“The Poor Wretched People Are Much Difficulted”

By Susan Martin, Collections Services

I’d like to take this opportunity to write about the topic that’s been dominating U.S. headlines and occupies countless hours of on-air and on-line punditry: the annual migration of the monarch butterfly.

Just kidding. Yes, I mean the U.S. presidential election. Bear with me.

Historical perspective is our bread and butter here at the MHS, of course. Studying the past is almost always both illuminating and sobering. So I thought I’d revisit the U.S. presidential election of 1788-1789, when 56-year-old George Washington became the first chief executive of the brand-new nation.

Looking for inspiration, I browsed through our collection of Miscellaneous Manuscripts, what we call an “artificial” collection. These documents were donated to the MHS at different times, and each is cataloged individually in our online catalog. They’re arranged chronologically, so I could zero in on a specific date range.

I came across a document I’d never seen before but loved immediately. It’s a letter from Baptist minister David Thomas (1732-1815) in Virginia to his nephew Griffith Evans (1760-1845) in Philadelphia. The letter is dated 3 March 1789. After complaining that he’d been “immers’d in the fatigues and troubles of a foolish perverse hairbraind world,” Thomas launched into a bitter diatribe about the sweeping Federalist victory in the presidential election two months before. His letter is dripping with sarcasm and contempt:

“How does Fedralism go on in your State? Does the people know the meaning of the word Fedralism, it is a very pretty word, it has a beautiful sound, it Charms all the learned the wise, the polite, the reputable, the Honorable, and virtuous, and all that are not Caught with the alurements of its melody, are poor ignorant asses, nasty dirty sons of bitches; reserved for future treatment agreeable to their demerrit. […] The whole American world is in an uproar.”


It’s hard to imagine the kind of sea change Thomas was living through. In fact, this letter was written just one day before the U.S. Constitution went into effect, superseding the Articles of Confederation. Thomas clearly resented the strong centralized government that was set to replace the looser confederation of independent states that he preferred.

George Washington belonged to no political party and was elected unanimously, a circumstance inconceivable today. But far from inconceivable is Thomas’s frustration at his state’s convoluted electoral process, which he described in detail:

“Perhaps you are a Stranger to the term hold the pole, of which I will inform you, viz: the Candidate stands upon an eminence close to the Avenue thro which the people pass to give in their votes, viva voce, or by outcry, there the candidates stand ready to beg, pray, and solicit the peoples votes in opposition to their Competitors, and the poor wretched people are much are much difficulted by the prayers and threats of those Competitors, exactly Similar to the Election of the Corrupt and infamous House of Commons in England.”

He’d narrowly escaped a seat in the Virginia Assembly himself:

“At the last Election I was drag’d from my Lodging when at dinner, and forced upon the Eminence purely against my will, but I soon disappeared and return’d to my repast, and as soon as they lost sight of me they quit voting for me. Such is the pitifull and lowliv’d manner all the Elected officers of Government come into posts of honour and profit in Virginia, by Stooping into the dirt that they may ride the poor people; and would you have your Uncle to divest himself of every principle of honour to obtain a disagreeable office[?] I hope not.”

So, if you get fed up with political shenanigans, chicanery, and tomfoolery this election season, what Thomas called “Rotated […] tricks” and “Reverberated flings,” remember that you’re not alone. And be sure to visit the MHS library to learn more about early American politics—or butterflies, if you prefer.

This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

There are no public programs or events scheduled this week. Keep an eye on our Online Calendar of Events to see what is coming in the fall and for library/building closures. 

Please note that the library is CLOSED on Saturday, September 3, but the galleries remain open. The Society is CLOSED on Monday, September 5, for Labor Day. 

Reference Collection Development: Watch This Space for New Titles!

By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

During the past fiscal year, the MHS used income from hosting the GLCA Boston Summer Seminar to increase our reference collection development efforts. As a research library, it is crucial for the MHS to have up-to-date scholarly and reference works that support in-depth exploration and analysis of our manuscript, print, and art and artifact collections. In recent years we have depended primarily on the generosity of donors to add recent publications to our collection. We are excited that the Boston Summer Seminar income allowed us to be more proactive in strengthening our scholarly and reference holdings.

