This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

We hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday! Now, back to business. We have two brown-bag lunches and a seminar this week at the Historical Society. First, the lunch events:

On Wednesday, 2 December, Dean Grodzins will give a brown-bag lunch talk, “A Civil War in Boston: Benjamin Robbins Curtis, Theodore Parker, and the Fugitive Slave Crisis, 1850-1855.”

On Friday, 4 December, Library Assistant Heather Merrill and Tod Forman will speak on “Legacies in Stone: Some Statues of Boston.”

The brown-bag lunches will begin at 12 noon.

And for the seminar: on Thursday, 3 December, as part of the Boston Early American History seminar series, Elaine Forman Crane of Fordham University will present a talk, “Cold Comfort: Rape and Race in Eighteenth-Century Rhode Island.” Gerald F. Leonard of Boston University Law School will deliver a comment. Please read the Seminars @ MHS blog post for more information on attending seminars, including how to make reservations and receive the papers in advance. The seminar will begin at 5:15 p.m.

“…it shall be Eliza …”; or, Attributing a Diary

By Susan Martin

Among the many personal diaries in MHS collections are the remarkable 200-year-old travel journals of Eliza Cheever Davis (later Shattuck), recently discovered in the Caleb Davis papers (Ms. N-1096). These two thin volumes, kept from 1809 to 1811 on outings to various New England towns, differ from many other historical diaries in their rich detail and literary quality. Originally misattributed to another family member and therefore lost among the family’s other papers, the diaries, written when Eliza was about 20 years old, are an exciting find.

The story of this discovery began during a recent preservation rehousing project on the Caleb Davis papers. This collection contains not only the correspondence and financial papers of Boston merchant and Massachusetts state legislator Caleb Davis (1738-1797), but also some papers of other family members, including his wife, his brothers, his son, and his father-in-law William Downes Cheever. While rehousing the collection, a staff member found an error in the catalog record. These two diaries, attributed to William Downes Cheever, couldn’t possibly have been kept by him because, at the time they were written, he’d been dead for 20 years!

Although diaries often come to the MHS as part of a larger collection of family papers, they are individually cataloged in ABIGAIL, our online catalog. Misattributions can easily occur. Personal diaries, not intended for publication, are usually unsigned, and the handwriting may be similar to that of another family member. Clues are buried within routine entries, and careful and time-consuming investigation may be necessary to discover the author.

At first, these diaries offered up only a few tantalizing clues. Both volumes contain references to someone named Eliza. Could the diaries have been kept by George C. Shattuck, who in 1811 married Caleb Davis’s daughter Eliza? No, it’s clear they were written by a woman. The author uses phrases such as “we three women,” self-deprecatingly calls herself “a giddy girl,” and describes afternoons spent sewing with her female friends. Other internal evidence included an allusion to a brother’s recent death; John Derby Davis died in 1809 while still a teenager. Therefore, of all the Davis women living between 1809 and 1811, the most likely candidate for author was John’s sister, Eliza Cheever Davis herself.

But what about those references to an Eliza? This mystery was cleared up by a parenthetical comment near the end of the first volume: “(I declare I do not know what to call Eliza C Davis when obliged to mention her so often as I am here. I do not like my nor myself, or my ladyship or I, or madam. Well what shall I do, a name I must have but it shall not be I or me, it shall be Eliza and Eliza D M shall be Elizabeth so this important affair is settled.)” It seems the author, Eliza Cheever Davis, had a friend with the same name, “Eliza D M,” and she jokes about the confusion in this passage.

As a diarist, Eliza was creative, exuberant, and introspective. Instead of the usual perfunctory entries, these volumes contain substantial and beautifully written descriptions of towns and people she met during travels in Massachusetts and on trips to Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont. She was clearly a well-read woman and peppered her writing with quotations from Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, Hannah More, and others. She skillfully set scenes to build dramatic tension. In one passage, when returning to an earlier part of a story, she spoke directly to her reader: “But now you must accompany me back to Hanover where you left me at Miss Fullers…” Eliza also wrote about her religious feelings, her love of nature and of adventure, and her joy in physical activity, such as horseback riding. Her witty descriptions of social life and her observations on the characters and manners of acquaintances are reminiscent of that great contemporary of hers, Jane Austen.

