Dickens the “literary Monster” comes to D.C.

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

In 1842, just shy of his thirtieth birthday, Charles Dickens undertook his first tour of America. He and his wife, Catherine, arrived in Boston in January. “I can give you no conception of my welcome here,” Dickens wrote on 31 January. “There never was a King or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds, and entertained in Public at splendid balls and dinners, and waited on by public bodies and deputations of all kinds. . . . If I go out in a carriage, the crowd surround it and escort me home.”

Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams, concurred with Dickens’s summary, writing from Boston to his mother in D.C., “Society here is in a state of ferment at the appearance of Mr Dickens the celebrated Boz. He is lionized at a rate beyond the imagination of a moderate man to conceive.” Though his wife and children were ardent fans, Charles admitted, “I did not know before that Mr Dickens was so great a man but that is my fault in not keeping pace with the age.” He teasingly warned his parents to brace for impact because the whirlwind of Dickens was headed to Washington. (John Quincy seemed to do just that, cramming in a last-minute reading of The Pickwick Papers.)

Catherine Dickens, c. 1848 (NPG D35175)

Dickens stopped at New York City on his way south, where he made the acquaintance of prominent businessman (and host of the Knickerbocker group) Charles Augustus Davis. Davis enjoyed a twenty-year acquaintanceship with John Quincy Adams, and, at Dickens’s urging, he immediately set about laying the groundwork for an introduction.

Davis sent a flurry of letters to the Adams home pleading Dickens’s case: “I have seen much of him & I am charm’d with him— he is as delicate minded & pure in spirit as a Young Girl— I want him to know you & I will Esteem it a favor if you will allow me to give him a Letter to you— he will be most happy to make your personal acquaintance.” When this received no reply, he sent another, “He will take great pleasure in making your personal acquaintance and I am quite sure that you will find this pleasure mutual. for my own part I can only say that my intercourse with him is mark’d down as among the brightest & most agreable moments of my life.”

After Davis’s third imploring letter, Louisa responded that they should be glad to host Mr. Dickens and his lady.

On 10 March, his first morning in the capital, Dickens made it his mission to meet Adams. In his diary that night, Adams recorded, “Mr Charles Dickens and his wife called and left cards, and a Letter of introduction from Mr Charles A. Davis of New-York.” When Dickens found Adams was not home, he followed him to the House. “Mr Nathaniel Tallmadge one of the Senators from New-York, came into the house with Charles Dickens and called me out from my seat and introduced him to me.” The 30-year-old Dickens viewed 74-year-old Adams with a deep reverence—particularly for his abolitionist activities. In his Travels in America, Dickens not-so-subtly alludes to “An aged, grey-haired man, a lasting honour to the land that gave him birth, who has done good service to his country, as his forefathers did, and who will be remembered scores upon scores of years after the worms bred in its corruption are but so many grains of dust.”

Left: Charles Dickens, Frederic G. Kitton, 1842 (Bonhams)
Right: John Quincy Adams, Philip Haas, 1843 (National Portrait Gallery)

Louisa wrote to her daughter-in-law Abigail Brooks Adams to describe what happened next. Louisa invited the Dickenses “to take a seat in our Pew at Church and afterwards to dine with us sociably at 1/2 past 2. The invitation was declined; and I thought that I should see nothing more of the literary Monster. The day after; a Note was brought to me stating, that Mr. & Mrs. Dickens being very sorry that they were engaged out to dine; if it was agreeable to me they would come and take a Lunch at my Dinner, and thus have the honour to pay their respects to the family of Mr. Adams.”

John Quincy noted in his diary that, “They are so beset with civilities, and kind attentions, that they have not a moment of time to spare, and it was only by snatching an hour from other engagements that they could see us at all— Dickens’s fame has been acquired, by sundry novels and popular tales . . . more universally read perhaps than any other writer who ever put pen to paper— He came out in the January steamer to Boston, and his reception has transcended that of La-Fayette in 1824.”

The dinner was a success. Louisa wrote, “We had as pleasant an off hand dinner as you can well imagine— Dickens is an unpresuming lively and agreeable man, and seemed perfectly delighted with the coversation of his Host; and by the time they left us . . . you would have supposed we had been long acquainted.”

Dickens was equally impressed. To a friend in England, he wrote, “Adams is a fine old fellow—seventy-six years old, but with most surprising vigour, memory, readiness, and pluck.”

On their way out of the city, Charles and Catherine Dickens stopped to bid farewell to the Adamses. Catherine even asked John Quincy if he would write a poem for her, which he gladly did:

There is a greeting of the heart
Which words cannot reveal—
How, Lady, shall I then impart
The Sentiment I feel?

How, in one word combine the spell
Of joy and sorrow too;
And mark the bosom’s mingled swell
Of welcome!—and Adieu!

