Archivist as Detective: One of These Account Books Is Not Like the Others

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

Last year, the MHS acquired a small collection of account books attributed to John Henry Clifford of New Bedford, Mass. Clifford was a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts legislature and as attorney general and governor of Massachusetts. This acquisition supplemented a large collection of Clifford’s papers that we already held.

But when I started to catalog the collection, I noticed something odd. Six of the seven account books are tiny booklets measuring about 2 x 3.5 inches with accounts written out in a neat list, “receipts” on the left and “expenditures” on the right. These booklets date from 1847 to 1873.

Account book of John H. Clifford
One of John H. Clifford’s account books, April 1863

The seventh account book, however, is kind of an ugly duckling. It’s much larger (5 x 8 inches) and consists of hand-sewn signatures of mismatched paper containing miscellaneous accounts from 1845 to 1865. Not only is the handwriting different, but the accounts all run together in one big block of text.

1856 account book
Unidentified account book, September-October 1856

The account books were clearly kept by two different people. The six small volumes are definitely Clifford’s (I confirmed this by checking his papers for a handwriting sample), but who kept the seventh?

It seemed logical to assume the volume belonged to another member of the family, perhaps his wife Frances, and had been misattributed to John. This frequently happens with unsigned manuscripts in collections of family papers. But a closer reading revealed the accounts were definitely kept by a man. Included are records of joint expenses for him “& wife.”  And when I compared entries for specific dates to those in Clifford’s, the accounts didn’t correspond. Sometimes our unknown individual was traveling to New York when Clifford was still in New Bedford.

A brother or son, then? Well, the handwriting didn’t match that of any other family member represented in the Clifford papers. So I abandoned that theory and started from scratch, digging into the content for clues.

This was easier said than done. Brief entries listing groceries and sundries purchased don’t exactly give you a lot of biographical details to latch onto. New Bedford is mentioned a few times, which probably explains the original misidentification. There are a few personal names, like Franklin, Sarah, and Dorah, but it was impossible to tell who was a family member and who was, say, a servant. I also saw the name Delano in several places.

Eventually a little more personal information emerged, like “my son Edward” and “my son Warren.” In fact, Warren makes many appearances throughout the volume. Well, John H. Clifford did have a son named Edward, but no Warren. Then I stumbled onto an unfamiliar proper noun that unlocked the whole mystery—Algonac.

If you’re an archivist or historian with expertise in a certain family, you may be ahead of me here. A quick online search revealed that Algonac was the home built by Warren Delano, Jr. in Newburgh, New York. This account book was kept, therefore, by none other than Warren Delano, Sr., who often traveled to visit his son and family. The clincher was the note Delano, Sr. wrote proudly marking his granddaughter Annie’s birthday.

Warren Delano, Sr. lived in Fairhaven, Mass., just across the Acushnet River from New Bedford. He died in 1866. He also happened to be the great-grandfather of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

If I were to extend my earlier metaphor, I’d say the ugly duckling turned out to be a swan. John H. Clifford was a conservative Whig who opposed the abolition movement and was called “pro-slavery” by his one-time servant Frederick Douglass. Warren Delano, on the other hand, supported abolition, aided those seeking freedom from enslavement, and subscribed to anti-slavery publications. Here are some of the relevant entries in his account book:


[27 August 1853] Donation to a Mother, to aid the redemption of a daughter, from the hands of a man thief 2 dolls.

[1 October 1856] Donation to suffering freemen in Kansas 25 dollars

[28 October 1856] For Liberator & A. S. [Anti-Slavery] Standard, & Bal. to the cause of freedom 10 dolls.

Giles Corey, pressed to death

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Autumn is my favorite time of year; celebrating Halloween and all things gruesome, haunted, and scary. One of my favorite, and kind of gross, stories to tell people, especially in September on its anniversary, is the tale of Giles Corey, pressed to death during the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692.

In 1692, Giles Corey was a successful farmer in Salem Village, the current location of Danvers, Mass., when a group of girls and young women started accusing locals of bewitching them with specters, pinches, and disease. Disliked personalities and large properties played a large part in who was accused of witchcraft during the trials.  Giles was a criminal and was not well-liked. In 1676, he was tried for the death of Isaac Goodale, an indentured servant, whom he beat with a stick for stealing some apples. He was found guilty, but was only fined since corporal punishment towards indentured servants was legal. Many community members witnessed the beating and testified against him. Giles was also accused of stealing several times and had such a reputation that when John Proctor’s house burned down a few years previous, he assumed Giles had burned it! Giles’s wife, Martha, also had a mixed reputation. She was adulterous during her previous marriage but when she and Giles married, the community remarked a distinct change for the good in them both. However, their loud bickering was witnessed often.

Giles attended some of the first trials that took place in a tavern, and Martha was quickly accused of witchcraft. At first he testified against his wife, believing the accusations, but then changed his mind and tried to recant his words. Abigail Hobbs, another accused of witchcraft, named Giles Corey as a wizard close in time to when he testified against his wife. Martha denied the accusations but Giles would not plead guilty or not guilty. Giles Corey may not a have been a good person but he was smart. He knew that if he plead and let the trial happen, his estate would be taken away from his family after his execution. To save his children’s inheritance, he would not plead. According to the law at the time, those who did not plead could not be tried. To try to get the accused to plead, the legal remedy was “peine forte et dure,” translating to “strong and hard pain.” It became the name for the torture of pressing.

WARNING: below this image is graphic language explaining the mechanics of torture.

