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!

“A sad hart sore feet and poor courage”: The Experiences of an Itinerant Working Man

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

The MHS holds the papers of some of the most preeminent people in Massachusetts and U.S. history, including presidents, governors, senators, ambassadors, business leaders, you name it. What about the less privileged and well-connected? They tend to leave a smaller documentary footprint, but their papers can also be found in our stacks. One of my favorites is the 1878 diary of an anonymous itinerant laborer.

anonymous diary
Anonymous laborer’s diary, 1878

The small leather-bound volume is well-preserved and the writing very neat, with no deletions or insertions, so it may be a manuscript copy, rather than the original. The name Charles A. Clifford of Lowell, Mass. is inscribed inside the front cover, and his handwriting matches the writing inside. Clifford’s calling card, printed with an address in Lawrence, is also enclosed. I located an attorney in Lowell and Lawrence by that name, but he wasn’t born until 1883. If my identification is correct, this volume is an early 20th-century copy made by Clifford, but I can’t be definitive.

Whoever the author, the content is fascinating. The diary begins:

Saturday Sept 7th 1878 Finished working for the Boot Corp. Am not feeling veary well and am thinking of goin West. Tuesday the 10th went down to Ballards Vale. to see Edward Jones. and see if he would not like to go with me. he makes up his mind to go.

The “Boot Corp.” was the Boott Cotton Mills in Lowell. Our diarist left Lowell with Edward Jones and from there headed west and south in search of work, never staying very long in one place. I did my best to map his route, which included legs by train, steamboat, and on foot. He went to Ballardvale, Mass.; Boston; Fall River, Mass.; New York; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Indianapolis; St. Louis; Pacific, Mo.; Chamois, Mo.; St. Louis again; Carbondale, Ill.; Cairo, Ill.; Hazlehurst, Miss.; New Orleans; and Cincinnati.

map of first half of journey
First half of his journey
Map showing second half of journey
Second half of his journey

He began his trip with $35 in his pocket, the remainder of his pay from the Boott Mills, and he carefully documented all his wages and expenses. Two undershirts: 50 cents. Two pairs of drawers: 50 cents. Use of the Union Depot washroom in St. Louis: 10 cents. Bribing a train brakeman for a ride: 50 cents.

All these specific details combine to create a vivid picture of his experiences. For example, outside St. Louis, he described roads so muddy that he collected 3 to 4 pounds of mud on his shoes as he walked, “and one also slips back every step of 3 feet about 18 inches makeing progress very slow and tiresone.”

Of course, he had to be careful with his belongings. One day, he and Jones dropped their blankets into a wet ditch. Soon after that, when boarding a train, Jones nearly lost another precious possession, his revolver. I’ll quote this passage in full to give you a sense of how the diary is written.

Ed droped the revolver juest as the train was starting and we both had to jump of to finde it. which cheated us out of 11 Miles we had paid for. and which took us till noon to walk. this was the day that Ed was bit by the Bloodhound. we tried very hard to get work at Chemois cuting corn. but did not succead and as we could get nothing to do or eat. we thought we might as well set our faces toward the riseing Sun Again so we do so at 3 P.M. but we do it with A sad hart sore feet and poor Courage. we walk about 3 or 4 Miles which seams like 10 to us and then cross the Misouri which cost us 10 Cts

Our writer had apparently lived this nomadic life for some time. He’d once worked at the West End Hotel in Philadelphia. He was obviously resourceful, but he also got help on more than one occasion from a “kind harted and whole soled” stranger who cut him a break or referred him for a job.

In the diary, he described what sounds like a nearly idyllic three months (at least by comparison) working on the farm of a Mr. Samuel Reed in Carbondale, Ill. He made 13 dollars a month for a variety of chores, including planting—“I dug the first sweet potatoes I ever saw growing”—milking cows, and tending horses. He had a room of his own “which was carpeted and had A good Soft Bed,” and his washing and mending was done for him.

But that job ended, and after he restocked with supplies in preparation for another stretch of unemployment, he was left with 20 cents to his name. His life remained precarious. And having parted with Jones when he took the job at Reed’s farm, he was also lonely.

As it was Christmas Eve. I thought of home. and where I was One Year Ago. […] not A friend on earth that had any Ida where I am. with no money or work and the City full of tramps and men in search of work. what am I to do. Well God knows and time will tell.

But he proved his resourcefulness again when he heard about work in Cincinnati. With no money for the steamship, he secured a spot by leaving his watch and chain on deposit with a clerk, to be redeemed when he received his pay. The descriptions of his hunger and desperation during this part of the journey are some of the most moving passages in the diary.

I thought I could and would wait 1 or 2 days before telling them I was hungry as I was affraid they would not take me any way if they thought they had got to feed me. on the way. […] my guts felt as though they wer all stuck to geather with muserlage. and the Potatoes meat & Grits I receaved that night with coffee with out milk or sugar […] was one of the best if not the best meal I ever Eat. […] hear and now is what I call hard times & rufing of it

He and the other workers slept on deck, leaning against bales of cotton and frequently waking up from the cold.

by the by I find A man can sleep any where after he gets used to it. the sweetest sleep I ever had I had on this boat. & the plesantest dreams I have woke out of dreams that wer like half-hours. spent in heaven. to finde my body so cold that I could scercely walk to the deck stove. to warm me. […] one can not realize it till they experance it.

