Christmas with the Poets: Traditions and Superstitions
By Shelby Wolfe, Reader Services
Now that it's December and Thanksgiving is long behind us, we're hopefully in the clear to indulge in Christmas songs. To get in the holiday spirit, I pulled out our copy of Christmas with the Poets, a selection of “songs, carols, and descriptive verses relating to the festival of Christmas, from the Anglo-Norman period to the present time,” edited by Henry Vizetelly and published in 1851.
Along with the traditional carols celebrating the birth of Jesus and festivities of the season, the collection includes lesser-known songs and poems with their own weight of tradition. One section I found particularly interesting is aptly titled “Boar’s Head Carols.” The editor notes, “There is no more interesting, and, by the way, no more hacknied, feature connected with the celebration of Christmas in the olden time, than the custom of bringing in the Boar’s Head with minstrelsy.” Regal banquets served the boar’s head ceremoniously as the first course, a tradition which is said to have originated at Queen’s College, Oxford.
Another unusual selection of poems falls under “Superstitions regarding Christmas Day.” Vizetelly introduces two poems from the same Harley manuscript at the British Library with the note, “The following poems are, perhaps, more curious than interesting.” As Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, here is a superstitious warning for us:
If Christmas day on the Sunday be,
A troublous winter ye shall see,
Mingled with waters strong ;
Good there shall be without fable,
For the summer shall be reasonable,
With storms at times among.
Though this may sound somewhat ominous—and bringing up the notion of a “troublous” winter in New England is probably a dangerous thing to do—these are mild predictions compared to the superstitions that follow. I won’t get into the details, but the succeeding verses throughout the week involve increasingly harsh weather, shipwrecks, pestilence, sickness, and death.
Vizetelly’s collection of poems ends with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Death of the Old Year.” Throughout the poem, a personified “Old year” lies dying as the poem’s speaker reminisces on his fading friend. The final stanza reads:
His face is growing sharp and thin.
Alack! Our friend is gone.
Close up his eyes : tie up his chin :
Step from the corpse, and let him in
That standeth there alone,
And waiteth at the door.
There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,
And a new face at the door, my friend,
A new face at the door.
Visit the library to read carols, poems, and songs from Christmas with the Poets and similar books in full, and best wishes for a festive final month of 2016 before the year comes to a close!
| Published: Friday, 9 December, 2016, 12:00 AM
Margaret Russell’s Diary, December 1916
By Anna J. Clutterbuck Cook, Reader Services
Messianic Era (1919) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Boston Public Library.
Today, we return to final month of 1916 in the line-a-day diary of Margaret Pelham Russell (1858-1924). You can read previous installments here:
January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November
The final month of 1916 ends on a quiet and rather somber note for Margaret Russell. She remains close to home and although she enjoys a regular schedule of social calls and cultural events she also struggles with a “bad throat” and worries about the health of an ailing friend Mrs. Hodder. Interspersed with notes about botany lessons and concerts and club activities is the terse notation, “Paper says Germany suggests peace.” The newspaper was reporting on a public offer to negotiate made by Germany and her allies in early December. The war would continue for almost two more years until the armistice of 11 November 1918 finally brought an end to the fighting.
Margaret spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at charity events -- a tree at the House of the Good Samaritan on the 24th and another at Massachusetts Eye & Ear infirmary on the 25th. She attended church services both days and dined with family and friends.
The day before New Year’s Eve, Margaret Russell goes down to the Boston Public Library at Copley Square to view the latest murals painted by John Singer Sargent, works that would eventually become part of his piece Triumph of Religion (1890-1919). “Messianic Era,” depicted above, is one of the ten sections installed in 1916.
* * *
1 Dec. Friday - Church. Errands. Took a drive & paid some calls.
2 Dec. Saturday. The H.G.C’s went with me to Worcester to see Art Museum & lunch at the Bancroft. Nice day.
3 Dec. Sunday. Church - took walk with Georgie. Lunched H.G.C’s. Mr. Woods came to see me. Family to dine, all but Nellie who is ill.
