The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

This Week @ MHS

After a lack of programming last week, we are back this week with a slew of public events to satisfy your hunger for history. Be sure to keep an eye on our monthly calendar in the coming weeks as April has a lot going on! Here's what's on as we leave March behind:

- Tuesday,  29 March, 5:15PM : The War on Butchers: San Francisco and the Making of Animal Space, 1850-1870, is a part of the Immigration and Urban History Seminar series. In this paper, Andrew Robichaud of Boston University examines some of the challenges of urban animal life (and death) in cities, while tracing the evolution of animal regulations in San Francisco between 1850 and 1870. Harriet Ritvo of MIT provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP requiredSubscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.

- Wednesday, 30 March, 12:00PM : Pack a lunch and come in at noon to hear Margaret Newell, Ohio State University, talk about her current research project, "William and Ellen Craft and the Transatlantic Battle for Civil Rights in the Nineteenth Century," a dramatic story of escape from slavery in Georgia on to a life of anti-slavery activism in Boston and London. This Brown Bag talk is free and open to the public, no registration required. 

- Wednesday, 30 March, 6:00PM : Join us for a public author talk presented by Andrew Lipman of Barnard College, recipient of a 2016 Bancroft Prize. The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast examines the previously untold story of how the ocean became a "frontier" between colonists and Indians. Registration is required for this event with a fee of $20 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows). A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM.

- Friday, 1 April, 2:00PM : Stop by the MHS at 2:00PM for a free gallery talk, "Jefferson and Slavery." Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, yet he also owned people as slaves. His experimental farm and garden and his architectural tests were made possible through the uncompensated labor of hundreds. While Jefferson and slavery is not the primary focus of our exhibition, it is present in every room. The curator of the show ,Peter Drummey, will explore this subject.

There is no public tour scheduled for Saturday, 2 April. Please check back next week!


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 27 March, 2016, 11:24 AM

This Island, Cuba

After President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight some MHS material related to the island and its history. We hold a number of collections touching on the subject, including the papers of Boston-area merchants engaged in the U.S.-Cuba sugar trade during the 19th and 20th centuries. 

Foremost among these merchant families was the Atkins family. Our popular collection of Atkins family papers spans from 1845 to 1950 and consists almost exclusively of the business papers of Elisha, Edwin F., and Robert W. Atkins, as well as the records of E. Atkins & Co. The Atkins family owned a sugar plantation called the Soledad estate on the southern coast of Cuba near Cienfuegos. By the end of the 19th century, under the leadership of Edwin F. Atkins, the prosperous Soledad had grown to enormous proportions, encompassing about 12,000 acres. Five thousand acres were planted with sugar cane.


Edwin F. and his wife Katharine W. Atkins, from their Cuban passport, 1917


The Atkins family papers came to the MHS with hundreds of photographs depicting life on the estate, as well as scenes of Cuban cities and seaports. It’s difficult to choose from so many terrific images, but here are a few of my favorites. (All of the photographs below are unfortunately undated.)




An outing










A big tree!


The MHS website features a digital exhibit of select items from the Atkins family papers, or you may just want to search our website for Cuba material. Other collections related to Cuba include the papers of the Foster, Morse, and Dabney families. Bay Staters also traveled to the island as tourists, and we hold many letters and diaries written during these trips. We hope you’ll visit our library to see what we have!


comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 25 March, 2016, 4:42 PM

This Week @ MHS

The calendar is empty this week with the exception of our Saturday tour:

- Saturday, 26 March, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a docent-led walk through the public spaces in the Society's home on Boylston Street. 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. The exhibition galleries are open to the public free of charge, Monday-Friday, 10:00AM-4:00PM.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 20 March, 2016, 12:00 AM

Archivist as Detective, Part II: The Mysterious Woman in John Albee’s Life

I hadn’t expected to have the opportunity to indulge in another “investigation” so soon after my last one, but I caught a lucky break. Just a few weeks ago, the MHS acquired a diary of John Albee (1833-1915) that contained an intriguing mystery—the identity of the young woman with whom he shared a passionate, but ultimately unsuccessful, romance. He wrote about her often in his diary, but used her initials: L.A.



