Black Abolitionists: A John Winthrop Student Fellowship Project

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant collections of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Applications for the 2022 Student Fellowships will open in November, 2021. Learn more and apply!

This year, our 2021 John Winthrop Student Fellow Sterling Hoyte of Concord Academy has created an educational website exploring the history of Black abolitionists and freedom fighters with the support of his teacher mentor Emma Storbeck. According to Sterling, “The goal of this project is to create an educational tool that displays Black abolitionists, their work, and how it impacted the abolition movement. It aims to tell the story of abolition through a uniquely Black perspective.” Visit Sterling’s website Black Abolitionists to learn more about his incredible research.


Throughout the majority of my education, I learned about the American abolition movement from a distinctly white perspective. Teachers relayed the words of Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, and Henry David Thoreau, but times when I learned about African Americans’ contributions to the anti-slavery movement were few and far between. The only Black abolitionist I was able to learn about extensively was Frederick Douglass. Though Douglass’s speeches interested me, they left me with a single Black perspective on abolition, whereas the perspectives of white men were seemingly infinite.

It is because of this important gap in my education that I applied for the John Winthrop Student Fellowship proposing a project that centers around Black abolitionists. In truth, some of the most effective and inspiring abolitionists have been Black people. Often their approach to the movement was shaped by the way they were raised, whether as a free or enslaved person, and the hardships they underwent. If a person began their life enslaved, they had to escape bondage before even beginning their career in abolitionism. If a person was born free, they had to constantly push against the legal and societal discrimination presented to them at any given moment of their lives. Based on their backgrounds, abolitionists fought differently: violently, peacefully, through their actions or through their words.

Fighting for the end of slavery as a Black person was dangerous; many of the abolitionists featured in my project were targeted as the subjects of mob and police violence. Several had stores looted and homes burned down. Despite the difficulties of advocating for an end to slavery as a Black person, the abolition movement produced some of the foremost Black speakers, writers, and thinkers in the history of the United States. The thousands of narratives, speeches, petitions, periodicals, journals, publications, etc. are a testament to the courage and effort that African American abolitionists put into emancipating their people. Though this project only explores a mere fraction of the anti-slavery work produced by Black people before emancipation, its goal is to do so thoroughly, accurately, and comprehensively. My website aims to tell the story of emancipation from a perspective glossed over in my classrooms, from a Black perspective.

During my research I used many of the MHS’s archives as primary sources. It was my first time doing historical research of this nature, and to be able to work directly with handwritten texts of the era was fascinating. The MHS helped me access historical graphics, newspaper articles, obituaries, pieces of legislation, and so much more that guided my research. ABIGAIL [the MHS online library catalogue] served as both an immediate resource and a jumping off point for further research.

Over the course of this project, I was given the opportunity to read abolitionist literature that I never would have discovered without this fellowship. For example, The Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: formerly a slave in the United States of America offered insight on daily life in slavery and the brutalities that accompanied it. Paul Jenning’s A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison revealed stories of enslavement in our nation’s government. The poetry of Frances Harper, the petitions of Prince Hall, and the records of the Boston Anti-Man Hunting League all built a world of abolitionism that I was excited to explore throughout the project.

If I could offer advice to future John Winthrop student fellows, I would tell them not to worry if your research is taking you in an unexpected direction. If you come into a project too narrow-minded, you’ll miss interesting history that could be useful. It is important to let your research guide you just as much as you guide your research. At the same time, you should know when to narrow the scope of your discoveries. With all topics there are an infinite amount of things to learn about, and you may feel compelled (as I did) to continue looking as far as you can. As your project comes to a close, set boundaries for yourself and your research. It is inevitable that there will be things you discover that are not included in the final product, and that’s okay.

I am incredibly grateful to the MHS for this opportunity, and would encourage anyone thinking about it to apply. It was a fun and informative experience, and has inspired me to continue doing historical research.

Rehabilitation on the Sea

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

A fellow archivist and I often talk about that instinct you develop after working in this field for a few years. I call it the “I think this is a thing” instinct. It happens when you’re working with a manuscript collection and stumble on a passing reference, unfamiliar to you, that seems like it may have some significance not immediately apparent. Maybe it’s a name that sounds vaguely familiar. Maybe it’s just the fact that a particular nondescript item was saved at all that makes you ask yourself, “I wonder what’s so special about this?”

The John Hill Thorndike letterbook contains one such intriguing reference. Thorndike was a Boston businessman and lawyer, and his letterbook contains copies of outgoing correspondence, mostly related to real estate investments, property management, and decedents’ estates. Also included, however, are a few letters of more personal interest.

December 1869 letter from John H. Thorndike
Copy of a letter from John H. Thorndike to Robert Burk, 22 Dec. 1869

For example, on 22 December 1869, Thorndike wrote to someone named Robert Burk (or possibly Burke) on the school ship R. M. Barnard:

I learn that at Westboro’ you were put at a good place outside of the Reform School, on trial, that the managers of the Institution might ascertain, whether or not they could recommend you to some good & permanent place, and you convinced them that you could not be trusted, by running away. This I did not know, and gave you a good opportunity to get an honest living & help support your poor old mother. Instead of working for me faithfully, you did little or nothing except when watched; after you had been employed about a fortnight you did not go to your work, giving no reason for it, but loafed about with bad companions much like yourself, lived upon your mother who did all in her power to make you comfortable at home, frequently was out all night drinking and carousing and often much intoxicated and finally convicted of drunkenness and sentenced to jail.

