The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @ MHS

On Tuesday, 28 April, we have an Immigration and Urban History seminar. "Due Credit: Chinese Workers and the Central Pacific Railroad" is presented by Manu Vimalassery of Barnard College, with Hidetaka Hirota of Columbia University providing comment. The talk begins at 5:15PM and is free and open to the public, RSVP required

And closing out the month on Wednesday, 29 April, there is an author talk with Jasmine Nicole Cobb, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. "Picture Freedom" explores the earliest illustrations of free Blacks and reveals the compliated route through visual culture toward a vision of African American citizenship. The talk begins at 6:00PM and is open to the public with a fee of $10 (no charge for Fellows and Members). There is a reception preceding the talk at 5:30PM. Registration is required, so please RSVP.  

Entering the new month, there are two events on Saturday, 2 May. First up, beginning at 10:00AM is the History and Collections of the MHS. This 90-minute docent-led tour explores all of the public spaces in the Society's home on Boylston Street and is free and open to the public. Larger parties (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or in advance. 

Also on 2 May is a rare Saturday evening event. May Day Mayday! is a conversation among three eminent historians - William Fowler, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Michael Tougias - sharing stories of catastrophes at sea. This program is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $20 (no charge for Fellows and Members). Please RSVP here. There is a reception preceding the talk at 5:30PM with the event starting at 6:00PM. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 10:52 AM

This Week @ MHS

The Society is closed on Monday, 20 April, in observance of Patriot's Day. Good luck to the marathon runners!

On Tuesday, 21 April, there are three events taking place that all focus on comics and history. First, beginning at 2:00PM, is "Comic History: Making Your Own Comic History." This Family Day program for young historians, parents, and grandparents features historian John L. Bell telling the story of the riots that followed the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 from a child's point of view. Follwoing the talk, local comic book artists will help the young historians create their own historical comics. Finished products will be part of a temporary display. Registration is required at no cost; please RSVP

Then, at 6:00PM, join us for "Colonial Comics." Editor Jason Rodriguez, Fulcrum Publishing, will speak about the process of putting together a collection of twenty stories focusing on the colonial period from 1620 to 1750. Registration is required at no cost; please RSVP. A reception will precede the talk starting at 5:30PM. Following the event, at 7:30PM, MHS Associate Members (age 40 and under) are invited to join Mr. Rodriguez for Colonial Comics Happy Hour, a chance to continue the discussion about historical events as subject matter for comic books and graphic novels. The event will take place at a nearby restaurant. Registration required at no cost. Please call 617-646-0543 for more information. 

On Thursday, 23 April, join us for a History of Women and Gender seminar discussion. "Mildred Jefferson and the Right to Life Revolution of 1976" is presented by Jennifer Donnally of Hollins University with Sara L. Dubow, Williams College, providing comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers. 

Finally, on Saturday, 25 April, there is a special event taking place at the Society starting at 9:00AM. "Massachusetts History Lab" is a program designed for students in grades 5-8 to learn more about the behind-the-scenes activities at one of the country's oldest organizations devoted to our nation's history. Registration is required at no cost; please RSVP. Students must register with an adult chaperone. For more information, contact the Education department at or 617-646-0557. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 19 April, 2015, 12:00 AM

Untangling North Atlantic Fishing, 1764-1910, Part 3: The Reciprocity Treaty of 1854

As discussed in a prior post, Great Britain and the United States negotiated fishing rights throughout the early 19th century. One of the important agreements made between the British North American colonies and the United States regarding trade, tariffs, and fishing was the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854. Under this agreement, negotiated by British North American Governor General Lord James Bruce Elgin and Secretary of State William L. Marcy, the provinces offered the right to coastal and inshore fisheries and the use of the St. Lawrence River to the United States. In exchange, the United States established free trade with the provinces by removing tariffs from natural products including grain, meats, produce, coal, timber, and lumber.

Reciprocity, by definition, is the exchange of privileges with others for mutual benefit. Free trade meant that the United States’ markets faced an exponential flood of British North American products without any protective tariffs to secure the national, regional, and local markets. Additionally, many Americans did not view the treaty favorably because the rights to coastal fishing in Canada had previously been theirs in the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While the American agricultural markets faced market saturation, the Reciprocity Treaty favored New England and New York fishing industries due to Secretary of State William L. Marcy’s negotiations. Born in Southbridge, Mass., and residing in Albany, New York, Americans accused Marcy of sectionalism, referring to the Reciprocity Treaty contemptuously as “Mr. Marcy’s treaty.”

An author using the nom de plume “Middle State Farmer” raised several objections to the agreement in his pamphlet The Agriculture Interest in 1854:

But we have thrown our markets as wide open as though these British provinces were States of this Union – markets which they will seek to sell in, receiving only in payment our precious metals, or exchange on England, to pay for the goods they buy of her. Everything they can grow on soil, produce from their forests or their mines, we shall have to take on these terms.