I was particularly motivated to solve this mystery because I knew from my research that John Albee—first a Unitarian minister and later a Transcendentalist author—counted among his friends Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the Alcott family. I wondered if L.A. might be, in fact, Louisa May Alcott. Though she never married, Alcott did have suitors, and she was just about John’s age.

As I looked through John’s diary, kept mostly in Cambridge, Mass. between 1853 and 1861, I found a few clues that seemed to support my initial guess. He referred to some verses written by L.A.—was she an aspiring author? He also slipped up a few times and called her “Lou” and “Louise,” but this was such a common name at the time, I still couldn’t be sure. He didn’t divulge many specific details about her, even the first names of family members.

He did, however, write quite passionately about her. This is one of my favorite passages: “While she listened I could talk, but when she left the room I became silent. The best thoughts of my life came to me to say to her.” His entry of 7 October 1857 recounts a dramatic event. When L.A. declined his invitation to a concert, apparently under pressure from her mother, he went dejected to the hall and tried to enjoy himself, without much success. Then… (cue the music!) looking into the crowd, he saw her there. His “little elf” had raced through the streets to catch up with him.

The diary contains many scenes like this. There’s the couple’s accidental (and symbolic) meeting on West Boston Bridge at a turning point in their relationship. There’s the embarrassing gossip of friends. And of course, there’s a rival for L.A.’s affections. John transcribed into the diary his letter to the other man, J.B.K., which reads in part: “I do not know your sentiments towards L.A. I do not know hers towards you, nor towards myself, and we are all mixed up, and it is a maze.”

The break in my “case” came when I found an entry pairing the names of L.A. and Mrs. Appleton. The context seemed to indicate that L.A. was a member of that family. John also mentioned the related Haven family, as well as Portsmouth, N.H., the home of the Havens and Appletons.

Voila! Sophia Louisa Appleton, who went by her middle name Louisa, was born in 1836. She worked at the Harvard College library in the late 1850s, while John was a student in the Divinity School. She was also an aspiring author and wrote an opera in 1865. And John occasionally mentioned L.A.’s mother in his diary, but not her father. (Charles J. Appleton had died years before, while the other Louisa’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was still very much alive.)

I searched other Appleton family papers at the MHS and saw nothing to confirm my identification beyond a reasonable doubt, but I feel fairly confident I’ve found L.A. The MHS holds a few photographs of the woman in question, including this lovely carte de visite from the Haven-Appleton-Cutter family photographs.



December 1859 was full of emotional encounters, romantic angst, and introspection for John, as he and Louisa had split but couldn’t seem to stay apart. He described quarrels, saying to her: “I love you. […] But I can hate too.” However, he concluded the whole affair philosophically: “Life is too much, one must soon see, for any man to undertake seriously. Keep a jester in your house if you would prevent matters from coming to extremities.”

Louisa Appleton married Charles William Bradbury in 1864 and lived into her nineties. John Albee married twice, first in 1864 to Harriet Ryan (1829-1873), then again in 1895 to Helen Rickey (or Ricky). He had four children, but survived them all, dying in 1915. Can you guess his youngest daughter’s name? Louisa.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 11:20 AM

This Week @ MHS

It's time for the weekly round-up of events. Here is what is on the schedule:

- Wednesday, 16 March, 6:00PM : "Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency" Join us for this author talk in which David Greenberg is interviewd by Robin Young, co-host of Here & Now on WBUR and NPR, about his new publication. Registration is required for this event with a fee of $20 (no charge for MHS Members and Fellows). A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM. 

- Saturday, 19 March, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 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.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Sunday, 13 March, 2016, 12:00 AM

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