Travel Through Time with the MHS

by Hannah Elder, Reproductions Coordinator

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched all of our lives in so many ways, from our everyday routines (I haven’t seen most of my coworkers in person in months) to the once-in-a-lifetime events (multiple friends have postponed or drastically downsized weddings). One thing I’ve missed while doing virtually everything at home is travel. So many of us had big travel plans for the year–when Massachusetts went into lockdown in March, I was in the beginning stages of planning a trip to France, a friend of mine was planning a month-long trip to Turkey and learning Turkish, and my cousin had just gotten a summer internship outside of her home state. Needless to say, those trips didn’t happen.

To satisfy some of my wanderlust, I’ve been turning to the memories and mementos of past travelers. Luckily, the MHS holds many items fitting that description! Since I know many others must be missing travelling and going on adventures, I thought I would share a couple of my favorites.

James Morgan Scrapbooks

James Morgan was a long-time reporter and editor for the Boston Globe, who often traveled the country to cover the politics of the day. He also traveled domestically and abroad for pleasure, documenting many of his travels in scrapbooks. Missing out on my European adventure this summer, I was drawn to Morgan’s scrapbook of his 1925 trip on board the SS Lapland, which brought Morgan and his wife from New York to ports around the Mediterranean.  They visited Gibraltar, Monaco, Rome, Florence, Gunten, and Paris, among many others, before returning to New York on the SS Lapland in June of 1925.

Itinerary of the Morgan trip
The Morgans’ full itinerary, written inside the front cover of the scrapbook

Along the way, the Morgans picked up mementos of their trip, including notes from family sent prior to their departure, a passenger list for the SS Lapland, programs of entertainment on the ship, letters from other travelers they met, post cards, hotel brochures, receipts, and even some plant life.

Solar eclipse ticket
A ticket to a viewing of the solar eclipse of 24 January 1925 – note the guarantee for a rain check
Scrapbook page with mementos from Switzerland
Sample page from the Morgans’ time in Switzerland

Perhaps my favorite item from the scrapbook is a faux passport drawn up for James. It requests that those presented with the passport allow him “unsafe and unfreely to pass and repass” and give him “all unlawful aid and no protection.” It lists his height as “5 kilometers less 50 millimeters,” his eyes as “Soft smiling – Blue Grass brown,” and his nose as “Aquiline.” It is undersigned by what I can only assume are his friends.

Faux passport for James Morgan
James Morgan’s “passport”


Eliza Lee Lothrop Homans Diaries

Shifting gears to adventures a bit closer to home, I also found great joy in the Eliza Lee Lothrop Homans diaries. While she was also a world-wide traveler (who visited many of the same cities as James Morgan), I was drawn to a diary that recorded her 1871 trip to the Adirondacks with her husband, Charles Dudley Homans. Of the beginning of their trip, she writes:

On Friday morning September 29 ’71 Charlie and I started for ‘the Adirondacks’!!! we couldn’t have known less of our destination if we had been starting for heaven – and certainly have much more definite ideas of the kind of preparations to make for the latter place!

Homan's account of the trip
The opening page of Homans’ account of the trip

Despite their lack of planning, the Homans seem to have had a spectacular trip. Accompanied by their friend “Shaw,” they made their way to Burlington, Vermont, where they made a chilly evening crossing of Lake Champlain into New York. Eliza describes their drives through soaring mountain passes and past quaint farms, all swathed in magnificent fall colors. I was particularly struck by her description of a morning spent on a lake. She writes:

Oh! Such as day – warm, beautiful beyond compare. We rowed along at our leisure, the poetry of travelling, sitting at ease + floating through the lovely country. At last a man hailed us to watch one side of an island on to which a deer had run . . . we waited there till finally he though it must have got off without his knowing so we rowed on to the end of the lake

Other notable events from the trip were getting caught in a sudden rain storm, spending an evening singing with mountain guides at an inn, sleeping on a most comfortable bed, and many nature walks and explorations of the lakes and rivers of upstate New York. Homans closes her account of the trip with the following entry:

Of Wednesday there is nothing to say save that it was our last day of adventure. The ride down in the cars was through that same beautiful country made more very lovely then with the glow of anticipation – now the more somber shades of memory made it less attractive and the mist of falling rain seemed appropriate to the sobering effect of getting back to the facts and duties of life – but we have had a lovely lime. Charley is better, seems rested and jolly – and I am grateful for all I have enjoyed.

I hope you have enjoyed traveling vicariously through the travelers of the past with me! To keep travelling, consider reading some of the past entries on the Beehive, including entries on Anna Peabody Bellow’s Travel Diary, Society and Scenery: The Travel Diary of Elizabeth Perkins Lee Shattuck, “A good house where we had a good bedroom…”: Edwin F. Atkin’s Travel Diary, 1872, and Travel Woes in 1814: JQA and Zandelin’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure.

While the MHS reading room remains closed to researchers, the library staff is ready to assist you virtually! Check out our Reference Services During Closure, including live chat, online resources, and reproduction services.

A Guide Through History Day: Supporting Teachers and Students

By Lillian Nunno, MHS Education Intern

This blog post originally appeared in Archives & Public History at UMass.

Every year, grade 8-12 students and teachers across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts participate in the National History Day (NHD) contest. History Day students create projects centered around that year’s theme. These projects can take the form of a paper, an exhibit, a website, a documentary, or a performance. Past competition themes have included “Conflict and Compromise” and “Triumph and Tragedy.” This program allows students to learn about history they are passionate about, and develop strong research, argumentation, and analytical skills. The education department at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) runs NHD  in Massachusetts; they organize the regional and state competitions and provide resources for students and teachers to help them along in the process.