4 Dec. Monday - Hosp. Meeting, Mary, lunch with Marian. First botany lesson then walk with Miss A--.
5 Dec. Tuesday - First Friday Club Meeting. Left early & went to hear Morton P. lecture. Walked home with F. P.
6 Dec. Wednesday - Went out to see Steve[illegible] & then a few other calls. Throat suddenly hurt me.
7 Dec. Thursday - First meeting of lunch club here. Felt poorly & stayed at home.
8 Dec. Friday - Had Dr. Smith who says I have a bad throat & took culture. Feverish & uncomfortable.
9 Dec. Saturday - Better but ready to stay on couch. Throat clearing.
10 Dec. Sunday - Better but not feeling like myself. Family to dine.
11 Dec. Monday - Still in the house but improving. Raining hard. Botany lesson. Fine day.
12 Dec. Tuesday - Raining hard. Dr. came for last time. Paper says Germany suggests peace.
13 Dec. Wednesday - Went out to dine & glad to be out.
14 Dec. Thursday - Chilton Meeting, walked home. Lunched early & went to Swampscott. Old stump has fallen.
15 Dec. Friday - [illegible], errands in the morning & to see Aunt Emma. Fine concert. Edith lunched & went with me.
16 Dec. Saturday - Errands, quite deep snow. Broke mud guard. To see the The Great Lover with Annie & Horatio.
17 Dec. Sunday - Church - lunched at Mr. Chapin’s with the H.G.C’s & Dr. Bigelow & Mrs. Sears. Family to dine.
18 Dec. Monday - C.D. Meeting where Nellie P. was elected. Lunched at Mariners. Botany lesson & did not go out again.
19 Dec. Tuesday - Went to the Bazaar for the first time. Tuesday Club met here.
20 Dec. Wednesday - Errands - Mrs. W’s lecture. Went to Swampscott & Nahant with bundles.
21 Dec. Thursday - Meeting at South End - lunch club at Jennie’s.
22 Dec. Friday - Wonderful concert! Light symphony with chorus & Paderewski (Schumann Con.) Frances P. went with me.
23 Dec. Saturday - Lunched at Edith Wendell’s. Delivering presents.Cold & windy. Wonderful concert with Paderewski. Mrs. Sears went.
24 Dec.Sunday - Church. Lunched at H.G.C’s. Tree at Good Samaritan at 4.30 & service. Miss Ahler went. Family to dine.
25 Dec. Christmas. Tree at E. & E. Infirmary at 10. Beautiful service at the Cathedral afterwards. Lunched with Marian, dined at C’s.
26 Dec. Tuesday - Mary - Miss Harmen came to play. Out to see Aunt Emma & to Mabel Walker’s tea - to see Lyman children.
27 Dec. Wednesday - Raining & freezing. Walked downtown for errands. Mrs. Ward’s lecture. Lunched at club. So slippery I stayed P.M. at home.
28 Dec. Thursday - Went to Sampscott. Easy going & not cold.
29 Dec. Wednesday - Snowing & high wind - errands for a little while & then home for the rest of the day - dined with Mrs. Sears & went to the theatre.
30 Dec. Saturday - To see new Sargent pictures at the Library - out to S. Framingham to see Mrs. Hodder who is quite ill & I am worried about her. Cold.
31 Dec. Sunday - Miss A-- went to the Cathedral with me. Lunched at H.G.C’s. To call on Perrys. Family to dine but only three.
* * *
I hope you have enjoyed this year in the life of Margaret Pelham Russell. If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.
*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original.
| Published: Wednesday, 7 December, 2016, 12:00 AM
From the Case Notes of Robert Treat Paine: The Prison Ship Riot
By Christina Carrick, Publications
Serving in his official role before the Superior Judicial Court for Suffolk County in August 1780, Atty. Gen. Robert Treat Paine prosecuted a complicated wartime case. On the docket was murder; at stake was legal precedent in a new nation. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, Paine had to confront a challenging question: should enemy combatants—or prisoners of war, in this case—be treated and tried as citizens of the country? Or should they be removed into the jurisdiction of independent military courts, subject to separate laws and rights?
In this particular situation, the homicide charge arose from a conflict between British prisoners incarcerated on a ship in Boston Harbor and the American servicemen guarding them; the conflict expanded when more Americans approached the ship to discover what was wrong. That night, August 10, Maj. John Rice took a small boat from Boston to investigate a reported riot on the prison ship. A British prisoner with a gun and bayonet leaned over the rail as Rice’s boat pulled alongside. The armed man “dam’d” Rice and “swore he wd. blow [his] brains out.” Rice quickly saw that he should take the bayonet-wielding prisoner at his word. The ship's guards had been disarmed, and one, Sgt. Thomas Beckford, lay dead from a gunshot to the neck.