Handwritten diary entry
Samuel Sewall diary entry for 19 September, 1692. This image was first shared in another blog post; read it here.

In the MHS collection is the diary of Samuel Sewall, one of the judges of the Salem Witchcraft Trials.  Sewall kept a journal from 1673 until a few months before his death in 1730. His entry for 19 September 1692 reads:

“Monday; Sept-19th 1692. Abt noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was pressed to death for standing mute Much pains was used with him two days one after another by ye court & Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been his acquaintance: but all in vain. 20 Now I hear from Salem that abt 18 years agoe, he was suspected to have stamped and pressed a man to Death. But was cleared. twas not remembered till Ann Putnam was told of it by G Corey’s Specter ye Sabbath-Day night before ye Execution.”

After he would not plead, Giles was asked to strip naked and lay down, face up, on the ground. A wooden board was then placed on top of him, and on top of the board, one by one, Sheriff George Corwin placed large rocks. After two days of this torture, through which Giles had remained silent, never crying out, he was asked to plead. Giles did not want his property to be taken, so he never plead either way. On the third day 19 September 1692 he died from being pressed to death. His last words were “more weight.”

Giles plan did work, his estate passed to his two sons, however Sherriff Corwin successfully extorted money from Giles daughter who later pressed posthumous charges against the Sherriff for his crime. Sherriff Corwin died of a heart attack in 1696, and every Sherriff after him died or resigned of some kind of blood ailment until 1991 when the Sherriff’s office moved from Salem to Middleton, Mass. Some witnesses say that Giles Corey did not remain silent and had cursed the title of Sherriff: “Damn you, I curse you and Salem!” However, it is mostly agreed upon that “more weight” were his last words.

Giles Corey’s case is the only of its kind in New England, although other pressings happened in England. Martha was hung as a witch three days later. The gruesome and public torture of Giles Corey changed some of the minds of the community about supporting the witch trials.

Abolition in Massachusetts: A John Winthrop Student Fellowship Project

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 collections of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Applications for the 2022 Student Fellowships will open in November 2021. Learn more and apply!

This year, our 2021 John Winthrop Student Fellow Laasya Chiduruppa of Lexington High School has been researching the history of slavery and abolition in Massachusetts with the support of her teacher mentor Michael Egbert. Laasya has created an educational blog with articles on her research into the history of significant court cases on the road to ending slavery. Visit Abolition in Massachusetts to learn more and follow along with Laasya’s research!


As an American aware of deep-rooted systemic racism and as someone interested in contributing to moving our nation towards social justice, I have a keen interest in educating myself and others on historic injustices. So, when I came upon the Massachusetts Historical Society, I was thrilled to read about the John Winthrop Student Fellowship, seeing the research opportunity as a venue to educate myself and others on the importance of representation of unheard voices and recognition of our country’s painful past. With the resources provided, I dove into research focused on the early court cases credited with abolishing slavery in Massachusetts, and I created an educational blog focusing on these historic milestones to equality.

During initial conversations with Kate Melchior, an MHS historian who guided me through this process, and Mr. Egbert, my history teacher, I highlighted how I was interested in anti-slavery movements in the local area, regardless of date, era, or the laws they were protesting. However, through my research and their guidance, I soon realized that I needed to focus my topic into a much more specific time period and theme, ending slavery in Massachusetts, in order to have the clearest narrative in the educational blog I wanted to create. It was through this guidance that I was able to narrow down my research to a series of court cases in the 1780s, legal action ultimately resulting in the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

Early on in my research journey, the collection of the notes from Judge William Cushing’s legal notebook, stood out to me. Cushing had presided over the series of cases known as the Quock Walker case, which had ultimately found that the existence of slavery contradicted with the Massachusetts Constitution, and therefore couldn’t be supported by Massachusetts state courts. Through the quickly written notes, I not only was able to find a clear narrative of testimony on both sides, especially during the criminal indictment of Quock Walker’s owner for battery, but was also able to see the beginnings of his thought process behind his ultimate decision and instruction to the jury.

In my research process, I struggled to narrow down my research into specific fields. Due to the plethora of documents and primary sources available in the MHS catalog, I often found myself diving into antislavery records written decades after the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, or identifying historical ads from the Civil War era. Through the use of key words and case studies, I was able to keep my research focused. In the writing process for my blog, I also initially had difficulties with finding the correct tone to highlight what I had found. Ultimately, after reading through historical entries in the Beehive Blog, the MHS’s historical blogging website, I was able to hone in on a format which used historical documents and a casual tone to develop a narrative.

If you plan on taking on this research opportunity in the future, don’t go into it with a strict cemented vision of what your end product, or even your research, will look like. Start the process by diving into materials which are related to your focus and importantly, are genuinely interesting or fascinating to you. As you move along further in the research process, these documents will guide you to the ultimate direction your final project will take on. As I was in the earlier stages of my research process, I started with the list of documents which I had highlighted in my application, as well as the list of resources provided by the MHS historians working alongside me. I used these accounts as starting off points, narrowing my focus to key figures like Mumbet, Quock Walker, and Anthony Burns. I then used these case studies to identify key words and further my research, ultimately allowing me to narrow my research down into a clear narrative.

Also, take full advantage of the resources, both in the archives and over email, available to you. The MHS historians are so thoughtful in their guidance, and their suggestions. Check-ins were imperative in molding the final direction my project took on.

