The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Pilgrims of Pompeii

The skeletons and the state representative first met on a warm fall afternoon in West Medford, 1862. Two day-laborers, sifting the topsoil with an ox-shovel, nearly hit bone. They ran to alert landowner Francis Brooks, a well-known lawyer and amateur naturalist. Peering over the pit in his backyard, Brooks saw raw history sewn into the earth below: five skeletons, some loose iron arrowheads, a costly-looking soapstone and copper pipe. The Brooks family had held the land—once as vast as 400 acres, now 50—since 1660, and the Native Americans lying before him all dated from the early seventeenth century.

The largest skeleton, as Francis thought, might even be that of Wonohaquaham (d. 1633).

A sachem better known as “Sagamore John,” Wonohaquaham once governed the swath of settlement that spanned Charlestown and Chelsea. Within Boston’s circle of gentleman scholars, Francis Brooks’ local find made a ripple of news. The Massachusetts Historical Society published a detailed account of the “Indian necropolis” found near Mystic Pond.

“I admit. I am all excitement for more bones,” Brooks wrote in his farm journal on 21 October. “I have now two baskets full which ornament the entry table. By and by they shall be put back to rest. With some stone over them in the old place.” Exercising “intelligent care,” he and wife Louise bundled up the bones and carried them across the Charles to a Harvard friend, Louis Agassiz, for use in his new museum of comparative anatomy. Unfazed that his ancestral estate was planted squarely in the half-hidden heart of a Native American burial ground, Francis Brooks quietly returned to farming and law.

But, when he could, Brooks (1824-1891) dabbled in digging around for ancient history. Growing up in Boston, Brooks read the eclectic popular science offerings in the antebellum press. Newspaper squibs of archeological finds and snippets of scientific lore laced through his daily headlines, alongside word of abolition, women’s rights, secession, and Civil War. Many of the articles that he saw dealt with gauging the earth’s age, by tweaking geology to conform with Protestant Christianity. Headlines included the race to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the rise of learned societies to stir up “science talk.” Like many Victorian Americans who spent the century rooting around in the distant past, Francis Brooks’ first efforts were amateur but diligent. He joined a vanguard of “citizen scientists” who kept weather diaries, went on naturalist hikes, funded new museums, lingered in private “bone rooms,” and marveled at “wonder shows” of ancient mummies.

To men and women like Francis Brooks, modern science served as spectacle and oracle. Armed with the private money and public momentum needed to launch new institutions, urbane Americans like Brooks made popular science thrive, on and off the printed page. The Boston Society of Natural History opened its doors in 1830 and evolved into the modern Museum of Science. The Society swept up human crania, skeletons, botanical specimens, and a glittering array of raw minerals. At Ford’s Theatre, a floor above the box where John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln, curators lined shelves with specimens in 1866, forming the Army Medical Museum . But as the war claimed lives within Francis Brooks’ hometown ranks, his gaze moved past backyard finds. With Civil War America encased in ashes daily, Brooks’ focus pivoted to ancient Pompeii.

What did early Americans know of Pompeii’s history and story? From afar, Brooks and his antebellum peers savored the historical snapshot of a lush city, frozen in fallen glory. In August 79 A.D., the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, swiftly burying residents and homes in 13 to 20 feet of volcanic ash. Such a sudden loss ripped at the ancient region’s heart. Staring hard through the toxic smoke barreling across the Bay of Naples to his evacuation point, Pliny the Younger said that it was “as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.” Centuries’ worth of writers, ancient and modern alike, wrote and reframed the tragedy. By 1599, archeologists began excavating the towns’ riches. Looters followed. Overall, they found stray wine bottles, an aqueduct, bath-houses, and villas packed with papyri. Rose-red and evergreen-tinged frescoes filled the halls where 11,000 Pompeiians had lived and loved, worked and died.

For Americans like Francis Brooks, who studied Latin and Greek classics, Pompeii was a scientific goldmine. Hiking the partially excavated city was a “must” on the grand tour of fashionable gentlemen and adventurous debutantes alike. Pompeii’s fossils of vice–brothels, pagan temples, slave chains–intrigued Victorian reformers championing temperance, Protestant values, and abolitionism. In the early 1870s, as part of a philanthropic mission through Europe, Francis Brooks finally made it to see the distant past in person. At home, he kept farm journals documenting crop growth, his children’s birthdays, and the Brahmin party circuit. Once abroad, Brooks started (briefly) a thick sketchbook, “Views of Pompeii,” held here in the Massachusetts Historical Society. There, Brooks copied foreign frescoes in precise, vivid gouache. Under his brush, the city’s half-eaten columns again soared up to a calm sky. Brooks posed his travel companions in parlor-room vignettes, making 80 paintings in total. Pompeii’s exotic panorama of pagan altars, opal sunsets, and fantastic beasts, supplied Francis Brooks with a rich backdrop for his art–and a new way to see how monuments can embody memory.

