Wet-Plate Photographs, a Towel, and a Grieving Widowed Mother in Boston

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Associate

It may not seem likely that a wet-plate photograph, a towel, and a grieving widowed mother in Boston have Abraham Lincoln in common, but the following stories from the MHS collection, along with a Boston ghost story, may change your mind. Although I enjoy tales of the gruesome, grotesque, and ghostly, I know it is not for everyone: the following discusses the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and focuses on his bodily remains and his afterlife. If you choose not to read on, please have a happy Halloween!

Sitting President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. by John Wilkes Booth on 14 April 1865. After Lincoln was shot, three doctors in the theatre rushed to his side and did what they could to make him comfortable as they knew the wound was mortal. They decided to carry him across the street, as a carriage ride to the White House, a fair distance from the theatre, would be too difficult for him. Several men gently lifted the president and carried him to a private house across the street from the theater. One of the men that carried Lincoln was Augustus Clark, a War Department employee, who wrote a letter to his uncle S. M. Allen of Woburn, Mass., describing what happened and enclosed within the letter a towel stained with the blood from Lincoln’s wound. Although Lincoln was shot in the head, he did not pass until 7:22 AM on 15 April 1865, the morning after he was shot.

Towel fragment
Fragment of a towel stained with the blood of Abraham Lincoln.
Letter from Augustus Clark
Letter from Augustus Clark, one of the men who carried President Lincoln to a secure location after the he was shot in the head, to S. M. Allen, 16 April 1865.

After Lincoln passed, those around him collected pieces of cloth, hair, and other artifacts. People collected these items from Lincoln’s deathbed in part as recognition of his accomplishments as a politician and as the president, and in part because of the awareness of the historical nature of the incident. The MHS has an example in a locket made with Lincoln’s hair. This locket was donated to the MHS in 1895 from Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, a Massachusetts congressman, who received the locket 20 years previous from a friend. The hair was collected by one of the attending physicians at Lincoln’s death and was then given to Hoar’s friend, who made it into this locket.

Locket with hair cut from Abraham Lincoln, postmortem.

All so far has been somewhat normal in this recounting of the first assassination of a sitting president. However the following is much more of a ghost story. It begins in Boston with William Mumler, a Boston engraver and amateur photographer. Mumler dabbled in photography, but he is now known as being a famous spirit photographer. He first discovered the process in the early 1860s when he double exposed a glass plate while taking a self-portrait. A girl appeared behind him in the resulting print.  He saw the potential in the figure, a mostly see-through specter, as if it were a ghost, and started passing it around to his friends and colleagues, saying the figure behind him was actually a cousin who had died. This story was spread around Boston, and people began to come to him for their own spirit photographs after losing a loved one.

In the 1860s many people started believing that communication with the dead was possible. The movement was called Spiritualism, and mediums, those who could “channel” the voices of, or be possessed by, the dead, would hold séances for groups to be able to witness the presence of, and hopefully communicate with, the spirits surrounding them. This form of religion gained a lot of followers in the 1860s as the Civil War escalated and the number of grieving families rose. It was especially popular in Boston and among the Boston Brahmins, as séances were known to be held in Beacon Street homes. It gained so much popularity that it also created detractors, those who would attend the séances to figure out the trickery behind them and prove the medium false.

Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady in the 1860s, was a Spiritualist. From 1850 to 1871, Mrs. Lincoln experienced what can be considered an excessive amount of death close to her; three sons, three brothers, her stepfather, father-in-law, a brother-in-law, and her husband. Seven of those deaths were during a nine-year period from 1862–1871. Despite being a lifelong Christian, she turned to Spiritualism after the death of her son, William, in 1862. She was inconsolable and looking for a way to manage her grief; she began attending séances and felt they were so comforting that she hosted séances in the White House.

By 1870, after being tried for fraud for his spirit photographs and then acquitted, Mumler had gained fame when Mrs. Lincoln came to Boston and sat for a Mumler spirit photograph. The resulting print showed a shadowy figure who looked like President Lincoln standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders. Peter Manseau, author of The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, had this to say about Mrs. Lincoln’s reaction to the photograph: “No one could dissuade her that it did not mean that Abraham Lincoln was still by her side.”

Photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln looks at the viewer while seated, wearing her regular black clothes to show she is in mourning. Behind her are two transparent figures, one of which clearly looks like Abraham Lincoln. He stands directly behind her with his hands on her shoulders and looks to his right at the other figure, meant, perhaps, to be her son, William?

Although detractors, such as P. T. Barnum, had proven that there were many chemical and mechanical ways to create photographs with “ghosts”—with Mumler recognized today as a purveyor of hoaxes—and Spiritualist mediums were mostly proven to be false tricksters, could Abraham Lincoln have been standing with his beloved wife who had seen so much tragedy and death in her life? I like to think that Mrs. Lincoln’s photograph was perhaps the one true photograph of a ghost that Mumler captured.

If you’ve read to the end, thank you for taking this journey through Lincoln’s assassination and afterlife, and I hope you enjoy Halloween!

Scary Stories to Tell in the Stacks

Alexandra Bush, Digital Production Specialist

This October, current events dictate that we must keep our tricks and treats indoors. Fortunately, working at the MHS provides more opportunities to get scared than one might think. Read on for some short glimpses into the more macabre side of the MHS and its collections.

Close Encounters of the Winthropian Kind

Portrait of John Winthrop
Detail: John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts. Miniature portrait, oil on porcelain attributed to Paul Moschowitz, [19–].
John Winthrop’s journal has long served as a cornerstone of Massachusetts historical scholarship. In it he diligently recorded the events of his life, along with the trials and tribulations of the people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the first 19 years of its existence. These stories run the gamut between the mundane and the fantastic and even include accounts of the paranormal—for example, two of the earliest recorded UFO sightings. The first, which occurred in 1639, was relayed to Winthrop by “sober, discreet man” James Everell and two others. It describes a strange light in the sky above the Muddy River:

“When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square; when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine: it ran as swift as an arrow towards Charlton, and so up and down about two or three hours.”

The three men, who were in a boat at the time, had been paddling downstream when they saw the strange light. After it vanished, they inexplicably found themselves “carried quite back against the tide to the place they came from.” The second event occurred a few years later, in 1644, when three men approaching Boston in a boat at night saw two lights rise from the water, coalesce into the form of a human figure, and walk south. A week later, the lights returned:

“Sometimes they shot out flames and sometimes sparkles… About the same time a voice was heard upon the water between Boston and Dorchester, calling out in a most dreadful manner, boy, boy, come away, come away: and it suddenly shifted from one place to another a great distance, about twenty times.”

Winthrop offers no explanation of the first account, but of the second he postulates that the disembodied voice is that of a man involved in the explosion of a ship in that same area of the bay. Before he died, the man “professed himself to have skill in necromancy.” After the ship burned, his body was the only one that was not recovered.

Another Creepy-Crawly Diary Entry

John Quincy Adams’ lifelong diary is similarly touted as an invaluable account of life in early America as part of a prodigal family. JQA covers a wide range of topics with a uniquely vivid voice. This description of a spider’s nest in his bed is positively shiver-inducing:

“IV: I passed the night without closing my eyes, under a perpetual irritation of the skin over my face and almost every part of the body, which I supposed to be the effect of what is called prickly heat— But on changing my linen this morning I discovered it was caused by a nest of Spiders just from the egg-shell, so small that most of them were perceptible only by their motion. It was like the continual titillation of a feather passing over the skin at a thousand places at once— It was a night of exquisite torture without pain— My linen and body were covered with them. I immediately stripped, changed all the clothes I had been wearing, and took a warm bath at Burnside’s. How this horrible creeping Nation got upon me, I could not exactly ascertain— They had already produced a cutaneous inflammation, and almost an eruption in various places…”

Portrait of a Serial Killer

Thomas W. Piper scrapbook
Detail: Thomas W. Piper scrapbook, 1875-1876. Compiled by Walter L. Sawyer.