From the blog that I have written, I hope to teach my peers and fellow members of my community that the journey to equality was a long and difficult one, and one that didn’t start and end with the Civil War. I hope to highlight underrepresented and disenfranchised voices and underline the physical and legal struggles these direct actors faced. Most importantly, however, I hope that the research and writing that I have done encourages others to diversify their knowledge of local history and the struggles on the road to freedom.

The Wedding of Marian Lawrence Peabody

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

I think it’s fair to say that even the most seemingly mundane items here at the MHS tell an interesting story if you look at them closely enough. By way of illustration, I’d like to tell you about the Marian Lawrence Peabody record of wedding presents. This volume, given to the MHS earlier this year, complements our substantial collection of Marian Lawrence Peabody papers, the bulk of which came from Marian herself in 1969 and 1970. Visit the guide to that collection to learn more about her life and family.

The volume is hilariously titled The Book of the Bride Elect Designed by a Spinster (N.Y.: Brentano’s, 1902). In it, Marian listed all the wedding gifts she received when she married Harold Peabody on 8 May 1906.

Text on title page of book
Title page of volume

Marian and her husband received a total of 375 wedding gifts, primarily things like dishes, silverware, candlesticks, tea sets, and vases, as well as furniture, rugs, clocks, jewelry, and books. The volume also contains a list of the over 100 presents the couple received, mostly flowers, when their engagement was announced.

Many of the wedding gifts were lavish. Endicott Peabody gave the couple a “run-about carriage” and another Mr. Peabody (possibly her father-in-law) gave them $1,000 cash, which online historical currency calculators tell me would be the equivalent of about $30,000 today. John S. Lawrence’s gift was a tiger-skin rug. Also included are several Tiffany and Wedgewood items. Some of the presents sound like they must have been beautiful, like the “Japanese drawing framed in teak,” the “tortoise-shell & silver paper cutter,” and a pearl and garnet pendant.

The list of donors is equally impressive, a veritable who’s who of the turn-of-the-century elite. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave the couple, quite aptly, a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. President Theodore and First Lady Edith Roosevelt sent a box of roses and carnations. Other donors included Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson; and Henry Francis du Pont of Winterthur, Delaware. Needless to say, Marian ran in very privileged circles.

Page from the Marian Lawrence Peabody record of wedding presents
Page containing the names of President and First Lady Roosevelt

The entry for each gift includes the name of the donor(s), their address, and where the item was purchased (if known), but also what happened to it afterwards. This last column was filled out, in some cases, many years later, and it’s here that we see what was regifted, exchanged, lost, worn out, broken, or sold.

A silver and glass fruit dish from Benjamin Vaughan and his wife is followed by the wistful note: “In 1934 gave to Katharine Lawrence King – regret it.” Many other items were unfortunately lost in a fire that ravaged Marian’s home at Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1947. These included two salt spoons and two salt cellars from Rev. Glenn Tilley Morse (“lost in fire & they were lovely”). Other gifts were distributed throughout Marian’s home at 302 Berkeley Street in Boston or safely ensconced at the State Street Trust building.

The works of Jane Austen were apparently a popular wedding gift that year. The Peabodys received three sets: one from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, which they gave away; one from Roger Pierce, which they “changed for Victor Hugo”; and one from “Harold’s old nurse,” which they kept.

Particularly intriguing was one gift, a pair of binoculars given to the Peabodys by Robert Winsor, Jr. A unique wedding gift, to be sure, but so was the note that followed it: “Rented to the Navy thru’ the war for $1.00 / Then gave to Tony Parker my godson who let them fall overboard.”

I was curious what Marian wrote in her diaries during this time, so I consulted her papers. Her diary entry for 24 January 1906 refers to The Book of the Bride Elect, the very volume in my hands, which Marian called “the most useful present from Sally.” The entry describing her wedding goes on for an enthusiastic seven pages. She mentioned one gift in particular: “A large box of flowers arrived in the midst of all the excitement with ‘White House’ written all over it, & inside Pres. & Mrs Roosevelts cards & good wishes.”

Sixty years later, Marian published an autobiography called To Be Young Was Very Heaven (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), which consists primarily of her diary entries up to her wedding day. But there are significant discrepancies between the original and printed versions. For example, about the Roosevelts’ present, she incorrectly quoted her own diary this way: “Also a box came from the White House—but it was roses and we certainly had enough of those. Presidents should send something solid so it can be kept as a memento.”

Marian was in her 90s when her autobiography was published, and she engaged in some self-reflection, stepping back to comment on her former self with the wisdom of many decades. On her wedding day, the young woman may have gushed, but the older woman editorialized, “I did not half appreciate all that was done for me. I had been spoilt and still wanted everything the way I wanted it.”

Everything didn’t turn out the way she wanted it, however. Her marriage proved to be an unhappy one, and the couple lived apart for many years. Marian died in Milton in 1974 at the age of 98.

Sympathy for the Devil: John Quincy Adams’s Brush with Aaron Burr

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

It was an open secret that the Adamses were no fans of Alexander Hamilton. Senator John Quincy Adams couldn’t even be prevailed upon to wear crape, join in a funeral procession, or “join in any outward demonstration of regret” after Hamilton’s untimely death. When chastised by his wife, JQA responded that he “had no respect” for the fallen statesman.

Nor did he much respect the man who had stood opposite Hamilton in the early hours of 11 July 1804, and his respect for Burr only plummeted further when Burr dared to return to his station as President of the Senate. Adams admitted he had kept Burr “at arms length the whole Session of Congress,” feeling it “a cruel degradation to the Body itself, to have for a President at such a time, and on such an occasion, a Man under a legal accusation of Murder.” Adams “could not forgive him for taking the Seat.”

