The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Reading the Proceedings

Whatever Happened to our Flamingo?

One of my favorite things about the early volumes of MHS Proceedings are the donation lists from the first few years, when the Society accumulated not only gifts to enhance its library of manuscripts and printed books but also a hefty collection of natural history specimens and "curiosities." The first large donation of this type was received at the sixth meeting, on 21 December 1791, when the owners of the ships "Columbia" and "Washington" ("the first vessels from the United States to Nootka Sound and the Sandwich Islands") presented to the Historical Society "a hat, cloak, and mantle of the natives, several pieces of cloth manufactured there from the bark of trees, and other artificial and natural curiosities of that part of America brought in those vessels ...".

Donations along these lines continued to arrive: on 29 January 1793 the Proceedings note more "curiosities" from the Pacific, plus "A curious Rose," "A Milliped[e], found at Hopkinton," and "Some Teeth of the Spermaceti Whale." In April of the same year came "A Tarantula, from Mr. Elisha Sigourney," (Sigourney later gave "a Fur Seal, from Falkland Islands") "A Specimen of Animal Preservation, from Mr. Jeremy Belknap, Sen.," and the one I like best of all: "A very large Flamingo, from Mr. William Hussey, Jr." Other interesting gifts from 1793-94 include "a Bone of the Sawfish, from Mr. William Miller, Jr.," "A Demerara Opossum, stuffed, from Captain Peter Chace," "A Madagascar Bat, from Dr. Dexter," and this grand list from Jeremy Belknap: "A Flying Fish, a Vitriol Stone, an Ermine from New Hampshire, an Indian canoe, a number of Coins, a Globe-fish from the island of St. Helena, and a Dolphin."

On 24 November 1795 Mr. Thomas Hewes presented "A Bird of Paradise, from Batavia; a Crocodile and nondescript Quadruped, from Ceylon; a Silver Pen and Case, from Indian; a Gentoo Letter; a bundle of Palm Leaves, showing the manner of keeping accounts in India; a Bow and Arrows, from Bengal; a Petrified Substance, from the island of St. Helena; a Hooka, or Smoking Machine, of India; a Gentoo Slipper; a Horned Snake, from the Asps of Bengal; a Remora, from the Indian Ocean; a Firearm, from Ceylon, curiously wrought with gold and silver; a Sandwich Island Cup; two branches of Coral, from the Isle of France; a piece of Vitrified Rock, from the Isle of Ascension; a box of Insects, from the Cape of Good Hope; an Antelope's Horn; a Crystallization, from a salt-pit in Liverpool; a collection of Marine Shells, among which are the Hummer, the Bullock's Heart, and the Razor; a Petrified Snake Skin; a branch of the Cinnamon Tree; a Hog Fish; and an Indian Fan." The same day brought "Two Grasshoppers, from the West Indies from Mr. Edward Renouf.

The Historical Society's quarters must have been a pretty interesting place in those days. This continued for several years, with each meeting witnessing the donation of a few items of note ("A Giant Clam, weighing four hundred and seventeen pounds" arrived in January 1803, for example).

As the MHS matured, and became more focused as a repository for manuscripts (and moved premises several times), many of the natural history and ethnographic pieces were removed from the collections: in the 1830s the specimens were deposited in the cabinet of the Boston Society of Natural History (precursor of today's Museum of Science), and later much of the material from the Pacific Coast and islands, along with the archaeological relics, were given to the Peabody Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology (now the Peabody Museum at Harvard).

But not quite everything left the Society's holdings. Among the remaining "curiosities" are the following:

"A Hook, from the Sandwich Islands, made out of a bone of Captain Cook," received from Mr. Jacob Williams, May 1804. A letter in the MHS Archives from W. Emerson to the Corresponding Secretary reports "The hook which accompanyes [sic] this Note I received from Deacon Jacob Williams, formerly an officer in my church, who requests me to present it in his name to the Historical Society. It was given to him by his son Jacob Williams, who received it from a man, who attended Capt. Derby, who died at Waterloo, one of the Sandwhich Islands, in 1802, and who, (Derby) received it from an indian chief, who said, that the prong of the hook was made of one of the bones of the celebrated navigator, Capt. Cook." In 1996 the hook was tested by the staff of the Kendall Whaling Museum; they confirmed that it is human bone, but could not narrow it down to the precise original owner.


The windpipes of a chicken and a turtle, given by S. Hall of Bridgewater, 31 January 1833. We have no idea which is which (informed suggestions gladly accepted).






Nail and tree bark supposed to be from Mercy Otis Warren's home and tree near Patriot James Otis, Jr., when he was struck by the bolt of lightning which killed him in May, 1783. He had reportedly said to Mercy before this, "My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity that it will be by a flash of lightning." He got his wish.







