Photography is an interesting aspect of art history. Photographs capture real images the way we see them, sometimes even more clearly than the eye alone, or they can be manipulated for creative results using different shutter speeds, reprints from originals, experimentation with chemicals, and today, with Photoshop’s tools. Among the many photographs in the MHS collection, I am highlighting three examples that show photography’s versatility.
One special feature of photography is to create a plausible image from something impossible. For instance, in the image below a child appears to be happily sitting in midair—impossible! That magical impression is dismissed when we read the picture’s title, “Benjamin Sewall Blake Jumping.”
A second aspect of photography is more of a discovery for both the artist and his viewers. Francis Blake (25 December 1850‒20 January 1913) was a Massachusetts inventor who used his ingenuity to make the shutter speeds on his camera faster than most other cameras in the 1880s. With faster shutter speeds requiring less time to take a picture, he could snap people and animals in motion and with clarity. Only one other photographer preceded him in this new advance— Eadweard Muybridge (9 April 1830‒8 May 1904) in England. Between 1878 and 1886, Muybridge took photographs with fast shutter speeds and used emulsifying chemicals that made the images clearer in the printing process. His photography debunked a common belief that horses had a “flying gallop” or a flying superman-like spread of their front and back legs in opposite directions. Instead, his photographs showed that when horses are running and all legs are off the ground, their legs are below them and not spread eagle. Blake knew about Muybridge’s discovery and increased his own shutter speeds in 1888. Muybridge learned about Blake’s work and praised it.
The last special characteristic of photography is how decades and centuries later we can connect people outside what we think of today as their historical time. The MHS has an excellent example: John Quincy Adams. This image was printed on paper, but originates from a daguerreotype, which is the earliest form of photography, invented by Louis Daguerre in 1836. By 1839, daguerreotypes were being used worldwide. They were printed on metal and are a positive and negative image at the same time. The Adams image in the MHS collection was taken in 1847, a year before Adams died, and at a time when photography was sweeping the world in popularity. John Quincy Adams may be famously known for his time as President of the United States, 1825–1829, or for accompanying his father, John Adams, to Europe as a young man in the 18th century, but most people today probably overlook his later congressional career in the 1840s, when this image was taken, or realize the print in the MHS collection was created later, in the 1860s.
If you are interested in reading more, you can read an earlier post about how photographs are processed as MHS collection items here and explore a selection of photographs from our collection here.
By Dr. Jaimie Crumley, 2022-2023 Research Fellow at Old North Illuminated, University of Utah
The Massachusetts Historical Society maintains and preserves the extensive records of Christ Church in the City of Boston, an active Protestant Episcopal Church.  Christ Church, founded in 1723, is known as the Old North Church. Located in Boston’s North End, Old North is the city’s oldest standing church building. In the colonial period, Old North received moral and financial support from members of King’s Chapel, New England’s first Anglican parish, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). The SPG was a London-based group founded by the Church of England to proselytize the Atlantic World.
In addition to being home to an active congregation, Old North is a bustling historic site on Boston’s freedom trail. Old North joins other historic sites in Massachusetts and beyond that have turned to archival records to remember and confront their complicated past. Many of Old North’s visitors come to learn more about Paul Revere’s 1775 midnight ride. In April of 1775, Revere asked his friends, Old North’s sexton Robert Newman and vestryman Captain John Pulling, to hang signal lanterns in the church’s steeple. Through the lantern signals, they alerted their neighbors that the British troops were approaching “by sea” (across the Charles River) and not by land. Revere’s midnight ride and Old North’s role in it inspire our imaginations. However, a laser focus on that night often leads us to overlook the church’s contributions to histories of race, slavery, sexuality, economics, and religious life throughout the Atlantic World.
Old North’s storied past includes Indigenous Americans and people of African descent in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Atlantic World. Without their displacement and unpaid labor, the church building would not exist. For example, the church’s wardens and vestry gifted the “Bay Pew” to a group of logwood merchants from Honduras for their exclusive use whenever they attended Old North. The pew signaled the church’s gratitude for the merchants’ generous gifts to the church. By accepting the logwood for decades, Old North entangled itself with the crises of unfree labor and colonial violence that plague(d) the Atlantic World. 
