By Laura Wulf, Photographic & Digital Imaging Specialist
As you may have read in a previous post, the MHS created a new tool for volunteers to crowdsource manuscript transcriptions with the goal of making our content more accessible. We’re still looking for volunteers and invite you to set up an account and start transcribing!
When we started developing and testing this crowdsourcing tool, we first transcribed letters written by Charles F. Morse during the Civil War as well as some diaries of John Rowe, a prominent merchant living in Boston in the late 18th century. Most recently we have been working with a collection of journals kept by Luman Boyden, a Methodist clergyman hired by the Boston City Missionary Society to visit and assist the city’s poor and immigrant families in East Boston in the mid-19th century. This is the collection I’d like to focus on here. Below are some of the people and stories that we’ve run across in our work.
The Boston City Missionary Society was originally known as the Boston Society for the Moral and Religious Instruction for the Poor. Still in existence today, it is now known as City Mission—the oldest multi-service agency in New England and the second oldest in the United States. Founded in 1816, the organization was started by members of Old South Church and Park Street Church. According to the society’s By-Laws, it’s mission was to further “the religious and moral instruction of the poor in the city of Boston.”  Boyden and his fellow missionaries were hired to go door-to-door distributing religious material, offering some financial and legal assistance, and promoting temperance, Sunday schools and summer youth programs, all of which laid the groundwork for the establishment of Boston’s first primary schools as well as the founding of the Boston YWCA.
Boyden often found himself in heartrending and unusual situations during these home visits and he wrote about them in the journals that he kept between 1854-1863. Sometimes his notes are short and list-like, while other times he includes vivid descriptions and even follow-up information. Boyden approached his missionary work zealously. His desire to help those in need, while admirable and sometimes effective, can also sound, to our modern ear, judgmental and narrow-minded. His work does seem to take a toll on him, and some entries can sound impatient and exasperated.
First let me introduce Luman Boyden to you in his very own words, written on his birthday, 12 November 1854:
“My birth day, 49 years old, I am led to inquire is it possible? I am compelled to answer yes! My head is grey, my eyes about 2 years since began to fail & within a few days have used [glasses] some in the day time. I can walk as rapidly as ever & perhaps feel but little more fatigued. The Lord has greatly blessed for which I think I feel thankful.”
His missionary work takes him to places such as the “Insane Asylum” on 1 November 1854:
“It was a most solemn sight. The inmates appeared calm, some quite gloomy — some smiled & apparently happy — some started back with fear & all were objects of great compassion.
And he visits a State Prison the very next day:
“…went into the State Prison. about inmates. They are not allowed to speak or even look to each other or to strangers & no one paid us the least attention. about 7 in for life — One man about 40 years of age, has served one term at Concord, one at Charlestown, & about three days since returned to Concord for 7 years. How different from the scene of yesterday. The contrast between the Maniac & the convict is great still the sight of both must excite the sympathy of those who behold them.”
But mostly he visits people in their homes. One home belongs to a Mr. Pickles, whose name appears regularly in the journals, and seems to be a tailor who lives with his children and his chickens all under the same roof and even in the same room:
“My visit at Mr Pickles was rather peculiar… As I entered I found him at his work, three children & a flock of chickens in the room & one hen shut up in a closet. He appeared quite solemn &… was at work on a nice coat.”
Sometimes the people he is trying to help are also trying to help others in even worse circumstances. On 4 May 1855 Boyden describes a man who,
“Tho very poor…has opened his door for a blind woman who for months [has] been aided by city missionaries & others. She will not go to the almshouse but prefers sleeping on the floor in that or some other wretched mansion and subsists by begging.”
One day earlier, on 3 May 1855 Boyden seems a little less compassionate.
“Today an Irishwoman expressed a strong desire to have her children brought from Ireland…She said one was going on 27 — another 25 and another going on 17. I…told her that her children I thought were old enough to help themselves.”
Boyden writes often about his temperance work. He is much disturbed by the use of alcohol and the effects it has on those he meets.
On 15 September 1855 he writes about a visit to a family and ends his description with a succinct expression of exasperation:
“… the woman was nursing an infant & said that her husband had been sent to Deer Island for 8 months — Crime getting drunk & beating her. They have seven children, she said the oldest was 10 years old — So much for Rum.”
The entry continues and we get more of a sense of the relations between neighbors.
“In another tenement, an american woman formerly lived in Paris Street She said that the woman just mentioned was as bad as her husband & that they owed her 3 dollars for food, crackers & herring. I saw a bar in another room & that seemed to tell the story. Last winter this woman had a bar & I asked her if she sold intoxicating drink She then said no she only kept candy. A number of tumblers behind the bar appeared unnecessary to affect the sale of candy. O the misery produced by intemperance.”
His wry and understated comment about the tumblers made me chuckle. Boyden’s use of the term “american” is also noteworthy. He uses other descriptions such as “Irish”, “Irish Catholic” or “colored”, so “american” may be used to mean “white”, this at a time before the European immigrants were accepted as either “white” or “american”.
I opened with Boyden’s own words and I’ll end with this surprising entry from the teetotaling author himself:
“Was quite unwell & came to Chelsea and took a swett, by drinking some gin in hot water. It is nearly twenty five years since I have drunk any before & now used it for want of other medicine. Where I believe it kills hundreds when it helps one I view it as almost wrong to use it under any circumstances”
I’ve only shared a small selection from these fascinating diaries. There’s much more to be discovered in these journals. Vareoloid smallpox? Poisoned pond water? An incident of cayenne pepper being purposefully blown into the eyes of children? All this and more awaits your discovery at www.masshist.org/collection-guides/view/fa0538. Consider joining the transcription efforts.