For my internship project with the MHS Education Department, I created a teacher’s guide for National History Day in Massachusetts teachers. This guide will provide teachers with materials to help guide students from topic selection through competition. Making the guide involved poring over materials developed by other states across the country to find the most useful worksheets and resources. I also looked at how other states structured their materials and what they included. At the same time,  I kept in mind the needs of students and teachers. I wanted to create a guide that wasn’t overwhelming for teachers, but covered each project stage. I tried to prioritize creating a guide that was easy to use because this guide is for teachers who are new to the NHD program.  I also wanted to choose worksheets that are useful to students and not overly long or detailed.

I also developed ideas for original materials for the guide. My research revealed that many states have a resource that highlights local history topics for student projects. So I proposed creating a Massachusetts Topic List of people and events related to the state’s history. This resource will help connect students with research materials and sources from the MHS and other local institutions.   Local topics can be more accessible than national topics, as students can visit historical institutions to do primary source research. While students may not be able to do that this year because of the pandemic, they may still have some digital access to these institutions and collections. In developing this list, I tried to highlight some lesser-known Massachusetts figures and events and those often absent from larger historical narratives.


NHD parade of students
National History Day in Massachusetts students walking in the NHD parade at the national competition

I am also creating a resource for teachers to help students with “difficult history” topics. Students often want to explore complex issues and events to which they have some personal connection. Because of this, students may encounter historical topics that are upsetting and hard to process. So I reviewed materials created by other organizations that focus on helping students understand and process more complicated issues. I also consulted educational materials that focus on social-emotional learning, which are used in classrooms to help students develop self-awareness and emotional maturity. Teachers, who bring experience in these areas, are especially important resources for my work.  NHD allows students to grapple with more difficult moments in history–a strength of the program–but tools to help them understand and confront this history are also needed.

I came to this project with some prior experience as an undergraduate, in one of the nation’s biggest NHD programs. In my two years of mentoring students and interacting with teachers, I observed the needs and challenges that arise, and I became invested in the program as I witnessed students’ work on their projects. This background has helped me in developing materials, and in collaborating with my supervisors. Luckily the need to go remote did not impact the structure of my internship, but it has made contacting teachers more challenging since they are currently dealing with a different teaching experience.  On the other hand, this remote internship has helped me keep in mind the virtual aspects of learning in today’s classrooms as I assemble the guide. Working on this project has deepened my appreciation and admiration for the NHD program.

This internship has helped me understand how historical institutions can help teachers and students in this remote and hybrid learning era when teachers are dealing with more than ever before. Historical institutions can create materials for classrooms that can support teachers by providing resources for in-depth and meaningful history education. They can also help students understand “difficult history” and connect to their communities’ pasts. As someone with an interest in improving history education from outside the K-12 classroom, this experience has shown me a possible path for my future career.

National History Day in Massachusetts students

Stepping into the Spotlight: John Quincy Adams’s Diary, 1789–1801

by Neal Millikan, Series Editor for Digital Editions

Transcriptions of more than 700 pages of John Quincy Adams’s diary have just been added to the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary, a born-digital edition of the Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The new material spans the period January 1789 through August 1801 and chronicle Adams’s experiences as a law student in Newburyport, a young lawyer in Boston, and a diplomat in the Netherlands and Prussia.

“My present situation is not over eligible: how to improve it is the subject which most employs my mind,” Adams wrote on 7 April 1791. “I have much leisure upon my hands, and my own improvement seems to be the proper object of my pursuit,” although he questioned his own “egotism” as he tried and failed to faithfully keep his journal. Adams had completed his legal studies under Theophilus Parsons in Newburyport the previous July and was been admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. Choosing to establish his office in Boston, the 23-year-old struggled to gain ground professionally even as he began to find his political voice.

In the summer of 1791 Adams responded to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man with a series of articles under the pseudonym “Publicola.” The following year brought pieces by “Menander” opposing the state anti-theater ordinance, and in late 1793 and early 1794 he earned recognition for his “Columbus” and “Barneveld” series, commenting on the behavior of the Antoine Charbonnet Duplaine, the French consul at Boston, and Edmond Genet, the French minister to the United States.

Thomas Boylston Adams by Mr. Parker, 1795
Thomas Boylston Adams by Mr. Parker, 1795

These activities found favor in Federalist circles. In May 1794 President George Washington nominated John Quincy Adams as minister resident to the Netherlands. It was the first of four diplomatic postings Adams held. He and his youngest brother, Thomas Boylston Adams, who served as JQA’s secretary, arrived at The Hague in late October. During an errand to London in 1795, John Quincy met Louisa Catherine Johnson, the daughter of U.S. consul Joshua Johnson and Catherine Nuth Johnson. After more than a year’s courtship, the couple married in London on 26 July 1797 and soon departed for John Quincy’s new diplomatic post at Berlin, where the minister successfully negotiated a new Prussian-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce in 1799. Neither John Quincy nor Louisa relished the demands of court life with its lavish social engagements. Louisa’s frequent ill health during these years weighed on John Quincy, and he noted his feelings in his diary. After Louisa had several miscarriages, she gave birth to their first son, George Washington Adams in April 1801, shortly before John Quincy received his recall and the family returned to the United States.

miniature portrait of Louisa Catherine Adams
Louisa Catherine Johnson, circa 1792

For more on John Quincy Adams’s life during these years, read the headnotes for his early legal career and early diplomatic career, or, navigate to the entries to begin reading his diary. The addition of material for the 1789–1801 period joins existing transcriptions of Adams’s diary for his years as secretary of state (1817–1825) and president (1825–1829) and brings the total number of transcriptions freely available on the MHS website to nearly 4,000 pages. Thanks to MHS web developer, Bill Beck, the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary also now includes side-by-side viewing capability. By choosing the “transcription + image” dual mode, users can view the transcription alongside the manuscript image; or, they can still view the transcription alone. This dual-mode option appears at the top of each entry. Check it out! And let us know what you think. The tool is still in its beta phase, and we welcome user feedback. You can reach us at

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding for the John Quincy Adams Digital Diary is provided by the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. Harvard University Press and a number of private donors also contributed critical support.