On 7 May 1876, Thomas W. Piper, the well-respected sexton of Boston’s Warren Avenue Baptist Church, confessed to the murder of 5 year-old Mabel Young in the belfry of his church. Under the pressure of two days’ worth of intense questioning, Piper also confessed to several cases of arson as well as two earlier crimes; the assault of prostitute Mary Tyner with a blunt object, and the murder of domestic servant Bridget Landregan. Known for his high level of literacy and his trademark flowing black cloak, Piper was spotted fleeing the scene of Mabel Young’s murder by a man identified in the case notes as “Glover.” Later on, when Glover heard the news of the murdered girl, he connected the two events and took the information to the police. Throughout the trial and confession, Piper retained an air of detached apathy, only becoming nervous once he was convicted. He was hanged for his crimes on 26 March, 1876.

Walter L. Sawyer, one of the witnesses to the trial, compiled a scrapbook of drawings, photographs, and newspaper accounts immortalizing the man who would come to be known as the “Boston Belfry Murderer.”

Poor Rebeccah

There’s no scary story behind this item, but several MHS-ers insisted that she belongs on this list. In fact, her provenance is quite idyllic. “Rebeccah Codman Butterfield” is a doll, likely made by a member of the Codman family, part of the Transcendentalist community Brook Farm of West Roxbury, Massachusetts. A note pinned to her petticoat, penned by her donor’s mother, reads:

“My name is Rebeccah Codman Butterfield. I was born in 1841. My mother made me and I was the darling of the Brook Farmers & their children. Brook Farm was called The Transcendentalists. I grew up with the Alcotts, George Ripley, John S [Dwight], Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Peabody & Nathaniel Hawthorne–no wonder I look a bit cracked! I was the doll for all the Butterfield children & a beloved member of that brilliant colony.”

How sweet! One of our Reference staff, also a member of the group who suggested Rebeccah for this list, fondly remembers retrieving artifacts under her watchful eye while she was living in the stacks.

Doll named Rebeccah
Detail of doll belonging to members of the Codman and Butterfield families

Hallowed Halls

The MHS’ vast archival collections notwithstanding, our building at 1154 Boylston Street has weathered its fair share of history. Although this is the society’s seventh location since its founding in 1791, we have resided in the current space for over 120 years. A large addition was built onto the MHS in 1970, expanding the office and collection storage space by filling in the middle of the original, L-shaped building. As many in the archives field can attest, old buildings packed with decades of personal papers carry with them an innate weight—a sense of presence. Below, MHS employees recount unexplainable occurrences within our building.

Independently of one another, two MHS veterans mentioned the clear sound of footsteps from the stacks. One recalled conversations with past Operations staff, who swore they heard “measure footsteps back and forth” while they cleaned the building after hours. The other described how the wooden floors (now concrete) used to creak and groan near the areas where the new addition connected to the original building. The footsteps, he said, sounded like an echo of his own as he walked the aisles. He wondered if the sound could be attributed to the previous owners of our various collections, trailing behind the remnants of their legacies. Or perhaps, after nearly 230 years, MHS founder Jeremy Belknap still felt the need to act as steward to his treasured collection.

Stories like this tend to pile up when speaking to Operations staff and other employees who often find themselves in the building at night. Several people remember an event in the early 2000s, when an arm of the crystal chandelier hanging in the lobby crashed to the floor in the dead of night. The CCTV camera footage from just before the arm fell showed the chandelier swinging back and forth as if pushed by an unseen force—the only movement in a completely dark, silent room. When asked, the Art and Artifact Curator had a perfectly sound explanation; after a faulty repair job, “the weight of the crystal beyond the pin and cement join proved too heavy and failed and slowly separated from the end plugged into the chandelier base. The shifting weight was enough that the finely balanced chandelier to start swinging and when the arm fully separated and fell, that made the swinging wider.” As to what caused the arm to separate on that day specifically, there is no answer.