My favorite passages are those in which Eliza shows off her gift for hyperbole. For example, on September 12, 1810, Eliza wrote:

“Descend ye nine Muses, all ye powers of description aid me to describe Miss Phebe Tracy, with all her airs and graces thick about her. She is a young lady of thirty, with the manner of fifteen. She is very very sensible, this she well knows herself, and is only anxious that her hearers should know it also. Her thoughts and ideas are so astonishingly large and great, that there is [sic] very few words in the english language fit to clothe them in, and these not being in general use. It is highly necessary when Miss Phebe converses that her hearers should have an interpreter or a dictionary to bring them down to the ordinary capacity of poor mortals. To hold conversation with her would be almost impossible, this she is sensible of, and therefore spares you, by doing it all herself.”

And on September 25, 1810, Eliza met:

“A Capt Charles Perkins, a young man of seven or 8 feet high, dark complexioned. As to his eyes I never saw the colour of them as they darted all their beams into the Carpet. He set [sic] in a chair, walked, eat [sic] & drank. This was all that denoted life in him. There was no expression of it in his countenance, which I should judge was carved out of wood, or cut out of a potatoe [sic]. I should not know him again by his voice as I only heard the sound of it once & that very faintly. Such was this valiant entertaining Captain. Next to him sat a Mr Bishop who looked as though he could converse, but unfortunately he was seated most of the time by that lifeless lump of Clay the Captain, whose very look was enough to congeal all social intercourse.”

Secondary sources tell us that Eliza – shortly after keeping these diaries, in fact – went on to marry Dr. George C. Shattuck of Boston. The MHS holds a collection of George C. Shattuck papers (Ms. N-909) that provides a final confirmation of the diaries’ author. Among the papers in that collection are a few affectionate letters from Eliza to her brother John Derby Davis, written in 1808. Her handwriting, which is distinctive, matches the diaries perfectly. Other papers in that collection include correspondence from Dr. Nathan Smith of Hanover, N.H. (about whom Eliza wrote in her diary) encouraging George to court Eliza, and a letter from George to his friend Roswell Shurtleff describing her as “a very interesting acquaintance…among the worthiest of her sex.”

For additional diaries by women in MHS collections, search in ABIGAIL by subject for “Women’s diaries.”

Holiday Closure Notice

By Jeremy Dibbell

The MHS, including the library, will be closed this Thursday through Saturday (26-28 November) in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday. We will resume regular hours on Monday, 30 November.

Additionally, the MHS website, including this blog, will be unavailable between 8-10 a.m. on Tuesday, 24 November for a hardware upgrade. We hope to be back up and running as soon as possible. Should you need to access the ABIGAIL online catalog during that time, please use this link.

The Other John Quincy Adams

By Jeremy Dibbell

A former MHS research fellow (Dael Norwood, Princeton University) sent along a pretty cool project the New York Times is doing right now: in “But the Name is Familiar,” they’re profiling people who share the same name as former presidents. This week’s feature was John Quincy Adams, an 87-year old Brooklyn preacher and founder of the New Frontier Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The photographer, Patrick Witty, has intentionally made the photograph of Mr. Adams resemble the daguerrotype made of John Quincy Adams in 1843.

This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

On Tuesday, 17 November, join us for a lecture by William M. Bulger on his new book, James Michael Curley: A Short Biography with Personal Reminiscences (Commonwealth Editions, 2009). Refreshments will be served at 5:30 p.m., with the talk at 6 p.m. There will be an opportunity to purchase copies of James Michael Curley and have books signed after the talk. More info here.

On Thursday, 19 November, the Boston Immigration and Urban History Seminar series begins its season with a 5:15 p.m. talk by Sandy Zipp of Brown University, “Culture and Authority in the Superblock World: East Harlem Plaza and the Conflict Over Public Space.” Jeff Melnick of Babson College will give the comment. Please read the Seminars @ MHS blog post for more information on attending seminars, including how to make reservations and receive the papers in advance.

November Object: American POW in WWI

By Jeremy Dibbell

Our November Object of the Month is up: it’s an October 1918 photograph of a group of American prisoners of war taken at the German prison camp Landshut. Atlantic Monthly correspondent (and fighter pilot) James Norman Hall, one of those prisoners, sent the photo along with a note to Atlantic editor Ellery Sedgwick.

See the photograph, and read background on Hall, Segwick and others here. And remember to check out our current exhibition: “Atlantic Harvest: Ellery Sedgwick and The Atlantic Monthly, 1909-1938.”

