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A Mother’s Conviction and A Little Girl’s Courage: Cancer Surgery in 1881

In honor of Cancer Awareness month, I would like to share with you the extraordinary story of young Mabel Cabot, who underwent cancer surgery in 1881. Mabel’s story is preserved thanks to the careful and detailed diary entries kept by Mabel’s mother, Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot. The diary entries document daily activities and events, providing this unique look at cancer care and treatment in the 19th century. 

On 13 October 1880, Mabel fell, and as described in the diary, she suffered a great deal. The fall caused an undetected tumor to move and created new and painful growth, leading to the realization that eight-year-old Mabel Cabot had Ovarian Cancer.

Extracts from the Diary of Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot pertaining to Mabel’s cancer:

13 October 1880

“Mabel fell in afternoon and brought in by Marianne suffering a great deal.”

15 October 1880

“…Mabel very sick. Lizzie and I took care of her.”

11 November 1880

“Miss Russell came as a nurse for Mabel.”

9 December 1880

“Mabel celebrated her first dinner downstairs by drinking champagne- looks as well as ever, but leg stiff – Out to drive.”

29 January 1881

“Dr. Sabine has decided that Mabel’s trouble, apparently unchanged for some time, has begun to increase and with it our anxiety.”

2 February 1881

“Consultation of Dr. Bigelow and Dr. Hodges. No hope.”

21 February 1881

“Went to see Dr. Tom Curtis. -Urged us to go abroad.”

22 February 1881

 “Dr. John Homans came to see Mabel. Considers it Sarcoma – a hopeless case.”

 30 March 1881

“Mabel awake a good deal in night tho’ not in pain. I sat up singing to her sometime. . . 

This morning the medicine I gave the children affected them well, but Mabel complains of tenderness whenever she moves. My heart sinks . . .

She feels pain in walking & moves slowly & carefully.”

[American doctors have declared Mabel’s cancer hopeless, so the family departs for London in an attempt to save her, although it is risky. They leave Brookline on 23 March and arrive in London on 4 April.]

5 April 1881

“Mabel felt badly about another examination, but recovered and was her own smiling little self. Dr. Thornton agrees to the probability of sarcoma but advises an examination with the needle.”

7 April 1881

“Wrote in afternoon and shivered with dread. Mr. C. took the children for an hours walk.- At 5, Mr. Spencer Wells, Sir James Paget, Mr. Thornton & Meredith arrived. Mabel agreed to see the latter without much discomfort and when I told her that I wanted her to smell something which I had taken, & would do her no harm, she put her little hand into mine, & never hesitated. Mr. M administered the Bicloid of Methylene which they use instead of Ether. I remained in the room. The needle seemed as if going thro’ soft bone. Mabel came out from the ether very quietly, with no nausea. Physicians decided that it was ovarian in character but also might be malignant but unanimously & decidedly advised an exploratory opening. Give no hope other wise for life longer than 6 months, and probably attended with much suffering.”

10 April 1881

At 8:30 Mr. Thornton arrived for a last talk. He considers it absolutely sure that this is a solid tumor. He came across substances with the needle that could not be pierced, He considers it equally sure that it will enlarge. If left to itself it causes death by disturbance of all the organs, a slow &very suffering death- the most so he thought of all deaths- if it is malignant, death may ensue at any moment by rupture, piercing, of the bowels or similar injury elsewhere. His diagnosis is that this is a dermoid ovarian tumor, ovarian from the position, as first observed by me, dermoid from its hardness (bone, hair, teeth etc being often found). He thinks the hall may have twisted it on its pedicle in such a way to stop the passage of blood, and so arrested the growth. The renewed growth would come from new attachments. These are at fist very delicate and removable by the finger, afterwards become more tough and must be parted with scissors and tied – later are much harder. He proposes making a small opening in the flesh outside the tumor sufficient to insert the finger and lay bare the surface of the tumor. If he discovers the tumor, (and he expects to be able to ascertain) to be malignant, the wound is easily healed and becomes as sound as before with no painful consequences. If he finds no proof of its being malignant he will make a large opening, sufficient to insert the hand, and ascertain if the attachments are such as can be dealt with with any hope of success. This involves more risk, but the tumor will not be pierced except by accident, and that will probably heal well. If. However, the attachments would give any ground for hope of a successful removal, he would complete the operation at once. Danger would then be from death at the time from the great shock to the system, or from bleeding. If she lived through the operation, there would be a good chance for recovery, and she might be well in three weeks.  -Mr. C. & I both said that we wished the operation proceeded with, if there was any hope of success, we should rather she died in the operation, rather than to recover and die by inches. He told us of a nurse and lodgings and we talked over further arrangements. Did not leave until after ten, & refused a fee. Very gentlemanly and very sympathetic.”