Early in autumn 1882, the skeletons and the state representative met for one last time. Several of Francis Brooks’ workers, busy digging a cellar on the West Medford estate, came upon roughly 18 Native American skeletons, including that of “Sagamore John.” Brooks’ rage for “more bones” had quieted a bit after seeing Pompeii. When he gazed out over the family grounds, Francis Brooks saw rows of potatoes and corn, plus a 70-foot-long brick wall built by slaves 200 years earlier. He added a plain granite monument, inscribed, “TO SAGAMORE JOHN AND THOSE MYSTIC INDIANS WHOSE BONES LIE HERE.” Lessons from ancient history, as Brooks learned in Pompeii, still guided modern steps. 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 2 December, 2016, 3:04 PM

This Week @ MHS

Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror and the new year looms on the horizon. But if we focus on the present, we can learn a lot about the past. Here are the public programs on offer in the week to come:

- Tuesday, 29 November, 5:15PM : Join Patrick Lacroix of the University of New Hampshire, with commentor Edward O'Donnell of the College of the Holy Cross, as they discuss "French Canadians and the Transnational Church: The Landscape of North American Catholicism, 1837-1901." This Modern American Society and Culture seminar explores the influence of immigration on larger demates over North American Catholicism and examines the response of the New England episcopacy, whose Americanism helped to preserve the structure and ideas of the Irish-American religious establishment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 30 November, 12:00PM : Stop by at noon for a Brown Bag talk with Louis Gerdelan of Harvard University as he presents "Calamities and the Conscience: Religion, Suffering, and Intellectual Change in the Face of Disasters in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries." This talk is free and open to the public. [N.B.: The date of this event has changed from December 14.] 

- Thursday, 1 December, 6:00PM : In a public author talk, John Kaag of the UMass-Lowell discusses his recent book American Philosophy: A Love Story. After stumbling upon the personal library of past Harvard philosopher William Ernest Hocking, Kaag undertakes the cataloging of the collection, which includes notes from Whitman, inscriptions from Frost, and first editions of Hobbes, Descartes, and Kant. In so doing, Kaag rediscovers the very tenets of American philosophy - self-reliance, pragmatism, the transcendent - and sees them in  a twenty-first century context. This talk is open to the public for a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows or Members) and registration is required. A reception precedes the talk at 5:30PM and the program begins at 6:00PM.

- Saturday, 3 December, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or abentley@masshist.org.

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.

- Saturday, 3 December, 1:00PM : "A Plentiful Country - Letters from Maine's Thomas Gorges" is the next installment of the Begin at the Beginning series of public conversations. Join Abby Chandler in exploring rare first-hand accounts contained in Gorges' forthright, vivid, and dynamic letters that provide a unique window onto colonial New England at a time when England was moving toward civil war. This talk is open to the public, registration is required at no cost. 

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 27 November, 2016, 12:00 AM

1815: the Year Without a Summer

As November wears on and the weather grows colder, many Bostonians are digging their coats and sweaters out of storage in anticipation of the long winter ahead. As if winter isn’t long enough already, imagine for a moment that temperatures started to drop in May instead of November. In April of 1815, the eruption of the volcano Mount Tambora rocked modern-day Indonesia. The blast, nearly 100 times as large as that of Mount St. Helens in 1980, sent a massive cloud of miniscule particles into the atmosphere. As the particle cloud blew its way around the globe it reflected sunlight, causing a meteorological phenomenon to which we now refer as the “year without a summer.”

From May to August of 1816, weather across the globe was unseasonably cold. It regularly snowed in New England and London was pelted with hail. It was during this freezing volcanic winter that Mary Shelley drafted the dark tale Frankenstein while on holiday in Switzerland. In his daily diary entry from July 4th of 1816, John Quincy Adams complained that he was confined to his house in London all day due to freezing rain showers and thunder. Many of his subsequent entries that summer contain similar lamentations.

There was Thunder at intervals, and Showers of rain almost incessant through the whole day… I attempted a walk; but was twice overtaken with Showers ingoing to Ealing Church and returning.

 

While scientists are now nearly positive that the “year without a summer” and Mount Tambora’s eruption are connected, it took until the 1970s to piece together the clues. Many people at the time blamed the volatile weather on sunspots, having seen more than usual leading up to the cold snap. By looking back at patterns in sunspots, scientists now hypothesize that while Mount Tambora’s eruption happened to coincide with the appearance of several large sunspots, the two phenomena were not connected. It is also possible that the eruption’s resulting haze allowed for easier viewing of the sun without the aid of eye protection, which led more people to notice the spots and connect them to the odd weather.

Hannah Dawes Newcomb, who endured the freezing summer weather with her family in Keene, New Hampshire, kept a diary with short daily reports on her everyday life. Starting in around May, her daily comments on the weather start to reflect the strange weather patterns of 1816.