Detail of letter from John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams
 John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 1 April 1805 (Adams Papers)

When the second session of the Eighth Congress came to a close on 3 March 1805, Burr gave a farewell address—“the last act of his political life,” as Adams thought—and John Quincy left the Senate Chamber for home, convinced he had seen the last of Burr.

On 19 March, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine boarded a ship in Baltimore, sweating in the unseasonably warm weather, two sick and fitful toddlers in their arms, ready to get the trip over with and reach their next destination of Philadelphia. (When they later arrived in Philadelphia, the Adamses’ old friend Dr. Benjamin Rush diagnosed the boys with chicken pox and whooping cough.) An overwhelmed Louisa Catherine recorded in her diary that “the Children were both quite unwell and of course very troublesome It was the first time that I had the entire charge of them.”

One can imagine the sinking of already low spirits when the Adamses got on board and were greeted by Aaron Burr. Having been much affected by Hamilton’s demise, Louisa confided to her diary that she “felt a sort of loathing for this Col Burr.”

Within a few hours, Louisa—and everyone else on board—had fallen under his spell. “He appeared to fascinate every one in the Boat down to the lowest Sailor and knew every bodies history by the time we left— He was politely attentive to me . . . At Table he assisted me to help the Children with so much ease and good nature that I was perfectly confounded.”

Detail of letter from John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams
John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 1 April 1805 (Adams Papers)

When relaying the event to his brother, John Quincy wrote, “Whether the original seducer of mankind, has embodied himself in the person of the little ex-vice, I am not competent to pronounce— This I will say; that I defy Man, Woman or Child, so to withstand the powers of his fascination, as to part from him after such a transitory association, without feelings of good-will towards him.”

After a particularly rough passage—so rough, in fact, that at one point Louisa rolled out of her high berth and onto the floor—the Pennsylvania soil was a sweet sight to the passengers. Taking pity on the sleep-deprived parents of fussy young children, Burr swooped in, taking little John Adams II in one arm, taking Louisa’s luggage in the other hand, and offering her his arm to disembark. John Quincy followed behind them, George Washington Adams in his arms, his jaw on the gangplank.

“It was all done with so little parade and with such entire good breeding that it made you forget that he was doing any thing out of the way,” Louisa recalled. “He talked and laughed all the way and we were quite intimate by the time we got to Philadelphia where he called to see us, and this the first and last occasion on which I ever saw this celebrated man.”

After two weeks’ rumination, John Quincy summed up the experience by writing, “I had not strength of mind enough to retain in their full inflexibility the resentments even of Virtue— I felt a degree of compassion for the Man, which was almost ready to turn to Respect— He was more than barely civil to me and my family— I could not help feeling for him in return more kindness, than I was willing to acknowledge to myself—infinitely more than I suffered myself to shew him; and perhaps more than is justly consistent with that character which on a cool and distant estimate I cannot help believing to be his.”

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, the Packard Humanities Institute, and the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

“Who thought then of civil war?”: Antebellum Activism, War, and Memory

By Evan Turiano, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, MHS African American Studies Research Fellow

The activists and politicians who made up the Boston Vigilance Committee—an interracial organization committed to securing protection and legal aid for fugitives from slavery—appeared confident in their work. After a man named Joe, who escaped slavery by stowing aboard a ship from New Orleans, was discovered in South Boston and forcibly returned to slavery, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch welcomed movement leaders including Samuel Gridley Howe, John A. Andrew, and Elizur Wright to his home for a discussion of how to mobilize the public outcry over Joe’s re-enslavement most effectively.[1]

Photograph of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch
Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. From: Massachusetts Historical Society, Portraits of American Abolitionists, Photo 81.63

They called a public meeting at Faneuil Hall, over which the infirmed former president John Quincy Adams presided, and from that meeting mobilized Boston’s Black and white abolitionist leaders to provide legal aid to accused fugitives from slavery and to petition the Massachusetts legislature for stronger protections against rendition and kidnapping. It was, according to historian Manisha Sinha, an example of how “fugitive slaves fostered abolitionist organization.”[2] Boston would play host to many of the most dramatic, high-profile battles over fugitive slave rendition in the 1850s, events that radicalized the northern public and painted a picture of abolitionist hostility for southern slaveholders. From a twenty-first century perspective, it is easy to imagine this Boston abolitionist vanguard as ready for anything the struggle could bring, war included.

When Henry Ingersoll Bowditch revisited his records of the Faneuil Hall meeting and the movement it precipitated forty years later, in 1886 at the age of 77, he viewed those fights of his (relative) youth differently. In the margins, below the meeting minutes, he scribbled a note: “Who thought then of civil war? We were no prophets & could not see the doleful extremities to which we were tending.”[3] In the fall of 1846, for context, David Wilmot had just introduced his antislavery proviso for new lands claimed in the ongoing war with Mexico to be free of slavery, a proposal that would demonstrate the feebleness of the second party system in face of sectional discord.

1886 margin note
1886 margin note in Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records. From: Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

Looking back, Bowditch knew the landscape of the struggle over the status of accused fugitive slaves and the future of American slavery, had a long way to go in the next 14 years. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law would change things dramatically. While the fugitive slave crisis of the 1850s may have rendered war evident to some, it clearly was not so for those activists in 1846.