Now all these things & more that I might state had I the time, convince me that you are not to be relied upon and that you are better off where you are, governed by good wholesome regulations, administered by the best of men, than you can possibly be anywhere else, and you had better now give up any thought you may have of obtaining permission to leave the ship, and make up your mind to hereafter devote yourself to the work of a sailor, in which, if you are honest, always tell the truth, don’t use bad language and work hard to please your Officers, you may some day rise to be mate of a vessel, and then you can help your mother as you ought to be doing now. You ask how your mother is. She has been quite unwell lately & not able to work.

I’d never heard of anything called a “school ship,” so I did some research, and it was definitely “a thing.” School ships like the George M. Barnard (Thorndike got the name wrong) were used by the Nautical Branch of the Massachusetts State Reform School to train so-called “delinquent” boys to be sailors. Burk, apparently a former employee of Thorndike’s, had written asking him to petition for his release from the Barnard, but Thorndike was having none of it.

The State Reform School in Westborough, Mass. was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, publicly funded juvenile reform school in the U.S., although private reformatories had been around for a while.  The impetus for the creation of the school ship system in 1859 was a fire at the school, set by one of the boys living there, that destroyed so much of the building that the governor thought it an opportune time to launch (no pun intended) the Nautical Branch.

In 1867, the Nautical Branch broke away from the State Reform School and became an independent institution called the Massachusetts Nautical School. It would operate until 1872.

Massachusetts Ship Records
Page from the Massachusetts (Ship) records, Ms. N-623 (Tall)

It just so happens that the MHS also holds a volume of records of the first ship used by the Nautical School, the Massachusetts. The Massachusetts was such a success in the eyes of state legislators that they appropriated money for a second and larger ship, the George M. Barnard, named after a major donor.

This volume of Massachusetts records gives us a more detailed look at the boys the state deemed “delinquent.” They ranged in age from 12 to 18. (In fact, younger boys were committed to the Reform School, but the Nautical School was mainly for teenagers.) Their offenses included outright crimes, such as larceny and assault, but also what might be called behavioral problems: stubbornness and idleness, for example. Burk himself had been arrested for drunkenness.

Commitment to these Nautical School ships was a serious matter. Burk would have been sentenced by a judge to work and study on the Barnard until he reached adulthood, or until the trustees considered him reformed and discharged him. If he escaped, he’d be subject to re-arrest by police. He would receive only one family visit every three months.

However, this was an institution aimed at rehabilitation. Its curriculum included not just sailing and navigation, but also making clothes, cooking, and “the ordinary branches of education.” The school received donations from philanthropic individuals and organizations, as well as visits from distinguished guests. Charles Dickens even stopped by the Barnard during his 1867-1868 U.S. tour.

Many of the boys did, in fact, go on to become professional sailors. According to the annual report of the Nautical School trustees, about 40% of the boys committed to the school ships joined “the national, merchant, and whaling service” between 1859 and 1869.

I can’t help wondering about Robert Burk. The Thorndike letterbook doesn’t include any other correspondence from, to, or about him. Neither does the other collection of Thorndike papers here at the MHS. One of these days, I’ll have to stop by the Massachusetts Archives, which holds a collection of case histories of the boys of the George M. Barnard.

A Trip Down the Nile with Helen Bigelow Merriman, 1875

By Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

“We are all individuals, and also parts of the human family, and our best life is found in the way each of these capacities illuminates and vivifies the other.” Helen Bigelow Merriman wrote in her Treatise Concerning Portraits and Portraiture in 1891.  

“Portrait painting has, after all, for its deepest secret, the same rule that lies at the bottom of all the best achievement in any direction, viz. Accept the Facts and then put the noblest possible construction upon them It is the power of forming an abstract idea of a person- of seeing him whole- as it were, apart from any trifling incidental variations-that marks the true artist.” (Merriman 1891) 

Helen Bigelow Merriman was born in 1844, the only child of Erastus Brigham Bigelow, founder of the Bigelow Carpet Company. Helen was raised in North Conway, NH, but later settled in Worcester and Boston, Mass. She returned every summer to her North Conway home, Stonehurst Manor. Helen was a painter, art collector, author, and a founder of the Worcester Art Museum along with her husband, Rev. Daniel Merriman, who served as the Worcester Art Museum’s first President. A visionary woman, Helen was also the founder and benefactor of the Memorial Hospital of North Conway, NH in 1911. (Sun 2011)  

A champion of the arts, and especially in promoting women in the arts, Helen was active in the Worcester Art Society. She spearheaded the new building of the Congregational Church, served on both the Committee on Instruction and on the Committee on the Museum at Worcester Museum of Art advancing the museum’s Education mission and expanding the collections, and served as President of the North Conway Public Library. 

In 1875, Helen took a trip to Europe and Egypt. She painted and sketched everything around her as she travelled, capturing the worlds and people she met with exquisite and intimate detail. Housed at the MHS, the Helen Bigelow Merriman collection of watercolors and sketches consists of 50 drawings and paintings and 1 albumen photograph from the trip.  The collection contains watercolors and drawings of people and scenes the artist saw on her journey down the Nile River, some of which were reproduced in her Figures drawn on the Nile. There are also English, Swiss, and Greek scenes, five lovely watercolors of birds, and an albumen photograph of a crayon drawing of a young woman, who might possibly Helen Bigelow Merriman herself. 

