The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: From Our Collections

"Covered with Egyptian Darkness": New England's Dark Day of 1780

While the weather in Massachusetts was sunny and beautiful over Mothers' Day weekend, many other places in the country experienced extreme and severe weather ranging from hail and tornadoes to flooding and blizzards. On 19 May 1780, Massachusetts, along with the rest of New England, experienced a different type of extreme weather event in what became known as the "dark day."

Abigail Adams, home in Braintree while John continued his diplomatic mission in Europe, recorded her impressions of "a strange Phenomena":

"On fryday the 19 of May the Sun rose with a thick smoaky atmosphere indicating dry weather which we had for ten days before. Soon after 8 oclock in morning the sun shut in and it rained half an hour, after that there arose Light Luminous clouds from the north west, the wind at south west. They gradually spread over the hemisphere till such a darkness took place as appears in a total Eclipse. By Eleven oclock candles were light up in every House, the cattle retired to the Barns, the fouls to roost and the frogs croaked. The greatest darkness was about one oclock. It was 3 before the Sky assumed its usual look. . . . About 8 oclock in the Evening almost Instantainously the Heavens were covered with Egyptian Darkness, objects the nearest to you could not be discerned tho the Moon was at her full. . . . I hope some of our Philosophical Geniousess will endeavour to investigate so unusual an appearence. It is matter of great consternation to many. It was the most solemn appearence my Eyes ever beheld but the Philosophical Eye can look through and trust the Ruler of the Sky."

In a letter to John Adams, Abigail's uncle Cotton Tufts included his own account and noted the various explanations local people were giving for the strange occurrence:

"This uncommon Darkness, greater in Degree and longer in Duration than had ever been before amongst us occasioned much Speculation, some attributed it to the Influence of the Planets, some to the Effects of a Comet and some to an Eruption of a Vulcano. The Vulgar considered it some as portending great Calamities, others as a Prelude to the general Dissolution of all Things. A close Attention to what appeared before and during this Event will help us to (at least) a probable Solution of this Matter, without having Recourse to the Planets &c. for a Cause. Prior to this, The Woods from Ticonderoga for Thirty Miles downwards had been for some Time on Fire. No Rain for many Days, Winds chiefly at West and N. West. By these the Smoak and Vapours were carried to a great Distance, insomuch that in our Vicinity, the Sky was at Times obscurd, the Air crowded with Smoak and Vapours, a disagreable Smell like what proceeds from Swamps on Fire."

Indeed, Tufts' explanation of forest fires proved correct; however, it was only recently that examination of tree rings in the forests of Ontario, Canada, indeed confirmed a widespread fire sending smoke far into New England, coupled with fog and cloud cover combined to produce a weather event that was remembered for generations.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 10:00 AM

"A Second Mother"

In this post, I’d like to introduce you to a remarkable person from one of our manuscript collections: Frances Elizabeth Gray. Elizabeth, as she was called, was born on 2 July 1811, the oldest child of Henry and Frances (Pierce) Gray, and spent most of her life in Roxbury, Mass.

What makes Elizabeth so remarkable? Her story begins with the tragic and premature death of her mother. Frances Pierce had been just 16 years old when she married Elizabeth’s father Henry in 1810. Twenty years later, just three days after giving birth to a daughter Anna Ellen, she died. She had delivered sixteen children, three of whom died in infancy. With Frances gone and Henry working as a merchant far away in New York, their daughter Elizabeth found herself with twelve—that’s right, twelve—younger siblings to raise. She was 18 years old.

Her siblings were: William (17 years old), John (16), Henry, Jr. (14), Caroline (12), Charles (11), Lydia (10), Mary (8), Frederick (6), Arthur (5), Frances (4), Horatio (15 months), and Anna Ellen (3 days). The Grays received some support from uncles, but the day-to-day care of the family fell on young Elizabeth’s shoulders.

