Summing Up 2009

By Elaine Grublin

It looks like 2009 was a busy year in the MHS library. We previously reported that this past July was the busiest month on recent record in our reading room. The trend continued through most of the calendar year. All told we had over 1,450 researchers visit the library over the course of the year, for a total of 2,851 daily uses. We had over 740 first time visitors this year, a good indication that both our website and our public and educational programs are reaching out to new users. It is also a good indicator that people are still interested in using libraries.

In addition to the people that visited the library in person, our reference staff engaged in over 1,500 email correspondences with researchers seeking assistance, answered 62 posted letters, and fielded over 1,100 reference-related phone calls.

In servicing our researchers the staff made over 13,000 photocopies of MHS documents, and paged over 5,600 call slips. Because researchers can request multiple volumes and/or boxes from manuscript collections on a single call slip, it is difficult to gauge just how many individual items were retrieved and returned to the stacks, but I would wager it is a safe bet to say that it was well over 10,000 items.

You may be wondering where all those researchers come from. Given the size and scope of our collection is it not surprising that researchers come from near and far to visit the MHS reading room.

Local visitors, (individuals with Massachusetts addresses), make up about 44% of our researcher population. A person in Pittsfield, MA may argue that he is less of a local than a resident of Providence, RI or Portsmouth, NH, so that number may be a bit of an unfair representation of the ‘local’ population. It would be interesting to see what percentage of our Massachusetts visitors are from the greater Boston area. Perhaps we will track that data in 2010.

The largest percentage of our researcher population, about 50%, is comprised of United States residents living outside of Massachusetts. In 2009 the MHS reading room was visited by individuals traveling from 44 of the 50 states, plus researchers from both Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The only states not represented by researchers visiting the library this year were Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Incidentally, West Virginia is the only state in the nation not represented in our current researcher database. This means that we have not had a visitor to our library from West Virginia in the 21st century (the new database was started in 1999). If you know of any West Virginian historians, please send them our way!

Our researchers do reach well beyond the borders of the United States, though. In 2009 we had visitors from more than 12 foreign nations, including Portugal, Japan, Croatia, Poland, Israel, Australia, Ireland, and Russia. The majority of our international visitors are from the nations of the United Kingdom and Canada, a trend that continues from year to year. It is also interesting to note, although not at all surprising, that our international visitors tend to visit the reading room on multiple consecutive days, more so than researchers from the United States.

Hopefully 2010 will prove to be an even bigger year for the library staff and our researchers, and with any luck at all we’ll add a West Virginian to our reader database!

Holiday Closure Notice

By Jeremy Dibbell

The MHS, including the library, will be closed from 24 December through 3 January; we’ll reopen on Monday, 4 January at 9 a.m.

If you need a Historical Society fix over the holidays, C-SPAN2’s “Book TV” will be airing the launch of Woody Holton’s Abigail Adams, taped here at MHS on 9 November. The first showtime is set for Saturday, 26 December at 7 p.m., with a rebroadcast on Monday, 28 December at 5 a.m. You can find scheduling and other information here (and following the broadcast you will probably be able to watch the show online there, too).

From all of us at MHS, happy holidays, and we hope to see you in 2010!

“The Case of the Slave Child, Med”: Lunch Talk Recap

By Anna Cook

Last Wednesday (16 December), MHS research fellow Karen Woods Weierman gave “concluding remarks” about the research that has brought her to a second fellowship here at the MHS: an examination of the 1836 legal case Commonwealth vs. Aves, or “the case of the slave-child Med” as it was commonly referred to. Med was a seven-year-old enslaved girl brought by her Southern owners to Boston when they came North to visit family. Anti-slavery activists discovered Med’s status and brought suit against the family claiming that since Med was on free soil it was unlawful to keep her enslaved, even though the family was only “in transit.” Judge Lemuel Shaw, who heard the case, ultimately decided in favor of freeing Med, and the case remained an influential legal decision until the Dred Scott decision of 1857.   

Karen Weierman’s work at the Historical Society this fall was comprised of four parts. She built on her work at the Boston Public Library, which holds the records of the Boston Female Anti-slavery Society (BFASS); she attempted to piece together the involvement of the Boston African-American community in Med’s case – a process that has involved a lot of archival detective work!; she delved deeper into the legal history of the case, with its cast of “usual suspects” who appear time and time again in slave transit cases of this period; and finally, she hopes to consider the literary dimension of the case – including the role played by such literary and abolitionist figures as Maria Chapman and Lydia Maria Child.

Her time at the MHS, Karen reported, has been helpful in clarifying what will be framed in the lens of her book project. Currently, she is hoping to maintain a tight focus on Med’s case and the surrounding decade, starting with an 1832 case that was the first slave-child case and ending with the 1842 Latimer case, which shifted the nation’s focus from slave transit cases to fugitive slave laws in the lead-up to the Civil War. While the case of Med has not gone entirely un-examined in the historiography, the attention it has received this far has been minor and no one has yet done an interdisciplinary study that seeks to combine local, Boston history, legal scholarship, and literary scholarship: this is a gap that Karen is hoping to fill with her work.

