250th Anniversary of the Boston Massacre

by Gavin W. Kleespies, Director of Programs, Exhibitions and Community Partnerships

Paul Revere engraving of the Boston Massacre
The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston on March 5th 1770 by a party of the 29th Regiment, by Paul Revere, 1770.

As many of our readers may know, we are approaching a big anniversary in Boston. The 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre is on 5 March 2020 and there is a lot happening in the city to mark the date. Here is a look at some of the events:

  • Fire! Voices of the Boston Massacre is open to the public at the MHS. In the aftermath of what soon became known as the Boston Massacre, questions about the command to “Fire!” became crucial. Who yelled it? When and why? Because the answers would determine the guilt or innocence of the soldiers, defense counsel John Adams insisted that “Facts are stubborn things.” But what are the facts? The evidence, often contradictory, drew upon testimony from dozens of witnesses. Come learn about the Boston Massacre and “hear” for yourself—through a selection of artifacts, eyewitness accounts, and trial testimony—the voices of ordinary men and women, and discover how this flashpoint changed American history. Learn more about the Massacre on our companion website. The exhibition is on display at the MHS through 30 June 2020, Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM.
  • On Friday, 21 February, at 2:00 PM, the MHS presents FIRE! Voices of the Boston Massacre Gallery Talk with Amanda Norton, MHS. Learn more about why John Adams, a noted Patriot, defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and how he won acquittals for all but two of them. No registration required.
  • On Wednesday, 4 March, at 6:00 PM, the MHS will host a talk by Serena Zabin on her new book: The Boston Massacre: A Family History. The story of the Boston Massacre is familiar to generations. But from the very beginning, most accounts have obscured a fascinating truth: the Massacre arose from conflicts that were as personal as they were political. Serena Zabin draws on original sources and lively stories to follow British troops as they are dispatched from Ireland to Boston in 1768 to subdue the increasingly rebellious colonists. She reveals a forgotten world hidden in plain sight: the many regimental wives and children who accompanied the armies. We see these families jostling with Bostonians for living space, finding common cause in the search for a lost child, trading barbs, and sharing baptisms. Becoming, in other words, neighbors. When soldiers shot unarmed citizens in the street, it was these intensely human and now broken bonds that fueled what quickly became a bitterly fought American Revolution. 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, EBT or ConnectorCare cardholders). Click HERE for more information or to register.
  • On Thursday, 5 March, at 9:00 AM, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution will host a Wreath-laying ceremony at the Granary Burying Ground. A formal service by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution will take place at the grave of the victims of the Boston Massacre including Crispus Attucks, Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick and Patrick Carr. For more information, visit: www.dar.org/national-society/national-society-dar-commemorates-250th-anniversary-boston-massacre. 
  • On Thursday, 5 MarchReflecting Attucks opens at the Old State House in Boston. The new temporary exhibit will explore the life and memory of Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent and the first casualty of the Boston Massacre, and provoke visitors to consider how Attucks has been remembered over the past 250 years. To complement the exhibit, Revolutionary Spaces will offer special tours and facilitated dialogues in the galleries. The exhibit will be on display until March 2021 and is included in museum admission.
  • On Thursday, 5 March, at 12:00 PM, the Boston Athenæum will host a Curator’s Choice talk on Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre. Join Polly Thayer Starr Fellow in American Art & Culture Theo Tyson and Assistant Curator Ginny Badget for an in-depth look at the inception of Revere’s engraving and how it continues to shape American historical memory today. Members are free; non-members are free with admission ($10). Online registration is coming soon. To register, please contact Events at 617-720-7600.
  • On Thursday, 5 March, from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM, a commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the Boston Massacre will be held at the Old South Meeting House. Gov. Charlie Baker will be joined by other key civic and community leaders to reflect on how our most difficult national memories can inspire us to reach for our highest American ideals. There are 50-100 seats available for the public. Registration is required. For more information, visit: eventbrite.com/e/boston-massacre-250th-anniversary-commemoration-tickets-95405922683.
  • On Thursday, 5 March, at 2:00 PM, there will be a curator talk on the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre at the Concord Museum in Concord, Mass. In a special gallery talk about Beyond Midnight: Paul Revere and His Ride, curator David Wood will discuss the Boston Massacre and its legacy. Using multiple editions and interpretations of Paul Revere’s print of the events on the Boston Common, Wood will unveil how a skirmish between neighbors sparked a city’s unrest that led to a country’s revolution. Members are free; non members can attend with museum admission. 
  • On Saturday, 7 March, beginning at 1:00 PM, the Boston Massacre will be reenacted. Beginning at 1:00 PM there will be numerous historical vignettes taking place between the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House culminating in the Boston Massacre reenactment at 7:00 PM. Join us as tensions between the citizens of the Town of Boston and the British soldiers stationed in town build and eventually boil over resulting in what has become known as the “Boston Massacre.” This daylong event will allow visitors to meet with reenactors portraying a variety of citizens of 1770 Boston who are eager to share their perspective on the events in Boston since the landing of the troops in October of 1768. For more information, visit: https://www.bostonhistory.org/massacre250.

