The DeGrasse-Howard Papers: Black Families in Boston and Philadelphia

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

In previous Beehive posts, a few of our contributors have introduced you to the terrific DeGrasse-Howard papers here at the MHS. Crystal Lynn Webster discussed themes in the diary of Dr. Edwin Clarence Howard, and Mia Levenson wrote about the account book of Edwin’s uncle, Dr. John Van Surley DeGrasse. I’d like to revisit the collection, particularly because of the great work our digital team has done to digitize it in its entirety.

The MHS collection of DeGrasse-Howard papers is small but fascinating. Several members of the related DeGrasse, Howard, Downing, and Asbury families are represented, and each probably deserves a post of their own. Isaiah George DeGrasse and Howard DeGrasse Asbury were clergymen, John Van Surley DeGrasse and Edwin Clarence Howard were physicians, and George T. Downing was a civil rights leader. John also served as a medical officer during the Civil War.

Clipping from a newspaper. Image of a man's head and shoulders. The man has dark hair with a moustache. He is wearing a jacket and tie.
Edwin Clarence Howard from newspaper clipping in DeGrasse-Howard papers

Like Webster, I found myself particularly drawn to the diary of Dr. Edwin Clarence Howard (1846-1912), kept in 1865 while he was a student at Liberia College in Monrovia, Liberia. Edwin went on to become, in 1869, the first African American to graduate from Harvard Medical School. He practiced in Charleston, S.C. before settling in Philadelphia, and several biographical sketches I found note his impressive service during the 1870 smallpox epidemic there. He also played a part in the establishment of both the Frederick Douglass Hospital (1895) and the Mercy Hospital (1905) in Philadelphia.

This diary reveals Edwin at the beginning of his career, struggling with all the uncertainties of a young man far away from home. One of the things that makes the volume intriguing is that Edwin wrote about half of it in code. Much of this code consists of simple letter substitution (each letter represented by the one just before it in the alphabet), but he also incorporated French and Latin words and phrases and even what appear to be Greek symbols. Certain people are represented by initials, such as “O,” who was a woman with whom he apparently had a relationship. For example, in this entry from 1 April 1865, he switched in and out of code within a single sentence.

I am now almost always harrassed [sic] with unpleasant feelings, and were it not for a certain gnod que I gaud hm [hope that I have in] O I think I wd. use my utmost endeavours to return home.

This unhappy passage was written after a scolding from a doctor Edwin described as “pthsd shfgs,” or “quite tight”!

I hope someday to be able to spend more time with this interesting diary. While most of the entries are of a personal nature, Edwin also described the treatment of patients and his other daily activities, including long walks, social calls, a liberal amount of pipe smoking, and the occasional performance on his concertina.

Unfortunately, the DeGrasse-Howard papers contain only a few passing references to Edwin’s sisters, who were both accomplished educators. His older sister, Adeline Turpin Howard (1844-1922), became the principal of the Wormley School in Washington, D.C. His younger sister, Joan Imogen Howard (1848-1937), was the first Black graduate of the Girls’ High and Normal School in Boston. None of the siblings ever married or had children, and all three are buried in Eden Cemetery outside Philadelphia.

As I mentioned above, the entire DeGrasse-Howard collection has been digitized by the MHS digital team, so you can browse the papers at your leisure. The MHS also holds a collection of 24 DeGrasse-Howard photographs, which have also been digitized. My favorite is probably this Civil War-era photograph of a young Georgenia Cordelia DeGrasse, Edwin’s cousin.

Sepia toned photograph of a young girl standing in a long dress with her hand on the back of a chair.
Georgenia Cordelia DeGrasse, Photo. 36.1, DeGrasse-Howard photographs

And the last photograph in the collection depicts Rep. Shirley Chisolm speaking at an event in 1968 with Howard DeGrasse Asbury.

Black and white photograph of a woman in a white dress and hat speaking at a podium. Two men sit behind her to her left and one to her right. In the left foreground, the back of a photographer taking pictures is visible.
Howard DeGrasse Asbury and Shirley Chisolm, Photo. 36.24, DeGrasse-Howard photographs

We hope you’ll take some time to look through both of these amazing collections.

Annie Adams Fields in Later Life, Including a “Boston Marriage”

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

In my previous post, I introduced Annie Adams Fields, a talented woman who wrote descriptions of contemporary authors in her diaries. She was a socialite married to James T. Fields, an author and publisher. Their circle of friends included American and European authors.