Her diaries begin with entries describing her mother’s death and the events that followed:

1830. On Monday, March 22d, my mother died; was buried on Saturday 27th, the funeral delayed in consequence of my father’s absence, who did not arrive till a few hours, after it had taken place; he had gone to New-York on Saturday, 20th, on business, but being informed of my mothers illness, immediately returned, but was not aware of her death, till he arrived home.

Sat. eve. 27. A scene of trouble. I will not attempt to describe it.

Sunday, April 11th. Horatio, aged 15. mos, & Anna Ellen, the baby, born March 19; were christened; all the children were present, making thirteen.

Anna Ellen put out to nurse, March 22d to Mrs Moncrief.

Henry Gray returned to business in New York and frequently wrote to Elizabeth with news and advice. I was prepared to dislike Henry for his absenteeism, but his letters demonstrate a respect for his daughter that impressed me. He almost always deferred to her in matters related to the children. He wrote with genuine affection and regard for her happiness, as well as confidence in her judgment. For example: “I approve your measures, not only what you have done, but what you may do.”

The rest of the correspondence consists primarily of letters to Elizabeth from her brothers William, John, and Henry, Jr. In the 1830s, the boys were living in various Massachusetts towns, where they were educated and trained for professions. My favorite correspondent, by far, is John. He often wrote to Elizabeth with desperate pleas for money, clothing, and other items, and when she sent them, he was effusive in his gratitude. Here’s part of letter dated 25 Oct. 1831:

I shall simply say I have received what you promised: viz bundle and moneys. A thousand thanks—best feelings—memorys of you—none wrecked. Indeed you have been a second mother. May the Father of Mercies, direct the early beginning of such charity, to terminate in your own personal happiness! I address him for you; for you especially, peculiarly, emphatically for you.

John’s life also ended prematurely, which adds to the pathos of his letters. He was studying law, but struggled with financial and emotional problems. After a failed effort to establish himself in the west, the 23-year-old John was found dead in a hotel in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia) on the morning of 21 Mar. 1837, almost seven years to the day after his mother’s death. He’d taken a fatal dose of opium.

Caption: The last letter in the collection from John Gray, written in Wheeling.

The collection includes many letters related to John’s death, as the family struggled to come to terms with it. Henry felt that John had been the most gifted of his children, and his death was an “irreparable loss.” An inquest established that John had not committed deliberate suicide, and Dr. Eoff of Wheeling provided more details on his state of mind in the last days. In a letter to Elizabeth, he explained that John had suffered from delusions and took the opium as a curative:

He believed that one or more living animals were within him & consuming his heart, liver, &c &c & imagined that he could hear them singing &c. These impressions produced great depression of spirits & kept him continually anxious to take some medicine to remove them.

As for the other Gray siblings, my research turned up only the barest outlines of their lives. Elizabeth herself lived to be 82, but never married, though she received offers. In later life, she lived with her youngest sister Anna Ellen and helped care for her nephew, William Gray Brooks. He remembered his aunt Elizabeth fondly, writing: “I owe to her unselfish devotion and love whatever I am or know.”

Another moving tribute appears in a letter to Elizabeth from her troubled brother John, written on 16 Sep. 1834:

You say little to me of Futurity; perhaps you speak the less, because you feel the more. You have acquired fame enough. To illustrate your virtues and tenderness I point to twelve brothers and sisters. Let me partake of your advice often, that my gratitude may be strengthened, if it be capable of it.

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 7 May, 2015, 1:00 AM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Asswan to Abu Simbel

Today we rejoin our anonymous female diarist as she journeys down the Nile in the winter of 1914-1915. You can read previous installments of this series here (introduction) here (Cairo to Aysut) and here (Aysut to Asswan).

