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The Tree on Boston Common

As we begin to move out of February and, hopefully, leave behind the worst of winter, I’d like to reflect back on a historic Boston storm that had a strong impact both on Boston’s landscape and its mythology. February 15, 1876 was a stormy day at the start of the United States’ centennial year. It was also the last day that one of Boston’s first ‘residents’ would stand in Boston Common. This resident was known as the “Great Elm” (and later, the “Old Elm”) and it was one of the most prominent signifiers of Boston’s place in history, a silent witness to history called upon in many early accounts of the city.

The tree had a fabled history among Bostonians. Nehemiah Adams describes the tree in alternately flowery language: “That tree is to antiquity with us what a pyramid is in Egypt. It is like the pillars of Hercules, bounding the unknown ages which preceded the arrival of the Pilgrims” (Boston Common, 1842) and more bizarre turns of phrase: “vegetable patriarch” (The Boston Common: Or, Rural Walks in Cities). Adams’ assessment of the tree’s ancientness is largely in keeping with other Bostonian’s views. Although it was a long held belief that the tree stood in Boston Common even before the Puritans arrived, it was only when the tree fell and its rings were counted that residents definitively concluded that the tree had existed since at least the 1630s (Boston Common in colonial and provincial days by Mary Farwell Ayer). 

The tree had witnessed a number of types of events over the years, from public hangings and duels during the early days of Boston to local women laundering clothing by the tree and Frog Pond at the end of the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, as Boston grew in size and the Common became more like a large public park, more common activities included people meeting at the Elm Tree or going skating on Frog Pond.

 

This nineteenth century print is one of many prints and artistic renderings that were produced of the tree and features Bostonians enjoying their time near the Great Elm, whether sitting under the tree, playing catch near it, or strolling by it. Although this particular print focuses on an idyllic depiction of the Common, it also reveals the age of the Great Elm, which is missing several branches and is fenced in by an iron gate in this depiction. The gate wasn’t installed until 1854, after a series of storms left the elm badly scarred. Over several hundred years, the tree sustained a number of injuries, including a large cavity that developed in the center of its trunk. When the tree finally did come down in 1876, struck by a strong gust of wind during a storm, Boston citizens rushed to the tree to claim branches and scraps of wood as souvenirs.

 

The tree was repurposed in a number of other ways by inventive residents, including creating veneered pictures of the tree made out of wood from the elm itself and growing a root of “The Old Elm” around a china dish cover. Part of the tree was also used to make a chair for the Boston Public Library (Boston Common: a diary of notable events, incidents, and neighboring occurrences by Samuel Barber). One of these keepsakes belongs to MHS’s own collection, a pair of “Old Elm earrings,” made by Benjamin F. Knowlton. The earrings are shaped like tiny liberty bells and are made out of elm wood, with tiny gold clappers, and red, white, and blue striped ribbon attached to the top of each earring.

From the days of Puritan society, when Boston Common was still a cow pasture, to the Revolution and into the nineteenth century, the Great Elm was a marker of time for Boston for many years. If you are interested in the Great Elm, or the history of Boston Common, please consider visiting the library to learn more! 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 24 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

“We...Intend to Make Things Lively”: Boston’s Black Voters in 1884

The MHS just acquired a fascinating document related to political activism by Boston’s black voters during the 1884 presidential election. This election, only the fourth presidential contest in which black (male) voters could take part, pitted Democrats Grover Cleveland and Thomas A. Hendricks against Republicans James G. Blaine and John A. Logan. Most African Americans supported the Republican Party, and “Blaine and Logan Clubs” had sprung up in many American cities, including Boston.

 

On 20 Sep. 1884, a committee consisting of three Boston men sent this letter to the Republican National Committee on behalf of the “colored voters of the 3d. Congressional district” of Massachusetts. They requested information on the candidates, particularly Democratic vice presidential nominee Hendricks. The letter reads, in part:

We hope you will be able to forward a good stock of Hendrick’s [sic] public record so that every colored man in the Commonwealth may know all about the Democratic candidate for the Vice-Presidency. […] We have formed a Blaine & Logan Club and intend to make things lively for Messrs. Cleveland & Hendricks on the 4th day of next November.