“A slow poison”: Dr. Thomas Young and His Essay on Tea

by Yiyun Huang, Andrew W. Mellon Fellow, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Dr. Thomas Young (1731-1777) was an important member of the Sons of Liberty and a family physician of John Adams. Although he did not participate in the destruction of tea on December 16, 1773, he played a crucial role in rallying against the consumption of tea. Young wrote an essay highlighting the medicinal risks of drinking tea which appeared in the Boston Evening Post in October, 1773. He aimed to make the case that tea was really a slow poison. One of his methods was to present some extraordinary cases: a farmer’s wife from his hometown “lost the use of her limbs” because of continuously drinking strong tea for four years.[1] But there is something else from this essay that is really fascinating.

Dr. Young’s essay reveals a variety of conduits through which colonial American intellectuals could learn about exotic botanicals such as tea. First, they could read the works of the Jesuit missionaries and other Europeans who had traveled to East Asia. To prove his argument that tea was a slow poison, Dr. Young wanted to know what the Chinese had to say about tea’s medicinal properties. So, he turned to Jean Baptiste Du Halde’s The General History of China (Description de la Chine) and Engelbert Kaempfer’s Amœnitates Exoticæ (Exotic Pleasures) for answers. The MHS has a printed copy of the third edition of The General History of China, which included detailed descriptions of the botanical and medicinal properties of tea. Du Halde based these descriptions on the French missionaries’ translation of Chinese materia medica texts and their observations of the cultivation and production of tea in Fujian province.[2]

Engelbert Kaempfer’s work was another source of information for Dr. Young to learn about tea. Kaempfer (1651-1716) did not set foot in China but had stayed in Batavia and Nagasaki as a physician for the Dutch East India Company in the late 17th century. He provided a lengthy description of tea’s cultivation, preparation, preservation, and medicinal effects in Amœnitates.[3] He took advantage of the knowledge compiled by his predecessors, Chinese expat physicians in Japan, and texts exported to the port of Nagasaki by Chinese merchants. Both Du Halde and Kaempfer’s works provided a balanced description of tea’s health benefits and risks. However, Dr. Young focused on what the two authors said about tea’s medicinal vices, i.e. that it contained corrosive qualities.

The works of the armchair British and continental European physicians also provided ammunition for Dr. Young in denouncing tea. He cited the works of Thomas Short (1690-1772) and Samuel Auguste Tissot (1728-1797) to argue that long-time consumption of tea had negative impact on the health of the entire European population. Tissot’s Advice to the people in general, with regard to their health (1771) is in the MHS collections. Both Short and Tissot did acknowledge that tea could render some people ill, but throwing harsh criticism at tea was not their original intention. Instead, they were interested in determining the medicinal properties of tea by situating it within the Galenic framework and conducting new experiments. Short, for example, wanted to use a series of chemical experiments to determine if tea really had the health benefits as claimed by many. He concluded that green tea could cure such bodily disorders as lethargy and headache as it diluted “a thick blood.” He did claim that the Chinese adulterated tea with other ingredients, but these adulterations did not pose serious health risks.[4] Again, Dr. Young ignored Short’s praises of tea but took only the negative side into account.

Dr. Young’s essay was more of a political treatise which aimed to dissuade common people from consuming tea than a scientific study. He took advantage of the global sources available and chose to highlight what these authors said about the negative effects of tea drinking, while ignoring their praises of tea’s health benefits.

[1] Thomas Young, “Messirs Fleets,” Boston Evening Post, October 25, 1773.

[2] Jean Baptiste Du Halde, The General History of China (London: 1734).

[3] Engelbert Kaempfer, Exotic Pleasures: Fascicle III: Curious Scientific and Medical Observations. Trans. and intro. Robert W. Carrubba (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 1998), 141-169. For the original see Kaempfer, Amœnitates Exoticæ (Lemgo, 1712), 605-631.

[4] Thomas Short, A Dissertation upon Tea (London: 1730), 43-59.

The Freedom & Courage to Write

By LJ Woolcock, Library Assistant

It’s National Novel Writing Month, and particularly in this year of plague, thousands of writers across the country (myself included) are spending their free minutes at their computer or holding a pen, scribbling to reach a goal of 50,000 new words of a creative work. It’s a daunting task. Especially with our souls being bombarded on all sides by what’s going on in the rest of the world, it’s doubly hard to quiet the anxiety and assert your creative voice. To inspire us all, here’s an extraordinary object from the MHS collections.

One of the most precious objects in our collections is Phillis Wheatley’s desk. Wheatley was the first African woman to publish a book in North America: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773.

Writing desk
Phillis Wheatley’s writing desk, Charlestown, Mass., circa 1760.