For more on the history of the Society's collections, see Proceedings Vol. 28, pp. 312-348, in which then-librarian Samuel A. Green gives an extensive account of the subject.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Monday, 20 December, 2010, 8:00 AM

MHS Members Gone Bad

I suspect every membership-based organization has some stories about the members that have warranted expulsion over the years. The MHS kicked out three members in its first two decades (but has used the practice very sparingly - if at all - ever since). What did those members do to warrant removal from our membership rolls?

The first two expelled members were booted at the same meeting, on 20 July 1797. The Proceedings (Vol. I, p. 106) record: "Whereas Edmund Randolph and William Blount, who have been elected Corresponding Members of this Society, are, in our opinion, unworthy of our confidence; therefore, Voted, That they be no longer considered as Corresponding Members." The motion passed without dissent. Randolph, the the Attorney General of the United States, was nominated by Jeremy Belknap and elected to Corresponding Membership on 23 October 1792. Blount was at the time of his expulsion a fairly new member, having just been elected on 25 October 1796.

Why the boot? Randolph had resigned as Secretary of State in 1795 after a scandal involving intercepted messages from the French government that were reportedly embarrassing to the Washington Administration. Blount, a United States Senator representing the new state of Tennessee, had been caught up in a scheme to incite the Creek and Cherokee Indians to provide assistance to the British in an invasion of Spanish West Florida. He was impeached by the House of Representatives on 7 July 1797 (for "a high misdemeanor, entirely inconsistent with his public duty and trust as a Senator"), and expelled by the Senate the following day. Twelve days later, the Historical Society acted as well.

The third expulsion hit much closer to home. Samuel Turell of Boston, a watchmaker, was elected a Resident Member of the Society in 1793, and served as Cabinet-Keeper from 1793 until 1808. In 1802, Turell requested permission to borrow certain natural history specimens from the Society's collections for a new museum, which was granted. Five years later, though, the Society got a little anxious about Turell's Cabinet, and a committee was formed on 25 August 1807 "to demand of Mr. Turell, Cabinet-Keeper, the various articles belonging to the Society which have been in his possession, and to see that they are returned to the Cabinet."

The committee's demands went unheeded, and on 27 August 1811 the members of the Society voted to expel Turell from the MHS because he had not returned the articles borrowed from the collections, and had "otherwise acted unworthily as a member."

In his bicentennial history of the Historical Society, former Director Len Tucker notes "It is not known if Turell ever returned the items he had borrowed."

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Tuesday, 21 September, 2010, 9:40 AM

"... he is a moral nuisance ..."

Our curator of art, Anne Bentley, recently pointed out a fascinating (but brutal!) passage quoted in the MHS Proceedings of the March 1929 meeting. I feel compelled to share, and for any current author out there who's ever received a bad review, take heart - it could be worse.

The Proceedings record that Mr. Ford [Worthington Chauncey Ford, then the Society's Editor] "read the following criticism on Emerson's Conduct of Life, published in the Southern Literary Messenger for April 1861 [Volume XXXII, pp. 326-7] - a fateful month in our history." What did the reviewer have to say about Mr. Emerson?

"His mind is like a rag-picker's basketfull of all manner of trash. His books are valuable, for the very reason they are of no earthly account. They illustrate the utter worthlessness of the philosophy of free society. Egoism, or rather Manism, (if we may coin a word), propounded in short scraps, tags, and shreds of sentences may do very well for a people who have no settled opinions in politics, religion or morals, and have lived for forty years on pure fanaticisms. We of the South require something better than this no-system. Your fragmentary philsopher, of the EMERSON stamp, who disturbs the beliefs of the common folk, without again composing or attempting to compose them with a higher and purer faith, is a curse to society. Such a man ought to be subject to the mild punishment of perpetual confinement, with plenty of pens, ink and paper. Burn his writings as fast as they come from his table, and bury the writer quietly in the back yard of the prison as soon as he is dead. If in early life, the speculative lobes of his brain had been eaten out with nitric acid, EMERSON would have made a better poet than any New England has given us. As it is, he is a moral nuisance. He ought to be abated by act of Congress and his works suppressed."

Thanks to the Making of America site, you can read a digital version of the original review (here), which includes two lead-off sentences not read by Mr. Ford into the Proceedings: "Whoever undertakes to conduct his life according to the precepts (if there be any) inculcated in this book, will find himself in a worse labyrinth than that of Crete. EMERSON never had a fixed opinion about anything."

You can read a first edition of Emerson's Conduct of Life (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1860) at the Historical Society, or online via the Internet Archive (click on "flip book" at the left margin).

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 20 May, 2009, 8:44 PM