The World of Constance Coolidge & Her Infamous Charms

By Rakashi Chand, Reader Services

I have recently embarked on a journey . . . a journey through the papers of Constance Coolidge* (1892-1973). The MHS houses many incredible and fascinating collections yet I am rarely swept up the way that I am with this one. Turning each page of the collection carefully, I am full of eager anticipation to learn what will happen next and have been literally on the edge of my seat!

Constance Crowninshield Coolidge was as Bostonian as one could be. She was a descendant of the Adams, Amory, Coolidge, Copley, Crowninshield, and Peabody families. She even received regular relationship advice from her financial guardian, Uncle Charles Francis Adams (1866-1954), written on his ‘Secretary of the US Navy’ stationary.  I am only just beginning to learn about Constance and her world. Like a fascinated spectator, I am enthralled by her life and her lifestyle, and am falling for her infamous charms—as did all who knew her. Constance was loved by many men and admired by many more. Better than a scene from the Great Gatsby, each letter, item, and photograph in the collection is striking, provocative, sometimes sad, at other times delightful, or simply shocking.

Here is a sampling of some of the letters and photographs along with a postcard and telegraph found in the collection.

On Thursday, 22 November 1923, Felix concludes a letter to Constance with:

“I Love you, sweet Constance, and I can hardly wait to hold you in my arms again. Don’t be angry with me, I really don’t deserve it. Can’t we dine together Saturday night?



Letter to Constance from Felix
Letter from Felix written 22 November 1923

Just a few days later, on Saturday, 24 November 1923, Constance receives a letter from Eric (roughly transcribed):

“I don’t want to hurt you, but I believe more that it won’t affect you much, You haven’t even taken the time to answer my last cable, and I’m beginning to think you are incapable of feeling anything serious, or of realizing how much you hurt others. Perhaps, however, you don’t read my letters or cables any longer. I have your telegraph and also a most pitiful letter from mother. How she came to know is a mystery – I never told her anything.

For her sake I suppose I suppose I must try [—-] myself and find a job that will keep her alive. If it were not for her I should have no hesitation in killing myself.

It seems impossible to make you feel anything but in case it may make you think twice before treating some other unhappy man in the same way, I [—] you that you have broken my heart and any belief  I ever had in human nature.

Remembering what we have been to each other and the hours we have spent together, it is impossible to imagine how you could have brought yourself to do this & in this way.

Your letters are too numerous to return, so I am destroying them. Your [aunts] charm and the watch you gave me I shall send to you.

I should try to forget you altogether, but it would be useless because I still love you. In a new life without friends, beliefs or hopes of any kind, my memories of the racecourse and of will be all that
I have left.

In spite of everything I love you – you may not believe, but I do.

I love you Constance


Letter from Eric to Constance
Letter from Eric written 24 November 1923

And those are just two letters, from two lovers, who not only had affairs with Constance, but were completely and wholeheartedly in love with her. She had begun affairs with both of these young men while in still in China as the wife of diplomat Ray Atherton. However, they were not her first. Love letter after love letter can be found in the folders of this collection. Love is also found in the letters of friends and relatives, proof that there was something very special about Constance. Frequently in the limelight and sometimes in the news-paper, as is often the way in high Society, Constance was criticized for her un-lady like ways. She enjoyed things that were typically reserved for men such as horse racing and gambling. Yet, she could care less about what people would say about her and went on living her own independent life.

Biographers often seek this collection, and once you begin to read the letters, the reason quickly becomes apparent. Constance was more than a Boston Brahmin, a Femme Fatale, and  world-travelling heiress that lived a life reserved for fiction. She was charm encapsulated in a female figure. She was simply irresistible and she rarely resisted. This, of course had its consequences. A letter dated 8 July 1921 from the wife of Frank Fearon clearly demonstrates:

“ Before your questions could you define friendship for me, not the kind mentioned on paper, but the real thing?

Is it friendship when a woman sneaks off with another woman’s husband for half of the night, without a word to the wife and leaving the latter to find her way home the best she can?

Is it friendship for a woman to who pretends to be another woman’s friend to continually write to the latter’s husband addressing the letter to his office, when he has a home?

Is it friendship where a woman knows she has hurt her so called friend, by carrying on with her husband, to continue hurting her by the same method? …”

Letter written to Constance from Mrs. Fearon
Letter from Mrs. Fearon written 07-08-1921

While Constance loved Felix, and trailed Eric along, she also had an affair and deep friendship with Harry Crosby. In fact, her photograph was in Harry’s wallet the day he committed murder-suicide with another one of his lovers. Constance was also friends with Caress, Harry’s wife. The affair between Harry and Constance was one of the only affairs that bothered Caress (they had a very open marriage).  Perhaps this was because of the emotional connection?

Constance’s social circles and influence brought her in contact with suitors from far and wide. When the famed author H. G. Wells met Constance, the beautiful Boston Belle, he too fell under her spell. The collection contains 46 letters from H. G. Wells to Constance. Some poke fun of her Boston accent as she would walk her “dorg” in the morning.

H. G. Wells letter to Constance
Letter from H. G. Wells written March 13, 1935

Constance’s true loves were her horses and horse racing. She took great pride in her award-winning stables and in her success in a field rarely entered by women. Below are some wonderful photographs that Constance sent to her grandmother in a letter that reflect her happiness and joy. As well, they feature her irresistible smile.

Three photos of Constance and her horses
Photos Constance sent to her grandmother

Here is a wonderful postcard Constance sent to her father of herself and Katherine Rogers on the beach in their bathing suits.

Constance and Katherine Rogers on the beach
Constance and Katherine Rogers on the beach

Constance and Katherine were mutual friends with another fascinating woman, Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor. Letter from the Duchess also appear in this collection.

Wallis Simpson note to Constance
Note from Wallis Simpson

And finally, I would like to share one of many telegraphs in the collection. This is perhaps the most entertaining telegraph I have ever come across.

Telegram sent to Constance
Telegram from Felix

My exploration of this collection and this incredible woman are only just beginning. Stay tuned for further findings and more wonderful pieces from the world of Constance!

*The papers of Constance Coolidge are part of the Crowninshield-Magnus Papers at the MHS.

“They Dont Stop for Meetinghouses Nor Anything Else”: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part II

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the second post in a series. Part I can be found here.

On 16 July 1861, after a month at the Hampden Park training camp in Springfield, Mass., the men of the 10th Massachusetts Infantry began their journey South. Among them was Private Dwight Emerson Armstrong, whose letters to his sister Mary were recently acquired by the MHS.

The regiment passed through Medford, Mass., where they camped on the banks of the Mystic River at what Dwight called Camp McClellan. (Regimental histories by Joseph K. Newell and Alfred S. Roe use the name Camp Adams; the land had once belonged to John Quincy Adams.) This location was practically idyllic compared to Hampden Park, but the respite was short-lived. Just five days later, the first major battle of the Civil War broke out.

Photo of destroyed stone bridge
Carte-de-visite photograph of stone bridge destroyed in First Battle of Bull Run (Photo. #3.806)

The First Battle of Bull Run, known to the Confederates as the First Battle of Manassas, was fought near Manassas, Va. on 21 July 1861. Dwight heard via telegraph that “the rebels were beaten and 1500 stand of arms taken and a 1000 prisioners.” But these initial reports were wrong—the battle was a terrible loss for the Union Army, and the 10th Regiment was ordered to move to Virginia sooner than anticipated. Dwight gamely told his sister Mary, “I hope we shall not have to stay a great while and I don’t beleive it is going to be a long war.”  On 23 July, he wrote his last letter before leaving Massachusetts, closing with “about 900 pounds” of love to his nieces Annie and Jennie.

