The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @MHS

Here is a look at what is going on this week at the MHS:

- Tuesday, 6 November, 5:15 PM: “A Rotten-Hearted Fellow”: The Rise of Alexander McDougall with Christopher Minty, the Adams Papers, MHS, and comment by Brendan McConville, Boston University. Historians have often grouped the DeLanceys of New York as self-interested opportunists who were destined to become loyalists. By focusing on the rise of Alexander McDougall, this paper offers a new interpretation, demonstrating how the DeLanceys and McDougall mobilized groups with competing visions of New York’s political economy. These prewar factions stayed in opposition until the Revolutionary War, thus shedding new light on the coming of the American Revolution. This is part of the Boston Area Seminar on Early American History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

- Wednesday, 7 November, 12:00 PM: John Perkins Cushing & Boston's Early China Trade with Gwenn Miller, College of the Holy Cross. In July of 1803, John Perkins Cushing, an orphaned relation of some of the most prominent families in Boston, set sail for the Canton at the age of sixteen. The emerging literature on the Early American China trade often mentions Cushing as an aside, sometimes refers in passing to his importance among the foreign residents of Canton. This project explores how he came to be in that position of importance and casts Boston’s opium exchange at the center of the trade.

- Wednesday, 7 November, 6:00 PM: Founding Martyr: The Life & Death of Dr. Joseph Warren, the American Revolution’s Lost Hero with Christian Di Spigna.   Had he not been martyred at Bunker Hill in 1775, Dr. Joseph Warren, an architect of the colonial rebellion, might have led the country as Washington or Jefferson did. Warren was involved in almost every major insurrectionary act in the Boston, from the Stamp Act protests to the Boston Massacre to the Boston Tea Party, but his legacy has remained largely obscured. Di Spigna’s biography of Warren is the product of two decades of research and scores of newly unearthed documents that have given us this forgotten Founding Father anew. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There will be a special rum tasting courtesy of Privateer Rum at the reception.There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). Please note that this program is SOLD OUT.

- Friday, 9 November, 12:00 PM: Persistent Futures of Americas Past: The Genres of Geography & Race in Early America with Timothy Fosbury, University of California--Los Angeles. This talk analyzes the speculative literary origins of America as a desired community and geography of economic, political, and religious belonging in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by considering how place making was a form of nascent race making in the early Americas. Moving between New England, Bermuda, and the Caribbean, this talk considers how settler imaginings of their desired futures in the Americas produced the preconditions for what we would now call race.

- Saturday, 10 November, 8:00 AM to 6:30 PM: Art & Memory:The Role of Medals, Medal Collectors of America and MHS Conference. This conference on medals and medal collecting will include a series of presentations on the role medals have played in America history, the evolution of medallic art, and the ways medals have reflected American culture up through the 20th century. In addition, a panel discussion will cover the stylistic developments from Renaissance medallic art to contemporary art medals (“The Art of the Medal”).  A second panel will explore the individual passions that drive numismatists to build their unique collections (“Why Collect Medals?”). There is a $75 per person conference fee, with optional dinner afterwards for an additional $95 per person. A cocktail reception at the MHS will conclude the conference in the late afternoon.

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Friday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Please note that the library is closed on Saturday, 10 November and the building is closed on Monday, 12 November. Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 5 November, 2018, 1:00 AM

“I like your Letters much, they are so much like you.”: Abigail and John Adams II

He was mischievous and fond of pranks, long walks through the Massachusetts countryside, and nights full of dancing. He was uncommonly handsome, had a mess of brown curls on top of his head, and was exceedingly popular with the young women of Quincy. Abigail often found herself daydreaming of his “rosy cheeks” and “Sparkling Eyes.” His name was John Adams.

No, not the John Adams who signed the Declaration of Independence—his grandson and namesake, John Adams II. If one could handcraft the ideal grandson for Abigail Adams, one could scarcely do better. He shared his grandmother’s passionate enthusiasm for his native land, especially Massachusetts, shared his grandfather’s name, and was even born on the Fourth of July. When he was very young, he thought all the festivities were to celebrate his birthday—to the great amusement of his grandmother. Even by his twelfth birthday, Abigail was not ready to let the joke go. “You notice Your Birth day, and say you are twelve years old. I do assure you Sir, it was celebrated here, not withstanding Your absence as usual; with the ringing of Bells public orations, military parade and Social festivals.”