During the winter of 2016, our reader services team reviewed and updated the reference collection development policy, identified priority areas for acquisition, and surveyed trade publications for relevant titles. In June we were able to purchase over fifty titles in the following key areas: artifacts and material culture reference works, art and photography history and reference, Boston and local history, environmental history, immigration and emigration, New England in a global context, research fellows’ publications, World War I, research strategies and techniques, and twentieth century political and social history. Most of these titles are now cataloged and available upon request for review in the MHS library’s reference or reading rooms.

Beginning in September, reader services team members will highlight some of these newly-acquired works here on The Beehive, in the form of summary reviews paired with suggestions for which MHS collections might benefit from consultation with the work under review. We hope that these short reviews will encourage you to explore our scholarly and reference holdings for titles that support your work with our rare and unique collections material.

The MHS library also continues to welcome the donation of recent scholarly works that make use of or fit with our holdings, as well as being open to suggestions for titles that may be useful additions to our scholarly and reference collection. Offers of donation or suggestions for acquisition should be directed to the reference librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook at acook@masshist.org.

This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

It’s another quiet week at the MHS as far as programs go. Here is what lies ahead:

– Wednesday, 24 August, 12:00PM : Join us for a Brown Bag lunch talk with Kenyon Gradert of Washington University in St. Louis as he presents “The Puritan Imagination in Antislavery New England.” Gradert’s talk will exlpore why antebellum Americans reached for the Puritans in the fight against slavery and why this matters for scholarship of American history and culture. 

– Saturdya, 27 August, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Tour is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you’re here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.

Death of a Party

By Dan Hinchen, Reader Services

“At seven minutes to three o’clock on the afternoon of Monday, Oct. 20, 1902, the National Club of Massachusetts committed suicide by voting itself out of existence. The scene of the tragedy was Room 12, Young’s Hotel, Boston. Twenty-one members, four less than a quorum, agreed with unanimity and composure to commit this act. A few minutes later, twenty-one gentlemen dispersed to their usual occupations so quietly that neither the elevator boy nor the waiters, nor the lynx-eyed clerks of the hotel, suspected what had been done. The newspapers took no notice of the suicide. The police did not exercise their ingenuity in inventing a theory as to its motive, or debate whether the weapon used were sharp or blunt. To this day, the coroner has ordered no ‘quest. And yet, for the historian, the National Club may be of interest, because of the great crisis out of which it sprang. That is why I have been so precise in specifying time and place and circumstance; and why it seems right to give the Society for safe keeping this collection, unfortunately incomplete, of papers refering to the Club and to is parent, the National Party of 1900. Antiquaries today spend their lives gathering similar material about political organizations long past; and in due season our time will be antiquity to a new age.”

From “The Suicide of a Political Infant” by William R. Thayer, found in the National Party records, 1900-1903.


If you want to learn more about the demise of this political movement, consider Visiting the Library!

“Have you look’d at this Universe, through the Telescopes of Herschell?”

By Rhonda Barlow, Adams Papers

The Juno space probe began orbiting Jupiter on July 4, 2016, and already has transmitted images of the planet’s moons and famous Great Red Spot. The study of the planets is not new, however, and when he was in England, John Adams had the opportunity to meet one of the most famous astronomers of his day.

In 1781, astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, an accomplishment that earned him the patronage of King George III. Herschel set up his telescopes near Windsor, the summer home of the king.

John Adams seems to have been impressed. In 1786 he wrote, “Herschell indeed with his new Glass, has discovered the most magnificient Spectacle that ever was seen or imagined.” He tipped his hat to Herschel when writing his Defence of the American Constitutions: “A prospect into futurity in America, is like contemplating the heavens through the telescopes of Herschell: objects, stupendous in their magnitudes and motions, strike us from all quarters, and fill us with amazement!”

Adams had the opportunity to look through Herschel’s telescopes himself. He was supposed to accompany his friend Benjamin Vaughan to Windsor on the evening of April 1, 1787. A few days later, Vaughan wrote that although Adams had been unable to attend, “Dr. Herschell will always of course be happy to see his Excellency;—but the longer the visit is deferred, the more will be there to see. The most proper time is, the first quarter of the moon, whenever the visit is intended.”

