The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @ MHS

The Society is CLOSED on Monday, 16 April, for Patiots' Day/Marathon Monday. Enjoy the race!

After the holiday we get right back into the public events here at the MHS. Here are the details:

- Tuesday, 17 April, 5:30PM : This week's seminar, part of the History of Women and Gender series, is "Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the High School U. S. History Curriculum: A Conversation." This panel discussion, featuring university faculty, secondary educators, and activist curriculum specialists, aims to seed an ongoing discussion between high school and post-secondary instructors of American history about gendering the U.S. History curriculum. What topics in women’s and gender history and in the history of sexuality get covered when, where, and how? How can college- and university-based scholars do more to connect their work with high school classrooms? How are secondary educators—and their students—advancing and reshaping the field? This program takes place at the Fay House, Radcliffe Institute, in Cambridge.

Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. To RSVP: email or call (617) 646-0579.

- Tuesday, 17 April, 6:00PM : What fuels a family’s compulsion for philanthropy? Charitable giving is an intrinsic part of our culture and its story can be told through a colorful, multifaceted family whose actions mirror America’s attitudes towards giving. Between 1638 and today, the Browns of Rhode Island have provided community leaders, endowed academic institutions, and transformed communities through art and architecture. However, they also have wrestled with society’s toughest issues slavery, immigration, child labor, inequality and with their own internal tensions. Sylvia Brown, of the family’s 11th generation, and Edward Widmer will explore this story in "Grappling with Legacy."

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

- Thursday, 19 April, 6:00PM : What would the week be without some talk of the first shots of the American Revolution? "Lexington & Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World" is an author talk with George C. Daughan who will discuss his recent book by the same name on the anniversary of those pivotal events. The mounting political tensions that ignited the battles of Lexington and Concord are critical to the narrative of the American Revolution. However, the economic forces that propelled these iconic battles are another vital part of this history. When Benjamin Franklin wrote home describing the living conditions in Britain and Ireland, his country men were appalled. Could the Crown’s motive be to reduce the prosperous American colonies to such serfdom? This threat inspired the vast turnout of Patriot militiamen that so shocked the British and led the colonists to victory in the first armed conflictsof the War of Independence.

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

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 12:00 AM

“Vast awful & never ending Eternity”: Personal Accounts of Mourning

I recently came across the Elizabeth Craft White diary, written in 1770 when the death of her husband left her distraught. “Life seems a burden to me since Death, Cruel, & unrelenting Death- has snacht from me the Partner of my heart: O fated Death how could you come, tho he called for thee why did you not pass by him, turn from him & flee away.” Elizabeth White’s diary lasted from December 26, 1770 until its sudden end on January 23, 1771. Throughout its passages, she questions the fate of her husband’s soul and laments over the ultimate fate of her own soul. The entries read more of a reflection of her own spiritual awareness as she makes it clear that she has accepted death’s presence and hopes that her daughter would be properly guided into heaven.

“Jan ye 10th 1771” 


The diary is heartbreaking, but Elizabeth White’s thoughts were not uncommon during a period in which mourning became intertwined with religious culture. In early Massachusetts, it wasn’t uncommon for people to use the death of a loved one as a time to reflect upon their own souls and ask God to forgive their sins, faced with the reality that their own end could be near. Ministers often encouraged their parishioners to keep diaries to embellish their faith in Heaven, viewing this as another way to become closer to God and to understand what death meant. Sermons often revolved around the topic of dying, such as Timothy Edwards’ All the living must surely die, and go to judgement.

Man is born to trouble as the Sparks fly upward tears sorrow & Death is the Portion of every person that is Born into the world. I have been born, most certainly & it is as certain that I must die & I know not how soon. Die I must! & die I shall! (Elizabeth White, January 18, 1771).

While Elizabeth White would live another 60 years, her words reflected those of many others who faced the prospect of death. While writing a diary was certainly a way to privately grieve and bring routine back into one’s life, the sentimentality can be found in countless other accounts. Public displays of mourning were common through sermons and poetry, much of which told personal stories to illustrate the importance of accepting our demise. In an undated poem titled A few lines to a Friend: Mourning the loss of a Beloved Wife, the author clearly states the purpose of a loved one’s death is to remember our own mortality.  

A few lines to a Friend: Mourning the loss of a Beloved WIFE,” n.d.