After being stolen from her home in West Africa and enduring the months-long, deadly journey of the Middle Passage, Wheatley was brought to Boston, where she was sold to John Wheatley, a Boston merchant and tailor. She learned to read and write English, and to read Greek and Latin. She began writing poetry, translating her complex struggles into verse.

It’s essential to remember that although Wheatley was an extraordinary woman, she wasn’t “fortunate.” Even though her enslavers supported her education and literary efforts, she was still enslaved. The Wheatleys exploited her labor and her literary talents: they showed her off to friends, and didn’t free her until after she published her book in 1773. She was constantly questioned, actually having to defend that she wrote her poems in court in 1772 to a panel of Massachusetts’ most prominent politicians and slaveholders, who couldn’t conceive that an African woman could write so beautifully.

One of the things that I love most about objects is how they give us the chance to physically connect with history. When I stand in front of Wheatley’s desk, I am in awe that I stand so close to the place where her work took flight. I am able to connect with the history of Black struggle and oppression in the Americas in a different way than reading about the history of slavery. In a time when Africans and African Americans were sold and treated as property, it must have been so powerful for Wheatley to have this piece of furniture—a physical manifestation of the freedom she had eked out for herself, and a place where her mind could roam free. The desk itself is simple, yet so beautiful. I love its distinctive clawed feet, balancing gracefully on wooden balls.

detail of foot of desk
Detail of Phillis Wheatley’s writing desk, Charlestown, Mass., circa 1760.

Being in the presence of a historical object encourages us to walk with a person from another time. Approaching a desk is a familiar experience for all writers. When I go to sit at my own desk to work, I feel a complex mix of emotions: fear, that my writing won’t be good; excitement, to discover what happens next in my story; joy, that I get to play with words and create something out of nothing.

Approaching Wheatley’s desk in the MHS, I wonder how she felt when she went to write each day. Relief, that she was walking towards one of the few places she could be entirely herself? Was her mind already so wrapped up in words that she rushed to it, eager to write something down? How did she cope with her fears, her doubts?

Yet Wheatley and I stand in entirely different positions: as a white queer person, I did not have to face the horrors of the Middle Passage or enslavement. The privilege afforded to me by my skin means I live in comfort, without fearing for my life or facing the economic and social inequalities that African Americans do. My world was built on Wheatley’s back, and on the backs of so many others who didn’t get a chance to write their books, because they were robbed of their lives, their chance at an education, their freedom. I have to grapple with that, too.

It reminds me of the words of the lesbian poet Audre Lorde, who said, “Our white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free (“Poetry is not a luxury,” 38).” When I read this quote, I always think of Wheatley: a woman who wrote herself free; a mother who died trying to stave off the poverty she endured in the later part of her life, because the white supremacy of the new United States continued to press her. Still, she wrote. She felt, and wrote, and made beauty out of suffering.

After Wheatley’s sudden death in 1784, from an illness she contracted while out working trying to support herself and her infant child while her husband was imprisoned, the desk was sold at auction. It is a chilling full circle. Her child died soon after her own death, also from illness.

The power of Wheatley’s life and perseverance have long outlived the systems of oppression that shaped her world, and they continue to be a guiding light. I hope Wheatley’s desk gives us all strength as we try to get words on the page, and makes us brave enough to tell more honest and diverse stories.

Whether you’re writing a novel, short story, poetry, screenplay, video game, fan fiction, or non-fiction (perhaps even a history?) I wish you the best of luck. Keep heading to your desk (or wherever you write) each day. Get words on the page. Try not to turn down the voices in your head telling you to stop. Because as Audre Lorde said: “…there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt—of examining what those ideas feel like being lived on Sunday morning at 7 a.m., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth, mourning our dead—while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while we taste new possibilities and strengths.” (“Poetry is Not a Luxury,” 39)


Works Cited

Lorde, Audre. “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984), 36-40.


If you’re interested in reading more on Phillis Wheatley, check out the following books:

Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).

Richard Kigel, Heav’nly Tidings from the Afric Muse: The Grace and Genius of Phillis Wheatley, (St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2017).

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003).

Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson, A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).

Happy Diwali!

By Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

Saturday, 14 November, is Diwali, India’s biggest holiday which is celebrated by over a billion people across the globe. In honor of Diwali we would like to share a selection of letters housed at the MHS that showcase the historic relationship between the people of Boston and India. Before the United States became an independent nation, ships from Boston and Salem Harbor would depart on a regular basis for India to bring back much needed goods like spices, fabric, dyes, and other commodities. This regular and constant contact created an influential exchange of culture, philosophy, religion, and fashion. If you have ever worn a cummerbund, calico, bandana, or said ‘namaste’ or ‘brahmin,’ then you too are a part of that cultural exchange.

The cultural exchange between the two nations is found in letters, travel logs, ships logs, journals and souvenirs. Bostonians went to India for various reasons ranging from commerce to curiosity. They often wrote letters back home to loved ones.

Our first example is a letter dated 22 February 1855 from John Eliot Parkman. He wrote about his travels and excitement:

Calcutta February 22nd 1855

“My dear Mother,

“…We have been living there now about a fortnight and like it better and better everyday. The house is about 3 minutes from town, almost on the banks of the river, and in the pleasantest place near Calcutta, we have a large garden and a tank in it almost as large as the Frog Pond, and beside these advantages two dogs and a billiard table. there is one drawback however to a new comes in the shape of jackals who drift about to the house every night and gangs above 50 and howl like so many rampant Devils- , it is unnecessary to add that I slept but little the first three nights but I have since got used to them.