Common Craft

by Lila Teeters, University of New Hampshire, and Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the MHS

I came to the Massachusetts Historical Society to conduct legal history. I spend most of my time researching Native American citizenship in the United States, with a particular focus on the lead up to the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. The cartons awaiting my gaze at MHS belonged to Robert G. Valentine, who served as the commissioner of Indian affairs from 1909 to 1912. This period was critical in the development of policies guiding Native citizenship in the United States, and Valentine’s papers provide an unparalleled look into the ideological underpinnings of federal policies. While I came for legal history, I left with an additional lesson on pedagogy.

People often ask me if I am a teacher or historian first. My master’s degree is in teaching social studies, and I taught high school history for four years before starting my PhD. My answer to their question is usually wonky, as I try explaining that each of those roles encompasses the other. A teacher and historian are one, I say, earning accusations of being sophist. Perhaps it is no coincidence then that some of my favorite archival moments occur when I see my historical actors teaching others about their chosen craft. These sources are usually irrelevant to my primary research, and I tuck them away to be considered later.

As a PhD candidate trying to finish my dissertation, I am particularly drawn to my actors’ advice on writing. The process feels (to use a popular millennial phrase) very “meta,” particularly when the people I write about give advice about the act itself. Composing a person’s history comes with a certain amount of responsibility (a well-worn claim that once again earns me accusations of sophistry), and weighing subjects’ advice feels like a way to honor that responsibility.

Hence my excitement when I came across writing exercises tucked within Valentine’s notes. Valentine taught English and composition classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1896-1902, and his papers contain lecture notes, assignments, and musings on prose and pedagogy. One of the exercises he recommends is about depth: “In order for you to determine the qualities of mind,-wealth, discipline, and understanding, which you possess, it is useful to write a very short sketch of

  1. Someone you know,
    1. like
    2. dislike
    3. are indifferent to
  2. a view,
    1. familiar
    2. unfamiliar
  3. a thought
  4. a feeling
  5. a machine
  6. a process
  7. a story
  8. an argument
  9. history”

He recommended that each sketch be around 200 words.[1] Valentine wanted his students to determine if they had the deep knowledge of a subject to condense its essence down to a 200-word meditation—a written crucible of sorts. Compress to assess.

Valentine is an actor whom I find maddening. While I “know” him only through his writings and his policies as Indian commissioner, I at once like, dislike, and am indifferent to him. My “very short sketch” of him encompasses all three:

Born in 1872, Roger G. Valentine was a civic-minded man directed by principle and prejudice. A son of Massachusetts, a father and husband, Valentine assumed the role of commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1909. While he forswore essentialist racial classification of Native Americans, Valentine held other racist views, claiming that Natives needed to be taught self-respect, self-support, and good citizenship. Many of the policies he promoted operated from these paternalist assumptions. Valentine prized civic engagement and held citizenship and patriotism in the highest regard. As commissioner, he attempted to root out corruption, separate church from state, and solicit feedback from Native people. Yet he assumed one of his most prized possessions—US citizenship—would likewise be prized by all Natives. His administration created “competency commissions,” which assessed the “fitness” of individual Natives to be citizens of the United States. While he acknowledged the harm done by American policies, soldiers, and citizens, he almost never questioned why some Natives did not want to become citizens. A controversy, one that threw Valentine’s integrity into question (he and I believe rather unfairly), prompting his resignation in 1912. A long list of joined organizations and committees show his appetite for civic engagement went unabated until he died in 1916 at the young age of 43.

It is comforting to know that Valentine found writing difficult. His papers are speckled with frustrated marginalia and rabid reworkings. He would most likely quibble with my sentence structure just as I grumble at his passive voice. I like the image: historian and subject, united briefly through our common craft.

[1] “Notes from RGV’s composition class, 1902-1903,” carton 17, folder 21, Robert G. Valentine family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

This Week @MHS

While the MHS is closed on Monday, 17 February, it is still a busy programming week. Take a look at what is planned:

On Tuesday, 18 February, at 5:15 PM: “What the Women Can Do:” Doctors’ Wives & the American Medical Association’s Crusade Against Socialized Medicine with Kelly O’Donnell, Thomas Jefferson University, and comment by Oliva Weisser, University of Massachusetts, Boston. In the mid-20th century, the American Medical Association opposed attempts to create a national health program in this country, through lobbying and public outreach about the dangers of socialized medicine. Their most powerful weapon in this fight was a less conventional medical instrument: their wives. This paper examines the mobilization of the AMA Woman’s Auxiliary as the main “public relations firm” of organized medicine during these debates and their lingering influence on American health politics. This is part of the Boston Seminar on the History of Women, Gender, & Sexuality* series. Seminars are free and open to the public. 

On Wednesday, 19 February, at 6:00 PM: Mother is a Verb: An Unconventional History with Sarah Knott, Indiana University. Pregnancy, birth, and the encounter with an infant: how have these experiences changed over time and cultures? Blending memoir and history, feminist Sarah Knott draws on the terrain of Britain and North America from the seventeenth century to the close of the twentieth. Knott searches among a range of past societies, pores over archives, and documents her own experiences to craft a new historical interpretation of maternity for our changing times. 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, EBT or ConnectorCare cardholders).

On Friday, 21 February, at 2:00 PM: FIRE! Voices of the Boston Massacre Gallery Talk with Amanda Norton, MHS. Join Adams Papers editor Amanda Norton to learn more about why John Adams, a noted Patriot, defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre and how he won acquittals for all but two of them.