Henry James wrote about Annie in the Atlantic Monthly of July 1915:

The truth was of course very decidedly that the seed I speak of, the seed that has flowered into legend, and with the thick growth of which her domestic scene was quite embowered, had been sown in soil peculiarly grateful and favored by pleasing accidents. The personal beauty of her younger years, long retained and not even at the end of such a stretch of life quite lost; the exquisite native tone and mode of appeal, which anciently we perhaps thought a little “precious,” but from which the distinctive and the preservative were in time to be snatched, a greater extravagance supervening; the signal sweetness of temper and lightness of tact, in fine, were things that prepared together the easy and infallible exercise of what I have called her references. It adds greatly to one’s own measure of the accumulated years to have seen her reach the age at which she could appear to the younger world about her to “go back” wonderfully far, to be almost the only person extant who did, and to owe much of her value to this delicate aroma of antiquity.

Annie’s husband James died in 1881, after which she retired for a while from public life, and her friend, author Sarah Orne Jewett, moved in with her. Once Annie began returning to public life, hosting friends and family at her salon in Boston, Sarah moved out. However, the two women began a “Boston Marriage,” living and traveling together six months of the year, until Sarah died in 1909. The term Boston Marriage referred to two usually independently wealthy women living together, who were not seeking marriage to a man. Some Boston Marriages are now thought to have been romantic, some are not.

As a widow living part of the year with Sarah, Annie continued writing her diaries, especially about her travels. Her descriptions of the places she visited and the people she observed or met there are just as riveting as her earlier writings about her literary friends. On a trip to the Bahamas with Sarah in 1896, she wrote a few lines about a beautiful girl who must have lived near to their hotel.

A young girl in a white muslin dress with two or three gentlemen of varying hues of complexion especially attracted me. The soft olive tint of her skin and the real charm she possessed of manner as well as of face compelled me to turn an instant in her direction whenever the least chance offered itself.  She made the whole place instinct with native comeliness of expression to which we were only led up by the soft air, the hibiscus blossoms, the almond trees and the delicate stains of color on the walls and the gates and towers where they were seen peeping out between or above the foliage.

And the next day:

There was a little table there and coffee after dinner, and a mandolin and a Celtic singer—while we strolled about not too near, fascinated by the pretty scene—the tinkling of the strings and above all by the pretty girl. Later she bade farewell to a gentleman in the hall below. The manner was incomparable.  I am sure Juliet did no better for her Romeo in public!

Color photograph of a painted portrait of a white woman in later middle years. She has dark hair in a loose style atop her head, dark eyes, and a white shirt with ruffles and a brooch at the neck. She sits in a chair facing slightly right, while looking slightly over the viewers left shoulder, and she has a bemused expression on her face. The background is light on the right, fading through brown to black towards the left.
Annie Adams Fields, 1890, John Singer Sargent

In his Atlantic Monthly piece on Annie, Henry James also wrote this about her later years:  

I have but to recall the dawn of those associations that seemed then to promise everything, and the last declining ray of which rests, just long enough to be caught, on the benign figure of Mrs. Fields, of the latter city, recently deceased and leaving behind her much of the material out of which legend obligingly grows. She herself had the good fortune to assist, during all her later years, at an excellent case of such growth, for which nature not less than circumstance had perfectly fitted her—she was so intrinsically charming a link with the past and abounded so in the pleasure of reference and the grace of fidelity. She helped the present, that of her own actuality, to think well of her producing conditions, to think better of them than of many of those that open for our wonderment to-day: what a note of distinction they were able to contribute, she moved us to remark, what a quality of refinement they appeared to have encouraged, what a minor form of the monstrous modern noise they seemed to have been consistent with!

There is so much more to read in Annie Adams Fields’s fascinating diaries

“Some parts of the Instruction…are not the most suitable to their sex”: JQA’s Reflections on Young Noble Women’s Education in St. Petersburg

By Miriam Liebman, Adams Papers

On the morning of 21 February 1811, John Quincy Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams, and other members of the diplomatic corps in St. Petersburg attended the public examination for the young women at the Institute of the Order of St. Catherine, which was located on the Fontanka River in St. Petersburg. John Quincy recounted this event a few days later in a letter to his mother Abigail Adams on 26 February. He explained that there were four classes of students, who began their education between the ages of six and ten years old and upon completing their education, they took a public examination, which occurred over the course of two days in February every other year. For the exam, the students “dressed alike, in a plain white muslin gown, with a scarlet ribband round the waist. Those who had distinguished themselves by peculiar merit wore nosegays of lilies of the valley at the breast.—They were all extremely graceful—Some of them had fine forms; but there was scarcely a beautiful face in the whole number.”

The school was under the patronage of the Empress Mother Maria Feodorovna, who invited the members of the diplomatic corps to attend. JQA noted in his Diary that the royal family, however, was not present at the event. The first day of the examination consisted of many subjects, including religion, philosophy, geography, history, and Russian history. The second day of the exam, which the Adamses attended, covered math, German, French literature, experimental philosophy, and the arts, including music, singing, and dancing.