By 28 July, Dwight and his regiment had reached the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard. He described to Mary the steamer journey up the Potomac River, between the Confederate state of Virginia and the border state of Maryland. He saw a few masked rebel batteries, Mount Vernon (“a most beautiful place”), and “two or three old dillapidated looking negroes,” but no enemy soldiers so far.

In fact, Dwight was preoccupied with and angry about the army’s provisions, which consisted entirely of hard bread and rotten ham…for the enlisted men. He blamed Quartermaster John W. Howland and the commander of the regiment, Colonel Henry S. Briggs. It wouldn’t be the last time he wrote in such defiant tones.

I know it is a serious offence to say anything about our officers but I don’t care when I get mad and I will say that we have got a Quarter-master that don’t know enough to go in when it rains and a Col. that so long as he can keep his own contemptible old stomach full of beef steak don’t care what his men have to eat.

The next letter in the collection is dated 12 September, more than six weeks later. By this time, the 10th Regiment had settled at Camp Brightwood (a.k.a. Fort Massachusetts, a.k.a. Fort Stevens) in northwest Washington, D.C., which would be its home for seven months. Brightwood was one of dozens of encampments constructed during the war to improve the capital’s defenses. In one interesting passage, Dwight described building fortifications, which necessitated the destruction of a local church.

We have been at work for sometime past building batterries; and have not got through yet by considerable. It is a great deal of work to build them but there are a great many to do it. […] The first one we built has got a good brick meetinghouse inside of it. It stood on a hill right where they wanted the battery so the meetinghouse has got to be pulled down. […] It seems a pity to take it down for the heathen want it or at least need it as bad as they do any where but in war time they dont stop for meetinghouses nor anything else.

This church, the Emory United Episcopal Church, whose bricks were literally pulled down and used to build the fort, was later rebuilt and operates today as the Emory Fellowship. Fort Stevens is a national park, and some of its earthworks still exist.

Dwight was optimistic about the outcome of the war, felt safe at Camp Brightwood, and was adjusting fairly well to military service, despite the nits and cockroaches that were, in his words, “just like the Southerners never satisfied with what they have got but always want more territory.” The food had even improved since the “Quartermaster was very Providentially taken sick.”

He’d seen no combat yet, but every once in a while an alarm was raised, and the troops were “tumbled out of [their] tents” and held in readiness to march at a moment’s notice. None of these alarms had come to anything, and Dwight found the whole thing kind of amusing.

It is curious how anyone can get used to almost anything so as to not mind anything about it. […] They were having a battle only a few miles off and we could hear the cannons thundering away almost as plainly as if we had been there but we had got so used to disturbances of this sort that no one minded anything about it and all laid down with their guns beside them and went to sleep as quietly as though they were a thousand miles from any danger.

Please join me for the next installment of Dwight’s story!

Signature line of letter from Dwight Armstrong to Mary Armstrong
Detail of letter from Dwight Armstrong to Mary (Armstrong) Needham, 12 Sep. 1861

George Hyland’s Diary, May 1919

By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

Today, we return to the diary of George Hyland. If this is your first time encountering our 2019 diary series, catch up by reading the January, February, March, and April 1919 installments first!

As the growing season commences in earnest, George’s labor increases and diversifies beyond chopping and hauling wood. In May he spends time at multiple households mowing lawns, trimming walks, planting flowers, pruning trees, and weeding vegetables. In addition to being paid in cash, he also earns half a rhubarb pie, half a jar of pear preserves, and ten doughnuts. He is also often fed dinner and supper, and nearly always tea with milk. His routine is punctuated in May by a trip to Boston on the 6th, where he does some banking, eats lunch at a restaurant near Rowe’s Wharf, and catches an airshow above Boston harbor. “They turned over,” George reports,  “made summersaults (end over end) dove down straight, and went up straight in the air. Some of them dove down in spiral form. When they were very high in the air they looked like a flock of hawks.”

Without further ado, join George on his daily rounds during May 1919.

* * *

PAGE 329 (cont’d)

May 1. Par. clou. to cloudy. W.S., S.E. a few sprinkles in aft. Worked 5 1/2 hours for A.E. Litchfield improving […] 11 1/2 hours in all. 300.  Called at Uncle Samuel’s late in aft. had supper there. Grace Whiting (nee Lee) and little girl there. Stanley Dorr called there to take them home in auto. He has lately returned from California. Light rain in eve.

2d. Fine weather tem. 44-66; W.S.W. In aft. worked 2 1/4 hours for Mrs. Salome Litchfield — dug up garden. Late in aft. went to N. Scituate — called at Charlie’s. Had supper there. Walked down and back. Fine eve. N. Light’s in eve. Conj. of Venus and moon.

3d. Worked 5 hours or Mrs. Salome Litchfield — 7 1/4 hours in all — 1.75. Early in eve. went to N. Scituate. Got some eggs there for Uncle Samuel — He gave me 10 cts. Mrs. S. L. gave me 1/2 jar of pear preserves and 10 doughnuts.

4th. (Sun.) Warm weather; W.S.; tem. 54-76. Clear to par. clou. Eve. par. Clou. 11:30 P.M., Lightening N. of here. Cloudy.

5th. Worked 7 1/4 hours for Walter and Mrs. Emma H. Sargent (nee E.H. Bailey) — 210.  Helped Mrs. S. make a garden — round garden — about 11 ft. in circum. Then I mowed the lawn, trimmed the grass around the house, then worked on the driveway. Wheeled off 1 load of sod and about 10 loads of stones and coal cinders. Had dinner there. Walked down ret. — rode 1 3/4 miles with Lemuel Hardwick — in auto. Very warm weather, tem. 48-86; W.S.W. wind changed to N.W. about 6:40 P.M. Light rain, did not get very wet. Thunder tempest S. of here in eve. E.F.S. very […] 10:45 P.M. par. Clou. […]

6th. Went to Boston. bought a $50 U.S. Bond — (5th) Victory Liberty Loan. Paid $10 to-day — will pay the balance $40 as soon as I can. got my 4th L.B. to-day at the state St. […] Bank. Walked to N. Scituate then rode to Black Rock Sta. (Cohasset) with Harry Pratt, then tr. to Boston on tr. return went to Pemberton (Hull) on the Steamer “Betty Alden” (725 tons) then tr. to Nantasket. Staid there about 1 1/2 hours then walked to N. Cohasset then tr. to N. Scituate — rode 1 3/4 miles with Arthur E. Litchfield. Had supper at Uncle Samuel’s. While at Nantasket I visited Paragon Park. Had lunch at Plakia’s restaurant off Rowe’s Wharf. Clear. Very cool — tem. 47-54. W.N.E., S.E. Eve. clear. Very cool. 7 aeroplanes were in the air over Boston. They had a sham battle in the air — They turned over, made summersaults (end over end) dove down straight, and went up straight in the air. Some of them dove down in spiral form. When they were very high in the air they looked like a flock of hawks. Most of them were sea planes, and came there from the Sta. at Chatham, Mass. Saw the Met Line Stem. “North Land,” and Stem. “Gov. Dingley.”