What strikes me about the diary entries for 6-10 December 1914 is that while our American traveler is describing mural reliefs, shopping at outdoor markets, and visiting luxury resorts, Europe is settling in for the first winter of the Great War. During the first week of December, the Austrian army captured Belgrade and the British-Indian army was moving across Mesopotamia toward the Ottoman empire. The Great War YouTube series provides a nine-minute synopsis of the week’s events in newscast form.

Meanwhile, on the Nile:

Dec. 6. Arrived at Komumbu about 10  & walked to temple a few steps away. Temple dedicated to 2 deities, each deity had his own special worship & festivals so there are really 2 temples; the temple was divided & each side had its own gateways, doors & chapels. Crocodiles were worshipped here. Mural reliefs especially beautiful. Fine view of Nile country from temple. After lunch reached Asswan about 3. Took boats from ship & went first to Elephantine island to see the Nilometer & some ancient ruins; then sailed round island by Cataract Hotel to mainland & went through the Bazar with the [illegible word]. Got back to ship for late tea & had fine sunset coming back.

Dec 7. At 9.30 took boat to ships - visited shops & bought [illegible word], then went up to Cataract Hotel & looked at views. Got back just for lunch. Saw Eatons at hotel, who asked us to lunch P.M. At 2.30 went ashore with Miss Phelps took carriages & road out on desert to granite quarries & Bisharin camp where the natives danced for us on the sand. Saw horses raced [illegible] we had to get out and go in other carriages. Lunch in the [illegible word] . Got back for tea after 5. Then packed.

The entry of 7 December 1914 is the first time that local Egyptians, in this case the Beja people of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, have appeared in our narrator’s diary. The portrait of a group of anonymous Bisharin (a subgroup of the Beja people) which appears above, comes from the contemporaneous travel narrative Along the Nile with General Grant by Elbert E. Farman (1904). Farman’s description of the community which he and General Grant visited, like that of our diarist, situates the Bisharin as local color: “It is here that they are best seen in their real native character, habits and dress ... Here was the simplicity of nature” (220-221). The brief appearance of the Bisharin in our diarist’s narrative underscores the overall absence of interaction with local Egyptians. Like many tourists today, our diarist’s focus on the ancient history and landscape of the places she passes through renders the inhabitants an often indistinguishable part of the backdrop.

Dec 8. Had early breakfast & left boat at 8.30. Took boat to train & then trains  to [illegible phrase] & there we left our party & went on board the Prince Albert sailing at 9.30 After lunch visited temple of Dendur a very small temple built by Augustus. Later, almost at sunset, landed in boats & visited temple of Gerf-Hosein. Had magnesium light to see inside. In the center some pillars [illegible phrase] burial figures of Ramses II. [illegible phrase] statues of King there [illegible phrase]. Quite dark going back to boat.

Dec. 9. Arrived soon after breakfast at Wadi Sabou & went ashore to visit temple. An [illegible word] of sphinxes leading to the temple. Soon after lunch went ashore again to see temple of Amadu - then at sunset reached Kaer-[illegible word] & climbed to top of ruined fort or castle for the view. Stopped here for the night.

Dec. 10. Reached Abu Simbel just before lunch & after it went ashore & saw the temple - with 4 statues of Ramses II outside 66 ft high - then at the right temple dedicated to his wife. Hathor & his wife. The front ornamented with statues of the king, his wife & some of his children. After dinner went back to see it by moonlight.  Were called at 4.30 A.M. to see [illegible phrase] temple hewn in rocks, to 185 ft deep.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in our diarist’s travels, to be posted mid-June. And, as always, you are welcome to access the diaries for yourself here in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s library reading room

 

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 29 April, 2015, 1:00 AM

Extinction and Discovery, Denial and Redemption: The Brontosaurus Roller Coaster

The Brontosaurus is one of the most easily identified dinosaurs in popular culture. Just think about Little Foot, the main character in the animated movie, The Land Before Time, or about Fred Flintstone chowing down on a brontosaurus burger.

