This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

Our winter/spring event season is in full swing. Mark you calendar and plan to attend at least one event this week.

Tuesday, 31 January, at 5:15 PM, the Boston Immigration and Urban History Seminar Series makes it 2012 debut with “Orphan Evacuation or Big Business?: The Institutionalization of Korean Adoption,” presented by Arissa Oh of Boston College. Susan Zeiger, Primary Source, will provide the comment. Seminars are free and open to the public, but an RSVP is required. 

Wednesday, 1 February, at 12:00 PM, W.B.H. Dowse Fellow Robyn McMillin, University of Oklahoma, will present a 1-hour brown bag lunch program on her research “Science in the American Style, 1690-1820: Texts, Objects, and Ideas in Popular Practice.” 

Thursday, 2 February, at 6:00 PM, Ann Lucas Birle, International Center for Jefferson Studies, to discuss the recently published Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838-1839. This program, which will be preceded by a reception at 5:30 PM, is also free and open to the public. To ensure that we have a seat for you, please register for the event.  

Visit our online calendar for more details about the programs listed above. And please note that there is no building tour scheduled for Saturday, 4 February. Tours will resume on Saturday, 11 February at 10:00 AM.



Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, Post 10

By Elaine Grublin

The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, including Bulfinch’s thoughts on the events of the past year and some comment on the Trent Affair. 

Thursday, January 2d

The close of the year 1861 has led back my thoughts over its course. It has been one of sadness to the country, and in some degree of disgrace, from the madness on one side, the imbecility at first on the other, and the unprincipled manner in which people have used the national sufferings to promote their private fortunes. But there is much to thank God for, in the noble resurrection of patriotic feeling. We are just delivered, – we trust, – from the great danger of a war with England, about the capture of Mason & Slidell. Their surrender, consummated yesterday, is in accordance with American views of the rights of neutrals, & will, we hope, remove in some degree the bitter prejudice of our English cousins, – in whom we feel a good deal disappointed.

Monday, January 13th

We have news of a great expedition going down the Mississippi from Cairo, – & of Gen. Burnside’s expedition from Annapolis for parts unknown, – which the army of the Potomac are held in readiness for a speedy advance. God save the United States!

From abroad, we hear of a somewhat better feeling in England towards us, which we hope will be increased when they hear of our acquiescence in their demand for release of our prisoners, Slidell, Mason & etc. There is a good deal of incitation here however, at the cause which England has pursued. Another item of recent news is the death of Prince Albert, who seems to have been universally esteemed & lamented.

Be sure to check back in February to read Bulfinch’s comments on the Burnside Exposition and the Union victories at Forts Henry  and Donelson.  

Guest Post: Uncovering A Passionate Friendship

By By Laura Prieto, Simmons College

Love letters come in many varieties, but there’s a resonant familiarity about the language of longing.

Alice Bache Gould and Henrietta Child came of age as neighbors on Kirkland Street in Cambridge. The young women shared a keen love of books, and enjoyed discussing their ideas and projects.  Literary accomplishments marked the male and female lines of both of their families; Alice’s relatives included poet Anna Cabot Lowell Quincy Waterston, and author Catharine Sedgwick was Henrietta’s great-aunt.

Henrietta continued her studies informally while Alice’s ambitions took her away from New England: to Bryn Mawr for a bachelor’s degree and eventually to the University of Chicago for doctoral work in mathematics. Alice hoped for a career as a scholar and university teacher while Henrietta felt an obligation to her family at home. In 1896, both young women lost their brilliant fathers, astronomer Benjamin Apthorp Gould and Harvard professor Francis James Child.  Alice continued to travel in ever wider circles, from Cambridge to Chicago to the Caribbean. She could not land the kind of teaching positions she wanted and she found it increasingly hard to work on her dissertation.

Through those restless years, Alice stayed bound to Henrietta through letters. They wrote lengthily and often, sometimes daily.  Advice, observations, jokes, recipes, and frivolities, all have their place on the pages exchanged. The two women even continued their serious studies together through their correspondence, taking up the History of Mathematics written in 1758 by French author Jean Étienne Montucla (1725-1799).  Alice visited Henrietta in October 1902 before embarking for Puerto Rico with another friend and neighbor, Susie Preble. “I see the Navy has followed you to have a sight of those low-necked dresses you took with you,” teased Henrietta.