14 April 1881

“Rain. This made it easy to keep Mabel contented in not going out. Had her breakfast, of fish and bread and butter, and milk at 8, and at 11 some beef tea and toast. Dressed her etc., and took her after her lunch into the dining room downstairs. Walter had been out early and bought a bag for Elliot and some breastpins for the women. She busied herself writing the names and hers on all the boxes. Miss Matthews hard at work arranging the room upstairs, the curtains, the beds, the fire, the table and carpets etc.

Sent Rose out for a knit jacket. Got home just in time to send her and Mlle. and Walter off in a brougham at 25 minutes after one, as Mr. Thornton arrived, he in his shirtsleeves with carbolic acid, boiling water etc., etc.

At two Meredith arrived. I told her he wanted to see her upstairs, and without hesitation or objection went up with me into the back room and as undressed. Put her on the bed. When she saw him come in with the bottle and tube for giving the methylene hung round his neck, she looked a little wistful, but said nothing and put her hand in mine. In a few moments she was unconscious, and he took her up and carried her to the other room and put her on the table. There were Sir James Paget, Mr. Spencer Wells, Mr. Thornton, Mr. Meredith, an assistant, and the nurse. I came downstairs at ten minutes after two. At twenty minutes of three Sir James P. came down to say that a large dermoid ovarian tumor had been perfectly and beautifully removed with very slight loss of blood, nothing malignant, nothing extraordinarily difficult. I don’t know what I felt, for when I heard his descending steps so soon, all my worst fears I suppose realized, and that he had come to say nothing could be done. He was wonderfully kind. Sir James Paget and Mr. Wells drove off with their carriages and pairs at 4, the whole being completed. They said they thought the chances were ten to one in her favor.”

You will be relieved to know, as I was, that Mabel does indeed survive, and goes on to live a full life. In fact, in 1904 Mabel Cabot marries Ellery Sedgwick, the future Editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Mabel Cabot Sedgwick wrote The Garden Month by Month in 1907, a revered guide to garden plants. At their Long Hill Estate in Beverly MA, Mabel began planning Gardens in 1916; Preserved by the Trustees, those same gardens, The Gardens at Long Hill, can still be seen today:

Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot was a woman of great conviction, and thankfully for future generations, a fabulous diarist. She documented much of her amazing life, starting when she was only nine years old. Her most captivating and detailed diary entries are from her youth and newlywed years, full of vibrant and extensive detail. Her thoughts on the Role of Women in society and in the home are intriguing, inspiring and insightful. The diaries to which Elizabeth turned to keep her most intimate thoughts, greatest sorrows, fears and speculations, are an incredible look into the lives and times of nineteenth century Bostonians. Elizabeth was born into wealth, and married into wealth, so her daily life is a testament to the lifestyle of the Boston ‘Brahmins’. Elizabeth’s diaries are part of the Rogers-Mason-Cabot Papers held at the MHS. 

The entirety of Elizabeth’s diaries are fascinating and intriguing, and I encourage you to read them fully, as I am only sharing this one part of Elizabeth’s life. The diary is full of descriptions of Concerts, the theatre, friends coming to call, vacations in Newport and New Hampshire, and luxurious shopping excursions… and then the entries when Elizabeth realizes that her young daughter has cancer. I was so touched by these diary entries that I found myself on the verge of tears while consulting them in the Reading Room. Dear little Mabel and her mother heroically fought cancer together in 1881, and against all odds, they won!

Many of Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot’s dairy entries can be found transcribed in More than Common Powers of Perception : the Diary of Elizabeth Rogers Mason Cabot edited by P.A.M. Taylor(Boston : Beacon Press, c1991).

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 10 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

A Yankee in Virginia, 1864

The MHS recently acquired a fascinating manuscript volume by Lt. Henry L. Estabrooks of the 26th Massachusetts Infantry describing his six weeks as a fugitive in Virginia during the Civil War. Estabrooks was captured by the Confederate Army in September 1864, but escaped from a transport train and made his way back to Union lines with the help of a number of slaves and free blacks along the way. These men, women, and children not only hid Estabrooks—at great risk to themselves—from plantation owners and Confederate soldiers, but also gave him food, shelter, clothing, and comfort.

There are too many terrific passages to quote, but here’s what Estabrooks wrote on 17 October 1864.

When it came dark a negro came in and told me to come out to one of the cabins, it was a real neat pleasant one. The old woman looked, dressed, and spoke very much like a nice old quaker lady. Her son was a great jovial fellow of about 20 yrs. He had a spelling book and I, judging from his actions that he wished to make a display of his learning, took the book which opened of itself at the page commencing with “Baker.” He knew the whole page when I asked him the words in regular succession but failed a few times when I skipped about. He was as black as a coal but there was something real good and noble about him.

