The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

“Just Mede of Praise”: George N. Briggs’ Heroic Act

In the mid-1830s, George Nixon Briggs (later Gov. Briggs) was serving in the 23rd U.S. Congress as a representative from Massachusetts. He was still a fairly junior Congressman, working alongside such notables as Edward Everett and John Quincy Adams. But one remarkable incident, documented in a new collection acquired by the MHS, sheds new light on Briggs’ character.

Here’s the story as told by Sarah (Moulton) Wool in 1862: One winter day, “Gov. Briggs was walking by the Washington Canal & chanced to hear, from a crowd collected there, that a colored boy was drowning. Instantly, without waiting to remove any of his clothes, he plunged into the canal & rescued the poor boy from a watery grave.”

The incident probably took place somewhere along the part of the canal that crossed the Capitol grounds, when Briggs was either coming or going to a session of Congress. The canal no longer exists, but at the time it ran up from the Washington Navy Yard, past the Capitol building, then west along what is now Constitution Avenue.

This new MHS collection consists of only two documents. The first, pictured above, is Wool’s two-page description of the event (written by someone else). Almost thirty years later, Wool claimed to remember it “distinctly […] but not the precise time.” She guessed it happened in the winter of 1834-1835 and referred, for corroboration, to her servant James H. Davis and to Briggs’ colleague William Baylies.

The second document in the collection is Davis’s statement confirming the story, written in his own hand, likely at around the same time.

It’s hard to say for sure, but Davis probably witnessed the rescue. Baylies may have been present, as well. As another Massachusetts representative serving in the 23rd Congress, he would have had reason to accompany Briggs to and from the Capitol.

The handwriting on the first document is unfamiliar to me, but it’s possible both statements were taken on the same visit to Troy, N.Y. and collected either by or on behalf of one of Briggs’ sons. Davis began his note with: “Please say to Mr Briggs son[…]” George N. Briggs had died a few months before, in September 1861, from an accidental gunshot wound at his home. His death may have prompted his family to look into the story. 

I tried to learn more about some of the key players in the drama, but didn’t find much. William Baylies died in 1865. Sarah Wool, wife of the famous Gen. John Ellis Wool, died at Troy in 1873. She’d had no children, but left $300 in her will to a woman named Elise, the daughter of her servant James H. Davis. Presumably Davis pre-deceased Wool. 

A search for James H. Davis turned up someone with that name as a signatory to the “Colored Conventions” at Troy in 1847 and 1855. These conventions, held throughout the United States beginning in 1830, called for equal rights for free and fugitive black Americans.

William C. Richards did not include the story of the daring canal rescue in his 1866 hagiography of George N. Briggs, Great in Goodness. However, according to Sarah Wool, “No one who was in Washington at the time, could forget an incident which did such honor to humanity, & added such lustre to the fame of a brave & good man.”


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It is a quiet week ahead here at the Society, as far as programs are concerned:

- Tuesday, 9 August - Thursday, 11 August : SOLD OUT "The Maritime History of Massachusetts' North Shore" explores Massachusetts' connections to the sea through documents, artifacts, landscapes, and historic structures in Beverly, Gloucester, and Marblehead, including a tour of Gloucester's working waterfront. This program is open to educators and history enthusiasts but is sold out. If you would like to be placed on a waiting list, please call 617-646-0557.

- Saturday. 13 August, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led tour through the public spaces in the Society's historic building at 1154 Boylston St. The tour is free and open to the public with no need for reservations from individuals or small groups. Larger parties (8 or more) should contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley in advance at 617-646-0508 or

Remember that our exhibition galleries are open Monday-Saturday, 10:00AM-4:00PM, free of charge. So come on in and check out our current exhibition, Turning Points in American History!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 7 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

Anarchists and Assassinations in the Early 20th-Century United States

The Walter Channing Papers, 1810-1921 contain various materials relating to anarchism and perceptions of anarchists in the early 20th-century United States. I decided to explore this collection after locating a record in our catalog, ABIGAIL, for an 18 October 1902 letter written by anarchist Emma Goldman to Dr. Walter Channing, a Boston psychiatrist. In the letter, Goldman writes about Leon Czolgosz, the person who assassinated President William McKinley, specifically his connections to her and to anarchism.

In Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America (Hill and Wang, 2003), Eric Rauchway clarifies the connection between Czolgosz, a Midwesterner who killed McKinley in Buffalo, New York, and the Massachusetts-based Channing. Dissatisfied with the “official” investigation of Czolgosz that was conducted before his execution, Channing had his associate, Dr. Lloyd Vernon Briggs, “conduct a fuller investigation of Czolgosz’s background” (Rauchway 55-56). Channing eventually published an article, “The Mental Status of Czolgosz: The Assasin [sic] of President McKinley,” which was well-received by his colleagues.