The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society gratefully acknowledges the generous support of our sponsors. Major funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and the Packard Humanities Institute. The Florence Gould Foundation and a number of private donors also contribute critical support. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

The Daniel Webster Statue in Antebellum Boston

By Michael Larmann, Doctoral Candidate, University of Montana

The past several years have sparked public debate on monuments and how they tell about our national story. Much of this debate has targeted southern confederate monuments following the American Civil War. While this debate might seem recent, Americans have been fighting over controversial monuments for a long time.

There is a monument in Boston, now largely forgotten, that divided the commonwealth before the Civil War. This bronze statue guards the front of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Avenue. To the right of the main stairs, antebellum statesman Daniel Webster stands on a granite pedestal. In his right hand, the “Great Expounder” grasps a scroll, likely the U.S. Constitution that he swore to uphold during his long career as a congressman and Sectary of State. His left-hand rests upon bound fasces representing the Union he defended. I traveled to the Massachusetts Historical Society because I wanted to learn how this monument became a symbol of political strife during the Civil War era.

Photographs taken by Michael Larmann, Jun. 13, 2023 (unfortunately security measures prevent guests from getting any closer to the state house yard).

As indicated by this invitation issued to textile manufacturer Amos A. Lawrence, Boston was going to inaugurate Webster’s statue with a grand procession outside the State House on September 17, 1859. However, a Northeastern storm forced celebrations inside the nearby Boston Music Hall. The commonwealth re-inaugurated the statue on September 27th before a crowd of ten thousand people. Republican Governor Nathaniel P. Banks and Whig orator Edward Everett delivered speeches on Webster’s distinguished career.

Invitation, Amos A. Lawrence Papers, Box 11, Folder Sept. 1859, Ms. N-1559, MHS.

Not everyone in attendance, however, agreed that Webster was worthy of public commemoration. While Everett spoke, local abolitionists circulated petitions through the crowd to secure the statue’s removal. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lydia Maria Childs, and many others protested Webster’s late support for the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. A Webster monument, they contended, bestowed “no honor to the state” and was “repugnant to the moral sense of the people.”[1]

According to abolitionists, the Webster monument represented the Cotton Whigs and commercial elites on State Street, who relied on slave-produced commodities. The Webster Memorial Committee included the most affluent and influential men in antebellum Massachusetts. George Ticknor Curtis, the judge who enforced the Fugitive Slave Law against Thomas Sims in 1851, was the committee secretary. He submitted this bound volume of the committee’s records to the MHS which listed the one hundred members and their activities.

Webster Memorial Committee Records, 1852-1860, Ms. N-100, MHS

Committee members also included conservative politicians such as Edward Everett, textile manufacturers including Nathan Appleton, and banking agents such as Thomas W. Ward. After looking through these individuals’ papers at the MHS, it became clear that the elite’s commemoration of Webster aligned with their conservative politics and economic dependence on slavery. Many of the committee members publicly supported Webster’s “Seventh of March” Speech in 1850 because they saw the Union as essential to their political views and economic interests.

With growing anti-slavery sentiments in the 1850s, it may seem surprising that the Webster’s statue remains standing in 2023. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859, southern secession, and the coming of the Civil War pushed the Webster monument far from the public mind.

Today, security precautions prevent the public from viewing Webster’s statue up close, but we can still learn a great deal from it as a historical source. The monument demonstrates that Americans have been engaging in the politics of commemoration long before us. While controversial statues have become a hot topic, this discussion predates our contemporary political situation. In addition to southern monuments of enslavers and confederate soldiers, there are also problematic statues in the North of individuals like Daniel Webster who made controversial compromises over slavery.

Adding even greater complexity, the Webster Memorial Committee possessed their own political, legal, and economic ties to slavery. The politics of commemoration was not solely about the final product, but also the process of erecting the monument itself. People understood these monuments as reflections of their communities’ values, which often led to conflict. When viewed as historical sources, these statues can reveal the contentious nature of American democracy both past and present.

Drawing of the statue of Daniel Webster in Harper’s Weekly. “The Webster Statue,” Harper’s Weekly 3. No. 144 (Oct. 1, 1859): 628.

[1] “The Inauguration of the Webster Statue,” Liberator (Boston, MA), Sep. 16, 1859.

“Our National Thanksgiving”

By Rakashi Chand, Reading Room Supervisor

Sarah Josepha Hale has more to do with our everyday lives than we realize. The author of ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’, Hale influenced American culture as Editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book encouraging the education of women and the abolition of slavery, but also convincing America to wear white wedding dresses and put Christmas trees in their living rooms. She used her power of persuasion to raise money to maintain historic sites including Mount Vernon and the Bunker Hill Monument in Massachusetts. But her personal mission was to unify the nation with the creation of an annual National Thanksgiving.