7th. Weeded and hoed rhubarb plants 6 hours for W.O.Clapp. […] par. clou. to clou. W.S.W. began to rain about 3:30 P.M. Shower at times. tem. To-day about 40-62.

8th. Weeded and hoed rhubarb plants 7 hours for W.O.C. — had supper there. Cool. W.N.W.N.E. Saw a Star Shell in eve. Same as used in the late war to light […].

PAGE 330

May 9. Weeded and hoed rhubarb plants 6 1/2 hours for Will Clapp. Par. clou. to cloudy; W.N.E., S.E. Very damp eve. par. clou.

10th. Weeded and hoed rhubarb 5 1/2 hours for W.O. Clapp. Forenoon cou. very damp. cold. W.E. began to rain about 3 P.M. rain all eve W.E.

11th. Cold storm — rain all day and eve.; W.N.E.; tem. About 38. Early in eve. went to Fred Litchfield’s and bought 2 loaves of bread. Cold and windy day and eve.

12th. Cold storm, light rain all day and eve. W.N.E. tem. 48. Chopped wood (in woodhouse) 2 1/2 hours for Mrs. Salome Litchfield — 40. Had dinner there. 11:15 P.M. still raining. Windy.

13th. Weeded and hoed rhubarb plants and carried off the weeds and grass (dog grass) 3 1/4 hours for W.O. Clapp — 28 1/4 hours in all — 7.00. Late in aft. went to N. Scituate rode 1 mile with Archie Mitchell — ret. rode 1/3 mile with Liba Litchfield and 1 1/4 mile with a man in auto (a Russian). Fine weather, clear; W.N.E., S.E., tem. About 44-52. Fine eve.

14th. Worked 7 1/2 hours for Mrs. Ethel Torrey (nee Speare) on flower gardens and front walk. 2.25. Carried my dinner. Walked down — ret. rode to Comcasset Hall with Henry Newcomb — then rode 1/2 mile with Frank Bates. Warm weather, W.S.W.; tem. 55-80. Wind changed to N.E. late in night. Cold and windy. Mrs. Emma Sargent stopped where I was working and said she would like to have me work for her to-morrow. [half a line scratched out]

15th. Worked 6 hours for Mrs. Emma Sargent — mowing lawn, trimming walks and […] she worked with me — is a very nice gardener. X 180. Carried a lunch — she gave some tea, milk, and other things. Rode down with Mr. Samuel Benson — junk dealer. ret. rode 1 3/4 miles with Albert Litchfield. Cold and windy. tem. About 40-6. W.N.E. gave Mrs. Ethel Torrey 2 Canterbury Bell, and 2 foxglove plants — carried them there this A.M. and transplanted them for her. Bought a new watch yesterday at Mrs. Seavern’s store. 1.25. Belva C. Merritt wound and set it for me. Eve. cloudy. cold. W.E.

16th. Fair W.N.E., S.E., tem. clou. 48-58. In aft. Worked 4 hours for Mrs. Salome Litchfield — cleared up a very large grape vine (cut it all down) and trimmed a cherry tree. — 100. Eve. cloudy; W.S.E. very damp. Some fog.

17th. Worked 5 ½ hours for Mrs. Emma F. Sargent — 1.65. Had dinner there. Cloudy until about 9:30 A.M., W.S.E. Aft., fair; W.S.W. windy. tem. About 46-68. Walked down — ret. rode 1 1/4 miles with Galen Watson in auto. Had supper at Uncle Samuel’s. Began to rain about 6:30 P.M. Rain all eve. Thunder storm S. of here. Mrs. S. worked with me in garden.

18th. (Sun.) Fine weather, clear; tem. About 47-67; W.S.W., N.W.

19th. Worked 4 hours for Mrs. Salome Litchfield — 1.00. Fine weather, tem. About 50-69; W.N.W.; S.W.; clear. Made a trellis for grape vines and did other work. B.D.P.B.B. 2W. Fine eve. Mrs. S.L. gave me 1/2 rhubarb pie — gave me a plate of mashed potatoes.

20th. Worked 6 hours for Mrs. M.E. Seaverns chopping up boxes, barrels, etc., and mowing lawn, trimming grass in front of house and store — 1.80. Fine weather. W.N.W. in forenoon — S.E. in aft. tem. About 48-69. Carried a lunch — Mrs. S. gave me some tea and milk. Walked down — ret. rode 1 1/2 miles with Hubert Harriman. Fine eve. Paul spent eve. Here. 11 P.M., clou., W.S.E.

21st. Worked 6 hours for Mrs. Seaverns — mowing, chopping up old barrels and housing the wood, made a garden and transplanted 3 foxglove, 3 Canterbury bell, 3 Hollihock, and about 15 cornflower plants (from my garden) — for Mrs. S. — 1.80. Mrs. Emma Sargent and her mother Mrs. Bailey called to see if I will work for Mrs. B. Walked down. — ret. — rode 1 mile

PAGE 331

with Margaret and Mother Brown in auto. Cloudy, damp. W.S.E. Carried my dinner. Eve. clou., foggy; W.S.E. to E. rain in night.

22nd. Rainy nearly all day. W.S.E.

May 21. Sergt. Alvin C. York, Co. 328th Inf. (U.S.N.A.) […] in New York. While he as in the great war (about 6 month) he k. 25 Germans, captured 132, and destroyed (or cap.) 32 German machine guns. Was the 82nd U.S. Div. 2nd Corps. U.S. Army. 45 off. And 780 men of the 82nd Div. Arr. to-day — from Fr. 82nd Div. Com. by Maj. Gen. Geo. P. Duncan — he said it’s true about Sergt. York. York belongs in Pall Mall, Tenn. The 82nd Div. is composed of men from Tenn., Ala., and Ga.

23rd. Worked 6 hours for Mrs. M. E. Seaverns — 180. Walked down — ret. rode 1 mile with George Hardwick in auto. Fine weather, W.S.W. to W. Clear. Tem. about […] Have sold 3 hollihock [sic], 3 Can. bell, 3 foxglove, and about 15 cornflower plants [two half lines crossed out] and 1 Calio[…] plants to Mrs. Seaverns — 100. Gave Mrs. Emma F. Sargent 2 Can. bell and 1 foxglove plants — carried them to her this A.M. and transplanted them for her. Carried my dinner. Mrs. S. gave me some tea — with milk. Fine eve. Called at Uncle Samuel’s — had lunch there Mrs. Fernald there.

24th. Worked 7 hours for Mrs. M. G. Seaverns — mowing, raking, grass, trimming around currant bushes and etc. — 210. Very warm and muggy. par. clou. in aft. W.S.W. rode 2 miles with Harry Brown and his mother in auto. H. just arr. from [sic] home from France — has been in the Great War — was in the U.S. Army over a year — in the 306th Field Art. 77th (N.Y.) Div., 2nd Corps. One of the ^best [inserted] Divisions in the army. Carried my dinner to-day. Walked home. Eve. clou. Warm. Light rain at times.

25th. (Sun.) rain at times all day. Thunder tempest S.W. of here late in aft. Eve. clear. W.N.W.

26th Worked 6 1/2 hours for Mrs.Salome Litchfield — 162. Had dinner there. Warm. par. Clou. Very windy. N.W. Eve. par. Clou.

