The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

Archivist as Detective

When cataloging manuscript collections here at the MHS, I sometimes get the opportunity to play detective. The library recently acquired an anonymous 19th-century diary, and I was tasked with (hopefully) identifying its author. Since the diary came to us as an individual item rather than as part of a collection of family papers, I had no external clues to go on. There was nothing to do but start reading and see what details emerged from the text itself. 


The diary dates from 1818 to 1827 and was kept in Boston by a young man working as an apprentice in some commercial business. I scanned the pages looking for names, places, and other reference points. I saw a lot of repeated surnames, but their relationship to the writer was unclear. First names were most likely those of siblings or close friends, but what 19th-century Boston family didn’t have a William, a James, and a Mary Ann? And like a lot of diarists, this one tended to use initials for the people most familiar to him. How thoughtless.

I perked up when I saw his entry about marrying a Sarah Barnes in 1827, but I couldn’t find a record of the marriage, possibly because of inconsistencies in the way names were spelled. The diary also includes notations of other marriages that, from their context, I suspected were those of siblings or cousins. In fact, I had a lot of specific biographical clues that should have been more helpful than they were. I knew the date of my diarist’s marriage, the name of his wife, the date of his mother’s death, and exactly when he was born. He wrote on 16 December 1821: “This is the 21st anniversary of my birth.”

From the number of Smiths that make an appearance in his diary, I got the idea that my mystery man might be a Smith. Alongside the Smiths, he often mentioned members of the Messinger family. This family connection turned out to be the breakthrough I needed.

Using online resources, I built a Messinger family tree and—voila!—found a Mary Ann Smith who married Daniel Messinger. The way my diarist wrote about Mary Ann, I guessed she was his sister, and the dates were right; she was born the year before him, in 1799. Mary Ann’s parents were Benjamin and Dorcas (Silsbee) Smith. The Silsbees figure prominently in the diary, as do the related Lorings, so I felt I was finally on the right track. And sure enough, among Benjamin and Dorcas’s other children was one Benjamin, Jr., born in 1800!

I was fairly confident I’d found my man, but I wanted to be sure. This diary entry for 1 January 1823 confirmed it: “This Day [I] commenced business at No. 13 Commercial Street with Mr. Cornelius Nye […] under the firm of Smith & Nye.” The Boston Directory for that year lists, as traders in West India goods at 13 Commercial Street, none other than Cornelius Nye and Benjamin Smith, Jr. 

The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place when I searched our online catalog ABIGAIL and discovered we had a small collection of Smith family papers. This collection consists primarily of papers of Benjamin Smith, Sr. and Captain William Smith—the father and brother-in-law, respectively, of my diarist. William was a shipmaster who sailed for Calcutta in January 1818, an event noted on the first page of this very diary.

A family bible and other genealogical material in the Smith family papers completed Benjamin, Jr.’s story for me. I learned that Sarah Barnes was actually his second wife. He first married on 23 April 1823 to Jane Barnes, who died just six months later of tuberculosis. Benjamin described Jane’s illness and death in heart-breaking detail in his diary: “In losing my dearest wife I feel as though all happiness, all hope had gone with her. […] She was my life, my all on earth.” Jane’s sister Sarah helped to care for her during her illness, and Benjamin wrote that Sarah was “very kind & attentive to me & I shall never forget it.” Clearly he didn’t—he married Sarah four years later, and the couple had two sons, Benjamin III and Charles.

Benjamin’s life also came to an early and tragic end. On 12 June 1832, when he was 31 years old, he and several friends drowned in Boston Harbor during a fishing trip in a boat called the Bunker Hill. The accident and its aftermath are recorded in his father’s diary, including Benjamin, Sr.’s rush to the harbor and desperate attempts at resuscitation.

