The Joel Munsell collection contains 26 letters, 2 essay fragments, a pamphlet, a clipping, and several transcriptions of letters, which the library acquired in two distinct groups. The groupings have been preserved as two series, within which items are arranged chronologically.
The Jane McCrea research series documents Munsell’s 1847-1850 investigation into the 1777 murder of Jane McCrea with correspondence, writings, and printed matter. The eight letters in the series concern the conflicting accounts of the murder by Epaphras Hoyt and Charles Neilson, including Munsell’s letters to each man, soliciting more information, and their responses. In his 9-page letter, dated January 30, 1849, Hoyt purported to describe the exact location of the murder, described the sources of his information, and gave his opinion on Neilson. Neilson’s much briefer letter of January 25, 1849, contradicts Hoyt’s claim that McCrea was "called by any other name than Jane" and describes gathering the information from his parents and other locals. Additionally, the collection contains a 1913 letter by J.T. Holmes that concerns reports of the McCrea murder. Also of interest are two short drafts that Munsell wrote; they shed light on his interest in the matter and express pity for McCrea, "consigned…to the tender mercies of the scribbles in all after ages, at whose hand she has been cruelly maltreated, for more than half a century." Rounding out the series is Hoyt’s version of the McCrea murder story, printed in the Proceedings of the New-York Historical Society (June 1847), and a newspaper clipping containing an 1851 eulogy for Hoyt by Luther B. Lincoln.
The Letters to Elias Nason series contains 19 letters written by Munsell to historian and Congregational minister Elias Nason between 1862 and 1866. Seven of the letters relate to various aspects of the New-England Historical and Genealogical Register, which Munsell published. Topics related to the serial include the inclusion of Dutch-Americans in the register (January 18, 1862), the publication's coverage of Boston (March 15, 1862), and the appropriateness of its commentary on current events (August 19, 1862). The remaining letters primarily concern the publication of two works by Nason, Sir Charles Henry Frankland, Baronet: or Boston in the Colonial Times (1865) and A Memoir of Mrs. Susannah Rowson (1870). Munsell wished to print the works but lamented the poor market for biographies, noting, "I have found it advantageous to disguise such books under some other name" (September 28, 1863). He also discussed errors in Nason's manuscripts (February 21, 1865), the financial concerns of printing Frankland (June 3, 1865), and the flaws in several atlases published by rival firms (November 2, 1865).
Other subjects mentioned in Munsell's letters are the poor market for antiquarian books (January 18, 1862) and his views on social history: "I desire to rescue every man's memory from oblivion who has a history , and am garnering up names with facts attached to them…" (March 19, 1862).