The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Exhibitions News

History’s Mysteries: Building a Family Tree

The protagonist of my favorite mystery novel series, Maisie Dobbs, creates a map of each case she works on. A London detective in the 1930s, she pins down a large piece of paper and writes down every bit of information she discovers, drawing lines to connect the pieces as the case evolves. Recently the staff of the Society’s Publications Department took a page out of Maisie Dobbs’s book and created a “map” to solve our own mystery regarding family connections and progeny.

Ondine LeBlanc Building the Shattuck Family Tree on a White Board in the publications officeWe are working on a book to coincide with the Society’s upcoming exhibition on mourning jewelry. The book, titled In Death Lamented: The Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, features mourning jewels from the Society’s collection and from the private collection of the author, Sarah Nehama.

Several mourning jewels used in the book were donated to the Society by Dr. George Cheever Shattuck in 1971, and although some of the people those jewels honored shared last names, we could not initially discern how they were all related. Many prominent families in 18th- and 19th- century Boston intermarried and used the same names throughout generations, making it difficult to differentiate mothers, sisters, and cousins. Many parents also named their children after close family friends, confounding things further for any genealogist.

With one woman in particular we struggled – Elizabeth Cheever. The inscription on her mourning ring had been transcribed as “Elizabeth Cheever obt. 28 June 1814 Aet 72,” indicating that she was 72 and died on June 28, 1814. Even with these details we could not find biographical information on her anywhere. That is, until we had the help of a great MHS volunteer. Kathleen Fox, who is assisting with this project, discovered that the date of death we had for Elizabeth Cheever had been transcribed incorrectly. Rather than 1814, it was 1802! With this new date we were able to find Elizabeth Cheever using the Town Vital Records Collections of Massachusetts on Formerly Elizabeth Edwards, she was born in 1730 and married William Downes Cheever.

From this new information we were able to link Elizabeth Cheever to Mary Cheever (her sister-in-law), William Cheever (her son), and so on. We created a family tree, researching each family member until we had connected seven generations of Cheevers, Davises, and Shattucks. The family tree includes those commemorated by all of the jewels Dr. George Cheever Shattuck contributed to the MHS. No mean feat. But we’re not done yet. We still need one confirmation on a Hannah Davis. The mapping – and mystery – continues. Sometimes working at a historical society is just like being a detective.

For more information on the Cheever, Davis, and Shattuck families, read this earlier post on the discovery of Elizabeth Cheever (Davis) Shattuck’s travel diary. She appears in the family tree, and In Death Lamented features a mourning ring commemorating her.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 8 June, 2012, 1:00 AM

Anatomy of a Pun: 1813 Edition


Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. This colorful broadside will be featured in the MHS’s upcoming War of 1812 exhibition, Mr. Madison’s War, which opens on June 18. A broadside such as this would have been posted on the side of a building or kept for home consumption by a patriotic family. In its day, it would have been considered as funny – and meaningful – as our contemporary newspaper’s political cartoons or television news spoofs such as The Colbert Report. But without context, a great deal of this broadside’s wit could be lost to today’s reader.

With the title “Huzza for the American Navy,” the picture features a heavyset man in uniform. Two winged insects sting him on either side as he runs, brandishing his sword, to get away. They are on the beach, and two ships are visible at sea in the background. The caption below reads, “John Bull stung to agony by the Wasp and the Hornet.”

The man is “John Bull,” the personification of Great Britain, and his uniform is hand-painted in scarlet. The “Wasp” and the “Hornet” refer to American ships that won victories over Britain early in the War of 1812. USS Wasp defeated HMS Frolic on October 15, 1812, and USS Hornet sunk HMS Peacock on February 24, 1813.

The first insect says, “You’ll bridge the Atlantic, won’t you? Oh then you’ll have a Bane to your Bridge, friend Johnny.” The use of “Bane” and “Bridge” refers to William Bainbridge, who was captain of USS Constitution when it captured HMS Java on December 29, 1812.

John Bull replies, “Are these your Wasps and Hornets! Oh! I’m Hull’d already!!” “Hull” was Isaac Hull, who commanded USS Constitution during an earlier cruise when it defeated HMS Guerrière on August 19, 1812.

The second insect says, “How comes on your Copper-bottom at Bombay? Here is something for you between Wind and Water.” “Copper-bottom at Bombay” appears to be a taunt. When the Constitution defeated and then destroyed the Java off the coast of Brazil, the Royal Navy frigate was transporting the new commander-in-chief of British forces in India, Sir Thomas Hislop, to Bombay, along with copper to sheath the hull of a new 74-gun ship. Copper sheathing prevented a ship from being slowed by marine growth on its hull over the course of a long voyage. The loss of the Java and its cargo of copper delayed the completion of HMS Cornwallis.

“Between Wind and Water” denotes the way sailing ships engaged in battle. They aimed their cannons for the opponent vessel’s waterline, to “hull” it. A hit there was likely to do the most damage because a ship’s waterline rose and fell as wind and waves rocked the ship. But it also works as a double entendre, with the insect stinging John Bull between where he created “wind” and “water – as does the word “Bombay.”

Although this broadside has no inscription, due to the timely nature of its content it likely was printed in March or April of 1813, soon after the Hornet returned from its victory over the Peacock off of the coast of Guyana. The Hornet anchored at Holmes’ Hole in Martha’s Vineyard on March 19, 1813.

