“The Story of a Tragedy”: murder-suicide at a Fenway finishing school

By Sabina Beauchard, Reader Services

On a rainy Sunday, March 29, 1908, Robert A. Boit of 19 Colchester Street, Brookline sat down to write in his journal after a lapse of around 3 weeks. One of the happenings he reported on was a local murder-suicide that made newspapers across the nation. Boit had a personal connection to it all; he wrote:

On Wednesday morning the 11th of this month a terrible tragedy took place in the Girls Boarding School on Audubon Road facing the Fenway. The two principals of the school Elizabeth Hardee and Miss Weed were killed. Elizabeth was the daughter of my dear old friend Pearson Hardee of Savannah and on that account I was brought into immediate touch with the whole affair. [emphasis added] My letter to Hardee, here in my journal, tells the story so I will not repeat it. Poor Hardee himself came on from Savannah himself to settle up matters and I was glad to be of some assistance and comfort to him, for he was terribly shaken. He arrived on the 21st and remained four or five days. We wanted him to come directly to the house, but he decided that in his condition of mind he had better stay at the St. Botolph Club, where I put him up. But he took many of his meals with us, and I think being with us really did him good. It was a tragic affair and in a lovely spot.

In between journal pages, Boit tucked in a typescript of the letter he mentions sending to his grieving friend William Pearson Hardee on March 15. By the 15th, Boit already sent word alerting Hardee to the incident, but one letter was chosen by Boit to save for posterity; the letter reproduced below. 

I will follow Boit’s sentiments and let his letter to Hardee speak for itself:

[handwritten] The Story of a Tragedy –

Brookline, March 15, ’08.

My dear Pearson:

No doubt you got my last letter and telegrams, and I received your telegrams. I have tried each day to write you, but have been so interrupted I could not do it.

Last Wednesday afternoon, after writing you, I went to the Undertaker’s to whom the Coroner had sent Elizabeth’s body, and arranged for all that at that time could be done, and thence to Dr. Joslin’s [Elliott Proctor Joslin] who was a friend of Elizabeth and had been called to the house at the time of the tragedy. There I met the brother-in-law of Miss Page [Katherine R. Page] – one of the teachers who lived in the house and seemed to have the most authority. His name was Alexander. We three talked the matter over, and decided that the house should be closed at once, that no extra expense might be incurred, and that the teachers might not in any way be held responsible for further orders for the maintenance of the house or its service. To this end Mr. Alexander wished me to go to the school that night and talk matters over with the teachers still living in the house, Miss Page, Miss Chase and Miss Hamilton. This I did, and was with them till half past ten arranged matters. I also got in communication by telephone while there with Dr. Stedman [George Stedman], the Coroner, who was legally in charge of and responsible for everything in the house. I got him to authorize the Teachers to pack up the silver, and a small locked tin box, which he promised to have taken to the safety vaults the next morning, and this was done. There was very little money found in the house or in this tin box which was opened by the officer later. I think, with the two checks, this amounted to less than thirty dollars. The teachers had sent off the pupils that very day, Wednesday, and had sent most of the pupils’ things with them. They also agreed to pack such things of the pupils as still were left and mark the packages with the pupils’ names and leave them in their various rooms. This they did on Thursday before they left the house.

We also found that night (Wednesday) that the servants wages had all been paid up to the preceding Friday, and as it seemed to me you would not wish the servants discharged without their wages, I agreed to send Miss Page the money for this purpose the next day. As the servants had to be retained on Thursday to help pack up and clean and wash, it made a week’s wages due them and in two or three instances two weeks. The amount due was just $51.47, for which Miss Page took their separate receipts, and sent me the statement, which I enclose. The teachers said they were under the impression from what Elizabeth had said, that she was having a hard time to meet her expenses, and that there were probably a good many bills unpaid. 

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Of course, this cannot be clearly ascertained until the administrator has been appointed, of which I will speak later.

That evening they told me clearly all the circumstances leading to the end, and they were very harrowing. All the teachers and pupils had gone to bed very early that evening except Miss Page, as they were up late the night before. At about half past nine in answer to a ring at the door, Miss Page let in Miss Weed, who had run away from the Sanitorium at Newton. She said she knew she should not have come, but begged that it was so late she should be allowed to pass the night. Miss Page said she had not seen her before so reasonable and quiet and dispassionate and was much impressed by the fact that she consented to let her stay, took her upstairs, prepared a room for her, lent her her own nightgown and dressing gown, and then sat with her till quarter past twelve chatting. She seemed entirely normal and made herself most agreeable and interesting, talking of the school and its interests and almost not at all of herself. 

