The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Harriet the Spy

Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that Harriet Tubman will be featured on the new $20 bill, becoming simultaneously the first African American and the third woman (after Pocahontas and Martha Washington) to appear on our federal paper currency. An escaped slave, “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, Union scout, armed raider, humanitarian, suffragist: the more you learn about Tubman, the more fascinating she becomes. John Brown called her “General Tubman.” I decided to search the MHS collections for material related to this remarkable woman.

Unfortunately (but perhaps unsurprisingly) I didn’t find much. We do have three photographs of Tubman in our collection of Portraits of American Abolitionists, one from 1886 and two taken in 1906, when she was in her eighties.



We also hold a copy of Sarah H. Bradford’s 1886 biography, Harriet, the Moses of Her People, a second edition and revision of Bradford’s 1869 Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Both books were written from personal interviews with Tubman, who was, by all accounts, illiterate all her life.



But when I looked at manuscript collections, I turned up only two passing references to Tubman, neither of which mention her by name. Both appear in the correspondence of John A. Andrew, the famous Civil War governor of Massachusetts. Sparse in content, these particular letters are important and intriguing primarily because of context.

First, some background. According to Bradford, “In the early days of the war, Governor Andrew of Massachusetts, knowing well the brave and sagacious character of Harriet, sent for her, and asked her if she could go at a moment’s notice, to act as spy and scout for our armies, and, if need be, to act as hospital nurse, in short, to be ready to give any required service to the Union cause.” (pp. 93-94)

It looks like the two letters in our collection document Tubman’s trip south from Boston as she embarked on this espionage mission. Both were written by Col. Frank E. Howe in New York, formerly a member of Gov. Andrew’s staff. The first dates from 10 January 1862 and begins: “Colored woman arrived & is cared for.”


On 21 January 1862, Howe wrote to Andrew again, this time marking his letter “Confidential.” After discussing other matters, he said: “I have a letter from Washington informing me that the colored underground woman did not sail in the Baltic, but her luggage did – will send a pass on for her – & its all I can do.”


Subterfuge may have been the reason Howe didn’t use Tubman’s name. Presumably, she was traveling through New York and Washington to points south. Abolitionist Franklin B. Sanborn later confirmed: “In 1862, I think it was, she went from Boston to Port Royal, [S.C.] under the advice and encouragement of Mr. Garrison, Governor Andrew, Dr. Howe, and other leading people.” (Bradford, pp. 136-137)

I’d be surprised if there weren’t more references to Harriet Tubman buried in other manuscript collections here at the MHS, but unfortunately item-level subject access to our vast holdings is impossible. I found these two letters in Andrew’s papers because of an index to the collection created 35 years ago and encoded as part of the online guide. We hope our intrepid researchers will uncover more!


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 27 April, 2016, 11:11 AM

This Week @ MHS

Here are the public programs on-tap for this ultimate week of April:

- Tuesday, 26 April, 5:15PM : The next installment in the Immigration and Urban History seminar series, featuring Rebecca Marchiel of the University of Mississippi, is called "Communities Must Be Vigilant: The Financial Turn in National Urban Policy." This chapter from Marchiel's book project explores the mixed results of 1970s efforts to revitalize neighborhoods through community-bank partnerships. Davarian Baldwin, Trinity College, provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 27 April, 12:00PM : Pack a lunch and stopy by on Wednesday for another Brown Bag lunch talk. This time, short-term fellow Christina Carrick, Boston University, presents "Among Strangers in a Distant Climate: Loyalist Exiles Define Empire and Nation, 1775-1783." Carrick's project uses Loyalist correspondence networks to examine how exiles crafted and empowered new identities and in the process helped to reshape the British Empire and the United States. This talk is free and open to the public. All are welcome!

- Wednesday, 27 April, 6:00PM : Also on Wednesday is a special author talk titled "'Most Blessed of the Patriarchs' Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination." This talk features Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard Law School and University of Virginia's Peter S. Onuf, the country's leading Jefferson scholar, as they discuss their absorbing and revealing character study which clarifies the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. This event is sold out. 

- Saturday, 30 April, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society Tour is a 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

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 24 April, 2016, 12:00 AM

Margaret Russell's Diary, April 1916

Today, we return to the line-a-day diary of Margaret Russell. You can read previous installments here:




April of 1916 continues to be cold, with Margaret Russell reporting snow and cold temperatures throughout the month -- although on an April 25th drive to Swampscott she notes “things coming up well.” Indeed, the messy spring weather does not seem to curtail Margaret’s mobility as she drives to Swampscott, Rowley, and Fairview, walks in the Arnold Arboretum, and takes a short trip to New York City by train.