An excerpt from John Quincy Adams’s Diary describing the public examination at the Institute of the Order of St. Catherine.

The foreign ministers who attended did not just watch the examination but participated in it as examiners. While John Quincy did not understand the arithmetic portion of the exam since it was conducted in Russian, when it came time for French language, “One of the Ladies brought me a French Book, and translated into Russian a passage at which I opened it for her—I presume she performed it well, but if she was qualified for her task, I was not so for mine…I saw that she read French with perfect ease, but the language into which she rendered it might have been Sanscrit or Chinese for aught I knew.” He was more “at home” for the portion of the exam on French literature and found the experimental philosophy portion to be “at least amusing.” This was followed by an exhibition of the young ladies’ art, including drawings and embroideries, and concluded with the portions on singing and dancing.

Despite the long examination, John Quincy believed that not many of the students were “so learned, or even so accomplished, as these exhibitions would seem to import.” He also lamented about how many of the subjects were not adequately taught to young men. He concluded, “Yet with every allowance which ought to be made for the varnish of a public exhibition, I know not how it would be possible to make more judicious or more excellent provisions for the Education of young Ladies of rank and fortune in this Country than we find here exemplified.”

Louisa offered a perspective of her own. She later noted in her diary, “None of them are handsome…The performance of their Religious duties is strictly attended to and their long fasts reduce them so much that they look like Skeletons– Of course their complexions suffer.” Louisa’s more sympathetic perspective may have been influenced by her experiences boarding in a convent in Nantes during the American Revolution when she was four years old and then a boarding school in London after the war ended. While she did not enjoy her time at the boarding school in London, she had a passion for reading. She described in her memoir, Record of a Life that she was not privileged to learn many subjects because “Many of the modern studies not then being thought requisite in the education of Women and being thought to have a tendency to render them Masculine.” While her education was mostly limited to arts and a rudimentary education in reading and writing, she did have the privilege to be tutored by a woman, Miss Young, who was trained in classical education. Louisa reflected quite positively on this moment of her education and viewed Miss Young with the highest respect and was grateful for the opportunity to learn and converse on such “masculine” topics. The value Louisa placed on education remained with her throughout her life and was something she and John Quincy prioritized as parents.

More Secrets of the Seals

By Daniel Bottino, Rutgers University and MHS Society of Colonial Wars in Massachusetts fellow

Read an earlier post about the Secrets of the Seals at the MHS.

A notice printed in the Boston Gazette dated December 13, 1736, reads, “Lost a silver seal from a man’s watch, coat of arms on one side, CMH cypher and sloop cut into other side.”[1]  Perhaps it slipped from its attachment to a watch chain during a walk or horseback ride through the city streets.  We do not know if this small item was ever located or returned to its owner—it may be that it still lies where it was lost, waiting for a future archeologist to unearth it and return it to public sight.

This misplaced item, referred to as a “silver seal,” is a stamping instrument or “seal matrix” used to create an impression in wax or paper.  Although thousands of colonial era New England seal impressions, usually in wax, have survived to the present day, surviving colonial seal matrices are much rarer.  This makes sense, for one matrix could produce hundreds of seal impressions.  Furthermore, wax seals are attached to documents—legal papers and letters—which have often been preserved for their written content.  Conversely, personal seal matrices are small, as they were meant to be used by hand, and thus easily lost or destroyed over the passage of centuries.  As the practice of sealing began to fall out of fashion in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is possible that many of these colonial era matrices, once carefully passed down through the generations, were discarded as useless relics of a bygone era.

Yet, to gain a full understanding of the material history of sealing in colonial New England, matrices must be studied as well as seal impressions. The collections of the MHS hold many surviving matrices—illustrated below is a matrix bearing the arms of Cotton Mather, certainly an illustrious resident of Boston.  Yet this particular seal was made by silversmith Nathaniel Hurd (1730-1777) who was born after Mather’s death in 1728.  Perhaps this seal was fashioned by Hurd for one of Mather’s relatives.  Like the seal in the lost notice, this seal is a fine and valuable piece of jewelry, its handle made of ivory and its design carved in silver.  Besides serving its basic purpose in creating seal impressions, such a precious object was likely also a status symbol and marker of wealth.  After its owner’s death, a seal made skillfully of silver or gold stood a good chance of preservation as a family heirloom before, perhaps, an eventual donation to an archive or museum. 

Color photo of a gloved hand holding a small, rounded object showing the arms of Cotton Mather.
Matrix bearing the arms of Cotton Mather
Seal matrix

On the other hand, most colonists in New England clearly could not afford to purchase precious seals made by prominent artisans.  Their humbler matrices likely were made of more common metals such as brass, their handles perhaps made of wood rather than ivory.  I have not found any of these more “ordinary” seals during my research at the MHS thus far—it is likely that few, if any, have survived through the centuries, although I remain hopeful. 