When she left her she thought of locking her door and then decided it best not to. During their talk Miss Weed had agreed to get up early and take the half past seven train home, so that no one should be disturbed or know she had been there. Miss Page was to get up early and give her her breakfast. No one else knew that she was in the house. Miss Page left her own door open and tried to keep awake and listen but no doubt fell asleep. At about three she heard noises and got up and went to Miss Chase’s or Miss Hamilton’s room where she thought she heard voices. There she found these two in great terror. Miss Hamilton had been wakened by hearing some sound at her door. She got up and found a note thrust under it. In her sleepiness she glanced at it without reading it and thought Elizabeth wanted to speak to her, and went to her room and asked. But Elizabeth said no, she had not sent for her. So rather bewildered, she shut Elizabeth’s door and returned to her own room. Then she read the note for the first time and discovered it was from Miss Weed, and upbraiding her with being false to her charge, etc. She was much frightened, knowing now that Miss Weed must be in the house, and at once went to Miss Chase’s room and waked her. It was this Miss Page had heard, and she found them together and much distressed. While all three were talking in Miss Chase’s room, (first, however, Miss Page had tried three times without success to get the Sanitorium by telephone) they heard a tapping at their door, but by the time Miss Page got there, Miss Weed who had knocked, had run towards Elizabeth’s room. Miss Page, knowing that of late a feeling had grown in Miss Weed’s mind of hostility to Elizabeth, followed immediately and went into Elizabeth’s room, where Miss Weed was standing back of the door. She immediately explained everything to Elizabeth who was entirely calm and tranquil, even tho’ awakened under such circumstances at 3 o’clock at night. Miss Page said her self-control was extraordinary. She talked quietly and dispassionately to Miss Weed, telling her how unwise and thoughtless it was of her to come there and disturb their sleep when they were all so tired, etc, and 

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arranging, as Miss Page has done, that she should go back to Newton early in the morning. Miss Weed said very little, tho’ she seemed rather frightened, but was soon quieted by Elizabeth and appeared, as she always did with Elizabeth, to be entirely under her influence.

Before she left the room, she heard Elizabeth say – “Why, Susan, (if that was her name), you have not taken down your hair. Take it down and come to bed”. Then she left them and went again to her own room, but left the door open and did not sleep again. This was at about half past three perhaps.

After this all was quiet in the house and at a little before six she got up and dressed. In fact, I think she said that before this, at five or half past, she went to their room, and found them sleeping peacefully, side by side. She went softly to the bed and laid her hand gently on Miss Weed, who did not wake or show any signs of being awake. Afterwards, at a little before six, she dressed as I have said, and at a quarter past six went to their room again to wake them, saying “as Miss Weed was going, it was time for them to get up and that meanwhile she would go down stairs and get some coffee and eggs ready for them”. Elizabeth was lying on her back, and had answered rather drowsily – “Thanks, Miss Page, that’s very nice. We will get up at once”, or words to that effect.

Then she went out of the room into one or two other rooms, and in less than three minutes heard two pistol shots. She rushed to Elizabeth’s room and found them both shot through the head, Elizabeth with her face towards the wall shot through the back of the head, and Miss Weed shot through the temple and with the pistol in or near her hand. Miss Page immediately called for Dr. Joslin, who arrived there within fifteen or twenty minutes and found them both dead.

This dear Pearson, is the exact story as told me Wednesday night by Miss Page and the other teachers, chiefly by Miss Page, who of course had known so much of what had happened.

After leaving the house that night, I went again to Dr. Joslin’s and talked over matters with him. The next morning I arranged with the Undertaker [Frederick L. Briggs] (this was Thursday morning) who had then received his papers from the Coroner, permitting him to send away the body, for everything regarding the shipment, and in the afternoon went there to see that all had been properly done. I saw poor Elizabeth and thought her looking very lovely, with such a quiet, peaceful expression on her face. I do hope every arrived as it should have. If you had seen that face as I did, without one sign of sorrow or suffering in it, with just the gentle restfulness of sleep, I think it must have been a help and consolation to you in your sorrow.

Friday morning I went to the School and found it has been closed entirely as agreed on Thursday, and that the Coroner had put a man in charge who was to pass day and night there until otherwise ordered by him. Friday noon a Mr. Samuel W. Child, Lawyer, 43

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Tremont St., Boston, came to see me and told me that at the request of Dr. Stedman (the Coroner) the Court had appointed him as Temporary Administrator and made him responsible for everything; that he must examine everything at the house, get together all account books, check books, etc., bills and anything else of value that might be found there. He was most anxious that I, as a friend of yours, should go there with him for this purpose. So I consented and passed several hours at the School with him that afternoon. It was very hard to do it, but I felt you would rather have me there than think of a strange man doing it alone. Indeed it seemed sacrilege and made my heart ache to its depths, and only the thought of you and how I should myself have felt under these circumstances enabled me to do it.

There was little of value among the personal effects, but we concluded from the unpaid bills we saw, that it was most unlikely that the assets would pay the liabilities. I think, my dear friend, there is little doubt the school will prove insolvent. There was a balance at the First National Bank of some six hundred dollars, and it is possible there may be a balance in a Newton Bank in which there appears to be a deposit – how much could not be learned yesterday.

Then there is the furniture of the house, which was bought of the Paine Furniture and by contract was to have been paid for in full on the first of February. This so far as we could judge has not been done. There was an unpaid bill dated the first of this month for either nine or eleven hundred dollars for the draperies of the house. There are two pianos of Chickering, which the teachers seemed to think had not been paid for. There seemed to be some large bills for fuel and food unpaid, etc. Also I learned that there was a considerable amount claimed by the teachers for their salaries, and there is a long lease of the house at $1,000. each quarter. I think the lease runs for 5 years.