Sarah Josepha Hale, Massachusetts Historical Society

Hale described the ideal Thanksgiving in her 1827 novel, Northwood :

The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savoury stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting…

bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter.

…. There was a huge plumb pudding, custards, and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche. There were also several kinds of rich cake, and a variety of sweetmeats and fruits. On the sideboard was ranged a goodly number of decanters and bottles; the former filled with currant Wine and the latter with excellent cider and ginger beer…”

Northwood by Sarah Josepha Hale 1827.

The description may seem iconic now, but this was a new idea for the generation she was trying to convince. In New England, ‘Thanksgivings’ were often held to mark an occasion, a practice unknown in other parts of the country, but one Hale grew up with in New Hampshire.

Due to increasing polarization across the country, Hale felt a ‘National Thanksgiving’ could bring people together. With the onset of the Civil War Hale determined that a day of Thanksgiving was needed more than ever. Those who she could not influence through her published works or magazine she sought to convince with personal letters. Hale wrote letter after letter determined to have the whole country celebrate together.

On 28 September 1863, Hale wrote a letter to Pres. Abraham Lincoln, urging him that our divided nation needed a day of unity and peace.


Philadelphia, September 28, 1863


             Permit me as Editor of the “Lady’s Book”, to request a few minutes of your precious time while laying before you a subject of deep interest to myself and – as I trust even to the President of our Republic, of some importance. This subject is to have the day of our Annual Thanksgiving Made a National and fixed Union Festival.

You may have observed that for some years past, there has been an increasing interest felt in our land to have the Thanksgiving held on the same day in all the States; it now needs National recognition and authoritative fixation only, to become permanently, an American custom and institution…

Lincoln proclaimed 26 November 1863 to be a National Day of Thanksgiving, but Hale wanted this to be an annual tradition, not a single incident. For that reason she continued her letter-writing campaign.

Hale wrote to George Washington Warren on 3 May 1877, asking him to write a resolution for a National Annual Thanksgiving.

Sarah J. Hale to George Washington Warren, May 3, 1877. George Washington Warren Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

(Rough transcription)

1413 Locust St.

                                                                                Philadelphia May 3 77-

G. Washington Warren,

                                Dear Sir,

I regret that your welcome letter has been so long unanswered- I have not been able to write, on account of the weakness of my eyes and I am still obliged to employ an amanuensis.

                                I am deeply indebted to you for your efforts to help me in our National Thanksgiving – will not this extra session of Congress furnish a good opportunity to present the subject? Nothing is needed but a Resolution of Congress making the last Thursday in November a legal holiday, for a National Thanksgiving, and making it [incumbent] on the President of the United States to issue a proclamation to that effect.

                                You would greatly oblige me if you would draw up this resolution, put it in the hands of your friends in the Massachusetts delegation and urge them to bring it forward at this extra Session if possible. Massachusetts was the first state to appoint a Thanksgiving, and her sons should make it National.

If you should draw up this Resolution, will you favor me with a copy?

I am much pleased with the manner in which you have treated this effort of mine, in your History of the Bunker Hill Monument, and hope much from your sympathy and assistance.

                                I have yet seen your daughter but hope to have the pleasure during her stay in Philadelphia.

                                I enclose an article written for the Ladys Book, for Last November, on the subject of a  ‘National Thanksgiving’ .

                                                                                                Yours Truly-

                                                                                               Sarah J. Hale-

                                                                                                By F. A. [Ghenter]

In the end, the holiday Hale worked tirelessly to create was a day of Peace and Unity. Hale set the table to bring us all together, and for that, we give thanks. And in my opinion, she also gave us the best meal of the year.

For another perspective on Lincoln’s proclamation and the first National Thanksgiving on 26 November 1863, please read this blogpost: Thanksgiving in London | Beehive (masshist.org)

Further reading:

Godey’s Lady’s Book or Godey’s Magazine available the Massachusetts Historical Society

How the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving’ Lobbied Abraham Lincoln to Proclaim the National Holiday | HISTORY

Lincoln and Thanksgiving – Lincoln Home National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov)

Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation of Thanksgiving | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org)

Biography: Sarah Josepha Hale (womenshistory.org)

Apples and the MHS

By Hannah Elder, Associate Reference Librarian for Rights and Reproductions

This week, millions of Americans will be making pies for their families to share during Thanksgiving. Be it pumpkin, pecan, or lemon meringue, all will be delicious. Or at least we can hope they will be! The past few years, I’ve given myself the task of mastering the apple pie. As I learned while researching my last food-related post, apple pies have their origins in England and came to the future United States with English colonists and their cookbooks.[1] The apples themselves came with the colonists, too, though they originated in central Asia.[2] Today, apple pie is one of the most popular pies (at least anecdotally) and is inexorably linked with American identity. With this in mind, I decided to look through our collection to find our holdings related to apples.