Pew ownership was commonplace in 18th and 19th-century churches. So long as they paid their pew taxes, proprietors and their families had exclusive use of their pew(s). Not everyone who held a pew deed at Old North attended the church, but their proprietorship allowed them to hold leadership roles and participate in church governance. Like other colonial churches in New England, Old North was racially integrated, but seating was segregated by race, age, and social class. Thus, pew ownership in New England often mirrored each town’s geography of unfreedom and entrenched that social geography as both natural and godly.
However, pews were likely a minor concern for Old North’s Black and Indigenous parishioners. In Box 20, Folder 24, of the Old North Church records, there is a historical record that was typed in 1933. The brief index covers topics including how the church attained its bells, the gifts King George II gave the church, and how the congregation formed its Sunday School. One line of the index states, “SLAVES: In 1727, there were 32 slaves in the parish.” The typist gleaned this information from a 1727 letter that Timothy Cutler, Old North’s first minister, wrote to the SPG’s secretary. Among other information about Old North, Cutler reported that “Negro & Indian Slaves belonging to my parish are about 32.” What were the experiences of those 32 souls whom Cutler called “slaves?”
Cutler’s use of the word “slaves” as a general descriptor for his Black and Indigenous parishioners offers a stark reminder of Boston’s role in slavery and settler colonialism in the United States and throughout the Atlantic World. His word choice in a letter to the SPG secretary indicates that the British Empire believed that Black and Indigenous people naturally constituted a social and economic underclass. The growth of the Anglican Church in the Americas depended upon racial capitalism.
Old North Church celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2023. Old North’s story parallels that of the American nation-state. In 1775, lantern signals shown from Old North’s steeple lit the way for a people longing for freedom from what they called British tyranny. The story of the lantern signals offers hope to a nation and world that has experienced many dark moments. However, Old North has also participated in settler colonialism, slavery, and racism. Nearly 250 years after the signal lanterns shone from the church steeple, we turn those lights within to examine our history anew.
As Old North’s Research Fellow, my work attends to the lives of the Black and Indigenous peoples who have connected by choice or by force to the church during its 300-year history. Centering Black and Indigenous people’s stories in the history of the British Atlantic World does not undo past harm. However, their stories remind us of our shared humanity and the urgency of making historical memory more inclusive. By cultivating an inclusive approach to historical memory, we create the building blocks of safer futures for Black and Indigenous peoples.
 According to the collection description, these holdings consist of 52 boxes, 75 cased volumes, 6 oversize boxes, and 12 record cartons. The records span the years from 1685-1997.
 See “Laus Deo Boston, New England, The 2nd September 1722.,” September 2, 1722, Old North Church Records, Box 1, Folder 7, Massachusetts Historical Society. The records of King’s Chapel are here. A list of other collections of King’s Chapel records is in the “Related Materials” section.
 In 1754, Old North’s first rector, Timothy Cutler, preached at an SPG gathering. His sermon is in Box 24, Folder 27.
 One of Paul Revere’s written accounts of his April 18, 1775 ride is in Box 46, Folder 1.
 Ross A. Newton, “‘Good and Kind Benefactors’: British Logwood Merchants and Boston’s Christ Church,” Early American Studies 11, no. 1 (2013): 15–36.
 The so-called “Smithett Controversy” in 1854 and the church conflict of 1882 revealed the pitfalls of connecting authority in the church to pew ownership. See Boxes 23 and 24 of the Old North Church records.
 See the pew deeds from 1724-1945 in Box 19 and Volumes 41, 42, 43, and 44 of the Old North Church records.
 Old North’s Sunday School was established in 1815. It was the first to be established in the region. Although the church was facing financial challenges in the nineteenth century, its members maintained a commitment to being charitable by providing education and clothing to the neighborhood’s children.
 “Clerk’s Book/List of Pew Owners, 1933,” Old North Church Records, Box 20, Folder 24, Massachusetts Historical Society.
 Francis Lister Hawks and William Stevens Perry, eds., “Dr. Cutler to the Secretary,” in Historical Collections Relating to the American Colonial Church, vol. 3, 1727.
I first discovered the Ruby V. Elliott bookplate collection by reading a blog post from our cataloger Mary Yacovone. The charming ex libris drawings immediately drew me in, as they seemed a fascinating aspect of book ownership that has largely disappeared among the general public.
When I began looking through the bookplates, I was struck by how complex and personalized each design was. Some bookplates incorporated aspects of the owner’s name, interests, or profession, while others seemed more opaque, although just as unique. A few bookplates I examined at random seemed to share a common style, and I quickly noticed that these were all done by the same artist, Carl Oscar Borg. There’s even a bookplate he designed for himself that depicted a man drawing on a cave wall, which seemed like an appropriate design for an artist.
