The Dictionary Case
Who would have thought that skulduggery could take place in the lofty world of dictionary publishing, but so it was in 1896. The complaint was made by G. and C. Merriam and Company, who had published their International Webster Dictionary in 1895 to great acclaim around the world. Elias John Forbes, manager of the Merriam publishing office in Sydney, charged Silas Lyon Moffett, Clarke Parker and Arthur Beckworth Marsh of having ‘wickedly, wrongfully, and maliciously conspired, combined, and agreed together to impoverish the G. and C . Merriam and Company, and to prevent and hinder them from using and exercising their business of booksellers and book publishers.’
The accused sold Worcester dictionaries and were finding the going tough, given the popularity and standing of the Webster dictionary. The Worcester dictionary was another American dictionary which had been the chief competitor to the Webster dictionary in America, but its influence had declined since its Editor, Joseph Emerson Worcester, died in 1865.
The trio of salesmen took orders for the Webster dictionary, particularly from teachers to whom they could point out that the Inspector General in NSW had authorised the use of the International Webster Dictionary in NSW public schools. Once they had secured the order, they supplied a Worcester dictionary. Teachers were produced as witnesses to this practice by the prosecution. One woman said that, when she complained, Moffett had said she should be happy because the Worcester was a better dictionary, its appendix of placenames being more up to date. He conceded that a mistake had been made in supplying the Worcester.
Another scam was to show a Worcester dictionary with a Webster cover to secure the orders. The point was that the Worcester dictionaries cost less to buy wholesale than the Websters, so if you could take an order for a Webster and then supply a Worcester, you were ahead. While some people complained, probably a lot just took what was supplied to them.
Margaret Lyons, a schoolteacher in Campbelltown, said that Marsh had called on her to show her the Worcester dictionary. ‘He showed her testimonials, etc., and from his air and deportment, and the representations he made, witness was led to believe that he had been authorised by the Department of Public Instruction to supply the work to teachers, and, believing it was the department’s wish that she should do so, she agreed to purchase a Worcester’. In another instance of this approach the victim had complained that she had just bought the Webster’s International Dictionary, so Marsh made her an offer that if she bought the Worcester for £4 4s, he would buy back the Webster for £1.
A representative of the Department for Public Instruction, NSW, state ‘that none of the accused had been authorised by the department to sell Worcester dictionaries, neither had they been authorised to condemn Webster dictionaries. They had not been authorised by the department to visit the public schools for any purpose whatever.’
Despite the fact that the dishonest dealings of Moffat, Parker and Marsh were clearly revealed to the court, Forbes lost the case. His mistake was to overstate his complaint. If he had just accused them of dishonest practices he would have won, but he accused them of deliberately and maliciously conspiring to injure the business of G. and C. Merriam. There was nothing to sustain an accusation of conspiracy, or indeed of malice. They were just simple-hearted crooks.