For those colonists who desired a cheaper option, their own fingers could serve as matrices.  While prominent New Englanders such as Cotton Mather and John Adams almost certainly would not have wanted to forgo their finely made matrices and instead press a finger into hot wax, I have nevertheless discovered many wax fingerprint impressions in the MHS’s collections.  All of these “fingerprint seals” date to the 18th century.  I believe it likely that most employers of fingerprint seals were of lower social status than those sealers who used metal matrices.  Confirmation of this hypothesis will require research into the identities of the hundreds of individual sealers in the documents I have encountered—I hope to complete this project in the coming months.

Image of a handwritten document with three red wax seals in the lower right corner. Names appear next to the seals.
Fingerprint seals

There is no evidence that the legal authority of fingerprint seals was ever looked down upon by colonial society.  Indeed, as a seal’s primary purpose was to serve as a unique symbolic representation of its possessor, the fingerprint seal can be seen as the perfect seal.  As was undoubtably understood by colonists, each person’s fingerprints are unique.  Accordingly, when used as a matrix, a sealer’s finger produced an impression unique to the sealer, created not by a skilled engraver but rather by their own body. Ultimately, no matter what form they took, matrices were an integral part of the ritual of sealing in colonial New England, and a close consideration of their materiality will prove to be of great value in the historical study of colonial New England society.

[1] My thanks to James Kences for finding this notice.

Fancy Types: The typeface specimens of Rand & Avery 

By Susanna Sigler, Library Assistant 

Happy spring, Beehive readers! Taking a departure from my usual blog posts spotlighting WWII-focused materials, I wanted to focus on a fun item that’s been on my mind for a while now. 

Over the summer, a researcher put in a request for a 19th-century book of typefaces. I took a peek at the book before the researcher examined it, and was delighted by its contents.  

Called Rand & Avery’s Specimens, this book was published by Rand, Avery & Company, a book- and map-printing company in Boston in the mid- to late-19th century.  

The book is exactly what a good business owner back then would have for their customers: a collection of specimens, or samples, of the different typefaces that the customers could order for their printing. 

(Prior to writing this post, I did not know the difference between a typeface and a font. According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, a typeface is a set of letters, numbers, etc. of a particular design, for example Times New Roman, while a font is the particular size and style of a set of letters, for example Times New Roman italic, size 12). 

What drew me to this book was not only the artistry of the typefaces themselves, but the sense of humor displayed in the sample text. You can guess just from the fake names the speciality of most of these businesses – “Jackplane & Broadaxe” (a carpentry firm), “Quadrant & Logline” (navigators), “Hopp & Ginger” (brewers), “Rains and Sunshine” (gardeners), and “Professor Lightheel” (a dancing instructor), to name a few.  

Sample text for different fake businesses showcasing the variety of typefaces on offer.

For some of the larger typefaces, there is less space to work with, and oftentimes the placeholder text is just nonsense phrases. Some veer into the poetic, while others often struck me as humorous (if you’re like me and find random words set in very large fonts amusing).  

Some of the phrases found in the book. 
We’re running out of space!

Aside from the textual content, the actual typefaces themselves are beautiful, ranging from simple and elegant to detailed and intricate. Some are ones that are still in use today, but many are not. Oftentimes the sample text will correspond to the qualities of the font itself–there’s a special typeface in the shape of snowballs, for example, and one proclaiming “tulip beds” that looks to be itself blooming.  

Is this the typography version of onomatopoeia?

In addition to the typefaces, there are also small drawn icons and other logos that can be incorporated into a customer’s design. My personal favorite is this one of Boston, with tiny ships. 

Boston, but make it maritime.

I’m not a pessimist, or someone who thinks that creativity and beauty in graphic design is long gone, but styles in the mainstream nowadays all seem to have a similar corporate look. Minimalism has rendered interiors completely boring at best, and terrifying alien spaceship at worst. I think they could take a page from Rand & Avery, and try to have a little more fun.  

The Geo. C. Rand & Avery typeface book can be viewed at the MHS. The MHS also holds additional materials on typefaces and printing specimens, found under the subjects “Type and type-founding” and “Printing – Specimens” in ABIGAIL. 


“Font.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Accessed March 21, 2023. 

Rand & Avery, Rand & Avery’s Specimens (Boston: Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1860).  

“Typeface.” Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Accessed March 21, 2023. 

Disability in the Archive: Insanity & Institutions

By Meg Szydlik, Visitor Services Coordinator

Trigger warning: use of outdated but period-typical language to describe disabled and mentally ill individuals and includes descriptions of abuse.