The diary ends abruptly on this Mississippi River steamboat somewhere north of Memphis. I doubt we’ll ever know any more about the man whose experiences are recorded in this diary, but whoever he was, he has left us a valuable historical record.

Finding Benjamin Franklin in the archives & collections of the MHS

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

I grew up in Franklin, MA so I always knew the true legend about how in 1778, the town changed the name from Exeter to Franklin, in honor of Benjamin Franklin, in the hopes that he would donate a bell for the church. He never donated money, but sent books instead, which the town debated how to use. In the end, they formed a library where every member of the town could read equally. This started the first public library in the United States. Those books still reside in the Franklin Public Library today. And I know that Benjamin Franklin spent time in Boston during his youth, but I had no idea how often his name would come up while searching the online collections of the MHS. I’d like to share with you a selection of my favorite items and stories I have come across about Benjamin Franklin.

Black and white image of Benjamin Franklin
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706 and lived there until 1723 when he ran away from his apprenticeship with his brother, James, who was a printer, to Philadelphia. He only had two years of formal schooling, attending what is now Boston Latin; however he was a voracious reader and even became a vegetarian to spend less money on food and more on books! While he was apprenticed with his brother, James started The New England Courant, the third newspaper created in Boston, which featured literature, opinions, and humor. Franklin knew his brother would not take him seriously if he offered to write something for The New England Courant and so wrote under a pseudonym, “Silence Dogood,” a woman who had opinions. He slipped the first story under the door of the print shop and it was printed in the paper. In all, 13 essays from Silence Dogood were printed in The New England Courant ranging in topic from a dramatic story of her birth, to her opinion on the vice of drunkenness.

After landing in Philadelphia, Franklin relied on his skills in printing throughout his life. After travelling to London, England and being stranded without funds, he was hired there for his printing skills. He earned a loan to return to Philadelphia, worked off his loan, and began to have great success in his own printing endeavors. He created the first franchise in America by opening a print shop with a partner in another colony; became the official government printer of Pennsylvania, purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette; published the first Poor Richard’s Almanack, an instant bestseller; was appointed clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly; organized the Union Fire Company of Philadelphia which endorsed fire safety in the city; was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia; and became the official printer for New Jersey. During that time, he purchased brass matrices in France, which the MHS now holds! He used these in his print shop and later passed them down to his grandson.

30 brass type casting matrices
Benjamin Franklin’s brass matrices for casting type, made in France, circa 1740.

During his successful print shop endeavors and after, Franklin entertained his interest in electricity and began conducting experiments. The most famous experiment is the one in which he placed a key on the string of kite and flew it during a thunderstorm. When the kite was struck with lightening, it demonstrated the connection between electricity and lightening. However, a story I “discovered” in the MHS collections is in a letter from Franklin to his brother, John, in Boston. As part of his electrical experiments, Franklin was attempting to electrocute a turkey. The experiment went awry and he electrocuted himself instead! In the 25 December 1750 letter he writes:

“I have lately made an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat. Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro’ my own Arms and Body.”

The best part of this story, for me, is that he asks that John tell only one mutual friend who is also interested in electricity, as a warning. “You may Communicate this to Mr. Bowdoin As A Caution to him, but do not make it more Publick, for I am Ashamed to have been Guilty of so Notorious a Blunder.” But letters at the time would be passed around to friends and family and read aloud as a leisure time activity. I wonder if John did keep it to himself, or like me, would have run to his social media of the time, evening letter reading?

It is during and after this time that Franklin retired from printing and became more involved with politics. When he was as young as 15 years old he divided his leisure time between reading and occupying coffee houses. Coffee houses at the time were more like taverns. You could get a meal and a low alcohol beverage, such as cider or small beer, as well as tea or coffee, and men would congregate there to talk about the news of the day and relax. He liked to chat and because of his humble workman upbringing, he was very comfortable chatting with the lower classes. Due to his intelligence and well-read nature, was equally as comfortable chatting with the upper classes and eventually, the nobility and crowned heads of Europe. Through this practice, Franklin became well-connected in Philadelphia and regarded for his intellect. In 1753, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He had been a clerk since 1736 and was tired of listening to debates he could not join. In 1764, he lost his seat after petitioning for a Royal Governor for Pennsylvania, something most people in the colony did not desire. That year he was elected as a colonial agent to England and lived there for over a decade, eventually becoming a representative of Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. During his time in England, Franklin gained an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and was there after called Dr. Franklin. After five years in England, Franklin came back to the colonies. Travelling through Boston, on 11 October 1763 he wrote a letter to James Bowdoin, the same friend to whom he cautioned about electricity in his letter to John. In this letter, he gives a recipe for a drink that seems vile to me, milk punch. It is a drink that crosses milk, a base, with lemon juice, an acid, therefore curdling the milk on purpose. The curdled milk is eaten with a spoon and the rest is drunk as is, or drunk from a special spouted cup to drink the liquid first, and eat the curds later. Through the years, MHS staff members have attempted to make Franklin’s milk punch recipe. Read about one such account here.

Handwritten recipe for milk punch
Benjamin Franklin’s milk punch recipe.