Against all these claims, the assets seen to be the $600. at the First National, such balance as there may be in the Newton Bank, the books and such of the furniture as had been paid for. Beyond this there only remain a few little trinkets of Elizabeth’s, her clothes, the linen in the house and the silver. As to this latter, I suppose, unless it could be very clearly proved to belong to some one else, it would have to be held as part of the assets. No doubt if it were sold at auction for this purpose by the Administrator, it could be bought in at a small price compared to its value as family silver. 

The temporary Administrator, who seems to be a very respectable man, told me that he should try to get the books (account books) and papers in order and find out about how matters stood. No doubt he will let me know when he has done so, if he does it. He also told me that the Court would appoint a regular Administrator, but that it would take about three weeks to do this; that then his own duties would be at an end and everything turned over by him.

I regret that I myself am so old and worn out with my own cares and responsibilities, I could not myself accept this position, even if the Court were willing to appoint me. One other thing I forgot to mention. There may be bills

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owing by the parents of the school, but the teachers knew nothing of them, except that Elizabeth made advances to the girls from time to time. They also told me the regular charge for Tuition, etc. was $1000. per annum, but that a number paid less, owing to the fact that it was the first year of the school.

The temporary Administrator thought there would be little chance of collecting balances that might have been due, owing to the fact of the closing of the school, even if these balances could be determined. Under all those circumstances, and the almost certain insolvency of the school, I don’t know what you may determine to do, or whether it will seem wise for you or your son to incur the expense of coming here and staying a month or two to become the administrator and settle the estate, or arrange for its settlement. If you do not come, no doubt through the Administrator appointed by the Court, all will be effected that can be, and yet, of course, you may prefer to take part in it. 

 If I can give you any information or assistance or advice, of course, you will not hesitate to call upon me, and anything that I hear I will write you.

 With a great deal of love, my dear old friend, and a heart full of sympathy, I am

Most affectionately yours,

Rob. A. Boit


By the time this letter was sent, Elizabeth Hardee’s body had taken its final journey home to Savannah, Georgia by train and had arrived on March 14. The next day, her funeral was held and she was interred in the Hardee family plot in Laurel Grove Cemetery near her mother, Cornelia, who had passed in 1896 [1]. William Pearson Hardee committed suicide in 1917 and was buried in the same plot [2]. 


Elizabeth Bailey Hardee and Sarah Chamberlain Weed as represented in the Wellesley College Legenda, 1894 & 1895, respectively.


Elizabeth Bailey Hardee (1873-1908) and Sarah Chamberlain Weed (1869-1908) both attended Wellesley College; with Elizabeth graduating in 1894 and Sarah in 1895. 

Much of the information about their activities and whereabouts before the opening of their school I gleaned from Wellesley publications; a Baltimore Sun article dated 11 March 1908; and a lengthy article on the murder-suicide in the Boston Post, 11 March 1908. 

The 1899 & 1900 academic years found Elizabeth at her alma mater of Wellesley College as an assistant in mathematics [3]. Elizabeth resurfaces in Wellesley news in the winter of 1902; with both Elizabeth and Sarah listed as teachers in Mathematics and English, respectively, at Newton High School [4]. Years pass until 1906, when the two young women report as having “accepted a share in the management of Miss Chamberlayne’s School for Girls, The Fenway 28, Boston” [5]. Finally, in June of 1907 the women “announce the opening of The Laurens School for Girls, 107 Audubon road, Boston, Massachusetts” [6]. 

The Laurens School for Girls, the boarding school the two women brought to fruition in the Fenway, became the setting of Elizabeth and Sarah’s murder-suicide just 8 months later. According to news reports, the day the school opened to students for the first time on October 1, Sarah Weed suffered a breakdown “due to overwork.” [7] 

Sarah was first confined at “Dr. Norton’s Sanitarium in Norwood”, the Norwood Private Hospital; but was transferred to “Dr. Dutton’s home for convalescents in West Newton” [8] until the night she appeared on the doorstep of the Laurens School.

The above journal entry was taken from volume 14 (1910-1912) of the Robert Apthorp Boit diaries held in the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Interested readers may also find letters William Pearson Hardee sent to Boit on March 16, 18, and 28, 1908, tipped into the pages along with Boit’s typescript roughly transcribed above. Learn more about using the library on our website. 

Robert Apthorp Boit (1846-1919) graduated from Harvard in 1868 and shortly thereafter moved to Savannah, Georgia with his parents, and joined his father’s commission business. This is likely when Hardee and Boit met and struck up a friendship. Boit returned to Boston a married man around 1878, and became successful in the insurance business.

I hope to continue this post with what I’ve gleaned on the location of the school. Tune in later!



[1] Aiken Journal and Review, Supplement, November 14, 1917

[2] Letter from William Pearson Hardee to Robert Apthorp Boit, Savannah, 16 March 1908, Robert Apthorp Boit diaries, volume 14, tucked into page 21.