On Saturday, 22 February, at 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. This is a 90-minute docent-led walk through of our public rooms. The tour is free and open to the public. 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.

*Our seminars bring together a diverse group of scholars and interested members of the public to workshop a pre-circulated paper. After brief remarks from the author and an assigned commentator, the discussion is opened to the floor. All are encourage to ask questions, provide feedback on the circulated essay, and discuss the topic at hand. Discussion is followed by a reception of light refreshments. The sessions are free and open to everyone.

Fire! Voices from the Boston Massacre
On the evening of March 5, 1770, soldiers occupying the town of Boston shot into a crowd, killing or fatally wounding five civilians. In the aftermath of what soon became known as the Boston  Massacre, questions about the command to “Fire!” became crucial. Who yelled it? When and why? Because the answers would determine the guilt or innocence of the soldiers, defense counsel John Adams insisted that “Facts are stubborn things.” But what are the facts? The evidence, often contradictory, drew upon testimony from dozens of witnesses. Through a selection of artifacts, eyewitness accounts, and trial testimony—the voices of ordinary men and women—Fire! Voice from the Boston Massacre explores how this flashpoint changed American history. The exhibition is on display at the MHS through 30 June 2020, Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

Be Mine?

by Ashley Williams, Processing Assistant and Library Assistant

E. J. Dumee, The Love Letter
[The Love Letter] by E.J. Dumee. An infant cupid leaning laughingly over the shoulder of a youth reclining in a loose gown on a bed to right, pointing at the letter on which he rests one hand while reaching to take up the quill; after R West. 1822.
Happy Valentine’s Day Beehive readers! I hope you’re all in the mood for some flirtatious frivolity. To celebrate this season of candy and cupids, I’ve curated a small selection of amorous displays from the MHS collections ranging from sincere, heartfelt loquaciousness to bawdy verses that will make you blush. So cuddle up and get ready for the dripping sentimentality, and if you’re feeling a little bitter this season, maybe just enjoy heckling the silly ways people express affection for one another.

Album of Love removed from the Head Family papers
Album of Love removed from the Head Family papers

The first selection in the lineup is for the love poem enthusiasts in the crowd. This tiny volume published in 1853,  measuring a mere 12 centimeters is titled The Album of Love. It begins with a dedication and an entire page defining, “What is Love?” where the previous owner saw fit to leave a pressed flower. And, though this book be but little, it is fiercely packed with the sonnets and verses of all your favorite love poets, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Spenser, Eliza Acton,  and John Clare.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Though famous poets are great,  you didn’t come to an archive’s blog to read about published works, did you? Where is the personal tea? Don’t worry. The following transcription comes from a letter from the John Lowell Letters, dated November 30, 1823. In this letter John Lowell Jr. carefully constructs a marriage proposal to his cousin and soon-to-be wife Georgina M.A. Lowell. It’s nice to know this worked out for him because the calculated tone of the request makes it seem that he was apprehensive at best about his chances. There’s even a part in which he instructs her to burn the letter if she doesn’t feel the same way.

Dear Georgina

I venture to address you in this formal manner on a subject nearly connected with my happiness, because I cannot devise any other mode of bringing it before you. It is the offer of myself & the request that you will permit me to ask Uncle Lowells consent to our union. I say nothing of my affection or the desire I have long had to obtain your approbation before that of any other person, because if I have not already persuaded you of these things, protestations would now be useless. This step may appear premature or presumptuous but I hope the near approach of the period when I shall cease to live here & the solitude I feel to settle a question of this sort previously to it’s arrival will excuse me it If it is not in your power to permit me the indulgence of those sentiments I feel towards you, I will thank you to burn this letter & not let it’s reception disturb the harmony of our acquaintance. I declare that no lady shall ever be voluntarily embarrassed by my attentions, when I know them to be unacceptable–

Believe me that whatever your determination may be though I earnestly desire a favorable one. I also wish that it may contribute to your happiness, for the continuance of which I would certainly sacrifice my personal feelings.

I am truly sincerely

Yours

John Lowell J.

This next excerpt is from the Henry W. Bellows Correspondence and is a letter from Henry to his fiancee, Anna Huidekoper Peabody, dated May 27, 1874. It’s particularly short, but may also be some of the sappiest collection of words I’ve ever seen written down. Imagine receiving good morning texts like the letter that Henry sends to Anna:

My dear & only love, your precious note of yesterday came in just after breakfast to feed me with new longings to see you, who are my breath & life! Don’t imagine I ask anything more lovely than every sentence you write. I see you through every loop in the letter & they all have sweet & tender meanings hanging onto their pot-hooks!

Hold on to your pot-hooks because things are about to take a turn. These next two items are not for the faint of heart. If you blush easily, you may want to skip past these.

The Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum by Wallace Irwin
The Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum by Wallace Irwin

There is really no getting around the fact that the “love” sonnets in this book are just plain dirty. The love in question is definitely of a more physical nature, and many of the sonnets include references to a personified “Willie” who is usually being abused in some way or another. Crude nature aside, the sonnets do seem to follow the storyline of a relationship or series of relationships.