Lt. Isaac Morton later gave a detailed account of the incident:
I was Lieut. & officer of the day. I heard a gun fired on board the Prison ship just before sun down I went along side heard a disturbance on board. Serjt. said the centry was disarmed; I askd the Pris: how they fared, they sd. the Guard had not abused them Thos. Lynch damd me for a Rebel & if I came to the assistance of the Guard I was no better than they & he would throw me over board: McGregor sd. you are not better than the guard you Yankey Rogue, & struck me on the head with his fists. Michael Hay said you shall not abuse him McGregor came with Gun & Bayonet & threatned to run me through, & threatned me to throw me over board & all of us; McGregor said he brought his Gun from Ireland, he said he disarm’d the Guards to make an Escape: Major Rice came along side, & bid me step into the boat. McGregor having a Gun in his hand sd. if you offer to go into the boat Ill blow your brains out, there was a cry of fire fire blow their brains of the damd Rebell out Major Rice bid us shove off, they cryed on board the ship fire blow their Damd brains out & immediately they fired & a man dropt, a billet of wood then from the ships knock'd me over board
Paine’s notes on Lt. Isaac Morton’s testimony before the Superior Judicial Court
The ship ran aground near shore and multiple boats from Boston quickly suppressed the uprising. The rioting prisoners were moved from the prison ship into the city jail, where they awaited trial.
In terms of evidence, the case was straightforward: Major Rice and several guards from the ship had witnessed the riot. It was not completely clear who had fired the shot that killed Beckford, but the rioters were consistently named from testimony to testimony. The fundamental legal question was not who had fired the killing shot but whether prisoners of war should be tried in civilian court at all.
The nine defendants sent a petition to the court, claiming that they did not lie within its jurisdiction. They argued that they “ought not to be compelled to answer to sd. Indictment” because
Homicides & other offences committed by the Subjects of one State against the Government & People of another State while an open War is subsisting between them, ever have & of right ever ought to be enquired of heard & determined by the Courts Martial in the Country or place where such Homicide or Offences may be committed, agreeable to the laws of Nations & the laws of War *
In this, they insisted they should be tried in a court martial and not by “municipal laws, Customs & statutes” as American residents.
Despite their petition, the case went to trial. Paine, as attorney general, made the commonwealth’s case for prosecution. Increase Sumner, a Boston lawyer and future Massachusetts governor, argued for the defense. Sumner tried to convince the jury that since the defendants “were Prisoners by force they had right to regain their liberty by force.” This addressed another central question that hung over the proceedings: when did enemy combatants lose the rules-of-war right to act combatively? Did they have a legal or natural right to revolt against their imprisonment? These questions would not be clearly answered during the trial, but Paine scoured his legal texts to find precedent.
Paine’s notes from the case included references to many of the major legal texts of his time: Vattel’s The Law of Nations, Coke’s Reports, Hale’s Historia placitorum coronae (History of the Pleas of the Crown), and Blackstone’s Commentaries, among others. He noted from Vattel that “the right of war gives right to kill whenever they can” and from Blackstone that “an Alien Enemy is intitaled to no protection.” Nonetheless, he asked himself if it would “be murder if Congress should order all the Prisoners to be hung up at the Yard arm.”
Ultimately, the jury declared the defendants not guilty. The prisoners fade into the historical record, and it is not clear how they fared for the remainder of their captivity. The case, however, would later be cited as a supplement in the state’s Supreme Judicial Court reports, and the questions raised about the legal status of enemy combatants continued to plague the nation throughout its growing pains.
