“Houses of Ill Fame” in Boston, 1907-1910: A Police Report
A graduate student doing research on early social work and “delinquent” girls recently reviewed a publication in our collection titled A Record of the Enforcement of the Laws Against Sexual Immorality Since December 1, 1907 as Contained in the Information relating thereto Embodied in the Reports to the Governor of Massachusetts made Annually by the Police Commissioner for the City of Boston (City of Boston: Printing Department, [1910?]). The report compiles data on police activity between 1907 and 1910 to contain “public and semipublic sexual immorality” in the city of Boston. “Total extinction” of immorality “cannot be hoped for, can hardly be imagined; but effectual restraint can be applied,” wrote Police Commissioner Stephen O’Meara in his introduction to the report.
Attempts at such “restraint” are what the report documents. For example, the report offers a table showing the number of “houses of ill fame” against which charges were brought (between 1879 and 1908, the number fluctuated from a low of 19 to a high of 114 annually) and enumerates how the “keepers” of these houses were punished. Most common was a fine of $50.00; two, however, were imprisoned and seven sent to a “house of correction” for one year.
“Night walkers” (women who sold sex on the street) were similarly rounded up and fined or confined in prisons or correction facilities. Notable for historians is the data on the sex workers that the author of the report believed was relevant to include. They provided tables showing the birthplace and age of women who had been found in brothels and who had been found working on the street, as well as detailing the punishments meted out. Specifically, they seem interested in noting the number of women who are native U.S. rather than foreign-born residents. Of the 375 women and girls arrested on the street (no mention is made of male prostitutes), 266 were from the United States while the remaining 109 had been born 14 other nations, all European countries with the exception of Canada and Russia. Their age ranged from sixteen to “above 40.” In addition, the police also arrested 46 women and girls who, “though conducting themselves in an immoral manner on the streets, were in most cases hardly more than delinquent or wayward children,” most often returned to their parents or placed on probation.
The report also includes a section on public fears surrounding “white slavery,” cautioning that “the transition from a virtuous life to a life devoted wholly or in part to mercenary immorality … is rarely sudden.” Women and girls, rather than being coerced, instead found themselves lured into “mercenary immorality” for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of religious training to poverty to exposure to “flashy public entertainments and reading matter which rouse their bad instincts.” (Probably reading this report is bad for me!)
This report is an intriguing example of the intersection of law enforcement and the emerging fields of social work in the early 1900s. The report, and other early 20th century publications on similar topics, can be viewed in our library during our business hours.
| Published: Wednesday, 25 May, 2011, 8:00 AM
Researcher Hopes to Write the Autobiography John Quincy Adams “Never had Time to Write.”
For the past six weeks, one of the digital microfilm readers in our library has been occupied by a researcher working his way through the microfilm edition of the Adams Family Papers. He is painstakingly transcribing passages from the handwritten correspondence of John Quincy Adams (JQA) in preparation for an intellectual biography of the man who witnessed two generations worth of political events play out on a world stage.
As the @JQAdams_MHS Twitter project highlights, John Quincy Adams was an obsessive chronicler of events in his own life and the global political networks in which he moved. Our dedicated researcher has set out to document JQA’s life as an observer of the world. De-centering the biographical subject, he hopes to write an outward-looking biography, “the autobiography [JQA] never had time to write” because he was so busy keeping diaries, writing letters, and otherwise documenting the events and interactions he took part in.
When asked for some of his initial observations, our dedicated researcher points to JQA’s antislavery agitation, which made him an outlier in his generation of Americans. The biographer suggests, echoing JQA’s own penchant for Biblical metaphors, that John Quincy Adams was a “John the Baptist,” helping prepare the way for the abolition of slavery decades after his death in 1848.
We wish our researcher the best of luck with his work and look forward to the biographical study to come.
| Published: Wednesday, 18 May, 2011, 10:00 AM
Two New Volunteers Join the Reader Services Team
In May two volunteers, Beth Hirsch & Liz Francis, joined the library reader services team. The two women, both currently students at Simmons College's Graduate School of Library and Information Science, will assist with the selection of documents to be featured in Looking at the Civil War: Massachusetts Finds Her Voice on the MHS website. The web-presentation features one document per month selected from the MHS' own collections & written 150 years prior by a Massachusetts resident reflecting on some facet of the Civil War. For more information about the overall project, click here.
Beth's first assignment is to canvas a variety of collections looking for a document to be featured in June 2011 -- meaning the document must have been written in June 1861. We are hoping to find a document that allows for a woman's voice to be heard. Right now we are looking at a number of likely candidates. Once the final selection is made Beth will complete a transcription of the document and research & write a contextual essay to accompany the digitized images of the document on our website (see our April document for an example of what this looks like). After completing her work with the June document, Beth will likely dive right into collections containing letters written by Massachusetts soldiers who participated in the Battle of Bull Run in search of an item to feature in July.