27th. Worked 5 hours for Mrs. Eudora Bailey (Mrs. Emma F. Sargent’s mother) — 100. Walked down ret. rode back with Albert Litchfield. Fair. Warm and damp. Carried my dinner — Mrs. Bailey gave me some tea and milk. Paul s pent eve. here.

28th Worked 5 hours for Mrs. Bailey. 100. Fine weather. Clear. W.S.E. rode 2 miles with Albert Litchfield — ret. rode 2 miles with Lemuel Hardwick — in auto. Stopped and worked 1/2 hour on father’s lot in Mt. Hope Cem. fine eve. Hired box no. 2, at N. Scituate P.O. paid $300 due to the So. Scituate Bank — paid $800 for rent of the James place for June 1919. Have hired the place. Did all these things this A.M. — before I went to work. Carried my dinner — Mrs. B. gave me some tea and milk. […] in eve.

29th. Worked 6 hours for Peter W. Sharpe — mowing in X field, helped him spray his orchard and set up 30 bean poles. Had dinner there, fine dinner. X 150. Very hot weather tem. About 69-92. W.N. to N. W. Walked down ret. road near home with Margaret E. Brown in auto. last part of the way. Eve. hazy. An aeroplane passed over the house about 7 P.M.

30th. (Decoration Day) Worked 2 hours for Mrs. M. G. Seaverns — 60. Also worked some on the James place — in garden. Walked down. Late in aft. Went to Hingham Cen. at Henrietta’s — had supper there. ret. to N. Scituate on 7:15 tr. walked home. Walked 12 miles to-day. Went to Mt. Hope Cem. in morning — put flowers on graves of father and mother, grandfather Hyland and grandmother Hyland — also  my […] grandmother H. (his 2nd wife), also on aunt Emeline’s grave. Little Esther and Marion’s graves (Emeline’s children), Charlie’s children — (Edward and Olive) and on my great-grandmother’s grave (nee Lois Ellines) —

PAGE 332

and her 2nd husband […] G.A.R. there with band and S. of V. Boy Scouts and Soldiers of the Great War. Fred Jackson, Scituate Cen. Very fine weather, W.N.E., clear. Fine eve. Charles, Lucy, and Daisy on some […].

31st. Worked 7 hours for Peter W. Sharpe. Hoeing garden, potatoe [sic], corn, and pea and tomatoe [sic] plants — 163. Had dinner and supper there. After supper Peter, Nellie, and I moved (poled) some hay and put it all in one large pile. Walked down, rode home with Peter; Ella (Mrs. S.), Margery and Nellie in their auto. Very fine weather, W.N.E. and S.E. clear eve. clear. damp.

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the George Hyland’s diary may be found here. Hyland’s diary came to us as part of a collection of records related to Hingham, Massachusetts, the catalog record for this larger collection may be found here.

Passing the bar: America’s first African-American Attorney

by Daniel Hinchen, Reference Librarian

Macon B. Allen, Esq.
Macon Bolling Allen, image accessed from

On this date in 1845, Macon Bolling Allen became the first African American admitted to the bar in Massachusetts. In the May 9, 1845 issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, made note of Allen’s new standing in the Massachusetts legal world:

Macon B. Allen, Esq. lately of the Portland Bar, is, we observe, engaged in the practice of the law in this city. Mr. Allen is now a member of the bar of Suffolk, admitted here on examination. . .

But, as this little blurb intimates, while Allen was the first African American to be admitted to the bar in Massachusetts, it was not the first place Allen was admitted to the bar.

Letter from Samuel Fessenden
Samuel Fessenden to Samuel E. Sewall, 5 July 1844
(Massachusetts Historical Society)

Nearly a year earlier in July of 1844 Allen was admitted to the bar in the state of Maine. Prior to his  examination in Maine, Allen studied law in the offices of two white abolitionist lawyers, Samuel E. Sewall and Samuel Fessenden. On July 5, Fessenden wrote to his law partner proclaiming the news of Allen’s successful examination. His success, though, was not without opposition, and Fessenden recognizes that Portland may not be the best place for Allen to ply his new trade.  The letter in-full reads:

Portland July 5th 1844

My Dear Sir

I have the pleasure to inform you that our friend & protege, Mr. Macon B Allen was admitted to practice Law at the Bar of our Distric Court for this County, which admission, by Statute of this state, gives him the right to practice in all the state courts of Maine, as well the Supreme Judicial Court as those of inferior Jurisdictions. It is more honorable to Mr. Allen that this was done, after having submitted to a careful, and protracted examination by the Committee of the Bar, appointed by the SJC for an examining committee. My Partner Mr. Deblois and Brother Howard, two of our most distinguished counsellors were the Committee, and they certified that his legal and scientific attainments were such as to well entitle him to be admitted to practice at the Bar of our Courts

Mr Allen has improved the time he has spent here. He was not admitted however without strenuous opposition from John Rand Esq, one of the Committee, who refused to attend to his examination, and Augustine Haines Esq County Attorney, One a Whig, and the other a Democrat. Of course I warmly advocated his admission. Judge Goodenow who held the Court, though not an antislavery man, acted nobly, and said he could not, sitting on that Bench of Justice, have respect to the colour of the skin.

It was contended that to admit Mr. Allen woudl disgrace the Bar, no doubt because he was a coloured man, though that was not in terms avowed. His qualifications were not denied. I think Mr. Allen had the sympathy of a large protion of the people in the court, and some & I think quite a number of the jurors wept while I addressed the Court which I did much at large, on the rights of the coloured man, and the wickedness of that prejudice which was crushing him. I think the event will do great good. Rand & Haines are active politicians, & only agree in an inveterate hostility to the antislavery cause.

I regret that Mr Allen has to struggle with poverty, as I have been compelled to advance him the $20 duty or tax which our statute imposes, an admission to practice at the Bar, and some small sums beside to enable him to live. I hope he will be aided to repay me as I shall also be compelled to stand [security]for his bond while here. This regret I should not feel were I not myself a poor man –

I hope however the cause of truth will be advanced, by the victory which we have obtained. Deblois & Howard did their duty though I could perceive, they dd not wish him to be admitted. But they had too much honor and too high a sense of justice to refuse a certificate, fairly claimed by merit.

The cause of emancipation is [onward] in Maine. I have recently been in some of our Eastern Counties, and fully believe the genius of liberty is arousing from her slumbers. I made several antislavery addresses on my route. I feel to thank GOD & take courage.

I incline to think Portland is not exactly the place for our friend. Our coloured people here are few and poor; and Portland, altogether, is an inveterate proslavery place.

with regards

your friend and obt servant

Samuel E. Sewall Esq                                                                      Samuel Fessenden.

Despite – or maybe because of – his position as a trailblazer, Allen found difficulty obtaining clients. According to American National Biography, late in 1845 Allen complained in a letter to John Jay Jr. of New York, that New Englanders preferred famous or well-established lawyers. But, things got better quickly for him. In 1847, Allen was appointed a justice of the peace by the governor of Massachusetts, a Whig, which made him the first African-American appointed a judicial official in the United States.

Following the Civil War, Allen and several other African-American lawyers and activists migrated South. In 1868, he joined Robert Brown Elliot and William J Whipper in Charleston, South Carolina, in establishing the first known African-American law firm in the country, though they represented clients of both races.