[3] Wellesley College Record, 1875-1900

[4] Wellesley News, (Vol. 1, No. 14) February 6, 1902

[5] Wellesley News, (Vol. 6, No. 1) October 3, 1906 

[6] Wellesley News, (Vol. 6, No. 32) June 12, 1907

[7] The Pensacola Journal, March 13, 1908
The Abbeville Press and Banner, March 18, 1908

[8] The Sun, March 12, 1908

owing by the parents of the school, but the teachers knew nothing of them, except that Elizabeth made advances to the girls from time to time. They also told me the regular charge for Tuition, etc. was $1000. per annum, but that a number paid less, owing to the fact that it was the first year of the school.

                The temporary Administrator thought there would be little chance of collecting balances that might have been due, owing to the fact of the closing of the school, even if these balances could be determined. Under all those circumstances, and the almost certain insolvency of the school, I don’t know what you may determine to do, or whether it will seem wise for you or your son to incur the expense of coming here and staying a month or two to become the administrator and settle the estate, or arrange for its settlement. If you do not come, no doubt through the Administrator appointed by the Court, all will be effected that can be, and yet, of course, you may prefer to take part in it.

                If I can give you any information or assistance or advice, of course, you will not hesitate to call upon me, and anything that I hear I will write you.

                With a great deal of love, my dear old friend, and a heart full of sympathy, I am


                                                                Most affectionately yours,

                                                                                                Rob. A. Boit

This Week @MHS

Join us for a program at the MHS. Here is a look at what is going on this week.

Monday, 24 September, 6:00 PMUnder the Starry Flag: How a Band of Irish Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt & Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship with Lucy Salyer, University of New Hampshire. In 1867, 40 Irish-American freedom fighters, outfitted with guns and ammunition, sailed to Ireland to join the effort to end British rule. Yet they never got a chance to fight. British authorities arrested them for treason as soon as they landed, sparking an international conflict that dragged the United States and Britain to the brink of war. Under the Starry Flag recounts this gripping legal saga, a prelude to today’s immigration battles. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

Tuesday, 25 September, 5:15 PMRadical Nonviolence & Interracial Utopias in the Early Civil Rights Movement with Victoria Wolcott, State University of New York at Buffalo and comment by Jason Sokol, University of New Hampshire.This paper examines how radical pacifists refined nonviolent direct action to challenge racial segregation and inequality in the United States. These activists adopted the methods of earlier utopian communities by living communally and practicing a prefigurative politics that called for immediate change. This seminar is part of the Boston Seminar on Modern American Society and Culture series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

Thursday, 27 September, 6:00 PMRace Over Party: Black Politics & Partisanship in Late 19th-Century Boston with Millington Bergeson-Lockwood. In late 19th-century Boston, battles over black party loyalty were fights over the place of African Americans in the post–Civil War nation. Party politics became the terrain upon which black Bostonians tested the promise of equality in America’s democracy. Most African Americans remained loyal Republicans, but a determined cadre argued that the GOP took black votes for granted and offered little meaningful reward for black support. These activists branded themselves “independents,” forging new alliances and advocating support of whichever candidate would support black freedom regardless of party. A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

The Library is CLOSED on Wednesday, 26 September, for for a staff development event.

Visit www.masshist.org/events for upcoming programs.

Of Adamses & Ancestry

By Sara Georgini, The Adams Papers

John A. Grace, Memoranda Respecting the Families of Quincy and Adams, 1841

For historian Henry Adams, the morning mail meant a fresh round of research questions. “Here comes your troublesome genealogical cousin again,” Elizabeth Coombs Adams wrote in early 1893. Paging through the Adams archive and sweeping up reminiscences to file, Elizabeth was laboring to compile the family history. She joined a long train of Adamses who devoted time and money to polishing up new accounts of their genealogy. Knee-deep in piles of stray notes and record scraps before the likes of research hubs like Ancestry.com, they turned to wheels, charts, and trees to draft the presidential family’s Anglo-American origins story. Today, let’s take a quick look at the Victorian Adamses’ adventures in genealogy, and who they thought they were.

John Adams and son John Quincy picked through family memories and town records to uncover and curate their version of the early American past. Piecing together shared evidence did not yield the same story. Father and son split over the exact region of their English roots. But both presidents staked claim to a Puritan lineage that played well with constituents. Highlighting their role in the Puritan ordeal of suffering, immigration, and settlement, the Adams statesmen linked themselves to a history of religious toleration and political dissent. When it came to genealogical pursuits, their methods varied, too. The elder Adams’ approach to genealogy was impulsive. He dashed off “minute” memoranda of random finds, listing births and deaths as he encountered them in odd pages of his father’s books. Strategically, he wove Puritan family ties into the revolutionary rationale that powered his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765).

John A. Grace, Memoranda Respecting the Families of Quincy and Adams, 1841

His son, John Quincy, approached the task with trademark rigor and a passion for verification. Highly scientific and systematic in his effort, the sixth president scoured town records and newspapers, copied out church membership lists, and checked material in his family papers against those of other early Americans. John Quincy’s scholarly bent for fact-checking was aided by a rising set of organizations that steered the antebellum practice of personal history, like the Massachusetts Historical Society (1791), the Boston Athenaeum (1807), and the New England Historic Genealogical Society (1845). More than a hobby to fill the diplomat’s rare downtime, genealogy was a way for John Quincy to exercise his skills as a gentleman scholar. It was a task to pass along across the generations, and so he handed it off to his son, Charles Francis, with the family’s large set of seals and copper bookplates. On 28 Feb. 1831, he laid down what he knew of the Adams ancestry and colorful heraldry in a detailed missive. “File this letter away,” John Quincy instructed, “for the age when the passion of genealogy shall take possession of you.”