Borg’s work is noted in the Elliott collection’s finding aid, and with good reason – there is a whole slew of Borg-designed bookplates in this collection. Many of them share the same basic layout: large sans-serif text with the owner’s name and “ex libris” framing square woodcut-style drawings of realistic scenes. Others riff on this formula a little, playing with font size or combining multiple symbols in composite images that represent different aspects of their owners’ lives. Two of my favorite bookplates in the collection are designed by Borg: one for Madeline Borg, which depicts a cute little cat on a bookshelf, and one for Reginald Stanley Lawson, which depicts a huge planet suspended in a starry sky. Not only are these designs particularly beautiful, but they also indicate a very contemporary taste for cats and space in booklovers of the past!
I turned to the Library and Archives at the Autry in Burbank, California, which holds Borg’s personal papers, to learn more about him (the finding aid for his papers is available through the Online Archive of California). According to the Autry, Borg was a Swedish-born artist who moved to the US and received patronage from Phoebe Hearst. Hearst paid for his artistic education, which allowed him to study and move all over the world. Borg’s true interest, however, was in depicting the American West. A large portion of his artistic output was the result of his time living in California’s Navajo and Hopi communities, whose cultures made a deep impression on him.
So how did Borg, a Swedish artist who lived in California, end up at the MHS? The answer is in the collection itself: a 1950 letter to Ruby Elliott from Bill Blachshear, a bookseller in California, provides a record of Blachshear sending many of Borg’s bookplates to Elliott for her collection.
The letter elucidates Borg’s relationship to some of the people he made bookplates for, such as his marriages to first Madeline Borg and then Lilly Borg (previously Lilly Lindstrand; Borg made separate designs for her before and after their marriage to reflect the name change). Blachshear also documents some colorful details about the man who gave him Borg’s bookplates, calling him a “carming [sic] ‘Ne’er Do Well’.” It’s great to see that this document survived and stayed with the collection – it makes the bookplates that much more alive and personal!
I’ll finish this by including a final bookplate of Borg’s: the one he designed for Lilly Lindstrand before marrying her. This plate seems particularly symbolic and personalized: a graceful woman is surrounded by lilies and reading a book. What better way to represent Lilly, who must have loved to read?
Today (2 November) would be the 288th birthday of Daniel Boone. According to the theme song of the 1960s television show, he was the “rippin’est, roarin’est, fightin’est man the frontier ever knew.”
What does Daniel Boone have to do with the Massachusetts Historical Society, you ask? Well, the MHS holds the only known portrait of Daniel Boone painted directly from the subject himself.
The story of how this portrait came to be sounds like the premise for a movie. In 1820, Chester Harding was a 20-something self-taught journeyman portrait painter living in St. Louis, Missouri. He’d been raised in a large family in Massachusetts and upstate New York and had known real financial hardship, as described in his autobiography My Egotistigraphy. He’d tried his hand at various trades and, almost by chance, learned he had a gift for portrait painting. Thus began what would become a long and illustrious career.
Daniel Boone, on the other hand, was 85 years old and quite literally nearing the end of his life. He was a folk legend even in his own time, a frontiersman, surveyor, veteran of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, and leader in the white colonization of Indigenous lands in Kentucky. I won’t attempt to dissect Boone’s problematic legacy with Indigenous and enslaved people (he himself was an enslaver); that is being done by others much more qualified. But in 1820, his fame was probably unparalleled.
You wouldn’t have known that, though, from Chester Harding’s description of his first meeting with Boone. The painter, in his autobiography (pp. 35-6), gives us a brief look into the notorious frontiersman’s unassuming retirement.