When I came across the drawings and watercolors from Helen’s journey down the Nile River, my heart stirred. Time stood still as I opened the box that unveiled image after image, transporting me across the globe, 150 years past. Eventually, I had to close the box and return it to its shelf. I descended back down in the elevator to the Library with a refreshed mind. After all, I had just taken a trip down the Nile with Helen Bigelow Merriman! 

Here are just a few of my favorite images. Let us begin with an image that simply has the word “Nile” written under this serene watercolor scene. 

Painting of Nile by Helen Bigelow Merriman
01.025 [Untitled, view of the Nile with three figures, one riding a donkey].
To continue our journey, let’s board our vessel.

common Nile boat
01.023 “Meerkeb” or common Nile boat.

Perhaps we will pass a house along the way.

Egyptian house
01.015 [Untitled, view of Egyptian house].
Next, we stop at the Temple of Karnak.

watercolor of Karnak Temple
01.017 [Untitled, Karnak Temple with figure of a man in front].
We might pass an oasis as we sail down the Nile.

01.027 Noonday [view of an oasis]
We end our journey with this breathtaking image of the eastern sky at sunset.

Camel train at sunset
01.003 [Camel train in the desert, Eastern sky at sunset]

“Although the artist is not properly a moralizer he gets from his art many side hints about very deep truths. I cannot help mentioning here a thought about immortality that has come to me very forcibly even in my small experience of portrait painting.

Our bodies become beautiful and natural only when they are transfigured by thought and feeling. The have in themselves only the most superficial kind of charm.

The outcome of all which is that if the body contributes so little to the highest beauty- if, in fact , it obstructs the highest beauty except as it becomes its unconscious instrument- then the mere loss of the body cannot take the highest beauty and truest life away from us.” (Merriman 1891)

With these words, I share the albumen photograph of a drawing of a young woman, possibly Helen herself, immortalized by her own art.

Photograph of a drawing
02.016 [Albumen photograph of a drawing of a young woman]
Learn more about Helen Bigelow Merriman by exploring these collections at the MHS:

Helen Bigelow Merriman collection of watercolors and sketches.

Figures drawn on the Nile. 1875.

Concerning portraits and portraiture / by Helen Bigelow Merriman; read before the Worcester Art Society, February 17, 1891.

Both sides : an address by Helen Bigelow Merriman at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the organization of the Central Church, Worcester, Massachusetts, October 15, 1895.

Merriman Family Papers, 1695-1902 (

Please contact the Library through email, phone or chat to inquire about these collections, as well as the other drawings in the collection.


Merriman, Helen Bigelow. 1891. Concerning Portraits and Portraiture. Worcester: Chas. Hamilton.

Sun, Conway Daily. 2011. November 3. Accessed 09 28, 2021.

Archivist as Detective: One of These Account Books Is Not Like the Others

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

Last year, the MHS acquired a small collection of account books attributed to John Henry Clifford of New Bedford, Mass. Clifford was a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts legislature and as attorney general and governor of Massachusetts. This acquisition supplemented a large collection of Clifford’s papers that we already held.

But when I started to catalog the collection, I noticed something odd. Six of the seven account books are tiny booklets measuring about 2 x 3.5 inches with accounts written out in a neat list, “receipts” on the left and “expenditures” on the right. These booklets date from 1847 to 1873.

Account book of John H. Clifford
One of John H. Clifford’s account books, April 1863

The seventh account book, however, is kind of an ugly duckling. It’s much larger (5 x 8 inches) and consists of hand-sewn signatures of mismatched paper containing miscellaneous accounts from 1845 to 1865. Not only is the handwriting different, but the accounts all run together in one big block of text.

1856 account book
Unidentified account book, September-October 1856

The account books were clearly kept by two different people. The six small volumes are definitely Clifford’s (I confirmed this by checking his papers for a handwriting sample), but who kept the seventh?

It seemed logical to assume the volume belonged to another member of the family, perhaps his wife Frances, and had been misattributed to John. This frequently happens with unsigned manuscripts in collections of family papers. But a closer reading revealed the accounts were definitely kept by a man. Included are records of joint expenses for him “& wife.”  And when I compared entries for specific dates to those in Clifford’s, the accounts didn’t correspond. Sometimes our unknown individual was traveling to New York when Clifford was still in New Bedford.

A brother or son, then? Well, the handwriting didn’t match that of any other family member represented in the Clifford papers. So I abandoned that theory and started from scratch, digging into the content for clues.

This was easier said than done. Brief entries listing groceries and sundries purchased don’t exactly give you a lot of biographical details to latch onto. New Bedford is mentioned a few times, which probably explains the original misidentification. There are a few personal names, like Franklin, Sarah, and Dorah, but it was impossible to tell who was a family member and who was, say, a servant. I also saw the name Delano in several places.

Eventually a little more personal information emerged, like “my son Edward” and “my son Warren.” In fact, Warren makes many appearances throughout the volume. Well, John H. Clifford did have a son named Edward, but no Warren. Then I stumbled onto an unfamiliar proper noun that unlocked the whole mystery—Algonac.

