MINNS, SUSANNA

Copyright 2011-2018 John N. Lupia III

Ms. Susan Minns was an avid art, antique, coin and curio collector who amassed the largest known collection of items of the iconographic theme of the Dance of Death. She is well-known to art historian researchers for her collection of  "the Dance of Death" donated to the Louvain University Library, which contains coins and medals, as well as manuscripts, incunabula, and rare printed books and curiosities. She was a generous philanthropist donating land and monies to various charities. She also authored several books including the very rare, Genealogical Histories of Minns and Allied Families in the Line of Descent of Miss Susan Minns, valued at $1,800 in 1927.

Susanna "Susan" Minns (1839-1938), was born the third of three children on August 21, 1839, daughter of Constant Freeman Minns (1800-1841), a wealthy merchant, and Frances Ann Parker Minns (1804-1892), in Lincoln, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Her two older siblings were her sister Frances (1837-1870), and her brother Thomas (1832-1913). Her grandfather Thomas Minns (1773-1836), was the publisher of the Massachusetts Mercury, the editor of the Boston Palladium, and the printer for the Massachusetts legislature. Her great-grandfather William Minns (1728-1816) fought in the American Revolution. She was named after her grandmother Susanna Mitchell Minns (1777-1865).

On the death of her father in 1841 she was a legal guardian of her mother. 

About 1853 she began to collect woodcuts and books illustrated with woodcuts. She even engaged herself in making woodcuts as a hobby.

Her 1868 U. S. passport describes her as 5'-4" tall, and thirty-two years later she shrank a half inch since her 1900 passport describes her as 5'-3-1/2" tall.

Her sister Frances Antoinette Minns died a week after her 33rd birthday in Naples, Campania, Italy, on February 18, 1870; which began Susan's interest in collecting items of the "Dance of Death" sparked by the sentiment of memento mori ( the Latin adage which recalls the brevity of transient earthly life and the  vanity of the accumulation of material goods, wealth and the pursuit of pleasures). Readers will remember Isaac Francis Wood and his stationery which illustrated memento mori found in his biography on this website (See menu bar with biographical listings on the left). Late medieval art produced a plethora of works illustrating  the "Dance of Death" and memento mori, especially after 1348 when the Black Death brought sickness and death to nearly half of Europe.

She graduated Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

In 1881 she was a student at M.I.T.

In 1887, Sylvester Rosa Koehler (1837-1900), became the curator of prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he had been working as acting curator in 1885. There he befriended Miss Minns and advised her about her collection. By 1887 she learned her collection of the "Dance of Death" was larger than that exhibited in New York.

From 1890 to 1899 she played  an active role in fund raising to support the Marine Biological Laboratory, funded by the Women's Education Association of Boston, where she served as a trustee.

In 1897, she was a member of the Advisory Board of the National Science Club of Women. 

She was a member of the Association of Women of the M. I. T. She served for three years as Inspector in the Department of Charity in Cuba for Americans educating Cubans, 1899 to 1902.

Fig. 1. In May 1911, she sued attorney Chester A. Reed for a Sultan's Sword she claimed was rightfully her family heirloom from Captain John Percival of the frigate Constitution. In 1913 she sued Percival Gassett, U. S. Consul at Chile, and later at Peru, South America, who also claimed rightful inheritance of the heirloom as grandson to Commodore Percival.


Figs 2 & 3. 
She lived in the family 6,253 square foot four-story townhouse at 14 Louisburg Square, Boston, Massachusetts, and became the sole owner after the death of her brother Thomas in October 1913. (Top Photo above). The house is currently valued at over $8 Million USD and is listed as the eleventh most valuable home in Boston. She also spent her summers in the "Forty Steps Cottage" on an acre and a half at her seashore estate, Forty Steps Beach, Nahant, Massachusetts, which she had purchased in May 1922 from the estate of Martin Brimmer Inches. The stone house was erected in 1840 from stones quarried at Quincy. (Bottom Photo above).