Stoked by his highly successful publication of Abigail Adams’ letters in 1840, Charles’ interest in the family past blossomed steadily throughout his life. Like many Americans, he invested in Lemuel Shattuck’s Family Register book. The blank album featured tidy charts and wheels to organize the machinery of family for presentation. Stocked with a template narrative for each ancestor and stern guidelines for nascent family historians, Shattuck’s book commanded that facts–and not opinions–must guide the process. There were, Shattuck lectured, many kinds of facts to collect, and they should be updated on a monthly basis. His categories veered from the mundane to the moral: health, religious tendencies, phrenological oddities, children’s expenses, real estate descriptions, vaccinations, public offices held, and “plans for private intellectual improvement.” Dutifully, Charles began the book, making lists and skipping the intricate wheels. He never finished it, likely thinking that the family’s cache of letterbooks, correspondence, and diaries filled in the rest.

Charles Francis Adams, entries in Family Register, 1841

Or maybe Charles realized he didn’t need to do all the research alone. Genealogy had, after all, evolved into a new American pastime. By 1841, at least one reader of Abigail’s published letters reached out (from Havana!) with new clues to the more distant Adamses. John A. Grace delved into the complex English roots of the Adams, Quincy, and Boylston lines. To Charles, he sent a vivid, hand-colored memorandum of the Adamses’ related heraldic arms with details cobbled together from foreign records. Grace put forth an idea that Charles and his children, including Henry, came to champion: that the family descended from the Welsh baronial clan of ap-Adams. Over time, more Adamses went on to swarm the archives, eagerly hunting for familiar faces in history’s mirror. Henry Adams, holding his cousin’s query, sniffed that he did not “invest in the genealogy.” But, as the Adams Papers reveal, Henry made just as many charts as others did, diligently tracing out his great grandparents’ lines on graph paper (see Reel 603 of P-54, the Adams Family Papers microfilm). Even Henry Adams could not resist family history forever.

A Genealogical Tree of the Adams, Cranch, & DeWindt Families, 1928

Rachel Wall’s Confession, the words of a Pirate?

By Rakashi Chand, Reader Services

For Talk Like a Pirate Day we bring you the words of a Pirate!

The MHS holds an interesting broadside featuring Massachusetts’ only female Pirate: Life, last words and dying confession, of Rachel Wall : who, with William Smith and William Dunogan, were executed at Boston, on Thursday, October 8, 1789, for high-way robbery

Arrested and convicted of highway robbery, Rachel Wall was the last woman executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, hung on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet. 

The broadside features a fascinating woodcut illustration of three criminals being hung on Boston Common. The middle figure is depicted as a woman wearing a dress. But this confession serves a much greater purpose as it is the autobiography of a very unique woman. Although Rachel’s crimes were dreadful, her life is an undeniable part of Massachusetts history.  A criminal master mind? Perhaps. Ruthless and Vicious?  Certainly. The perfect Halloween Costume? Definitely!

Who was Rachel Wall?

Rachel Wall was born in Pennsylvania, to a good family, by her own description. After running away from home, she met and married George Wall, with whom she moved to Boston. George left Rachel and went off to sea, only to return one day to reunite with Rachel and coax her into being a pirate. In her confession Rachel says, “for, as soon as he came back, he enticed me to leave my service, and take to bad company, from which I might date my ruin.” Supposedly, they attacked ships off the Isles of the Shoals, on the coast of New Hampshire although we do not have actual evidence and this is not mentioned in the Confession. It is believed that after storms, Rachel would stand on the deck of their ship pretending to be distressed and would scream for help; when sailors came to her rescue, George and his men would kill them and plunder their ships. In her confession, Rachel states that she does not know the whereabouts of her husband, “He went off again and left me, and where he is now I know not.” It is believed that George and his crew were washed out to sea. George Wall might have been a privateer during the Revolution, acquiring a taste for plundering ships.

Rachel returned to Boston and worked as a maid but could never fully become a law-abiding citizen. She continued to ‘plunder’ by sneaking aboard docked ships and grabbing what she could. She describes one excursion on Long Wharf in Boston, “On my entering the cabin, the door of which not being fastened, and finding the Captain and Mate asleep in their beds, I hunted about for plunder, and discovered under the Captain’s head, a black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change, on which I immediately seized the booty and decamped therewith as quick as possible, which money I spent freely in company as lewd and wicked as myself.” (Does anyone else hear Pirate-speak?) 