And yet, in the face of all that unfolded in the two decades following the formation of the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League, Bowditch did not express regret. Instead, he was glad that their resistance unfolded without any clarity about impending war. “It is well we were not able to foresee this,” he wrote, “for if the people had clearly seen the consequences of opposition to slavery, I fear that they would have shrunk from view.” Southerners, the author knew, would not have shrunk—“The South would have had its way, with liberty crushed and slavery rampant.”[4]

This last clause of the 1886 marginalia is telling. Even when Bowditch feared that knowledge of war would have softened northern resolve and led the antislavery masses toward acquiescence, he knew what most northerners knew before the war: that the proslavery elements that guided southern politics would not flinch at the threat of war. The North had balked first in 1820, again in 1850, and, as Kenneth Stampp showed some seventy years ago, were by and large unwilling to fold again.[5]

So yes, as Bowditch looked back on a nation turned upside down by a war that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives, those years of struggle on behalf of freedom seekers must have looked naïve and short-sighted. Recollection of the past is often inflected with the profound knowledge of one’s prior ignorance. But Bowditch and his colleagues were, in many ways, more steeled for war than he knew in 1846 or in 1886. Decades of struggle had prepared them well.

[1] Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History pf Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) 391-393.

[2] Sinha, The Slave’s Cause, 393.

[3] Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

[4] Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

[5] Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950)

Small Children Love Clowns

By Viv Williams, Processing Assistant and Library Assistant

In preparation for spooky season, I decided to pick up Stephen King’s infamous It. This 1100 page tome (45 hours in audiobook format, in case you were curious) and its 1990s television miniseries adaptation are largely credited in the U.S. for sparking many people’s fear of clowns or coulrophobia.

[There be spoilers ahead.]

In the novel, Pennywise the dancing clown is the most common and recognizable appearance of It–story’s star monster. Pennywise is described as, “wearing a baggy silk suit with great big orange buttons. A bright tie, electric-blue, flopped down his front, and on his hands were big white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore.” He has a white face and a bald head, with tufts of orange hair on either side of his head and a large red clown smile. King actually compares Pennywise to Ronald McDonald within the text of the book.

It claims to favor the form of Pennywise because “small children love clowns.” Having grown up in the post-It world, this baffles me. I don’t actually know what it’s like to NOT find the characteristics of a typical clown innately menacing, Ronald McDonald comparison or no.

The protagonists of the novel find several old photos of It appearing as different versions of Pennywise. The earliest photo, dated vaguely as the early 1700s, pictures a bare-bones street-performing Pennywise with juggling pins and the distinguishable bald head with tufts of hair to either side. It lacks the white face makeup, though the narrator mentions It’s face still looks painted on. It is not until 1850 that the Pennywise persona takes on the full effects of the previous quintessential Ronald McDonald-like clown description. This sent me down a curious rabbit-hole regarding the history and representations of clowns.

Precursors to the clown can be found as early as early back as Ancient Greece under names like Buffoon, Jester, or –most highly esteemed– the Harlequin. They get their start in early theatre, cast as the comic relief or butt of the joke. However, with the rise of the Harlequin in the 16th century, this poor, overly abused character gets retribution and takes on the role of the trickster in later theatrical writings.

The original Grecian buffoon was often recognized by his bald head and padded clothing. Medieval minstrels and court jesters would be distinguished by the “fool’s hat”: a hat with three points that end with jingling bells. The trickster Harlequin of the 16th century would don a thin black mask (much like Zorro’s or Robin’s masks) and often a bat– for mischief, of course. However, from what I can tell, as far back as the 17th century the most common characteristics of the clown included the bald head, white face makeup, oversized shoes, hats, and that classic ruff that even Pennywise eventually sports. So, not much has changed since then.

Encyclopedia Britannica credits Joseph Grimaldi for being the first “true” circus clown appearing in 1805– in England at that. The first mention of circus clowns in the U.S. I’ve been able to track down dates from the 1860s.

As for the MHS collections, most of our clown-esque depictions exist in the form of political cartoons. If you’ve been following any of our exhibition content for the past year or so, this news will find you humorously unshocked and unmoved.

Cartoon image of Abraham Lincoln as a jester
Jester Lincoln and his puppets, John Volck, 1860s

This 1860s John Volck cartoon titled [Jester Lincoln and his puppets] depicts Abraham Lincoln as a jester taking part in a puppet show. Note the aforementioned fool’s hat. The staff or “bauble” as it would have been called was also a common effect of the jester.

Image of a cartoon depicting a large man dressed as a jester sitting on a throne, stirring a cauldron with numerous negative qualities listed on paper. The background of the image depicts words such as demagogism and scandal.
Benjamin F. Butler cartoon by Charles Bush,  1883

Additionally, this slightly more disturbing 1883 Charles Bush cartoon depicts Benjamin F. Butler as a jester sitting on a throne, stirring a cauldron of numerous negative qualities. This jester was robbed of a few hat points, but has no shortage of jingling bells–I’m sure there’s some significance there, but I’m here to talk about clowns, so I’ll leave that bit to you– and what he lacks in pointy hat, he makes up for in frilly ruff! He seems to be up to mischief so perhaps he is in metamorphosis on his way to Harlequin-hood.

While the MHS collection may not be spilling over with scrapbooks of clown photography, we do have quite the array of traveling circus broadsides from the late 1800s featuring famous names like P.T. Barnum and the Ringling Bros. Unfortunately, only the more recent publications include actual clown illustrations. Here are a few snippets from a delightful 1919 newspaper advertising a combined show between the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey.