What could have kept John Adams from an opportunity to look through Herschel’s telescopes? Adams explained in a brief note:

“I am very much mortified to loose the Pleasure and Advantage of an Excursion to Windsor, to see Mr Herschell in Such Company: but the State of my Family is Such that I cannot justify leaving it.— Mrs Smith is in Travel and the Anxiety occasioned by this Event has made Mrs Adams so much worse, that I should be very bad Company at Windsor, and what is more decisive, it becomes my Duty to Stay at home.”

Mrs. Smith—his only daughter, Nabby—was “in travel,” meaning she was in labor, and Abigail was understandably anxious about the birth of her first grandchild. As usual, John Adams knew where his duty lay—the volcanoes on the moon would have to wait.

Although we do not know when Adams finally looked through Herschel’s telescopes, we do know that he maintained his interest in astronomy. In 1813, Adams wrote to John Quincy, “Have you look’d at this Universe, through the Telescopes of Herschell? What am I and all my Posterity? What is this Globe of Earth? What is the Solar System?”

For more on the Adamses and astronomy see here


This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

As August begins its slow descent into September it is pretty quiet at the Society. This week we have only a Brown Bag lunch and a tour:

– Wednesday, 17 August, 12:00PM : This week’s Brown Bag talk is given by Jonathan Lande of Brown University. “Disciplining Freedom: Union Army Slave Rebels and Emancipation in the Civil War Courts-Martial” offers a new interpretation of the history of black Union soldiers by placing the troops’ service in the context of slave-soldiers’ service and emancipation throughout the Atlantic, reexamining the political structure involved in arming slaves and the experiences of soldiers serving in the U.S. Colored Troops. This talk is free and open to the public. 

– Saturday, 20 August, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through the public spaces of the Society’s building on Boylston St. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations for individuals or small groups. Parties of 8 or more, please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you are here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.  

“Just Mede of Praise”: George N. Briggs’ Heroic Act

By Susan Martin, Collection Services

In the mid-1830s, George Nixon Briggs (later Gov. Briggs) was serving in the 23rd U.S. Congress as a representative from Massachusetts. He was still a fairly junior Congressman, working alongside such notables as Edward Everett and John Quincy Adams. But one remarkable incident, documented in a new collection acquired by the MHS, sheds new light on Briggs’ character.

Here’s the story as told by Sarah (Moulton) Wool in 1862: One winter day, “Gov. Briggs was walking by the Washington Canal & chanced to hear, from a crowd collected there, that a colored boy was drowning. Instantly, without waiting to remove any of his clothes, he plunged into the canal & rescued the poor boy from a watery grave.”

The incident probably took place somewhere along the part of the canal that crossed the Capitol grounds, when Briggs was either coming or going to a session of Congress. The canal no longer exists, but at the time it ran up from the Washington Navy Yard, past the Capitol building, then west along what is now Constitution Avenue.

This new MHS collection consists of only two documents. The first, pictured above, is Wool’s two-page description of the event (written by someone else). Almost thirty years later, Wool claimed to remember it “distinctly […] but not the precise time.” She guessed it happened in the winter of 1834-1835 and referred, for corroboration, to her servant James H. Davis and to Briggs’ colleague William Baylies.

The second document in the collection is Davis’s statement confirming the story, written in his own hand, likely at around the same time.

It’s hard to say for sure, but Davis probably witnessed the rescue. Baylies may have been present, as well. As another Massachusetts representative serving in the 23rd Congress, he would have had reason to accompany Briggs to and from the Capitol.

The handwriting on the first document is unfamiliar to me, but it’s possible both statements were taken on the same visit to Troy, N.Y. and collected either by or on behalf of one of Briggs’ sons. Davis began his note with: “Please say to Mr Briggs son[…]” George N. Briggs had died a few months before, in September 1861, from an accidental gunshot wound at his home. His death may have prompted his family to look into the story. 

I tried to learn more about some of the key players in the drama, but didn’t find much. William Baylies died in 1865. Sarah Wool, wife of the famous Gen. John Ellis Wool, died at Troy in 1873. She’d had no children, but left $300 in her will to a woman named Elise, the daughter of her servant James H. Davis. Presumably Davis pre-deceased Wool. 

A search for James H. Davis turned up someone with that name as a signatory to the “Colored Conventions” at Troy in 1847 and 1855. These conventions, held throughout the United States beginning in 1830, called for equal rights for free and fugitive black Americans.