During the Q&A period, several audience members questioned what Med’s owners were thinking bringing a slave North to a city like Boston, which was known for its abolitionist activities. There was also a great deal of discussion about the way that the discourse of motherhood was shared by both the pro- and anti-slavery sides: those who argued for Med to remain with her owners suggested that anti-slavery activists would be ripping Med’s family apart by keeping her in the North while her mother remained enslaved in Louisana; abolitionists countered by pointing out that Med’s family was already torn apart by slavery and that it was the duty of the owners to free Med’s mother who could travel North to be reunited with her daughter. Both sides, in other words, were positioning themselves as “protectors of children” and the family.

Sadly, Med died before her eighth birthday in an orphan home, set free but with her custody remaining murky. The reason for her death remains unclear, but her story vanishes from the antislavery discourse given its less-than-triumphal end.  I look forward to seeing how Karen brings her back from obscurity and re-directs our focus toward this legal and social turning-point in the history of anti-slavery law.

JQA, Social Butterfly

By Jeremy Dibbell

You may think you’re busy with an endless stream of holiday events and festivities, but if you’ve been following along with John Quincy Adams’ time as the American minister in Russia you’ll know we’ve got it much easier than he did!

As he wrote in his long diary synopsis for the month of November, JQA found the social schedule quite grueling: “We rise seldom earlier than 9. in the morning, often note before ten. Breakfast. Visitors to receive, or visits to make untill three, soon after which the night comes on. At 4 we dine, and pass the Evening either abroad untill very late, or at our lodgings with company untill ten or eleven o’clock. The night parties abroad seldom break up untill 4 or 5 in the morning. It is a life of such irregularity and dissipation, as I cannot, & will not, continue to lead.”

And yet, for the first few weeks of December, he and his family are quite busy with social engagements: dining out or entertaining company almost every day, a ball on 7 December, a “children’s bal masqué” at the French Ambassador’s residence a week later, and then another ball on 17 December (this one something of a surprise to Mr. Adams). In his long diary entry for the day, he writes: “At 5 we went with the Ladies and dined at Mr. P Severin’s – We had been invited only to a dinner, but found it was a Ball. There were about fifty persons at the dinner, which was very splendid, and double the number in the Evening. … We attempted in the course of the Evening to slip away unperceived, but without success. About 2 in the morning we had an elegant supper; after which the Ball, began again. About four in the morning, we finally with much difficulty obtained leave to come home.”

Mr. Adams lamented the next day “I have done nothing for several days,” and on the 19th “sent an excuse” to yet another party (which his family attended, arriving home around 4 a.m.). On the 24th Adams was “obliged” to attend the Empress Mother’s ball. He describes the ball as “splendid”, the supper “magnificent”, and the Empress Mother as “very gracious.” The party broke up with the departure of the imperial family, “around two.” Then the family had a few days of rest, but on the 30th JQA was back at it, out until 1 a.m. playing cards with Mr. Krehmer “and four other gentlemen.”

JQA closes December with this terse summary: “Little different from last month, and no better.” And things wouldn’t get much better in January, either – his line-a-day diary entries (stay tuned for these on Twitter next month) reveal quite a few more late nights for Mr. Adams.

This Week @MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

Join us Wednesday, 16 December at noon, when research fellow Karen Woods Weierman will give a brown-bag lunch talk on her current research project, “The Case of the Slave-Child, Med: The Geography of Freedom in Antebellum Boston.”

Spotlight on Phillis Wheatley

By Jeremy Dibbell

Part of our new website design (well not so new anymore, I can’t believe it debuted in September!) is a rotating “Spotlight” section, where we highlight one of our various digital collections. Currently we’re focusing on Phillis Wheatley: click here to see digital images of manuscript poetry by Wheatley, letters by and about the poet, and information on a writing desk in the Society’s collections believed to have been used by Wheatley.

This Week @ MHS

By Jeremy Dibbell

On Tuesday, 9 December, the Boston Environmental History Seminar series continues with a 5:15 p.m. talk by Allen M. Gontz of UMASS-Boston, “Linking Anthropogenic Landscapes and Natural Processes to the Cultural and Environmental Vulnerability of Southern Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts.” Peter Rosen 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.

On Wednesday, 10 December, research fellow Whitney Martinko will give a brown-bag lunch talk on her current research project, “Progress through Preservation: History on the American Landscape in an Age of Improvement, 1790-1860.” The talk will begin at 12 noon.

On Thursday, 11 December, current long-term research fellow Crystal Feimster will speak on “How Are the Daughters of Eve Punished? Rape and the American Civil War.” This seminar, part of the Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender, will be held at the Schlesinger Library, Harvard. Please read the Seminars @ MHS blog post for more information on attending seminars, including how to make reservations and receive the papers in advance.