“The Letters of the Presidents” Lunch Talk Recap

By Anna Cook

On 4 November, Assistant Reference Librarian Tracy Potter and intern Sarah Desmond (Endicott College), gave a progress report on their project to survey the presidential papers held at the MHS. This project, funded by a generous donation from MHS trustee Dennis Shapiro (in attendence), has as its goal the preparation of a web-accessible subject guide to letters written by U.S. Presidents within the collections of the MHS. The finished guide will document all known correspondence, located through bibliographic research and a survey of staff members, and list the MHS holdings by president and then collection and subject matter. The only type of correspondence omitted will be straight-up autographs (i.e. signed commissions), which contain no substantive writing by the individual themselves. There will be a particular emphasis on documents from the presidential years, although other items will also be included as known. Sections on “other materials” and “related material” (items not held at the MHS which may be of interest) will add further value to the finding guide.

Hundreds of letters have so far been identified and itemized, including a twenty-eight page list of letters from Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-seven pages of letters from George Washington (including 173 letters to Timothy Pickering alone), and forty-nine letters from John F. Kennedy, mostly located in the Leverett Saltonstall autograph collection. Letters from every single President have been found in our collections, with the exception of the two most recent individuals to hold the office: George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Tracy and Sarah shared some of their favorite finds, including a letter from Richard Nixon in the Leverett Saltonstall papers in which Nixon relates his enthusiasm over a Fig Festival in California.

Conversation during the audience question and comment period focused on the methodology for locating the correspondence, questions about the intended audience for the finding guide, and suggestions for future uses of the information that will come out of this project, (such as a web-based exhibition highlighting the presidential papers held here at the Society).  Peter Drummey shared one of his own favorite items from a U.S. President: a preserved bird found in a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to a bird-watching friend during Roosevelt’s college days. 

We congratulate Sarah and Tracy on the work they have already put in and wish them luck as they forge ahead.

This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

A reminder that tonight, 9 November, we’ll host the official book launch for Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams. Refreshments will be served at 5:30 p.m., with a talk to follow at 6 p.m. There will be an opportunity to purchase copies of Abigail Adams and have books signed after the talk. More info here.

On Tuesday, 10 November, the Boston Environmental History Seminar series continues with a 5:15 p.m. talk by Strother Roberts of Northwestern University, “Pines, Profits and Popular Politics: The Timber and Lumber Trade of the Colonial Connecticut River Valley.” Harvey Green of Northeastern University will give the comment. Please read the Seminars @ MHS blog post for more information on attending seminars, including how to make reservations and receive the papers in advance.

Also, please note that the MHS will be CLOSED on Wednesday, 11 November, in observance of the Veterans Day holiday.

Remember, Remember …

By Jeremy Dibbell

Most of us probably don’t tend to think of 5 November as a holiday, but in colonial Boston it was one of the most festive days of the year. In Britain the holiday was (and still is) known as Guy Fawkes Day; here in New England it was called Pope’s Day, or Pope Night. There is an excellent introduction to the holiday at 5th of November in Boston, a site mounted by our sister institution the Bostonian Society.

There are many items in our collections relating to Pope’s Day, but I wanted to highlight one of them today: the James Freeman notebook. Rev. James Freeman (1759-1835), was one of the founders of the Historical Society, and his little historical notebook (given to the Society in 1791) “contains notes on population, prices, epidemics, unusual weather, and earthquakes in Massachusetts, particularly the earthquake of 1755; also, descriptions of Guy Fawkes Day pageants and riots in Boston, and of the public reaction in Boston to the Stamp Act of 1765.” These aren’t personal recollections by Freeman, but rather contemporary newspaper accounts that he copied later.

On the first page of the notebook, under the heading “1745,” Freeman writes: Nov’r 5. Two Popes were made & carried thro the streets in the evening 1 from the N. & ye other from ye S. attended by a vast number of negroes & white servants w/ clubs &c., who were very abusive to ye inhab. insulting persons and breaking windows &c of such as did not give them money to their satisfaction, & even of those who had given them liberally, & ye 2 Popes meeting in Cornhill their followers fell upon one another w/ ye utmost rage & fury. Several were wounded & bruised & some left for dead, & rendered incapable of business for a long time. Fleets Evening Post.” This account appeared almost verbatim in the Boston Evening-Post issue dated 11 November 1745, which also included a letter to the printer “written by a Gentleman of great Character.” The gentleman urged Mr. Fleet not to suffer the riot “to pass off without a public Rebuke … What a Scandal and Infamy to a Protestant Mob, be it of the rudest and lowest Sailor; out of Boston, or even of the very Negroes of the Town, to fall upon one another with Clubs and Cutlasses, in a Rage and Fury which only Hell could inspire, or Devils broke loose from their Chains there, could well represent!”