If you’re an archivist or historian with expertise in a certain family, you may be ahead of me here. A quick online search revealed that Algonac was the home built by Warren Delano, Jr. in Newburgh, New York. This account book was kept, therefore, by none other than Warren Delano, Sr., who often traveled to visit his son and family. The clincher was the note Delano, Sr. wrote proudly marking his granddaughter Annie’s birthday.

Warren Delano, Sr. lived in Fairhaven, Mass., just across the Acushnet River from New Bedford. He died in 1866. He also happened to be the great-grandfather of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

If I were to extend my earlier metaphor, I’d say the ugly duckling turned out to be a swan. John H. Clifford was a conservative Whig who opposed the abolition movement and was called “pro-slavery” by his one-time servant Frederick Douglass. Warren Delano, on the other hand, supported abolition, aided those seeking freedom from enslavement, and subscribed to anti-slavery publications. Here are some of the relevant entries in his account book:


[27 August 1853] Donation to a Mother, to aid the redemption of a daughter, from the hands of a man thief 2 dolls.

[1 October 1856] Donation to suffering freemen in Kansas 25 dollars

[28 October 1856] For Liberator & A. S. [Anti-Slavery] Standard, & Bal. to the cause of freedom 10 dolls.

Giles Corey, pressed to death

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Autumn is my favorite time of year; celebrating Halloween and all things gruesome, haunted, and scary. One of my favorite, and kind of gross, stories to tell people, especially in September on its anniversary, is the tale of Giles Corey, pressed to death during the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692.

In 1692, Giles Corey was a successful farmer in Salem Village, the current location of Danvers, Mass., when a group of girls and young women started accusing locals of bewitching them with specters, pinches, and disease. Disliked personalities and large properties played a large part in who was accused of witchcraft during the trials.  Giles was a criminal and was not well-liked. In 1676, he was tried for the death of Isaac Goodale, an indentured servant, whom he beat with a stick for stealing some apples. He was found guilty, but was only fined since corporal punishment towards indentured servants was legal. Many community members witnessed the beating and testified against him. Giles was also accused of stealing several times and had such a reputation that when John Proctor’s house burned down a few years previous, he assumed Giles had burned it! Giles’s wife, Martha, also had a mixed reputation. She was adulterous during her previous marriage but when she and Giles married, the community remarked a distinct change for the good in them both. However, their loud bickering was witnessed often.

Giles attended some of the first trials that took place in a tavern, and Martha was quickly accused of witchcraft. At first he testified against his wife, believing the accusations, but then changed his mind and tried to recant his words. Abigail Hobbs, another accused of witchcraft, named Giles Corey as a wizard close in time to when he testified against his wife. Martha denied the accusations but Giles would not plead guilty or not guilty. Giles Corey may not a have been a good person but he was smart. He knew that if he plead and let the trial happen, his estate would be taken away from his family after his execution. To save his children’s inheritance, he would not plead. According to the law at the time, those who did not plead could not be tried. To try to get the accused to plead, the legal remedy was “peine forte et dure,” translating to “strong and hard pain.” It became the name for the torture of pressing.

WARNING: below this image is graphic language explaining the mechanics of torture.

Handwritten diary entry
Samuel Sewall diary entry for 19 September, 1692. This image was first shared in another blog post; read it here.

In the MHS collection is the diary of Samuel Sewall, one of the judges of the Salem Witchcraft Trials.  Sewall kept a journal from 1673 until a few months before his death in 1730. His entry for 19 September 1692 reads:

“Monday; Sept-19th 1692. Abt noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was pressed to death for standing mute Much pains was used with him two days one after another by ye court & Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been his acquaintance: but all in vain. 20 Now I hear from Salem that abt 18 years agoe, he was suspected to have stamped and pressed a man to Death. But was cleared. twas not remembered till Ann Putnam was told of it by G Corey’s Specter ye Sabbath-Day night before ye Execution.”

After he would not plead, Giles was asked to strip naked and lay down, face up, on the ground. A wooden board was then placed on top of him, and on top of the board, one by one, Sheriff George Corwin placed large rocks. After two days of this torture, through which Giles had remained silent, never crying out, he was asked to plead. Giles did not want his property to be taken, so he never plead either way. On the third day 19 September 1692 he died from being pressed to death. His last words were “more weight.”

Giles plan did work, his estate passed to his two sons, however Sherriff Corwin successfully extorted money from Giles daughter who later pressed posthumous charges against the Sherriff for his crime. Sherriff Corwin died of a heart attack in 1696, and every Sherriff after him died or resigned of some kind of blood ailment until 1991 when the Sherriff’s office moved from Salem to Middleton, Mass. Some witnesses say that Giles Corey did not remain silent and had cursed the title of Sherriff: “Damn you, I curse you and Salem!” However, it is mostly agreed upon that “more weight” were his last words.

Giles Corey’s case is the only of its kind in New England, although other pressings happened in England. Martha was hung as a witch three days later. The gruesome and public torture of Giles Corey changed some of the minds of the community about supporting the witch trials.

Abolition in Massachusetts: A John Winthrop Student Fellowship Project

Every year, the MHS selects one or more high school students for our John Winthrop Student Fellowship. This award encourages high school students to make use of the nationally significant collections of the MHS in a research project of their choosing. Applications for the 2022 Student Fellowships will open in November 2021. Learn more and apply!

