Jesse Edward Boell (1899-1991)
Jesse Edward Boell was born in Hickman, Nebraska on September 25, 1899. Regarded as one of the founders of the archival profession, many modern archival repositories owe their creation to Boell’s advice and assistance. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he began his studies in American history. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University and a Master’s degree from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He later continued his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin.
In 1937 Boell became the State Director of the Wisconsin Historical Records Survey. Initiated by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, the survey was created to centralize all Wisconsin vital statistics. It was later utilized by the National Defense Program as a reliable source of proving age and citizenship for Wisconsin-born WWII defense workers. During the course of the survey, Boell collected, inventoried, and published a staggering collection of items related to every facet of Wisconsin history. This included records created by churches, courts, county offices, and even the federal government. In 1941 he began work at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where he was exposed to archival records on a national scale. As Assistant Chief of the War Records Division, his work involved the preservation of highly classified State Department records.
In September 1945 Boell was one of four civilian archivists selected by the National Archives to assist Monuments Man Sargent B. Child, who was in the process of preserving captured Nazi Party records in Germany. Also selected were Monuments Men Edgar Breitenbach, Harold Clem, and Paul Vanderbilt. Boell arrived at the MFAA Branch, Reparations, Deliveries and Restitutions (RD&R) Division on October 4th. Many of the Nazi Party records arranged and conserved by Boell and his colleagues had been located in the various salt mines.
In March 1946 he inspected the Heinbeldshausen-Heringen salt mines alongside Monuments Men Lt. Theodore Heinrich and Mr. Child. He also investigated claims of a fire at the Ransbach mine, the hiding place for the collections of the University of Marburg library. Yet, the process of removing these records and bringing them to the surface for cataloguing quickly became a challenge. When the salt dust-covered documents came into contact with the humid air on the surface, they began to shrivel. Boell was thus forced to clean each page in the depths of the mine before evacuating them for closer study. He later presented some of these carefully conserved records at the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. In addition to his activities at numerous salt mines, he also made trips to the various collecting points to inspect collections of looted books and manuscripts. In mid-1946 he was promoted to Archives Officer for Land Greater Hesse. At the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, he assisted in the creation of a central card file detailing the known status of libraries, archives, and private collections in the area.
After his return to the United States, Boell was named State Archivist for the Wisconsin Historical Society. During his tenure as State Archivist, he helped establish the collection which later became the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives, the third largest academic archive in the nation. In 1959, when Gilbert Doane, former Monuments Man and the first University Archivist, went on sabbatical, Boell was appointed Director of the Archives and an associate professor of history. He worked with Doane until Doane’s retirement in 1962, when Boell himself became University Archivist. Committed to his work, Boell later remarked that, “There is no attic or basement or temporary building on the campus I’ve not searched for valuable records.”
Boell retired in 1971 as Emeritus Professor of History but remained a fixture at the library as a volunteer. During the course of his innovative career, he received awards from the American Association of State and Local History and the Wisconsin Library Association.
Jesse Boell died on August 31, 1991, in Madison, Wisconsin.
Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Archives.