The next day, he saw something very different on another plantation.

He led me into a squalid cabin where half a dozen wretched looking negroes were crouching over a fire. They were very poorly clad and degraded looking, by far the worst looking negroes I saw in the South. They said their master’s name was Skipper, and that he was a very hard one. […] The negroes were not allowed to leave the island. One young fellow lay on the floor, sick, from the effects of a severe whipping which he had received for going to Clarksville the past Sunday. He showed me his back, still raw from the cuts of the lash. I was too weary to notice much and what I do remember of that night seems like some heavy night mare.

Estabrooks’ account was written shortly after his return home to Dorchester, Mass., then published in 1866 as Adrift in Dixie; or, a Yankee Officer Among the Rebels. 

The man responsible for shepherding the manuscript to publication was Northern abolitionist James Roberts Gilmore, who wrote under the nom de plume Edmund Kirke. According to the introduction to Adrift in Dixie, Estabrooks’ brother brought the story to Gilmore and said it demonstrated “how faithful and kind the Southern negroes were. […] We owe my brother’s life to the negroes.” Gilmore insisted on its publication, arguing that it would prove to readers that black Americans deserved not only freedom, but suffrage.

There are two things in particular that make this volume so fascinating. First, Estabrooks’ original account was revised for publication, probably by Gilmore, and the original text has never been in print. These revisions included not just editorial changes, but also pseudonyms. Many of the names of slaves, free blacks, and white Southerners were changed or removed entirely. For example, here’s how one passage reads in the published version.

Entering [the house], I saw several men; and the sight of one of them made me for the moment think I was betrayed. I turned to fight my way out: but the kindly, amused looks of the negroes re-assured me; and, as I hesitated, the man in question—who was as white as I am, and dressed in a Confederate uniform—took off his hat, and bade me good-evening in a manner which at once satisfied me that he was a slave. A poor white he certainly was not; he was too well-bred and good-looking for one of that class: […] he was the son of the deceased planter by a quadroon house-servant.

But Estabrooks’ original, unrevised manuscript identifies the planter by name.

On entering I saw several men, at sight of one of whom I thought I was betrayed, and turned to fight my way out, but the kindly, amused looks of the negroes stopped me and as I hesitated, the man in question who was dressed very much like some of the Confederate soldiers and who was as white as myself, took off his hat and bade me good evening in a manner which at once assured me he must be a slave. A poor white he certainly was not, he was too well bred and good looking for one of them. […] He was the son of the defunct Bragsley by a quadroon house servant.

Last but definitely not least, Estabrooks was a talented amateur artist, and his manuscript includes six pencil illustrations of scenes in the story. None of these illustrations has been published. Here is Estabrooks’ drawing of his initial escape from the prisoner transport train. You can see him crouching behind a bush in the foreground.

And this drawing shows two young black men who, after guiding Estabrooks to the Dan River, prayed for him on the bank as he rowed away.

Henry L. Estabrooks dedicated this volume to his wife Minnie. He died in 1919 at the age of 77.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 5 October, 2018, 1:00 AM

“The Story of a Tragedy”: murder-suicide at a Fenway finishing school

On a rainy Sunday, March 29, 1908, Robert A. Boit of 19 Colchester Street, Brookline sat down to write in his journal after a lapse of around 3 weeks. One of the happenings he reported on was a local murder-suicide that made newspapers across the nation. Boit had a personal connection to it all; he wrote:

On Wednesday morning the 11th of this month a terrible tragedy took place in the Girls Boarding School on Audubon Road facing the Fenway. The two principals of the school Elizabeth Hardee and Miss Weed were killed. Elizabeth was the daughter of my dear old friend Pearson Hardee of Savannah and on that account I was brought into immediate touch with the whole affair. [emphasis added] My letter to Hardee, here in my journal, tells the story so I will not repeat it. Poor Hardee himself came on from Savannah himself to settle up matters and I was glad to be of some assistance and comfort to him, for he was terribly shaken. He arrived on the 21st and remained four or five days. We wanted him to come directly to the house, but he decided that in his condition of mind he had better stay at the St. Botolph Club, where I put him up. But he took many of his meals with us, and I think being with us really did him good. It was a tragic affair and in a lovely spot.

In between journal pages, Boit tucked in a typescript of the letter he mentions sending to his grieving friend William Pearson Hardee on March 15. By the 15th, Boit already sent word alerting Hardee to the incident, but one letter was chosen by Boit to save for posterity; the letter reproduced below. 

I will follow Boit’s sentiments and let his letter to Hardee speak for itself:

[handwritten] The Story of a Tragedy -

Brookline, March 15, ’08.