Mr Bullard who has just come down from up country is living with us but goes to Paris by the steamer, he has told me such stories about Delhi, Agra and half a dozen other places that I am well-nigh crazed and probably shall remain in that condition till my turns come to travel. (!)…”

letter from John Eliot Parkman
John Eliot Parkman to his mother, 22 February 22 1855

Boston’s most lucrative trade with India was ice. Ships full of ice cut from the ponds of Massachusetts would sail across the globe to ice houses in Bombay and Calcutta. Frederic Tudor of Boston, known as “the Ice King,’ became very wealthy due to the ice trade. Calvin W. Smith, an agent of the Tudor Ice House, sent many letters home to family and friends in Boston. On 2 September 1865 Calvin Smith wrote to his mother marveling at a nature preserve:

“A few days before he left Captain F (Freeman) and myself went out to see the nature “Institute for Animals” and a sight it was. There were cows, buffalo, deer, horses, mules, monkeys, sheep, goats, In fact every kind of an animal that came to be thought of except a pig.”  Smith goes on to wonder if he would ever see such a place back home in Boston.

In a 24 September 1887 letter to Mrs. Andrews, Pandita Ramabai indicates that she will stop in Boston on route to Manchester NH, as part of a national tour. A group of Bostonians formed the American Ramabai Association, to support the work of Pundita Ramabai as she sought to create a home and school for child widows in India. Ramabai writes:

Sept. 24, 1887

“My dear mrs. Andrews I write this to tell you that I shall be in Boston on 29th of this month for two hours on my way to Manchester New Hampshire I shall arrive in Boston buy a way of Taunton from Newport at 10 in the morning on 29th, and then shall have to wait nearly two hours in the city before I leave for Manchester I shall have to and to go the Boston and Lowell Railroad Station if you have nothing particularly to attend to I should very much like to meet you and have a little talk about our work will you come and meet me at the station where trains from Newport come in if I do not see you there I shall understand that you are too busy and cannot see me hoping that you are very well.

I am affectionately yours,


These are just a few examples of the cultural exchange through the centuries between India and Massachusetts found at the MHS. In our ongoing relationship our cultures continue to grow and learn from one another. We know that Bostonians may have experienced Diwali in India in centuries past, and we look forward to celebrating Diwali in Boston for centuries to come.

Happy Diwali from the MHS!

Aviation History at the MHS

by Laura Williams, Visitor Services Coordinator

November is National Aviation History month, and the MHS is the perfect place to commemorate with our many collection items surrounding the history of flight! While we’ve been stuck on the ground for much of this year, take a look back and see how the history of aviation changed our country and the rest of the world.

Previously featured as one of our ‘Objects of the Month’ on the 100th anniversary of the first flight in 2003 was a series of letters regarding the successful venture into the skies. These letters are housed in the MHS’s Godfrey Lowell Cabot collection, and include correspondence with the civil engineer Octave Chanute, who served as an advisor to Orville and Wilbur Wright. These letters describe the technical properties of the plane and the details of the four short flights that the “Flyer” was able to make in December 1903. You can read more about the MHS records of the first flight and sources for further research here.

Also included in the Godfrey Lowell Cabot collection are photographs of some of the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flight. These images in particular were taken by the previously mentioned Octave Chanute, and besides the Wright brothers’ own photographs these images are the only other known photographic records of the flight experiments. Massachusetts natives Godfrey Lowell Cabot and his brother Samuel were both avid aviation pioneers and did much for the advancement of aviation. Their incredible family history and influence is described in greater detail here.

1903 photographs of the Wright brothers experiments with flight
Photographs by Octave Chanute, October 1903.

Another interesting piece of aviation history from our collections is this barograph record of a flight circa early 1915 most likely made by Frazier Curtis at a French aviation school at Pau.

Barograph record of a flight, early 1915. Handwritten caption: “Undated barograph record. Probably Pau.”

This piece of data reports the height and endurance of a flight which was used to approve pilots at Pau for active duty. This piece was also previously featured as one of our ‘Objects of the Month’, and its full description can be found here. Notably, Frazier Curtis spent much of his life working to form a flying corps of American pilots, rather than volunteering as individuals, in British and French armies. Before his death in 1940, this barographic record was added into a scrapbook of letters, photographs, newspaper clippings and magazine articles that, “documented his unsuccessful efforts to fly for Britain or France, and his small but important role in founding the Lafayette Escadrille/Flying Corps and promoting aviation training and military preparedness at home.”

A Visit with Dr. DeGrasse: The Medical Account Book of Boston’s First Black Physician

by Mia Levenson, Tufts University, Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellow

medical account book
John Van Surly DeGrasse’s medical account book

By the serendipitous combination of the pandemic’s limitations and a mislabeled folder, I found myself with scans of John Van Surly DeGrasse’s medical account book, located in the DeGrasse-Howard papers. At first glance, a medical account book seemed like an opaque collection of names, services, and charges. However, I found his records to be filled with nuggets of information about how medicine plays a role in people’s lives, both patient and physician. Through a careful excavation process using census data and city directories, I was able to find bits and pieces about the ways in which one of the first African American physicians educated in the United States served his community.

There has been little written on DeGrasse and his life, but what we do know is that alongside another student of color, he was one of the first Black graduates of the Maine Medical School at Bowdoin College in 1849. DeGrasse practiced in Europe and New York City before coming to Boston in 1852. Two years later, he became a member of the Massachusetts Medical Society and was the first Black physician to be admitted into a medical society anywhere in the nation. His medical account book, which records his services rendered from 1852 to 1857, offers fascinating insight about his practice as the first Black physician in Boston from the very beginning through the contentious years before the Civil War.