The first, fittingly, is an engraving entitled The portraits of George Washington & John Adams by the artist John Scoles. It depicts the United States as an apple tree, with the states as apples and initials for Washington and Adams, the first president and vice-president, supporting the trunk. This graphic makes it clear that the states are the fruits of the founders’ labor.

The portraits of George Washington & John Adams by John Scoles

The next is a list of apple trees compiled by wainwright Isaac Howard in his account book. The volume is mostly a record of Howard’s work repairing and building wagons, but the last page is a list of the kinds of apples grown at the east end of, presumably, Howard’s property. It reads:

Names of Apple Trees begining [sic] at East end
No 1 D. Russet
      2 Red Baldwin
      3 Tower of Glemis
      4 Jonathan
      5 Spitzerbury
      6 Porter
      7 Golden Pippen

Isaac Howard account book

I only knew one of these apples and it made me wonder which varieties on this list are still around today. What would the taste like? Would they be good for eating or cooking? Or were they cider apples?

If Howard wanted to cook his apples (and if he could wait 80 years for its publication), he could turn to L. Gertrude Mackay’s Housekeeper’s apple book, a cookbook devoted to 197 recipes for apples. Distributed by the Advertising Committee of the International Apple Shippers’ Association, it is very pro-apple. It begins with two pages extolling the benefits of apples (They are easily prepared! You can save money by buying in bulk!) and then launches into the recipes. The dishes skew towards the sweet, but there are truly enough there to keep you fed for a whole day. Start your day with an Apple Omelet, make Stuffed Apples to Serve with Toast for lunch, serve Sausages and Fried Apples for dinner, and end your day with Apple Sherbet or Apple Taffy.

L. Gertrude Mackay’s Housekeeper’s apple book
L. Gertrude Mackay’s Housekeeper’s apple book

And if Howard didn’t want to cook his apples, he could always make cider. The MHS holds several manuals on making cider and accounts of making cider. There’s also this photograph of men working at Kendall’s Mills in Windham, New Hampshire in 1921.

Cider making, Kendall’s Mills, Windham, N.H., before 1921

The last item to share is a portrait of a woman known as Apple Mary. An enigmatic figure, she apparently sold apples on the Boston Common some time in the 1870s. I tried to do a bit of quick research on her, but all I’ve turned up so far are similar portraits from other Boston archives. I hope to do more research on her and will report back if I find anything!

“Apple Mary,” Boston Common

So, how about them apples? Have any of these objects caused interest to bloom or become the apple of your eye? I’m sure I’ve only just scratched the surface of our apple-related holdings, so please do schedule an appointment and come visit the library for more fruity findings of your own!

[1] Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, United Tastes: The Making of the First American Cookbook (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017).

[2] Alie Ward, interview with Susan K. Brown, Ologies, podcast audio, October 18, 2023, https://www.alieward.com/ologies/pomology.

The MHS Welcomes Back Another Year of National History Day in Massachusetts!  

By Simbrit Paskins, Student Programs Coordinator

The 2024 National History Day Season Is Upon Us
In Massachusetts, students across the state in grade 6-12 gear up for History Day project presentations and statewide contests! While many students will present their best work at in-house, school-day history showcases, many other students are in preparation mode for the upcoming NHD competition, of which thousands of students across the country are also preparing!

This Year’s National Theme Is “Turning Points in History
The theme prompts students to think about an idea, event, or action that directly, or sometimes indirectly, causes change. While students are currently digging deep into related research and project planning, young scholars from across the commonwealth will soon be excited and eager to present their work to the community and to their peers! 

Volunteer Judges Are An Essential Part of NHD
In 2024, the MHS will host 3 Regional Competitions in Leicester, Stoneham, and Foxborough, MA, and 1 State competition in Winchester, MA. We anticipate strong student participation in the new year, and will need the support of community members who are willing to volunteer their time on contest day as NHD Judges. 

On contest day, judges work in teams to review entries in a specific category, interview students, and provide written feedback notes. Many students refer to these notes and to their judging experience to make recommended edits and improvements to their projects, whether they are moving on to the state contest or planning to compete again in the next year. Judges also help select which projects advance from the Regional to State competition.  

You don’t need to be an historian to be an amazing NHD judge or to contribute to a positive and memorable student experience. We provide a judging orientation and other training materials so that volunteers feel prepared to judge on contest day. For more information on judging at a local contest, please fill out our “2024 Judge Interest Form” and visit our website here

About National History Day
As described by the National History Day Organization, “National History Day® (NHD) is an educational nonprofit organization that engages teachers and students in historical research. The mission of NHD is to improve the teaching and learning of history in middle and high school through an innovative framework of historical inquiry and research. Students learn history by selecting topics of interest, launching into year-long research projects, and presenting their findings through creative approaches and media.” ( NHD 2024 Theme Book, “What Is National History Day?”, https://nhd.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/NHD-2024-Theme-Book-FINAL-UPDATED-web.pdf, Accessed: 11/15/23) 

Last year, over 600 students in MA participated in NHD in MA! With the support of local educators, parents and guardians, sports coaches, after school program coordinators, and the Massachusetts Historical Society, middle and high school students across the state created thoughtful, research-based, and informative History Day projects. We can’t wait to see what new and exciting work students are getting into in the upcoming 2024 season! 

