Twenty previously unknown works that were likely written by the prolific 19th century author Louisa May Alcott have been rediscovered thanks to some sleuthing by a sort of literary detective: Max Chapnick, a postdoctoral teaching associate at Northeastern University.

Chapnick studies literature from the 1800s, but recently found himself at the center of a juicy investigation: Chapnick and thousands of other scholars knew that Alcott, the prolific author of "Little Women," one of the most famous writers from the Boston area, had likely produced more literary works that were lost to time. The big question was: What happened to them?

“There are a lot of stories that she listed in various lists, in her journals,” Chapnick said. “In letters, she references stories. And many of them hadn't been found yet. And there are still stories out there that haven't been found.”

The stories had not seen the light of day for more than a century.

“Before ‘Little Women,’ before she became famous, Louisa May Alcott wrote sensation stories, stories in the Gothic mode, in the thriller mode,” he said.

One of these, Chapnick knew, was called "The Phantom." But to find it, Max had to enlist some help.

“This is the part of my job that I love,” said Elizabeth Watts Pope, curator of books and digitized collections at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

The American Antiquarian Society collects printed and handwritten material created in North America before 1900.

“That means we have newspapers and periodicals. We have handwritten letters and diaries. We have cheap, trashy street novels that cost $0.10. We have lottery tickets,” Watts Pope said. “We try and keep everything that was printed in that time period.”

In that collection, Chapnick found a local newspaper published in the 19th century titled “The Phantom.” But it was not in the best condition.

An old newspaper clipping, folded through the center, with the title "The Phantom" or The Miser's Dream.
A clipping from an 1860 issue of The Boston Olive Branch, in which Northeastern University researcher Max Chapnick found a story pseudonymously published by Louisa May Alcott.
American Antiquarian Society

“It was folded up at one point in its life,” Watts Pope said. “And it had a crease in it, a wrinkle in it, right down where the pseudonym was.”

The name was clearly not Alcott. So Chapnick had to do some more detective work and look for clues. He finally cracked it.

The pseudonym used was E.H. Gould. Its origins are not entirely clear to Chapnick.

“She had a connection with a family that had the last name Gould,” he said. “But I think it's intentionally vague and maybe masculine-sounding. She wrote under another known pseudonym, A. M. Barnard, which has the same sort of like two initials, common name structure. And she also wrote under L.M. Alcott. So I think there's a pattern of her experimenting with different names here.”

And for Chapnick, that was only the beginning. He ended up uncovering nearly two dozen more poems and stories that were likely written by Alcott, some of them under her real name. Has Max discovered another "Little Women"? The answer is probably not.

“They're okay,” he said. “I think they're of differing quality. I like this one, ‘The Phantom,’ because it's sort of a spoof on Charles Dickens' 'Christmas Carol' with a, kind of a feminist twist."

Regardless of their quality, it is a big discovery, Watts Pope said.

“This is why I think libraries like the American Antiquarian Society are so important, because not only do we not know everything about the past and what's in all of these newspapers, but also we don't know the future,” she said. “We don't know what people are going to be excited about next. We don't know what pseudonyms we should be looking for, what names to look for.”

So while the mystery of Max and the 20 Louisa May Alcotts is closed, there still could be a sequel to this detective story on the horizon.