Two newspaper clippings with advertisements for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey combined shows.
1919 newspaper advertisements for a Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey combined show

You will immediately notice the similarities between these depictions and Pennywise. The Ringling circus clowns wear masks that mimic the white face makeup and wide red smile. Their silk suits are complete with large red buttons and thick neck ruff, and considering this color image is from the front page of a four page newspaper advertisement spread, we are clearly meant to perceive the figure as inviting and exciting. The black and white photo depicts clowns waving in a crowd of other circus performers– a clear indication that in 1919 these characteristics hold no menacing connotations to a general public.

Today, clown horror is so prevalent that it has arguably become its own subgenre throughout multiple artistic mediums. How do you feel about clowns? Do you want a balloon?

If you are interested in seeing more clown or circus related collections, check out our online catalog, ABIGAIL!

“A sad hart sore feet and poor courage”: The Experiences of an Itinerant Working Man

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

The MHS holds the papers of some of the most preeminent people in Massachusetts and U.S. history, including presidents, governors, senators, ambassadors, business leaders, you name it. What about the less privileged and well-connected? They tend to leave a smaller documentary footprint, but their papers can also be found in our stacks. One of my favorites is the 1878 diary of an anonymous itinerant laborer.

anonymous diary
Anonymous laborer’s diary, 1878

The small leather-bound volume is well-preserved and the writing very neat, with no deletions or insertions, so it may be a manuscript copy, rather than the original. The name Charles A. Clifford of Lowell, Mass. is inscribed inside the front cover, and his handwriting matches the writing inside. Clifford’s calling card, printed with an address in Lawrence, is also enclosed. I located an attorney in Lowell and Lawrence by that name, but he wasn’t born until 1883. If my identification is correct, this volume is an early 20th-century copy made by Clifford, but I can’t be definitive.

Whoever the author, the content is fascinating. The diary begins:

Saturday Sept 7th 1878 Finished working for the Boot Corp. Am not feeling veary well and am thinking of goin West. Tuesday the 10th went down to Ballards Vale. to see Edward Jones. and see if he would not like to go with me. he makes up his mind to go.

The “Boot Corp.” was the Boott Cotton Mills in Lowell. Our diarist left Lowell with Edward Jones and from there headed west and south in search of work, never staying very long in one place. I did my best to map his route, which included legs by train, steamboat, and on foot. He went to Ballardvale, Mass.; Boston; Fall River, Mass.; New York; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Indianapolis; St. Louis; Pacific, Mo.; Chamois, Mo.; St. Louis again; Carbondale, Ill.; Cairo, Ill.; Hazlehurst, Miss.; New Orleans; and Cincinnati.

map of first half of journey
First half of his journey
Map showing second half of journey
Second half of his journey

He began his trip with $35 in his pocket, the remainder of his pay from the Boott Mills, and he carefully documented all his wages and expenses. Two undershirts: 50 cents. Two pairs of drawers: 50 cents. Use of the Union Depot washroom in St. Louis: 10 cents. Bribing a train brakeman for a ride: 50 cents.

All these specific details combine to create a vivid picture of his experiences. For example, outside St. Louis, he described roads so muddy that he collected 3 to 4 pounds of mud on his shoes as he walked, “and one also slips back every step of 3 feet about 18 inches makeing progress very slow and tiresone.”

Of course, he had to be careful with his belongings. One day, he and Jones dropped their blankets into a wet ditch. Soon after that, when boarding a train, Jones nearly lost another precious possession, his revolver. I’ll quote this passage in full to give you a sense of how the diary is written.

Ed droped the revolver juest as the train was starting and we both had to jump of to finde it. which cheated us out of 11 Miles we had paid for. and which took us till noon to walk. this was the day that Ed was bit by the Bloodhound. we tried very hard to get work at Chemois cuting corn. but did not succead and as we could get nothing to do or eat. we thought we might as well set our faces toward the riseing Sun Again so we do so at 3 P.M. but we do it with A sad hart sore feet and poor Courage. we walk about 3 or 4 Miles which seams like 10 to us and then cross the Misouri which cost us 10 Cts

Our writer had apparently lived this nomadic life for some time. He’d once worked at the West End Hotel in Philadelphia. He was obviously resourceful, but he also got help on more than one occasion from a “kind harted and whole soled” stranger who cut him a break or referred him for a job.

In the diary, he described what sounds like a nearly idyllic three months (at least by comparison) working on the farm of a Mr. Samuel Reed in Carbondale, Ill. He made 13 dollars a month for a variety of chores, including planting—“I dug the first sweet potatoes I ever saw growing”—milking cows, and tending horses. He had a room of his own “which was carpeted and had A good Soft Bed,” and his washing and mending was done for him.

But that job ended, and after he restocked with supplies in preparation for another stretch of unemployment, he was left with 20 cents to his name. His life remained precarious. And having parted with Jones when he took the job at Reed’s farm, he was also lonely.

As it was Christmas Eve. I thought of home. and where I was One Year Ago. […] not A friend on earth that had any Ida where I am. with no money or work and the City full of tramps and men in search of work. what am I to do. Well God knows and time will tell.

But he proved his resourcefulness again when he heard about work in Cincinnati. With no money for the steamship, he secured a spot by leaving his watch and chain on deposit with a clerk, to be redeemed when he received his pay. The descriptions of his hunger and desperation during this part of the journey are some of the most moving passages in the diary.