Save the Date!

Saturday, March 2, 2024 

  • Stoneham Regional Competition: Stoneham Central Middle School (149 Franklin Street Stoneham, MA 02180). Contest Coordinator: Paula Sampson, psampson@masshist.org. 
  • Foxborough Regional Competition: Foxborough High School (120 South St, Foxborough, MA 02035). Contest Coordinator: Leah Cardullo, mhdsouthshore@gmail.com. 

Sunday, March 10, 2024 

  • Leicester Regional Competition: Leicester Middle School (174 Paxton St Leicester MA). Contest Coordinator: Norman Everett, centralwestnhdma@gmail.org. 

Saturday, April 6, 2024 

  • Massachusetts State Competition: Winchester High School (80 Skillings Road, Winchester, MA 01890). Contest Coordinator: Simbrit Paskins, nhd@masshist.org. 

Resource Links: 

  • To stay connected with “All Things NHD” please join our newsletter by clicking here
  • Want to volunteer as a judge? Click here to complete the “2024 Judge Interest Form”. 

How Do You Solve a Problem Like… Modern Records?

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

The Massachusetts Historical Society is well-known for its colonial, Revolutionary War, early presidential, and Civil War collections. But did you know that we collect up to the present day?

The MHS’s modern collections (dating from the late 20th and early 21st centuries) are usually larger—sometimes much larger—than older collections. For example, the Massachusetts Audubon Society records fill 121 record cartons, 11 document boxes, and 5 oversize boxes. The records of the ACLU of Massachusetts take up nearly 100 cartons and more. And because both organizations are still operating, we expect future deposits. With a permanent processing team of only 3 ½ people, you can imagine how hard it is to stay on top of all the material we acquire.

In order to process large modern collections, reduce the backlog, and make papers available to researchers more quickly, MHS archivists have been selectively implementing the “more product, less process” (MPLP) approach. MPLP dates back to an article by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner published in The American Archivist in 2005. Greene and Meissner advocated for minimal processing where possible to provide faster access to more collections.

Traditional processing is very time-consuming. It usually involves arranging individual pieces of paper in chronological order, removing metal fasteners, replacing folders, relabeling folders, and other tasks intended to help researchers find what they’re looking for and to preserve papers for the long term. However, too many collections end up sitting in storage because we simply don’t have the time or staff to process them at this level.

According to Greene and Meissner, if a collection arrives at a repository in decent condition and reasonably well organized, archivists should be able to make it available in a fraction of the time. For example, take this carton of papers that came to the MHS well-arranged and identified.

Carton of unprocessed papers in folders with labels

Some labels have fallen off, some folders are overstuffed, and related materials are separated and out of sequence, but with minimal work, this collection could be given to a researcher in a matter of days, rather than weeks, months, or even years. We might retain the original folders, move some of them around, write up a folder list, and voila!

I’m very happy to highlight a number of collections that were part of the MHS backlog for some time, but have now been made available thanks to MPLP. These include the Americans for Democratic Action, Massachusetts Chapter records (acquired in 1976); the Pan American Society of New England records (acquired in 2000); and the Ben and Jane Thompson Faneuil Hall Marketplace records (acquired in 2003 and 2005). We’ve also applied MPLP principles to newly acquired collections so they’re never added to the backlog at all, such as the Ticknor Society records (acquired earlier this year).

There are some legitimate concerns about the use of MPLP in archives. First, modern records often contain personally identifiable information (PII), such as social security numbers, and other private data on living people. Archivists are bound by law and professional ethics to protect individuals who may be harmed by information in our collections. We remove or redact PII from all collections, regardless of processing level.

Second, while rusty staples and paper clips and acidic newspaper clippings do damage papers, the most important intervention for long-term preservation is temperature and humidity control. Under cool and dry conditions, a collection can be stabilized and protected from further deterioration, even in less-than-ideal enclosures.

Lastly, MPLP works best with organizational records, but less well with collections of personal or family papers, especially the ones that come to us looking like this!

Carton of unprocessed papers in original envelopes

Archivists at the MHS are piloting various approaches and running time trials, and these techniques will continue to be assessed. Processing methods range along a spectrum from minimal to comprehensive, and each collection has different needs. The “more product, less process” approach not only buys us time, so that we can return to a collection later if necessary, but also allows us to make as much material as possible available to our researchers right now.