Some of the jokes hidden inside this broadside we will likely never know, but a little bit of context provides insight not just into the events of the war but also into what made Americans laugh in 1813, when the pun was the epitome of wit.

To see more documents from the Society's collections related to the war, as well as more information about our upcoming exhibition and other planned events in the Boston area, please visit our War of 1812 web feature.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 9 May, 2012, 8:00 AM

Explore the World of Marian Hooper Adams

Marian Hooper Adams on HorsebackHave you had a chance to visit our current exhibition A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life: The Photographs of Clover Adams, 1883-1885? Hundreds of visitors have visited 1154 Boylston Street to view this stunning exhibition featuring the late-19th-century photographs of Marian Hooper Adams, whom family and friends called Clover. Read what some of them had to say about the exhibition:

“Clover Adams … you instantly fall in love with her”

“A very interesting and revealing installation”

“Very poignant”

“The written text made the exhibition come to life”

Not planning on visiting Boston in the near future? You do not have to miss out entirely. Clover's photographs can be viewed by a wider audience via our web feature, Marian Hooper Adams: Selected Photographs and Letters. The website presents 48 photographs (one entire album) from the Marian Hooper Adams photograph collection, five selected letters from the Hooper-Adams papers, and two letters by Henry Adams in which he reflects on his wife's death.

The website also provides information about Clover's approach to photography by presenting a digital facsimile of a notebook Clover kept from May 1883 to January 1884 in which she listed many of her photographs and commented on exposures, lighting, and other technical details. The display of the notebook includes a transcription of the text provided by Natalie Dykstra, the guest curator for our current exhibition. 

The exhibition runs through 2 June 2012 and is free and open to the public Monday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM. The web feature is available through our website 24 hours a day and will remain online after the exhibition closes.

If you want to learn even more about the life of Clover Adams, look for Natalie Dykstra's new book Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), which offers a full-length biography of the woman behind the camera. 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 26 April, 2012, 8:00 AM

A New Way to Look at an Old (and forgotten) Story

We have just opened a new exhibition, The First Seasons of the Federal Street Theatre: 1794-1798, that complements a larger exhibition, Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History, at the Boston Public Library. The controversy over a public theater that raged in Boston in the 1790s, an old and largely forgotten story, now has been brought to life through the efforts of Professor Paul Lewis of the English Department of Boston College and his very able students. Thanks to the audio production services of Boston College, it also is the first time that the Society—and the Boston Public Library—have used QR codes in an exhibition. QR codes, the ubiquitous matrix barcodes that appear everywhere in advertisements, now are used increasingly in museum settings so that smartphone users are able to call up additional audio information about what is on display. 

The First Seasons of the Federal Street Theatre will be on display, Monday-Saturday, 10:00 AM-4:00 PM, through July 30, but more than twenty items from the MHS exhibition also are on “virtual” display at the Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s History website, The online version of the First Seasons section of the Forgotten Chapters exhibition will reach a wider audience than those who are able to visit the MHS and be available for a longer period of time, but it also is an informative and engaging introduction to the original materials on show at the Society.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 4 April, 2012, 1:00 AM

The Joy of Discoveries: Answering a Visitor's Question

It is always fun to make a connections in surprising places.  It is even more fun when those connections are made as a result of a question asked by a visitor to the MHS.

Last week, a visitor to our current exhibition The Purchase by Blood: Massachusetts in the Civil War, 1861-1862, asked a simple question that I could not answer.  The question, was Stephen Perkins -- a soldier featured in the exhibition -- related to the Perkins that was the namesake of the Perkins School for the Blind

Unable to answer the questions off the cuff, I promised to research the relationship and provide an answer via email. This lead me on a serendipidious mission.

Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854) -- one of Boston's most successfull China trade merchants -- was an early benefactor of the the school, selling his own home (which had housed the school for a year) and donating the funds so that the school could be moved to a larger location as enrollment grew. The MHS holds a large collection of Perkins' personal and business papers (see a guide to the collection here), which is where I started my search. But I was unable to determine a clear familial connection between Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen Perkins there.  So I changed my search strategy and turned to our online catalog, ABIGAIL, for assistance. 

Through ABIGAIL I discovered that the photograph of Stephen Perkins featured in our exhibtion was the only item we held credited to Perkins himself. So I kept digging through the entries for the various Perkins family members until discovering the generic subject heading "Perkins Family" which brought me to a catalog record for an item that seemed to have promise in terms of revealing a clear answer to the question at hand: a large broadside title The Perkins Family of Boston.  Dashing to the stacks to view the broadside, I was delighted to see that it  was a large genealogical chart which revealed there was a connection between Thomas Handasyd Perkins and Stephen G. Perkins, killed at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in the Civil War. 

Looking at the chart I could see that Thomas had a brother named Samuel, who was born in 1767. Samuel had a son, who he named Stephen, in 1804.  That Stephen also had a son named Stephen, born in 1835.  That Stephen, the grandson of Thomas Handasyd Perkins' brother Samuel, was the Stephen pictured in our exhibition. 

I was happy to be able to reveal the answer to the exhibition visitor as well as to build for myself a little extra knowledge to share with future visitor to the MHS. 



comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 11 January, 2012, 12:09 PM

older posts