30,000 Letters or Bust: Ansel Wold’s 1928 mission
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress
Wisconsin Representative Victor Berger became the first Socialist elected to Congress when he won election to the House of Representatives in 1910.
"This information might not seem to be of very much importance to you, but to historical students and librarians it is considered very essential in a publication of this kind."
—Ansel Wold to Victor Berger, October 28, 1925
Nearly 90 years later, the words of Ansel Wold, clerk of the Joint Committee on Printing, to former Representative Victor Berger of Wisconsin resonate with researchers from congressional historians to genealogists. Over the course of three years in the mid-1920s, Wold had a mission: find Representative Victor Berger's middle name and the name of the town in which Mr. Berger settled upon his arrival to the U.S. in the 1870s. And Wold needed to find this information fast, in time to publish the 1928 edition of the Biographical Directory of the American Congress.
Wold's position as clerk to the committee required him to complete an immense task: compile 1,740 pages of what was then known as the Biographical Directory of the American Congress (now the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress). Dating back to its first edition in 1859, the book contained 9,000 biographies on all the House and Senate Members who had served since the First Federal Congress (1789–1791). Wold painstakingly attempted to track down and verify information on all the former Members, a Herculean task given that the most recent edition was published nearly two decades earlier. He mailed out more than 30,000 letters during the course of the project, as many as 20 concerning a single individual. When Wold could not locate the Member, he relied on local postmasters for the Member's last known location for information. These sleuths-on-the-ground frequently proved successful. Postmasters either responded to Wold or, when known, forwarded the clerk's request on to the Member's next of kin. In some instances, Postmasters made trips to local cemeteries to verify information on tombstones, conducted newspaper research, or interviewed others in the town regarding the former Member in question.
In the forward for the 1928 Directory, Wold wisely solicited public aid in completing as well as maintaining Members' entries. In his missive, Wold hoped that he righted the errors of past editions of the Directory, while he acknowledged that he may not have escaped error himself. As modern editors of the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress acknowledge, it takes a village to perfect an entry. With more than 11,000 Members in today's online edition of the Biographical Directory, editors rely on the research conducted by users of this resource as well as Members' descendants to help ensure its accuracy.
Alas, Wold did not obtain Berger's middle name or the name of the town in time for the 1928 publication and Berger chose to appear in print as "Victor L. Berger." Ever determined, the resourceful clerk struck gold one year later, after Berger's death on August 7, 1929. The Postmaster of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, spoke to the Berger family and mailed Ansel Wold an obituary from the local newspaper for one Victor Luitpold Berger, who immigrated from Austria to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1878.