For the full trial story and Paine’s other legal endeavors, check out the Robert Treat Paine Papers collection at MHS and the published Papers of Robert Treat Paine. The Massachusetts State Judicial Archives also holds records on this case, including the above petition. Paine’s notes for this case will be printed in full in volume 4 of the Papers, forthcoming from the MHS Publications Department in 2017 thanks to a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
*Massachusetts Judicial Archives Suffolk Files 102707, quoted with permission from the Massachusetts State Archives.
| Published: Monday, 5 December, 2016, 12:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
It's that time, once again, for our weekly round-up of programs to come. Here's what's happening at the Society in the week ahead:
- Monday, 5 December, 6:00PM : Join us for an author talk with Jane Kamensky of Harvard University. A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley is a bold new history that recovers an unknown American Revolution as seen through the eyes of Boston-born painter John Singleton Copley. In her new work, Kamensky untangles the web of principles and interests that shaped the age of America's revolution. This talk is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $20 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows). A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the program at 6:00PM.
- Tuesday, 6 December, 10:15AM : "Slavery and Freedom in the Cradle of Liberty: An Exhibit of Objects and Documents from the Massachusetts Historical Society" is a virtual exhibit presented by students from Boston University's HI-190, The History of Boston. Their project presents more than 20 rare artifacts and documents from the MHS collection, and explores the contentious and powerful history of nineteenth-century Boston as its residents grappled with questions of slavery, freedom, and civil war. This event is open to the public; registration is required at no cost.
- Tuesday, 6 December, 5:15PM : This week's first seminar, part of the Early American History series, is a panel discussion with Liam Riordan of the University of Maine at Orono and Christina Carrick of Boston University." The discussion, "Loyalism," will focus on Riordan's essay "Revisiting Thomas Hutchinson: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Loyalist Biography," and Carricks' "'The earlier we form good Connections the better': David Greene's Loyalist Merchant Network in the Revolutionary Atlantic." Steve Bullock of Worcester Polytechnic Institute will provide comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.
- Wednesday, 7 December, 12:00PM : Stop by at lunch time for a Brown Bag talk with Manisha Sinha of the University of Connecticut. "The Abolitionist Origins of Radical Reconstruction: Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, and Black Citizenship" examines how Radical Republicans like Sumner and Stevens helped convert a radical social movement into a program for political change. This talk is free and open to the public.
- Wednesday, 7 December, 6:00PM : MHS Fellows and Members are invited to celebrate the season at the Society's annual MHS Fellows and Members Holiday Party. Enjoy an evening of holiday cheer along with the annual tradition of reading the anti-Christmas laws. Registration is required.
- Thursday, 8 December, 5:30PM : The second seminar of the week is a part of the History of Women and Gender series and is another panel discussion. "The History of Black Feminisms" is a conversation among Francoise Hamlin of Brown University, Tanisha C. Ford of the University of Delaware, and Treva Lindsey of Ohio State University and the Hutchins Center for African & African America Research. Kali Nicole Gross of Wesleyan University moderates this conversation that encompasses issues of identity, class, and culture and pays tribute to the scholarship of Leslie Brown of Williams College. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.
| Published: Sunday, 4 December, 2016, 12:00 AM
Pilgrims of Pompeii
By Sara Georgini, Adams Papers
The skeletons and the state representative first met on a warm fall afternoon in West Medford, 1862. Two day-laborers, sifting the topsoil with an ox-shovel, nearly hit bone. They ran to alert landowner Francis Brooks, a well-known lawyer and amateur naturalist. Peering over the pit in his backyard, Brooks saw raw history sewn into the earth below: five skeletons, some loose iron arrowheads, a costly-looking soapstone and copper pipe. The Brooks family had held the land—once as vast as 400 acres, now 50—since 1660, and the Native Americans lying before him all dated from the early seventeenth century.
The largest skeleton, as Francis thought, might even be that of Wonohaquaham (d. 1633).
A sachem better known as “Sagamore John,” Wonohaquaham once governed the swath of settlement that spanned Charlestown and Chelsea. Within Boston’s circle of gentleman scholars, Francis Brooks’ local find made a ripple of news. The Massachusetts Historical Society published a detailed account of the “Indian necropolis” found near Mystic Pond.
“I admit. I am all excitement for more bones,” Brooks wrote in his farm journal on 21 October. “I have now two baskets full which ornament the entry table. By and by they shall be put back to rest. With some stone over them in the old place.” Exercising “intelligent care,” he and wife Louise bundled up the bones and carried them across the Charles to a Harvard friend, Louis Agassiz, for use in his new museum of comparative anatomy. Unfazed that his ancestral estate was planted squarely in the half-hidden heart of a Native American burial ground, Francis Brooks quietly returned to farming and law.