It’s not always possible to identify the authors of diaries and other personal papers that are donated to us, but it’s very satisfying when it happens!

comments: 6 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 24 February, 2016, 10:56 AM

Margaret Russell’s Diary, February 1916

Today, we return to the line-a-day diary of Margaret Russell. If you missed the January installment of Margaret’s diary, you can find it here, along with a brief introduction to this monthly series.

During the month of February 1916, Margaret traveled south from wintery New England to Atlantic City by rail and spends nine days at the upscale Marlborough Blenheim hotel. While the weather in New Jersey was not particularly spring-like (“foggy and cold” reads one day, “sleeting” another), Margaret still walked daily and took in many local amusements including outdoor concerts and a performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion -- first performed just three years earlier -- starring the actress who is said to have provided the inspiration for Eliza Dolittle, Beatrice Stella Tanner (“Mrs. Pat”).



Where do you think she collected this bit of plant matter tucked between the diary pages?


* * *

February 1916

1 Feb.* Tuesday - Stay in bed every morning till 10.30.Feel better. Went to tell Dr.Balch so then to Friday Club. Miss Abler came to dine.

2 Feb. Wednesday - annual meeting of Chilton. Mrs.Ward’s class.Heavy snowstorm so did not go out again.

3 Feb Thursday- Heavy snowstorm.Clearing by 12 - took Mrs  A--out in the P.M. for a short time. Feel better.

4 Feb. Friday - Concert. Geraldine [word]. Dined at Bowker’s with Prof & Mrs. Dupriez of [Belgium].

5 Feb. Saturday. Meeting & service at Good Samaritan.  Bowker’s dinner another night not Friday

6 Feb. Sunday. Walked to Cathedral with Miss A & lunched at H.G.C.’s. Family to dine.

7 Feb. Monday. Lunched at Marian’s. Dined at Cousin Edith Perkins’ to meet Mrs. James Perkins.

8 Feb. Monday - Packing & errands. Came to N.Y. on the 3 o’k train. Went to Hotel Belmont.

9 Feb. Left for Atlantic City at 10.15 & got there for lunch. Morning [word] went out to walk. Lovely rooms [word].

10 Feb. Am at Marlborough Blenheim. Pleasant day. Walked in the A.M. Sat out & then took Hollingchair. Enjoy salt water baths.

11 Feb. Friday. Walked in the morning. Went to moving pictures in the P.M.

12 Feb. Saturday. Foggy & cold but went out to see Harry Lauder in the P.M. Very amusing.

Harry Lauder, source:


13 Feb. Sunday - Sleeting. Walked & church. In the afternoon went to hear Italian band - delightful. Snowing & blowing.

14 Feb. Monday - Bitter cold but went out to hear Italian band again on the Pier. Crowds very amusing.

15 Feb. Tuesday not so cold & bright. Went to walk. In the P.M. to hear the Italians. Took our [word].

16 Feb. Wednesday. Lovely day & warmer. Walked to the Inlet & back on the beach. Went to hear Mrs. Pat Campbell in Pygmalion.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell / Beatrice Stella Tanner, source:


17 Feb. Thursday - walked over four miles (same yesterday) & back on beach in the other direction. Last time to hear Italians.

18 Feb. Friday - Took last walk. Left at 2.30 - N.Y. at 5.40. Went to Belmont. Saw Mr. Moorfield Storey, Jack Peabody, Henry Harves, Bob Sbaros all going to Atlantic for holiday.

19 Feb. Saturday - Very cold & windy. Went to the new Colony Club & a few errands. Come home on 1ok. Feeling very well.

20 Feb. Sunday Church - to see Parmans. Lunched at H.G.C’s. Family to dine. Richard goes off this week.

21 Feb. [word]. Lunched at Marian’s. Went to Mrs. Fitz musical. Very cold but clear.

22 Feb Walked down to thee Charley Pierson with Marian. Drive out to see Mrs. Hodder. Lovely spring day.

23 Feb. Wednesday - Mrs. Ward’s lecture. Lunched at Club. Art Mus. lecture. Went to [word] at Higginsen’s.

24 Feb. Thursday - Lunch club here - fair. Went to call on Mrs. Wulhin. Dined out at C.S. Sargent’s big affair. CPC went with me.

