Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, Post 26
The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.
Sunday Oct. 4th, 1863
“Of public news, the battle near Chattanooga, & in which my relative Major Sidney Coolidge, and my friend S. Hall’s son Henry were wounded, - The favorable news from England, - and the arrival of a Russian fleet at New York, where it is warmly welcomed, are the chief items. The first is unfavorable, but on the whole, our country’s cause seems advancing, thanks be to God!”
| Published: Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 1:00 AM
Helen Keller in Boston
By Susan Martin, Collection Services
Those of us who process manuscript collections are always stumbling on interesting and unexpected finds. I was recently working with the MHS’s George E. Ellis papers to improve the arrangement and description of the collection, and one letter immediately caught my eye. It was written by 10-year-old Helen Keller.
Between 1888 and 1892, Keller was a student at Perkins School for the Blind in South Boston. (The school moved to Watertown, Mass. in 1912.) She found a happy home at Perkins, which she described in her 1902 autobiography The Story of My Life: “Until then I had been like a foreigner speaking through an interpreter. In the school where Laura Bridgman was taught I was in my own country.”
The subject of this letter, written to Dr. Ellis on 27 April 1891, is four-year-old Tommy Stringer, another Perkins student who was both blind and deaf. Stringer’s family was unable to support him, so he had been brought up from an almshouse in Pennsylvania to the Perkins kindergarten. Keller became his energetic advocate and wrote to friends and strangers alike, as well as newspapers, to solicit donations for his education. Ellis was one of the many who contributed. Keller wrote to him gratefully:
Mr [Phillips] Brooks once told me that love was the most beautiful thing in the world, and now I am sure it is, for nothing but love could brighten Tommy’s whole life. I think we ought to love those who are weak and helpless even more tenderly than we do others who are strong and beautiful....I have read that there are lonesome and dismal places in this great world, but I cannot imagine anything so sad and lonely as a little child’s heart who has no loving mother to caress and care for him. But we shall all be so good and gentle with little Tommy that he will think the world is full [of] loving mothers and patient fathers.
It just so happens that Ellis was the president of our very own MHS at the time, an historian, and a former minister of the Harvard Church in Charlestown, Mass. He corresponded with many notable people, but this letter, written in large, neat, blocky handwriting, stands out from the rest. It’s amazing to realize that it was written just four years after Keller met Annie Sullivan, at which time Keller could barely communicate at all, let alone read and write. (About a year later, she explained to the readers of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas how she wrote by placing a “grooved board” between the pages, probably some version of a noctograph.)
George E. Ellis died in 1894. In his will, he bequeathed $30,000, as well as his home and all its contents, to the MHS. Funds from the sale of his property were used to help build and relocate to our current home at 1154 Boylston Street. Our very own research room, Ellis Hall, is named after him. We hope to see you there sometime!
Thomas Stringer graduated from Perkins in 1913 and became a woodworker in Pennsylvania, dying in 1945.
| Published: Wednesday, 16 October, 2013, 8:00 AM
Volunteer, the America’s Cup victor—of 1887
By Peter Drummey, Librarian
The extraordinary come-from-behind victory of Oracle Team USA in the recent America’s Cup competition calls to mind a time when Boston was the center of American yacht racing design and development. Between 1885 and 1887, the local team of Charles Jackson Paine (owner) and Edward Burgess (designer), first as part of a syndicate and then twice on their own, defended the Cup in three successive campaigns. The triumph of their center-board sloop, Volunteer, over the British challenger, Thistle, in September 1887, was the cause of an enormous victory celebration that took place, on October 7, 1887, 126 years ago , at Faneuil Hall in Boston. While photographs of elegant Volunteer evoke a romantic, now long-lost age of sail, she was, in her own day, as innovative as the wing-sailed catamarans that vie for the Cup today. Designed and built in great secrecy with steel frames and plating, Volunteer could carry ballast lower in her hull than her wooden-hulled predecessors.
