The recent return of Inverted Jenny position 76 from the missing McCoy block has the Antiques Roadshow crowd scouring their attics, yet again, hoping to experience that rush the Irish lad must have felt when he learned what he’d found in that box of stuff he’d inherited from his granddad. At one time, Inverted Jenny position 18 was just as famous for being stolen property recovered.
Wisconsin lawyer B.K. Miller, Jr., had added the error stamp to his collection as soon as it became available in 1918, and there it stayed until it was stolen in 1977 from under the lions’ noses at the New York Public Library along with 152 other stamps from the Benjamin K. Miller Collection. What almost no one knows about, however, is the man himself.
B.K., as he was known, is typical of many low-key obsessives who quietly amass staggering stamp collections. He labored in an intensely demanding profession, made a ton of money, and spent much of his life on projects for which only he had a passion, such as writing a book on the finances of Venezuela, studying the government of New Zealand, and amassing an 800 page catalog of every case argued in the state of Wisconsin up to 1906. That’s the year he retired at age 48, after which he traveled, hunted big game, wrote, collected stamps, and then slumped over dead in a chair at age 71, at the University Club a few blocks up New York's Fifth Avenue. But there was an intriguing soul in that retiring man.
When he was born in 1857, his father and grandfather were still burdened by a three-year-old case neither man would ever have sought. His father, also B.K. Miller (hereafter called Miller) and a newly minted lawyer in his early 20s, clerked for his own father, federal judge Andrew G. Miller, who’d issued a warrant for the arrest of runaway slave Joshua Glover. The upshot of this and subsequent warrants associated with the case enforced the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it a crime not to return slaves to their owners. Adhering to the law subjected the whole Miller family to years of righteous abuse from Wisconsin's abolitionists.
Glover fortunately made it to Canada, but the case went to the Wisconsin state Supreme Court, which overruled Judge Miller and invalidated the constitutionality of the statute. When little B.K. was two, Chief Justice Roger Taney of the U.S. Supreme Court—a Scalia-esque originalist famous for re-enslaving Dred Scott—wrote the unanimous decision (Ableman v. Booth) vacating the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling, upholding the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and fueling abolitionist fervor. Taney also affirmed the primacy of congressional legislation over that of the states and further goaded the nation to war.
The ruling did finally get B.K.’s family off the hook, though his dad left the crucible of justice and joined a private practice specializing in corporate litigation. That Miller kept his head down and stayed out of the courtroom, making his name as a very successful legal diplomat. He did expect his sons to become lawyers nonetheless, and he sent B.K. and his brother George to Pennsylvania College in Gettysburg, ten years after the apocalyptic battle that left corpses outnumbering residents four to one.
It took a long time for the little town to recover, and a Cornell student on a summer road trip in 1871 described the scene in Gettysburg to a friend: “Shells are half buried in some house walls, bones lie over the ground and here and there over the field you see a patch of grass more luxuriant than its neighbor, and then you know that some poor unfortunate affords a fertilizer to the soil.” It was 1872 before the town sent the first of six shipments of Confederate dead back to Richmond, Virginia.
B.K. was named for one of the school’s founders, Benjamin Kurtz, who was his grandmother’s brother and who also helped found the Lutheran Church in America. George, a year younger than B.K. was named for their mother’s brother, George Williams Peckham, who went off to fight in the war when B.K. was six. Their mother died in childbirth the next year, and their uncle came back from war the year after that and went off to become a lawyer.
The Peckham family was, in fact, even more lawyer-intensive than the Millers, given that they bred congressmen, judges, and a future U.S. Supreme Court Justice. But Uncle George hated law. He threw over tradition, quit law, went to medical school, and wound up happy teaching high school biology and collecting spiders with this scientist soulmate, Elizabeth Gifford, whom he married.
By the time they went off to college in scarred and traumatized Gettysburg, B.K. and George looked much alike and were close, but they were also very different. When he graduated at age 20, B.K. was just under 5’9” and weighed 125 pounds, while 18-year-old George was an inch taller and almost 15 pounds heavier. George was treasurer of the Base Ball Club, while B.K. was librarian for the Philomathean Society, which was devoted to learning.
After graduation, they traveled together in Europe, where George remained to earn a doctor of jurisprudence at the University of Gottingen. B.K. came home and studied the law in his father’s office. George joined the firm shortly afterward. Interestingly, it was B.K. who took vacation every other year and ultimately visited every named country in the world. George spent the rest of his life in Milwaukee.
B.K. retired at 48, saying that he had all the money he needed, and eventually proceeded to build a fabulous U.S. stamp collection. George died in 1931, still working. B.K. died in 1928 and left big game trophies, a gold lacquer Samurai traveling case, and assorted gongs to the Milwaukee public museum. He also left a trust fund for his now-widowed Aunt Elizabeth, the scientist, and 220 acres for her daughter. Solidarity, perhaps.
 Weeks, Jim (2003). Gettysburg: Memory, Market and an American Shrine. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey, p. 52.