25 Feb. Friday - Errands & Dr. Cockett. Splendid concert. Rainy & slippery.

26 Feb. Saturday - Mrs. Lysen’s reading. Raining hard & warmer. Went to [word] & hard no trouble. To concert again.

27 Feb. Sunday - Church. Lunched at H.G.C.’s Went to war lecture by Palmer at Mrs. N Thayer’s. Family dinner.

28 Feb. Monday - [word]. Lunched at Marian’s. Went out to Museum for botany lecture. Very interesting. Dined at South End H. Mr. Words took me in.

29 Feb. Tuesday - Ronlet reading in the morning. T. Club in the afternoon. Paid some calls.


* * *

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: Wednesday, 17 February, 2016, 10:36 AM

Math and Medicine: The Notebooks of Andrew Croswell

In the news recently there is a lot of coverage of the Zika virus and the late rise in outbreaks related to it. With that in mind I wanted to check our collections to see what the MHS holds relating to viruses. When I searched our online catalog, ABIGAIL, using Virus as the subject term I came up with no results. Using a method I briefly described in my last post on the Beehive, I started clicking around to see what related terms there might be. Instead of Virus diseases, ABIGAIL pointed me to three narrower terms: Influenza, Measles, and Rabies. Not satisfied with these options and the results they yielded, I tried searching for simply Diseases instead. The first result I found with this search is what this post is all about. 

Andrew Croswell (1778-1858) was a student at Harvard University in the late 1790s. He later studied medicine in Plymouth, MA, and practiced there and in Fayette and Mercer, ME. In the collections here we hold two notebooks that were kept by Croswell. The first is a mathematical notebook which contains definitions and problems in geometry, trigonometry, and surveying. The second is a physician's notebook that contains notes on the treatment of diseases and injuries, as well as the use of some medicines. 

The second notebook, relating to various diseases and treatments, is text-heavy in its content. Croswell - who had very nice, neat, and even handwriting - copied observations from published medical texts, especially the work of Dr. Benjamin Rush. 

Observations on the cholera infantum

Rush's observations vol 1 p159


Also, Croswell includes illustrations of a few little villages in Maine where he practiced medicine.

Mercer Village, ME 1805


While it was the search for disease that exposed me to Mr. Croswell, it was his non-medical notebook that really captured my attention. Given my aversion to math in my educational career, this was an accomplishment. Croswell's mathematical notebook, kept while a student at Harvard, was impressive not only in its order, clarity, and neatness, but in the embellishments that he included. The title page gives us a very good idea of what to expect in terms of content before we get into the notebook:


The first section of notebook deals with geometry. Croswell started by writing out definitions of terms relating to the subject and then goes on to tackling geometric problems. It is here that the notebook becomes, to me, much more visually striking as he starts to include geometric figures alongside the various problems. Generally, the figures start out fairly simple and then get more complex.


After his work on geometry, Croswell moves into the field of surveying and problems of trigonometry. Again, he steps-up his detail and the intricacy of his illustrations, adding color and tables as he solves problems relating to land area:


He then proceeds to "Mensuration of Heights and Distances" through the use of trigonometric functions. Again, Croswell takes his illustrations up another level, this time depicting full scenes which represent the mathematical problems at hand. The problems contain variables such as whether a location is accessible to people and the situation of the ground from which observations are made.

PROB. 1. _ To take the height of an accessible object by one observation.


PROB 4th. To take the distance of any inaccessible object. | PROB 5th. Upon a place of known height determine the distance betwee two objects, lying in the same direction.


The last section of this mathematical notebook concerns itself with matters of maritime navigation. 


Again, Croswell draws out intricate geometric designs to illustrate the problems of navigation and sailing. He even includes a hand-drawn and colored map of the Atlantic Ocean (the judges deduct one point on this for his representation of the North American coastline). 