After he returned from England in 1775, Franklin was committed to the cause of Independence. He was elected as a Pennsylvania delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Postmaster General of the Colonies, and in 1776 was appointed as part of the committee of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence. He was then appointed to the French court as one of the commissioners of the Continental Congress and spent the next nine years in France creating an alliance with the King of France and signing the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War. In the next five years he invented bifocal glasses, returned to the US, was elected President of the Pennsylvania Executive Council, signed the US Constitution, and submitted the first antislavery petition before the US Congress.

In a 12 May 1784 letter to Samuel Mather, son of Cotton Mather, Franklin describes his birthplace of Boston with nostalgia, knowing he would never visit again:

“I long much to See again my native Place, and once hoped to lay my Bones there. I left it in 1723; I visited it in 1733, 1743, 1753, & 1763. In 1773 I was in England; in 1775 I had a Sight of it, but could not enter, it being in Possession of the Enemy. I did hope to have been there in 1783, but could not obtain my Dismission from this Employment here. And now I fear I shall never have that Happiness. My best Wishes however attend my dear Country, Esto perpetua. It is now blest with an excellent Constitution. May it last forever.”

His fear became reality as he died in 1790 of a life-long ailment of pleurisy. He is buried in Philadelphia.

National History Day in Massachusetts Receives State Funding

By Kate Melchior, Assistant Director of Education

Gov. Charlie Baker approved the FY22 Massachusetts state budget recently. We are thrilled to share the news that $25K is included in the budget to support National History Day in Massachusetts (NHD)!

This is really wonderful news, especially as we employ new ways to strengthen the NHD program this fall. External funding for NHD makes it possible to:

  • Reduce or eliminate registration fees for students
  • Offer high-quality professional development and curricular support for teachers
  • Make inroads in our ultimate goal of making NHD accessible to all grades 6-12 students across the Commonwealth


This spring we held the first Virtual Advocacy Day for NHD in Massachusetts and it really made an impact. So many of you called, e-mailed, and Tweeted about the importance of NHD to you and to the students and teachers in your district. And your legislators listened. Please consider writing to your legislators to thank them, especially if you received a response to your advocacy back in April.

We are so grateful to the MHS community for your continued support of this important program. We are excited to celebrate NHD 2022 and this year’s theme of “Diplomacy and Debate in History” with all of you!

Jennison v. Caldwell – Abolition and the Role of Courts in Eighteenth Century Massachusetts

By Matthew Ahern, Library Assistant

Jennison v. Caldwell (1783) is one of the most significant court cases in Massachusetts’s history, and a landmark moment in the early abolitionist movement of the fledgling United States. It was the result of six related legal actions that started as an assault & battery case, and ended in a verdict that would prove to be the beginning of the end for slavery in the Bay State. Given our current day understanding of how the judicial system works, we might expect that in the aftermath of this case the practice slavery in Massachusetts would cease immediately. Instead, what occurred was a gradual process of abolition over a little less than a decade, with subsequent freedom suits using Jennison v. Caldwell to argue for emancipation. Why did it happen this way? One answer lies within role of the courts in late eighteenth century America.

First some of the facts: At the center of this case was man named Quock Walker, who had been enslaved at one point by Nathaniel Jennison. Walker had been promised his freedom at a certain age and when that promise was broken, he escaped and found work on John and Seth Caldwell’s nearby farm. Upon learning of Walker’s location, Jennison (along with some friends) severely beat Walker and brought him back to the Jennison farm. Walker managed to alert a justice of the peace however and Jennison was charged with assault & battery. Neither party argued the facts of the attack, and the issue before the court was whether Jennison was within in his rights to do so as Walker’s master. Walker would argue (successfully) that this was an assault & battery, because he was attacked while a free man.

Page from Cushing's legal notebook
Cushing’s discussion of the “Free & Equal” clause as it relates to slavery.

A series of litigation spanning two years would follow, with Jennison’s counsel attempting to legally justify enslavement using Mosaic law, and Walker’s lawyers effectively arguing the untenability of enslavement within the scope of the new state constitution. When this legal battle reached the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Chief Justice William Cushing appeared to be convinced by Walker’s arguments. Within his legal notebook, the Chief Justice acknowledged the “Free & Equal” clause of the Massachusetts Constitution, and further writes that, “This being ye Case I think ye Idea of Slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct & Constitution.”

Cushing would conclude by finding Jennison guilty, and Walker’s freedom was ensured. Given that Cushing appeared to base his decision off of the language in the new state constitution, and also that this opinion was coming from the highest court in the land, it only follows that the rest of the state would follow suit and abolish slavery. While eventually this would happen, it was by no means immediate, which may seem foreign to us today given a 21st century understanding of the judiciary’s role.

Page from Cushing's legal notebook
Cushing’s note of Jennison’s guilty verdict

In recent years, courts, in particular the Supreme Court, have developed the ability to determine what the law is and what it isn’t with increasing authority over their co-branches of government. Judicial review is a powerful tool used by the Court today, and social rights such as abortion and same-sex marriage have been given protections because of it. However, in the legal world of 1783, a judicial opinion would only get you so far. Without legislative and executive support, Cushing’s opinion could serve as persuasive precedent, but it was not the law of the land. This is exactly what would happen, with the Massachusetts General Court remaining silent on the matter, and Governor Hancock himself being unclear regarding the legal status of slavery the same year Jennison v. Caldwell was decided.

