Archivist as Detective

By Susan Martin, Collections Services

When cataloging manuscript collections here at the MHS, I sometimes get the opportunity to play detective. The library recently acquired an anonymous 19th-century diary, and I was tasked with (hopefully) identifying its author. Since the diary came to us as an individual item rather than as part of a collection of family papers, I had no external clues to go on. There was nothing to do but start reading and see what details emerged from the text itself. 


The diary dates from 1818 to 1827 and was kept in Boston by a young man working as an apprentice in some commercial business. I scanned the pages looking for names, places, and other reference points. I saw a lot of repeated surnames, but their relationship to the writer was unclear. First names were most likely those of siblings or close friends, but what 19th-century Boston family didn’t have a William, a James, and a Mary Ann? And like a lot of diarists, this one tended to use initials for the people most familiar to him. How thoughtless.

I perked up when I saw his entry about marrying a Sarah Barnes in 1827, but I couldn’t find a record of the marriage, possibly because of inconsistencies in the way names were spelled. The diary also includes notations of other marriages that, from their context, I suspected were those of siblings or cousins. In fact, I had a lot of specific biographical clues that should have been more helpful than they were. I knew the date of my diarist’s marriage, the name of his wife, the date of his mother’s death, and exactly when he was born. He wrote on 16 December 1821: “This is the 21st anniversary of my birth.”

From the number of Smiths that make an appearance in his diary, I got the idea that my mystery man might be a Smith. Alongside the Smiths, he often mentioned members of the Messinger family. This family connection turned out to be the breakthrough I needed.

Using online resources, I built a Messinger family tree and—voila!—found a Mary Ann Smith who married Daniel Messinger. The way my diarist wrote about Mary Ann, I guessed she was his sister, and the dates were right; she was born the year before him, in 1799. Mary Ann’s parents were Benjamin and Dorcas (Silsbee) Smith. The Silsbees figure prominently in the diary, as do the related Lorings, so I felt I was finally on the right track. And sure enough, among Benjamin and Dorcas’s other children was one Benjamin, Jr., born in 1800!

I was fairly confident I’d found my man, but I wanted to be sure. This diary entry for 1 January 1823 confirmed it: “This Day [I] commenced business at No. 13 Commercial Street with Mr. Cornelius Nye […] under the firm of Smith & Nye.” The Boston Directory for that year lists, as traders in West India goods at 13 Commercial Street, none other than Cornelius Nye and Benjamin Smith, Jr. 

The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place when I searched our online catalog ABIGAIL and discovered we had a small collection of Smith family papers. This collection consists primarily of papers of Benjamin Smith, Sr. and Captain William Smith—the father and brother-in-law, respectively, of my diarist. William was a shipmaster who sailed for Calcutta in January 1818, an event noted on the first page of this very diary.

A family bible and other genealogical material in the Smith family papers completed Benjamin, Jr.’s story for me. I learned that Sarah Barnes was actually his second wife. He first married on 23 April 1823 to Jane Barnes, who died just six months later of tuberculosis. Benjamin described Jane’s illness and death in heart-breaking detail in his diary: “In losing my dearest wife I feel as though all happiness, all hope had gone with her. […] She was my life, my all on earth.” Jane’s sister Sarah helped to care for her during her illness, and Benjamin wrote that Sarah was “very kind & attentive to me & I shall never forget it.” Clearly he didn’t—he married Sarah four years later, and the couple had two sons, Benjamin III and Charles.

Benjamin’s life also came to an early and tragic end. On 12 June 1832, when he was 31 years old, he and several friends drowned in Boston Harbor during a fishing trip in a boat called the Bunker Hill. The accident and its aftermath are recorded in his father’s diary, including Benjamin, Sr.’s rush to the harbor and desperate attempts at resuscitation.

It’s not always possible to identify the authors of diaries and other personal papers that are donated to us, but it’s very satisfying when it happens!