While DeGrasse’s account book notes the monotony of his day-to-day work – most of the entries are simply charges for “visit and prescription” – there are also references to the kinds of treatments he would administer. Bloodletting, for example, was a common practice in nineteenth century medicine and DeGrasse similarly used cupping and leeches on several patients. DeGrasse also inoculated many of his patients, particularly in 1854, which corresponds with a massive smallpox epidemic that year. In the mid-nineteenth century, vaccination was a contentious debate, so it is notable that DeGrasse not only believed in its efficacy but administered vaccines to the marginalized communities he served.

While only a few diagnoses are included in his records, what DeGrasse chose to include provides insight into the kinds of diseases he encountered. One John Henry Garrison passed away during a minor cholera outbreak in 1854. Two of DeGrasse’s patients, Mr. H and Lloyd McCabe, were treated for venereal disease. It is unclear why their diagnosis was remarked upon while others were not. Perhaps it noted a potentially chronic issue. Or maybe it explained why they were charged significantly more for their treatment (for instance, for McCabe, DeGrasse charged him $15 for a visit and prescription rather than the usual $1).

Genealogical research gives a closer look into the communities DeGrasse served.[1] Operating out of Poplar Street, he primarily treated patients living in the Fifth and Sixth Wards, a once historically Black neighborhood that is now known as Beacon Hill and the West End, respectively. DeGrasse began his practice treating mainly his in-laws, the well-known Howard family. Interestingly, he treated his wife’s nephew, Edwin Clarence Howard, who would later go on to be Harvard Medical School’s first Black graduate. Peter Baldwin also appears in DeGrasse’s records as one of his first non-relative patients. A noted abolitionist, his daughter, Maria Louise Baldwin, would become a leader of Black education in Cambridge. DeGrasse’s records thus reveals how he served an emerging African American middle class in Boston that was intricately linked to nineteenth-century activism.

Among DeGrasse’s patient base were also a number of African Americans who were born in slave states. One such patient, Benjamin C. Gregory, who was a regular of DeGrasse’s, was born in North Carolina. Historians can only imagine what it must have meant for a formerly enslaved person—whose experiences with physicians were exclusive to plantation doctors who viewed them as chattel rather than people—to be treated by a Black physician.

DeGrasse did not only serve Boston’s African American community. While census data does not always provide information on race, he had multiple patients who were born in Ireland, like William Mellen and Ellen Marshall. While a contemporary physician of color, James McCune Smith in New York City, has been noted as having a multi-racial patient base, it has yet to be acknowledged that DeGrasse had one as well.[2] During his time as an assistant surgeon in the Union Army, DeGrasse continued to serve both white and Black soldiers. After the War, he returned to Boston and continued with his medical practice until his death in 1868.[3]

As historians continue to pan for golden flakes of information about nineteenth-century life, DeGrasse’s medical account book gives small but marvelous glints of one of the nation’s first Black physicians. His medical practice, the illnesses he encountered, and the communities he served offer glimpses into how DeGrasse’s groundbreaking work fit into the constellation of Boston society. His records have been a wonderful reminder for me that the archive is filled with these treasures if only we pause to look.


[1] All genealogical research was done using the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census and the 1855 Massachusetts State Census, all accessed via

[2] John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 66.

[3] Franklin A. Dorman, Twenty Families of Color in Massachusetts: 1742-1998, (Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1998), 155-7.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Stacks

Alexandra Bush, Digital Production Specialist

This October, current events dictate that we must keep our tricks and treats indoors. Fortunately, working at the MHS provides more opportunities to get scared than one might think. Read on for some short glimpses into the more macabre side of the MHS and its collections.

Close Encounters of the Winthropian Kind

Portrait of John Winthrop
Detail: John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts. Miniature portrait, oil on porcelain attributed to Paul Moschowitz, [19–].
John Winthrop’s journal has long served as a cornerstone of Massachusetts historical scholarship. In it he diligently recorded the events of his life, along with the trials and tribulations of the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the first 19 years of its existence. These stories run the gamut between the mundane and the fantastic and even include accounts of the paranormal—for example, two of the earliest recorded UFO sightings. The first, which occurred in 1639, was relayed to Winthrop by “sober, discreet man” James Everell and two others. It describes a strange light in the sky above the Muddy River:

“When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine: it ran as swift as an arrow towards Charlton, and so up and down about two or three hours.”

The three men, who were in a boat at the time, had been paddling downstream when they saw the strange light. After it vanished, they inexplicably found themselves “carried quite back against the tide to the place they came from.” The second event occurred a few years later, in 1644, when three men approaching Boston in a boat at night saw two lights rise from the water, coalesce into the form of a human figure, and walk south. A week later, the lights returned:

“Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles… About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, boy, boy, come away, come away: and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times.”

Winthrop offers no explanation of the first account, but of the second he postulates that the disembodied voice is that of a man involved in the explosion of a ship in that same area of the bay. Before he died, the man “professed himself to have skill in necromancy.” After the ship burned, his body was the only one that was not recovered.