My dear Pearson:

No doubt you got my last letter and telegrams, and I received your telegrams. I have tried each day to write you, but have been so interrupted I could not do it.

Last Wednesday afternoon, after writing you, I went to the Undertaker’s to whom the Coroner had sent Elizabeth’s body, and arranged for all that at that time could be done, and thence to Dr. Joslin’s [Elliott Proctor Joslin] who was a friend of Elizabeth and had been called to the house at the time of the tragedy. There I met the brother-in-law of Miss Page [Katherine R. Page] – one of the teachers who lived in the house and seemed to have the most authority. His name was Alexander. We three talked the matter over, and decided that the house should be closed at once, that no extra expense might be incurred, and that the teachers might not in any way be held responsible for further orders for the maintenance of the house or its service. To this end Mr. Alexander wished me to go to the school that night and talk matters over with the teachers still living in the house, Miss Page, Miss Chase and Miss Hamilton. This I did, and was with them till half past ten arranged matters. I also got in communication by telephone while there with Dr. Stedman [George Stedman], the Coroner, who was legally in charge of and responsible for everything in the house. I got him to authorize the Teachers to pack up the silver, and a small locked tin box, which he promised to have taken to the safety vaults the next morning, and this was done. There was very little money found in the house or in this tin box which was opened by the officer later. I think, with the two checks, this amounted to less than thirty dollars. The teachers had sent off the pupils that very day, Wednesday, and had sent most of the pupils’ things with them. They also agreed to pack such things of the pupils as still were left and mark the packages with the pupils’ names and leave them in their various rooms. This they did on Thursday before they left the house.

We also found that night (Wednesday) that the servants wages had all been paid up to the preceding Friday, and as it seemed to me you would not wish the servants discharged without their wages, I agreed to send Miss Page the money for this purpose the next day. As the servants had to be retained on Thursday to help pack up and clean and wash, it made a week’s wages due them and in two or three instances two weeks. The amount due was just $51.47, for which Miss Page took their separate receipts, and sent me the statement, which I enclose. The teachers said they were under the impression from what Elizabeth had said, that she was having a hard time to meet her expenses, and that there were probably a good many bills unpaid. 

[page break]

Of course, this cannot be clearly ascertained until the administrator has been appointed, of which I will speak later.

That evening they told me clearly all the circumstances leading to the end, and they were very harrowing. All the teachers and pupils had gone to bed very early that evening except Miss Page, as they were up late the night before. At about half past nine in answer to a ring at the door, Miss Page let in Miss Weed, who had run away from the Sanitorium at Newton. She said she knew she should not have come, but begged that it was so late she should be allowed to pass the night. Miss Page said she had not seen her before so reasonable and quiet and dispassionate and was much impressed by the fact that she consented to let her stay, took her upstairs, prepared a room for her, lent her her own nightgown and dressing gown, and then sat with her till quarter past twelve chatting. She seemed entirely normal and made herself most agreeable and interesting, talking of the school and its interests and almost not at all of herself. 

When she left her she thought of locking her door and then decided it best not to. During their talk Miss Weed had agreed to get up early and take the half past seven train home, so that no one should be disturbed or know she had been there. Miss Page was to get up early and give her her breakfast. No one else knew that she was in the house. Miss Page left her own door open and tried to keep awake and listen but no doubt fell asleep. At about three she heard noises and got up and went to Miss Chase’s or Miss Hamilton’s room where she thought she heard voices. There she found these two in great terror. Miss Hamilton had been wakened by hearing some sound at her door. She got up and found a note thrust under it. In her sleepiness she glanced at it without reading it and thought Elizabeth wanted to speak to her, and went to her room and asked. But Elizabeth said no, she had not sent for her. So rather bewildered, she shut Elizabeth’s door and returned to her own room. Then she read the note for the first time and discovered it was from Miss Weed, and upbraiding her with being false to her charge, etc. She was much frightened, knowing now that Miss Weed must be in the house, and at once went to Miss Chase’s room and waked her. It was this Miss Page had heard, and she found them together and much distressed. While all three were talking in Miss Chase’s room, (first, however, Miss Page had tried three times without success to get the Sanitorium by telephone) they heard a tapping at their door, but by the time Miss Page got there, Miss Weed who had knocked, had run towards Elizabeth’s room. Miss Page, knowing that of late a feeling had grown in Miss Weed’s mind of hostility to Elizabeth, followed immediately and went into Elizabeth’s room, where Miss Weed was standing back of the door. She immediately explained everything to Elizabeth who was entirely calm and tranquil, even tho’ awakened under such circumstances at 3 o’clock at night. Miss Page said her self-control was extraordinary. She talked quietly and dispassionately to Miss Weed, telling her how unwise and thoughtless it was of her to come there and disturb their sleep when they were all so tired, etc, and 

[page break]

arranging, as Miss Page has done, that she should go back to Newton early in the morning. Miss Weed said very little, tho’ she seemed rather frightened, but was soon quieted by Elizabeth and appeared, as she always did with Elizabeth, to be entirely under her influence.