Rachel was eventually convicted of highway robbery. Supposedly, she saw a lovely bonnet that she simply couldn’t resist and attacked 17-year-old Margret Bender, the woman wearing the bonnet. Having already been convicted of two counts of robbery, this, the third count, was punishable by death. She could not deny her proven past, so in her confession she lists many petty crimes, carefully avoiding the mention of any that might be a felony. She was wise enough to know that she could not convince people that she was innocent, so instead choose to portray herself as under the influence of her dreadful husband. Attorney General Robert Treat Paine requested “that sentence of death might be given against the said Rachel Wall, the prisoner at the bar” and Governor John Hancock signed the order of execution. One could perhaps speculate that she was being sentenced for crimes far greater than the attempted robbery of a bonnet, tried as a thief, but executed for piracy?

Unfortunate for her, Rachel’s crime came at the height of turmoil for the new Nation, and the courts–which traditionally gave women lesser punishments than men–tried her as an equal sentencing her to hang with two other men also accused of highway robbery. Six years later un-armed burglary was no longer punished by death; the three were the last to be executed in Massachusetts for robbery. If there were ever a spirit to haunt the streets of Boston, It would certainly be Rachel Wall, executed on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet at 29 years of age.



Massachusetts Historical Society. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, (Boston: The Society 1905) Volume 39, March 1905 p.178-190

Rachel Wall, Pirate by the National Park Service (Accessed September 19, 2018)

http://www.cindyvallar.com/RachelWall.html (Accessed September 19, 2018)

This Week @MHS

This week at the MHS we have an author talk, our annual graduate student reception, and a discussion among hisotrians about the musical Hamilton. Details below:

– Tuesday, 18 September, 6:00 PM: If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection with Celeste-Marie Bernier of the University of Edinburgh. Bringing to light previously unpublished manuscript letters, essays, speeches, and photographs from Frederick Douglass and his sons, Charles Remond, Frederick Jr., and Lewis Henry Douglass, If I Survive casts Douglass in the role of dedicated family man and inspirational figure to his five children. This family biography as accompanied by these personal documents comprises the first extensive study of Frederick Douglass and his family’s fight for the cause of liberty during the Civil War and in the post-emancipation era.

A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

– Thursday, 20 September, 6:00 PM: Graduate Student Reception. Calling all graduate students and faculty in history, American Studies, or any related field! Enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres as you meet students and professors from other universities working in your fields. Take a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about the Society’s collections as well as the resources available to support your scholarship, from research fellowships to our six different seminar series.

The reception is free, but we ask that you RSVP by 19 September by e-mailing seminars@masshist.org or calling (617) 646-0579.

– Saturday, 22 September, 4:00 PM: Historians on Hamilton with Catherine Allgor, MHS; Lyra D. Monteiro, Rutgers University-Newark; Joseph M. Adelman, Framingham State University. The musical Hamilton has catapulted a founding father to the heights of popular culture. Three historians will explore this creative approach to discussing the stories of America’s founding, the conversations that have been created by this phenomenon, and how the excitement can be used to inspire the public to look at American history in greater depth.

A pre-talk reception bins at 3:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 4:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). 

Visit www.masshist.org/events for upcoming programs including Under the Starry Flag: How a Band of Irish Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt & Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship, an author talk on Monday, 24 September, and Radical Nonviolence & Interracial Utopias in the Early Civil Rights Movement, a seminar on Tuesday, 25 September.

Triumph and Tragedy in History

By Kate Melchior, Education

School has started, which means that it is time to start brainstorming for this year’s National History Day  projects!  Each year National History Day selects a theme that is intentionally broad enough so that students can select topics from anywhere and any time in history.  The theme gives students a lens through which they will gain a deeper understanding of history beyond facts and dates, and pushes them to think about perspective, context, and broader impact of historical events.


The 2019 theme has been announced as “Triumph and Tragedy in History.”  While this theme sounds straightforward at first, it challenges students and teachers alike to think about the true meaning of both words in a historical context.  National History Day advises students to begin with the definition of both words: according to Merriam Webster, the definition of triumph is “a victory or conquest by or as if by military force, or a notable success,” while tragedy is defined a “disastrous event.”  While students do not need to necessarily include both triumph and tragedy in their work, many topics will end up including both:  a military triumph, for example, might be defined as a tragedy by the losing side.  NHD then poses the following questions for students starting to select their topics:

“Can one person’s triumph be another’s tragedy? Can the same person or group suffer from tragedy and triumph at the same time? How does one ultimately triumph after tragedy? Can triumph lead to tragedy?”


The Massachusetts History Day affiliate recently held an Intro to Mass History Day teacher workshop for educators from BPS, Lynn, and other schools in the Boston area.  To put themselves in their students’ shoes, teachers built upon NHD’s questions about the meaning of “Triumph and Tragedy” and brainstormed their own questions (see image).  Some of their questions included:

  • Can war ever be a triumph?  Is it always a tragedy?
  • How long does triumph last in history?
  • Does triumph always equal tragedy for someone else?
  • Do people learn from tragedy?  Can that lesson be a triumph?
  • Can reform be both triumph and tragedy?
  • Can whether something is thought of as a triumph or tragedy change through history?  Does it depend on who remembers it?

Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, 1811.