In June 1914 she donated $50,000 to Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, as a memorial to the late Professor of biology, Susan M. Hallowell.

In May 1915 she was a supporter of the building fund for the new Gray Herbarium, Harvard University.

Fig. 4. In December 1921 she sold at auction many of her bookplates of the "Dance of Death" at the American Art Galleries, New York. New York Tribune, Sunday, October 9, 1921, page 17


Fig. 5.
Advertisement of the auction sale of Susan Minns rare books, engravings, coins and curios to be sold by American Art Association, New York.  The New York Times, Sunday, April 9, 1922, page 48. The catalogue contains 1,020 lots.

Fig. 6. The May 2-3, 1922 auction catalogue of Susan Minns of Boston. Now available at the Newman Numismatic Portal.


Figs. 7 & 8. In 1922, the New York architect Whitney Warren (1864-1943) [Bottom Photo above], who designed the new Louvain University Library contacted Susan Minns to stop the auction sale at the American Art Association, New York. Preventing buyers to win bids Minns supplied $12,500 in funds to buy the items. The auction realized $17,645.50, and was earmarked as a donation to be given to the Executive Committee of the United States for the Restoration of Louvain University. "Collection of "Death" Coins and Medals Sold," The Numismatist, June (1922) : 288. Courtesy, Lupia Numismatic Library.

In January 1927 she donated to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, presented to Governor Alvan T. Fuller, a large tract of land comprising 127 acres on the Little Wachusett mountain, Princeton, Massachusetts, as a "Wild Bird Sanctuary", which came to be known as the Minns Wildlife Sanctuary.

In June 1927 she donated $10,000 for the botany library at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts. Earlier she donated $80,000 for the construction of the Botany Department at Sage Hall.

 C
Fig. 9.  In 1929 she bequeathed the remainder of her "Dance of Death" Collection to the Louvain University Library, Louvain, Belgium. A full page story was published by Frank P. Sibley, "A Boston Gentlewoman's Unique "Dance of Death" Collection," St. Louis Dispatch, Sunday Magazinepage 3, September 1, 1929. The King of Belgium decorated her with the Order of the Golden Palm for her generous donation of the collection and money.

In 1929, she published her book on breeding silkworms, Book of the Silkworm: A Plea for the Cultivation of Silk and the Silkworm in the United States (New York : National Americana Society, 1929).

She died in August 2, 1938. She was buried on August 4, 1938, at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Middlesex County, Massachusetts.

Auction Catalogue :

Illustrated catalogue of the notable collection of Miss Susan Minns of Boston, Mass.: books, bookplates, coins, curios, prints, illuminated manuscripts and horae, gathered over a period of half a century and illustrative of "The Dance of Death". To be sold ... May 2nd and 3rd, 1922 ... The sale to be conducted by Mr. Thomas E. Kirby and his assistants, of the American art association, managers, New York city.


Bibliography :

1880 U. S. Census - Boston
Boston Post, Monday, January 5, 1891, page 4
Evening TimesMonday, April 5, 1897, page 4
1910 U. S. Census - Boston
The Sun, Wednesday, June 17, 1914, page 7
Boston Daily Globe, Sunday, May 23, 1915, 
1920 U.S. Census - Boston
Boston Daily Globe, Saturday, May 20, 1922, page 18
"Collection of "Death" Coins and Medals Sold," The Numismatist, June (1922) : 288.
"End Dance of Death Sale," The New York Times, Wednesday, May 3, 1922, page 6
George Henry Sargent, Miss Susan Simms, A Boston Woman, Breaks Up the Dance of Death Collection (1922)
Fitchburg Sentinel, Thursday, January 20, 1927, page 1
Frank P. Sibley, "A Boston Gentlewoman's Unique "Dance of Death" Collection," St. Louis Dispatch, page 3, September 1, 1929
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 140 (1994) : 159-164


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