Though he never attained high political office, in 1873 Allen was elected a judge of the Inferior Court by the South Carolina legislature, and in 1876 was elected to probate court and served through 1878. Following that stint he returned to his legal practice in Charleston.

Macon Bolling Allen died in 15 October 1894, leaving behind an unnamed widow and a son, Arthur W. Macon.


Fessenden, Samuel to Samuel E. Sewall, 5 July 1844, Robie-Sewall family papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Smith, Johnie D., “Allen, Macon Bolling (1816-15 Oct. 1894).” In American National Biography, edited by John A Garraty and Mark C Carnes. Oxford University Press, 1999.

“Can She Do It?”: Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote Now Open

Commemorating 100 years since Massachusetts ratified the 19th Amendment, a new exhibition at the MHS explores the activism and debate around women’s suffrage in Massachusetts. Featuring dynamic imagery from the collection of the MHS, “Can She Do It?” Massachusetts Debates a Woman’s Right to Vote illustrates the passion on each side of the suffrage question. The exhibition is open through 21 September 2019, Monday and Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and Tuesday from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM.

"Can She Do It?" exhibition
“Can She Do It?” on display in the exhibition galleries at the MHS

For over a century, Americans debated whether women should vote. The materials on display demonstrate the arguments made by suffragists and their opponents. While women at the polls may seem unremarkable today, these contentious campaigns formed the foundations for modern debates about gender and politics.

Display cases in the "Can She Do It?" exhibition
“Can She Do It?” display cases

Winning the right to vote required more than just passing legislation. Suffragists needed to convince the public to accept new gender roles for women. Anti-suffragists held firm that women should focus on family. They argued that politics would threaten their feminine virtues, damage the family, and ultimately destroy American society. Cartoons suggested that women would abandon their homes and families to cast ballots. In 1895, Massachusetts men and women founded the nation’s first anti-suffrage organization and led campaigns against the suffragists. Visitors are able to see examples of propaganda such as Home!

Home! Anti-suffrage cartoon
Home! Engraving, Boston: Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women, [1915].
The engraving depicts a father returning home to find that his wife left children and domestic chores to him, counter to the era’s gender norms. Anti-suffragists printed pictures that of idealized American women who preferred fashion to politics. An anti-suffrage calendar from 1916 that shows a woman in pink with a floral muff and hat and holding a pink rose, a symbol of the anti-suffrage movement, is on display.

After a century of such criticisms, in the 1890s, suffragists argued that female voters would actually improve American life. They contended that women would clean up corrupt politics and favor initiatives to support families. Through their visual campaign materials, they demonstrated that woman could remain feminine, run households, and cast ballots. Not only would female voters continue to care for their families, they would do it better. One example on display is Double the Power of the Home, a broadside by local artist Blanche Ames that depicts a white middle-class mother at home with her children. According to the suffragists, this type of woman would cast a “good vote” in favor of her family.

The exhibition highlights racial divisions among the suffragists. After being excluded from prominent white organizations, Bostonian Josephine Ruffin organized the first national organization of black women, the National Association of Colored Women. Viewers will encounter portraits of black leaders as well as political cartoons that illustrate these tensions.

As the debate continued into the 20th century, British suffragists and labor activists inspired American suffragists to organize parades and pickets to attract attention. In 1915, about 15,000 suffragists marched in a “Victory Parade” in Boston. Suffrage supporters sported yellow roses or sashes while opponents displayed pink and red roses. A broadsheet with instructions for marchers participating in the 16 October 1915 parade is on display along with a scrapbook containing photos from the parade. Eleven states had granted women the ballot and suffragists hoped Massachusetts would be next. The referendum failed. Only 133,000 men voted for the measure, while almost 325,000 voted to defeat it.

Broadsheet with instructions for marchers for Suffrage Victory Parade
Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Victory Parade: Instructions for Marchers, Broadsheet, [Boston, 1915].
Firmly against parading in the streets, anti-suffrage propaganda caricatured suffragists as wild, masculine creatures who attacked dominant gender norms. Political cartoonist Nelson Harding exemplified this caricaturization in Ruthless Rhymes of Martial Militants. The cover of his booklet of humorous rhymes featuring a wide-eyed woman who has abandoned her axe in favor of a torch for the next demonstration is on display.

On June 25, 1919, Massachusetts ratified the Nineteenth Amendment which prohibited states from barring voters based on sex. The final state ratified the measure the following year and many women voted in the 1920 presidential election. Yet, not all women were guaranteed the right to vote. For example, literary tests, poll taxes, and violence prevented black men and women from voting. On August 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law prohibiting racial discrimination in voting.

Debates over access to the polls continue today, and Americans continue to advocate for social justice. In 2017, the Women’s March, which developed a platform that included a range of women’s rights, became the largest protest in the nation’s history. Items from the Women’s March including posters and a pussy hat are on display. Social movements and public protests continue to evolve, but the ballot remains an essential expression of political power.

A series of videos highlighting materials from the collection of the MHS are available to view in an interactive display. The videos were created by students at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. Allison Lange, their professor and the exhibition curator, developed this project as part of her class curriculum. The assignment prompted students to craft a three- to four-minute video about the debate over women’s rights in Massachusetts.

Wentworth Institute of Technology Student Videos
Interactive display showcasing videos created by Wentworth Institute of Technology students

“I Guess I Shall Stand It”: The Civil War Letters of Dwight Emerson Armstrong, Part I

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

I should have written to you before this but thought I would wait untill I knew when I was going to war. […] I never have been sorry yet that I enlisted but think quite likely that I shall be before I get back if I ever do. I hope we shall not be gone long and will all come back safe and sound. You must not worry any at all about me while I am gone…

I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce our readers to another terrific collection of Civil War papers here at the MHS, the Dwight Emerson Armstrong letters. The collection is very small, consisting of just 38 letters written between 13 June 1861 and 27 April 1863, but the content is so interesting that I thought I’d start a short series here at the Beehive to talk about the story in more detail.

Dwight was born in the small town of Wendell, Mass. on 5 December 1839, the son of Deacon Martin Armstrong and Mary (Bent) Armstrong. Mrs. Armstrong died when Dwight was only four years old, and Martin remarried to a widow named Almira (French) Root. Dwight had three sisters, two brothers, and one half-brother. He was working as a laborer in Montague, Mass. when he enlisted on 19 April 1861, just one week after the attack on Fort Sumter. He was 21 years old.

All of the letters in the collection were written by Dwight to his older sister Mary. However, the letters came to us without envelopes, so her first name was all I knew, and it took a little time to track down more information about her. A 1900 genealogy identifies her as Mary Bent Armstrong, named for her mother. I finally found a footnote referencing her in a book called Wendell, Massachusetts: Its Settlers and Citizenry. Mary’s husband was a farmer named Emery H. Needham, and in 1861, they were living in Amherst, Mass. with their two young daughters, Annie and Jennie.

Some of Dwight’s letters are written on stationery decorated with colorful images of the American flag, Lady Liberty, etc. (Incidentally, the MHS holds a collection of over 1,000 Civil War “patriotic covers,” envelopes printed with pictures like these.)

Dwight Armstrong letters
Two letters from Dwight Armstrong to his sister Mary, 1861

The letter quoted at the top of this post is the first in the collection. Eight days later, on 21 June 1861, Dwight was mustered into service as a private in the 10th Massachusetts Infantry, Company G. His regiment was mobilized at Hampden Park, a repurposed racetrack in Springfield, Mass. In his second letter to Mary, written that day, Dwight described life in camp as “a perfect pandemonium.” This pandemonium included some discontent over the army’s less-than-stellar provisions.