Did I hear someone in the audience ask about newspaper clippings?

This next letter excerpt happens to be accompanied by just such an artifact! The excerpt comes from the Stone-Jackson Family papers in a letter from Arthur L. Jackson to his wife-to-be Pauline F. Stone dated February 9, 1889. 

I enclose a little clipping that has a slight bearing on the subject and will merely say that I shall most certainly follow out its advice the very first time I see you. Shall I need mistletoe then sweetheart? If so I advise you to trim your hat with it and have all the ceilings in your house and veranda covered with it. If you do I shall kiss you under every single leaf of it. once for every day we have been separated, if only to make up for lost time. Just think how horribly in arrears we are that way now-a-days dearest. It will take just about a lifetime to ever get square again, won’t it dear.

Newspaper clipping
Newspaper clipping from the Stone-Jackson Family papers in a letter from Arthur L. Jackson to his wife-to-be Pauline F. Stone dated February 9, 1889.

In comparison to The Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum, this letter could be construed as tame, but it was still one of the racier correspondences I came across when putting this together as Arthur playfully details his desire to kiss Pauline and under what circumstances.

Now that we’re nearing the end of the post, I thought it would be a good idea to cool us down and cleanse our palates with Some Old Puritan Love Letters.

letter from John Winthrop to Margaret Tyndall
Some Old Puritan Love Letters, letter from John Winthrop to Margaret Tyndall.

The particular letter pictured is from John Winthrop to Margaret Tyndall. It opens, “My only beloved spouse, my most sweet friend, & faithful companion of my pilgrimage, the happy & hopeful supply (next Jesus Christ) of my greatest losses, I wish thee a most plentiful increase of all true comfort…” Even with its formal language and regular allusion to biblical verse, this letter still manages to feel poetically intimate and caring. Please note that I did not photograph the entire letter as it was incredibly long. If you would like to see the rest, please stop by the MHS and check it out (figuratively… we aren’t a lending library). 

The Love Dream
[The Love Dream]. A sleeping woman is about to be attacked by an armed cupid, who crouches next to her, bow drawn.
I want to wish all of our readers a Happy Valentine’s Day and remind you to find joy in both the romantic and platonic loves in your life this February. In the words of John Winthrop, “I wish thee a most plentiful increase of all true comfort…” (i.e. candy and soft things).

Catching Up With the Armstrongs

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

I’m very happy to add a brief postscript to last year’s seven-part series about Civil War soldier Dwight Emerson Armstrong. Last fall, following on the heels of that series, the MHS acquired the letters of his brother, Joel Mason Armstrong.

Mason (as he was called) was born in 1833 in Wendell, Mass. He worked as a carpenter in Sunderland before enlisting at the age of 28. He would serve for almost a year in the 52nd Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, Co. G., primarily in Louisiana. His collection is even smaller than his younger brother Dwight’s, but no less interesting. It consists of seven letters: six from Mason and one to Mason from none other than Dwight himself.

Dwight’s letter was written from Washington, D.C. on 15 September 1861, early in his service and before he’d seen any fighting. In it, Dwight described the building of batteries, the sound of nearby skirmishes, and a review of the troops by Gen. McClellan. I wrote about this period in Part II of the series.

All six of Mason’s letters were written to his sister Mary—the same sister, incidentally, to whom Dwight wrote his letters. Mason included some terrific details about life in the Union army, from the looting of nearby plantations for poultry, sweet potatoes, and sugar, to the days spent marching (“I find that I can tire out almost every one else & then march some ways further.”), to the thousands of formerly enslaved people who joined the Union caravan in the months after the Emancipation Proclamation. As for insight into Mason’s personality, I think this quotation sums it up: “I made up my mind long ago to make the best of everything and bear cheerfully whatever comes that cannot be helped.”

29 May 1863 letter from Joel Mason Armstrong
Letter from Joel Mason Armstrong to Mary (Armstrong) Needham, 29 May 1863

This collection also contains the letter Mason wrote to Mary on learning of Dwight’s death. Dwight was killed in battle on 3 May 1863, but Mason didn’t hear about it until nearly a month later, on the morning of the 29th. The news was confirmed by that day’s mail.

I Hoped that it was not so, until I got your letter & others telling the same story. I had not heard from him for a long time & began to feel anxious since we heard of the battle. It is indeed a sad blow to us. It seems hard to friends at home to think of dying so far away from home & friends; judging from my own feelings I think it is harder for friends at home than for those who die.

This patchwork of related collections is one of the advantages of a manuscript library like the MHS. Multi-generational papers, papers of different family branches, friends and neighbors running in the same social circles, letters from soldiers serving in the same military unit, travelers crossing each other’s paths—all of this overlapping and complementary material gives us a fuller picture of historical events and an opportunity to view those events from different perspectives. It’s not unusual to be working on a collection and run across the name of a person whose papers you recently processed.

I found biographical information about Joel Mason Armstrong in History of the Town of Sunderland, Massachusetts (pp. 254-5) and A Record of Sunderland in the Civil War (p. 14). The latter even confirms his aforementioned proficiency at marching! But these two sources don’t include one interesting personal detail that I turned up.