December’s Object: Abigail’s Pocket

By Jeremy Dibbell

Our December Object of the Month is one of the MHS’ recent acquisitions: a “dimity pocket” once owned and used by Abigail Adams. It came to the Society as a gift from antique purse collectors Paula Novell Higgins of Georgia and Lori Rose Blaser of California, who purchased it from an estate in Adams, NY. The pocket was previously in the possession of Abigail’s granddaughter Elizabeth “Lizzie” Coombs Adams, possibly passed to her directly from Abigail under the terms of her will, in which she left “all my Cloathing–body Linnen &–not already heirred shall be equally divided between my five Grand daughters and Louisa Catherine Smith.”

A note by Lizzie Adams attesting to the original ownership of the pocket accompanies the piece.

To read more about dimity pockets in general and this one in particular, and for further reading suggestions, see Adams Papers Assistant Editor Sarah Sikes’ Object of the Month essay.

JQA’s St. Petersburg Reading List (November/December)

By Jeremy Dibbell

Continuing our series of posts highlighting John Quincy Adams’ reading, now during his residence in St. Petersburg as American minister. Remember that you can follow along with JQA’s trip via his line-a-day entries on Twitter. For previous reading lists, see the August, September and October posts.

Following his arrival in Russia, JQA doesn’t mention his daily reading as often in his line-a-day diary, but occasionally he comments on it in his long diary entries for November and December (start reading his November long entries here). For much of the time during these first months in Russia, however, he is kept quite busy with the pressing needs of finding suitable housing and the social pressures of his post:

11/2/1809: In his long diary entry, JQA reports “Mr. Harris called again and passed a couple of hours with us in the Evening. He sent me also a Russian and French Dictionary and Grammar, from which I began the attempt to learn the characters of the Russian Alphabet. 

11/29/1809: In his long diary entry, JQA writes that he “read a little of General Pfuhl’s pamphlet, and wrote very little.” This is presumbly Russian general von Pfuhl’s Fragmente über die Kriegskunst nach Gesichtspunkten der militäischen Philosophie ([St. Petersburg, Lesznowski, 1809]).

11/30/1809: “Wrote little; and read only part of my German pamphlet.”

In his synopsis for the month of November, JQA records “We rise seldom earlier than 9. in the morning, often note before ten. Breakfast. Visitors to receive, or visits to make untill three, soon after which the night comes on. At 4 we dine, and pass the Evening either abroad untill very late, or at our lodgings with company untill ten or eleven o’clock. The night parties abroad seldom break up untill 4 or 5 in the morning. It is a life of such irregularity and dissipation, as I cannot, & will not, continue to lead.”

12/3/1809: In his long diary entry, JQA notes “I read this day two sermons of Massillon – the Samaritan woman and on alms giving. Both of them excellent. The pretences for neglecting a religious life, and for not distributing charity are victoriously refuted; and the vices of luxurious wealth are chastised with just severity.” See entry for 8/6.

12/10/1809: Two Sermons of Massillon; on Infidelity and Slander. See entry for 8/6.

12/19/1809: In his long diary entry, JQA records that he “sent an excuse” to a ball at the de Bray’s, and “pass’d part of the night in reading and writing.”

12/21/1809: Storch’s Picture of St. Petersburg. This is Heinrich Freidrich von Storch, The Picture of Petersburg (London: Longman and Rees, 1801). Available via Google Books here. In his long diary entry, JQA notes that he finished the book today.

I’ll continue to update this post through December with additional notes on reading as JQA provides them.

Remembering John Brown

By Jeremy Dibbell

On the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s execution (2 December 1859), a reminder that you can visit our current exhibition, “John Brown: Martyr to Freedom or American Terrorist – Or Both?” through 23 December, Monday – Saturday from 1-4 p.m. The exhibit includes personal papers, photographs, broadsides, engravings, weapons, and artifacts that illuminate Brown’s life together with evidence of the continuing arguments about the morality and meaning of his actions.

And since there are a number of interesting columns about Brown and his legacy in the newspapers today I thought I’d link to those: at History News Network, David Blight’s essay “‘He Knew How to Die”: John Brown on the Gallows, December 2, 1859” examines the difficult lessons of Brown’s life and actions, concluding “John Brown should confound and trouble us.  Martyrs are made by history; people choose their martyrs just as we choose to define good and evil.  And we will be forever making and unmaking John Brown as Americans face not only their own racial past, but the ever changing reputation of violence in the present.”

In the New York Times, Tony Horwitz calls Brown’s raid “The 9/11 of 1859,” and points out parallels he sees between Brown’s raid and the attacks made on 11 September 2001 (and between Brown’s trial and the upcoming trial of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed).

Also in the Times, David Reynolds argues in “Freedom’s Martyr” that Brown should be remembered as an “American hero,” and suggests that Virginia governor Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama should posthumously pardon Brown.