“O may we all now heart his call,

Prepare for Death I say,

That we may stand, at Christ’s Right-hand

In the great Judgement Day.


And hear Christ say to us that day,

Come enter into Reît,

Then we shall go, to see and know,

And be forever Blest.”


Such expressions were also common in letters of correspondence. In a Letter from William and Mary Pepperrell to their children, the Pepperrell’s express a similar sentiment at the death of their son.

Your kind & symathiseing Letter of this day we received for wich are oblig’d to you and as you justly observe that if this Great affliction may be wich we have meet with in ye Death of our Dear Son may be sancthifyed so as to warn our hearts from our Earthly Enjoyments & to set them more & more upon our Great Creator […]


As the living hoped to reflect upon death, there was also importance placed upon a person’s final words. Tracts were commonly produced to teach people of the importance of dying properly and to share examples of good Christians, such as The Triumphant Christian: or The dying words and extraordinary behavior of a gentleman. Rev. Mr. Clarke later wrote in 1756 The real Christians hope in death, or, An account of the edifying behavior of several persons of piety in their last moments. The resting words of young children and women were of particular interest and were commonly published for the public to learn from. This model became embedded in New England culture. Dying words reflected one’s entire life. To speak such proper final words meant that one had led a pious life and was ready to accept their fate. It meant they would make amends with any sin they had caused and reassured those close by that they were off to heaven.

Mourning Picture, ca. 1810. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY


To die quietly or without any resting words often caused distress to the living. Oftentimes, many would suspect that silence meant the person led a sinful life and that their fate was eternity in Hell. Elizabeth White’s husband died quietly after succumbing to fever, leaving her to question his fate.

When I think of home it seems to hurt me, once I had a home but now I have none. O that it was with me as in time past- But alas I shall never see a good day, more in the Land of the Living, once I was a girl then was I happy; once I was a married woman & was very happy till it Pleased the Lord to visit the pasture of my joys & cares, with a violent likeness that; deprived him of his senses so that he was never himself not long together to his dying day- now alas he is gone from whence he will never return, even to the Land of darkness, & ye shadow of death: a Land of darkness, as darkness itself & of ye shadow of death without any order- if he had died upon a sick bed, I should have some Peace concerning him: but now I have none- he is gone, I know not how it is with him […]


Such a prescribed mentality towards death is found across hundreds of letters and diaries, but they certainly don’t discredit the sentimentality of the writer’s feelings. It is simply part of human nature to cope with tragedy. In a society where religion played a vital role in everyday life, it is not at all surprising that death became a lesson to remind oneself of their ultimate ending.


To see what other related materials are held are at the Society, try searching our online catalog, ABIGAIL, then consider Visiting the Library.



Seeman, Eric R. “’She died like good old Jacob’: deathbed scenes and inversions of power in New England, 1675-1775.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, v. 104 (1994), p. 285-314.

Vinovskis, Maris. Angels’ heads and weeping willows: death in early America.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, v. 86, pt. 2 (1977), p. 273-302.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 13 April, 2018, 12:00 AM

The Baker and the Bear

In a previous post here on the Beehive, I introduced readers to William Emerson Baker and his estate called Ridge Hill Farms, highlighting his affinity for all things porcine. As mentioned before, the MHS recently acquired a handful of items that relate to Ridge Hill Farms, including documents, artifacts, and photographs. Today, we return to the estate once more, but for a different sort of affair.


You've lost your bear, so bear your loss,

Of all your hopes the ruin;

And while you drain the bitter draught,

          Reflect--'twas your own "bruin."



William E. Baker purchased Billy Bruin - a two and a half year old black Labrador bear - from a Boston showman. On 15 July 1874, Billy was delivered to Baker's estate at Ridge Hill Farm, and promptly escaped three hours later. Over the next ten days, Billy roamed the area, frightening parishioners in Dedham, Selectmen in Needham, and Irish quarrymen in Quincy, among others. With a sizable reward offered for his capture, Billy was pursued as far as Weymouth. Sadly, a starving Billy was shot and fatally wounded while crossing a river in that town, then carried on the current into Boston Harbor, finally washing ashore in the town of Hull about 25 July.