I viewed three letters written by anarchists in this collection: two by A. Isaak, and one by Goldman. Rauchway provides close analysis of this correspondence, along with other pieces, in Murdering McKinley (100-105). For the purposes of this post, I’ll provide a briefer overview of these letters while considering Rauchway’s analysis. I did not see letters from Channing to Isaak and Goldman; however, it seems that the correspondence is an attempt to learn more about Czolgosz’s connections to anarchism and anarchists. Isaak’s letters, dated 29[?] August 1902 and 6 September 1902, address an encounter with Czolgosz, during which he feared Czolgosz was a spy due to his seeming lack of knowledge of, yet great enthusiasm for, anarchism. In fact, he attaches to his first letter a transcript of a “warning” included in the September 1 issue of Free Society to alert readers of Czolgosz’s presence in Chicago and Cleveland. He does write in this letter, however, that the warning was eventually “retracted.”



In her letter to Channing, Goldman comes to the defense of Czolgosz, writing that she cannot credibly comment on his status as an anarchist. She did not know Czolgosz very well, but thought that his actions could be reconciled with anarchist thought. Czolgosz, as a worker, could defend himself against his oppressors:

You may question[?] this, since Czolgosz was not personally attact [sic] by McKinley, quite true, but Czolgosz belonged to the oppressed, to the Exploited and Disinherited millions, who lead a life of darkness and despair owing to those, of whom McKinley was one, therefore he was personally attacked by the President, or rather he was one of the victims of the McKinley regime and those McKinley catered to.

Rauchway notes that McKinley as a target did not make much sense to Goldman; targets such as Henry Clay Frick, who her friend and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman had attempted to kill, were more reasonable to her due to their roles as exploiters from the business world (103-105). Goldman even writes in this letter that “[t]he act of Czolgosz may have been inappropriate and inopportune, I will not argue this part now.” However, she is firm in her unwillingness to shun Czolgosz.

The Walter Channing Papers contain other materials relating to the Czolgosz case, including correspondence with Briggs and other physicians, photographs of Czolgosz and members of his family, and notes relating to the investigation. They might be of interest to scholars of anarchism, psychiatry, or crime in the early 20th-century United States. If any of these materials sounds exciting to you, feel free to come view them yourself here in the MHS library.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 5 August, 2016, 8:00 AM

Margaret Russell’s Diary, August 1916

Today, we return to the line-a-day diary of Margaret Russell. You can read previous installments here:

January | February | March | April | May | June | July

During August, the Russell family continued daily life on the North Shore with numerous outings by train, motor, and sail. It appears, based on locations mentioned, that Russell spent at least part of her month on the coast of Maine, motoring and sailing in the area near Mt. Desert island (where Acadia National Park is now located). Her days are a mix of outdoor activities and socializing.

One social event Russell notes in passing is a performance of “Miss Draper’s monologues,” although she fails to comment on substance or quality. The following spring (April 1917) critique Agnes Repplier, quoted in the Cambridge (Mass.) Sentinel, had this to say about Ruth Draper’s work:

Miss Ruth Draper has proved to us once and for all the marvellous possibilities of monologue as a mimetic art. Her tiny dramas, differ materially from the earlier French models, which are always in the nature of a soliloquy, illustrating with light, deft touches a single situation and a single speaker. Miss Draper’s impersonations people the stage with characters unseen but distinctly vitalized. She converses with them, having no need of answers. They are invisible allies who throng at her beck and call. While most of Miss Draper’s monologues are humorous or satiric, they grow at times tense with emotion, betraying an exquisite and poignant pathos which proves her to be a pastmistress of her art. While most of them are simple in construction, there are others which may be said to condense a three-act play into ten breathless moments.

Politics, too, intrude upon the privileged and insulated idyll that was a Boston Brahmin summer. On the last Sunday in August, as is Russell’s usual routine, she walks to and from church in the morning, then hosts a family meal at which “C. thinks I better give up plans to go West on account of the strike.” A few days later she notes, “Strike looks so bad that I have given up my plans.” The threatened railroad workers’ strike Margaret Russell alludes to in fact never came to pass -- but the threat of collective action did result in the Adamson Act (1916), a piece of federal legislation signed by president Woodrow Wilson, that established the eight-hour workday and overtime pay for railway employees. As the strike was called off by 3 September 1916, stay tuned next month to see if Margaret Russell’s travel plans are back on track!

* * *

August 1916*

1 August. Left on 8 o’k train & arrived at [illegible; likely a point in Maine given subsequent locations] at 4. Perfectly cool & comfortable journey & smooth on the water.

2 August. Wednesday - Drove to Jordan’s Pond to hear Miss Draper’s monologues. Saw lots of people. In the P.M. to see Mrs. Durham.

3 August. Thursday - Driving. Went to see Helen Cabot -- Mrs. Lovett, Mrs. R[illegible] & Mrs. Gayley to tea.

4 August. Friday. Went in motor to Savin Hill - Hills Cove where we had tea. Bar Harbor [illegible] drive & home.

5 August. Saturday - Harry & Mrs. C. Parker arrived. Mr. & Mrs. Thompson & Miss Putterham came to tea.

6 August. Sunday - Bishop Brent preached a fine sermon. Went to see Miss Schulyer. In the P.M. drove to Jordan’s Pond for tea. Lovely clear day.