Today, Constitutional scholars would say we live in a far more court centric world than ever before, and this is apparent in many ways. It’s the reason the nomination of Supreme Court Justices have become so important (and divisive), or why the Court was able to intervene in Bush v. Gore the way they did. Today the debate centers largely over whether the Supreme Court is the ultimate or exclusive interpreter of the Constitution, but in 1783, Cushing’s Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts was just one of many voices interpreting the new state constitution.

In the end, it seems that even in the face of legislative and executive indecision about abolition, subsequent freedom suits along with growing grassroots support effectively ended the practice of enslavement by 1790. So, while Walker’s freedom suit is not only a critical moment for the abolitionist movement of this country, it also provides some valuable insight into the role of courts during the early days of the republic.

Cushing, John D. “The Cushing Court and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts: More Notes on the “Quock Walker Case”.” The American Journal of Legal History 5, no. 2 (1961): 118-44

Cushing, William. Legal Notes. Massachusetts Historical Society. MHS Collections Online: Legal notes by William Cushing about the Quock Walker case, [1783] (

Murphy, Walter F. American Constitutional Interpretation. Foundation Press. 6th Edition., 2019.



Hans Christian Andersen in the Charles Town Jail

By LJ Woolcock, Library Assistant

You can never be sure exactly what you’re going to find when you head into the archives. While working with a researcher over the past few weeks, I was looking through papers related to a story I thought I would know: John Brown and Harper’s Ferry. Looking for correspondence related to the raid’s aftermath, I pulled the Stevens family papers, which includes the correspondence of a member of Brown’s raiding party, Aaron D. Stevens.

It caught me totally by surprised when I discovered a handwritten copy of a story by Hans Christian Anderson – the Danish author of classic fairy tales including “The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – amongst the many letters from Stevens’ lawyer, friends, family, and strangers writing their support and well-wishes.

Rebecca Spring letter to Aaron Stevens

Letter from Rebecca Spring to Aaron Stevens, [Dec 1859], Stevens Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Full text transcription at the end of the post.

The story was sent to Stevens by Rebecca Spring at some point in December 1859. Spring was an abolitionist and educational reformer, who was one of the co-founders of the Fall River Anti-Slavery society in 1836, but by the 1850s was living in a utopian community she co-founded at Eaglewood near Perth Amboy, New Jersey. When John Brown & the raiding party were captured and imprisoned, she travelled to Charles Town intending to help care for Brown, and was allowed to meet with him twice. She kept an ongoing correspondence with Aaron Stevens after Brown’s execution, which is recorded in the Stevens Family Papers.

Spring sent the letter as one of her many care packages to Stevens: “This was written in Copenhagen by our beloved friend Hans Christian Andersen, and sent to me. It has never been published. I hope it will bring some light into your prison—” The story is written in Spring’s hand, indicating that she copied it out to send to Stevens.

In a subsequent letter dated to 6 January 1860, Spring also describes socializing with Andersen and his circle in Copenhagen:

“We were delighted with our visit … One evening a little company of friends were spending an evening with us at our hotel, Hans C. Andersen was talking to me in broken English, some times he would jump up and try to catch some word in the air, when he could not remember it, the Icelander took up a glass of wine and said, ‘Andersen, I drink to your English.’”

The story itself—no offense Hans—has none of the charms of his fairy tales. It’s along the lines of moralizing fiction common to the 19th century. A young Danish trader, upon going to sleep with a Bible under his pillow, is visited by an angel, who grants him a vision of his grandmother and his home back in Denmark.

It also clearly draws upon a deep-rooted tradition of colonialism and xenophobia towards the Indigenous peoples of the Far North. The Danes in Andersen’s story take their journey to, “try how far men could force their way,” echoing centuries-old violent colonial rhetoric. The supposed “wilderness” of the North is juxtaposed with the verdant clime of the main character’s home in Denmark. Meanwhile the Indigenous traders that the Danes meet are unnamed, and clearly painted as primitive:

…whole swarms of natives came, strange to look at, in their dresses of hairy fur. On their sledges which were made of lumps of ice, they brought far in great quantities, of there [sic] furs they made warm carpets for the snow houses, warm covering, and beds…”

We often think of the fairy tales and stories of Andersen as sprouting from untouched folk traditions, and carrying some essential ancient quality. Yet both Andersen’s work and the other famous 19th-century anthology of fairy tales—the Märchen of the Brothers Grimm—were both literary products of their time, shaped by their authors’ desires and values. The Grimm Brothers claimed that they were merely the transcribers of the folk & fairy stories they were told, but historian Ruth Bottigheimer has shown that this is more based on the Grimms’ own rhetoric & romanticism than fact.[1]  Andersen’s  incorporated stories that were entirely his own creations with others from his childhood that he re-worked, and others with some historical basis, such as the “Emperor’s New Clothes,” based on a story in the medieval Spanish Tales of Count Lucanor, by Infante don Juan Manuel. [2]

Encountering Aaron Stevens reading Hans Christian Andersen in the Charles Town jail in 1859—only months before his execution—conjures an unmistakably historical moment where the entangled narratives of slavery and colonialism in America and Europe came together in an unexpected way.