Presidential Photographs

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Manager

Did you know that the Massachusetts Historical Society’s collection contains something from almost every president of the United States—a signature, letter, photograph, lock of hair, or other form of memorabilia? I did not know that before I started working at the MHS, but I find it fascinating and often look through the collection guide of Presidential Letters. I especially love the photographs of the presidents.

Starting with two of my personal favorites, and the oldest one in the MHS collection, this photograph of John Quincy Adams was printed after 1860, but the original photograph, a daguerreotype, was taken in 1847, when JQA was 80 years old. My second favorite photograph is also the second oldest in the collection. It’s of Abraham Lincoln, whose photograph is represented in the collection several times, but this one is the most iconic.

Color photograph of two photographs side by side. Both are of older white men. On the left, the man has white hair, bald on top, and he wears a black suit jacket, black cravat, and white shirt. On the right the man has salt and pepper hair, and he wears a black suit jacket, black bow tie, and white high-collared shirt. Both men are looking at the viewer.
Left: Carte de visite of daguerreotype by Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, after 1860. Right: Photomechanical after photograph by Alexander Gardner, Washington DC, 8 November 1863.

The next two photographs interest me because they were taken outdoors. On the left is Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia, with Orville E. Babcock, Grant’s secretary, and Babcock’s wife Annie, Miss Cambell, her sister, and Miss Barnes all on Martha’s Vineyard. On the right is Theodore Roosevelt taking a jump on his horse.

Color photograph of two black and white photographs side by side. On the left are 6 figures, 2 white men and 4 white women, standing in front of a building, some on a porch. The women are in black 19th century dresses and hats with styled hair, and several are wearing necklaces. The men are in dark suits and vests with white shirts. There is a large railing between some of the figures, some in front, some behind. On the right is a middle-aged man on horseback while his horse jumps over a crude wooden fence. He is dressed in leather boots, light colored pants, dark jacket, and a white shirt with a tie. He wears a hat and glasses. His face is serene despite the action he is taking, and he looks at the viewer. The horse is dark and behind the man and horse are some trees in the background far away.
Left: Photograph, stereograph by R. G. Shute. Right: Photograph, May 1902.

The last two photographs are more about family and our Massachusetts senator Leverett Saltonstall (1892–1979). On the left are Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy, shaking hands with Leverett Saltonstall just off camera, and on the right is Dwight Eisenhower and his family—David, Barbara Ann, Susan, and Mamie—with Leverett Saltonstall.

Left: Black and white photograph by Charles McCormick/Boston Globe. Right: Black and white photograph, March 1954.

Theodore Parker’s Letter Books: An Unrivaled Glimpse into Antebellum America

By Benjamin E. Park, Sam Houston State University

It was in the Spring of 1855 when James Patterson happened to unknowingly encounter one of America’s most prominent celebrities. Patterson, a Brown University student who was headed home to Ohio, boarded a train at Worcester and sat next to a man with a broad build and grey hair, deep in thought. The fellow passenger was furiously flipping through a large book while taking copious notes on its back page. When he completed the volume, the man took paper out of his carpet bag and maniacally scribbled for over an hour. Patterson had never seen such studious devotion on a train. Eventually, the two struck up a conversation, and the student was surprised by the man’s “gentle voice” and “kindly manner.”

Patterson was so caught up in the invaluable advice that the older man dispensed—advice that would shape Patterson’s life—that he forgot to even ask his name. It was not until later that he discovered the random seatmate was Theodore Parker, Boston’s foremost abolitionist minister during the era.

The starstruck student wrote Parker a letter, bearing his soul and narrating his own conversion to liberal religion. To his surprise, Parker responded. They then corresponded several more times over the next few years.

That Parker would exchange letters with a stranger was not uncommon. He once complained that he spent up to six hours a day responding to people across the globe, with notes from Ohio to Calcutta. But the complaint was a lie: he cherished the connections, relished the friendships, and was addicted to the art of letter-writing.

Shortly after Parker’s death in 1860, his wife, Lydia, became determined to enshrine this part of his legacy. She and an assigned biographer, David Weiss, went through Theodore’s correspondence collection and wrote nearly everyone they could to ask for Parker’s letters. Many, like Patterson, eagerly responded. “I shall never forget that lovely, gentle, kind and therefore noble, white haired man,” he wrote, as the minister had “completely won my heart.” Patterson had even become a minister, just like his idol. He sent Lydia the only two remaining letters he could find—so long as she promised to send them back once she had copied their contents, so that he could keep them as relics.

Color image of books on a shelf.
Letterbooks housed at the MHS

Lydia Parker and David Weiss eventually collected enough incoming and outgoing correspondence to fill thirteen large volumes, all but two of which are housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society. (The other two are held in the Harvard Divinity School archives.) Each volume, numbering between four hundred and eight hundred pages, features transcriptions of hundreds of letters. Interlocutors include Theodore Parker’s Harvard classmates, rival ministers, adoring followers, and devoted critics. He received letters from worshipful fans who wrote him about how his writings prompted their own spiritual or moral awakening; these converts to “Parkerism” ranged from an itinerant minister in upstate New York to Queen Victoria’s dressmaker in Buckingham Palace.

