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Henry Newton Ess III was born in Kansas City. He graduated from the Hill School in Pottstown, PA, in 1938, Princeton University in 1942, and Harvard Law School in 1944. Ess was a partner at the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in the trusts and estates department, and among other activities, he served as treasurer for the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, which supports efforts in legal history and related subjects.

Ess became fascinated with early English law while he was a student at Harvard cite-checking a review of Robert Bowie Anderson’s A Supplement to Beale’s Bibliography of Early English Law Books (1943) for the Harvard Law Review . “He was impressive in that type of work. He had that kind of interest in detail,” says Professor Arthur von Mehren ’45, who was on the Law Review with Ess.

For the next 50 years Ess combed auctions and specialized booksellers, acquiring about 30,000 books by the time he died on October 27, 2000. In the 1980s Ess moved to a new high-rise in Manhattan with poured concrete floors to support the weight of the books. There, every wall of his three-bedroom apartment, with the exception of his bathroom and kitchen, was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves organized by subject area. An easy chair and reading lamp flanked every window. Until his retirement from Sullivan and Cromwell, Ess also housed pre-1620 books at the firm.

In 1978, Ess gave a talk at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York on The Sixteenth-Century English Lawyer’s Library that demonstrates his knowledge of the contents of his library.

Ess left his collection to Princeton and Harvard, with Harvard receiving the rare law books. His gift added nearly 500 English law books printed before 1601 to the Library’s holdings.

Related items:

  • “Book Gift Makes HLS Preeminent Resource for Anglo-American Legal History”, Harvard Law Bulletin, summer 2001
  • “Harvard Law School Receives Major Collection of Rare Books Considered the Basis of Anglo-American Legal Thought”, HLS Press Release, April 26, 2001
  • Trove of Tomes, Harvard Magazine, July-August 2001