Before she left the room, she heard Elizabeth say - “Why, Susan, (if that was her name), you have not taken down your hair. Take it down and come to bed”. Then she left them and went again to her own room, but left the door open and did not sleep again. This was at about half past three perhaps.

After this all was quiet in the house and at a little before six she got up and dressed. In fact, I think she said that before this, at five or half past, she went to their room, and found them sleeping peacefully, side by side. She went softly to the bed and laid her hand gently on Miss Weed, who did not wake or show any signs of being awake. Afterwards, at a little before six, she dressed as I have said, and at a quarter past six went to their room again to wake them, saying “as Miss Weed was going, it was time for them to get up and that meanwhile she would go down stairs and get some coffee and eggs ready for them”. Elizabeth was lying on her back, and had answered rather drowsily - “Thanks, Miss Page, that’s very nice. We will get up at once”, or words to that effect.

Then she went out of the room into one or two other rooms, and in less than three minutes heard two pistol shots. She rushed to Elizabeth’s room and found them both shot through the head, Elizabeth with her face towards the wall shot through the back of the head, and Miss Weed shot through the temple and with the pistol in or near her hand. Miss Page immediately called for Dr. Joslin, who arrived there within fifteen or twenty minutes and found them both dead.

This dear Pearson, is the exact story as told me Wednesday night by Miss Page and the other teachers, chiefly by Miss Page, who of course had known so much of what had happened.

After leaving the house that night, I went again to Dr. Joslin’s and talked over matters with him. The next morning I arranged with the Undertaker [Frederick L. Briggs] (this was Thursday morning) who had then received his papers from the Coroner, permitting him to send away the body, for everything regarding the shipment, and in the afternoon went there to see that all had been properly done. I saw poor Elizabeth and thought her looking very lovely, with such a quiet, peaceful expression on her face. I do hope every arrived as it should have. If you had seen that face as I did, without one sign of sorrow or suffering in it, with just the gentle restfulness of sleep, I think it must have been a help and consolation to you in your sorrow.

Friday morning I went to the School and found it has been closed entirely as agreed on Thursday, and that the Coroner had put a man in charge who was to pass day and night there until otherwise ordered by him. Friday noon a Mr. Samuel W. Child, Lawyer, 43

[page break]

Tremont St., Boston, came to see me and told me that at the request of Dr. Stedman (the Coroner) the Court had appointed him as Temporary Administrator and made him responsible for everything; that he must examine everything at the house, get together all account books, check books, etc., bills and anything else of value that might be found there. He was most anxious that I, as a friend of yours, should go there with him for this purpose. So I consented and passed several hours at the School with him that afternoon. It was very hard to do it, but I felt you would rather have me there than think of a strange man doing it alone. Indeed it seemed sacrilege and made my heart ache to its depths, and only the thought of you and how I should myself have felt under these circumstances enabled me to do it.

There was little of value among the personal effects, but we concluded from the unpaid bills we saw, that it was most unlikely that the assets would pay the liabilities. I think, my dear friend, there is little doubt the school will prove insolvent. There was a balance at the First National Bank of some six hundred dollars, and it is possible there may be a balance in a Newton Bank in which there appears to be a deposit - how much could not be learned yesterday.

Then there is the furniture of the house, which was bought of the Paine Furniture and by contract was to have been paid for in full on the first of February. This so far as we could judge has not been done. There was an unpaid bill dated the first of this month for either nine or eleven hundred dollars for the draperies of the house. There are two pianos of Chickering, which the teachers seemed to think had not been paid for. There seemed to be some large bills for fuel and food unpaid, etc. Also I learned that there was a considerable amount claimed by the teachers for their salaries, and there is a long lease of the house at $1,000. each quarter. I think the lease runs for 5 years.

Against all these claims, the assets seen to be the $600. at the First National, such balance as there may be in the Newton Bank, the books and such of the furniture as had been paid for. Beyond this there only remain a few little trinkets of Elizabeth’s, her clothes, the linen in the house and the silver. As to this latter, I suppose, unless it could be very clearly proved to belong to some one else, it would have to be held as part of the assets. No doubt if it were sold at auction for this purpose by the Administrator, it could be bought in at a small price compared to its value as family silver. 