I was curious about this “opposition research” targeting Hendricks. Thomas Andrews Hendricks (1819-1885) of Indiana certainly had a substantial public record. By 1884, he’d served in multiple elected offices, including state congressman, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, and governor. He’d even run for vice president once before, on a ticket with Samuel Tilden in 1876, but they lost to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, what specific grievances did black voters have against Hendricks? To answer that question, I found two terrific resources in the MHS stacks, both printed in Boston in 1884.

The first is a book called The Life and Public Services of Grover Cleveland, by Frederick E.  Goodrich, which includes an appended biography of Hendricks. Goodrich was an enthusiastic Democrat, and his biography is unabashedly partisan. He describes the Democrats as the true heirs to the Founding Fathers and calls the Republicans “demoralized” and “thoroughly corrupt.” Hendricks himself sounds almost mythical: “His honesty was above suspicion, his integrity was never questioned, nor his motives impugned. He won the respect of all his colleagues and retained the confidence and support of his constituents.”

Goodrich wrote in generalities and didn’t have much to say about Hendricks’ specific votes related to slavery or African American civil rights. He did explain, in one passage, Hendricks’ support for the Fugitive Slave Act:

It has been objected to him lately, that he was in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law; but so was the majority of his party, which at that time recognized that slavery was a legal institution in the Southern States, and which upheld the right of the slave-owners to claim their property wherever they found it. It is too late in the day now to rake up the anti-slavery record of any man, because many of our foremost and most honored public men since the war were, prior to that event, defenders, or at least apologists of slavery.

The second resource I found at the MHS was a speech by W. R. Holloway delivered on 2 Aug. 1884 and published in pamphlet form as A Bad Record: Hendricks as a Public Man. William Robeson Holloway (1836-1911), a staunch Republican and brother-in-law of Gov. Oliver P. Morton, had held various political appointments in Indiana. He was a full-throated anti-Hendricks man and didn’t mince his words, characterizing Hendricks like this:

Shown to have been the Friend and Apologist of Slavery, a Copperhead of the worst type.—An Intense Negro Hater, as well as a Defender of Treason, a Constant Sympathizer with the Rebellion.—The Champion of Traitors, and always a Bogus Reformer, an Insincere Demagogue, and an Uncertain Leader.—Not a Redeeming Feature to be found in the Public Career of the Choice of the Democracy for Vice-President.

Hendricks did, in fact, oppose all three Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution: the Thirteenth (abolishing slavery), Fourteenth (extending citizenship, due process, equal protection, etc.), and Fifteenth (granting suffrage to black men). In his speech, Holloway also described how the Democrat “sustained and defended the Dred-Scott decision,” “denounced the Emancipation Proclamation,” and opposed the military service of African Americans, arguing that black soldiers lacked the courage to serve alongside whites. He accused Hendricks of opportunism, hypocrisy, and cowardice. Here’s more:

He has been consistent in his opposition to the negroes, and while in the Senate, voted uniformly against the colored race, against emancipation in the District of Columbia, against their civil and political rights in that District, and against their right to ride on the street-cars in the city of Washington; opposed their employment as soldiers, and after they were enlisted and had gallantly perilled their lives on the field of battle, he voted on more than one occasion to deny them equal compensation with white soldiers in the same service.

It’s no wonder the “colored voters of the 3d. Congressional district” were determined to “make things lively”! Massachusetts’ 14 electoral votes went to the Republican nominee, James G. Blaine, but despite the party’s best efforts, Grover Cleveland won the election by a narrow margin. Thomas A. Hendricks died one year later on 25 Nov. 1885, and the vice presidency remained vacant for the rest of Cleveland’s term.