Book stacks

The other group that probably deals with the bulk of experiences like this is the Reference staff—in other words, the ones who most frequently delve into the stacks. Anyone who has spent time in library stacks can attest to their eeriness. Cold air and row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelving, interspersed with portraits, busts, and mannequins, greet anyone stepping into the MHS stacks. One Reference staff member remembers working one winter, during which she spent long hours completely alone in the stacks:

“For the most part it was just eerie. Being superstitious means I have always kind of viewed the collections as alive to a certain extent, and I just try to treat them with as much respect as possible. Several times while in the stacks I would hear random sounds—sometimes wall tapping or sometimes banging sounds. I recall one time I’d gotten particularly on edge, and I said out loud, “Unless you’re going to come out here and help me with this, give it a rest.” Nothing came out to help, but the noise subsided for a while. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the intense feeling of unease I would get every time I was close to that rocking bassinet. One time I thought I saw it moving. That thing has always given me the creeps. Otherwise not much happened, just a mixture of eerie silence and varied clanging sounds.”

The staff member quoted above would often talk with another staff member about that cradle, but research into it has yielded overwhelmingly normal results. However, the former staff member remembers another encounter:

On a dark, rainy Saturday, she received a paging request from one of the few researchers in the building that day. The requested pamphlet described the 1850s construction of the Hoosac Tunnel, a project so fraught with accidents that the tunnel was nicknamed the “Bloody Pit.” Over the course of the 20+ year construction, a total of 196 workers died in explosions, cave-ins and floods. Haunted by the surprising content of the volume, the staff member ventured to find the pamphlet, tucked with others like it at the very end of a row of rolling high-density shelves. She wheeled the shelves apart, slipped between them, and followed the call numbers to the back wall. There, on an envelope—“The Hoosac Tunnel Disaster.” In spite of herself, she stopped to scan the shelf, choosing another volume and opening it to read a few pages. Accounts of cave-ins and suffocating workers nearly distracted her from the moving shelf behind her, closing by itself due to uneven flooring, until it had nearly crushed her. The uneven flooring argument makes sense, of course, but this was first time the shelves had done this in her several months of work.

Wishing everyone a safe and happy Halloween!


John Winthrop’s Journal, “History of New England,” 1630-1649. Pg. 154, 294.

John Quincy Adams Diary, volume 30. 22 August 1818. https://www.masshist.org/publications/jqadiaries/index.php/document/jqadiaries-v30-1818-08-22-p382

COMMONWEALTH vs. THOMAS W. PIPER. 120 Mass. 185. 20 March 1876. https://law.justia.com/cases/massachusetts/supreme-court/volumes/120/120mass185.html

New-York tribune. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 09 May 1876. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030214/1876-05-09/ed-1/seq-4/

Happy Halloween from the MHS

by Rakashi Chand, Senior Library Assistant

The MHS holds three manuscript diaries kept by Ruth Evelyn Beck in 1919, 1920 and 1921. They describe social activities with family and friends including parties, dances, movies, her job, church activities, the local news, and courtship. Along with the diaries there are loose printed items such as dance cards and letters. While using the collection in the MHS reading room today, a researcher happened upon these fun Halloween items.

Along with an invitation to a Halloween party in 1920 are a dance card and table placard from the party.

Halloween Ball placard
Ruth Beck’s 1920 Halloween party table placard
Clark College Halloween Party dance card
Ruth Beck’s dance card from the 1920 Halloween party

The Halloween party is noted in her diary entry for 22 October 1920.

Diary entry for 22 October 1920
Ruth Beck diary entry for 22 October 1920


Mysterious, Gruesome, and Spooky Aspects of History

By Rakashi Chand, Reader Services

This time of year often sparks an interest in the mysterious, gruesome, and spooky aspects of history. New Englanders often flock to Salem and other “haunted” spots with a keen interest in connecting with the people and the events that had transpired long ago. Within the walls of the MHS, you will find a few intriguing items that might even be considered “spooky.” But for those of us who spend our days delighting in the words, thoughts, and mementos of our forefathers and foremothers, these are fascinating pieces of history. Alas, as it is All Hollow’s Eve, I thought I might share a few of the more spooky items with you!

First up is the Salem Witch Bureau.