Upon Baker's request, the body of Billy Bruin was returned to Ridge Hill Farms. The hide was mounted by a taxidermist and the remains were buried in a $2,000 solid copper casket on 8 August 1874. And while this was a somber affair, Baker, in his usual style, took the opportunity to make it a grand and remarkable event. As with an event to lay the conerstone of his new piggery, Baker sent formal invitations to the funeral of his departed bear. It is said that over 1,000 invited guests and several hundred others showed up for the affair. And as with the other party, those who could not attend sent their regrets along with bits of inspired poetry, published and shared with guests that day. No less a personage than Oliver Wendell Holmes extended his regrets to Baker:

Dear Sir,

Many thanks for your polite invitation to attend the obsequies of the lamented plantigrade. I am sorry that it will not be in my power to attend upon the melancholy occasion. I have a great respect for bears since those two femal one taught the little children of Bethel and Belial that they must not be rude to elderly persons. I think a loose bear or two might be of service in our community, and I regret much the loss of an animal who might have done so much as a moral teacher for the young of this city and its suburbs.

I am, dear Sir, yours very truly,

O. W. Holmes

269 Beacon Street, August 1, 1874.


Among the recently-acquired items now at the MHS is a watercolor painting which shows the funeral procession for the ill-fated Billy Bruin.

The Funeral of Billy Bruin / [landscape] by an unidentified artist


From a distance, the image fairly clearly shows a procession, of sorts, but it is on closer inspection that the wonderful idiosyncrasies of a Baker-hosted event start to show.

Detail. The Funeral of Billy Bruin


Here we can see a segment of the procession, with the stuffed hide of Billy at the center. With him are members of a marching band, various costumed individuals including the pallbearers, and sundry other onlookers. In seeking more information online, I found a piece over at the Wellesley History blog (titled "Billy Bruin and his festive funeral") which thankfully sheds some more light on this colorful cast of characters. To wit:

What follows is a partial list of the participants: the Grand Marshall (Baker) a la cheval, the stuffed corpse of Billy Bruin on a bier carried by four men wearing animal skins to represent the Bulls and Bears of the Financial District, 5-month-old bear cub Topsy, the 20-piece Natick Cornet Band, men dressed as frogs to symbolize the greenbacks of American finance, someone dressed as a monkey as a nod to the wise heads who thought they knew how to catch Billy, Native American hunters, a "black man turned white with bare fright," and following up at the rear, a handful of babies that supposedly had been swallowed by the bear.


And to that, I know not what to add...


To find what other items here at the MHS are related to Ridge Hill Farms and William Emerson Baker ,or to read the full story of Billy Bruin consider Visiting the Library!


- Crumbaker, Leslie G., The Baker Estate, or Ridge Hill Farms of Needham, Needham, Mass.: Needham Historical Society, 1975.

- "Billy Bruin and his festive funeral," Wellesley History, accessed 10 April 2018 at

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 3:51 PM

This Week @ MHS

It is a quiet week ahead at the Society as we lead into a long weekend. Here are the programs on the schedule for coming week:

- Tuesday, 10 April, 5:15PM : This week's seminar is part of the Environmental History series and features Andrew Robichaud of Boston University, with David Spanagel of Worcester Polytechnic Institute providing comment. "The Ice Trade: Frederic Tudor's 'Slippery Speculation'" reexamines the emergence and development of the ice trade in Boston and North America, described in 1806 by the Boston Gazette as a "slippery speculation." What can the ice trade tell us about environmental, economic, political, and spatial change in nineteenth-century Boston and North America?

Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. To RSVP: email or call (617) 646-0579.

- Wednesday, 11 April, 12:00PM : Stop by at noon on Wednesday for a Brown Bag lunch talk with Kimberly Blockett of Pennsylvania State University at Brandywine, whose talk is titled "#sayhername: Recovering the Itinerant Ministry of Zilpha Elaw, 1820-1873." During the Second Great Awakening, almost all denominations discouraged female preachers. Of course, some women did it anyway. Elaw ignored her husband and clergy, faced significant danger, and preached from Maine to Virginia. Then famous, now Elaw and her published Memoirs are mostly unknown. Blockett will discuss the silences of race and gender in the archive. This talk is free and open to the public.

The exhibition Yankees in the West is now CLOSED. The exhibition galleries remain closed through the month of April as we prepare for our next exhibit, Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston's South End: The Furniture of Isaac Vose & Thomas Seymour, 1815-1825, which opens to the public on Friday, 11 May.