Another Creepy-Crawly Diary Entry

John Quincy Adams’ lifelong diary is similarly touted as an invaluable account of life in early America as part of a prodigal family. JQA covers a wide range of topics with a uniquely vivid voice. This description of a spider’s nest in his bed is positively shiver-inducing:

“IV: I passed the night without closing my eyes, under a perpetual irritation of the skin over my face and almost every part of the body, which I supposed to be the effect of what is called prickly heat— But on changing my linen this morning I discovered it was caused by a nest of Spiders just from the egg-shell, so small that most of them were perceptible only by their motion. It was like the continual titillation of a feather passing over the skin at a thousand places at once— It was a night of exquisite torture without pain— My linen and body were covered with them. I immediately stripped, changed all the clothes I had been wearing, and took a warm bath at Burnside’s. How this horrible creeping Nation got upon me, I could not exactly ascertain— They had already produced a cutaneous inflammation, and almost an eruption in various places…”

Portrait of a Serial Killer

Thomas W. Piper scrapbook
Detail: Thomas W. Piper scrapbook, 1875-1876. Compiled by Walter L. Sawyer.

On 7 May 1876, Thomas W. Piper, the well-respected sexton of Boston’s Warren Avenue Baptist Church, confessed to the murder of 5 year-old Mabel Young in the belfry of his church. Under the pressure of two days’ worth of intense questioning, Piper also confessed to several cases of arson as well as two earlier crimes; the assault of prostitute Mary Tyner with a blunt object, and the murder of domestic servant Bridget Landregan. Known for his high level of literacy and his trademark flowing black cloak, Piper was spotted fleeing the scene of Mabel Young’s murder by a man identified in the case notes as “Glover.” Later on, when Glover heard the news of the murdered girl, he connected the two events and took the information to the police. Throughout the trial and confession, Piper retained an air of detached apathy, only becoming nervous once he was convicted. He was hanged for his crimes on 26 March, 1876.

Walter L. Sawyer, one of the witnesses to the trial, compiled a scrapbook of drawings, photographs, and newspaper accounts immortalizing the man who would come to be known as the “Boston Belfry Murderer.”

Poor Rebeccah

There’s no scary story behind this item, but several MHS-ers insisted that she belongs on this list. In fact, her provenance is quite idyllic. “Rebeccah Codman Butterfield” is a doll, likely made by a member of the Codman family, part of the Transcendentalist community Brook Farm of West Roxbury, Massachusetts. A note pinned to her petticoat, penned by her donor’s mother, reads:

“My name is Rebeccah Codman Butterfield. I was born in 1841. My mother made me and I was the darling of the Brook Farmers & their children. Brook Farm was called The Transcendentalists. I grew up with the Alcotts, George Ripley, John S [Dwight], Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Peabody & Nathaniel Hawthorne–no wonder I look a bit cracked! I was the doll for all the Butterfield children & a beloved member of that brilliant colony.”

How sweet! One of our Reference staff, also a member of the group who suggested Rebeccah for this list, fondly remembers retrieving artifacts under her watchful eye while she was living in the stacks.

Doll named Rebeccah
Detail of doll belonging to members of the Codman and Butterfield families

Hallowed Halls

The MHS’ vast archival collections notwithstanding, our building at 1154 Boylston Street has weathered its fair share of history. Although this is the society’s seventh location since its founding in 1791, we have resided in the current space for over 120 years. A large addition was built onto the MHS in 1970, expanding the office and collection storage space by filling in the middle of the original, L-shaped building. As many in the archives field can attest, old buildings packed with decades of personal papers carry with them an innate weight—a sense of presence. Below, MHS employees recount unexplainable occurrences within our building.

Independently of one another, two MHS veterans mentioned the clear sound of footsteps from the stacks. One recalled conversations with past Operations staff, who swore they heard “measure footsteps back and forth” while they cleaned the building after hours. The other described how the wooden floors (now concrete) used to creak and groan near the areas where the new addition connected to the original building. The footsteps, he said, sounded like an echo of his own as he walked the aisles. He wondered if the sound could be attributed to the previous owners of our various collections, trailing behind the remnants of their legacies. Or perhaps, after nearly 230 years, MHS founder Jeremy Belknap still felt the need to act as steward to his treasured collection.

Stories like this tend to pile up when speaking to Operations staff and other employees who often find themselves in the building at night. Several people remember an event in the early 2000s, when an arm of the crystal chandelier hanging in the lobby crashed to the floor in the dead of night. The CCTV camera footage from just before the arm fell showed the chandelier swinging back and forth as if pushed by an unseen force—the only movement in a completely dark, silent room. When asked, the Art and Artifact Curator had a perfectly sound explanation; after a faulty repair job, “the weight of the crystal beyond the pin and cement join proved too heavy and failed and slowly separated from the end plugged into the chandelier base. The shifting weight was enough that the finely balanced chandelier to start swinging and when the arm fully separated and fell, that made the swinging wider.” As to what caused the arm to separate on that day specifically, there is no answer.

Book stacks

The other group that probably deals with the bulk of experiences like this is the Reference staff—in other words, the ones who most frequently delve into the stacks. Anyone who has spent time in library stacks can attest to their eeriness. Cold air and row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelving, interspersed with portraits, busts, and mannequins, greet anyone stepping into the MHS stacks. One Reference staff member remembers working one winter, during which she spent long hours completely alone in the stacks:

“For the most part it was just eerie. Being superstitious means I have always kind of viewed the collections as alive to a certain extent, and I just try to treat them with as much respect as possible. Several times while in the stacks I would hear random sounds—sometimes wall tapping or sometimes banging sounds. I recall one time I’d gotten particularly on edge, and I said out loud, “Unless you’re going to come out here and help me with this, give it a rest.” Nothing came out to help, but the noise subsided for a while. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the intense feeling of unease I would get every time I was close to that rocking bassinet. One time I thought I saw it moving. That thing has always given me the creeps. Otherwise not much happened, just a mixture of eerie silence and varied clanging sounds.”