The temporary Administrator, who seems to be a very respectable man, told me that he should try to get the books (account books) and papers in order and find out about how matters stood. No doubt he will let me know when he has done so, if he does it. He also told me that the Court would appoint a regular Administrator, but that it would take about three weeks to do this; that then his own duties would be at an end and everything turned over by him.

I regret that I myself am so old and worn out with my own cares and responsibilities, I could not myself accept this position, even if the Court were willing to appoint me. One other thing I forgot to mention. There may be bills

[page break]

owing by the parents of the school, but the teachers knew nothing of them, except that Elizabeth made advances to the girls from time to time. They also told me the regular charge for Tuition, etc. was $1000. per annum, but that a number paid less, owing to the fact that it was the first year of the school.

The temporary Administrator thought there would be little chance of collecting balances that might have been due, owing to the fact of the closing of the school, even if these balances could be determined. Under all those circumstances, and the almost certain insolvency of the school, I don’t know what you may determine to do, or whether it will seem wise for you or your son to incur the expense of coming here and staying a month or two to become the administrator and settle the estate, or arrange for its settlement. If you do not come, no doubt through the Administrator appointed by the Court, all will be effected that can be, and yet, of course, you may prefer to take part in it. 

 If I can give you any information or assistance or advice, of course, you will not hesitate to call upon me, and anything that I hear I will write you.

 With a great deal of love, my dear old friend, and a heart full of sympathy, I am

Most affectionately yours,

Rob. A. Boit


By the time this letter was sent, Elizabeth Hardee’s body had taken its final journey home to Savannah, Georgia by train and had arrived on March 14. The next day, her funeral was held and she was interred in the Hardee family plot in Laurel Grove Cemetery near her mother, Cornelia, who had passed in 1896 [1]. William Pearson Hardee committed suicide in 1917 and was buried in the same plot [2]. 


Elizabeth Bailey Hardee and Sarah Chamberlain Weed as represented in the Wellesley College Legenda, 1894 & 1895, respectively.


Elizabeth Bailey Hardee (1873-1908) and Sarah Chamberlain Weed (1869-1908) both attended Wellesley College; with Elizabeth graduating in 1894 and Sarah in 1895. 

Much of the information about their activities and whereabouts before the opening of their school I gleaned from Wellesley publications; a Baltimore Sun article dated 11 March 1908; and a lengthy article on the murder-suicide in the Boston Post, 11 March 1908. 

The 1899 & 1900 academic years found Elizabeth at her alma mater of Wellesley College as an assistant in mathematics [3]. Elizabeth resurfaces in Wellesley news in the winter of 1902; with both Elizabeth and Sarah listed as teachers in Mathematics and English, respectively, at Newton High School [4]. Years pass until 1906, when the two young women report as having “accepted a share in the management of Miss Chamberlayne’s School for Girls, The Fenway 28, Boston” [5]. Finally, in June of 1907 the women “announce the opening of The Laurens School for Girls, 107 Audubon road, Boston, Massachusetts” [6]. 

The Laurens School for Girls, the boarding school the two women brought to fruition in the Fenway, became the setting of Elizabeth and Sarah’s murder-suicide just 8 months later. According to news reports, the day the school opened to students for the first time on October 1, Sarah Weed suffered a breakdown “due to overwork.” [7] 

Sarah was first confined at “Dr. Norton’s Sanitarium in Norwood”, the Norwood Private Hospital; but was transferred to “Dr. Dutton’s home for convalescents in West Newton” [8] until the night she appeared on the doorstep of the Laurens School.

The above journal entry was taken from volume 14 (1910-1912) of the Robert Apthorp Boit diaries held in the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Interested readers may also find letters William Pearson Hardee sent to Boit on March 16, 18, and 28, 1908, tipped into the pages along with Boit’s typescript roughly transcribed above. Learn more about using the library on our website. 

Robert Apthorp Boit (1846-1919) graduated from Harvard in 1868 and shortly thereafter moved to Savannah, Georgia with his parents, and joined his father’s commission business. This is likely when Hardee and Boit met and struck up a friendship. Boit returned to Boston a married man around 1878, and became successful in the insurance business.

I hope to continue this post with what I’ve gleaned on the location of the school. Tune in later!



[1] Aiken Journal and Review, Supplement, November 14, 1917

[2] Letter from William Pearson Hardee to Robert Apthorp Boit, Savannah, 16 March 1908, Robert Apthorp Boit diaries, volume 14, tucked into page 21.

[3] Wellesley College Record, 1875-1900

[4] Wellesley News, (Vol. 1, No. 14) February 6, 1902

[5] Wellesley News, (Vol. 6, No. 1) October 3, 1906 

[6] Wellesley News, (Vol. 6, No. 32) June 12, 1907

[7] The Pensacola Journal, March 13, 1908
The Abbeville Press and Banner, March 18, 1908

[8] The Sun, March 12, 1908

owing by the parents of the school, but the teachers knew nothing of them, except that Elizabeth made advances to the girls from time to time. They also told me the regular charge for Tuition, etc. was $1000. per annum, but that a number paid less, owing to the fact that it was the first year of the school.