Pretty cool, right? To think, that from hearing about a modern medical issue in the news, I ended up with such a meticulously written and illustrated mathematical guide to solving problems of navigation! Now it's your turn. Pick a starting point in ABIGAIL and see how far afield you find yourself after just a few minutes. Then visit the library and check out what you discover!


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

Immigrants Needing Protection from Themselves? The Padrone System in Boston’s North End

In the late nineteenth century the Reverend Gaetano Conte created a scrapbook about the founding of the Society for Protection of Italian Immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts. The scrapbook, titled Societies for the protection of Italian immigrants: documents and illustrations, 1894-1906,  is a unique collection of notes, letters, newspaper clippings, annual reports, and photographs kept by Conte during his years in Boston and through his return home to Italy.

Interestingly this organization was not formed with the intention of protecting the newly arriving Italian Immigrants from Americans or other immigrants, but from fellow Italian immigrants! Why was there such a need as described by the Reverend and the inhabitants of Boston’s North End? What were the Italian Immigrants exposed to that other immigrants were not? What was it that put fear and anger in the hearts of families and young men when they arrived on American shores? The answer to each question is the same: The Padrone.

The Padrone System was a network that began in the towns of Italy and spread to the cities and towns of America. The Padrone -from the Italian word for manager or boss- were labor brokers. These were men who victimized their fellow countrymen as they arrived lost and alone in a foreign land. The new immigrants were in need of guidance, guidance that the Padrones would provide…at a price. The Padrone would offer employment opportunities to young men in Italy, often promising them safe passage and housing. The Padrone also offered banking for the immigrants; providing them with a “safe” place to save the money they earned and a way to “send” money home to Italy. Other Padrone would simply solicit Italian men who were already in America with the prospect of a “great” new job; all they had to do was agree to go to Maine for a year…

The degree of corruption varied, but the Padrone always profited from the relationship. Passage from Italy was on ships owned by companies with whom they had contracts. Housing was poor tenement apartments shared among many immigrants in sub-human standards.  The jobs they offered in America were often extremely hard with very little pay. The Padrone “banks” would often make large portions of the immigrant’s savings disappear for various fees. The money the immigrants would try to send home to their families in Italy would often never arrive. And the “great” new jobs would often be far from their new homes in Boston, such as in the woods of Maine where they would labor endlessly under the Padrone, often without seeing the wages they had been promised. The Italian immigrants often found themselves lost and confused in this new country; they couldn’t speak the language, they didn’t understand the customs and they were often uneducated. So the services of the Padrone seemed the only choice they had to survive; they felt they had no one else to help them.

The Immigration Act of 1864, supposedly to encourage immigration, created the opportunity for Padrones in America; it allowed manufacturers to bring in a cheap foreign labor force under contract, hence needing a middleman or labor broker to negotiate between the laborers and the employers. Although largely unheard of, the Padrone Act of 1874 tried to stop the padrone system to protect immigrants from “involuntary servitude.”  

Rev. Conte came to the United States in 1893 to help his fellow Italians who had moved to America. Upon arriving in America and beginning his work here, the Reverend began to keep records of the social situation of the Italian immigrants. He found the Italian immigrants needed more than just their souls saved, and the Reverend was not going to allow his people to suffer. He became the superintendent of the Boston Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants. He was also involved in the North End Italian Mission, the Association for Protecting Italian Workmen, and the Society for Protection of Italian Immigrants.

Rev. Conte’s work with Italian Immigrants in Massachusetts was pioneering and heroic. His notes are aptly named after the Society that he created. The revered was not only interested in protecting Italians from the Padrone; he also sought to improve schooling, housing and health care.  The collection here at the MHS covers many aspects of the immigrants’ lives, social, political, religious and moral. It illustrates elements of the social aspects of immigration and life in the North End along with observations of religious, moral and ethical issues. It also contains photographs, illustrations and legal records, annual reports and statistical information. Finally the collection has many newspaper clippings from both American and Italian immigrants portraying the victimization by the Padrone and the actions of the Societies for the protection of Italian immigrants.