Alice and Henrietta’s affection and intimacy are always in evidence, but their long separation in 1902-1903 led Henrietta to chafe against her “duty” to stay with her mother and sister. (Alice Bache Gould Papers, MsN-1309, Box 14, Folder 9) She confessed to Alice,

I have been indulging in thoughts, or dreams perhaps, about you, thinking how it would be if we could go off together, how we should get along — whether you would not be almost as depressed with me as without me, but still that I would risk it gladly if it were right to leave home — because I did not like to have you go off by yourself & I thought in some ways it would be a change that I could put to use. I could study & cheer you up a bit & together — Well the rest was sentiment & not over wise, not according to the real way of life I suppose.

I am going to Montucla now, & be sensible.

Your loving friend,


I think of you a lot.

Don’t be discouraged, my little girl. Keep up brave heart, & try to make the best of things just as they are, then they will not be so bad. I should like to be beside you to night when the lights were out & then we could have a talk.

Henrietta’s language is so passionate, and seems so un-self-conscious. What should we make of it? In the 1970s, women’s historians like Carroll Smith-Rosenberg began to study the “romantic friendships” that blossomed between women in nineteenth-century America. These intense relationships often began at school and were nurtured within the “female world” of the domestic sphere, wherein women were supposed to be the affectionate, sentimental, innocent sex. In adulthood, such relationships could co-exist alongside a woman’s conventional male-female courtships and marriage, or they could become her primary commitments. When the women in question lived together, they might be called a “Boston marriage.” Whether they were lovers in a physical sense is usually impossible to prove either way, and scholars differ on whether the sexual aspects even matter. Are the erotic possibilities essential or a prurient distraction?

They never lived together, as Henrietta fantasized doing; but Henrietta Child and Alice Bache Gould fit the quintessential profile of romantic friends. They were well educated women of a certain social class who addressed one another with deep love and intimacy. They expressed their feelings for one another in the language of courtship, welcomed physical closeness, and used playful, maternal endearments (“my little girl”). They never married. If anything is surprising to the historian in their letters, it is their timing. Henrietta wrote her letter a decade after the sensationalized trial of Alice Mitchell, who said she murdered her dear friend Freda Ward “because she loved her” and could not be with her. The court and the press accused Mitchell of “unnatural affection,” sexual perversion, and insanity. By then, the theories of Richard von Krafft-Ebing and other pioneers of sexology had begun to classify “homosexuality” as a psychiatric disorder. Publicity cast new suspicion on intense same-sex friendships, making unseemly what had no one had objected to before. Yet in early 1900s Cambridge, proper young women could still “indulge” in feelings of love for one another.

Alice’s search for fulfillment eventually took her to Simancas, Spain, where she conducted ground-breaking archival research on Columbus’ first voyage and worked for the U.S. embassy during World War I. Henrietta ended up on an adventure of her own. In 1911, after her mother’s death, she left New England to teach at the Hindman Settlement School in rural Berea, Kentucky. She spent the rest of her life there, as an inspiring storyteller in the local school system.

An increasingly hostile climate and the pressures of family may have kept them from “going off together;” but their loving friendships helped give Henrietta and Alice the strength to pursue meaningful lives, on their own terms.



The Joy of Discoveries: Answering a Visitor’s Question

By Elaine Grublin

It is always fun to make a connections in surprising places.  It is even more fun when those connections are made as a result of a question asked by a visitor to the MHS.

Last week, a visitor to our current exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862, asked a simple question that I could not answer.  The question, was Stephen Perkins — a soldier featured in the exhibition — related to the Perkins that was the namesake of the Perkins School for the Blind

Unable to answer the questions off the cuff, I promised to research the relationship and provide an answer via email. This lead me on a serendipidious mission.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) — one of Boston’s most successfull China trade merchants — was an early benefactor of the the school, selling his own home (which had housed the school for a year) and donating the funds so that the school could be moved to a larger location as enrollment grew. The MHS holds a large collection of Perkins’ personal and business papers (see a guide to the collection here), which is where I started my search. But I was unable to determine a clear familial connection between Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen Perkins there.  So I changed my search strategy and turned to our online catalog, ABIGAIL, for assistance. 