For 5 November 1764, Freeman writes: “It was formerly a custom on these anniversaries for ye lower class of people to celebrate the evening in a manner peculiar to themselves, by having carried images erected on stages, representing the Pope, his attendant, &c. and these were generally carried thro’ the streets by negroes & other servants, that ye minds of ye vulgar might be impressed w/ a sense of their deliverance from popery, & money was generally given to them, to regale themselves in the evening, when they burnt the images. But of late those who are concerned in this pageantry make a party affair of it, & instead of spending the evening agreeably, the champions of both ends of the town prepare to engage each other in battles under the denomination of S. end & N. end. In ye afternoon the magistrates & other officers of the town went to the respective places of their rendezvous, & demolished their stages, to prevent any disorders, which they did without opposition. Notw/standing which as soon as it was dark, they collected again, & mended their stages, which being done they prepared for a battle, & about 8 o’clock the two parties met near the mill bridge where they fought with clubs, staves, brick bats, &c for about half an hour, when those of ye S. end gained the victory, carrying off not only their own, but their antagonist’s stages &c which they burnt on Boston neck. In the fray many were much bruised & wounded in their heads & arms, some dangerously. It should be noted that these parties do not much subsist at any other time.” This account appeared in the Boston Evening-Post of 12 November 1764.

The following year, in the wake of the Stamp Act riots, Freeman’s entry indicate that things turned out a little differently: “It has long been the custom in Boston on ye 5th of Nov’r for Nos. of persons to exhibit on stages some pageantry denoting their abhorrence of popery & the horrid plot which was to have been executed on that day in the year 1605. These shows have of late years, been continued in the even’g, & we have often seen the bad effects attending them at such a time; the servants & negroes would disguise themselves & being armed with clubs would engage each other with great violence whereby many came off badly wounded. In short, they carried it to such lengths that two parties were created in ye town under the appellation of N. end & S. end. But the disorders which had been committed from time to time induced several gentlemen to try a reconciliation between the 2 parties; accordingly the chiefs met on the 1st of this inst., & conducted the affair in a very orderly manner. In ye even’g the commander of ye N. & after making general overtures they reciprocally engaged in an Union, & the former distinctions to subside, at the same time the chiefs with their assistants engaged their honour no mischief should arise by their means, & that they would prevent any disorders on ye 5th. When the day arrived about noon the pageantry representing the Pope, the Devil, & several other effigies signifying tyranny, oppression, slavery, &c. were brought on stages from the N. & S. & met in Kings Str. where the union was established in a very ceremonial manner, & having given three huzzas, they interchanged ground, the S. marched to ye N. & the N. to the S. parading thro’ ye streets until they again met near ye Court House. The whole then proceeded to Liberty tree, under the shadow of which they refreshed themselves for a while, & then returned to ye Northward agreeably to their plan. They reached Cop’s hill before 6 o’clock, where they halted, & having enkindled a fire, the whole pageantry was committed to the flames & consumed.” This account appeared in the Boston Evening-Post of 11 November 1765.


For more information on Pope’s Day, I recommend 5th of November in Boston, plus the excellent Pope Night series at Boston1775. Brendan McConville’s excellent book The King’s Three Faces (University of North Carolina Press, 2006) contains much background and context. On James Freeman, see F.W.P. Greenwood’s memoir of him, published in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3d. Series Volume V (1836), pp. 255-271.

Join Us for Launch of Holton’s “Abigail Adams”

By Jeremy Dibbell

On Monday, 9 November, the MHS hosts the official launch of Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams, a new biography of the woman Holton calls the “most richly documented woman of America’s founding era.” Holton offers important new insights into the life and times of his subject: Catherine Allgor, quoted on the dust jacket, says of the book “This is not your father’s Abigail Adams. Woody Holton has given us the gift of the most fully rounded picture of those most famous of Founding Mothers to date. Entrepreneur, politician, mother, wife – Abigail Adams emerges from Holton’s burnished prose as the compelling, complicated person she was. The discoveries he has made, and the insights they have inspired, will shape how we think of revolutionary men and women and partnerships both political and personal.”

Much of Holton’s research for this book is drawn from the Adams Family papers collection here at MHS (in its various forms), so needless to say we’re delighted to see the project come to fruition and are very much looking forward to the launch event. Refreshments will be served at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, with a talk by Woody Holton to begin at 6 p.m. Copies of the book will be available for purchase after the lecture.

On a personal note, I started Abigail Adams last night, and read long into the wee hours. It’s as captivating a biography as any I’ve ever read.