In June of this year , I made a trip of one hundred miles for the purpose of painting the portrait of old Colonel Daniel Boone. I had much trouble in finding him. He was living, some miles from the main road, in one of the cabins of an old block-house, which was built for the protection of the settlers against the incursions of the Indians. I found that the nearer I got to his dwelling, the less was known of him. When within two miles of his house, I asked a man to tell me where Colonel Boone lived. He said he did not know any such man. “Why, yes, you do,” said his wife. “It is that white-headed old man who lives on the bottom, near the river.” […]
I found the object of my search engaged in cooking his dinner. He was lying in his bunk, near the fire, and had a long strip of venison wound around his ramrod, and was busy turning it before a brisk blaze, and using salt and pepper to season his meat. I at once told him the object of my visit. I found that he hardly knew what I meant. I explained the matter to him, and he agreed to sit. He was ninety [sic] years old, and rather infirm; his memory of passing events was much impaired, yet he would amuse me every day by his anecdotes of his earlier life. I asked him one day, just after his description of one of his long hunts, if he never got lost, having no compass. “No,” said he, “I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”
He was much astonished at seeing the likeness. He had a very large progeny; one grand-daughter had eighteen children, all at home near the old man’s cabin: they were even more astonished at the picture than was the old man himself.
Daniel Boone died just a short while later, on 26 September 1820. To me, this portrait is an artifact of what must have been a series of fascinating meetings between one man at the beginning of his career and another at the end of his.
Harding made a few replicas of the painting, but Leah Lipton, in her very helpful 1984 article in The American Art Journal, shows that the portrait here at the MHS is the unfinished original painted from Boone himself. Harding gave or sold the painting to George Tyler Bigelow, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who donated it to the MHS in 1861.
The MHS holds a number of other portraits painted by Chester Harding, including the following.
Every week I spend time reading MHS’s online archives to find quotes, images, and interesting stories for the Society’s social media and e-newsletter. I have gained a general knowledge of US and colonial history that has helped me interpret letters, diary entries and other materials found in archives. At times I’ve become momentarily horrified by what I’m reading, either because I don’t know the background of the author, or the style of writing is confusing. I’d like to share one of my “archival horrors” and my delight with its outcome with you this Halloween. The letter begins emotionally:
I Rec’d yours dated July the 21 &c., at the opening of which, I was not a little suprized; to see your sweet Name, affixed at the bottom of the Lines, wrote to me; to tell the truth, I could hardly Keep in my jumping heart, for it skipped like Lambs upon little Hills, but when I cam to understand the weight and solidity of the same, the wings of my Enthusiastick flame dropt off, and I was then so calm and sedate, that I could read with tears in my Eyes for desire of seeing the author of it and the weighty matter of them &c.
Cheever addresses Paine in a loving manner which was normal for his time—men wrote to each other using sweet language intended to convey loving, loyal friendship. But in this letter, the message begins to sound, well, a little…sexy‒ “have not the fashonable People of the world to converse with, nor no sweet Chum to confabulate with upon a Bed of Ease…” True, Cheever could mean no opportunity for a relaxed time together at a club, where cultured and privileged men of the era went to socialize with each other. Before that suggestive passage, he also notes he is in “eremo subobscura” (hidden in the forest), meaning Wrentham, Mass. where he had moved recently for a job.
The next line made me think I was reading a letter between lovers: “But I cant help letting you Know one thing, and that is I have no bosom friends in the Night upon my Lodgings. You may give a very good guesse at wt. I mean.” The line that followed dispelled my suspicions: “But for fear you should be put to trouble (Bed buggs).” I was hopeful for possibly discovering a love letter, and was disappointed when it was not.
The previous lines are not the horror that I promised at the beginning. Here is where my horror started to grow. Cheever writes:
And as for my Brood, they are like to grow, by feeding of them with tender meat. In Number I have had thirty seven, but I have constantly but about 17. How many more are a coming out of the Eggshels I know not, some of these have not yet got them off their Backs.
Several thoughts came to me at once—what did Cheever do for a living? Raise livestock or chickens? If not, had I missed mention of his having children? And so many—37?! And why only 17 of them constantly with him?! And why would the children have eggshells on their backs?
Luckily, the letter’s digital transcription has notes at the end it, making my horror short-lived. The notes indicate that Cheever had taken a teaching position in Wrentham, explaining, to my relief, that his “brood” wasn’t animals or his own offspring but his students! As it was July, many of these students probably worked on their family’s farms, reducing attendance at school. The eggshell comments probably means that he thinks many of his students are very young for the classroom and does not want to guess at how many more students he will later teach.
If you were startled with a bit of horror as I was upon first reading this letter, I hope you’ve enjoyed how it turned out. Happy Halloween!
Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students as recipients of the John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages students to make use of the nationally significant collections of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Applications for the 2023 Student Fellowships will open in December 2022. Learn more and apply!
This year our John Winthrop Student Fellow is Nikhil R., who attends Acton-Boxborough Regional High School.