This year, our 2021 John Winthrop Student Fellow Laasya Chiduruppa of Lexington High School has been researching the history of slavery and abolition in Massachusetts with the support of her teacher mentor Michael Egbert. Laasya has created an educational blog with articles on her research into the history of significant court cases on the road to ending slavery. Visit Abolition in Massachusetts to learn more and follow along with Laasya’s research!


As an American aware of deep-rooted systemic racism and as someone interested in contributing to moving our nation towards social justice, I have a keen interest in educating myself and others on historic injustices. So, when I came upon the Massachusetts Historical Society, I was thrilled to read about the John Winthrop Student Fellowship, seeing the research opportunity as a venue to educate myself and others on the importance of representation of unheard voices and recognition of our country’s painful past. With the resources provided, I dove into research focused on the early court cases credited with abolishing slavery in Massachusetts, and I created an educational blog focusing on these historic milestones to equality.

During initial conversations with Kate Melchior, an MHS historian who guided me through this process, and Mr. Egbert, my history teacher, I highlighted how I was interested in anti-slavery movements in the local area, regardless of date, era, or the laws they were protesting. However, through my research and their guidance, I soon realized that I needed to focus my topic into a much more specific time period and theme, ending slavery in Massachusetts, in order to have the clearest narrative in the educational blog I wanted to create. It was through this guidance that I was able to narrow down my research to a series of court cases in the 1780s, legal action ultimately resulting in the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts.

Early on in my research journey, the collection of the notes from Judge William Cushing’s legal notebook, stood out to me. Cushing had presided over the series of cases known as the Quock Walker case, which had ultimately found that the existence of slavery contradicted with the Massachusetts Constitution, and therefore couldn’t be supported by Massachusetts state courts. Through the quickly written notes, I not only was able to find a clear narrative of testimony on both sides, especially during the criminal indictment of Quock Walker’s owner for battery, but was also able to see the beginnings of his thought process behind his ultimate decision and instruction to the jury.

In my research process, I struggled to narrow down my research into specific fields. Due to the plethora of documents and primary sources available in the MHS catalog, I often found myself diving into antislavery records written decades after the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, or identifying historical ads from the Civil War era. Through the use of key words and case studies, I was able to keep my research focused. In the writing process for my blog, I also initially had difficulties with finding the correct tone to highlight what I had found. Ultimately, after reading through historical entries in the Beehive Blog, the MHS’s historical blogging website, I was able to hone in on a format which used historical documents and a casual tone to develop a narrative.

If you plan on taking on this research opportunity in the future, don’t go into it with a strict cemented vision of what your end product, or even your research, will look like. Start the process by diving into materials which are related to your focus and importantly, are genuinely interesting or fascinating to you. As you move along further in the research process, these documents will guide you to the ultimate direction your final project will take on. As I was in the earlier stages of my research process, I started with the list of documents which I had highlighted in my application, as well as the list of resources provided by the MHS historians working alongside me. I used these accounts as starting off points, narrowing my focus to key figures like Mumbet, Quock Walker, and Anthony Burns. I then used these case studies to identify key words and further my research, ultimately allowing me to narrow my research down into a clear narrative.

Also, take full advantage of the resources, both in the archives and over email, available to you. The MHS historians are so thoughtful in their guidance, and their suggestions. Check-ins were imperative in molding the final direction my project took on.

From the blog that I have written, I hope to teach my peers and fellow members of my community that the journey to equality was a long and difficult one, and one that didn’t start and end with the Civil War. I hope to highlight underrepresented and disenfranchised voices and underline the physical and legal struggles these direct actors faced. Most importantly, however, I hope that the research and writing that I have done encourages others to diversify their knowledge of local history and the struggles on the road to freedom.

The Wedding of Marian Lawrence Peabody

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

I think it’s fair to say that even the most seemingly mundane items here at the MHS tell an interesting story if you look at them closely enough. By way of illustration, I’d like to tell you about the Marian Lawrence Peabody record of wedding presents. This volume, given to the MHS earlier this year, complements our substantial collection of Marian Lawrence Peabody papers, the bulk of which came from Marian herself in 1969 and 1970. Visit the guide to that collection to learn more about her life and family.

The volume is hilariously titled The Book of the Bride Elect Designed by a Spinster (N.Y.: Brentano’s, 1902). In it, Marian listed all the wedding gifts she received when she married Harold Peabody on 8 May 1906.

Text on title page of book
Title page of volume

Marian and her husband received a total of 375 wedding gifts, primarily things like dishes, silverware, candlesticks, tea sets, and vases, as well as furniture, rugs, clocks, jewelry, and books. The volume also contains a list of the over 100 presents the couple received, mostly flowers, when their engagement was announced.

Many of the wedding gifts were lavish. Endicott Peabody gave the couple a “run-about carriage” and another Mr. Peabody (possibly her father-in-law) gave them $1,000 cash, which online historical currency calculators tell me would be the equivalent of about $30,000 today. John S. Lawrence’s gift was a tiger-skin rug. Also included are several Tiffany and Wedgewood items. Some of the presents sound like they must have been beautiful, like the “Japanese drawing framed in teak,” the “tortoise-shell & silver paper cutter,” and a pearl and garnet pendant.