7 August. Monday - Foggy. Paid a call on Wheelwrights & Mrs. C. Parker. Stayed at home in P.M. & then went to see Vaughans.

8 August. Left at 9.30 in motor Ellsworth - Blue Hill - Penobscot - Castine. 3 ¼ hours. Sallie & I took a walk to the Point but it began to rain. Nice to be here.

9 August. Raining in [illegible]. Went to village for errands with Sallie. Lovely drive in P.M. with Rob & Dick & S-- [crossed out] [illegible].

10 August. Breakfast at 6.15 & left Castine at 7.10 & train from Rockland at 10. Cool & Comfortable. The John Lawrences were on board. Miss. A-- met me at Lynn 4.15.

11 August. Friday - Stayed at home to clear up my desk. Drove in the P.M. & stopped for tea at Salem.

12 August. Saturday. Miss A-- & I to Rockport for lunch stopped at E. Gloucester & at Magnolia for errands. Bought [illegible] set. Dined at Beverly.

13 August. Sunday - Walked to church & back. Family to dine.

14 August. Monday - Town all day & to see Aunt Emma. Cool & lovely.

15 August. Tuesday - Errands & walked from [inkblot] woods. Mrs. Ward’s class - Miss A-- came & we went for tea at Marblehead.

16 August. Wednesday - To Beverly & to see Marian. Went for [illegible] & she stayed for an hour. Then to Nahant for call.

17 August. Thursday - Heard of a burned out family & went to help. 8 boys in two families. Took drive & stopped for tea at Burnham House.

18 August. Friday - Went to Middlesex Fells at 10.30 & spent the day walking & [illegible] flowers. Lovely day but no results. Home by 4.30.

19 August. Saturday. Met the H.G.C’s at N. Andover. Miss Bramwell with them. Lovely day, long drive home.

20 August. Sunday. Walked to church & back. Nobody came to dine as most are away.

21 August. Monday. Town with Miss A--. Errands & went to see Aunt Emma. Very hot but did not feel it.

22 August. Tuesday. To Salem for errands. Miss Ward’s class & afterwards to tea at Marblehead.

23 August. Wednesday. Went up at 8.30 & met Clara & May T-- at Chilton brought them down & took them back at [illegible] to Bar Harbor - boat.

24 August. Thursday - Went to church. Lunched at Nahant with Mrs. Amory Lawrence. Took drive with Miss A--.

25 August. Friday - at Home all the morning. Lunched at Beverly with Evie Curtis. Afterwards to Magnolia for errands.

26 August. Saturday - Met the H.G.C.’s at Bald Pate at lunch. Tried to find Pauline F-- but failed.

27 August. Sunday - Walked to church & back. Family to dine. C. thinks I better give up plans to go West on account of the strike.

28 August. Monday - Rained hard. Town & then to see Aunt Emma. Went to see Dr. Smith.

29 August. Went to town to get Sevres groups from M.C. Cabot. Back to lunch. Mrs. Ward’s class & then to see F. Prince. 

30 August. Wednesday - Strike looks so bad that I have given up my plans. Walked back from Little Nahant. Baby came to see Mama.

31 August. Thursday. Lunched at Nahant at Mrs. F. Merriman’s. Went to Manchester to see Mrs. H[illegible] & Mrs. James H.

* * *

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, 3 August, 2016, 12:00 AM

This Week @ MHS

It's August and it's high time that you dropped by the MHS to get out of the heat and enjoy some history. Here is what we have on tap in the week ahead:

- Monday, 1 August, 12:00PM : We start the month with a Brown Bag lunch talk presented by Cassandra Berman of Brandeis University. "Motherhood and the Court of Public Opinion: Transgressive Maternity in America, 1768-1868" examines the figure of the transgressive mother in the United States during a period in which an indealized version of motherhood began to be seen as integral to the moral development of the nation. Berman's research shifts the focus away from ideals and instead examines how the public judges those mother who either could not or would not conform. This talk is free and open to the public, so pack a lunch and come on in!

- Wedensday, 3 August, 12:00PM : Another Brown Bag! With "'Missionary Nation': Imagining America's Role in the Post-Civil War World," James Shinn of Yale  University examines how the struggle for the Union exercised a powervul and lasting--but deeply ambiguous--influence on the Republican foreign policy vision of the late 1860s and 1870s. This talk, also, is free and open to the public. 

- Thursday, 4 August - Friday, 5 August :  "Whaling in Nineteenth-Century Massachusetts" is a teacher workshop taking place here at the Society and at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Using documents from the MHS and the Leventhal Map Center, the workshop explores the lives of sailors, whaling wives, and entrepreneurs, and traces the expanding geographical horizons afforded by the whaling industry. This program is open to educators and history enthusiasts. To register, or for more information, complete this registration form, or contact the education department or 617-646-0557. 

- Saturday, 6 August, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or

While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 12:00 AM

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