But perhaps the most revealing exchanges found in these packed volumes concern the intersections of religion, abolitionism, and politics during the decade that America fractured into two. Though a minister, Parker became a prominent leader in the antislavery movement and corresponded with many of the central players in the new Republican Party. William Seward told Parker that he had done more in “the awakening of the spirit of Freedom in the Free States” than anyone else, and plotted with him on how best to oppose the “Slave Power.” Charles Sumner strategized with Parker, his favorite minister, on how to consolidate opposition against the Democrats, and even wrote him mere days before his caning in 1856. William Herndon sent Parker weekly dispatches from the Lincoln/Douglas debates in Springfield. And John Brown coordinated with Parker concerning his attempted raid on Harper’s Ferry.

The Theodore Parker letter books are among the most important manuscript collections to understand the key issues that animated America during the mid-nineteenth century. They are among the most prized gems in Massachusetts Historical Society’s archives, and a testament to how documents can reveal the potency of the past to the present.

Benjamin E. Park is author of American Nationalisms: Imagining Union in the Age of Revolutions, 1783-1833 (Cambridge University Press) and Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier (Liveright). His next book, American Zion: A New History of Mormonism (Liveright), will appear in January 2024. He is currently working on a new project examining religion and the abolitionist movement, which was benefitted by an MHS research fellowship.

Toil & Trouble: How To Find A Witch

By Meg Szydlik, Visitor Services Coordinator

As Halloween approaches and the air becomes colder, I find my mind turning to all things spooky and supernatural, including witches. Witches in Massachusetts have a long and storied history, though up until recently it was not a happy one. While Salem, for example, is home to a lot of self-proclaimed witches nowadays, the 1690s witch-related history is pretty ugly. You can learn more about the connections between the MHS and the Salem Witch Trials in this podcast.

While the Salem Witch Trials are an especially famous example of New England’s hostility towards those suspected of consorting with the devil, witch hunts were not unique to the region. In fact, Europeans were having witch trials back in the medieval period. They brought those ideas and fears with them across the Atlantic along with physical copies of books they used to help identify and prosecute witches. Books with titles so long they are not fully written out in our catalogue like A collection of modern relations of matter of fact, concerning witches & witchcraft upon the persons of people… and The infallible trve and assvred vvitch haunt the stacks. I took a look at one specific book called A compleat history of magick, sorcery, and witchcraft… and learned a lot about these supposed witches.

section from a book that reads “As for the Reason why Women are more frequently concerned in this Craft than Men; it is partly occasion’d by their Frailty, as Eve was thought to be the fitter Subject for the Devil to work upon, and partly because they are more inclined to revenge”
Section from A most compleat history of magick

According to A compleat history, women are far more likely to be witches because they are more frail than men, but also “partly because they are more inclined to revenge (15).” I confess that while I expected the frailty argument, much as I disagree with it, the revenge argument startled me a bit! While many stories portray witches as vengeful, I had never heard the reasoning that women are inherently more revenge driven. Truthfully, given the way women are treated, if revenge was the reason women become witches, I’m surprised there weren’t more!

While women were most commonly accused of being witches, men could be as well. In the Salem Witch Trials, for example, 5 men were hanged for witchcraft along with 14 women. A compleat history provides modern, rock-solid methods to prove that someone is a witch: find their Mark (where the devil allegedly marked those who served him) or see if they float in water since “God having ordained, that such as had cast off the Water of Baptism should not be received into Water, but swim upon it (23).” Different books advise different things, of course, and every trial has their own specific rules. There is a clear desire in this guidebook to demonstrate that the witches in their case studies are causing actual harm and “fits” through the spirit realm. Reading it with modern eyes, I can see how it would be persuasive in a world where these types of beliefs were normal and there were no other clear explanations for the behaviors.

section from a book that reads “To conclude: the surest way to discover such as practice this odious Craft, besides their evil Lives and Conversations, is, first, by their Mark, which is insensible; and, secondly, by their swimming upon the Water, God having ordained, that such as had cast off the Water of Baptism should not be received into Water, but swim upon it.”
Section from A most compleat history of magick

Witchcraft is such a fascinating subject because it taps into a view of reality that we simply do not have today in 2023. As a society, we do not believe that people can encounter the devil and do supernatural harm that can be pursued in court. While things like spirits and vampires are definitely still common in pop culture, they are not part of the legal understanding of the world. A huge shift from a world in which respected community leaders decided if spectral evidence was admissible in court. Today, witches still exist, but they are no longer seen as people who have relations with the devil. Instead, Wicca and other religious traditions embrace the title “witch” with a very different spin, one where they are hopefully not the target of state-sanctioned violence.