In my last post, I looked at disabled people in the circus. For this post, I’m looking at how people deemed “insane,” “idiots,” or “feeble-minded” were treated. Like those of the previous post, the voices of these people were also missing in my searches of the MHS archives. What we do have, however, are records that help paint a picture of what life was like for someone “insane” and how abled people perceived them.

Insanity and feeble-mindedness cover a wide range of behaviors. In addition to mental illness and probable psychosis, developmental disorders, and neurodivergence are also included under this label. While the sources had different treatment plans, all of them used a “one size fits all” approach to these disabilities. However, modern practice is that individual treatments that center the person’s dignity are best.

Image of a page of an application to the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded. The application asks questions ranging from basic demographic information to more invasive questions about how the person’s disability manifests itself. Questions about overall health, mental difficulties, and physical disabilities are included.
Application for placement in the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded

In the pre-Civil War era when the materials I used were written, there were essentially two options for people considered insane. They could stay at home with family, or they could enter an institution. Poorhouses, hospitals, and even jails were used to house those the state deemed insane.

Whatever the caretakers of these places thought they were doing, Dorothea Dix’s Memorial: To the Legislature of Massachusetts demonstrated their actions were abusive. Originally delivered orally, her testimony was published and made its way into the MHS collection. It features page after page of stories of people being beaten, chained, and deprived of food, bathrooms, and clothing and even light or shelter. The abuse is horrifying to read and must have been even worse to hear about. However, I’m glad Dix was clear and explicit about the harm, as she says herself, “the condition of human beings reduced to the extremest states of degradation and misery, cannot be exhibited in softened language, or adorn a polished page.” You can read her words yourself by visiting the MHS or by reading an online copy.

Image of a page from the MHS copy of Dix’s Memorial. This page discusses some of the abuse that occurred to individuals on a town by town basis, as well as Dix’s thoughts on the treatment.
Page from the MHS copy of Dix’s Memorial: To the Legislature of Massachusetts

In addition to Dix’s more personal words, the MHS has government documents on the topic, including a copy of the Report on insanity and idiocy in Massachusetts by the Commission on Lunacy under resolve of the Legislature of 1854. This report looks at how insane persons were counted and treated in Massachusetts, starting with the complications involved in getting an accurate count of these populations because of the shame associated with the diagnosis. Their review revealed interesting things, including a fairly even gender split, a belief that lunacy is curable, and disproportionate numbers of “aliens,” or non-Americans, receiving treatment in institutions. The treatment of non-Americans was especially interesting, with the writers pre-answering critiques by countering that these “generous provisions for the alien lunatics will not be questioned here, for not one of these thus provided for should have been neglected. Indeed, it is the great honor of our Commonwealth that it has built…these institutions for the relief of the suffering.” Though lacking in many areas, this report and the men who created it seemed to have the dignity of the people they were serving at the core, which was comforting. Despite these positive elements, these documents are still primarily about abled people’s responses and responsibilities. The voices of the “insane and idiots” are not present in the text.

Image of a page of text from the “Report on Insanity.” The text discusses why people considered insane might not be kept at home and instead be in an institution.
Page from the “Report on Insanity” by the Commission on Lunacy

The final materials I examined were ephemera and reports from The Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded. Archivist Susan Martin wrote a wonderful blog post about the collection, so I won’t rehash everything, but I did find it interesting how these materials fit with the other documents the MHS has about idiocy and insanity. The reports are focused on how well students are progressing, as well as the work and value of the school. It operated significantly more like modern schools for severely disabled people than anything else I looked at, which is striking given that the documents are still pre-Civil War. Still, there is no element of the student voice anywhere in the ephemera, which consists largely of information on how to enroll and what to bring rather than content produced by students. Once again, abled people are telling disabled people’s stories–no matter how well-meaning they are.

Image of the cover page of the “Circular of the Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Children of Retarded Development of Mind.” The page has text in a decorative border.
Cover page of the “Circular of the Institution for the Education of Idiots, Imbeciles, and Children of Retarded Development of Mind.”

Reading about the treatment of what was deemed idiocy and insanity was a deeply upsetting experience that required breaks. There’s so much dehumanization in the sources and even Dorothea Dix’s testimony, the source that focused primarily on their humanity and victimhood, highlighted that dehumanization. The treatment of these disabled people is, quite frankly, horrifying. In many ways, I see echoes of that treatment in the present with things like #FreeBritney and Disabled Day of Mourning.

Tune in next time, when I will look at some of the ways disabled veterans are represented in the archive.

Remarkable Women in MHS Collections

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist 

I’d like to use the blog today to highlight two manuscript collections that recently crossed my desk, collections that document the work of two very impressive and accomplished women.