I presume before this reaches you that you will read terrible stories of the muss which we had here yesterday but don’t beleive newspaper stories. The truth is we did come very near having a pretty serious riot and I thought for a time the buildings where the cooking is done would surely be pulled down […] We can if nesessary live on dog soup and ham with two maggots to one meat but dont intend to at present.

For context, I consulted two printed histories of the regiment, Joseph K. Newell’s “Ours”: Annals of [the] 10th Regiment (1875) and Alfred S. Roe’s very similar The Tenth Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (1909). Both downplay this incident as nothing more than young men bristling at the restrictions of army life, or, in Roe’s words, “the unwillingness of Young America to submit to meets and bounds without some sort of protest” (p. 13-14). However, the discontent was real, and desertion was already becoming a problem. In his next letter, Dwight elaborated.

A good many have run away and I suppose they are afraid the rest will if they get a chance. As the time when we are to start comes on some begin to think they had better have stayed at home and a double guard is placed around the Park every night to keep them where they belong.

Regimental rosters in both Newell and Roe indicate that many soldiers did, in fact, desert during the short time the 10th was stationed at Hampden Park.

Dwight himself seemed relatively sanguine about his enlistment. July 1861 was “terrible hot,” but he was “tough as a knot.” He reassured Mary that “I guess I shall stand it as long as any of them.” He did complain about the drilling, guard duty, marching, and of course the food, but he kept it all in perspective.

We cant have a speck of butter and I miss that more than anything else. I suppose it is not best to find any fault for we cant expect to have anything as convenient as we would at home.

The 10th Massachusetts Infantry decamped on 16 July 1861 and began its long trip South. I hope you’ll join me in a few weeks to hear more of Dwight’s story.

George Hyland’s Diary, April 1919

By Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services

If this is your first time encountering our George Hyland diary series, catch up by reading the January 1919,  February 1919 , and March 2019 installments first!

Uncle Samuel’s health, much remarked upon in the George’s diary entries for March, continues to be poorly for much of April. This means that George spends additional time and effort not only doing his own chores but attending to Uncle Samuel’s household as well. “Had dinner and supper there,” is the refrain for the month as George tends to his Uncle’s property. Only toward the end of the month does he remark that Samuel is well enough to do the chores himself. It is a chilly April, with temperatures only occasionally reaching above the 50s according to Hyland’s records. On the 25th it was so cold and windy that George decided not to make the journey into Boston to attend the return of the 26th Division (a.k.a. the “Yankee Division”) from France, though he had a ticketed seat in the reviewing stands along Commonwealth Avenue. Perhaps, if he had gone, he would have been given or purchased one of these welcome home placards produced for the event (the example below is from the MHS collections).

Welcome Home 26th Division shield
Welcome home 26th Division

One of the quirks of George’s record keeping that I find particularly charming is that he specifies “S. time” following some of his time-of-day weather notations — meaning “summer time,” a relatively new observance for the United States which had begun during the war as an effort to conserve on energy.

Without further ado, join George on his daily rounds during April 1919.


PAGE 327 (cont’d)

April 1. Clou. to par. clou. Cold. W.N.W. tem. 24-42. Did some chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. Went to H. Brown’s store lat in aft. Job L. Ellins called at Uncle Samuel’s early in eve. Came from Campello. Cold night. Clear.

2d. Cold weather. Tem. 18-40. W.N.W. Snowstorm at times in forenoon. Aft. clear. did some chores at Uncle Samuel’s — Had dinner there. Late in aft. went down to Charlie’s. Had supper there and spent part of the eve. there. Walked down — ret. rode 2 miles with Geo. Ellins and Mrs. E. in auto. Bought some milk at Mrs. Merritt’s. did some chores. eve. Clear. Carried 1 coat and 3 vests and gave them to Charlie this aft.

3d. Clear. W.N.W.; tem. About 29-53. Did some chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. Late in aft. went to N. Scituate. Walked down – ret. rode 2 miles with Fred Litchfield in auto truck. Eve. clear. Frogs peeping again — first time for days. Has been same as […] 10 P.M. (S time) cloudy.

4th. Par. cloud. W.S. to S.E. Did the chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. Eve. par. clou., 10:30 cloudy.

5th. Light rain and fog. W.N.E. In aft. (late) went to N. Scituate to Charlie’s — had supper there. Bought some meat at Job H. Vinal’s store for Ellen. […] rode 1 3/4 miles with Prescott […] in farm wagon. I walked home. Had dinner at Uncle Samuel’s did some chores there today. Eve. very foggy, W.N.E.

6th (Sun). Misty; W.N.E. tem. About 38-44. Did chores of Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there, eve. Misty. W.E. fog.

7th. Fair. Par. to clear. tem about 44-70. W.S.W. Did chores at Uncle Samuel’s – had dinner and supper there. Clou. late in aft. Began to rain about 6:30 P.M. Rain at times heavy, thunder, tempest. S.W. of here (near). 9:40 P.M. (S. time) until 10:40 P.M. Rain here.

8th. Clear, W.N.W., N.E., S.E., S.W.; tem. About 40-60. Sawed, chopped, and housed wood 3 1/4 hours for Uncle Samuel. I also did chores there. Had dinner and supper there, eve. Cloudy.

9th. Sawed, chopped, and housed wood 5 hours for Uncle Samuel — also did chores there. Had dinner and supper there. fair. tem. 40-50. W.N.E., S.E. eve. par. Cloudy.

10th. Sawed, chopped, and housed wood three hours for Uncle Samuel. Clou. very […]. Rain in aft. Light rain. Cold. W.S.S.E. tem. About 40-46. Did chores. Had dinner and supper at Uncle Samuel’s. Light rain in eve. (late).

11th. Sawed, chopped, and housed wood 3 hours for Uncle Samuel. fin. 1 cord of wood. Did chores there. Had dinner and supper there. Cloudy. Tem. 45-66, W.S to S.S.W. Windy. Eve. cloudy. Very windy (S.) Began to rain at 10 P.M. (Ad. time.)

12th. Fair, W.S.W., W.N.W., tem. about 45-66. Did chores at Uncle Samuel’s — had dinner there. In aft. to Charlie’s. Had supper there. Rode 1 1/2 miles with John Selvine and […] in auto. Walked home in eve. Eve clou.

13th (Sun). Fair to cloudy. W.N.W., S.E., N.E., tem. About 40-62. Did chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there.

14th. Fair to par. Clou. W. N. Did chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. He is better now, can do the chores himself. Eve. nearly clear. Large circle around the moon for a few minutes late in eve.

15th. Par. clou. W.N.W., N.E. Did some chores at Uncle Samuel’s. Had dinner and supper there. Eve. cloudy. W.N. E. to E. Cold wind, tem. Today about 40-56.

PAGE 328

16th. Split wood 1 1/2 hours in forenoon for Jane Litchfield. 35. Had dinner there. (J. had no breakfast. Nothing in the house to eat.) Very cold, chilly wind. E., cloudy. Windy. Rain all aft. Windy and cold. Light rain in eve. W.S.E. Heavy showers at times in night.