April is also marked by more domestic matters. Margaret notes attendance every Sunday at the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, on Tremont Street overlooking the Boston Common; during the week leading up to Easter Sunday she attends additional services every evening at five. Margaret’s April also sees a sobering number of deaths: “Mary Russell died at three,” “To see Annie whose brother Egerton W- died yesterday,” “Mrs. Wentworth’s funeral at 10.” Perhaps because of this steady stream of passings, Margaret also takes care to note more happy life events: “Went to see Perry to hear about wedding yesterday,” “Minnie Ames engaged to L. Frothingham.”

In the midst of these briefly recorded yet significant transitions in others’ lives, Margaret also continues her intense social schedule of club activities, musical performances, botany lessons, and lectures on unidentified topics. Shortly after Patriot’s Day (“holiday”) she attends a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, “splendidly given” by a cast that included soprano Johanna Gadski (1870-1932) and Johannes Sembach (1881-1944), both on tour from Germany.

With a view across the first four months of the year, as readers of Margaret Russell’s diary it is becoming steadily clearer exactly how deeply embedded in the upper crust of Boston’s elite society Margaret was.


* * *

April 1916

1 April. Saturday - Walked for errands. Lunched early & went out to see Mrs. Haddes. Lovely warm day.

2 April. Sunday - Early service. Miss A- & I walked through Arboretum & back to Brookline. Lunched at H.G.C’s. Mary Russell died at three. Family to dine.

3 April. Monday - Hospital meeting - [illegible] lunched at Marian’s. Went to see Aunt Emma & Mary Amory.

4 April.Tuesday - Drove Miss Lamb out to funeral which was at the farm. Not many people & all arranged like Harry’s.

5 April. Wednesday - Mrs. Ward’s lecture.

6 April. Thursday - Meeting of M.G.H. Comm. Went for errands. Lunch club at Annie’s. To Dr. Crockett. Out to see Ellen at R[illegible].

7 April. Friday - Went to Swampscott in A.M. Concert - [illegible] - To see Annie whose brother Egerton W- died yesterday.

8 April. Saturday - Went to N. Y.  at 10. Morning did errands - Kate is at Colony Club & we dined together.

9 April. Sunday - Snowing. Went to hear Dr. Parkes. After lunch tried to see Annie Lew. Dined at Mrs. West Roosevelt ^also [illegible]. Went to Mahler symphony. Very nice.

10 April. Monday - Mrs. Wentworth’s funeral at 10 [illegible] chapel. Walked back to club. Home on 10 o’clock. Found Mama very well.

11 April. Tuesday - Walked downtown. Interesting talk at Chilton by Miss Burke. Lunched at Marians. Went to Cambridge & saw Mary Amory.

12 April. Wednesday - Went to see Annie. Took 12.25 for Rowley in time for lunch.

13 April. Thursday - Lovely spring day with lots of birds. Elizabeth & I met to walk. After lunch drove to Fairview & bought a lot of things.

14 April. Friday - E & I met to walk & see the chickens. Raining & then heavy snow. Home after lunch. Still snowing.

15 April. Mrs. Tysen’s reading - drove to Swampscott.

16 April. Sunday - Church at Cathedral with Miss. A- lunch at H.G.C’s - Went to see Perry to hear about wedding yesterday. Edith & E. Ballantine.

17 April. Monday - Dressmaker - Mary  - Lunch with Marian. Botany lesson & a drive. Church at five.

18 April. Tuesday - To see Dr. Haskell. Church at five. The Rev. George Douglas is preaching this week.

19 April. Holiday - Went to see Mrs. Bell & S. Bradley. Botany lesson & to see Aunt Emma. Church at five.

20 April. Thursday - Dentist. Miss Harman to play. Lunch club at Rosamund’s. Lecture on Jap. gardens. Church.

21 April. Friday - Church. Concert.

 22 April. Saturday - Took flowers to Mt. Auburn & Forest Hills. Mrs. Tysen’s. Went to hear Meistersinger with Edith. Splendidly given. Gadski & Sembach.

Johanna Gadski (1872 - 1932), German opera singer, soprano

23 April. Easter - Raining and cold. Church & to see Parkmans. Lunched at H.G.C’s. Family to dine.

24 April. Monday - Meeting of the CD’s [Colonial Dames] going to Wash. Mary. Lunch with Marian. Botany lesson at Cambridge. Still raining.

25 April. Tuesday - Went to Swampscott, things coming up well. Mr. Gibson’s funeral at Mt. Auburn. Back to Tuesday Club. Minnie Ames engaged to L. Frothingham.

26 April. Wednesday - Mrs. Ward’s lecture & then Botany lesson. Mayflower [illegible]. meeting. Musical at Emily Morison’s. Mary Parkman’s reception.