Liz's first task is to complete a survey of a body of letters written by Hannah Elizabeth Stevenson contained in the larger Curtis-Stevenson Family Papers. Hannah served as a nurse in various Union hospitals in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington from July 1861 through October 1862. Liz is challenged to identify and summarize all letters of particular interest, which may be used in a number of different MHS projects over the course of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and also to select one single letter from the collection to be featured in Massachusetts Finds Her Voice in the coming months. Again, once a selection is made Liz will be working on the transcription and contextual essay to support the document when it is added to the web-presentation.
While our summer spots filled up fast, there will likely be additional opportunities for volunteers in the fall. Please contact Elaine Grublin if you would like further information about volunteering for this project.
| Published: Wednesday, 4 May, 2011, 8:00 AM
Guest Post: Research Fellow Finds More Than She is Looking for in Sarah Louisa Guild's Diary
By Laura Prieto, Simmons College
I have come across several surprises in the reading room recently, as is entirely typical in manuscript research. One archival pleasure is finding what we hope is there, but another is encountering the unexpected.
I eagerly opened Sarah Louisa Guild’s diary for 1898 anticipating some insights on the Spanish-American War, as the MHS catalog promised. I was seeking a woman's personal view of that conflict and Guild did not disappoint me. Her observant, intelligent entries demonstrate how avidly she followed news on the war as well as on local politics. She decried the "wretched Mugwumps who cry 'down with imperialism'. . . . Mugwumps seem to always pull down but never build up." Her partisan interests were likely influenced by her older brother Curtis; "Curty" had volunteered to fight and had political ambitions, supported by his family. But the passion with which she wrote about political candidates and issues suggests that "Lulu" would have been engaged by them anyway.
I feel fortunate to have Guild's careful, candid thoughts on what was happening around her. As is the case with most war correspondence, her "homefront" letters did not make it into the archive, even though her brother's letters from Army camp are preserved. Without her diary, we'd have no trace of what Sarah Louisa made of the war or of her relationship to it.
But her diary is much richer than just political commentary. Guild wrote about her love of music and included capsule reviews of the concerts she attended. Sometimes I'd turn a page and find a pressed flower, or a four-leaf clover. One tiny pansy came from a bouquet sent to comfort her upon the death of her mother. Guild always appreciated such tokens of affection; she especially noted how one gift of flowers came from a friend who hadn’t much money. (Guild later sent that friend a ticket to the Boston Symphony.) The diary is also a record of Guild's mourning and her declining health. She consulted doctors and tried bromides and tonics to no avail. She wrote the last entries from a sanatorium in Connecticut that specialized in treating nervous diseases.
On occasion, Guild trained her sights on others in her social set. One unusually acerbic entry remarked upon the death of Isabella Stewart Gardner's husband in 1898:
Mr. Jack Gardner was seized with apoplexy at noon at the Somerset. He was carried to his Beacon St home and died at 9 P.M. Good natured clumsy man! Wonder if his nervous & fashion loving wife will marry again. He was like a Newfoundland dog at her heels.
Guild's judgment reminds us that late nineteenth-century women continued to be the makers and breakers of reputation among the privileged classes. Such barbs could sting deeply, as any fan of Edith Wharton knows. Gardner no doubt could wield mighty social muscle in her own defense.
Pressed flowers and sharp-tongued gossip: it's just such unexpected interruptions that helpfully unsettle what we think we're researching. I opened her diary searching for a "good source," but find the privilege of glimpsing Sarah Louisa Guild, a complete, complicated human being who is more than the sum of her words.
Laura Prieto is currently working at the MHS as a Ruth R & Alyson R. Miller Fellow.
| Published: Friday, 22 April, 2011, 10:00 AM
Welcome to Short-Term Fellow Laura Prieto
This spring, the MHS staff welcomes short-term fellow Laura Prieto, one of our 2010-2011 Ruth R & Alyson R. Miller fellows in women’s history. Dr. Prieto is an Associate Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Simmons College here in Boston. She received her Ph.D. in History from Brown University in 1998, and her dissertation on professional women artists in the United States, 1830-1930, has been published as the book At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
In addition her work on women artists, Dr. Prieto has done extensive research on gender, race, and imperialism during the past ten years. Her MHS fellowship project, “New Women, New Empire: 1898 and its Legacies for Women in the United States” is a part of this research. During her fellowship, Dr. Prieto will be exploring the “real and imagined collection relationship between American and colonized women,” with a focus on the Spanish-American war and the immediate post-war period, as the U.S. began to realize imperial ambitions. She will be reading the private writing of women (correspondence and diaries) on the “splendid little war”, as well as newspaper coverage and the more public responses to the war made by public figures such as Charles Francis Adams and by leaders in the Anti-Imperialist League.
Laura Prieto will give a brown bag lunch talk about her research at the MHS on Wednesday 4 May from 12:00-1:00pm. The event is free and open to the public.
The MHS staff is pleased to have Dr. Prieto with us throughout the spring and wishes her a fellowship period full of discoveries.
| Published: Wednesday, 6 April, 2011, 8:00 AM