Mason and his wife Helen had seven children, but one online source contained what I initially took to be a mistake. Listed among his children was Clara I. Sweetser, but she was born a year before their marriage. A child from a previous marriage perhaps? The name rang a bell, so I looked back at my genealogical research from last year.

Sure enough, Sweetser was the married name of Mason’s oldest sister Sarah. Sarah and her husband both died in November 1864, just six days apart from each other. They left five children, the oldest only 14. After a little more digging, I found that six-year-old Clara, their only daughter, was in fact raised by Mason and Helen. (I couldn’t confirm it, but I assume her brothers were raised by other family members.) Sources seem to conflict on whether she was formally adopted, but her name was legally changed to Armstrong in 1865. Clara would marry in 1883 and have four children of her own.

Joel Mason Armstrong died in 1905 in Sunderland, Mass.

This Week @MHS

Here is a look at what is going on at the MHS this week:

On Monday, 10 February, at 6:00 PM: Civil War Monuments & the Militarization of America with Thomas J. Brown, University of South Carolina. This new assessment of Civil War monuments unveiled in the United States between the 1860s and 1930s argues that they were pivotal to a national embrace of military values. Americans’ wariness of standing armies limited construction of war memorials in the early republic and continued to influence commemoration after the Civil War. Professor Brown provides the most comprehensive overview of the American war memorial as a cultural form and reframes the national debate over Civil War monuments that remain potent presences on the civic landscape. 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, EBT or ConnectorCare cardholders). 

On Tuesday, 11 February, at 5:15 PM: Northern Exposure: American Military Engineering in the Arctic Circle with Gretchen Heefner, Northeastern University, and comment by Christopher Capozzola, MIT. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, U.S. military engineers constructed and maintained a vast, though largely unknown, infrastructure of military facilities throughout the Far North. This paper examines how these engineers explored the Arctic regions, what sorts of information they accumulated about it, and ultimately what happened to that information once it was released from military constraints. This is part of the Boston Seminar on Environmental History series. Seminars are free and open to the public.

On Wednesday, 12 February, at 12:00 PM: Committees in Unexpected Places: Community Building in the American Revolution with Catherine Treesh, Yale University. In 1772 Samuel Adams and the Boston Town Meeting famously created a correspondence network to resist imperial policies. If we move away from that familiar scene, though, we find that the committee of correspondence was actually a common tool for community-building during the American Revolution. By highlighting committees in unexpected places — New Hampshire and Nova Scotia — this talk shows that committees can give us a better sense of how colonists understood their place in the Empire and on the Continent.  This is part of the Brown-bag lunch programBrown-bags are free and open to the public.

On Saturday, 15 February, at 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. This is a 90-minute docent-led walk through of our public rooms. The tour is free and open to the public. 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.

Fire! Voices from the Boston Massacre
On the evening of March 5, 1770, soldiers occupying the town of Boston shot into a crowd, killing or fatally wounding five civilians. In the aftermath of what soon became known as the Boston  Massacre, questions about the command to “Fire!” became crucial. Who yelled it? When and why? Because the answers would determine the guilt or innocence of the soldiers, defense counsel John Adams insisted that “Facts are stubborn things.” But what are the facts? The evidence, often contradictory, drew upon testimony from dozens of witnesses. Through a selection of artifacts, eyewitness accounts, and trial testimony—the voices of ordinary men and women—Fire! Voice from the Boston Massacre explores how this flashpoint changed American history. The exhibition is on display at the MHS through 30 June 2020, Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

Considering Catalogs: Resources on Cataloging & Bibliographies in the MHS Collections

by Theresa Mitchell , Library Assistant

As someone who is starting her career in the library field, and hoping to start library school in the coming year, I am very interested in how libraries organize information. Paradigms like the Library of Congress Classification not only make the information in our collection easy to navigate, these classification systems are information in-and-of themselves. They trace a lineage of scholars trying to determine the best ways to arrange collections in repositories such as libraries and archives, in accordance with the dominant ideologies of their time.

In the descriptively titled “Four letters to the mayor of Boston regarding waste and inefficiency in the cataloging department of the Boston Public Library” (s.n., 1880), Fredrick B. Perkins penned a series of letters to the mayor of Boston about what he considered to be the malpractice of the cataloging department at the Boston Public Library. His letters, direct and full of wit, call for the mayor to cut the library’s budget as an effort to force them to either decrease staff or decrease the salaries of staff in their cataloging department. He points out some specific examples of their negligence: a card in the card catalogue was labeled “Bomarsund (in India)”, though Bomarsund is in the Balkans (and also a village in the U.K.). Whether or these cataloguers deserved pay cuts and whether or not all Perkins’ claims are true, these series of letters bring up an interesting point: that the navigability of library catalogs is a public concern—even more so now, as public institutions have done more to live up to their mission of serving the public at its broadest.

catalog of encyclopedias and dictionaries published by the John Crerar library in 1904
Example of a library’s catalogue in the early 20th century. This image is of A list of cyclopedias and dictionaries (John Crerar Library Board of Directors, 1904, a catalog of encyclopedias and dictionaries that the John Crerar library published.