I hoped to find out more about the three men who sent the letter, A. P. Jones, W. D. Johnson, and Jas. H. Wolff, but could only definitively identify the third man. The remarkable story of James Harris Wolff (1847-1913) probably deserves a blog post of its own. He served in the Navy during the Civil War and became a prominent black attorney who argued civil rights cases for African Americans. In 1910, he was the first black person to deliver the official Fourth of July oration in Boston.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 15 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

“A Remarkable Deception”: The Cardiff Giant Hoax

In the autumn of 1869 the peaceful valley of Onondaga, in central New York, was in commotion from one end to the other. Strange reports echoed from farm to farm. It was noised abroad that a great stone statue or petrified giant had been dug up near the little hamlet of Cardiff, almost at the southern extremity of the valley; and soon, despite the fact that the crops were not yet gathered and the elections not yet over, men, women, and children were hurrying from Syracuse and from the farm-houses along the valley to the scene of the great discovery.

So begins Andrew D. White in a 1902 article for The Century titled “The Cardiff Giant: The True Story of a Remarkable Deception.” Thus, he sets the scene for his bizarre – yet true – story about a very fake giant.

 

 

I came across White’s article in a scrapbook of clippings in our collections, illuminating the events and deceptions surrounding the once-famed Cardiff Giant. While the compiler of clippings in this scrapbook is unknown, this person had enough interest to collect published material and neatly title the scrapbook in black ink, “The Cardiff Giant.” On the first page, a note from the November 1902 meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society recognizes “one of our distinguished Corresponding Members,” Andrew D. White, for his “minute description of the attempt to cheat the public.”  

On 16 October 1869, workers who were hired to dig a well on the property of William C. “Stub” Newell in Cardiff, New York, unearthed what became known as the Cardiff Giant. The bewildered well diggers were hired by Newell, who knew the figure had been deliberately planted almost a year earlier by his cousin, George Hull. While in Iowa in 1866, Hull was reportedly inspired to create a stone giant and pass it off as a petrified man after he argued with a Methodist revivalist, Rev. Mr. Turk, and wondered why so many believed the remarkable stories in the Bible about giants. Two years later, Hull hired men to quarry out an eleven-foot block of gypsum near Fort Dodge, Iowa, which he shipped by train to Chicago to be sculpted into the giant. The finished 3,000-pound figure was shipped again to Cardiff and buried to await its debut. Once it was uncovered, Newell set up a tent to display the nearly ten-foot-five colossus, and hundreds flocked to his Cardiff hamlet for a twenty-five-cent viewing of what many believed to be a petrified man (Newell raised the price to fifty cents after two days). Following the discovery, Hull sold the giant to David Hannum for $23,000, who shipped it to Syracuse and began a road tour toward New York City. Noting the public’s remarkable interest in the giant, P.T. Barnum offered to purchase it for $50,000. Though his offer was declined, Barnum covertly made an exact copy of the giant and charged visitors to view it.

While much of the public and even some professionals were fooled, others saw through the deceit, partially or fully. An article in the 3 November 1869 edition of the Worcester Daily Spy includes a testimony from Professor James Hall, “the state geologist of New York, a scholar of a good American reputation.” Hall states, “It is certainly a great curiosity, and, as it now presents itself, the most remarkable archaological [sic] discovery ever made in this country, and entirely unlike any other relics of a past age yet known to us.” While Hall did not believe it to be a petrified human, he thought it a unique object related to “the race or people of the past formerly inhabiting that part of the country.” Another article includes a letter dated 24 November 1869, in which Professor O. C. Marsh concludes, “Altogether, the work is well calculated to impose upon the general public; but I am surprised that any scientific observers should not have at once detected the unmistakable evidence against its antiquity.” He posits evidence for the deliberate and relatively recent burial of the figure, namely an analysis of the gypsum from which it was cut and the estimated erosion timeline that both support the “humbug” conclusion.

 

 

It struck me while reading George Hull’s obituary in the Boston Journal that the notice is hardly about Hull. Less of an obituary and more of a sensational article, the heading reads “Cardiff Giant” and within the article, “Hull Proud of It.” I presume it’s safe to say Hull wouldn’t have minded – the obituary notes, “Hull was very proud of the affair, and he never tired of talking about it.” According to the Boston Journal, Hull accumulated a fortune from his hoax but died in poverty. Whoever assembled this scrapbook of clippings also included an obituary next to Hull’s, printed just fifteen days later for “the last survivor of the famous ‘Cardiff Giant’ humbug,” sculptor John J. Sampson of Chicago.