This rather unassuming bureau greets you on the way into our reading room. In actuality, it has a dark past. Supposedly, the bureau was evidence used in the Salem Witch Trails in 1692! In his will, Gen. William H. Sumner described this chest of drawers as “the Witch Bureau, from the middle drawer of which one of the Witches jumped out who was hung on Gallows Hill, in Salem.” So the next time you walk into the reading room, take a moment to ponder from which drawer the specter had jumped forth.

While on the topic of the Salem Witch Trials, the MHS houses the papers of Judge Samuel Sewall, one of the Judges who presided over the trials. Sewall kept a diary from 1673 until a few months before his death in 1730.

Perhaps most notable is his diary entry for 19 September 1692. He records:

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

Sewall later repented for his involvement and gained notoriety for his firm antislavery stance when he published The Selling of Joseph in 1700.

The MHS also has an item described as a “Piece of wood from a tree, place unidentified, reported to have been used for hanging witches in the 17th century.”

And here is a fascinating, yet eerie tidbit: not only do we have the letters, diaries and artifacts of those long departed, we also have pieces of them! (Oh, but yes indeed!) We have a surprisingly large collection of human hair, mostly given as pieces of mourning Jewelry and keepsakes to remember loved ones. Locks of hair would be cut from the deceased and kept, often intricately incorporated into a piece of jewelry, such as a ring or a broach. To learn more about pieces in our collection that contain human hair, visit our “Jewelry Containing Hair” page that is part of our Tradition of Anglo-American Mourning Jewelry, 17th to 19th Centuries online display.

We currently have hair from both Alexander Hamilton and George Washington on display as a part of our Hamilton at the MHS display. Be sure to stop by before 15 November to see it and check out other Hamilton artifacts online at www.masshist.org/hamilton.

Next, I would like to share a nifty hook with you! Not very spooky you say? What if I told you it was carved from human bone?

This fascinating artifact is a hook from the Sandwich Islands, supposedly made from a bone of Capt. James Cook. It is bone carved into a hook with a thin cord wound closely around the top of the shank and extending onto a wrapped and twisted section tied in a slip knot.

Well, enough about human remains! We also have a warbler preserved in arsenic, a death mask, and dolls. One such example is a doll belonging to members of the Codman and Butterfield families. “Rebeccah Codman Butterfield” is a very well preserved doll with an exceptional past.

According to a note penned by the donor’s mother, Ellis Phinney Taylor, and pinned to the doll’s petticoat, Rebeccah’s life began long ago but not too far away:

“My name is Rebeccah Codman Butterfield. I was born in 1841. My mother made me and I was the darling of the Brook Farmers & their children. Brook Farm was called The Transcendentalists. I grew up with the Alcotts, George Ripley, John S [Dwight], Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Peabody & Nathaniel Hawthorne–no wonder I look a bit cracked!”

Read more about Rebeccah and the Codman and Butterfield families here.

Having worked at the MHS for a number of years, I must admit that we get all sorts of questions! I still recall welcoming a researcher to the reading room on a dark and gloomy December morning who looked at me with delight and asked “Do they talk to you?” I was unsure who she was referring to so she clarified and said “Ghosts! Are you ever approached by ghosts? You must have so many here!” While many hours are spent in the stacks, I am not aware of any archivist or librarian who has encountered a ghost. Though I must profess, the Society is not free from strange occurrences. In the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Third Series, Vol. 72  p.417), there is one account from the Annual Meeting in 1957 which has always struck me:

“We have had our trials and tribulations. The janitor on duty when your Director took office lost his mind in this building, here, before our very faces, and had to be locked up until he died;”

Hmm . . . not what you would expect to find while reading Annual Meeting notes. It continues:

“his very good successor died of a heart attack overnight; his brother and successor suddenly developed a strange illness and had to be relieved; the present janitor lost his wife and sole companion last June and is now desperately ill.”

The list of interesting artifacts found within our walls goes on and on, and so could I. But I leave you to  browse our online—and fully searchable—catalog, Abigail, for “cool” and “creepy” items that intrigue you from the comfort of your living room . . . or crypt!

And with that, we wish you a safe, yet slightly-spooky, Halloween night!