The list of donors is equally impressive, a veritable who’s who of the turn-of-the-century elite. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave the couple, quite aptly, a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. President Theodore and First Lady Edith Roosevelt sent a box of roses and carnations. Other donors included Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, the great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson; and Henry Francis du Pont of Winterthur, Delaware. Needless to say, Marian ran in very privileged circles.

Page from the Marian Lawrence Peabody record of wedding presents
Page containing the names of President and First Lady Roosevelt

The entry for each gift includes the name of the donor(s), their address, and where the item was purchased (if known), but also what happened to it afterwards. This last column was filled out, in some cases, many years later, and it’s here that we see what was regifted, exchanged, lost, worn out, broken, or sold.

A silver and glass fruit dish from Benjamin Vaughan and his wife is followed by the wistful note: “In 1934 gave to Katharine Lawrence King – regret it.” Many other items were unfortunately lost in a fire that ravaged Marian’s home at Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1947. These included two salt spoons and two salt cellars from Rev. Glenn Tilley Morse (“lost in fire & they were lovely”). Other gifts were distributed throughout Marian’s home at 302 Berkeley Street in Boston or safely ensconced at the State Street Trust building.

The works of Jane Austen were apparently a popular wedding gift that year. The Peabodys received three sets: one from Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, which they gave away; one from Roger Pierce, which they “changed for Victor Hugo”; and one from “Harold’s old nurse,” which they kept.

Particularly intriguing was one gift, a pair of binoculars given to the Peabodys by Robert Winsor, Jr. A unique wedding gift, to be sure, but so was the note that followed it: “Rented to the Navy thru’ the war for $1.00 / Then gave to Tony Parker my godson who let them fall overboard.”

I was curious what Marian wrote in her diaries during this time, so I consulted her papers. Her diary entry for 24 January 1906 refers to The Book of the Bride Elect, the very volume in my hands, which Marian called “the most useful present from Sally.” The entry describing her wedding goes on for an enthusiastic seven pages. She mentioned one gift in particular: “A large box of flowers arrived in the midst of all the excitement with ‘White House’ written all over it, & inside Pres. & Mrs Roosevelts cards & good wishes.”

Sixty years later, Marian published an autobiography called To Be Young Was Very Heaven (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), which consists primarily of her diary entries up to her wedding day. But there are significant discrepancies between the original and printed versions. For example, about the Roosevelts’ present, she incorrectly quoted her own diary this way: “Also a box came from the White House—but it was roses and we certainly had enough of those. Presidents should send something solid so it can be kept as a memento.”

Marian was in her 90s when her autobiography was published, and she engaged in some self-reflection, stepping back to comment on her former self with the wisdom of many decades. On her wedding day, the young woman may have gushed, but the older woman editorialized, “I did not half appreciate all that was done for me. I had been spoilt and still wanted everything the way I wanted it.”

Everything didn’t turn out the way she wanted it, however. Her marriage proved to be an unhappy one, and the couple lived apart for many years. Marian died in Milton in 1974 at the age of 98.

Sympathy for the Devil: John Quincy Adams’s Brush with Aaron Burr

By Gwen Fries, Adams Papers

It was an open secret that the Adamses were no fans of Alexander Hamilton. Senator John Quincy Adams couldn’t even be prevailed upon to wear crape, join in a funeral procession, or “join in any outward demonstration of regret” after Hamilton’s untimely death. When chastised by his wife, JQA responded that he “had no respect” for the fallen statesman.

Nor did he much respect the man who had stood opposite Hamilton in the early hours of 11 July 1804, and his respect for Burr only plummeted further when Burr dared to return to his station as President of the Senate. Adams admitted he had kept Burr “at arms length the whole Session of Congress,” feeling it “a cruel degradation to the Body itself, to have for a President at such a time, and on such an occasion, a Man under a legal accusation of Murder.” Adams “could not forgive him for taking the Seat.”

Detail of letter from John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams
 John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 1 April 1805 (Adams Papers)

When the second session of the Eighth Congress came to a close on 3 March 1805, Burr gave a farewell address—“the last act of his political life,” as Adams thought—and John Quincy left the Senate Chamber for home, convinced he had seen the last of Burr.

On 19 March, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine boarded a ship in Baltimore, sweating in the unseasonably warm weather, two sick and fitful toddlers in their arms, ready to get the trip over with and reach their next destination of Philadelphia. (When they later arrived in Philadelphia, the Adamses’ old friend Dr. Benjamin Rush diagnosed the boys with chicken pox and whooping cough.) An overwhelmed Louisa Catherine recorded in her diary that “the Children were both quite unwell and of course very troublesome It was the first time that I had the entire charge of them.”

One can imagine the sinking of already low spirits when the Adamses got on board and were greeted by Aaron Burr. Having been much affected by Hamilton’s demise, Louisa confided to her diary that she “felt a sort of loathing for this Col Burr.”

Within a few hours, Louisa—and everyone else on board—had fallen under his spell. “He appeared to fascinate every one in the Boat down to the lowest Sailor and knew every bodies history by the time we left— He was politely attentive to me . . . At Table he assisted me to help the Children with so much ease and good nature that I was perfectly confounded.”