The tale of the Cardiff Giant sparked the imaginations of authors Mark Twain and L. Frank Baum, and the giant even found his way into a Nancy Drew mystery. Today you can find him on display at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

If you would like to explore this topic further, visit the library to see what else you can uncover about the Cardiff Giant, its public reception and famed deception.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

From the Case Notes of Robert Treat Paine: Taxes and Turmoil in Paxton

In Paxton, Mass., on 3 February 1783, a riot broke out over a cow. More than a dozen “hearty fellows” from Paxton and nearby Worcester County towns stormed a “vendue” (an auction) and attempted to “rescue” a cow from the auction block. They broke through the bars penning the animal and, wielding “unusual” clubs, threatened the life and well-being of anyone who dared to place a bid. According to one witness, Paxton joiner and alleged rioter Asa Sterns said that “whosoever bids, bids at his peril” while Holden yeoman Jonathan Wheeler threatened “the first man that bid he'd knock his brain out.”

The rioters left a trail of bruises and sore heads behind them. No one was killed in the commotion, but 10 men were later arrested, charged with inciting a riot, and tried before the September Sessions of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in Worcester, prosecuted by Atty. Gen. Robert Treat Paine. The defendants were indicted for congregating in order to 

obstruct the due Execution of Law and to prevent the Collection of the public Taxes of this Commonwealth legally assessed on the Subjects thereof for the defence of their Liberty and happiness with force and Arms riotously routously and unlawfully did assemble and gather together for the destructive purposes aforsaid and to disturb the peace of the Commonwealth and being so assembled and gathered together, did then and there unlawfully riotously & routously remain and continue together in a tumultous manner for the space of one hour in evil Example to others to offend in like manner & against the peace & Dignity of the Commonwealth.*

 

In the small, makeshift notebooks that contain Paine’s hastily written trial notes, the cramped pages of witness and participant testimonies expose local, state, and class tensions. Witness after witness reported that the individuals in question, most prominently Asa and Reuben Sterns, had spoken against the state government in the weeks before the riot. Most of the Sterns brothers’ complaints addressed state taxes and more specifically the state resolve that allowed tax collectors to confiscate moveable property or livestock—the aforementioned cow—if an individual did not have specie (coin money).

Due to the shortage of hard money and the Revolutionary War’s interruptions of business-as-usual, many Paxton residents were cash-strapped and struggling to answer the intensifying state tax demands. Consequently, local officials confiscated cattle from the Sterns brothers and several other residents in lieu of unpaid taxes. Local residents saw this measure as grossly unjust. They argued that if their cattle—part of their means to a living—were confiscated, it would make it harder to earn the money to pay taxes, or even to eat. According to witness Thomas Pollard, “Asa Sterns sd. he wd. pay no more Taxes, if he did he shd. have no more money to pay Taxes.” The tax rioters complained that the coastal merchant elites were growing wealthy at their expense. David Pierce, one of the alleged rioters, swore at the trial that he was “fighting for liberty but it was become Tyranny & he wd. support it no longer” because the tax “money went to support great men.”

The resentment toward the state grew so high, witnesses reported, that after a few drinks the Sterns brothers proclaimed that Worcester County residents would be better off under the British government than the Massachusetts government. They had toasted the “brave Tories” and wished health to King George III. Other witnesses stripped the rioters of ideology and instead said that Asa Sterns “sd. if he pd. the 5 Doll for Taxes he shd. have no money to buy flip”—an alcoholic beverage popular in early New England.

On the February morning of the vendue, Reuben and Asa Sterns, David Pierce, and a number of other men arrived at the auction site with clubs, intending to stop the sale and prevent wealthier locals from purchasing their cows. Testifier Nathan Brigham Newton observed the buildup to the riot:

Vendue day, they sd. they had paid Taxes long enô.  Reuben Sterns sd. damn the Authority.  Asa Sterns sd. he’d keep his money to buy flip.  Jona. Wheeler told Silas Newton to hold his tongue or he’d split his head open.  this was before sale

           

Nathan Brigham Newton’s Testimony


The riot’s violence lasted less than an hour, with rioters targeting the state authorities and local tax collectors or trying to release the cattle from the auction pen and nearby barn. Some locals that were “freindly to Gov” drove the cattle back into the barn before the rioters could make off with them. The rioters were disbanded and indicted two months later.