“In the uttermost parts of the Sea”

Some big ships were sent up to the North pole, to find the borders of the lands towards the sea, and to try how far men could force their way.

Already for years and days they had steered through mist and ice and suffered great hardships; now the winter set in again, the sun was always down, for many, many weeks it would be a long night here. Every thing far and near was one solid piece of ice, to this the ships were moored. The snow was very deep, and of the snow houses were made, looking like beehives, some very large, others only large enough to contain two or four men. It was not dark, for the northern lights were shining red and blue, like one eternal grand piece of fireworks – the snow gave light too, and the night was one blazing twilight.

When this long night was brightest, whole swarms of natives came, strange to look at, in their dresses of hairy fur. On their sledges which were made of lumps of ice, they brought far in great quantities, of there [sic] furs they made warm carpets for the snow houses, warm covering, and beds for the sailors, and thus they were warm under their domes of snow, while outside it was freezing in a way we don’t know of in our coldest winter time.

Here, in our Denmark, it was still autumn, the sailors thought on it in their snow huts far away; they remembered the rays of the sun at home, and the red and brown leaves hanging on the trees.

The watch told it was evening, and time to sleep, and in one of the small snow houses, two had already laid themselves down to rest; the youngest had with him his best, richest treasure from home, which Grandmother gave unto him before he left home, it was the Bible. Every night it lay under his pillow, he knew from his childhood what was in it, and laying on his couch, there came often to his thoughts the consoling, and holy words, “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me!” Under these words of faith, and truth, he shut his eyes, the sleep came, and the dreams came.

God spoke to him in his dream, and his soul was awake while his body reposed. In his soul he heard melodies of old, dear, well known songs, all about him seemed mild and warm as summer, and from his couch he saw a shining light – over his head, as if the dome of snow was illuminated. He raised his head, the radient white was neither wall nor ceiling, but from the great white wings of an angel, and from his mild shining face. From the leaves of the Bible as from the chalice of a lily the angel raised himself, extended his arms and the walls of the snow but disappeared as a light mist veil. Home, with the green fields, and hills covered with woods [deletion] brown and yellow, law in quiet sunshine, a beautiful day in autumn, the stork’s nest was empty, but still the apples hung on the wild apple trees, though the leaves were fallen; the red eglantine shone, and the starling whisteled in the little green cage over the cottage window, of his own dear home. The starling whisteled, as he had taught it, and the Grandmother hung chickweed round the cage as the grandson always had done, and the Smith’s [deletion] daughter so young and so pretty, stood drawing water at the well, nodding to Grandmother, and Grandmother beckoned to her, showing a letter from far off, this morning it had come from the cold lands, yes, from the North pole, where the Grandson was – in God’s hand –

How they laughed and they cried – And he, surrounded by ice and snow, there in the world of the spirit, under the wing of the [deletion] angel saw and heard it all, laughed with them, and cried with them. And there was read from the letter itself, these words of the bible – “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there his right hand shall lead me, and hold me.” Far and near it sounded like divine psalms, and the angel let his wings drop, like a veil round the sleeping. – the dream was ended – It was dark in the little house, but the bible lay under his head, faith and hope in his heart – God was with him, and home too – in the uttermost parts of the sea!

Hans Christian Andersen

Works Cited

[1] Bottigheimer, Fairy Tales: A New History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), chapter 2.

[2] Wullschlager, Hans Christian Andersen: the Life of a Storyteller (London: Allen Lane, 2000), 170.

Archivist as Detective: The Case of C.S.

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

When the MHS acquired a small collection of four sermons by Abijah Cross of West Haverhill, Mass., I was struck by one in particular. It’s a funeral sermon from 1832, and written across the top is the note: “By the dying request of C.S. a young female member of the chh.”

Funeral sermon for C.S., 1832
Funeral sermon for C.S., 1832

Unfortunately Cross didn’t name her in his sermon, referring obliquely to “the interesting and lamented subject of the following discourse.” In fact, he provided no biographical clues at all, not the names of her parents, her age, cause of death. It seemed unlikely that I’d be able to learn the identity of C.S., but of course I had to try.

When it comes to making identifications like this, family genealogies are invaluable, but I didn’t even have a surname this time. Town histories are also a good resource, but only for particularly notable citizens. I couldn’t even rely on random web searches. In the end, all the information I had about C.S. came from that first line: she lived in Haverhill and died in 1832 when she was still young.

The last possible thread I had left to follow was the church itself. And as they have so many times before, fellow archivists and librarians came to my rescue.

I found information on Abijah Cross easily enough. In 1832, he served as pastor of the West Congregational Church in Haverhill, and I quickly discovered that the church’s records are held at the Congregational Library & Archives right here in Boston. Not only are the records housed there, but staff at the library have digitized the collection! (Knowing all the work that goes into digital projects, I’m especially grateful.)

It was a matter of just a few minutes to select the corresponding volume (1826-1838) and, using the digital viewer, page through images to find what I was looking for. Beginning on page 101 is “A Record of the Deaths of members of this Church,” and at the bottom of that page, in Cross’s own handwriting: “July 29, 1832. Cynthia Smith died of consumption at the early age of 14 years and 7 months. Dau. of Jesse & Lydia (Corliss) Smith.”