Detail of letter from John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams
John Quincy Adams to Thomas Boylston Adams, 1 April 1805 (Adams Papers)

When relaying the event to his brother, John Quincy wrote, “Whether the original seducer of mankind, has embodied himself in the person of the little ex-vice, I am not competent to pronounce— This I will say; that I defy Man, Woman or Child, so to withstand the powers of his fascination, as to part from him after such a transitory association, without feelings of good-will towards him.”

After a particularly rough passage—so rough, in fact, that at one point Louisa rolled out of her high berth and onto the floor—the Pennsylvania soil was a sweet sight to the passengers. Taking pity on the sleep-deprived parents of fussy young children, Burr swooped in, taking little John Adams II in one arm, taking Louisa’s luggage in the other hand, and offering her his arm to disembark. John Quincy followed behind them, George Washington Adams in his arms, his jaw on the gangplank.

“It was all done with so little parade and with such entire good breeding that it made you forget that he was doing any thing out of the way,” Louisa recalled. “He talked and laughed all the way and we were quite intimate by the time we got to Philadelphia where he called to see us, and this the first and last occasion on which I ever saw this celebrated man.”

After two weeks’ rumination, John Quincy summed up the experience by writing, “I had not strength of mind enough to retain in their full inflexibility the resentments even of Virtue— I felt a degree of compassion for the Man, which was almost ready to turn to Respect— He was more than barely civil to me and my family— I could not help feeling for him in return more kindness, than I was willing to acknowledge to myself—infinitely more than I suffered myself to shew him; and perhaps more than is justly consistent with that character which on a cool and distant estimate I cannot help believing to be his.”

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, the Packard Humanities Institute, and the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund. All Adams Papers volumes are published by Harvard University Press.

“Who thought then of civil war?”: Antebellum Activism, War, and Memory

By Evan Turiano, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, MHS African American Studies Research Fellow

The activists and politicians who made up the Boston Vigilance Committee—an interracial organization committed to securing protection and legal aid for fugitives from slavery—appeared confident in their work. After a man named Joe, who escaped slavery by stowing aboard a ship from New Orleans, was discovered in South Boston and forcibly returned to slavery, Henry Ingersoll Bowditch welcomed movement leaders including Samuel Gridley Howe, John A. Andrew, and Elizur Wright to his home for a discussion of how to mobilize the public outcry over Joe’s re-enslavement most effectively.[1]

Photograph of Henry Ingersoll Bowditch
Henry Ingersoll Bowditch. From: Massachusetts Historical Society, Portraits of American Abolitionists, Photo 81.63

They called a public meeting at Faneuil Hall, over which the infirmed former president John Quincy Adams presided, and from that meeting mobilized Boston’s Black and white abolitionist leaders to provide legal aid to accused fugitives from slavery and to petition the Massachusetts legislature for stronger protections against rendition and kidnapping. It was, according to historian Manisha Sinha, an example of how “fugitive slaves fostered abolitionist organization.”[2] Boston would play host to many of the most dramatic, high-profile battles over fugitive slave rendition in the 1850s, events that radicalized the northern public and painted a picture of abolitionist hostility for southern slaveholders. From a twenty-first century perspective, it is easy to imagine this Boston abolitionist vanguard as ready for anything the struggle could bring, war included.

When Henry Ingersoll Bowditch revisited his records of the Faneuil Hall meeting and the movement it precipitated forty years later, in 1886 at the age of 77, he viewed those fights of his (relative) youth differently. In the margins, below the meeting minutes, he scribbled a note: “Who thought then of civil war? We were no prophets & could not see the doleful extremities to which we were tending.”[3] In the fall of 1846, for context, David Wilmot had just introduced his antislavery proviso for new lands claimed in the ongoing war with Mexico to be free of slavery, a proposal that would demonstrate the feebleness of the second party system in face of sectional discord.

1886 margin note
1886 margin note in Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records. From: Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

Looking back, Bowditch knew the landscape of the struggle over the status of accused fugitive slaves and the future of American slavery, had a long way to go in the next 14 years. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law would change things dramatically. While the fugitive slave crisis of the 1850s may have rendered war evident to some, it clearly was not so for those activists in 1846.

And yet, in the face of all that unfolded in the two decades following the formation of the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League, Bowditch did not express regret. Instead, he was glad that their resistance unfolded without any clarity about impending war. “It is well we were not able to foresee this,” he wrote, “for if the people had clearly seen the consequences of opposition to slavery, I fear that they would have shrunk from view.” Southerners, the author knew, would not have shrunk—“The South would have had its way, with liberty crushed and slavery rampant.”[4]

This last clause of the 1886 marginalia is telling. Even when Bowditch feared that knowledge of war would have softened northern resolve and led the antislavery masses toward acquiescence, he knew what most northerners knew before the war: that the proslavery elements that guided southern politics would not flinch at the threat of war. The North had balked first in 1820, again in 1850, and, as Kenneth Stampp showed some seventy years ago, were by and large unwilling to fold again.[5]

So yes, as Bowditch looked back on a nation turned upside down by a war that had cost hundreds of thousands of lives, those years of struggle on behalf of freedom seekers must have looked naïve and short-sighted. Recollection of the past is often inflected with the profound knowledge of one’s prior ignorance. But Bowditch and his colleagues were, in many ways, more steeled for war than he knew in 1846 or in 1886. Decades of struggle had prepared them well.

[1] Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History pf Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016) 391-393.

[2] Sinha, The Slave’s Cause, 393.