Despite this popularity, since 1903 this animal has officially been considered a non-entity. Rather than representing a singular genus of dinosaur, it was believed that the available fossils were actually those of a species of Apatosaurus, that archaeologists misidentified the bones. Thus, the lone species of the genus, Brontosaurus excelsus, was reassigned as A. excelsus.

Earlier this month, though, some members of the scientific community turned an about-face and accepted that the two genera of dinosaur, Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus, are distinct enough from one another to receive individual classification. Once again, Brontosaurus is a valid term. You can read more about the debate in nomenclature and cladistics in the articles listed at the end of this post.

So what does this have to do with the MHS?

Within our holdings is a publication created by Othniel Charles Marsh, the man credited with original identification and description of both the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, among many others. The Dinosaurs of North America (1896) is an extract from the 16th annual report of the U.S. Geological Survey.

In this report, Marsh looks at three main time periods in turn, beginning with the Triassic period, then Jurassic, then Cretaceous. In each period he splits his descriptions among three distinct orders of dinosaurs: theropods, sauropods, and predentata. The first part of the book is devoted to narrative description. As he begins a new order of animal he gives brief and broad descriptions of typical characteristics and geographic dispersal. Then he gets more specific, identifying major families and genera within each order.

Theropods were typically bipedal and carnivorous. The most famous of all the theropod dinosaurs must be Tyrannosaurus rex. Marsh, however, looks at some of its smaller cousins that were located in North America, like the Allosaurs and Ceratosaurs.

 

 

Sauropods were large four-legged herbivores (mostly), characterized very generally by huge, barrel-shaped bodies with long slender tails and necks, and relatively small heads. It is into this order that the genera Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus fall. Other fairly well-known names in this type are the brachiosaurs and diplodocidae.

 

 

The third and most varied order handled by Marsh in this book are the predentata, now known more widely as ornithischia. This order contains the armored stegosaurs and ankylosaurs, the horned ceratopsians, and the duck-billed hadrosaurs.

 

Following all of this narrative information are dozens of plates featuring detailed drawings of skeletons and individual bones. All of the images in this post come from this volume and are a small sampling of those present.

Unfortunately, when searching our online catalog, ABIGAIL, this item is the only one that comes up under the subject Dinosaurs. Still this volume is wonderful look at the work which laid the foundation for our modern understanding of these long-extinct creatures. Do you have any favorites that appear here? What do you think of the potential resurrection of the Brontosaurus?

 

For further reading

- Choi, Charles. "The Brontosaurus is Back." Scientific American (2015). Accessed April 25, 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-brontosaurus-is-back1/

- Naish, Darren. "That Brontosaurus Thing." Scientific American (2015). Accessed April 25, 2015. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/2015/04/24/that-brontosaurus-thing/

- Switek, Brian. "Back to Brontosaurus? The Dinosaur Might Deserve Its Own Genus After All." Smithsonian (2015). Accessed April 25, 2015.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/back-brontosaurus-dinosaur-just-might-deserve-its-own-genus-species-science-180954892/?no-ist

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Saturday, 25 April, 2015, 12:01 PM

An American Woman in Egypt, 1914-1915: Aysut to Asswan

Image: Watercolor from A Nile Journal by Emily Horby (1908)

 

In the previous installment of An American Woman in Egypt, we left our narrator journeying south from Aysut by steamer. During the first week of December, the travelers continue down the Nile stopping at a number of archeological sites and luxury tourist resorts along the way. In this post, I have interleaved our anonymous diarist’s narrative with excerpts from a contemporary travel guide and published memoir describing the same locations.

Dec. 1. Had early breakfast, reached Denderah & went ashore there at 8.30. Took donkies [sic] & rode to Denderah Temple in 2 hours. Temple of Hathor.  Great vestibule of Pharaohs 24 columns with heads of Hathor. Went up on the roof for view. Got back for lunch. Just at tea time reached Luxor. Miss Goeller & we two went ashore with Dr. Hodson who took us over the Winter Palace Hotel & gardens. Then we walked out to Luxor temple & looked at ships.