May, 1816

13 - Cold but pleasant.

14 - Cold weather.

15 - Very cold.

16 - The weather remains very cold.

17 - Very cold, have to keep a large fire in the parlor to keep comfortable.

18 - Very hard frost last night, very cold this morning.

19 - Very cold for the season.

 

By July, things only get worse for the family. Newcomb seems especially concerned with the constant need to keep a fire going in the hearth. Throughout June and July, she complains of crops freezing on the vine and farm animals dying from the cold. In late July, she mentions seeing sunspots after attending church with her family.

July 6 - “Weather continues very cold - all nature appears encircled in gloom - Grass very thin.  Corn so backward it does not appear probably there will be food sufficient for man or Beast.  Our only hope arises from the promise of seed time and Harvest.  We daily keep fire in the parlor.”

 

Elsewhere on the East Coast, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture held an October 1816 meeting following the destructively cold summer. The Society’s curators resolved to compile and distribute a newsletter that would aid farmers in selecting and cultivating crops that could best survive the cold, as well as provide instructions in the event of future “uncommon occurrences.”

In performing this useful service, [the Curators] will designate the Trees, Grasses, and other Plants, and especially those cultivated, on which the Season has had either beneficial or injurious influence, and the local situations in which it has operated more or less perniciously, with the view to ascertain, (among other beneficial results,) the hardy or tender Grains, Grasses, or Plants, more proper for situations exposed to droughts, wet, or frost.

 

Relevant MHS materials:

Hannah Dawes Newcomb's diary

At a Special Meeting of the ”Philadelphia Society for promoting agriculture” October 30th, 1816

John Quincy Adams’ diaries

Other sources

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/science/mount-tambora-volcano-eruption-1815.html?_r=0

The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History, by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman

 

 

 

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 25 November, 2016, 12:00 AM

Six Degrees of Paul Revere

While processing the Fay-Mixter family photographs, I came across this small tintype.

 

 

A note on the back of the photograph, probably written by a relative, identifies the subject as “Joseph W. Revere / about 18 yrs old.” I wondered if he was one of the Reveres, so I did a little genealogical research.

The Fay-Mixter photograph collection contains 277 photographs depicting members of several interrelated families, including Fays, Mixters, Spooners, Galloupes, Torreys, and others. (The MHS also holds a collection of Fay-Mixter family papers.) After building multiple family trees and tracing the intersections, I finally hit on a Revere.

There have been several Joseph W. Reveres, but this particular one is Joseph Warren Revere (1848-1932) of Boston and Canton, Mass. He was connected to the Fays, etc. through his mother, Susan Tilden (Torrey) Revere, who was the first cousin of Elizabeth Elliot (Torrey) Spooner. Elizabeth’s daughter married Henry Howard Fay.

And yes, Joseph was a direct descendant—a great-grandson—of the legendary Paul Revere. The MHS holds a portrait of Paul Revere, painted ca. 1823 by Chester Harding after a Gilbert Stuart original.

 

What I find remarkable is not the connection itself (eleven of Paul Revere’s sixteen children survived to adulthood, so he’s bound to have descendants far and wide), but that the connection is so recent. Joseph was the grandson and namesake of Paul’s eleventh child, Joseph Warren Revere (1777-1868). Two centuries but only four generations separate Paul’s birth in 1735 and Joseph’s death in 1932. Paul was born 20 years before the French and Indian War, and his great-grandson died in the midst of the Great Depression.

Tintype photographs were first introduced in the 1850s, soon after daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, and reached the height of their popularity in the 1860s-70s. If Joseph Warren Revere was 18 years old when he sat for this portrait, it was taken around 1866. The tintype measures 9 cm x 6 cm, although the image above is cropped. If you look closely, you’ll see that some color has been added to his cheeks.

Joseph became a mining engineer and worked with the Dominion Coal Company in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia. He married Anna Peterson in 1893, and the couple had four children, the last of whom died in 1988 at the age of 92.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 23 November, 2016, 12:15 PM

This Week @ MHS

It is a very short holiday week for us here at the Society. On Monday, 21 November, there is a public conversation with Jonathan Holloway of Yale and Adriane Lentz-Smith of Duke: "A Most Peculiar Institution: Slavery, Jim Crow, and the American University Today." This talk looks at the the complicated legacies of American universities founded ante bellum and their relationship to slavery, and how they served as intellectual homes of defenders of slavery and advocates of the inferiority of non-white peoples while also promoting the development of important arguments about the blessings of democracy. This talk is open to the public, registration required at a fee of $20 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM followed by the program at 6:00PM. 

The Society is CLOSED on Thursday, 24 November, for Thanksgiving. The library remains closed on Friday and Saturday, though the exhibition galleries are open those two days, 10:00AM-3:00PM.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 20 November, 2016, 12:00 AM

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