Along with many heritage organizations around the country, the MHS Center for the Teaching of History thought about how the NHD theme connects to our own collections at MHS.  We set up a CTH Theme Page with ideas about topics, links to collections, and intriguing objects from our archives that might serve as a launching point for student research into triumph and tragedy.  Suggested topics include early Boston smallpox inoculations, Massachusetts women in WWI, Boston marriages and LGBTQ+ history, Wampanoag and English settler interactions, and Elizabeth Freeman’s suit for freedom from slavery.

Henry A. Monroe, a young musician with the 54th Regiment.

Another example is the history of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised  in the North during the Civil War.  The 54th’s tragic losses at the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863 are also remembered for triumphant bravery shown and for how the soldiers paved the way for numerous other black units in the Union Army for the remainder of the war.  The 54th also fought a lesser-known but just as critical battle against its own government: the fight for equal pay.  African American soldiers in the 54th and other Black units refused pay for 18 months until the government granted them the same pay to their white counterparts.  While the achievement of equal pay is regarded another triumph for civil rights, numerous tragedies shape this story: the hardship of the pay battle on Black soldiers and their families, the immense tragedy of the US Government’s racism and oppression, and the harsh punishments and even deaths of several soldiers for “mutiny” over the conflict.

How do you think that Triumph and Tragedy can act as perspectives for examining history?  What items in our collection do you think connect to the theme?

Barbara Hillard Smith’s Diary, September 1918

By Lindsay Bina, Intern and Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

Today we return to the 1918 diary of Newton teenager Barbara Hillard Smith. You may read our introduction to the diary, and Barbara’s previous entries, here:


January | February | March | April

May | June | July | August

September | October | November | December


As regular readers of the Beehive know, we are following Barbara throughout 1918 with monthly blog posts that present Barbara’s daily life — going to school, seeing friends, playing basketball, and caring for family members — in the words she wrote a century ago. Here is Barbara’s September, day by day.


* * *

SUN. 1                                    SEPTEMBER

Boys came to church. Park in afternoon. Boys to supper

MON. 2                       LABOR DAY

Went up river with boys. Down to Spuds. K’s in evening.


In town. Went to Keith’s with the gang. Up to farm with [Spud].

WED. 4

Hung around K’s for lunch. Wendell took us to Revere. Park in evening


Peg’s for tennis. In town. Babe went home. Hospital with Dr. G-

FRI. 6

Peg came over. Pete is going to Lasell. Hurrah! Sick?

SAT. 7

Hung around. Felt rotten. Saw [Eli].

SUN. 8

Cousin Mildred to dinner. Over to Peg’s for supper. Ben is home.

MON. 9

School. Mrs. Reed’s

TUES. 10

School. Mrs. Reeds

WED. 11

School. In town

THUR. 12

School. Mrs. Reed’s. Played tennis.

FRI. 13

No school. It rained. Movies [+ overnight with] Lane’s. Babe + Mother went

SAT. 14

Took flowers up to Bil Sybil + saw Bob. That boy was awfully sick

SUN. 15

Church and Sunday School. Went up to see Bob with K. Spud to supper

MON. 16

School. Staid at home and studied.

TUES. 17

School. Peg and I went to see Bob.

WED. 18

School. Went over to Pegs. Rained hard

THUR. 19

School. Went to Surgical Dressings.

FRI. 20

School. Went down to Connies. Night at Pegs

SAT. 21

Down at station at 5:45. In town. Pegs for a dance

SUN. 22

Sunday School. Came down with influenza.

MON. 23

In bed. Dr. G- came. Mother came home.

TUES. 24

In bed. Feel rotten. School closed till Monday.

WED. 25

Got up and went out. Felt rotten.

THUR. 26

Went over to Pegs. Hung around. Sick?

FRI. 27

Tenn Went over to Pegs

SAT. 28

Tennis at Pegs

SUN. 29

Church. No Sunday School. Over to Pegs in afternoon

MON. 30

In town. Surgical Dressings. Spud very sick

* * *

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. The catalog record for the Barbara Hillard Smith collection may be found here.



This Week @ MHS


This week we have a pair of Brown Bag talks, an author talk, and the end of an exhibition. Details below:

– Wednesday, 12 September, 12:00PM : The first lunch talk this week is with C. Ian Stevenson of Boston University, and is titled “‘This Summer-Home of the Survivors’: The Civil War Vacation in Architecture & Landscape, 1878-1910.” In the decades after the Civil War, its veterans built communal summer cottages in waterfront locations to merge memory and leisure among their comrades and families. Through interdisciplinary lenses, this talk considers the ways veterans used architecture and landscape to heal their wartime trauma and preserve their scripted legacy.

This talk is free and open to the public.

– Wedensday, 12 September, 6:00PM : On the night of March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired into a crowd gathered in front of Boston’s Custom House, killing five people. Denounced as an act of unprovoked violence and villainy, the Boston Massacre became one of the most familiar incidents in American history, yet one of the least understood. In “Boston’s Massacre,” Eric Hinderaker of the University of Utah revisits this dramatic episode, examining in forensic detail the facts of that fateful night, the competing narratives that molded public perceptions at the time, and the long campaign to transform the tragedy into a touchstone of American identity.

This talk is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM.