As someone of Indian heritage and interested in researching history, I found the John Winthrop Fellowship to be an opportunity to explore something that I found goes under the radar: the connection between India and America throughout the centuries. From what I had learned previously, that connection was thought of as beginning in the late twentieth century with immigrants, but there is a much more rich history dating back centuries unknown to most people from both continents.
In summary, my essay analyzes the experiences of Americans in India from the colonial period to the emergence of the United States as a nation in the 18th century and further into the nineteenth century when the nation consolidated its identity on the world stage. I trace these three periods in the joint history of America and India through the life and travel writings of a few key figures. Through the letters of Nathaniel Higginson, the Salem-born man who eventually became Governor of Madras in 1692, I discovered the social and political dealings of a New England based administrator in the colonial era. In the second period, in the aftermath of the American Revolution, there is a great interest in India from a newly formed United States that can be seen in the exploits of American travelers such as Bartholomew Burges. In the nineteenth century there was a further escalation of the ties between India and America that is seen in the story of Calvin Smith, a civil war veteran who traveled to India and worked in the then popular ice trade, sharing his perspectives and experiences of living in India for five years. Finally, in the mid to late 19th century, evangelical America and the Liberal Christian movement spread Christianity to other nations through missions, reaching India.
The accounts and candid perspectives of these American travelers were available in the MHS in the form of mostly letters, travel writings and memoirs, and I also consulted various books for context and background information. I examined the triangular relationship between India, British colonial rule, and American merchants/travelers. What I discovered was that while Americans adhered to the hierarchies created by the British, they still offered a variety of perspectives, including a few who challenge the stereotypes of Indians.
To begin my work, I looked through what the MHS library had to offer in order to get a better sense of some resources I could use in my project, to better inform my proposal. I started with the online catalog, ABIGAIL, and found many items of interest, ranging from financial records of American ships that traveled to India to correspondences of missionaries working there. Simply entering the keyword “India” brought hundreds if not thousands of results, so I started with a selection of a few that caught my eye and organized a narrative of what I could research.
Like many of the student fellows, this was my first time engaged in hands-on archival research. Nonetheless, on my first day, I was greeted by the friendly librarians who showed me the ropes: using the scantrons, submitting reading room requests, and guiding me through the many facets of using the library. While I was in awe of the vast amount of resources available, I slowly began down my list of items, and started with a box of logs from a ship on a trip to India. I opened the folder, and examined the old journal, but to my surprise, it wasn’t what I had expected it to be from reading the catalog. Instead of a gripping story of exotic experiences, I was only met with a description of weather, breezes, and latitude. Feeling somewhat defeated, I finished off the book, but at the end I found a section on how to calculate logarithms and some practice problems, which was very interesting.
From this, I started to understand the components of academic historical research, including the disappointment of not finding anything after hours of reading, but also the excitement of discovering a hidden gem where I didn’t expect it. As I got deeper into my research, I realized the wide net I had cast over centuries proved too much to refine into a cohesive project, so I seized the opportunity to focus on the people themselves, which ultimately proved more rewarding to me. I learned that it is important to allow your project to morph as you discover new things and change your perspective on the research. Finishing my research paper initially proved to be a monumental task, but sticking through it and completing it gave me pride in my work. Overall, the student fellowship taught me valuable skills like critical thinking and patience, and vastly improved my ability in reading messy handwriting. It’s an incredible experience for a student to learn what it means to be a historian, and reinforced my desire to pursue history further academically.
By Kathy Griffin, Collections Services Project Transcriber
Since the spring of 2022, we have been promoting a grant-funded, pilot project to enable crowd-sourced online transcription of MHS collections. This project offers a meaningful volunteer experience at the present time and in the future will facilitate research using those collections by people across the globe. I have been involved in this project both as a transcriber and as the principal reviewer/editor of the transcriptions as they are completed by volunteers. Crowdsourcing for transcription is particularly important in the 21st century, when fewer members of the new generation of researchers are able to read cursive writing, and those who can decipher the writing of earlier centuries are a rare commodity. For what use can historical manuscripts be, when no one can understand the written record? This article in The Atlantic, by Drew Gilpin Faust, stabs right into the heart of the matter. Our vast manuscript collections stored in archival repositories across the United States will be useless unless the items are digitized and transcribed for access.