But, when he could, Brooks (1824-1891) dabbled in digging around for ancient history. Growing up in Boston, Brooks read the eclectic popular science offerings in the antebellum press. Newspaper squibs of archeological finds and snippets of scientific lore laced through his daily headlines, alongside word of abolition, women’s rights, secession, and Civil War. Many of the articles that he saw dealt with gauging the earth’s age, by tweaking geology to conform with Protestant Christianity. Headlines included the race to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the rise of learned societies to stir up “science talk.” Like many Victorian Americans who spent the century rooting around in the distant past, Francis Brooks’ first efforts were amateur but diligent. He joined a vanguard of “citizen scientists” who kept weather diaries, went on naturalist hikes, funded new museums, lingered in private “bone rooms,” and marveled at “wonder shows” of ancient mummies.
To men and women like Francis Brooks, modern science served as spectacle and oracle. Armed with the private money and public momentum needed to launch new institutions, urbane Americans like Brooks made popular science thrive, on and off the printed page. The Boston Society of Natural History opened its doors in 1830 and evolved into the modern Museum of Science. The Society swept up human crania, skeletons, botanical specimens, and a glittering array of raw minerals. At Ford’s Theatre, a floor above the box where John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, curators lined shelves with specimens in 1866, forming the Army Medical Museum . But as the war claimed lives within Francis Brooks’ hometown ranks, his gaze moved past backyard finds. With Civil War America encased in ashes daily, Brooks’ focus pivoted to ancient Pompeii.
What did early Americans know of Pompeii’s history and story? From afar, Brooks and his antebellum peers savored the historical snapshot of a lush city, frozen in fallen glory. In August 79 A.D., the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, swiftly burying residents and homes in 13 to 20 feet of volcanic ash. Such a sudden loss ripped at the ancient region’s heart. Staring hard through the toxic smoke barreling across the Bay of Naples to his evacuation point, Pliny the Younger said that it was “as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.” Centuries’ worth of writers, ancient and modern alike, wrote and reframed the tragedy. By 1599, archeologists began excavating the towns’ riches. Looters followed. Overall, they found stray wine bottles, an aqueduct, bath-houses, and villas packed with papyri. Rose-red and evergreen-tinged frescoes filled the halls where 11,000 Pompeiians had lived and loved, worked and died.
For Americans like Francis Brooks, who studied Latin and Greek classics, Pompeii was a scientific goldmine. Hiking the partially excavated city was a “must” on the grand tour of fashionable gentlemen and adventurous debutantes alike. Pompeii’s fossils of vice–brothels, pagan temples, slave chains–intrigued Victorian reformers championing temperance, Protestant values, and abolitionism. In the early 1870s, as part of a philanthropic mission through Europe, Francis Brooks finally made it to see the distant past in person. At home, he kept farm journals documenting crop growth, his children’s birthdays, and the Brahmin party circuit. Once abroad, Brooks started (briefly) a thick sketchbook, “Views of Pompeii,” held here in the Massachusetts Historical Society. There, Brooks copied foreign frescoes in precise, vivid gouache. Under his brush, the city’s half-eaten columns again soared up to a calm sky. Brooks posed his travel companions in parlor-room vignettes, making 80 paintings in total. Pompeii’s exotic panorama of pagan altars, opal sunsets, and fantastic beasts, supplied Francis Brooks with a rich backdrop for his art–and a new way to see how monuments can embody memory.
Early in autumn 1882, the skeletons and the state representative met for one last time. Several of Francis Brooks’ workers, busy digging a cellar on the West Medford estate, came upon roughly 18 Native American skeletons, including that of “Sagamore John.” Brooks’ rage for “more bones” had quieted a bit after seeing Pompeii. When he gazed out over the family grounds, Francis Brooks saw rows of potatoes and corn, plus a 70-foot-long brick wall built by slaves 200 years earlier. He added a plain granite monument, inscribed, “TO SAGAMORE JOHN AND THOSE MYSTIC INDIANS WHOSE BONES LIE HERE.” Lessons from ancient history, as Brooks learned in Pompeii, still guided modern steps.
| Published: Friday, 2 December, 2016, 3:04 PM