I thought I could and would wait 1 or 2 days before telling them I was hungry as I was affraid they would not take me any way if they thought they had got to feed me. on the way. […] my guts felt as though they wer all stuck to geather with muserlage. and the Potatoes meat & Grits I receaved that night with coffee with out milk or sugar […] was one of the best if not the best meal I ever Eat. […] hear and now is what I call hard times & rufing of it

He and the other workers slept on deck, leaning against bales of cotton and frequently waking up from the cold.

by the by I find A man can sleep any where after he gets used to it. the sweetest sleep I ever had I had on this boat. & the plesantest dreams I have woke out of dreams that wer like half-hours. spent in heaven. to finde my body so cold that I could scercely walk to the deck stove. to warm me. […] one can not realize it till they experance it.

The diary ends abruptly on this Mississippi River steamboat somewhere north of Memphis. I doubt we’ll ever know any more about the man whose experiences are recorded in this diary, but whoever he was, he has left us a valuable historical record.

Finding Benjamin Franklin in the archives & collections of the MHS

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

I grew up in Franklin, MA so I always knew the true legend about how in 1778, the town changed the name from Exeter to Franklin, in honor of Benjamin Franklin, in the hopes that he would donate a bell for the church. He never donated money, but sent books instead, which the town debated how to use. In the end, they formed a library where every member of the town could read equally. This started the first public library in the United States. Those books still reside in the Franklin Public Library today. And I know that Benjamin Franklin spent time in Boston during his youth, but I had no idea how often his name would come up while searching the online collections of the MHS. I’d like to share with you a selection of my favorite items and stories I have come across about Benjamin Franklin.

Black and white image of Benjamin Franklin
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706 and lived there until 1723 when he ran away from his apprenticeship with his brother, James, who was a printer, to Philadelphia. He only had two years of formal schooling, attending what is now Boston Latin; however he was a voracious reader and even became a vegetarian to spend less money on food and more on books! While he was apprenticed with his brother, James started The New England Courant, the third newspaper created in Boston, which featured literature, opinions, and humor. Franklin knew his brother would not take him seriously if he offered to write something for The New England Courant and so wrote under a pseudonym, “Silence Dogood,” a woman who had opinions. He slipped the first story under the door of the print shop and it was printed in the paper. In all, 13 essays from Silence Dogood were printed in The New England Courant ranging in topic from a dramatic story of her birth, to her opinion on the vice of drunkenness.

After landing in Philadelphia, Franklin relied on his skills in printing throughout his life. After travelling to London, England and being stranded without funds, he was hired there for his printing skills. He earned a loan to return to Philadelphia, worked off his loan, and began to have great success in his own printing endeavors. He created the first franchise in America by opening a print shop with a partner in another colony; became the official government printer of Pennsylvania, purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette; published the first Poor Richard’s Almanack, an instant bestseller; was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly; organized the Union Fire Company of Philadelphia which endorsed fire safety in the city; was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia; and became the official printer for New Jersey. During that time, he purchased brass matrices in France, which the MHS now holds! He used these in his print shop and later passed them down to his grandson.

30 brass type casting matrices
Benjamin Franklin’s brass matrices for casting type, made in France, circa 1740.

During his successful print shop endeavors and after, Franklin entertained his interest in electricity and began conducting experiments. The most famous experiment is the one in which he placed a key on the string of kite and flew it during a thunderstorm. When the kite was struck with lightening, it demonstrated the connection between electricity and lightening. However, a story I “discovered” in the MHS collections is in a letter from Franklin to his brother, John, in Boston. As part of his electrical experiments, Franklin was attempting to electrocute a turkey. The experiment went awry and he electrocuted himself instead! In the 25 December 1750 letter he writes:

“I have lately made an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat. Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro’ my own Arms and Body.”

The best part of this story, for me, is that he asks that John tell only one mutual friend who is also interested in electricity, as a warning. “You may Communicate this to Mr. Bowdoin As A Caution to him, but do not make it more Publick, for I am Ashamed to have been Guilty of so Notorious a Blunder.” But letters at the time would be passed around to friends and family and read aloud as a leisure time activity. I wonder if John did keep it to himself, or like me, would have run to his social media of the time, evening letter reading?

It is during and after this time that Franklin retired from printing and became more involved with politics. When he was as young as 15 years old he divided his leisure time between reading and occupying coffee houses. Coffee houses at the time were more like taverns. You could get a meal and a low alcohol beverage, such as cider or small beer, as well as tea or coffee, and men would congregate there to talk about the news of the day and relax. He liked to chat and because of his humble workman upbringing, he was very comfortable chatting with the lower classes. Due to his intelligence and well-read nature, was equally as comfortable chatting with the upper classes and eventually, the nobility and crowned heads of Europe. Through this practice, Franklin became well-connected in Philadelphia and regarded for his intellect. In 1753, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He had been a clerk since 1736 and was tired of listening to debates he could not join. In 1764, he lost his seat after petitioning for a Royal Governor for Pennsylvania, something most people in the colony did not desire. That year he was elected as a colonial agent to England and lived there for over a decade, eventually becoming a representative of Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. During his time in England, Franklin gained an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and was there after called Dr. Franklin. After five years in England, Franklin came back to the colonies. Travelling through Boston, on 11 October 1763 he wrote a letter to James Bowdoin, the same friend to whom he cautioned about electricity in his letter to John. In this letter, he gives a recipe for a drink that seems vile to me, milk punch. It is a drink that crosses milk, a base, with lemon juice, an acid, therefore curdling the milk on purpose. The curdled milk is eaten with a spoon and the rest is drunk as is, or drunk from a special spouted cup to drink the liquid first, and eat the curds later. Through the years, MHS staff members have attempted to make Franklin’s milk punch recipe. Read about one such account here.

Handwritten recipe for milk punch
Benjamin Franklin’s milk punch recipe.