                The temporary Administrator thought there would be little chance of collecting balances that might have been due, owing to the fact of the closing of the school, even if these balances could be determined. Under all those circumstances, and the almost certain insolvency of the school, I don’t know what you may determine to do, or whether it will seem wise for you or your son to incur the expense of coming here and staying a month or two to become the administrator and settle the estate, or arrange for its settlement. If you do not come, no doubt through the Administrator appointed by the Court, all will be effected that can be, and yet, of course, you may prefer to take part in it.

                If I can give you any information or assistance or advice, of course, you will not hesitate to call upon me, and anything that I hear I will write you.

                With a great deal of love, my dear old friend, and a heart full of sympathy, I am


                                                                Most affectionately yours,

                                                                                                Rob. A. Boit

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 26 September, 2018, 10:00 AM

Of Adamses & Ancestry

John A. Grace, Memoranda Respecting the Families of Quincy and Adams, 1841

For historian Henry Adams, the morning mail meant a fresh round of research questions. “Here comes your troublesome genealogical cousin again,” Elizabeth Coombs Adams wrote in early 1893. Paging through the Adams archive and sweeping up reminiscences to file, Elizabeth was laboring to compile the family history. She joined a long train of Adamses who devoted time and money to polishing up new accounts of their genealogy. Knee-deep in piles of stray notes and record scraps before the likes of research hubs like, they turned to wheels, charts, and trees to draft the presidential family’s Anglo-American origins story. Today, let’s take a quick look at the Victorian Adamses’ adventures in genealogy, and who they thought they were. 

John Adams and son John Quincy picked through family memories and town records to uncover and curate their version of the early American past. Piecing together shared evidence did not yield the same story. Father and son split over the exact region of their English roots. But both presidents staked claim to a Puritan lineage that played well with constituents. Highlighting their role in the Puritan ordeal of suffering, immigration, and settlement, the Adams statesmen linked themselves to a history of religious toleration and political dissent. When it came to genealogical pursuits, their methods varied, too. The elder Adams’ approach to genealogy was impulsive. He dashed off “minute” memoranda of random finds, listing births and deaths as he encountered them in odd pages of his father’s books. Strategically, he wove Puritan family ties into the revolutionary rationale that powered his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law (1765). 

John A. Grace, Memoranda Respecting the Families of Quincy and Adams, 1841

His son, John Quincy, approached the task with trademark rigor and a passion for verification. Highly scientific and systematic in his effort, the sixth president scoured town records and newspapers, copied out church membership lists, and checked material in his family papers against those of other early Americans. John Quincy’s scholarly bent for fact-checking was aided by a rising set of organizations that steered the antebellum practice of personal history, like the Massachusetts Historical Society (1791), the Boston Athenaeum (1807), and the New England Historic Genealogical Society (1845). More than a hobby to fill the diplomat’s rare downtime, genealogy was a way for John Quincy to exercise his skills as a gentleman scholar. It was a task to pass along across the generations, and so he handed it off to his son, Charles Francis, with the family’s large set of seals and copper bookplates. On 28 Feb. 1831, he laid down what he knew of the Adams ancestry and colorful heraldry in a detailed missive. “File this letter away,” John Quincy instructed, “for the age when the passion of genealogy shall take possession of you.” 

Stoked by his highly successful publication of Abigail Adams’ letters in 1840, Charles’ interest in the family past blossomed steadily throughout his life. Like many Americans, he invested in Lemuel Shattuck’s Family Register book. The blank album featured tidy charts and wheels to organize the machinery of family for presentation. Stocked with a template narrative for each ancestor and stern guidelines for nascent family historians, Shattuck’s book commanded that facts–and not opinions–must guide the process. There were, Shattuck lectured, many kinds of facts to collect, and they should be updated on a monthly basis. His categories veered from the mundane to the moral: health, religious tendencies, phrenological oddities, children’s expenses, real estate descriptions, vaccinations, public offices held, and “plans for private intellectual improvement.” Dutifully, Charles began the book, making lists and skipping the intricate wheels. He never finished it, likely thinking that the family’s cache of letterbooks, correspondence, and diaries filled in the rest. 