Abigail and John’s extant correspondence amounts to twenty letters. It is clear from internal references to other letters that they exchanged many more. The richest portion of their correspondence took place between 1815 and 1817, while John was living in Ealing (west London) with his parents, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams. His younger brother, Charles Francis, had spent six of his eight years traveling Europe with their parents, and his older brother, George, appeared to John to be adjusting well. John Adams II, who had only lived with his parents full time for the first two years of his life before they left him in Quincy in the name of public duty, struggled terribly to adjust, as his letters to his grandmother reveal.

If anyone in his family understood what it meant to be stranded in London and longing for Massachusetts, it was his grandmother. There is a striking resemblance between the letters Abigail wrote home during her husband’s tenure as the first American minister to the Court of St. James and the letters she received from her homesick twelve-year-old grandson. Just as Abigail frequently requested local gossip and updates on all her friends and relations when she was abroad, she supplied John with stories and trivialities: “The young Masters and misses had a fine Ball at Hingham, and wanted you, who love dancing so well,” she once reported. 

John gloomily replied, “I do not like England near so well as America nor do I think I should like any country so well as my native Country. Oh how I wish I was in America with my Parents at Quincy with you . . . I should have been very glad to have been at the Ball at Hingham with my old acquaintances.” 

Abigail obviously missed him just as much, writing, “I love the Chamber where you used to play your pranks, Study Your lessons and take Your repose.” She told him that she had preserved the room exactly as he had left it, as if he could walk back into the room at any moment. “The cain You used to take Your walks with from Hingham, I have placed in my closset . . . your military accourtrements are Still preserved as they were.” 

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Poignantly, Abigail often closed her letters to her grandson with concern that, considering her age and health, she would never see him in person again. In 1817, John Quincy Adams was recalled from England to serve as President James Monroe’s secretary of state. Now fourteen, John Adams II, his two brothers, and his parents returned home to Quincy, where they spent the summer living at the Old House with John and Abigail. “Be assured,” John Quincy’s father had written to him before their voyage to America, “it will be the most joyful part of my Life to receive and enjoy you all with open Arms.”In 1818, the final year of Abigail’s life, her beloved grandson was never farther away from her than the eight-mile carriage ride to Boston Latin School. Whether eight miles or 3,300 miles, Abigail reminded John that, “You know not . . . how very near my heart you are.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 2 November, 2018, 1:00 AM

Mysterious, Gruesome, and Spooky Aspects of History

This time of year often sparks an interest in the mysterious, gruesome, and spooky aspects of history. New Englanders often flock to Salem and other “haunted” spots with a keen interest in connecting with the people and the events that had transpired long ago. Within the walls of the MHS, you will find a few intriguing items that might even be considered “spooky.” But for those of us who spend our days delighting in the words, thoughts, and mementos of our forefathers and foremothers, these are fascinating pieces of history. Alas, as it is All Hollow’s Eve, I thought I might share a few of the more spooky items with you!

First up is the Salem Witch Bureau.

This rather unassuming bureau greets you on the way into our reading room. In actuality, it has a dark past. Supposedly, the bureau was evidence used in the Salem Witch Trails in 1692! In his will, Gen. William H. Sumner described this chest of drawers as "the Witch Bureau, from the middle drawer of which one of the Witches jumped out who was hung on Gallows Hill, in Salem.” So the next time you walk into the reading room, take a moment to ponder from which drawer the specter had jumped forth. 

While on the topic of the Salem Witch Trials, the MHS houses the papers of Judge Samuel Sewall, one of the Judges who presided over the trials. Sewall kept a diary from 1673 until a few months before his death in 1730.

Perhaps most notable is his diary entry for 19 September 1692. He records:

“Monday; Sept-19th 1692. Abt noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was pressed to death for standing mute Much pains was used with him two days one after another by ye court & Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been his acquaintance: but all in vain. 20 Now I hear from Salem that abt 18 years agoe, he was suspected to have stamped and pressed a man to Death. But was cleared. twas not remembered till Ann Putnam was told of it by G Corey’s Specter ye Sabbath-Day night before ye Execution.”

Sewall later repented for his involvement and gained notoriety for his firm antislavery stance when he published The Selling of Joseph in 1700.

The MHS also has an item described as a “Piece of wood from a tree, place unidentified, reported to have been used for hanging witches in the 17th century.” 

And here is a fascinating, yet eerie tidbit: not only do we have the letters, diaries and artifacts of those long departed, we also have pieces of them! (Oh, but yes indeed!) We have a surprisingly large collection of human hair, mostly given as pieces of mourning Jewelry and keepsakes to remember loved ones. Locks of hair would be cut from the deceased and kept, often intricately incorporated into a piece of jewelry, such as a ring or a broach. To learn more about pieces in our collection that contain human hair, visit our “Jewelry Containing Hair” page that is part of our Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, 17th to 19th Centuries online display.