Also in the collection are two versions of a memoir written by Conte and focusing on issues of Italian emigration to North American at the turn of the 20th century. There is a 1903 Italian-language printing, Dieci anni in America: impressioni e ricordi, and a 1976 translation titled Ten Years in America: impressions and recollections…  

Interested in U.S. immigration over the years? Try searching our catalog, ABIGAIL, for subject terms like United States Emigration and immigration


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 10 February, 2016, 11:52 AM

Curiosities and Monstrosities

As I sat trying to think of ideas for this post, I opened our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to brainstorm and see if I could think of any odd subject headings I wanted to explore. There, in that sentence, lay the answer. I typed in "oddities" to see what we might have in our holdings with that tag. The number of results I got with that search was a big fat goose egg. Thankfully, ABIGAIL, though often cruel in her adherence to a controlled vocabulary, offered me a bit of help and gave me another term that I should look into: "Curiosities and Wonders." 

And so I was off, looking into what curious and wondrous items the MHS holds. There are 33 titles associated with that subject heading in the catalog, with further subdivisions pointing to specific geographic locations (Lawrence and Boston, MA; NY, NY; Great Britain), photographs, even juvenile literature. Confining myself to the original 33, I started browsing the titles for common themes or links among them. It was soon apparent that we had a decent little number of items relating to the grotesque, freakish, and monstrous. 



Opened by Daniel Bowen in 1795, the Columbian Museum showcased a broad range of curiosities: waxen figures of John Adams; larger-than-life depictions of Scriptural scenes, like David and Goliath; and exhibitions of various animals. "A procupine, a bear, a raccoon, and a rabbit were announced by their proprietor as 'very great curiosities.' There was an elephant which, in conformity with the habits of the day, drank 'all kinds of spirituous liquors;' and the public were assured that 'thirty bottles of porter, of which he draws the corks himself, is not an uncommon allowance.'... spectators were informed that 'he will probably live between two and three hundred years,' -- an announcement which shows that the effect of alcohol upon animal tissue was not then so well understood as it is thought to be at present."1 The Columbian Museum operated until 1825 when the collections were acquired by Ethan Allen Greenwood for his New England Museum.



This broadside relates a piece of correspondence written by Samuel Hanson to his brother. Hanson, along with two other soldiers, is ordered to travel from Louisville, KY, to New Orleans in order to assist General Jackson there. Along the way, the three men stop for a night in the town of Versailles, KY, on the Ohio River. They are told tales of an enormous serpent that has been menacing the town and eating livestock. With all the able-bodied men of the town already off in New Orleans to join in the fighting, the townspeople aske these three soldiers to help them get rid of the threat. They agree and, the next day head out with their two dogs to search for the beast in the woods. After some time, they finally find "a monster, of the serpent kind, full twenty-two feet length, and the thickest part of his body of the size of the thigh of one our largest men! his eye sparkling like fire, and venomously shooting forth his forked tongue..." The men eventually succeeded in killing the beast and taking its head. 



Finally, this broadside caught my eye mainly because of the image that dominates the center. However, after a closer look, it is the feature at the bottom that really stands out. Upon closer reading, we find that the audience has the opportunity to see a living man who, early in life, promised to be a robust man later on. However, due to some unexplained circumstance, the man lost all flesh and was, seemingly, a living skeleton, and one that could play the violin, to boot!

Clicking through ABIGAIL with little direction can yield some interesting and entertaining items. Take a trip down the rabbit hole, see what you find, and then visit the library!


1. Winsor, Justin, The Memorial History of Boston : including Suffolk County, Massachusetts, Boston: Osgood, 1881


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 5 February, 2016, 12:00 AM

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