The staff member quoted above would often talk with another staff member about that cradle, but research into it has yielded overwhelmingly normal results. However, the former staff member remembers another encounter:

On a dark, rainy Saturday, she received a paging request from one of the few researchers in the building that day. The requested pamphlet described the 1850s construction of the Hoosac Tunnel, a project so fraught with accidents that the tunnel was nicknamed the “Bloody Pit.” Over the course of the 20+ year construction, a total of 196 workers died in explosions, cave-ins and floods. Haunted by the surprising content of the volume, the staff member ventured to find the pamphlet, tucked with others like it at the very end of a row of rolling high-density shelves. She wheeled the shelves apart, slipped between them, and followed the call numbers to the back wall. There, on an envelope—“The Hoosac Tunnel Disaster.” In spite of herself, she stopped to scan the shelf, choosing another volume and opening it to read a few pages. Accounts of cave-ins and suffocating workers nearly distracted her from the moving shelf behind her, closing by itself due to uneven flooring, until it had nearly crushed her. The uneven flooring argument makes sense, of course, but this was first time the shelves had done this in her several months of work.

Wishing everyone a safe and happy Halloween!


John Winthrop’s Journal, “History of New England,” 1630-1649. Pg. 154, 294.

John Quincy Adams Diary, volume 30. 22 August 1818.

COMMONWEALTH vs. THOMAS W. PIPER. 120 Mass. 185. 20 March 1876.

New-York tribune. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 09 May 1876. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

World War I and Early 20th Century Knitting

By Angela Tillapaugh – Library Assistant

As the cold winter months are rapidly approaching, I have found myself with the desire to knit all things warm and cozy. And luckily there is a booklet in the collections of the MHS to assist me on this endeavor. “Comforts for the Men” was published in 1917 by Columbia Yarns and provided patterns for garments suggested by the American Red Cross and the British Relief Committee. The booklet gives instructions for the garments, and of course, suggestions for which Columbia brand needles and yarn you should purchase to knit them.

Comforts for the Men
Comforts for the Men, Published by Columbia Yarns, 1917. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

This type of booklet was common during World War I. There was a large demand for socks and other knitted items for soldiers overseas, leading the American Red Cross to publish patterns for garments and encourage citizens to “knit their bit”. The Red Cross provided knitting materials as well, so long as leftover yarn was returned to prevent any wool from being wasted.[i] Yarn companies used this as a chance to advertise their own products and published their own books with patterns for similar garments. Knitting became a popular pastime in the United States, many people hosted knitting parties and clubs for their communities. The popularity of knitting likely emerged because it gave Americans a hobby that contributed to the war effort and connected them with others affected by the ongoing war.

Our Boys Need Socks
Our boys need sox – knit your bit American Red Cross. United States, [NY: American Lithographic Co., between 1914 and 1918] Photograph.
Making a garment from this book was a bit of a challenge due to the vast differences in how knitting patterns are described today. In this pattern book, the yarn suggestions are from Columbia Yarns, which no longer exists. Also, the language for describing how thick the yarn should be in the early 20th century was not universal. And, needle sizes were not universal either. There is no suggested gauge or final sizing details, most old patterns did not provide this information. If the gauge was given, it would be easier to figure out what yarn and needles to use but that is not possible. All of this to say, I was going to have to wing it for this pattern.

Because I had to knit this without any concrete information on gauge, final sizing, or yarn, I decided it would be best to pick something simple. While I always enjoy a knitting challenge, considering the lack of information on materials and the vague directions, I was positive any attempt would yield disastrous results. I decided to try out the knitted wristlets. These wristlets are a ribbed rectangle sewn up the side with some space left for the wearer’s thumb.

Comforts for the Men, page 34
Page 34 of Comforts for the Men.

The directions for the wristlets call for a No. 4 celloid or bone knitting needle and Columbia Worsted Knitting Yarn. The material that the needle is made of is important because the diameter of bone and plastic needles used to increase as the number increased, while steel needles got smaller as the number increased. I checked a few different resources about old knitting needle sizing, and most agreed that a No. 4 knitting celloid or bone needle would equal about a US 4 today. The name of the yarn suggested that it is a worsted weight. I decided to use some leftover worsted weight wool yarn from a previous garment I made. I thought it would be fitting to use up some scrap yarns for this project, using up every bit of good wool was of the utmost importance during the wartime years.

Sample wristlet
Wristlet prior to being sewn up

As per the instructions, I cast on 50 stitches. After knitting a few rows, I realized that these were going to end up far too wide for my hands. These wristlets were probably designed for someone with larger hands, but even with that in mind they seemed pretty big. It is possible they were ending up wide because of the thickness of the yarn I was using; the suggested yarn in the original pattern may have been lighter than modern than worsted weight yarn. This would make sense because a US 4 needle for worsted weight yarn is a smaller needle size than what most modern patterns would suggest. I tried again and reduced the stitch count to 40, and they ended up fitting really well. I worked on these over about three days but it only took a few hours all together to make. While these wristlets are not perfectly accurate to the pattern considering the materials and changes I made, I learned a lot making them. Also I think amateur knitters like me would have put their own creative spins on these patterns back in 1917 as well. I think this is a great project for any knitter looking to add a bit of historical inspiration into your crafting, and I highly recommend trying out old patterns and seeing what comes of it.

completed wristlet
Finished product

[i] Lovick, E., Brodnicki, J., Loven, P., & Doyle, E. (2014). Knitting in WW1. In Centenary stitches: Telling the story of one WW1 family through vintage knitting and crochet (pp. 9-11). Orkney, Scotland: Northern Lace Press.