Dec. 2. Started on donkies at 9.30 & rode to Karnak. Very hot day. Saw temple of Kurnah then rode dromedaries little way to temple of Ammon. Finally went on top for view and got home just before one p.m. Very warm & slept after lunch; had tea at 4 & then went out to see Luxor temple. A beautiful sunset & we stayed behind to see the color on the water then went to Winter Palace & P.O.

 A short distance from the river, on the west bank, a little to the north of the village of Denderah, stands the Temple of Denderah, which marks the site of the classical Tentyra or Tentyris ... where the goddess Hathor was worshipped. ... The wonderfully preserved Temple now standing there is probably not older than the beginning of our era; ...hence it must be considered as the architectural product of a time when the ancient Egyptian traditions of sculpture were already dead and nearly forgotten. It is, however, a majestic monument worthy of careful examination.
--The Nile: Notes for Travellers in Egypt, 9th edition (London: Thos. Cook & Son, 1905).

Dec. 3. Breakfast at 7.30, left at 8.30 & sailed across to W. bank where we took donkies & road to mortuary chapel of Sethos I. Then rode on to tombs of Kings & reached 4 -- Ramses IX - Ramses VI - Sethor I - Amenophis II - then walked up over hill for view & down to rest-house for lunch. At 2 walked to temple of Darr El-Bahre of Queen Hatsh[epsut]. Then rode back to river & took boats home in time for tea. After it went to buy cards.

Dec. 4 - Early breakfast at 7.30. Left at 8 & rode first to ruins of Rames great temple of Ramses Srenk II, then road to temples of Derr-El-Medenah, judgement halls of Osiris, & temple of Ramses III. … finest in Egypt. Passed Colosses of Memmon (Amenophsis III) on way back to boat. Got back to steamer just for lunch. P.M. took pad[dle] on Nile for 1 hr with Miss Phelps & Miss Marell, mailed my Christmas cards after tea went to Hotel [illegible phrase] walked along shore to see sunset, then went into shops.

Came to a lovely grove of palm trees, where we lunched. Donkeys arrived...and we had a very pleasant ride on to Karnak, a good way further. Pigeons flying in clouds over fields. Must be very destructive, but picturesque. Soon the obelisk was seen in the distance, and at last we came to the avenue of the sphinxes, which has only been lately thoroughly uncovered. Enormous creatures, each with a little figure on their knees.
--A Nile Journal by E. H. [Emily Hornby] (Liverpool: J.A. Thompson, 1908)

Dec. 5. Sailed very early from Luxor & about 10 arrived at Esna after going thro’ a lock. Walked to the temple, as it was very near. Temple of Khnum goat-headed local deity. Pronave 24 columns in 6 rows with different floral capitals - similar to  of temple Hathor at Denderah. From there sailed on & reached Edfou about 3, took donkeys & some walked to the temple of Horus, best preserved ancient temple in the world. A great [?] & we went to top up a dark stairway for view 242 steps. Crest surrounded on 3 sides by colonnade of 32 columns in the different floral (^ & palm) capitals [illegible phrase] wall also decorated. In evening we had a lecture on the Nile by the doctor. Got back from temple for tea.

Side-by-side it is possible to see how the genre of travel writing, published and unpublished, often contains strikingly similar observations, despite differences in tone (the Cook’s authoritative, the Hornby self-consciously poetic in her descriptions). It is likely that our diarist would have read one or more commercially-published travel guide before or during her tour, and it is clear that Dr. Hodson, mentioned in the December 5 entry above, mediates her interpretation of the archeological sites the group encounters. 

In two weeks we will continue our journey down the Nile. In the meantime, I encourage you to explore the lavish watercolor illustrations and personable narration of Emily Hornby’s Nile Journal at Internet Archive.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 1:00 AM

older posts