Chruch record excerpt
Excerpt from church records at Congregational Library & Archives

Armed with her and her parents’ names, I could use genealogical sources to confirm the identification and learn more about the family. Sure enough, Cynthia Smith is listed on page 64 of the Genealogical Record of the Corliss Family of America (1875). That book being a little sparse on details, I consulted other sources to reconstruct more of the family’s history. Here’s what I discovered:

Cynthia was born on 30 December 1817 and died on 29 July 1832 at the age of 14. Her mother Lydia had died two years before, and I found her death listed in the church volume just a few lines above her daughter’s. Both Cynthia and her mother are buried at the Second West Parish Cemetery in Haverhill.

Cynthia’s father was a farmer named Jesse Smith, originally from Methuen, Mass. Jesse remarried twice, first to Lois Merrill (with whom he had at least three other daughters), then to Mary Howe. He lived to 1879, surviving all three wives. He, Lois, and Mary, are buried at Hillside Cemetery, also in Haverhill.

For young Cynthia Smith’s funeral sermon, Abijah Cross took as his text Job 7:16: “I would not live alway.” He contrasted Job’s despair and impatience for death with what Cross characterized as Cynthia’s peaceful acceptance and submission to God, and he urged the young people of the congregation to heed her example and be prepared for death.

Another sermon in the MHS collection is worth mentioning. Twice in the spring of 1836, Cross delivered a fiery anti-slavery sermon to congregations in Massachusetts. He called slavery “a sin of the greatest enormity” that “overshadows all the rest” and argued that Northerners were complicit unless they “rebuked” enslavers in the South, as they would an erring brother.

God has made of one blood all nations to dwell on the face of the earth. On what then does the master ground his claim to the right of property in a being, whom God has made his equal? […] Where has he written “Master” on the brow of one man and “Slave” on the face of another?

In fact, Cross was life member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and an unapologetic abolitionist. He opposed incremental abolition and colonization, and instead called for the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people on the grounds of equal rights.

P.S. I can’t close this post without commenting on what a terrific name Abijah Cross is for a minister. And here I thought no one could beat Philip S. Physick, M.D.!

Announcing the 2021-2022 MHS Research Fellows

by Katy Morris, Research Coordinator & Book Review Editor

We are pleased to announce the fellowship winners for the 2021-2022 academic cycle. Every year, the MHS administers roughly a quarter million dollars in research support to help scholars from all career stages access our remarkable collections. These fellowships range from short-term funding (4 to 8 weeks) to long-term residency (4 to 12 months).

The incoming cohort of fellows explores an exciting variety of topics. They range from studies of political history to examinations of the arts, poetry, and the gothic tradition. Others delve into histories of religion, time, and emotion. Still others are delving into histories of citizenship, abolition, women’s networks, and trade.

Congratulations to our incoming fellows – we can’t wait to learn more about your work!

Fellowships sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2021-2022

MHS-NEH Long-Term Fellowships

  • Jamie Bolker, Post-Doc, Newberry Library, “Lost and Found: Wayfinding in Early America”
  • Patrick Bottiger, Associate Professor, Kenyon College, “Corn, Beans, and Squash: The Three Sisters Agricultural Revolution and the Remaking of North America, 300 CE to 1850”
  • Dan Du, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “The World in a Teacup: Chinese-American Tea Trade in the Nineteenth Century”

Suzanne & Caleb Loring Fellowship on the Civil War, Its Origins, and Consequences

  • Anne Cross, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Delaware, “‘Features of Cruelty Which Could Not Well Be Described by the Pen’: The Media of Atrocity in Harper’s Weekly, 1862-1866”