The first is the papers of social workers Dina D’Alto Malgeri and Francesco P. Malgeri. During the early and mid-twentieth century, the Malgeris, both immigrants from Italy, devoted themselves to the Italian immigrant communities in their adopted homes of Boston and Chicago. The collection consists mostly of papers of Dina Malgeri, who survived her husband by 49 years.

Image of a yellowed newspaper clipping. There a large text title at the top with two columns of text and an image of the upper body of a woman in an oval. The woman has dark hair, and is wearing a large necklace and a collared top.
Clipping from vol. 2 (image 57), Dina D’Alto Malgeri and Francesco P. Malgeri papers, 30 April 1937

Dina Malgeri worked tirelessly to help immigrants access educational and employment opportunities, government and medical assistance, and recreational activities. She taught English, Italian, and citizenship classes; organized clubs for children and adults; translated and interpreted; led cultural tours and outings; delivered lectures; and even wrote and directed plays. It seems wherever she saw a need, she stepped up.

One of the nice things about the Malgeri papers is that the MHS’s crack digital team has digitized the collection in its entirety, and you can access these images through our collection guide. There you’ll find papers of many of the associations with which Dina was affiliated, as well as papers documenting her efforts to help individuals arrange medical care, straighten out legal matters, and become U.S. citizens.

Literally the same day I cataloged the Malgeri papers, I also cataloged the papers of M. Virginia Morrissey McDermott of Medford, Mass., a woman described in her obituary as “a pioneering lawyer, businesswoman and activist for women’s equality.” After graduating second in her high school class, McDermott told her parents she wanted to attend law school. As she described in a 2007 newspaper article, “My father stared out the window for 10 minutes. Then he said, ‘Well, if you want to, I think you have the brains. Go do it.’” In 1939, she proved him right by graduating second in her class again from Portia Law School, now the New England School of Law.

McDermott was the first female secretary of the Newspaper Guild union, treasurer and president of the Newman Club, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Business and Professional Women, nominating committee chair for the National Foundation of Business and Professional Women, member of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, and Boston’s Woman of the Year. And this is only a partial list. She not only achieved personal success, but devoted her professional life to boosting other women. She fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and was still working as a lawyer in her nineties.

When asked why she didn’t marry until the age of 50, she explained,. “I was just too busy doing everything else to think about it.”

Her papers at the MHS consist mostly of printed matter related to her professional activities. However, the collection ended up having an unexpected personal connection to yours truly. Leafing through miscellaneous clippings from the 1950s and ‘60s, I noticed one in particular that made me stop.

Image of a yellowed newspaper clipping showing a picture of three women with a text caption. The women are positioned side by side. The person in the middle holds a piece of paper and the women on the sides look down at it.
Clipping from the M. Virginia Morrissey McDermott papers, [January 1953]

The woman in the middle is Virginia McDermott. The woman on the left is my great-aunt Beatrice Corliss!

“A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March”

By Emily Petermann, Library Assistant

If your name is Gaius Julius Caesar (and it’s 44 BC…and you’re the tyrant of Rome) you may want to stay home today. For everyone else—are you ready for the Ides of March?

The Ides is the 13th or 15th day of the month in the Roman calendar. It is the third of three named days in the Roman month: the first is the kalends, or first of each month, and the second is the nones, the 5th or 7th day of each month. The Ides of March is a particularly famous Ides—it’s the day the tyrant died. On thisday in 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated by 22 Roman senators. You may know his final words—according to Shakespeare—as “et tu, Brute?” or “and you, Brutus?”

To celebrate this year’s Ides, I decided to look through our holdings for Caesar and for Latin related items.

The first item that drew my attention was this 1826 volume of Shakespeare’s Works, which has some beautiful engravings. The engraving pictured below appears at the beginning of the play Julius Caesar and depicts that fateful Ides in 44 BC.

Image of a page from a book. There is a name at the top of the page and text at the bottom. In the middle is a black and white image of several standing male figures and one person lying on the ground.
The grisly final moments of Caesar, taken from this 1826 edition of “The dramatic works of William Shakespeare,” published by C. Whittingham. This volume is from our Dowse Library, which you can read more about here!

We also hold quite a few non-Shakespearean works related to Julius Caesar. The most relevant is written by Caesar himself: the MHS holds a few editions of his work Hoc uolumine continentur haec. [C. Iulij Caesaris] Commentariorum de bello Gallico...”  The title translates to “These chapters contain G. Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War…” This volume is Caesar’s account of multiple wars that he was involved in, with the most famous being the Gallic War.

Color image of a book spine and the hand holding it. There are book shelves in the background.
A small edition of Caesar’s “Commentaries,” published by the Aldine Press in 1519. This book is the perfect size to hold in your hand!

