The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

“The most exquisitely drawn tragical character in the whole compass of the drama”: John Quincy Adams’ love of Hamlet

In an 1839 letter, John Quincy Adams stated his view that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was “the Master Piece of the Drama ... I had almost said the Master Piece of the Human Mind.” He then gave an analysis of the play sufficiently scholarly and insightful that his letter and his correspondent’s reply were published as a pamphlet in 1844. A copy of this item is among the holdings of the MHS.

The front page of John Quincy Adams’ published interchange of correspondence with James Hackett, regarding the character of Hamlet.

While this publication may be the culmination of John Quincy’s preference for Hamlet, it is certainly not the only evidence of it: his admiration for the play is long-standing.

According to his diary, he saw the play at least seven times, and recalled the productions well enough to contrast the performances of different actors in the leading role. He wrote entries about attending performances on 16 May 1790; 30 November 1792, when the lead actor was “superior to my expectation”; 21 April 1794; 5 October 1797; 18 October 1799, when the lead acted “not well”; 17 April 1809, when the lead actor had “the promise of great powers”; and 13 August 1822, when he judged that the lead actor played Hamlet “indifferently.”

It is notable that the April 1809 Hamlet was the first play that John Quincy and Louisa Catherine took their sons George and John to see, at ages eight and six respectively. A challenging play for children to understand, it is not surprising that the boys had many “remarks and questions” during the performance.

Later that same year, John Quincy and his family took a tour of the Baltic, and he created the following ink and watercolor picture of Cronburg Castle–better know as Shakespeare’s Elsinore.

Kronburg Castle, Helsingør, 2 October 1809, ink and watercolor picture in John Quincy Adams, Miscellany 5, Adams Papers.

It is unclear at what age John Quincy himself first saw Shakespeare on stage, but he had already read some of the works by the time he was ten. An avid reader, he reported to John Adams in October 1774, “I read my Books to Mamma.” While reading aloud was presumably for educational benefit at this point, in adulthood it was instead a form of entertainment—and what better to read than Hamlet? John Quincy Adams noted in his diary that he read Hamlet aloud in 5–6 October 1799, 3–9 August 1802, 16–18 January 1804, and 3–4 March 1823. As the date ranges show, these play readings would extend over several nights, like a mini-series. Twice John Quincy was the only reader, but in 1799 and 1823, he was one of two readers. One wonders how he would have reviewed his own performance...



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 2 March, 2016, 12:00 AM

Second to None: Secondary Sources and a Well-Rounded Research Process

I usually like to employ my blog space to share newly discovered (by me) primary sources from our manuscript, pamphlet, photograph, or artifact collections. I focus heavily on visually  intriguing or mysterious pieces, striving to draw connections  between discoveries, or explore an element of American history about which I previously knew little.

But this week I’m going to do something a little different.

When sitting down to write this post, I realized that all I wanted to share were these fascinating secondary sources I had had my nose buried in all week. After banging my head against a wall  trying to track down primary sources that would give me an excuse to wax poetically about these more...contemporary publications, I caved and re-focused my efforts.

While none of these books will appear in the Society’s 225th celebratory MHS Madness bracket, or be displayed in our image gallery of 225 Items from our Collections, they nonetheless help to broaden the understanding of our more acclaimed collections’ people, places, and historical context.

Much like winning the Tour de France, the study of history is often an independent endeavor that can only be achieved with the help of a team. Our understanding of the past is shaped by the creative exploration of primary sources and vigorous debate about those sources with other historians. This discussion, refutation, and revision plays out in journal articles, monographs, and edited anthologies, and perusing those publications is an integral part of the research process.

It’s also just plain fun.

So here is what has captured my attention lately:


Women Who Kept the Lights: an Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers, by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford (2000).


I discovered this book while answering an (unrelated) reference question and it was the impetus for this blog post. Hundreds of women are documented as operating lighthouses from 1776-1947, including Hannah Thomas, who took over the Gurnet Point Light Station at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor from her husband when he enlisted to fight in the Revolutionary War. (While we hold the records of Hannah’s husband, John Thomas, Hannah’s place in the collections is described only as the recipient of his letters.) This book follows the careers of 32 of these women and includes some wonderful manuscript, photographic, and cartographic sources from local and national archives throughout the United States.


Shipping & Craft in Silhouette, by Charles G. Davis (1929).


Coincidentally, I found this at the same time as Women Who Kept the Lights and it was actually related to a reference question that had driven me to the V section of our library stacks. Though Shipping & Craft ultimately proved unhelpful in answering the question, I thought the unique use of the silhouette style to identify vessels deserved a wider audience.



I may have stumbled upon the seafaring...fare, listed above, but I actively went searching for this final work.


U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism, 1825-1861, by Etsuko Taketani (2003).


My historical interests tend heavily towards the intersection of female and colonial identities and Taketani’s book is one of the few secondary sources in our library dedicated to that particular Venn diagram. Building off of work I have done examining German women’s expressions of colonial identity (both with and without the physical colonies in which to play out those identities), I was interested to see how American women articulated and shaped similar ideologies.

While admittedly not planned, the three works I chose to share here demonstrate the versatility of secondary sources within the research context. Sometimes you seek them out to inform your understanding of a historical discussion; sometimes you stumble upon them and they catch your eye for a moment; and sometimes they send you careening off on an entirely new path of inquiry. Regardless of purpose or happenstance, secondary sources are worth a primary place in your research process.

You can explore our library collections in greater depth by searching for a favorite topic in our online catalog, ABIGAIL, or by stopping in for a visit

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 1 March, 2016, 9:41 AM

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

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