MHS Short-term Fellowships

  • Kathryn Angelica, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Connecticut (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “‘The Glorious Cause of Liberty’: Women’s Anti-Slavery and Abolitionist Activism in New England”
  • Megan Armknecht, Ph.D. Candidate, Princeton University (Ruth R. & Alyson R. Miller Fellowships), “Diplomatic Households and the Foundations of U.S. Diplomacy, 1789-1870”
  • Cameron Boutin, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Kentucky (Mary B. Wright Environmental History Fellowship), “War and the Elements: Civil War Soldiers’ Experiences with the Weather”
  • James Broomall, Associate Professor, Shepherd University (Military Historical Society of Massachusetts Fellowship), “Battle Pieces: The Imagery and Artifacts of the Civil War”
  • Jimmy Bryan, Professor, Lamar University (Malcolm and Mildred Freiberg Fellowship), “The Empire of Grim: Gothic Subversions of US Expansion”
  • Heesoo Cho, Ph.D. Candidate, Washington University at St. Louis (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “The Making of the Pacific Ocean in the Early Republic, 1780-1820”
  • Jennifer Factor, Ph.D. Candidate, Brandeis University (W.B.H. Dowse Fellowship), “Poetry Performance in Colonial New England”
  • Donovan Fifield, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Virginia (W.B.H. Dowse Fellowship), “Credit and Imperial Crises in the American Northeast, 1698-1775”
  • Sarah Beth Gable, Ph.D. Candidate, Brandeis University (Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati Fellowship), “Policing the Revolution: Massachusetts Communities and the Committees of Correspondence, Inspection and Safety, 1773-1783”
  • Christopher Gillett, Assistant Professor, University of Scranton (C. Conrad & Elizabeth H. Wright Fellowship), “Catholicism and Revolution in the British World, 1630-1673”
  • Ethan Goodnight, Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard University (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “Tongues of Fire: Religious Enthusiasm, Racial Formation, and Anti-Blackness in the Atlantic World”
  • Daniel Gullotta, Ph.D. Candidate, Stanford University (Marc Friedlaender Fellowship), “‘The Lord Preserve Us from Socinian Presidencies’: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Transformation of American Religious Electoral Politics”
  • Joanne Jahnke Wegner, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (Benjamin F. Stevens Fellowship), “Stolen Lives: Captivity and Gender in the Northeast, 1630-1763”
  • Samuel Jennings, Ph.D. Candidate, Oklahoma State University (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “‘The Most Perfect Foundation of Her Faith’: The Virgin Mary in Mid-Eighteenth Century North America”
  • Randal Grant Kleiser, Ph.D. Candidate, Columbia University (Kenneth and Carol Hills Fellowship in Colonial History), “Exchanging Empires: Free Ports, Reform, and Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1750-1784”
  • Joshua Kleuver, Ph.D. Candidate, Binghamton University (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “Hiding in Plain Sight: Socialist Legislators at the State Level, 1899-1944”
  • Alexandra Macdonald, Ph.D. Candidate, College of William & Mary (Louis Leonard Tucker Alumni Fellowship), “The Social Life of Time in the Anglo-Atlantic World, 1660-1830”
  • Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, Professor, Wellesley College (Andrew Oliver Research Fellowship), “At Home Abroad: Anne Whitney and American Women Artists in Nineteenth-Century Italy”
  • Jesse Olsavsky, Assistant Professor, Duke Kunshan University (African American Studies Fellowship), “Fire and Sword Will Affect More Good: Runaways, Vigilance Committees, and the Rise of Revolutionary Abolitionism, 1835-1861”
  • Sarah Pearlman Shapiro, Ph.D. Candidate, Brown University (Ruth R. & Alyson R. Miller Fellowships), “Women’s Communities of Care in Revolutionary New England”
  • Anne Powell, Ph.D. Candidate, College of William & Mary (Kenneth and Carol Hills Fellowship in Colonial History), “The Antinomian Controversy: Theological Disorder Amidst Colonial Crisis in New England”
  • Helena Roth, Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Center, CUNY (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “American Timelines: Imperial Communications, Colonial Time-Consciousness, and the Coming of the American Revolution”
  • Francis Russo, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Pennsylvania (Short-term Fellowship), “Utopian Dreams at the End of Early America: 1663-1860”
  • Chelsea Spencer, Ph.D. Candidate, MIT (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “The Contract, the Contractor, and the Capitalization of American Building, ca. 1865-1930”
  • Duangkamol Tantirungkij, Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Center, CUNY (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “An Act of Congress: Freedom Suits and the Emancipatory Consequences of the Northwest Ordinance (1790-1850)”
  • Heather Walser, Ph.D. Candidate, Penn State (Louis Leonard Tucker Alumni Fellowship), “Amnesty’s Origins: Federal Power, Peace, and the Public Good in the Long Civil War Era”
  • Russell Weber, Ph.D. Candidate, University of California, Berkeley (Short-term Fellowship), “American Feeling: Political Passions and Emotional Identity in the Early Republic, 1754-1797”
  • Emily Yankowitz, Ph.D. Candidate, Yale University (Andrew W. Mellon Fellow), “Documenting Citizenship: How Early Americans Understood the Concept of Citizenship, 1776-1840”

The Day the Vice President Showed His Strength

by Rhonda Barlow, Adams Papers Research Associate

John Adams famously described the vice presidency as “the most insignificant Office” ever devised. Less well known is why he said this or that there came a day when he revealed that the office actually mattered a great deal.

As vice president, Adams spent his days in the Senate, sitting in a chair, reading the proposed legislation, and listening to the senators’ debate. It was tiresome, boring work for a man of thought and action. “This Confinement will injure my health,” he wrote to his eldest son, John Quincy, in April 1790. After France became a republic and declared war on Great Britain, Americans, caught in the cross-fire, disagreed over the Washington administration’s official policy of neutrality. Writing to Abigail Adams on 19 Dec. 1793, John explained his role in foreign affairs as vice president:

“I am very apprehensive that a desperate Antifœderal Party, will provoke all Europe by their Insolence. But my Country has in its Wisdom contrived for me, the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived: and as I can do neither good nor Evil, I must be born away by Others and meet the common Fate.”

John Adams letter
John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, 19 December 1793

During his tenure as the first U.S. minister to the Court of St. James’s in the mid-1780s, Adams tried to negotiate a commercial treaty with Great Britain. But the former mother country, able to trade freely with the disunited States, had no need for a formal agreement. By early 1794, John Jay was about to undertake a special mission to finally negotiate a treaty with Britain, but Democratic-Republicans in Congress were still pushing anti-British legislation to restrict trade. John confided to Abigail on 3 April 1794, “The Times are so critical and Parties so nearly ballanced that I cannot in honour, nor consistently with my Duty abandon my Post. There are so many wild Projects and Motions and so many to support them, that I am become of more importance than Usual.” Twelve days later, he wrote, “The Senate will now be called upon to show their Independence, and perhaps your Friend to shew his Weakness or his Strength.”