Pictured above is an edition of Caesar’s work published by the Aldine Press, a company started by Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer responsible for creating the italic typeface. Manutius also notably put out small and affordable editions of Latin and Greek texts, like our copy of Caesar’s work, which is the perfect size to hold in your hand.[i] Open this copy of “Commentariorum de bello Gallico…” and you can use the map of part of Western Europe to follow Caesar’s campaign through Gaul as you read!  

Image of a book open to a map that spans both pages.
A map of ‘Gaul’ printed in 1519.

We also hold quite a few (55!) Latin primers and readers: books intended to teach Latin to students. Quite a few of them claim to teach in new and innovative ways. I’ve taken several years of Latin, so I’m always looking for “new” ways to learn the language. My favorite of the primers is titled “A Demonstration How the Latine Tongue May be Learnt With Far Greater Ease and speed then Commonly It Is.” This primer was published in London in 1669 by Arthur Brett. Brett begins his primer with a complaint that the “older” ways of teaching Latin negatively affected student’s health. He said of the old way: “Least pouring on hard Rules should crack their brains, impair their health, and make them to nauseate all kind of knowledg[sic].”

Image showing two pages of a pamphlet. Text fills both pages.
Pages 2 and 3 of Brett’s 6—page pamphlet on the ‘best’ way to learn Latin.

To the modern eye, Brett’s Latin is also likely to crack our brains – he expected students to know to write “What wouldst thou have” (“What would you like?” in 17th century English) as “Nihil moror quid objicis,” instead of the apparently obviously incorrect “Quid tibi vis?” (which he translates as “What wilt thou to thee?”) It took me a few passes to figure this sentence out, thanks to 354 years of language changing- I’m glad I wasn’t learning Latin from Mr. Brett!

Finally, I thought I would look for some familiar Latin phrases-like “et tu, Brute?”- in the collection. I was excited to find  a volume titled, “Adagiorum chiliades Desby Erasumes Desiderius, which contains Latin adages and explanations for those adages broken down by the century they were common in.

Image of a hand pulling an old book from a shelf. There are two similar books to the right.
The “Adiagorium” is a large volume, sitting on the shelf. Unlike Caesar’s “Commentarium” this is a two-handed sort of book

One of my favorites from this collection is “Elephantum ex musca facis” or “you are making an elephant out of a fly.” This adage sounds a lot like our contemporary phrase, “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill!”

If you’re not supposed to stay inside today (looking at you, Caesar), consider visiting the Reading Room to check out some of our materials on Caesar and the Latin language. You can find out more about visiting the Reading Room here, and can request an appointment here.

[i] Kuiper, Kathleen, “Aldus Manutius” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, updated Feb. 2, 2023.

A Keen Eye Towards Literary Figures: Annie Adams Fields and Her Descriptions of Authors

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

Annie Adams Fields (1834‒1915) was an author and social reformer who made her home at 148 Charles Street the center of literary Boston. Her circle of friends included authors published by her husband, James T. Fields, of Ticknor & Fields, as well as European writers visiting Boston. The MHS holds Annie Fields correspondence, travel and other diaries, translations, and a scrapbook on Charles Dickens.  

Image of a black and white photograph surrounded by a gold frame. The woman's back is toward the viewer and she has her head turned in profile. She has dark hair that is pulled back and is wearing a lace collar and a dark dress.
Annie Fields, 1853, the year before she married to James T. Fields. Daguerreotype by Southworth & Hawes.

Fields made a number of literary friends during her travels in Europe, 1859‒1860, and these writers later came to her salon in Boston along with New England and other US authors. What makes these friendships of particular interest today are Fields’s descriptions of the writers, penned with a keen eye. For example, she hosted a dinner on 21 November 1867, that included Charles Dickens. Afterward, she wrote about Dickens in her diary:

Dickens bubbled over with fun & I could not help fancying that Holmes bored him a little by talking at him. I was sorry for this because Holmes is so simple and lovely but Dickens is sensitive, very. He is fond of Carlyle, seems to love nobody better and gave the most irresistible imitation of him. His queer terms of expression often convulsed us with laughter and yet it is difficult to catch them as when in speaking of the writer of books always putting himself, his real self in ‘which is always the case,’ he said ‘but you must be careful of not taking him for his next door neighbor.’