Online transcription projects which reach across the globe to willing volunteers can bring together those who enjoy both solving handwriting puzzles, and reading the stories of the past. Accurate transcription is probably the most time-consuming aspect of a completed digital project. We have the technology for rapid delivery of digitized documents to a computer screen, but we cannot engage the researcher if they cannot read the documents. On the MHS website, the transcriptions completed during the pilot project are visible to anyone who creates an account and logs in to the MHS Digital Volunteers web page. In the future, the plan is for the transcriptions to be searchable on the MHS website and also visible to people browsing the manuscript collection guides relating to the transcribed pages.
The primary transcription project of this endeavor was deciphering the diaries of Lumen Boyden, a mid-19th-century Methodist minister employed by the Boston City Missionary Society as a missionary in East Boston for most of the documented time period 1854-1863. He was also employed as the preacher for the Union Chapel in East Boston, and as a representative of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, and for several other charitable endeavors. Boyden spent his daily rounds visiting East Boston families of all religions and ethnicities. There is a wealth of information on the every-day life of the poor people of the area, from food consumed, to religious habits, to the scourge of alcoholism among the populace, sickness, medicine, the weather, schooling, amusements, fires, floods, wages, cost of living, religious beliefs and practices, and so forth. The poverty, squalor, disease, and dreadful living conditions that Boyden encountered in East Boston, on a daily basis, rival anything described in Dickensian London. And this is what historical manuscripts really give to us: a snapshot, incomplete at best, but an important glimpse into the lives of those who came before us. Since the journals have already been described in more detail in a previous Beehive post I will not give any further detail of Boyden’s writing.
Went to “Bowkers Block” & called on eleven families & what misery. Rum & ruin go hand in hand. A Mr Judge Roman Catholic very sick with consumption very poor — Called on lame man in another room — In another a woman with a number of children also a sister & family just from Ireland wretchedly poor Husband of the lessee in house of correction Having spent a short time in that den of pollution that hive of iniquity left to breath the pure air of heaven & hastened to Waltham & after tea meeting at B Colby
From my point of view the pilot project has been a great success with only minor technical glitches along the way. I cannot speak to the technical stuff – people who know me will agree that I have a troubled relationship with technology – but I love the editing work and consider transcription to be my truest vocation, next to sorting and arranging 18th and 19th century American manuscript collections. There is nothing like solving a good handwriting mystery to make me feel the sort of satisfaction one hopes to derive from a job well done. We have had a dedicated and hard-working group of volunteers (most of whom we never meet in person!) who have given freely of their own spare time to help us bring these journals of Lumen Boyden to life on the screen. We are so grateful and fortunate to have volunteers who enjoy diving into the work, and who find the same pleasure that I do, in making manuscripts accessible online.
[Note: Funding from an anonymous organization supported the pilot crowdsourcing project in 2022 featuring the Luman Boyden missionary journals. Funding from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati supported beta testing of transcription tool in the fall of 2021 featuring two volumes of the John Rowe diaries.]
Late on the night of 25 October 1782, after company departed and children were put to bed, Abigail Adams sat down to write a letter to her dearest friend. “Look to the date of this Letter—and tell me, what are the thoughts which arise in your mind? Do you not recollect that Eighteen years have run their anual Circuit, since we pledged our mutual Faith to each other,” she asked her husband John. They were spending their eighteenth wedding anniversary apart—as they had spent their sixteenth and seventeenth anniversaries as well—because John was in Europe to negotiate a treaty.
It was always in the night, when the rest of Braintree had drifted to sleep, that Abigail felt the pangs of John’s absence most severely. In the quiet she could all but hear his footstep on the stair, coming up to bed. It had been years since she heard him laugh, and when they were young, they seemed to do nothing but laugh. She continued her letter, “It is my Friend from the Remembrance of the joys I have lost that the arrow of affliction is pointed. I recollect the untitled Man to whom I gave my Heart, and in the agony of recollection when time and distance present themselves together, wish he had never been any other.”
It was a fateful day in 1759 when the young lawyer John Adams accompanied his good friend Richard Cranch to the Reverend William Smith’s parsonage to meet the girl on whom his friend was so sweet. But it wasn’t Mary, the object of their five-mile journey, who would radically change John’s life—it was her younger sister with the dark eyes and rapier wit, Abigail.
He didn’t fall in love with her immediately. She was only fourteen, after all, and his heart belonged to somebody else at the time. Still, his friendship with Cranch kept him coming back to the parsonage time and time again, and by the end of 1761, John was scribbling teasing messages to Abigail at the bottom of Richard’s letters to Mary.