17th. Light rain most of the time. W.N.E. and S.E. Called at Uncle Samuel’s late in the forenoon. Did a few chores. Had dinner there. He is nearly well now. Will do chores himself. Eve. cloudy. W.S.E.

18th. Par. cloudy; W.N.W., N.E., tem. About 40-60. In aft. Carried a large box of toy furniture to a place just beyond the Bap. church — for Henry — A […] lady buys them. Called at Irene’s — no one there. Bought some groceries at J. H. Vinal’s, N. Scituate. Walked down and back 7 miles. Called at Uncle Samuel’s. Peter W. Sharpe, Mrs. Ella Sharpe, and Miss Olive Beull my third cousins there. She is the Great-Granddaughter of my Uncle Henry — Henry Hyland (father’s brother) — have recently moved from Eastford Coun. to Putterham, Mass. Eve. clear. W.W. Rode 1 1/4 miles with a man in auto down. Lives N. […] place.

19th. Clear; W.N.W.; tem. about 44-62. In aft. dug up and transplanted currant bushes 3 hours for Peter W. Sharpe. Called at Charlie’s late in aft. Had supper there. Walked nearly down — rode 1/2 mile with P.W.S. in auto. Walked home in eve.

20th (Sun.) Forenoon fair. aft. par. Clou. Very windy — S.W. chilly wind. Eve. clou. Light rain late in eve. Called at E. Jane Litchfield’s in eve. […] late in night.

21st. Split and housed 1 cord of dry hardwood for E. Jane Litchfield — 6 1/2 hours 162. Wind N.W. in forenoon. par. clou. Aft. clear; W.N.E. fine weather. Had dinner at E.J.L’s. tem. Today about 45-63.

22nd. Clear; cold; windy — W.N.E.; tem. 37-54. In aft. Went down to Charlie’s. Called at Peter W. Sharpe’s. Norma […] there. Walked down and nearly back — rode 1/4 mile with Merton Burbank. Had supper at Uncle Samuel’s. Fine eve. Clear; W.S.E.

23rd. Worked in flower gardens 4 hours for P. W. Sharpe. Walked down and back. Bought a lunch (doughnut and cheese) at J. H. Vinal’s store. Fine weather, clear; cool; W.N.E. fine eve.

24th. Worked on flower gardens 3 1/2 hours for P.W.Sharpe. Par. clou. to clou.; W.S.E. began to rain about 3 P.M. Went to Charlie’s — staid [sic] until 5 P.M., then went back to Mr. Sharpe — Had supper there. Rode home with P.W. and Mrs. S. — they [took] a young goat to L. H. Hyland’s. Bought some bread — also a Boston Daily Transcript. B. M. saved it for me. Walked down late in forenoon. Called at E. Jane Litchfield’s in eve. Lot Bates and Irma came there. I rode home with them. Light rain all eve. W.N.W. at 11 P.M.

25th. Cold and very windy (30 m.) W.N.W.; tem. 28-38. Ice in meadow this A.M. Eve. cold. — & P.M. tem. 30 — colder later in eve. The 26th Div. 1st Corps. — in the late war — marched through Boston this aft. With their guns, art., and band. Lately arr. from France. I had a ticket for a seat on the reviewing stand — on Commonwealth Av. Boston, but did not go there as it was so cold and windy.

26th. Cold and windy. W.W. tem. 28-41. Late in aft. Whent to No. Scituate — bought some groceries at Mrs. Seavern’s store. Called upon P.W. Sharpe and got a loaf of bread I left there Ap. 24. They were at supper. Walked down, rode back with Albert Litchfield. (2m.) Par. clou. To-day a few flakes of snow at times. Eve. fair. 3 men last from [..].

28th. Par. clou.; W.N.W.; tem. About 40-62. In aft worked in flower gardens 3 1/4 hours for P.W. Sharpe. 15. 13 3/4 hours in all, 275. Straightened edges of all the flower gardens and weeded them. Carried a lunch — at it in the house — also Mrs. S. gave me a piece of squash pie and some tea. Walked down — rode back with Albert Litchfield. Mrs. Emma P. Sargent came out to engage me to do some work on their place.

PAGE 329

[28th cont’d] Mrs. Ethel Torrey (nee Speare) also engaged me to work on flower gardens. Met Marron Hammond in Mrs. Seavern’s store. Norma M. with her.

29th. Mowed bushes, briers, and etc. in field 3 1/2 hours for Uncle Samuel. 75. Had dinner there. Par. clou. W.N.E., N.E., E. Eve. clear. cool. Spent eve. at Uncle Samuel’s.

30th. Worked 6 hours for Arthur E. Litchfield. Par cloudy to clear; W.N.E., S.E., very cool. Eve. clear. W.W. at 11: P.M.

* * *

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the George Hyland’s diary may be found here. Hyland’s diary came to us as part of a collection of records related to Hingham, Massachusetts, the catalog record for this larger collection may be found here.

Living with Copley’s Fragments

by Caroline Culp, Stanford University, Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Research Fellow at the MHS

There is a curious, even eerie painting in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collections. The remnant of a larger canvas, Charles Russell’s disembodied head floats as if suspended in its adopted gold frame. So many of the standard questions scholars lob at portraits fail to stick to Russell’s image—How does the sitter’s pose reflect his identity? How does his clothing mark his social rank? How do the objects surrounding him speak to his historical moment?

Portrait of Charles Russell
John Singleton Copley, Charles Russell, circa 1757.

None of these questions can be answered. Instead, the repeated drumbeat of one query sounds: why and how did this cut-out face survive?

Charles Russell was painted by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), colonial America’s preeminent artist. Perhaps the work was completed in 1757, on the occasion of Russell’s graduation from Harvard. A loyalist, Russell fled to Antigua in 1774, where he died six years later. His portrait remained in the care of his sister, Sarah Russell, until her death in 1819, when it should have been inherited by Charles Russell’s eldest daughter, Penelope Russell Sedgwick.

But according to family ledged, Penelope’s sister Katharine Russell was so distraught at not herself receiving the picture of her father that “she cut out the head with a pair of scissors, and concealed it in her pocket” where she “always carried the head cut from the portrait.” In the pocket it remained for nearly thirty years, until “shortly before her death in 1847 she sent for her cousin, confessed to her what she had done, and gave her the head.” For almost a hundred years afterward the fragment was passed down the female line of the family until Mary Curtis donated it to the Society in 1943.[1]

This startling tale of family jealousy, desire, and destruction reveals Katharine Russell’s deep fetishization of her father’s portrait. It is a story that calls us to re-imagine all those heritage portraits hanging silently above the fireplace of American history.