Although 19th–century Boston was increasingly divided along ethnic and political lines, in 1887 the entire city came together in a joyous outpouring of patriotism at a monumental reception for their local heroes. So many ardent supporters attended the event—which included the reading of a poem written for the occasion, “Bostonia Victrix”— that the program was interrupted at several points “to allow the assembled multitude to greet the guests of the evening with a hand-shake.” Newspaper reporters estimated that 7,000 people queued up for the opportunity to personally thank “enterprising” Charles J. Paine and equally “inventive” Edward Burgess, the “guardians of the Cup.”
| Published: Monday, 7 October, 2013, 12:00 PM
Chinese Hanzi Characters in 1801
By Andrea Cronin, Reader Services
On 30 July 1801 the snow Pacific Trader bound for Canton floundered in the Pacific Ocean when the vessel took on water in the midst of a violent two-day gale. The winds tore the sails and mangled the rigging so terribly that the ship and its small crew limped into safe harbor at Macao on 23 August 1801. Proprietors William and Sullivan Dorr in Canton received more than ten letters from Captain Samuel Edes aboard the Pacific Trade in the subsequent month while the ship sheltered and was repaired in Macao. These letters are contained in the Samuel Barrett Edes papers held at the MHS.
On 27 September 1801 Captain Edes writes to inform the Dorrs of the progress of ship repairs and the condition of the cargo. However, it is the verso page of the letter that truly captures my imagination. The verso functioned as the envelope, containing the address information of the intended recipient, Sullivan Dorr. Far more interesting than the address is the beautiful example of Chinese Hanzi characters composed on the verso.
I imagine that the Hanzi message reveals directions due to its location close to the address, just near the seal. However, a larger question looms in my mind. Who wrote this inscription? The small crew of the Pacific Trader hailed from Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Ireland, St. Croix, Guadeloupe, and Bengal according to a crew list in the Samuel Barrett Edes papers. None of these men were native to China or surrounding countries that utilized Hanzi script. Although some crewmen may have learned the spoken language, the beautiful and careful script of the Hanzi suggests to me that a native writer composed the message.
Are you familiar with 19th century Chinese Hanzi script? Can you read this inscription? We would love to hear from you!
| Published: Friday, 4 October, 2013, 1:00 AM
John Adams and the Bill of Rights
By Amanda A. Mathews, Adams Papers
On this day in 1789, President George Washington wrote a short letter to each state’s governor, enclosing a copy of twelve proposed amendments to the new United States Constitution for consideration, which Congress had passed on September 25 with the signatures of the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, Vice President John Adams. Of the twelve, ten received the necessary ratification and collectively became known as the Bill of Rights.
These amendments corresponded with many of the changes for which John Adams had expressed a desire when he first read the proposed Constitution. “A Declaration of Rights I wish to see with all my Heart,” he confided in early 1788, “though I am sensible of the Difficulty of framing one, in which all the States can agree.— a more compleat Seperation of the Executive from the Legislative too, would be more Safe for all. The Press, Conscience & Juries I wish better Secured.— But is it not better to accept this Plan and amend it hereafter?”
Adams certainly was “sensible of the Difficulty” of writing a constitution. A decade earlier, in the fall of 1779, he toiled over his draft of the Massachusetts constitution, drawing upon the other states’ constitutions as well as his own extensive study and consideration of law and government. Not only did he include protections for the press, religious belief, and juries, but reflecting the importance the Declaration of Rights held for Adams, he had placed it ahead of the frame of government itself.
While the proposed amendments did not repair all the defects that Adams perceived in the federal Constitution (he particularly opposed the limited presidential veto and the need for Senate approval of nominations), he understood that the Constitutional Convention’s achievements could not be diminished, even if the final product remained flawed. “A result of accommodation cannot be supposed to reach the ideas of perfection of any one,” Adams admitted in the conclusion of his Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, “but the conception of such an idea, and the deliberate union of so great and various a people in such a plan, is, without all partiality or prejudice, if not the greatest exertion of human understanding, the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen.” The new Bill of Rights moved the nation another step toward a “more perfect union.”
| Published: Wednesday, 2 October, 2013, 1:00 AM