Charles Francis Adams, entries in Family Register, 1841

Or maybe Charles realized he didn’t need to do all the research alone. Genealogy had, after all, evolved into a new American pastime. By 1841, at least one reader of Abigail’s published letters reached out (from Havana!) with new clues to the more distant Adamses. John A. Grace delved into the complex English roots of the Adams, Quincy, and Boylston lines. To Charles, he sent a vivid, hand-colored memorandum of the Adamses’ related heraldic arms with details cobbled together from foreign records. Grace put forth an idea that Charles and his children, including Henry, came to champion: that the family descended from the Welsh baronial clan of ap-Adams. Over time, more Adamses went on to swarm the archives, eagerly hunting for familiar faces in history’s mirror. Henry Adams, holding his cousin’s query, sniffed that he did not “invest in the genealogy.” But, as the Adams Papers reveal, Henry made just as many charts as others did, diligently tracing out his great grandparents’ lines on graph paper (see Reel 603 of P-54, the Adams Family Papers microfilm). Even Henry Adams could not resist family history forever. 

A Genealogical Tree of the Adams, Cranch, & DeWindt Families, 1928

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 21 September, 2018, 8:00 AM

Rachel Wall's Confession, the words of a Pirate?

For Talk Like a Pirate Day we bring you the words of a Pirate!

The MHS holds an interesting broadside featuring Massachusetts' only female Pirate: Life, last words and dying confession, of Rachel Wall : who, with William Smith and William Dunogan, were executed at Boston, on Thursday, October 8, 1789, for high-way robbery

Arrested and convicted of highway robbery, Rachel Wall was the last woman executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, hung on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet. 

The broadside features a fascinating woodcut illustration of three criminals being hung on Boston Common. The middle figure is depicted as a woman wearing a dress. But this confession serves a much greater purpose as it is the autobiography of a very unique woman. Although Rachel’s crimes were dreadful, her life is an undeniable part of Massachusetts history.  A criminal master mind? Perhaps. Ruthless and Vicious?  Certainly. The perfect Halloween Costume? Definitely!

Who was Rachel Wall?

Rachel Wall was born in Pennsylvania, to a good family, by her own description. After running away from home, she met and married George Wall, with whom she moved to Boston. George left Rachel and went off to sea, only to return one day to reunite with Rachel and coax her into being a pirate. In her confession Rachel says, “for, as soon as he came back, he enticed me to leave my service, and take to bad company, from which I might date my ruin.” Supposedly, they attacked ships off the Isles of the Shoals, on the coast of New Hampshire although we do not have actual evidence and this is not mentioned in the Confession. It is believed that after storms, Rachel would stand on the deck of their ship pretending to be distressed and would scream for help; when sailors came to her rescue, George and his men would kill them and plunder their ships. In her confession, Rachel states that she does not know the whereabouts of her husband, “He went off again and left me, and where he is now I know not.” It is believed that George and his crew were washed out to sea. George Wall might have been a privateer during the Revolution, acquiring a taste for plundering ships.

Rachel returned to Boston and worked as a maid but could never fully become a law-abiding citizen. She continued to ‘plunder’ by sneaking aboard docked ships and grabbing what she could. She describes one excursion on Long Wharf in Boston, "On my entering the cabin, the door of which not being fastened, and finding the Captain and Mate asleep in their beds, I hunted about for plunder, and discovered under the Captain’s head, a black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change, on which I immediately seized the booty and decamped therewith as quick as possible, which money I spent freely in company as lewd and wicked as myself." (Does anyone else hear Pirate-speak?) 

Rachel was eventually convicted of highway robbery. Supposedly, she saw a lovely bonnet that she simply couldn’t resist and attacked 17-year-old Margret Bender, the woman wearing the bonnet. Having already been convicted of two counts of robbery, this, the third count, was punishable by death. She could not deny her proven past, so in her confession she lists many petty crimes, carefully avoiding the mention of any that might be a felony. She was wise enough to know that she could not convince people that she was innocent, so instead choose to portray herself as under the influence of her dreadful husband. Attorney General Robert Treat Paine requested “that sentence of death might be given against the said Rachel Wall, the prisoner at the bar” and Governor John Hancock signed the order of execution. One could perhaps speculate that she was being sentenced for crimes far greater than the attempted robbery of a bonnet, tried as a thief, but executed for piracy?

Unfortunate for her, Rachel's crime came at the height of turmoil for the new Nation, and the courts--which traditionally gave women lesser punishments than men--tried her as an equal sentencing her to hang with two other men also accused of highway robbery. Six years later un-armed burglary was no longer punished by death; the three were the last to be executed in Massachusetts for robbery. If there were ever a spirit to haunt the streets of Boston, It would certainly be Rachel Wall, executed on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet at 29 years of age.



Massachusetts Historical Society. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, (Boston: The Society 1905) Volume 39, March 1905 p.178-190

Rachel Wall, Pirate by the National Park Service (Accessed September 19, 2018) (Accessed September 19, 2018)

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 3:00 PM

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