The case was not as legally challenging as many that Paine faced. Levi Lincoln, attorney for the defense, presented thin arguments that fill barely half a page in Paine’s notebook, whereas the witness testimonies take up over a dozen. Paine noted when one defense witness stated that the rioters had not actually threatened murder, but his remaining defense notes are short and cryptic. Unlike many cases, he did not spend pages listing relevant legal texts, past case precedents, or rationalizing the charges—the case was straightforward. The 10 men were found guilty of inciting a riot and sentenced to each pay fines of £4 to £10 and sureties of £50 to £80 for a term of two years to guarantee their good behavior, while one man was sentenced to three months imprisonment. The cattle proceeded to auction; the proceeds from the sale went to the state government. Despite the relative legal simplicity, the case indicates broader tensions in Revolutionary Massachusetts.

Paine’s notes on Levi Lincoln’s arguments for the defense


Paine prosecuted several rioting cases in 1783. The same September court in Worcester County tried cases for riots in Sturbridge, Dudley, Douglass, and Petersham. These cases resemble the Paxton riot, with men resentful about taxation, confiscated livestock, and debt. The complaints underpinning these disturbances resurfaced in a larger protest movement later in the decade: Shays’s Rebellion. While the Revolutionary War drew to a close in 1783, Massachusetts residents continued to contest the shape and function of the new state government.

For the full trial story and Paine’s other legal endeavors, check out the Robert Treat Paine Papers collection at MHS and the published Papers of Robert Treat Paine. The Massachusetts State Judicial Archives also holds records on this case, including the above indictment. Paine’s notes for this case and the indictment will be printed in full in volume 4 of the Papers, forthcoming from the MHS Publications Department in 2017 thanks to a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

 

*Quoted from the Massachusetts Judicial Archives, Suffolk Files 153487. All other quotations are from Paine’s trial notes at the MHS.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 3 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

“A solid Judiciary”: John Adams and John Marshall

John Adams’s administration was in its waning days as January 1801 closed. While Thomas Jefferson had not yet been officially elected, Adams knew for certain that he was not going to continue in office and would soon head home. In the meantime, however, there was still plenty of work to be done.

The empty seat on the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice’s chair in fact, was one of his more pressing issues as the previous chief justice, Oliver Ellsworth, had resigned his seat in October. John Adams had no doubts about the importance of the high court in the young republic: “The firmest Security We can have against the Effects of visionary Schemes or fluctuating Theories, will be in a solid Judiciary,” however his first choice to replace Ellsworth, former chief justice John Jay, declined to serve in the position again. With only a few weeks left in his administration, Adams made one of the most significant and long-lasting decisions of his entire public career. On January 20, Adams formally submitted the nomination of his secretary of state, John Marshall, to serve as chief justice, to which the Senate consented one week later.

Adams sent Marshall his commission on the 31st, likely with a letter in which he requested that Marshall prepare letters of recall for John Quincy Adams to return home from his position as minister plenipotentiary to Prussia. Although Adams believed his son deserved to have his position upgraded with an appointment to Great Britain or France, he recognized that was not possible; “Besides it is my opinion that it is my duty to call him home,” Adams confessed.

Marshall accepted the role on February 4, writing to Adams, “I pray you to accept my grateful acknowledgements for the honor conferd on me in appointing me chief Justice of the United States. This additional & flattering mark of your good opinion has made an impression on my mind which time will not efface. I shall enter immediately on the duties of the office & hope never to give you occasion to regret having made this appointment.” Adams replied the same day, thanking Marshall for his acceptance but requesting that given the “Circumstances . . . of the times” he stay on as secretary of state for the remainder of Adams’s term. Chief Justice Marshall would serve for the next 34 years and profoundly influence and define the role and place of the Supreme Court in the nation in ways that endure to the present.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 1 February, 2017, 12:00 AM

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