Many visitors found Fields to be a sympathetic listener and confided in her, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. After his visit with Fields on 6 December 1863, following a funeral, she wrote this passage about him:

As the sunset deepened Mr Hawthorne talked of his early life. His grandfather bought a township in Maine and at the early age of eleven years he accompanied his mother and sister down there to live upon the land. From that moment the happiest period of his life began and lasted until he was thirteen when he was sent to school in Salem. While in Maine he lived like a bird of the air so perfect was the freedom he enjoyed. During the moonlight nights of winter he would skate until midnight alone upon the icy face of Sebago Lake with all its ineffable beauty stretched before him and the deep shadows of the hills on either hand…. All the long summer days he roamed at will, gun in hand through the woods and there he learned a nearness to Nature and a love for free life which has never left him and made all other existence in a measure insupportable. His suffering began with that Salem school and his knowledge of his relatives who were all distasteful to him. He said, how sad middle life looks to people of erratic temperaments. Everything is beautiful in youth—all things are allowed to it.

Fields also observed Hawthorne on his way to the funeral on 4 December 1863, and wrote, “He says in it ‘pleasure is only pain greatly exaggerated’ which is queer to say the least if not untrue. I think it must be differently stated from this. He was as courteous and as grand as ever—and as true. He does not lose that all saddening smile, either.” This last sentence leads the reader to surmise that Hawthorne always had a “saddening smile.”

The descriptions Fields wrote about her literary friends were used by her husband to create essays on Hawthorne and Dickens, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871 and in his book Yesterdays with Authors in 1872.

You can read Fields’s transcribed diaries in the online edition of The Brownings’ Correspondence.

Wompatuck’s Lease: Tribute, Tobacco, and Land in Colonial Massachusetts

By Nathan Braccio, Assistant Professor, Lesley University

“A pound of Tobacco yearly to be paid.” Starting in 1657, for the next one-hundred years, this is what Richard Thayer and his heirs owed the Massachusetts sachem, Josiah Wompatuck. The payment was due on “the first or second day of the first month.” 

Image of six lines of handwritten text on sepia-toned paper.
JosiahWompatuck, Thomas Thayer, [Lease of Land to Richard Thayer], 1657, A.E. Roth Collection, MHS. The deed was likely written by Thomas Thayer or John Niles, who signed it. 

These lines were neatly written within a 1657 “deed,” now part of the A.E. Roth Collection of the MHS. Strikingly, Wompatuck was not selling land, but leasing it to Thayer with a number of stipulations. While stories, many true, often present manipulative colonists as cheating Indigenous people out of their land, Wompatuck was no naive negotiator and this was not his first land deal. 

Image of a sepia-toned page of handwritten text.
JosiahWompatuck, Thomas Thayer, [Lease of Land to Richard Thayer], 1657, A.E. Roth Collection, MHS. While this is a clerical copy of the original deed, it contains reference to some of the history of the document. This includes a “confirmation of this my lease” by Wompatuck and his “wise men.”

Josiah Wompatuck was a sachem (leader) of the Massachusetts people. Like his predecessor Chickabut, he was an ally of the colonists and over his life gradually sold settlement rights to colonists in the area that today makes up metropolitan Boston. Today, a state park in Hingham bears his name. A man who lived within twenty miles of the heart of the English colony of Massachusetts Bay for the majority of his life and regularly negotiated with the settlers was not likely to be duped by their machinations to seize land. 

Instead, in this deed and others, Wompatuck carefully worked to ensure that the document reflected a negotiation between aggressive colonial demands and the interests of his community and himself. Here, while Wompatuck did ultimately provide the colonists the land they sought for farming and settlement, he ensured that Richard Thayer produced a document acknowledging Wompatuck as his “land lord.” If Thayer, or his heirs, ever failed to pay, the lease would be “void and of none Effect.” This document, combined with the payment, created an unambiguous record of Wompatuck’s retention of political authority over the land. Sachems in New England had an established practice of collecting tribute from their people in exchange for rights to farm or hunt on land. The tribute was generally paid annually, and often in deer skins. This established a reciprocal relationship between sachem and subject, reflecting the authority of the sachem. While not paying in deer skins, Thayer’s payment of tobacco fits into this Algonquian practice of tribute. Ultimately then, Thayer in this “deed” became a subject of the sachem Wompatuck and his heirs. In Algonquain political culture, Thayer’s ability to occupy the land relied on the continuation of Wompatuck’s sovereignty.

This is not to say that Wompatuck, like so many other skilled New England Indigenous leaders, was not a victim of colonial chicanery. Both during and after his life, colonists over decades slowly and steadily took land, reneging on agreements across New England when it suited them. Still, Wompatuck and other sachems creatively resisted and found ways to navigate a rapidly changing world. Wompatuck not only convinced colonists to acknowledge his rights in English documents, he made agreements with the English that benefited his community. For example, in the 1630s, he and his predecessors established an alliance with Massachusetts Bay in a long-running struggle with Narragansett sachems. Wompatuck’s deed stands as a testament to the persistent authority and importance of Indigenous leadership in 17th century New England.