (AZ), also lived in NH, ME, WA.
  • William E. (Bill) Sieker: 1911 Sep 5 – 1982 Jan 22, lived in Madison, WI and had a vacation home in Bailey's Harbor, Door County, WI, knew Rachel, traded a few specimens and collected with her.
  • Auburn E. Brower: 1898 May 22 – 1994 Apr 15, lived in Augusta, Maine, associated with Maine Forest Service (which is noted as a "sister institution" of University of New Hampshire), LepSoc member same time as Rachel. I also found a paper on the Lepidoptera of Maine that has Terry Ely listed as the source of one of the records.
  • Robert L. Blickle: 1913 Nov 12 – 2002 Dec 30, University of New Hampshire, retired from UNH in 1979, would have been a professor at the time Terry apparently attended.
  • William F. Fiske: 1876 – [disappeared in Africa in 1913], studied at the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts (later University of New Hampshire), during the 1890s, and became an entomologist. He was the assistant entomologist for the New Hampshire Experimental Station, 1897-1901; assistant entomologist for the state of Georgia, 1901-1903; assistant in forest investigations, 1903-1906; in charge of the Gypsy Moth Laboratory (Melrose Highlands, Mass.), 1906 May-1913 January; and United States Department of Agriculture, special investigator of sleeping sickness in Africa for joint commission of Royal Society and British Colonial Office, 1913- . He was also a member of many societies and clubs. He apparently disappeared while on his investigation in Africa.
  • Clarence Moores (C. M.) Weed: 1864 Oct 5 – 1947 Jul 20, Professor of Zoology and Entomology in the NH College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Entomologist of the NH Experiment Station, and Associate Editor of the American Naturalist. Bachelor of Science, Michigan Agricultural College, 1883, Master of Science, 1884. Doctor of Science, Ohio State University, 1890. Entomologist and botanist, Ohio Experiment Station, 1888-1891. Professor zoology and entomology, 1891-1904, entomologist in Experiment Station, 1891-1904, New Hampshire College Agriculture and Mechanics Arts; instructor, 1904-1922, principal, 1922-1932, president 1932-1935. Associated with S. Albert Shaw and William F. Fiske in publications.
  • Charles P. Kimball: 1897-1982, his collection is cited as being acquired by the Museum of Comparative Zoology – Harvard. Weed & Fiske publication Butterflies of New Hampshire mentions some records from "Kimball," uncertain if this is the same person.
  • S. Albert Shaw: 1856 Aug 23 – 1944 Apr 6, his collection was donated to the University of New Hampshire and their website states that he was an active collector of insects, especially Diptera, from 1890 until 1934. C. M. Weed mentions him as a colleague in publications.
  • Wallace J. Morse: 1916 – 1999, affiliated with the University of New Hampshire (possibly a professor when Terry attended?), his collection of Odonata is listed as a major component of UNH collections.
  • John C. Hopfinger: 1888 Mar 30 – 1961 Jun 7, born in Kastin Austria, came to the US in 1906 and lived in Brewster, WA. LepSoc member same time as Rachel.
  • Walter H. Freeman: Camarillo, CA, LepSoc member same time as Rachel.
  • Anatole S. Loukashkin: 1902 Apr 20 – 1988 Oct 6, born in Liaoian, China (father worked for the Chinese Eastern Railway). He worked as a curator of the Museum of the Society for the Study of Manchuria in the 1930s. Upon arrival in the United States in 1941, he transferred his skills to the California Academy of Sciences. One moth specimen in Ely collection has a label with his name and “Korea” written on it.
  • F. H. Schade: on a Danaus erippus specimen from Paraguay, likely refers to Dr. Francisco Schade who apparently has a namesake zoological museum in Paraguay, no other info found (he was not a LepSoc member). Based on the trend of Rachel apparently communicating with fellow LepSoc members, it is likely that she obtained this and other South American butterflies and moths via trade with one or a few LepSoc members rather than from Schade himself.
  • Anthony Valletta: 1908 Dec 21 – 1988 Dec 8, lived in Birkirkara, Malta, well known educationalist, lepidopterist and naturalist; Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society. Published several small guide books for the Maltese Islands, LepSoc member same time as Rachel.
  • Dr. Hermann Wilcke: Kössen, Tirol, Austria, LepSoc member same time as Rachel.
  • Josef Wolfsberger: 1918 Jul 5 – 2001 Jul 27, if my German translation is correct, he was the curator of Lepidoptera at the Zoologische Staatssammlung München = Bavarian State Collection of Zoology, and a well-known collector. I wonder if Rachel reached out to Dr. Wilcke through LepSoc and obtained specimens from him, and he might have given her one from Wolfsberger.
A sample of specimens collected by a few of the people listed above:
Colias harfordi collected by Walter H. Freeman
Sphinx moth collected by Josef Wolfsberger
Danaus erippus (Southern Monarch, a different species than the Monarch) collected in Paraguay by F. H. Schade
Assorted sphinx moths with the same style of labels: paper with faint hand-drawn lines and neatly written data in pencil. There are a few butterflies in the collection with the same style of label. If you can't read these, they are from Germany, Venezuela, Yucatan (Mexico) and Kyoto (Japan). The ruled lines and careful printing in somewhat uncertain hand makes me think these may have been labeled by Cindy, Terry Ely's little sister.

Colias palaeno from Wurtemburg Germany in 1933, no collector given, handwriting looks like Rachel's, so this is probably something she got in a paper triangle and copied the data to a new label.

Once all the specimen data is entered into my database, it will allow me to query and compare all the records and possibly identify other relationships, such as multiple specimens from the same date or location. What began as a simple yet generous gift of this collection has led to so many amazing discoveries and I can’t wait to uncover more of the history!
If anyone reading this recognizes the names or may have other pieces of the puzzle, please contact me.