What haunts the librarians of the MHS?

 By Emily Petermann, Library Assistant

Lots of important events happen in the month of October: Halloween, National Chocolate Day, John Adams’ 288th birthday, and . . . American Archives Month! For today’s blog post we’re celebrating American Archives Month and embracing the spookiness of Halloween by investigating what haunts the hallowed halls (and librarians) of the MHS. 


For years, employees have walked through seemingly endless rows of shelving that make up the storage in the MHS building; rows that are stacked nearly floor to ceiling with boxes, with call slips to mark removed materials in hand, and a book truck to cart materials back and forth from the stacks to the Reading Room. 

But something else wanders those shelves too- and has since the Society moved to 1154 Boylston Street in 1899. 

Once the staff leave the stacks, and the rows of shelves again lie under cover of darkness, something else prowls the shelves. It touches many books in the collection, trailing its rusty fingertips along the shelves as it wanders the aisles.

On this chilly October morning, a librarian enters the stacks. They shiver with the temperature difference- going from the 124-year-old main building to the climate-controlled stacks can be a shock on any morning. (Seriously, the scariest thing in our building may be the AC. When you visit, we recommend bringing a sweater to fend off the cold!) 

But is it just the temperature, with what we know is lurking? 

Fortunately for the librarian, they only have one item to pull–a bound volume from the 1850s. They stride in confidently, knowing exactly where this volume will be. But what they don’t know is that the volume will be high up on the top shelf, well above their head. It’s a common occurrence with shelves from floor to ceiling, to have to stretch (or grab the squeaky stepstool) to reach materials. So, they sigh, reach up as high as they can, and give the book a gentle tug to pull it off the shelf. 

That’s when it strikes. 

Red spots of digested and disintegrating leather flow from the book, hanging in a haze in the air, and shower the librarian and the shelves. Red spots cover the librarian’s hair and face, cover the cardigan they wear, and stain their white shirt. They look, to be frank, like a murder has occurred in the hallowed halls of the MHS. 

They have encountered red rot. 

After a quick pause to think through what they were just showered with, all the librarian can do is sigh and put the call slip back where the volume had sat. This throws up another puff of the red dust that has accumulated where the book has been sitting. They bring the book down to the Reading Room for the researcher to use and begin a futile attempt to get the leather particles of their clothing without staining. This book will require everyone who handles it to wash their hands, making the water run red with the decay that has happened in the stacks. 

A volume with red rot

Red rot is a form of decay that can happen to vegetable-tanned leather items. It’s a natural effect of the leather aging, which means that it’s touched quite a few volumes in our collection. We keep all of our materials in dark, climate-controlled spaces to slow down this natural process and make sure any volumes get preservation attention as needed. Want to know more about red rot? Check out Explore Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd.’s article here

You are being watched.  

The stacks are a funny place- between the rows and rows of shelving, the concrete floors, and different doorways in and out of the stacks, you can never truly tell when you are alone. Footsteps echo through the floors, sometimes sounding as if someone has walked directly behind you as you scan the shelves. Doors that are floors away slam as if they were right next to you, and yet coworkers can accidentally sneak up behind you without realizing someone else had stepped onto the floor. 

Having shaken off their encounter with red rot, the librarian steps back into another floor of stacks to search for another box. Just as the door closes behind them, the lights finally flicker on and faintly–very faintly–they hear the sound of footsteps. Probably from one of the other stacks upstairs, but it still sets their nerves on edge. 

They carefully pick through the stacks, looking for the correct collection. Somewhere in the stacks, there are more footsteps–a quick glance around still doesn’t calm their nerves. As they round the end of an aisle, something flits through the corner of their eye. Something different. 

There is someone else in the stacks. 

Someone tall, ghostly pale, who was not there just moments ago. Someone who is staring directly down the aisle. 

Over the 232 years (9 months, 4 days) that the MHS has existed, it has collected some . . . interesting items. Most of them are exceedingly cool–when you’re expecting them. There are a few items that tend to sneak up on you. Especially when you consider the fact that they . . . are everywhere. We’ve tucked items into every (climate controlled, secure) nook and cranny that we have! You are almost always within 10 feet of someone’s portrait or bust, supervising you as you work. When they move, it can catch you off guard.  

Shelves with boxes. At the end of the row, a bust is sitting on a pedestal.

Meet Jared Sparks. Or rather, Jared Spark’s bust, based on the original made by Hiram Powers in 1857. Spark’s bust used to sit on the floor with other busts in the collection, but was recently put up on a pedestal, creating the illusion of a stranger in the stacks. 

We hope you have a safe and happy Halloween! 

If you’re looking for more spooky stories about the MHS, check out this blog post: Scary Stories to Tell in the Stacks.