Please note that the Society is CLOSED on Monday, 16 April, in observance of Patriots' Day.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 8 April, 2018, 12:00 AM

“Feasting and fasting”: Easter in St. Petersburg

“The Russian People pass their lives in a continual and alternate succession of feasting and fasting,” John Quincy Adams stated to his mother without so much as a salutation. From his vantage point as minister plenipotentiary to St. Petersburg in 1811, Adams wrote to his parents about Russian politics, court life, and traditions. Based on the eight pages he dedicated to it, one of the customs that intrigued John Quincy most was how Russians celebrated Easter.

Panaromic view of St. Petersburg by J. A. Atkinson, c.1807.(Library of Congress)


In mid-February seven weeks of “rigorous lent” began during which believers should eat “absolutely nothing but bread and salt.” John Quincy acknowledged that the severity of the restrictions were somewhat abated in practice, and that “among the highest class of the nobility there are persons not extremely scrupulous about observing the fast at-all.” This laxity came at a price, however, as the public was severely critical of those who did not follow the orders of the Church. For this reason, “there are few even of the highest ranks, but choose to be thought regular in their practice.” He added that the Imperial family was “punctilious in setting the example.”

Besides being without the foods to which they were accustomed, theaters were closed for all seven weeks of Lent. “No entertainments are given, and the families which profess to be scrupulous in their duties neither pay nor receive visits.” In place of the usual merriments, there were religious services three or four times a week. In the last week of lent, called “Passion-week,” there were ceremonies every day.

On Good Friday, funeral processions led into churches where elaborate representations of Christ’s sepulcher were erected and lit until the midnight services on Easter morning. At the stroke of midnight, cannons were fired to signal the start of three- or four-hour services in all the churches of St. Petersburg.

As a foreign minister, John Quincy was permitted to attend services in the chapel in the Imperial palace. He arrived at the palace “in full dress as to Court” and was ushered into the chapel just before midnight. He soon heard the thunder of cannons and observed Emperor Alexander I and the Imperial family process into the candlelit chapel. Attendants distributed lit wax tapers as the all-male choir performed. At the conclusion of the Mass, seven priests formed a line before the Emperor, each holding a holy relic. The Emperor kissed each relic and “embraced the Priests themselves.” John Quincy wrote that the other members of the Imperial family followed in succession, “excepting that the Priests instead of being embraced by the Ladies, kiss’d their hands.” He informed Abigail that this was a new trend with which many believers from all ranks of society were displeased because it removed the “primitive equality of all Christian believers” and “the purity of Christian innocence” from the tradition. He writes that many preferred “the good old smack upon the cheek and lips, which they boast of as having always been given at Easter.” Interestingly, John Quincy noted, “Every individual in the chapel. . .was understood to have the privilege of going up and embracing the Emperor.” The people attending the ceremony excitedly exercised this privilege, keeping the Emperor kissing and embracing for a full hour.

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, St. Isaac’s Square became home to “Rope-dancers, Chinese-Shadows, puppet-shows, mechanical and optical representations, strange animals, and the like delights of the Populace.” The square, John Quincy related, was also filled with twenty or thirty carnival rides, “filled by a succession of men, women and children who keep them in perpetual motion.” He observed that the fair was enjoyed only by “the lowest classes,” and that anyone who owned or could hire a carriage spent the afternoon circling the Square, “beholding all these amusements. . .and at the same time exhibiting themselves, and their Carriages, and Liveries and Horses, in Spectacle to one Another.”

One tradition that pervaded all classes was the custom of giving eggs, which was “as universal as that of kissing,” John Quincy told his mother. Those in the lower classes exchanged hard-boiled eggs that were dyed red. People with greater wealth gifted artificial eggs made of everything from marble and porcelain to candied sugar. John Quincy assured Abigail that his four-year-old son was partaking in the festivities. “Boxes of Sugar-plums assume this form in presents for children, much to the entertainment of master Charles.” Charles also had the opportunity to gaze in shop windows lavishly decorated with “multitudes of these artificial eggs, of various sizes, suspended by silk ribbons of all the gaudy Colours” and to hear street vendors hawk the candy eggs, gingerbread, and other candy. “In short,” John Quincy concluded, “these objects are so multiplied at these times before the eyes of a Stranger to the Custom, that he would almost be induced to believe that in Russia, breeding eggs, and kissing was the business of human life.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 6 April, 2018, 12:00 AM

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