By 4 October 1762, their relationship had changed. John wrote a letter to “Miss Adorable,” demanding “as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company . . . as he shall please to Demand.” This was only fair, he reasoned, as he had given her, “two or three Millions at least.”
When I cataloged the papers of John Appleton Knowles, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by some cryptic references in his 1902 diary. Archivists, of course, don’t have time to read all the material they process—in general, we skim—but these references stood out to me because of their frequency and the obvious emotional undercurrent.
In 1902, John Knowles was a junior at Harvard and, from all indications, a typical young man of his time and class. His father was the founder of a paper manufacturing company, and the Knowles family lived on Beacon Street in the Back Bay. John did well enough academically, but directed most of his energy into his social life and athletics. He hung out with friends, attended dances, and was an enthusiastic participant in and supporter of Harvard sports (football and crew, primarily). He also had an on-again-off-again relationship with a young woman he referred to as “A.”
I knew, from my background research, that three years later John would marry a woman named Anna Elizabeth Clement. If I could definitively identify A as his future wife Anna, I’d be able to include her name in the catalog record and guide to the collection.
Reading John’s 1902 diary was a little like walking into the middle of a movie because his relationship with the mysterious A was already in full swing. Here are some examples of early entries mentioning her.
Last Copley Hall dance tonight. Had a rotten time taking it all and all. A treated me well though. (7 Feb.)
Went to Eliot Hall in the evening. A was there and so it was not so terribly bad. Drove home with her. Dont know what to think about her. (14 Feb.)
Went to see A in the evening. Did not get on very well. Dont think she cares anything for me. (25 Feb.)
Got a letter from A. She may care a little for me after all. (12 Mar.)
And that’s just up to March! During the year, John’s emotions seesawed from elation to despair, back up to hope, and down again to disappointment. I couldn’t help sympathizing with him. He was obviously smitten with this young woman, but insecure about the relationship. His diary really captures the ups and downs of young romance. For example, on one particularly despondent day, he wrote:
Evening I went out to see A. Pouring rain. We hardly said a word to each other. I get depressed whenever I go out there. Knowing that she does not care for me at all is the reason. It seems hopeless. (28 Feb.)
The couple had heated arguments, but it’s not always clear what they were about. In several entries, John expressed jealousy that other young men (“dopes”) were visiting A. Another day, A told John he didn’t “treat her with respect.”
Sometimes, A was “nicer” or in a “jovial mood.” And apparently they were seeing enough of each other to set the local gossips talking.
Went to the theater to see Ethel Barrymore in the evening with A. There were a lot of people we knew there and probably every one is certain that we are engaged now. (27 Mar.)
But it wasn’t meant to be, and by summer, John had begun to see the writing on the wall. He wrote resignedly on 9 June, “She is peculiar and doesn’t care a rip for me. I am going to stop bothering her, by hanging on, if I can.” He saw less and less of her after that.
In the meantime, a few other young women had managed to turn John’s head. Gretchen Howes was “rather nice” and “a bully sensible girl,” but “not up to A by a great many miles,” according to John. Louise Brooks was “all right only talks a good deal.” He liked Dorothy Bigelow “very much.” He was also attracted to Henrietta Wigglesworth, a “fine girl” he met at a dance in April. Henrietta, probably a student at Farmington (Me.) State Normal School, was, in fact, “the finest girl I ever met, I think.” Less than a week after meeting her, he “dreamed of Farmington all last night.”
But no one appears throughout John’s 1902 diary as often as A. Who was she? On closer reading of the text, I found a clue pointing me to her identity. In a few entries, this letter “A” seems to correlate with the surname Lincoln. For example, on 15 May, A invited John to Cohasset the following Saturday. Flipping ahead to Saturday’s entry, I saw that he went to Cohasset “with the three Lincolns on the 9.43 train.” The rest of the “the L family” would come down in July.
It looked like I had a last name for my mystery woman: Lincoln. I skimmed back through the diary and zeroed in on passages related to that family. A few also included the name Agnes, though never “Agnes Lincoln.” Could A be Agnes Lincoln?
I did an online search for “Agnes Lincoln” and “Cohasset” and found a 1902 article in the Boston Post about the wedding of a Christine Lincoln of Brookline, daughter of Albert L. Lincoln, Jr. One of the attendants was Miss Agnes Lincoln, sister of the bride. The writer described her as “a handsome well set up girl, who has been a great favorite since her presentation last year.”
