The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Recent Events

The Catholic Exodus from Eliot School: Lunch Talk Recap

On Friday, 14 May local historian and author of The North End: A Brief History of Boston’s Oldest Neighborhood Alex Goldfeld gave a presentation on “The Eliot School and the Catholic Exodus of 1859.” 

Before getting into details about the 1859 incident, Goldfeld sketched out the history of Boston’s school system, beginning with the founding of Boston Latin in 1635, and of Catholics in Boston during the Colonial, Revolutionary, and New Republic periods (giving, as an example, the anti-Catholic sentiment expressed in raucous Pope’s Day celebrations in the pre-Revolutionary period). He also discussed the intersection of these two histories: the options available to Catholic students for their education during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Catholics, although a persecuted minority in Massachusetts, had nevertheless been a presence in Boston since its founding, and by 1788 celebrated their first public mass and by 1830 boasted a population some 10,000 strong in Boston and Charlestown, shepherded by one bishop and four priests. Although the Catholic church provided religious instruction for students, they did not – during the first half of the nineteenth century – develop a parochial school system that offered instruction in secular as well as religious subjects. Children from Catholic families attended public, Protestant-run, grammar schools, including the Eliot School in Boston’s North End. 

In March of 1859, Father Wiget, a recently-arrived Swiss Jesuit priest, urged some of the boys in his St. Mary’s Sunday school to resist recitation of Protestant prayers and Bible readings in school. On 14 March, a ten-year-old boy named Thomas Whall (at student at Eliot) was beaten for thirty minutes on the hands after refusing to follow the teacher’s instructions and afterwards fainted when he finally conceded defeat and attempted to read the assigned lesson. 

This punishment (perceived as excessive even by the standard of the day) caused Whall’s parents to file a lawsuit against the Eliot School administration and sparked widespread controversy about the place of corporeal punishment as well as religious instruction in public schools. Between 300-400 of the Eliot School’s approximately 700 pupils left in protest (though many trickled back) and St. Mary’s parish responded by organizing a Catholic school that stood as an alternative to public school education (a school that remained open until 1973). 

Goldfeld argues that this incident and the political rhetoric surrounding it on both sides raised questions about the place of religion in the school system and the role of public schools in the assimilation of immigrants that still have echoes in modern-day debates. 

Alex Goldfeld has been a local historian and tour guide in Boston for the past ten years and can be found online at It was a pleasure to have him speak at the MHS and we look forward to seeing what his next project will be.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 17 May, 2010, 8:00 AM

"McClellan in Boston": Lunch-Talk Recap

On Wednesday, 28 October, the MHS hosted a brown-bag lunch talk, “McClellan's Visit to Boston, January 28-February 8, 1863"  in which Carol Bundy, a current Andrew W. Mellon Fellow and long-time MHS researcher, led a discussion of her current project. An audience of about twenty, comprised of MHS members, staff, and research fellows, as well as local scholars and history enthusiasts, listened as Carol presented a brief synopsis of her research before engaging her in a lively question and answer session.

At the outset of the program Carol described her project as an “unformed mass of dough, just beginning to rise” meaning that the project is in its early stages and she is still working on identifying the main characters and primary direction of her narrative. She introduced the audience to her project by giving a bit of background about both McClellan’s visit and the social and political environment in Boston in the winter of 1863. 

While McClellan’s visit to Boston in that winter is the focus of the project, McClellan himself is not the center of Carol’s research. The project is “not so much about McClellan, as about Boston’s reaction to McClellan.” As a result Carol has been working to identify the men responsible for bringing McClellan to Boston that winter, as well as fleshing out his itinerary. Through contemporary diary accounts she has already identified a committee of twelve men responsible for bringing McClellan to Boston. The hope is that the project will grow from there as she explores these men and their connections to both each other and the places that McClellan visited during his time in the city.

The greater questions to be explored include the reasons for McClellan's visit to Boston, and why was he seemingly so popular with Bostonians at the time. Bundy presented the argument that the men who brought McClellan to Boston supported him for various - mostly personal - reasons which were more pragmatic than ideological, and raised her own questions about the reaction of the city at large. 

During the discussion part of the program attendees raised questions about the role of religion in the development of the political and personal motivations surrounding individual positions on the emancipation issue, the appeal of McClellan (which was presented as being a superficial appeal), and the form that the written project may take once the direction of the project becomes more clear.

A hearty thank you to Carol for an engaging presentation and for sharing her research with us. Keep your eye out for the resulting publication down the road.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 31 October, 2009, 8:25 AM

"Marriage Extraordinary": Lunch Talk Recap

This Wednesday (8 July), the MHS hosted a brown bag lunch talk, “Marriage Extraordinary: Interracial Marriage and the Politics of the Family in Antebellum Massachusetts,” given by Amber Moulton-Wiseman, a graduate student of African-American Studies at Harvard University and a short-term research fellow here at the MHS.  Amber spoke on the nineteenth-century battle to lift the ban on interracial marriage that had been in effect in Massachusetts since 1705, prohibiting legal marriages between whites and people of color (particularly those of African descent).  Amber gave a brief description of the six-year campaign to end the ban, which began in 1837 with a grassroots petitioning drive and ended during the 1843 legislative session when the Massachusetts legislature voted to lift the ban, wiping away what many at the time considered to be one of the “old stains of slavery.” The political campaign was seen by activists as the first in a series of battles to defeat segregation, closely tied to debates over segregation of railway cars and Massachusetts schools.

Amber highlighted some of the collections she has used here at the MHS, such as the Charles Francis Adams diaries and the Wigglesworth family papers, to establish the context of the interracial marriage debate here in Massachusetts, and to understand the diverse interest groups that eventually came together in order to bring about the repeal – from female reformers who organized petition drives, to high-profile anti-slavery activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, to everyday Massachusetts citizens who, otherwise uninterested in the issue of interracial marriage of the rights of African-Americans, saw repealing the ban as a way to establish a Northern identity distinct from the slave-holding South.

In conversation following Amber’s initial presentation, attendees posed questions about the concept of race identity during antebellum period, and the problem of identifying interracial marriages as such, since “race” is such a fluid concept.  Amber clarified that, for the purposes of her research, she believed it best to draw the “race line” according to how people were seen (or saw themselves) at the time, rather than attempt to impose our own conceptions of racial categories onto an historical situation.  We also talked at length about the way in which the benefits of interracial marriage were framed by its supporters: marriage, Amber argues, was usually held up as a question of security for children and mothers.  The moral question concerning those who sought to legalize interracial marriage was, as one attendee put it, “whether men were bound to support women they have sex with” and the children they have as a result of those sexual relationships.  The legitimacy and security of mothers and children, rather than the rights of women as sexually-active individuals, was the primary concern of the pro-marriage reformers – even as the specter of women having sex outside of marriage (and outside of their own race!) was never far from peoples’ minds.

Many thanks to Amber for an engaging introduction to her topic and we wish her the best as she begins drafting her dissertation!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 10 July, 2009, 7:05 AM