John Adams letter
John Adams letter to Abigail Adams, 15 April 1794

A bill to prohibit British imports passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 59 to 34. In the Senate, the vote was as close as could be: 13 for and 13 against. It was up to the vice president to break the tie. On 28 April, John Adams blocked the bill, and cleared the way for Jay to sail to England and into history, successfully negotiating the 1794 Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Navigation, commonly known as the Jay Treaty.

On 24 June 1795, John Adams once again sat in his chair in the Senate, and recorded the votes as the senators gave their advice and consent to the Jay Treaty by the required two-thirds majority. This new treaty not only improved relations with Great Britain, but demonstrated American independence from France. You can read more the Jay Treaty and about the ways John Adams shaped the vice presidency in the Adams Papers editorial project’s forthcoming volume 21 of The Papers of John Adams.

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.

Where in the World is Augustus Percival?

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

When the MHS acquired the letters of Augustus Percival, the condition of the collection left a lot to be desired. The letters themselves were presentable enough, at least as presentable as we could reasonably expect 150-year-old documents to be, but the collection was a jumble. Letters were out of order; envelopes were missing; pages were separated, mismatched, or torn at a fold; some appeared to be fragments; and many were undated or partially dated (for example, with just a day of the week). Without better arrangement and description, the collection would be incoherent to researchers.

First, some background: Augustus Percival (1830-1883) was a mariner out of Cape Cod. He engaged in trade with China, Taiwan, South Africa, Cuba, Jamaica, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore, working his way up from first mate to captain of his own ship. From 1868 to 1883, he wrote detailed, multi-page letters to his wife Mercy (Higgins) Percival back in East Orleans, Mass., and these are the letters that make up the collection.

In fact, the letters are really more like a diary. As the days passed, Percival wrote and wrote, adding new pages as needed, until he came to a port or encountered a ship that could deliver the whole bundle back to Massachusetts. So each letter covers multiple dates and locations.

It was my job to catalog the collection, and it was going to take careful reading, content analysis, and physical examination—in other words, a combination of contextual and physical clues—to reassemble the letters and render them useable for researchers. Complicating matters was the sheer density of the material. Most of the letters were written on thin, fragile paper, and Percival made good use of every inch of every page, writing all the way to the edges on both sides.

Letter from Augustus Percival
Augustus Percival to Mercy Percival, Shanghai, 28 Nov. 1868

The MHS holds no other manuscript collections related to Augustus Percival, his family, or any of the ships on which he sailed. Between 1868 and 1883, he traveled on at least five different ships to far-flung locations in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. So I started by using the dated letters in the collection to reconstruct his movements.

With a rough timeline of his whereabouts, I could then look at each orphaned page and try to plug it into the narrative based on contextual clues. I could generally tell, for example, if a passage was written at sea or on land. Percival might also mention someone by name who was a crew member of a specific ship or an acquaintance at a specific port.

Although he wrote his letters over the course of many days, Percival typically started each new day on a new page. As a result, many pages that looked like they might be the start of a new letter turned out to be subsequent pages of a continuous one. Thankfully, he was assiduous about addressing and signing his correspondence, so if a page didn’t begin with “my dear wife” or end with “your affectionate husband,” it was most likely part of a larger whole.

Percival did number the pages of his letters, but his numbering proved to be unreliable. And even dated entries on the same page were sometimes out of order. For example, in one instance, he left his unfinished letter on the ship, started a new one onshore, then accidentally left that behind and returned to fill in a blank space on the original page. It was only when I wrangled all the individual manuscript pieces together and read through them chronologically that the narrative made sense.

Percival used various types of stationery—folded half-sheets, whole sheets, off-white paper or blue, even green—and different colors of ink. These kinds of physical clues might indicate that two pages belonged together, but then again they might not! When he ran out of supplies, Percival scrounged for whatever was handy. You could say that the physical condition of the collection, as much as the content, reflects Percival’s peripatetic life.

In a few cases, I resorted to using paper folds or rust stains to match sheets together. Based on the folds of two separate pages, I could make a pretty good guess that they’d been sent in the same envelope. If they’d been paper-clipped and that clip had rusted, the stains lined up. Sometimes it came down to piecing fragments together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Letter from Augustus Percival written 17 April 1869
Augustus Percival to Mercy Percival, “at sea,” 17 Apr. 1869

As you can imagine, this process was painstaking and required a much closer reading of the material than I’m usually able to do. It was ultimately successful, though; I was able to date all the fragments, reassemble all the letters, and fill in the gaps of Percival’s story.

It was also worthwhile because the collection is truly fascinating. Percival describes life as a sailor in more detail than we usually get in a collection like this, including crew politics, customs in various countries, encounters with pirates and missionaries, the Chinese opium trade, South African diamond mining, and much more. One passage about Percival’s fight to protect his ship from armed looters reads like a dime novel. He lived an adventurous life and made some remarkable friends along the way, like Abbie Clifford.

Augustus Percival died on his ship, the Thomas A. Goddard, on 14 Oct. 1883 and was buried at sea. He was survived by his wife Mercy and three children, Mary, Augustus, and George.