[3] Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

[4] Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League Records, Box 1, Folder 9, Vol. 9, Vigilance Committee, 1846-1847, Massachusetts Historical Society, p.7

[5] Kenneth M. Stampp, And the War Came: The North and the Secession Crisis, 1860-1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1950)

Small Children Love Clowns

By Viv Williams, Processing Assistant and Library Assistant

In preparation for spooky season, I decided to pick up Stephen King’s infamous It. This 1100 page tome (45 hours in audiobook format, in case you were curious) and its 1990s television miniseries adaptation are largely credited in the U.S. for sparking many people’s fear of clowns or coulrophobia.

[There be spoilers ahead.]

In the novel, Pennywise the dancing clown is the most common and recognizable appearance of It–story’s star monster. Pennywise is described as, “wearing a baggy silk suit with great big orange buttons. A bright tie, electric-blue, flopped down his front, and on his hands were big white gloves, like the kind Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck always wore.” He has a white face and a bald head, with tufts of orange hair on either side of his head and a large red clown smile. King actually compares Pennywise to Ronald McDonald within the text of the book.

It claims to favor the form of Pennywise because “small children love clowns.” Having grown up in the post-It world, this baffles me. I don’t actually know what it’s like to NOT find the characteristics of a typical clown innately menacing, Ronald McDonald comparison or no.

The protagonists of the novel find several old photos of It appearing as different versions of Pennywise. The earliest photo, dated vaguely as the early 1700s, pictures a bare-bones street-performing Pennywise with juggling pins and the distinguishable bald head with tufts of hair to either side. It lacks the white face makeup, though the narrator mentions It’s face still looks painted on. It is not until 1850 that the Pennywise persona takes on the full effects of the previous quintessential Ronald McDonald-like clown description. This sent me down a curious rabbit-hole regarding the history and representations of clowns.

Precursors to the clown can be found as early as early back as Ancient Greece under names like Buffoon, Jester, or –most highly esteemed– the Harlequin. They get their start in early theatre, cast as the comic relief or butt of the joke. However, with the rise of the Harlequin in the 16th century, this poor, overly abused character gets retribution and takes on the role of the trickster in later theatrical writings.

The original Grecian buffoon was often recognized by his bald head and padded clothing. Medieval minstrels and court jesters would be distinguished by the “fool’s hat”: a hat with three points that end with jingling bells. The trickster Harlequin of the 16th century would don a thin black mask (much like Zorro’s or Robin’s masks) and often a bat– for mischief, of course. However, from what I can tell, as far back as the 17th century the most common characteristics of the clown included the bald head, white face makeup, oversized shoes, hats, and that classic ruff that even Pennywise eventually sports. So, not much has changed since then.

Encyclopedia Britannica credits Joseph Grimaldi for being the first “true” circus clown appearing in 1805– in England at that. The first mention of circus clowns in the U.S. I’ve been able to track down dates from the 1860s.

As for the MHS collections, most of our clown-esque depictions exist in the form of political cartoons. If you’ve been following any of our exhibition content for the past year or so, this news will find you humorously unshocked and unmoved.

Cartoon image of Abraham Lincoln as a jester
Jester Lincoln and his puppets, John Volck, 1860s

This 1860s John Volck cartoon titled [Jester Lincoln and his puppets] depicts Abraham Lincoln as a jester taking part in a puppet show. Note the aforementioned fool’s hat. The staff or “bauble” as it would have been called was also a common effect of the jester.

Image of a cartoon depicting a large man dressed as a jester sitting on a throne, stirring a cauldron with numerous negative qualities listed on paper. The background of the image depicts words such as demagogism and scandal.
Benjamin F. Butler cartoon by Charles Bush,  1883

Additionally, this slightly more disturbing 1883 Charles Bush cartoon depicts Benjamin F. Butler as a jester sitting on a throne, stirring a cauldron of numerous negative qualities. This jester was robbed of a few hat points, but has no shortage of jingling bells–I’m sure there’s some significance there, but I’m here to talk about clowns, so I’ll leave that bit to you– and what he lacks in pointy hat, he makes up for in frilly ruff! He seems to be up to mischief so perhaps he is in metamorphosis on his way to Harlequin-hood.

While the MHS collection may not be spilling over with scrapbooks of clown photography, we do have quite the array of traveling circus broadsides from the late 1800s featuring famous names like P.T. Barnum and the Ringling Bros. Unfortunately, only the more recent publications include actual clown illustrations. Here are a few snippets from a delightful 1919 newspaper advertising a combined show between the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey.

Two newspaper clippings with advertisements for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey combined shows.
1919 newspaper advertisements for a Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey combined show

You will immediately notice the similarities between these depictions and Pennywise. The Ringling circus clowns wear masks that mimic the white face makeup and wide red smile. Their silk suits are complete with large red buttons and thick neck ruff, and considering this color image is from the front page of a four page newspaper advertisement spread, we are clearly meant to perceive the figure as inviting and exciting. The black and white photo depicts clowns waving in a crowd of other circus performers– a clear indication that in 1919 these characteristics hold no menacing connotations to a general public.

Today, clown horror is so prevalent that it has arguably become its own subgenre throughout multiple artistic mediums. How do you feel about clowns? Do you want a balloon?

If you are interested in seeing more clown or circus related collections, check out our online catalog, ABIGAIL!