After he returned from England in 1775, Franklin was committed to the cause of Independence. He was elected as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Postmaster General of the Colonies, and in 1776 was appointed as part of the committee of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence. He was then appointed to the French court as one of the commissioners of the Continental Congress and spent the next nine years in France creating an alliance with the King of France and signing the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War. In the next five years he invented bifocal glasses, returned to the US, was elected President of the Pennsylvania Executive Council, signed the US Constitution, and submitted the first antislavery petition before the US Congress.

In a 12 May 1784 letter to Samuel Mather, son of Cotton Mather, Franklin describes his birthplace of Boston with nostalgia, knowing he would never visit again:

“I long much to See again my native Place, and once hoped to lay my Bones there. I left it in 1723; I visited it in 1733, 1743, 1753, & 1763. In 1773 I was in England; in 1775 I had a Sight of it, but could not enter, it being in Possession of the Enemy. I did hope to have been there in 1783, but could not obtain my Dismission from this Employment here. And now I fear I shall never have that Happiness. My best Wishes however attend my dear Country, Esto perpetua. It is now blest with an excellent Constitution. May it last forever.”

His fear became reality as he died in 1790 of a life-long ailment of pleurisy. He is buried in Philadelphia.

Jennison v. Caldwell – Abolition and the Role of Courts in Eighteenth Century Massachusetts

By Matthew Ahern, Library Assistant

Jennison v. Caldwell (1783) is one of the most significant court cases in Massachusetts’s history, and a landmark moment in the early abolitionist movement of the fledgling United States. It was the result of six related legal actions that started as an assault & battery case, and ended in a verdict that would prove to be the beginning of the end for slavery in the Bay State. Given our current day understanding of how the judicial system works, we might expect that in the aftermath of this case the practice slavery in Massachusetts would cease immediately. Instead, what occurred was a gradual process of abolition over a little less than a decade, with subsequent freedom suits using Jennison v. Caldwell to argue for emancipation. Why did it happen this way? One answer lies within role of the courts in late eighteenth century America.

First some of the facts: At the center of this case was man named Quock Walker, who had been enslaved at one point by Nathaniel Jennison. Walker had been promised his freedom at a certain age and when that promise was broken, he escaped and found work on John and Seth Caldwell’s nearby farm. Upon learning of Walker’s location, Jennison (along with some friends) severely beat Walker and brought him back to the Jennison farm. Walker managed to alert a justice of the peace however and Jennison was charged with assault & battery. Neither party argued the facts of the attack, and the issue before the court was whether Jennison was within in his rights to do so as Walker’s master. Walker would argue (successfully) that this was an assault & battery, because he was attacked while a free man.

Page from Cushing's legal notebook
Cushing’s discussion of the “Free & Equal” clause as it relates to slavery.

A series of litigation spanning two years would follow, with Jennison’s counsel attempting to legally justify enslavement using Mosaic law, and Walker’s lawyers effectively arguing the untenability of enslavement within the scope of the new state constitution. When this legal battle reached the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Chief Justice William Cushing appeared to be convinced by Walker’s arguments. Within his legal notebook, the Chief Justice acknowledged the “Free & Equal” clause of the Massachusetts Constitution, and further writes that, “This being ye Case I think ye Idea of Slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct & Constitution.”

Cushing would conclude by finding Jennison guilty, and Walker’s freedom was ensured. Given that Cushing appeared to base his decision off of the language in the new state constitution, and also that this opinion was coming from the highest court in the land, it only follows that the rest of the state would follow suit and abolish slavery. While eventually this would happen, it was by no means immediate, which may seem foreign to us today given a 21st century understanding of the judiciary’s role.

Page from Cushing's legal notebook
Cushing’s note of Jennison’s guilty verdict

In recent years, courts, in particular the Supreme Court, have developed the ability to determine what the law is and what it isn’t with increasing authority over their co-branches of government. Judicial review is a powerful tool used by the Court today, and social rights such as abortion and same-sex marriage have been given protections because of it. However, in the legal world of 1783, a judicial opinion would only get you so far. Without legislative and executive support, Cushing’s opinion could serve as persuasive precedent, but it was not the law of the land. This is exactly what would happen, with the Massachusetts General Court remaining silent on the matter, and Governor Hancock himself being unclear regarding the legal status of slavery the same year Jennison v. Caldwell was decided.

Today, Constitutional scholars would say we live in a far more court centric world than ever before, and this is apparent in many ways. It’s the reason the nomination of Supreme Court Justices have become so important (and divisive), or why the Court was able to intervene in Bush v. Gore the way they did. Today the debate centers largely over whether the Supreme Court is the ultimate or exclusive interpreter of the Constitution, but in 1783, Cushing’s Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was just one of many voices interpreting the new state constitution.

In the end, it seems that even in the face of legislative and executive indecision about abolition, subsequent freedom suits along with growing grassroots support effectively ended the practice of enslavement by 1790. So, while Walker’s freedom suit is not only a critical moment for the abolitionist movement of this country, it also provides some valuable insight into the role of courts during the early days of the republic.

Cushing, John D. “The Cushing Court and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts: More Notes on the “Quock Walker Case”.” The American Journal of Legal History 5, no. 2 (1961): 118-44

Cushing, William. Legal Notes. Massachusetts Historical Society. MHS Collections Online: Legal notes by William Cushing about the Quock Walker case, [1783] (

Murphy, Walter F. American Constitutional Interpretation. Foundation Press. 6th Edition., 2019.