In the pamphlet “On the construction of catalogues of libraries” (Smithsonian Institution, 1852) written in 1852, prominent librarian Charles C. Jewett—who in his lifetime was the Librarian of the Smithsonian  Institution and the Superintendent of the Boston Public Library—proposed a method called stereotyping to effectively create library catalogs.[1] In his program all public libraries interested in adhering to this set of rules would send a formatted list of the titles all the books in their collection. This list would then be made into clay plates for printing. His ultimate hope for this was to create an aggregate catalog of all participating libraries, which would eventually include libraries in Europe, moving toward what he termed a “universal” catalog. Of course, this plan is ideologically limited, the scope of his universalism only extending to the North American and European continents. His vision did not come to fruition, though he remains a figure in the library field for his writing about cataloging methods.[2]

example of John Crerar encyclopedia and dictionary catalog
Another image of the John Crerar encyclopedia and dictionary catalog. This is of the literary subsection of the broader history section. Here you can see how the titles are formatted and what information they provide.

Photo-Bibliography (H. Stevens, 1878), written by bibliographer Henry Stevens in 1878, goes even deeper into the desire for an object that could, in-itself, act as a repository of knowledge. Stevens, an American expatriate living in the United Kingdom, calls for a full bibliography of all English books, and along with this bibliography, a “universal system” for cataloging.[3] To achieve this, he hopes for a “Central Bibliographical Bureau or Clearing House”. He even lays out the ideal dimensions for titles in such a bibliography. Ultimately, though, he does not imagine his vision coming to fruition, because of the ever expanding nature of libraries: “As there is little hope of any library ever even approaching completeness, there is no apparent progress whatever made towards that universal and harmonious catalogue raisonné which we have so long and so devoutly been praying for”. This hope will continue to permeate at least parts of librarianship and academia. Even a resource we have from 1952, “Indexes and Machines,” by the academic librarian Earl Gregg Swem, is intrigued by some way capturing “total-books”, or all the books  published in English and European languages.

Formatting proposed by Stevens
Stevens proposed formatting for titles in his imagined photo-bibliography.

Looking to create something all-encompassing, these sources point to the limiting viewpoints of their creators, and perhaps more generally, the time in which they were created. None of these sources point to any other epistemologies or consider any sort of relativism, such as forms of knowledge-making outside of the book. Rather, they hint at exceptionalism. Universality came to be a stand-in for all that is a part and product of European and American culture, specifically of the educated classes. The decisions made by those who envisioned a specific classificatory system come to be viewed as neutral and arbitrary. Librarians such as A. Brian Deer have realized the importance of creating classification systems that align with the beliefs of their communities and counter hegemonic classificatory schemes. Deer, a member of the Mohawk of Kahnawá:ke community, created the Brian Deer Classification System in the mid-seventies, which worked to prioritize an Indigenous perspective and an Indigenous audience. This system has been adapted and reinterpreted by various libraries in North America.[4]

Photo-bibliography page
Detail of the title page of Photo-bibliography, referencing the “Tree of Knowledge”.

Classification systems will never be perfect. Knowing that a total system would at best be a reflection of ideologies of those that created it, the fact no library is “ever even approaching completeness” allows room for growth. As the discourses around knowledge shift to be less conclusive and more inclusive, the ever expanding nature of a collection can come to be less of a burden and more of an opportunity.

If you want to learn more about how we organize our resources, peruse our online catalog, Abigail. And if you are interested in viewing the MHS sources listed in this post, or many of our other resources, please visit our research library, which is free and open to the public!

 

[1] Baker, B.B. (1993) Cooperative Cataloging: Past, Present, and Future (5). Psychology Press.

[2] Jewett, C. C., & Harris, M. H. (1975). The age of Jewett: Charles Coffin Jewett and American librarianship, 1841-1868. Littleton, Colo: Libraries Unlimited.

[3] Schopieray, C. J. & Hixon, M. Henry Stevens papers (1812-1935). Retrieved from https://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/clementsead/umich-wcl-M-228ste?rgn=Collection+Title;view=text#Additional%20Descriptive%20Data

[4] Doyle, A. M., Lawson, K., & Dupont, S. (2015). Indigenization of knowledge organization at the Xwi7xwa library. Journal of Library and Information Studies, 13(2), 107-134.

This Week @MHS

Here is a look at the programs we have at the MHS this week:

On Monday, February, at 6:00 PM: Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize Ceremony and conversation between Christine DeLucia, Williams College, and Rae Gould, Brown University. Please join us for a special evening in which historian Christine DeLucia will receive the 2019 Gomes Prize for Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast. DeLucia will join Dr. Rae Gould in a conversation about the war’s effects on the everyday lives and collective mentalities of the region’s diverse Native and Euro-American communities over the course of several centuries, focusing on persistent struggles over land and water, sovereignty, resistance, cultural memory, and intercultural interactions.

On Tuesday, 4 February, at 5:15 PM: Historical Datasets as Arguments: 21st Century Curations of 17th Century Records with Talya Housman, Digital Historian. Using Dr. Housman’s experience of curating a relational database on cases of sexual crime and gendered violence in England between 1642 and 1660 as a point of entry, this talk looks at some implicit editorial arguments we make in our historical research. This talk will outline the process of data collection, designing, and building the database (including software selection and database design choices) and discuss some of the issues posed by historical data itself, including standardization of spelling and how to document uncertainty. This is part of the Boston-Area Seminar on Digital History Projects series. Seminars are free and open to the public. Content warning: this talk discusses sexual violence.

Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery & Their Astonishing Odyssey Home with Richard Bell, University of Maryland. Philadelphia, 1825: five young, free black boys fall into the clutches of the most fearsome gang of kidnappers and slavers in the United States. Determined to resist, the boys form a tight brotherhood as they struggle to free themselves and find their way home. Their ordeal shines a glaring spotlight on the Reverse Underground Railroad, a black market network of human traffickers and slave traders who stole away thousands of free African Americans from their families in order to fuel slavery’s rapid expansion in the decades before the Civil War. 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, EBT or ConnectorCare cardholders). 

On Saturday, 8 February, at 10:00 AM: The History & Collections of the MHS. This is a 90-minute docent-led walk through of our public rooms. The tour is free and open to the public. 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.

Fire! Voices from the Boston Massacre
On the evening of March 5, 1770, soldiers occupying the town of Boston shot into a crowd, killing or fatally wounding five civilians. In the aftermath of what soon became known as the Boston  Massacre, questions about the command to “Fire!” became crucial. Who yelled it? When and why? Because the answers would determine the guilt or innocence of the soldiers, defense counsel John Adams insisted that “Facts are stubborn things.” But what are the facts? The evidence, often contradictory, drew upon testimony from dozens of witnesses. Through a selection of artifacts, eyewitness accounts, and trial testimony—the voices of ordinary men and women—Fire! Voice from the Boston Massacre explores how this flashpoint changed American history. The exhibition is on display at the MHS through 30 June 2020, Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

Investigating Abigail Adams: My Time as a John Winthrop Student Fellow

By Kate Melchior, MHS, and Ella Amouyal

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant documents of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Students perform historical research and create a project (usually an assignment for class) using materials at the MHS, both in our archives or digitized online. This project can be something assigned in a class, a National History Day project, or something of the student’s invention!  Both student and teacher each receive $350 to support their research. Applications for the 2020 student fellowship are due on 11 February 2020.  Learn more and apply!

In 2019, Ella Amouyal and her teacher Jenna Wolf from the Cambridge School of Weston were awarded one of our student fellowships to research Abigail Adams’ diplomatic mission to France and England in 1784-88. Ella spent several months working in the MHS library with the support of our research librarians and produced an online exhibit. Read Ella’s account of her experience at the MHS, where she describes exploring the collections, speaking with historians, and using a microfilm reader for the first time.

Investigating Abigail Adams: My Time as a John Winthrop Student Fellow
By Ella Amouyal, Cambridge School of Weston

Portrait of Abigail Adams
Abigail Adams (Mrs. John Adams) by Benjamin Blythe, c. 1766

My experience as a John Winthrop Student Fellow in the Spring of 2019 was an incredible learning opportunity. My research focused on Abigail Adams’ time in Europe, and my final project was the creation of an online exhibit, I aimed to produce an engaging, interactive experience that would impact and educate a wider audience.

My exhibit explores Abigail Adams’ time in Europe  through three lenses: patriotism, economics and education. These lenses allowed me to clearly specify the ways Europe influenced Abigail Adams. When I began my research, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of secondary and primary sources; I had so many questions–too many, perhaps. I found that honing in on more concise channels helped me tremendously with scope and organization.

I began the project by reading secondary sources to help frame my research in a broader context. This was first step was key, as it allowed me to understand more about the time and place my topic was grounded in, and exposed me to the questions, ideas and observations of professional researchers. My advice to a future student fellow would be to start by exploring secondary sources already published by the Massachusetts Historical Society. These sources will help you uncover new primary sources during you discovery phase, and they will help you to understand the subject more broadly. The MHS is an institution available to all learners; being a fellow affords you more access to the Society’s incredible collection of materials and helpful experts.

My next step was to attend one of the many lectures the Society offers regularly. You should, too. I had the pleasure of attending a pop-up talk hosted by the head of the Adams’ papers. If you are a fellow, attending a lecture or other event at the MHS is an excellent way to gain access to experts, ask questions, and enhance your knowledge. Talking about your research–and hearing about experts’ research–is one of the most important aspects of conducting research. Historians are tasked with educating, so there is nothing to be scared about. What’s more, they will probably be so excited to see a young scholar interested in the subject. Capitalize on the opportunity and seize it. The process of being a fellow is not just to learn about the past; it is also to learn how to communicate, ask questions, stay organized and do independent research.

As you conduct your own research, remember your work does not have to be limited to primary sources offered by MHS. Your research will become stronger when you explore many routes for learning and balance your evidence–primary sources, secondary sources, their context and analysis. However, finding and analyzing primary sources is the most important part of doing the work. And it’s work.

When you conduct your research using the online catalog Abigail, remember one thing: it has a learning curve. It can be quirky. Some quick tips: I found that looking up specific words and phrases can be confusing and yield thousands of results, which are impossible to navigate. One way to mitigate this potential problem is to search by specific dates; for instance, my research focused on Abigail Adams’ diplomatic missions to Europe from 1784 – 1788, which allowed me to limit the primary sources by the correspondences she wrote during this four-year period.