What do they give us in return besides their river to navigate, which they can’t navigate much themselves – being frozen tight six months in the year, and a hazardous navigation the other six – and a right to catch fish where we had always caught them before? What real reciprocity can they offer us in the way of markets?

The reciprocity agreement met increasing disapproval over the following decade. American protectionism, exemplified here in the Middle State Farmer’s argument, led to the abrogation of the treaty by the United States in 1866.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 17 April, 2015, 12:00 AM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Aysut to Asswan

Image: Watercolor from A Nile Journal by Emily Horby (1908)


In the previous installment of An American Woman in Egypt, we left our narrator journeying south from Aysut by steamer. During the first week of December, the travelers continue down the Nile stopping at a number of archeological sites and luxury tourist resorts along the way. In this post, I have interleaved our anonymous diarist’s narrative with excerpts from a contemporary travel guide and published memoir describing the same locations.

Dec. 1. Had early breakfast, reached Denderah & went ashore there at 8.30. Took donkies [sic] & rode to Denderah Temple in 2 hours. Temple of Hathor.  Great vestibule of Pharaohs 24 columns with heads of Hathor. Went up on the roof for view. Got back for lunch. Just at tea time reached Luxor. Miss Goeller & we two went ashore with Dr. Hodson who took us over the Winter Palace Hotel & gardens. Then we walked out to Luxor temple & looked at ships.

Dec. 2. Started on donkies at 9.30 & rode to Karnak. Very hot day. Saw temple of Kurnah then rode dromedaries little way to temple of Ammon. Finally went on top for view and got home just before one p.m. Very warm & slept after lunch; had tea at 4 & then went out to see Luxor temple. A beautiful sunset & we stayed behind to see the color on the water then went to Winter Palace & P.O.

 A short distance from the river, on the west bank, a little to the north of the village of Denderah, stands the Temple of Denderah, which marks the site of the classical Tentyra or Tentyris ... where the goddess Hathor was worshipped. ... The wonderfully preserved Temple now standing there is probably not older than the beginning of our era; ...hence it must be considered as the architectural product of a time when the ancient Egyptian traditions of sculpture were already dead and nearly forgotten. It is, however, a majestic monument worthy of careful examination.
--The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt, 9th edition (London: Thos. Cook & Son, 1905).

Dec. 3. Breakfast at 7.30, left at 8.30 & sailed across to W. bank where we took donkies & road to mortuary chapel of Sethos I. Then rode on to tombs of Kings & reached 4 -- Ramses IX - Ramses VI - Sethor I - Amenophis II - then walked up over hill for view & down to rest-house for lunch. At 2 walked to temple of Darr El-Bahre of Queen Hatsh[epsut]. Then rode back to river & took boats home in time for tea. After it went to buy cards.

Dec. 4 - Early breakfast at 7.30. Left at 8 & rode first to ruins of Rames great temple of Ramses Srenk II, then road to temples of Derr-El-Medenah, judgement halls of Osiris, & temple of Ramses III. … finest in Egypt. Passed Colosses of Memmon (Amenophsis III) on way back to boat. Got back to steamer just for lunch. P.M. took pad[dle] on Nile for 1 hr with Miss Phelps & Miss Marell, mailed my Christmas cards after tea went to Hotel [illegible phrase] walked along shore to see sunset, then went into shops.

Came to a lovely grove of palm trees, where we lunched. Donkeys arrived...and we had a very pleasant ride on to Karnak, a good way further. Pigeons flying in clouds over fields. Must be very destructive, but picturesque. Soon the obelisk was seen in the distance, and at last we came to the avenue of the sphinxes, which has only been lately thoroughly uncovered. Enormous creatures, each with a little figure on their knees.
--A Nile Journal by E. H. [Emily Hornby] (Liverpool: J.A. Thompson, 1908)

Dec. 5. Sailed very early from Luxor & about 10 arrived at Esna after going thro’ a lock. Walked to the temple, as it was very near. Temple of Khnum goat-headed local deity. Pronave 24 columns in 6 rows with different floral capitals - similar to  of temple Hathor at Denderah. From there sailed on & reached Edfou about 3, took donkeys & some walked to the temple of Horus, best preserved ancient temple in the world. A great [?] & we went to top up a dark stairway for view 242 steps. Crest surrounded on 3 sides by colonnade of 32 columns in the different floral (^ & palm) capitals [illegible phrase] wall also decorated. In evening we had a lecture on the Nile by the doctor. Got back from temple for tea.

Side-by-side it is possible to see how the genre of travel writing, published and unpublished, often contains strikingly similar observations, despite differences in tone (the Cook’s authoritative, the Hornby self-consciously poetic in her descriptions). It is likely that our diarist would have read one or more commercially-published travel guide before or during her tour, and it is clear that Dr. Hodson, mentioned in the December 5 entry above, mediates her interpretation of the archeological sites the group encounters. 