In the 19th-century Atlantic world, a portrait was no mere silent witness to domestic drama. It was often a personified presence, activated by the mind’s desire for connection. A set of Copley family letters in the MHS collections illustrate the role a portrait could play within the home. Years after the painter left revolutionary Boston for London, his daughter Elizabeth (called Betsy) married and returned to America. Letters between Betsy and her sister Mary vowed that Betsy’s “absence will never lessen our mutual attachment.” Please, Mary begged, “dear Sister write to me as frequently as you can, as that alone can alleviate the pain of separation.”[2]

It was Betsy’s portrait that lessened some of the heartbreak the Copleys left in London felt at her leaving the household—and the hemisphere. John Singleton Copley painted Betsy shortly before her departure, capturing her with dreamy directness, her mouth half open as if about to speak. Though her dress and background fade into incompleteness, the crisp strokes of her face look ahead to the “immense distance [that] will be between us.” Betsy’s portrait was touted as “perfectly satisfy[ying]” to the family, who were “quite in raptures” with this surrogate presence that came to represent her absence.[3]

Today, Copley’s fragments of the past continue to have a presence among the living. Anne E. Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts at the Massachusetts Historical Society, welcomes incoming staff members with: “Let’s see if we can find you a nice office mate.” New staffers may select a work of art from the Society’s collections to hang in their personal office—a work that would otherwise be languishing off view in the shadows of storage. Bentley helps MHS historians to find a fitting “office mate” to share their space and inspire their work. It is this practice that allows Copley’s miniature portrait of Samuel Danforth to retain the integrity of its original use. Looking out affably from his gilded oval frame, Danforth’s image from the 18th century continues to be comfort and company in the 21st. Would that we could all have “someone to live with” at work.[4]

Portrait of Samuel Danforth
John Singleton Copley, Samuel Danforth, circa 1758.

[1] All quotations copied from a letter given by the donor, Mary Curtis, when she donated the fragment to the MHS in 1943. See Andrew Oliver, Ann M. Huff, and Edward W. Hanson, Portraits in the Massachusetts Historical Society: An Illustrated Catalog with Descriptive Matter (Boston: The Society, 1988): 87.

[2] Mary Copley to Elizabeth Copley Greene. August 23rd, 1800. MHS MS N-1034, Box 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quotations derive from email correspondence with Anne Bentley and Katy Morris, April 5, 2019.

“Aut Ceasar aut Nullus”: The 1796 Presidential Election and Abigail Adams’ Latin Motto

Rhonda Barlow, The Adams Papers

Unlike the Harvard-educated men in her family, Abigail Adams did not spend years of her life learning Latin. When John Adams wrote to her and used Latin phrases, he often included the English translation. Once, after quoting several lines of the Roman poet Horace, he advised her to have John Quincy translate it for her. Yet in 1796, when it was unclear who would succeed George Washington as president, Abigail declared, “Aut Ceasar aut Nullus, is my Motto tho I am not used to quote lattin or spell it.”

Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams
Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14 Feb. 1796, Adams Papers

“Either Caesar or nobody.” Abigail’s long correspondence provides clues to how and why she developed this motto. When Abigail read Plutarch’s Lives, the descriptions of the “tyranny, cruelty, devastation and horrour” of the Roman emperors gave her nightmares. She observed that just as Satan “had rather Reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” Julius Caesar would “rather be the first man in a village than the second in Rome.” She remarked that “to be the first in a village, is, preferable to the second in Rome and, is one of the first Maxims in the Catalogue of Ambition.”

When Abigail opened a 20 Jan. 1796 letter from John and read that George Washington would not seek a third term, she wrote back the next day, “My ambition leads me not to be first in Rome,” but “as to holding the office of V P, there I will give my opinion. Resign retire. I would be Second under no Man but Washington.” John also reported on the sectional divisions in Congress, and a possible compromise between “the Southern Gentry” and “the Northern Gentlemen” which would result in Thomas Jefferson becoming president and Adams remaining vice president.

But Abigail was having none of it. Writing to John on 14 Feb. 1796, she declared: “The Southern Gentlemen think I believe that the Northern Gentleman are fools, but the Nothern know that they are so, if they can believe that Such bare faced Dupery will succeed.” As long as Washington was president and Martha Washington first lady, she “had no desire for the first,” but if the Washingtons sought retirement, then, “Aut Ceasar aut Nullus, is my Motto tho I am not used to quote lattin or spell it.”

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams
John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 March 1796, Adams Papers

John responded with a Latin motto of his own on 1 March 1796: “I am quite at my Ease— I never felt less Aniety when any considerable Change lay before me. aut transit aut finit— I transmigrate or come to an End. The Question is between living at Phila. or at Quincy. between great Cares and Small Cares.” John’s stoical acceptance of his fate belied his own ambition.

Aut Ceasar aut Nullus: Abigail issued her challenge to Congress and the nation. John won the election, and she became the first woman in Rome.

Julius Caesar bust
Bust of Julius Caesar, Vatican Museums

Theodore Metcalf, “the Nestor of Boston’s Drug Trade”

By Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

The apothecary of Theodore Metcalf & Co. was a Boston staple for decades. Founded by Metcalf in 1837 in the former house of Peter Faneuil at 39 Tremont Street, the pharmacy was patronized by untold numbers of the city’s residents in the 19th and early 20th century. The MHS recently acquired a fascinating volume listing thousands of daily prescriptions administered to Metcalf & Co. customers between 19 April 1865 and 5 April 1866.

Daybook of Theodore Metcalf & Co.

The volume is very large—over 16 inches tall and 2 inches thick—and every one of its 552 pages is dense with writing. (I don’t know if the handwriting is Metcalf’s or a clerk’s.) Prescriptions for a single day stretch to several pages. Considering that this volume represents only one year of prescriptions, we can get a sense of the scope of the operation. The pharmacy obviously did a booming business.

I couldn’t possibly list all the medicines, tinctures, extracts, and treatments Metcalf’s clientele were prescribed, but here are a few that caught my eye.

There’s cannabis…

Detail from page 6 of daybook
Detail from page 6


Detail of page from daybook
Detail from page 73

And belladonna.

Detail of page from daybook
Detail from page 187

Other prescriptions include laudanum, potassium iodide, quinine sulfate, narceine, camphor, and Hooper’s Female Pills(!). (I’ll leave it to the experts to make inferences from these, but I admit I spent a little time researching what conditions these medications were used to treat.) A promotional booklet, cited in a later article, touted Metcalf & Co.’s role in introducing to the American public “the four inestimable boons to humanity, chloroform, cocaine, ether, and vaccine.”

Some entries in the volume contain specific instructions, such as “To be rubbed behind each ear at night” or “One pill every second hour until the bowels are thoroughly moved.” Many, though not all, include the name of the prescribing doctor, a who’s who of the Boston medical establishment, as well as the name of the patient. Among Metcalf’s more recognizable customers were poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow…

detail from daybook
Detail from page 183

And Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.

detail from daybook
Detail from page 233

Some of the symbols and abbreviations are unfamiliar to me, including letters in the first column and something resembling shorthand or Roman numerals in the third. I assume these notations indicate doses or lots, but I wonder if any Beehive readers might know. Please leave a comment below if you do!

Theodore Metcalf was only 25 years old when he opened his pharmacy, which would grow by leaps and bounds until it became what an article in the National Magazine (September 1904) called “the finest drug store in the world.” A piece in the Bulletin of Pharmacy (July 1908) features some terrific photographs of the store’s interior.

An obituary of Theodore Metcalf in the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record (5 May 1894) compared him to the wise advisor of the Odyssey and the Iliad, “the Nestor of Boston’s drug trade.” Metcalf was also credited with “elevating the position of the pharmacist from the rank of a tradesman to that of a professional man.” He was one of the founders of the American Pharmaceutical Association (now the American Pharmacists Association) in 1852.

We hope this volume will prove to be a valuable resource for researchers. The raw data it contains could inform many different fields of study. And you don’t have to take my word for it: according to one of the articles cited above, “The prescription books of the Metcalf store are of great historic value.” Another writer agreed, declaring that Metcalf’s “array of prescription books bound in Russia leather […] told an eloquent tale.”