William C. Richards did not include the story of the daring canal rescue in his 1866 hagiography of George N. Briggs, Great in Goodness. However, according to Sarah Wool, “No one who was in Washington at the time, could forget an incident which did such honor to humanity, & added such lustre to the fame of a brave & good man.”


This Week @ MHS

By Dan Hinchen

It is a quiet week ahead here at the Society, as far as programs are concerned:

– Tuesday, 9 August – Thursday, 11 August : SOLD OUT “The Maritime History of Massachusetts’ North Shore” explores Massachusetts’ connections to the sea through documents, artifacts, landscapes, and historic structures in Beverly, Gloucester, and Marblehead, including a tour of Gloucester’s working waterfront. This program is open to educators and history enthusiasts but is sold out. If you would like to be placed on a waiting list, please call 617-646-0557.

– Saturday. 13 August, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led tour through the public spaces in the Society’s historic building at 1154 Boylston St. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations from individuals or small groups. Larger parties (8 or more) should contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org

Remember that our exhibition galleries are open Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM, free of charge. So come on in and check out our current exhibition, Turning Points in American History!

Anarchists and Assassinations in the Early 20th-Century United States

By Brendan Kiernan, Reader Services

The Walter Channing Papers, 1810-1921 contain various materials relating to anarchism and perceptions of anarchists in the early 20th-century United States. I decided to explore this collection after locating a record in our catalog, ABIGAIL, for an 18 October 1902 letter written by anarchist Emma Goldman to Dr. Walter Channing, a Boston psychiatrist. In the letter, Goldman writes about Leon Czolgosz, the person who assassinated President William McKinley, specifically his connections to her and to anarchism.

In Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (Hill and Wang, 2003), Eric Rauchway clarifies the connection between Czolgosz, a Midwesterner who killed McKinley in Buffalo, New York, and the Massachusetts-based Channing. Dissatisfied with the “official” investigation of Czolgosz that was conducted before his execution, Channing had his associate, Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, “conduct a fuller investigation of Czolgosz’s background” (Rauchway 55-56). Channing eventually published an article, “The Mental Status of Czolgosz: The Assasin [sic] of President McKinley,” which was well-received by his colleagues.


I viewed three letters written by anarchists in this collection: two by A. Isaak, and one by Goldman. Rauchway provides close analysis of this correspondence, along with other pieces, in Murdering McKinley (100-105). For the purposes of this post, I’ll provide a briefer overview of these letters while considering Rauchway’s analysis. I did not see letters from Channing to Isaak and Goldman; however, it seems that the correspondence is an attempt to learn more about Czolgosz’s connections to anarchism and anarchists. Isaak’s letters, dated 29[?] August 1902 and 6 September 1902, address an encounter with Czolgosz, during which he feared Czolgosz was a spy due to his seeming lack of knowledge of, yet great enthusiasm for, anarchism. In fact, he attaches to his first letter a transcript of a “warning” included in the September 1 issue of Free Society to alert readers of Czolgosz’s presence in Chicago and Cleveland. He does write in this letter, however, that the warning was eventually “retracted.”



In her letter to Channing, Goldman comes to the defense of Czolgosz, writing that she cannot credibly comment on his status as an anarchist. She did not know Czolgosz very well, but thought that his actions could be reconciled with anarchist thought. Czolgosz, as a worker, could defend himself against his oppressors:

You may question[?] this, since Czolgosz was not personally attact [sic] by McKinley, quite true, but Czolgosz belonged to the oppressed, to the Exploited and Disinherited millions, who lead a life of darkness and despair owing to those, of whom McKinley was one, therefore he was personally attacked by the President, or rather he was one of the victims of the McKinley regime and those McKinley catered to.

Rauchway notes that McKinley as a target did not make much sense to Goldman; targets such as Henry Clay Frick, who her friend and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman had attempted to kill, were more reasonable to her due to their roles as exploiters from the business world (103-105). Goldman even writes in this letter that “[t]he act of Czolgosz may have been inappropriate and inopportune, I will not argue this part now.” However, she is firm in her unwillingness to shun Czolgosz.

The Walter Channing Papers contain other materials relating to the Czolgosz case, including correspondence with Briggs and other physicians, photographs of Czolgosz and members of his family, and notes relating to the investigation. They might be of interest to scholars of anarchism, psychiatry, or crime in the early 20th-century United States. If any of these materials sounds exciting to you, feel free to come view them yourself here in the MHS library.