And while students today have grown up believing the Internet holds the keys to every door, remember that not all of the Society’s holdings are available digitally. This is where the excitement of visiting the MHS came in; I had the opportunity to spend hours pouring over documents in the Reading Room and Library. The Society is a warm, inviting and open environment. I was initially scared to visit because I was unfamiliar with historical archives or larger research libraries. Don’t be nervous. Remember the mission of the Society is to educate, so I immediately felt accepted and invited. In addition, the building itself is a work of art–there is so much to see. Alas, most of my visit was spent with a machine new to me–the microfilm.

This contraption is, quite simply, a film roll that includes photographed versions of historical material. The librarians are extremely nice and helped guide me through the steps of using a microfilm. I previously had no knowledge of microfilm but I think it is an amazing device because it helps preserve the original letters and makes it easier to access the material safely. What’s more, reading the historical handwriting can also be extremely difficult. I asked the librarian if the letters I was looking at had been transcribed, which helped me see them in a more legible, modern font.

Microfilm reader in use at the MHS
A photo of a letter on microfilm taken during my first visit to the MHS library, photo by Ella Amouyal

Conducting research with the MHS was an amazing opportunity and I learned a lot. I learned about the fascinating intellect and ideology of Abigail Adams and about new historical figures like Mercy Otis Warren–Adams’ friend and confidant–someone previously unknown to me. I also learned that research is not always about sitting in the library, spending hours analyzing an original letter. It’s also about organization, retooling a question or avenue to explore, and most importantly, time management. Research is not always about reading books either; sometimes it entails pouring over transcribed documents online in your pajamas while drinking tea, or even awkwardly learning to scroll through microfilm. But it’s in these moments that you learn and grow the most. This is why conducting research is a rewarding opportunity for every student, even those who do not want to be historians or archivists. Research teaches you skills that are important for every subject and job – skills such as empathy and critical thinking. This is why I am going to propose a mini-unit this Spring to the history department at my high school on analyzing primary sources utilizing the free resource of the MHS Abigail catalogue.

I often wondered what Abigail Adams would have thought about a teenage girl 300 years later looking at the intimate letters she wrote to her friends, family and acquaintances and the letters she received. I wondered if she would have been shocked or perhaps happy. Abigail was always a forceful proponent of female education, one of the many reasons why I find her fascinating and inspirational. Her knowing that women would be able to research her words equally to any man would probably have brought her immense pride and joy.

If you have any interest in history and research, I would highly recommend applying to be a fellow. The John Winthrop Student Fellowship gives you access to thousands of letters and material and is truly a unique, enlightening experience for all students interested in delving into American history.

If you are interested in learning more about the John Winthrop Student Fellowship or any of our other programs, please visit the Center for the Teaching of History website or e-mail us at education@masshist.org.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Valentine’s Day the Adams Way

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

This is your official warning—Valentine’s Day is just over two weeks away. Maybe you’re in charge of planning festivities; maybe you’re looking for a subtle way to remind the person who is in charge. Either way, read on.

If there’s one thing my time with the Adams Papers editorial project has taught me, it’s that the answers to all of life’s questions can be found within the collection. Since the project contains three central power couples—John and Abigail, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine, and Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks—I knew the outline of a perfect Valentine’s Day date was scattered across those quarter of a million manuscript pages.

John and Abigail liked nothing more than to sit together by a crackling fire, languorously paging through the newest additions to their ever-growing private library. “I read my Eyes out, and cant read half enough neither,” John wrote to his like-minded wife on 28 Dec. 1794. “The more one reads the more one sees We have to read.” John and Abigail’s letters are full of quotes and beloved bon mots, and they would swap book recommendations, yearning to hear the other’s opinion. If you and your partner are all about that hygge lifestyle, swap books, get a fire roaring, put your feet up, and sink into a soft chair. Let others fight for those hard-to-get dinner reservations. (Bonus points if you indulge in another of John and Abigail’s favorite things: hot chocolate!)

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 28 Dec. 1794

John Quincy and Louisa Catherine shared an affection for music. Louisa was a harpist and singer, and John Quincy played the flute. John Quincy’s first impressions of Louisa were of her musical ability, as she always sang and played for him when he visited her family in London. “Memory often repeats to my Fancy, every strain which was once performed by you; it gives an Echo still returning to my ear, to every sound uttered by your voice, or called forth by your fingers,” John Quincy wrote to her on 6 March 1797. Valentine’s Day is the perfect excuse to get dolled up and take the music lover in your life to a symphony, choral concert, or opera.

Photograph of Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams
Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks Adams, 1883. Photograph by Marian Hooper Adams

Charles Francis and Abigail Brooks were collectors by nature. Their free time was filled with antiques shopping, and Charles was a regular at auctions. Charles collected rare coins, and Abby was delighted by knick-knacks of all kinds. They enjoyed traveling together, taking in landscapes, wandering through art galleries, and tasting local cuisine. “My Wife went in to make her purchases at the shop, the usual tax for curiosity in travelling,” Charles Francis recorded in his diary on 19 July 1836. If you and your date are always up for a daytrip, why not spend your Valentine’s Day as tourists, exploring boutiques and gift shops somewhere new?

It doesn’t matter how you celebrate this February 14th so long as you spend the day with your Dearest Friend.

John and Abigail Adams’s customary salutation
John and Abigail Adams’s customary salutation.

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.