Through ABIGAIL I discovered that the photograph of Stephen Perkins featured in our exhibtion was the only item we held credited to Perkins himself. So I kept digging through the entries for the various Perkins family members until discovering the generic subject heading “Perkins Family” which brought me to a catalog record for an item that seemed to have promise in terms of revealing a clear answer to the question at hand: a large broadside title The Perkins Family of Boston.  Dashing to the stacks to view the broadside, I was delighted to see that it  was a large genealogical chart which revealed there was a connection between Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen G. Perkins, killed at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in the Civil War. 

Looking at the chart I could see that Thomas had a brother named Samuel, who was born in 1767. Samuel had a son, who he named Stephen, in 1804.  That Stephen also had a son named Stephen, born in 1835.  That Stephen, the grandson of Thomas Handasyd Perkins’ brother Samuel, was the Stephen pictured in our exhibition. 

I was happy to be able to reveal the answer to the exhibition visitor as well as to build for myself a little extra knowledge to share with future visitor to the MHS. 



This Week @ MHS

By Elaine Grublin

For those of you that like to attend MHS events, have you seen the new online events calendar?  If not, click here to view it.  The new calendar brings together all of our events in a easy to ready — easy to transfer to your own pocket planner — format.  Ongoing events, like exhibitions are listed on the left-hand side of the page.  And all event titles are linked to fuller descriptions of events with information about how to RSVP.  Enjoy!

Looking at this week, please note that the Boston Environmental History Seminar schedule for Tuesday evening, 10 January, has bee n postponed.  The new date for  “Moving Heaven and [Fish, Whales, and Shells]” is Tuesday, 24 January. Nate Deshmukh Towery, MIT Comment will present and Matthew McKenzie, University of Connecticut – Avery Point will give the comment.

On Wednesday, 11 January at noon, Millington Bergeson-Lockwood of George Mason University will present African American Politics and the Boundaries of Citizenship in Post-Civil War Boston. This presentation explores the range of African American political activism in Boston and how challenges for civil rights and political inclusion are entwined with transformations in the United States political party system and changes in the power of the national state. It seeks to uncover new avenues for exploring black and white political alliances and further expanding the political history of African American men and women.

And on Saturday, 14 January, our building tour, The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, departs our lobby at 10:00 AM.


Also note that the MHS will be closed on Monday, 16 January, in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.


New on our Shelves: Vincent Carretta On the Elusive Phillis Wheatley

By Tracy Potter

With his latest book, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), Vincent Carretta, a 2008-2009 MHS-NEH long-term research fellow and professor at the University of Maryland, provides the first full-length biography of the elusive African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Besides her own literary work, Wheatley left behind very little evidence about her life. Rising to the challenge, Carretta scoured archives around the world and examined Wheatley’s entire body of work, allowing him to delve deeper into Wheatley’s world than any previous biographer.

Brought by a slave ship, Phillis Wheatley arrived in Boston in 1761. John Wheatley, a successful merchant tailor, purchased Phillis to be a personal servant. Soon the family found themselves forming an unconventional relationship with Phillis treating her more as a daughter than as a slave. Phillis excelled at writing and began composing poetry at an early age. Understanding Phillis’ talent, the Wheatley’s found a publisher in England to publish a volume of Phillis’ poems. In 1773 Phillis followed her work to England and was welcomed and praised for her talent by the British. Upon her return to Boston in 1774, the Wheatley’s freed Phillis. By 1778, Phillis’ writing of poetry slowed down to a trickle and she married John Peters, a man that would fall in and out of her life until her death in 1784. 

Carretta’s critically acclaimed Phillis Wheatley presents fresh theories about the life of the poet including how Phillis arrived in America, her earliest written poem, her involvement in her rise as a literary star, and her large network of friends both in America and England. Carretta also reveals new findings on Wheatley and her husband John Peters including details of their married life, Peters’s personal character, and his life after Wheatley’s death in 1784. These new findings introduce provocative ideas regarding Wheatley and her family that will likely spark debate among historians for years to come. 

As part of the MHS Author Talk Lecture Series, Vincent Carretta returned to the MHS in early November to celebrate the release of his book Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. During the lecture, Carretta spoke about researching his book, several of his discoveries, and answered questions regarding Wheatley and his research. To view a video of the event click here.

If you would like to view Wheatley manuscripts owned by the MHS, visit our Phillis Wheatley page, which is part of our larger African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts web presentation.  If you would like to read more about Vincent Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, check out Publisher’s Weekly star review here.