27 April. Thursday - Eye & Ear to see Eliz. Murray & then Errands. Took a drive & went to concert at H. Bigelow’s new house. Nice day but cold wind.

28 April. Friday - Snowing hard.

29 April. Saturday.

30 April. Sunday.

* * *

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.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 22 April, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

The Society is CLOSED on Monday, 18 April, in observance of Patriot's Day. But despite a shortened week, we still have these programs on tap:

- Tuesday, 19 April, 1:00PM : Looking for something fun to do during school vacation week? Look no further! Join us for "Comic History - Making Your Own Comic Explaining the Stamp Act." This family program features noted historian J.L. Bell and the Boston Comics Roundtable who will engage participants in the history of the Stamp Act through stories of 18th century children and then assist and inspire young historians to create their own comic based on the events. The workshops are free, although space is limited and prior registration is required, please RSVP. The program and the comic book have been made possible through the support of the Society of the Cincinnati and the Massachusetts Historical Society. 

- Wednesday 20 April, 9:00AM : "Teaching Thomas Jefferson" is an interdisiplinary workshop which introduces participants to the Society's collection of Jeffeson manuscripts. This program is open to educators and history enthusiasts for a fee of $25 per person (to cover materials and lunch). Educators can earn 22.5 PDPs or one graduate credit (for an additional fee). To Register / For more information: complete this registration form, or contact the education department or 617-646-0557.

- Wednesday, 20 April, 6:00PM : "The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820" is a public author talk featuring Paul Lewis of Boston College. Lewis and his research team completed a 3-year project at Boston College to review about 4,500 poems published in 59 different literary magazines. These mostly forgotten works have been brought back to light in this publication. Mr. Lewis and members of the research team will discuss the project and read from the book. This talk is open to the public, registration required. There is a pre-talk reception at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM.

- Saturday, 23 April, 10:00AM : Our Saturday tour returns! After a few weeks off, we are back with The History and Collections of the MHS, a docent-led tour through the public spaces in our building on Boylston St. This tour is free and open to the public, no reservations required for small groups or individuals. Larger parties of 8 or more should contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at or 617-646-0508.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 12:00 AM

"Thomas Jefferson Survives": The Last Letters of Jefferson and Adams

As we celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s 273rd birthday today, we also celebrate his renowned friendship with John Adams. Revolutionary partners turned bitter political enemies, they reconciled in their retirement, and their final words to each other, written just months before their coincident deaths on July 4, 1826, serve as a fitting capstone to a correspondence that has so justly become famous.

Writing to “Ex-President Adams” on March 25, Jefferson introduced his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, who would deliver the letter when he visited Boston, noting that Randolph “would think he had seen nothing were he to leave it without having seen you.”

In this final letter, Jefferson poetically contrasted the present age with the one he and Adams had lived through:

“Like other young people, he wishes to be able, in the winter nights of old age, to recount to those around him what he has heard and learnt of the Heroic age preceding his birth, and which of the Argonauts particularly he was in time to have seen. it was the lot of our early years to witness nothing but the dull monotony of Colonial subservience, and of our riper ones to breast the labors and perils of working out of it. theirs are the Halcyon calms succeeding the storm which our Argosy had so stoutly weathered.”



Replying on April 17, Adams opened with his characteristic good-natured humor:

“Your letter of March 25th. has been a cordial to me, and the more consoling as it was brought by your Grandsons Mr. Randolph and Mr. Coolidge. every body connected with you is snatched up, so that I cannot get any of them to dine with me, they are always engaged— how happens it that you Virginians are all sons of Anak, we New Englanders, are but Pygmies by the side of Mr. Randolph.... Your letter is one of the most beautiful and delightful I have ever received.”

Adams, however, was never quite as optimistic as Jefferson was and did not entirely concur with the characterization of the present age as “Halcyon calms.” Seeing the attacks levelled on his son John Quincy’s presidency, Adams viewed the political landscape cynically: “Public affairs go on pretty much as usual, perpetual chicanery and rather more personal abuse than there used to be.... Our American Chivalry is the worst in the World. it has no Laws, no bounds, no definitions, it seems to be all a Caprice.”




Adams could only be so pessimistic, however. In spite of the wide differences between the men, the friendship between Adams and Jefferson had endured, as had the independence they fought for. And on that Jubilee when both Adams and Jefferson passed, John Quincy Adams recorded in his diary that his father’s last words were “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

Adams was without a doubt correct that Jefferson would survive as a monumental figure for the nation. If you want to learn more about the Jefferson that survived beyond the statesman, there’s still time to experience The Private Jefferson here at the MHS.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 April, 2016, 12:00 AM

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