In two weeks we will continue our journey down the Nile. In the meantime, I encourage you to explore the lavish watercolor illustrations and personable narration of Emily Hornby’s Nile Journal at Internet Archive.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 1:00 AM

“The Long Agony Is Over”: The Trial of John White Webster

With all the coverage of the Tsarnaev trial here in Boston, I’m reminded of another case that rocked the city 165 years ago: the murder of George Parkman in Nov. 1849. Harvard Medical College lecturer John White Webster, who owed Parkman a significant sum of money, was accused of killing him and attempting to destroy his body by burning it in a furnace. Webster was convicted on 30 Mar. 1850 and sentenced to execution by hanging. The gruesome nature of the crime and the high social standing of both men meant that not just all of Boston, but the entire country, was riveted. 

The story has been covered so well and so thoroughly by others that I won’t go into the details of the case, but I was curious about contemporary reactions to the crime and the trial. Manuscript collections at the MHS give us a nice cross-section of opinions. For example, the day after the verdict came down, a young woman named Harriet Hayward wrote in her diary:

Has been a dismal day. Poor Dr Webster is pronounced guilty; the verdict was brought in last night, and we heard of it this morning. I have felt fairly sick today, and totally unfit to take charge of a class at Sunday school. What a barbarous and wicked law! A man taken from his wife and children to be put in prison for a short time, and afterwards hung [sic], while the family is made wretched. When a poor man is once fairly shut up in prison, and not able to say a word for himself, all kinds of stories are circulated about him, that have no foundation. If I were a person of some importance and could say or do any thing to save his life I would do it, but I feel my own insignificance now more than ever. I hope mercy will be shown him in another world.

It’s unclear to me what Hayward thought of Webster’s guilt or innocence, but she certainly objected to the sentence of death, and her reaction was not atypical. Letters started pouring into Massachusetts Governor George N. Briggs’ office from all over the country petitioning for clemency for Webster. Some argued he was innocent, that he had not received a fair trial, or that the evidence against him was circumstantial. (One anonymous letter claims Webster couldn’t possibly have committed the crime because the writer did it himself!) Others accepted his guilt but opposed capital punishment on religious or moral grounds. Many called the murder unpremeditated and believed Webster was sincerely penitent.


The prosecutor in the case, John H. Clifford, was exhausted after the trial. He wrote in a letter on 2 Apr. 1850, “The long agony is over, and I am once more by my own hearth stone, trying to restore the equilibrium which two weeks straining of my entire being has deranged & disturbed. […] I cannot help feeling this trial to have been a great crisis in my life.” He called Webster “almost soulless” and was satisfied with the outcome, but pitied the man’s family.

Webster’s wife Harriet and their four daughters steadfastly maintained his innocence and banished any who doubted it from their Cambridge home, but some extended family members were unconvinced. Harriet’s sister Amelia (Hickling) Chambers Nye had no trouble believing Webster guilty. In letters written between June 1850 and Feb. 1851, Nye made her case against her brother-in-law. In fact, she had suspected him all along: 

Is it not strange that when Eliza and I saw the first advertisement about Dr. P’s disappearance and Dr. Webster being the last person who saw him the thought struck us both that he knew more of his disappearance. The same thing struck both sister Prescott and Susan and Emma so that every one who knew him best, suspected him first. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving he went to Mrs. Cunningham’s to a party, a lady said to him so Dr. you were the last person who saw Dr. Parkman what if you should be suspected. He immediately replied, “what do you think I look like a murderer?” and went on talking about something else.

In her long, somewhat rambling letters, Nye described the Websters’ financial problems, her brother-in-law’s “bad qualities,” and other heinous crimes she believed he’d committed years before. She thought Harriet and the children were deluded. Since they refused to read the papers, they were unaware that “one half the people in Boston believe it was a premeditated act.” Much of what Nye wrote was hearsay and rumor, but her animosity toward Webster is unmistakable. His penitence was feigned, she claimed. His family would be better off without him, and even execution would be preferable to the shame of life imprisonment, a fate she described as “a living death to all of them.” 

After his conviction, John White Webster confessed to killing George Parkman in a fit of rage over the debt. He also wrote to Francis Parkman, George’s brother, asking for forgiveness. Gov. Briggs, however, did not commute his sentence, and Webster was hanged on 30 Aug. 1850. Boston merchant Frederic Cunningham read a description of the execution in the newspaper and wrote about it in his diary, commending Webster’s self-possession: “He walked firmly to the scaffold & fell 8 feet.” According to Cunningham, the people of Boston were “better disposed towards him” after his death.

Though opinions were sharply divided, the case held an undeniable fascination. Three weeks after the trial, in spite of her horror at the verdict, young Harriet Hayward and some friends visited the Harvard Medical College laboratory where the crime had taken place. Amelia Nye’s friend Miss Jennison told her that “she never saw so many carriages in Cambridge before. They rode round the square purposely to look at the [Websters’] house.” As for Nye, she wrote of John White Webster, “I cannot help shuddering when I think of him.”


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 12:00 AM

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