We currently have hair from both Alexander Hamilton and George Washington on display as a part of our Hamilton at the MHS display. Be sure to stop by before 15 November to see it and check out other Hamilton artifacts online at www.masshist.org/hamilton.

Next, I would like to share a nifty hook with you! Not very spooky you say? What if I told you it was carved from human bone?

This fascinating artifact is a hook from the Sandwich Islands, supposedly made from a bone of Capt. James Cook. It is bone carved into a hook with a thin cord wound closely around the top of the shank and extending onto a wrapped and twisted section tied in a slip knot.

Well, enough about human remains! We also have a warbler preserved in arsenic, a death mask, and dolls. One such example is a doll belonging to members of the Codman and Butterfield families. "Rebeccah Codman Butterfield" is a very well preserved doll with an exceptional past.

According to a note penned by the donor's mother, Ellis Phinney Taylor, and pinned to the doll's petticoat, Rebeccah's life began long ago but not too far away:

“My name is Rebeccah Codman Butterfield. I was born in 1841. My mother made me and I was the darling of the Brook Farmers & their children. Brook Farm was called The Transcendentalists. I grew up with the Alcotts, George Ripley, John S [Dwight], Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Peabody & Nathaniel Hawthorne--no wonder I look a bit cracked!”

Read more about Rebeccah and the Codman and Butterfield families here.

Having worked at the MHS for a number of years, I must admit that we get all sorts of questions! I still recall welcoming a researcher to the reading room on a dark and gloomy December morning who looked at me with delight and asked “Do they talk to you?” I was unsure who she was referring to so she clarified and said “Ghosts! Are you ever approached by ghosts? You must have so many here!” While many hours are spent in the stacks, I am not aware of any archivist or librarian who has encountered a ghost. Though I must profess, the Society is not free from strange occurrences. In the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Third Series, Vol. 72  p.417), there is one account from the Annual Meeting in 1957 which has always struck me:

“We have had our trials and tribulations. The janitor on duty when your Director took office lost his mind in this building, here, before our very faces, and had to be locked up until he died;” 

Hmm . . . not what you would expect to find while reading Annual Meeting notes. It continues:

“his very good successor died of a heart attack overnight; his brother and successor suddenly developed a strange illness and had to be relieved; the present janitor lost his wife and sole companion last June and is now desperately ill.” 

The list of interesting artifacts found within our walls goes on and on, and so could I. But I leave you to  browse our online—and fully searchable—catalog, Abigail, for "cool" and "creepy" items that intrigue you from the comfort of your living room . . . or crypt! 

And with that, we wish you a safe, yet slightly-spooky, Halloween night!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

This Week @MHS

- Monday, 29 October, 6:00 PM: Armistice: WWI in Memory & Song, a collaboration of the MHS and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, with John Brancy, Baritone; Peter Dugan, Piano; and Peter Drummey, MHS. A temporary exhibition on the end of World War I will be coupled with songs and a conversation about the journey home that men and women faced at the close of The War to End All Wars. This program will explore both the history of the war and the memory of it. On Tuesday October 30 at 8:00 pm, John Brancy and Peter Dugan will perform their program “Armistice: The Journey Home” in Seully Hall at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. A pre-program reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM.

- Tuesday, 30 October, 5:15 PM: Governing the “Black Power” City: Leon H. Sullivan, Opportunities Industrialization Centers Inc., & the Rise of Black Empowerment with Jessica Ann Levy, Johns Hopkins University, and comment by Julia Rabig, Dartmouth College. This paper traces the Opportunities Industrialization Center’s rise from its meager founding in North Philadelphia to one of the largest black community development programs in the United States. In doing so, it sheds new light on the financial and intellectual investments made by American business, government bureaucrats, and civil rights entrepreneurs like Sullivan in transforming black dissidents into “productive citizens,” “productive” having economic and civic connotations. This is part of the Boston Seminar on Modern American Society and Culture series. Seminars are free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 1 November, 5:30 PM: "No Ideas But in Things": Writing Lives from Objects with Deborah Lutz, University of Louisville; Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Amherst College; Susan Ware, Independent Scholar, and moderator Natalie Dykstra, Hope College. Often a biographer confronts silences in the record of her subject, when part of the life story is not documented with words. Mute sources—objects in the subject’s archive—can pose a challenge for interpretation, but also offer rich opportunities. How can biographers read objects as eloquent sources? This is part of the New England Biography Seminar series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

- Saturday, 3 November, 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. Join us for a 90-minute docent-led tour of our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a party of 8 or more, please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org

Fashioning the New England Family is open Monday through Friday, from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The exhibition explores the ways in which the multiple meanings of fashion and fashionable goods are reflected in patterns of consumption and refashioning, recycling, and retaining favorite family pieces. Many of the items that will be featured have been out of sight, having never been exhibited for the public or seen in living memory. The exhibition is organized as part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of cultural institutions set up to explore and celebrate the many facets of the culture of fashion in Massachusetts. 