Luckily, John’s papers include his diary for that year. Sure enough, he wrote on 23 Feb. 1903: “A’s grandfather has just died. He was 93 [actually, 92] years old and out of his mind, so I guess he is much better off now.”
I built a Lincoln family tree from a combination of print and online sources, and all the details lined up. Agnes was the daughter of Albert L. Lincoln, Jr. and Edith (Williams) Lincoln, which would explain why there were so many Williamses at her sister’s wedding, as described in the Boston Post article. And Agnes turned 19 on 9 Aug. 1902, which John noted and underlined at the top of his diary entry for that day.
I’d found her!
In 1907, Agnes married a man named James Dean. Interestingly, John knew the Deans, who visited the Knowles home on a few occasions in 1902. John also mentioned members of the Clement family, possibly relatives of his own future wife, Anna.
In this Beehive post, I’ve focused primarily on John’s earliest diary, but the MHS collection of his papers contains a total of 34 diaries he kept between 1902 and 1949, the year of his death. They cover a wide range of fascinating subjects, including his separation and divorce from his wife and difficulties between them related to their two sons, his service in World War I and the effects of a gas attack, his repeated attempts to give up alcohol, and his second marriage in 1941 to Nancy Boyle. His writing is honest and compelling.
Happy October and spooky season! I have always had an interest in the weird and wonderful and of course the MHS is full of those. However, one significant missing piece in the collection, to my thinking at least, is material regarding aliens and extra-terrestrial sightings. Most of the content that the MHS has related to the word “alien” is about the Alien and Sedition acts, passed in 1798 and signed into law by Pres. John Adams. In light of this, I decided to look at what similarities and differences the word “alien” had in 1798 compared to how it is used today.
In 1798, the word alien in the context of the Alien and Sedition Acts meant someone “foreign” to the new United States but the word was not without negative connotations. While the word had other meanings at the time as well, they are all derived from the same sense of othering and otherness. Alien was not a bland, neutral word then and it certainly is not now.
While the prevailing viewpoint today is that the Alien and Sedition Acts were unconstitutional, at the time that was a hotly contested debate. Objectors argued that because they were unconstitutional, the states were not under obligation to follow the laws, a state’s rights argument that definitely would not cause problems in the future. But despite its detractors, there was a lot of support for the laws. One such supporter was Kentucky Senator, Humphrey Marshall, who wrote a poem (below) praising the laws and waxing, well, poetic about the dangers of these non-WASP immigrants and mob rule as opposed to royal rule. Ironic, given that the United States had just gotten rid of a monarchy! His support of this, and other unpopular Federalist policies, was the end of his senatorial career.
(33) Has France a diplomatic corps, Dispers’d, and arranged among us? And has not Britain, on our shore, Another; that is as dangerous?
In this, most lies, the difference, One nicely observes the common form; ‘Tis mob, with Democratic France, With Royal Britain, ‘tis well born
We can trace many words that we use today back to that same use of the word. Words like “alienated” or terminology like “illegal aliens” (over “undocumented immigrants”) all come from that Middle English origin of alean or alyen, meaning foreign. It is not until the 20th century that the word alien was used to mean “extra-terrestrial” and even longer before it conjures up the image of creepy humanoids you see when you search “alien” today.
In my experience, modern reactions to the word alien often include images of flying saucers and characters from a sci-fi film, not the Democratic-Republicans of 1798. People claim to have had encounters with extra-terrestrial aliens and lived to tell the tale, creating an interesting tension between the 18th century use of the word and the modern one. For my part, I see this shift as making the word even more dehumanizing than it already was. After all, the group I most often use it for are foreigners of the highest degree- not only not American, but not even from Earth! It’s the ultimate foreigners. If I had to guess, the Alien Acts of 1798 probably would have ranked at extra-terrestrial aliens as even lower and less worthy of rights than the Earthlings the Federalists were so nervous about.
I also wanted to share some interesting Boston connections to extra-terrestrial aliens. One website collects people’s stories of alleged alien and UFO sightings and includes a few in the same area as the MHS, including a very close encounter. Interestingly, the North End is packed with sightings, significantly more than any other area of the city. Perhaps you have a guess as to why extra-terrestrial life seems to be such a fan of that area. Regardless, it is clear that aliens of all kinds continue to capture our attention.