– Friday, 14 September, 12:00PM : “A Possible Connection between a Scandal and Susanna Rowson’s Last Novel” is the second Brown Bag of the week, this time presented by Steven Epley of Samford University. The talk will describe evidence in letters and public records suggesting that best-selling author Susanna Rowson may have based her last novel, Lucy Temple, at least in part on a scandal in which she was innocently but indirectly involved in Medford, Mass., in 1799.

As ever, this lunchtime talk is open to the public free of charge.


This is your last chance to view the current exhibition, Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston’s South End: The Furniture of Isaac Vose & Thomas Seymour, 1815 to 1825, which ends on 14 September.

John Quincy Adams and the Allens

By Lindsey Woolcock, Adams Papers Intern

In October 1837, John Quincy Adams was reading the newspaper, when he came across an advertisement for a slave sale.

There was in the National Intelligencer this morning an advertisement, signed James H. Birch … headed Sale of Slaves—A sale at public auction at 4 O’Clock this afternoon, of Dorcas Allen, and her two surviving children aged about 7. and 9. years (the other two having been killed by said Dorcas in a fit of insanity as found by the jury who lately acquitted her)… (23 October 1837)

Dorcas Allen was promised her freedom multiple times by her owners, the Davises. Though informally released from slavery, after multiple deaths and remarriages in the Davis family, Allen was left without the papers she needed to legally secure her freedom. Allen and her four children were taken from the District of Columbia to a slave prison in Alexandria, Virginia; there Allen killed her two youngest children and attempted unsuccessfully to commit suicide. She was put on trial for murder but acquitted on grounds of insanity.

This story deeply affected John Quincy. In his later years, he began taking more of an active stance against slavery. He presented dozens of antislavery petitions to an unresponsive House of Representatives, leading to the establishment of the House’s “gag” rule, where all petitions relating to slavery were laid aside without discussion.

His succeeding diary entries talk about visiting the auction house where Dorcas was to be sold in order to discover more information. He met with Nathan Allen, Dorcas’s husband, who was trying to raise enough money to purchase his wife and the two children from Birch. He also met with Dorcas, who came with her husband to ask for the $50 that John Quincy promised to contribute toward her purchase.

After that meeting, Dorcas and Nathan Allen and their children disappear. John Quincy seems to have never met with them again. We don’t know what happened to Dorcas and her children, yet these brief moments in Adams’s voluminous diary offer small glimpses into the parallel worlds of the black and white communities of Washington, D.C.

Over the summer that I’ve transcribed John Quincy’s diary, I’ve watched many seemingly random people show up in his parlor: a Quaker woman who gave a sermon and advised him to maintain a steady course in the House of Representatives; men visiting “out of curiosity”; a Scottish silkworm breeder who spoke so long about his worms that John Quincy didn’t have time to write letters of introduction for an earlier visitor. You never know who’s going to show up, and these meetings always struck me as odd. How do you just show up at the home of the former President of the United States? Do you just knock on the front door?

But a story like the Allens’s in particular struck me: what was that meeting like? How did Dorcas and Nathan feel? And what happened to their family afterward?

This Week @ MHS


As we enter September and a new academic year, we see a bit of an increase in programming here at the Society. This is what is in store in the week ahead:

The Society is CLOSED on Monday, 3 September, for Labor Day. New normal hours pick up on Tuesday, 4 September.

– Wednesday, 5 September, 12:00PM : Stop in at midday for a Brown Bag lunch talk titled “Garrisonian Rhode Island: Reassessing Abolitionism’s Radicals.” In this talk, Kevin Vrevich of Ohio State University explores the place of Rhode Island, a center of William Lloyd Garrison’s “radical” abolitionism, in the larger antislavery network. As historians of abolitionism increasingly focus on continuities within the movement, Rhode Island offers an opportunity to reassess the place of the Garrisonians and to reconsider their contributions.

This talk is free and open to the public.

– Thursday, 6 September, 6:00PM : “100 Years of Education Henry Adams” is a public conversation with Natalie Dykstra of Hope College, William Decker of Oklahoma State University, and Natalie Tayor of Skidmore College. Henry Adams offers an account of his life and commentary on political and cultural events during the mid and late 19th century in the Pulitzer Prize–winning autobiography The Education of Henry Adams. Join us to mark the centenary of both Adams’s death and the Education’s publication with a critical conversation on Adams and his best known work.

This talk is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows or EBT cardholders). There is a reception that begins at 5:30PM, followed by the program at 6:00PM.

– Friday, 7 September, 12:00PM : “American Silver, Chinese Silverwares, and the Global Circulation of Value” is the title of the second Brown Bag this week which is presented by Susan Eberhard of University of California, Berkeley. Silver coin was the primary commodity shipped to China from the United States in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of which was reworked into silverwares by Chinese craftsmen for British and American buyers. This talk explores the different silver conduits of the American trade relationship with China. Far from a neutral medium, how were understandings of its materiality mobilized in cross-cultural transactions?

As ever, this lunchtime talk is free and open to the public.

– Saturday, 8 September, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS 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: Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston’s South End: The Furniture of Isaac Vose & Thomas Seymour, 1815 to 1825. There is only one more week for this exhibition which closes on 14 September. Be sure to see it before it’s gone!