Take a look at our calendar page for information about upcoming programs.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 29 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

“As Drowning Men Catch at Straws”: William H. Simpkins and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment

I have now to tell you of a pretty important step that I have just taken. I have given my name to be forwarded to Massachusetts for a commission in the 54th (negro) Regt. Coln. Shaw.

This excerpt comes from a letter written by Civil War soldier William Harris Simpkins on 26 February 1863. Harris was serving with the 44th Massachusetts Infantry at New Bern, N.C. and had been recommended for a post in the new 54th Regiment, the first African-American regiment raised in the North. Simpkins decided to accept and, in this letter to his father, preemptively defended his decision and discussed the possibilities of the regiment.

William Harris Simpkins (1839-1863)

Simpkins was born in Boston, Mass. on 6 Aug. 1839 and worked as a clerk before enlisting in the Union Army. When he got word from Col. Francis L. Lee that he had the chance at a commission with the 54th under the command of Capt. Robert Gould Shaw, he was cautiously optimistic. He recognized the significance of the move and acknowledged what he might be giving up. Portions of his letter have been printed in histories of the regiment, but I think it’s worth quoting at length.

This is no hasty conclusion, no blind leap of an enthusiast, but the result of a considerable hard thinking.

It will not at first, and probably will not be for a long time, an agreeable position for many reasons too evident to state, and the man who goes into it resigns all chances in the new white Regiments, that must be raised; […] and there can be no dispute as to, among which color, the most comfortable & pleasurable position will be.

Simpkins’ friend Cabot Jackson Russel saw things in a similar light. The 18-year-old Russel served with Simpkins in the 44th and was also commissioned a captain of the 54th. Just one day before Simpkins, on 25 Feb. 1863, Russel wrote home to say that he had “given up everything” and was “going under Bob Shaw, as it seems so important to put this measure through.” (Russel’s letters can be found in the Patrick Tracy Jackson and Loring-Jackson-Noble family papers.)

Cabot Jackson Russel (1844-1863)

Despite the risks and the uncertainty, Simpkins still believed in the project. His letter continues:

Then it is nothing but an experiment after all. But it is an experiment, that I think it high time we should try; an experiment, that if successful, will be productive of much good; […] an experiment, which the sooner we prove unsuccessful, the sooner we shall establish an important truth and rid ourselves of a false hope.

Some publications stop quoting him there, but I found the next paragraph particularly moving.

There will probably be some trouble with the white troops in the field, arising from a traditional sence [sic] of honor, too nice for me to understand, which distinguishes between fighting behind earth-works thrown up by black laborers, and allowing a negro soldier to stand in the next field to fire his gun at the common enemy; but once prove the efficacy of black troops and I think they will hail them, as drowning men catch at straws.

To make the test you must have men who are willing for the trial. It is of especial importance, of course, in order to win the people to this movement, that it should be undertaken by the right sort of men, and that the first black Regt. should have everything done for it in the way of officers &c that would tend to make it efficient. If I am one of the persons selected, why should I refuse? I came out here, not from any fancied fondness of a military life, but to do what I could to help along the good cause. Why should I not stretch my patriotism a little further and accept a commission in a Negro Regt?

Simpkins was killed on 18 July 1863 during the assault at Fort Wagner as he kneeled next to his injured friend Russel. The 1864 memorial to Robert Gould Shaw includes a detailed description of Simpkins’ death, which was witnessed and recounted by Sgt. Stephen A. Swails.

Stephen Atkins Swails (1832-1900)

Simpkins, Russel, Shaw, and the black soldiers killed in the battle were buried together in a mass grave.

Simpkins’ letter forms part of the Hooper family papers here at the MHS—his aunt married into the Hooper family, and his cousin Henry Northey Hooper also served as a captain in the 54th Regiment. Unfortunately the document we have is only a copy written by someone else, and the location of the original is unknown. However, the Hooper collection does contain two original letters by Simpkins, written to his mother before he enlisted.

The Massachusetts Historical Society has many resources related to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, both online and in our library, including manuscript collections, photograph collections, and print material. You’ll find a handy introduction here.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 26 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

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