By Jeremy Dibbell
One of my favorite things about the early volumes of MHS Proceedings are the donation lists from the first few years, when the Society accumulated not only gifts to enhance its library of manuscripts and printed books but also a hefty collection of natural history specimens and “curiosities.” The first large donation of this type was received at the sixth meeting, on 21 December 1791, when the owners of the ships “Columbia” and “Washington” (“the first vessels from the United States to Nootka Sound and the Sandwich Islands”) presented to the Historical Society “a hat, cloak, and mantle of the natives, several pieces of cloth manufactured there from the bark of trees, and other artificial and natural curiosities of that part of America brought in those vessels …”.
Donations along these lines continued to arrive: on 29 January 1793 the Proceedings note more “curiosities” from the Pacific, plus “A curious Rose,” “A Milliped[e], found at Hopkinton,” and “Some Teeth of the Spermaceti Whale.” In April of the same year came “A Tarantula, from Mr. Elisha Sigourney,” (Sigourney later gave “a Fur Seal, from Falkland Islands”) “A Specimen of Animal Preservation, from Mr. Jeremy Belknap, Sen.,” and the one I like best of all: “A very large Flamingo, from Mr. William Hussey, Jr.” Other interesting gifts from 1793-94 include “a Bone of the Sawfish, from Mr. William Miller, Jr.,” “A Demerara Opossum, stuffed, from Captain Peter Chace,” “A Madagascar Bat, from Dr. Dexter,” and this grand list from Jeremy Belknap: “A Flying Fish, a Vitriol Stone, an Ermine from New Hampshire, an Indian canoe, a number of Coins, a Globe-fish from the island of St. Helena, and a Dolphin.”
On 24 November 1795 Mr. Thomas Hewes presented “A Bird of Paradise, from Batavia; a Crocodile and nondescript Quadruped, from Ceylon; a Silver Pen and Case, from Indian; a Gentoo Letter; a bundle of Palm Leaves, showing the manner of keeping accounts in India; a Bow and Arrows, from Bengal; a Petrified Substance, from the island of St. Helena; a Hooka, or Smoking Machine, of India; a Gentoo Slipper; a Horned Snake, from the Asps of Bengal; a Remora, from the Indian Ocean; a Firearm, from Ceylon, curiously wrought with gold and silver; a Sandwich Island Cup; two branches of Coral, from the Isle of France; a piece of Vitrified Rock, from the Isle of Ascension; a box of Insects, from the Cape of Good Hope; an Antelope’s Horn; a Crystallization, from a salt-pit in Liverpool; a collection of Marine Shells, among which are the Hummer, the Bullock’s Heart, and the Razor; a Petrified Snake Skin; a branch of the Cinnamon Tree; a Hog Fish; and an Indian Fan.” The same day brought “Two Grasshoppers, from the West Indies from Mr. Edward Renouf.
The Historical Society’s quarters must have been a pretty interesting place in those days. This continued for several years, with each meeting witnessing the donation of a few items of note (“A Giant Clam, weighing four hundred and seventeen pounds” arrived in January 1803, for example).
As the MHS matured, and became more focused as a repository for manuscripts (and moved premises several times), many of the natural history and ethnographic pieces were removed from the collections: in the 1830s the specimens were deposited in the cabinet of the Boston Society of Natural History (precursor of today’s Museum of Science), and later much of the material from the Pacific Coast and islands, along with the archaeological relics, were given to the Peabody Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology (now the Peabody Museum at Harvard).
But not quite everything left the Society’s holdings. Among the remaining “curiosities” are the following:
“A Hook, from the Sandwich Islands, made out of a bone of Captain Cook,” received from Mr. Jacob Williams, May 1804. A letter in the MHS Archives from W. Emerson to the Corresponding Secretary reports “The hook which accompanyes [sic] this Note I received from Deacon Jacob Williams, formerly an officer in my church, who requests me to present it in his name to the Historical Society. It was given to him by his son Jacob Williams, who received it from a man, who attended Capt. Derby, who died at Waterloo, one of the Sandwhich Islands, in 1802, and who, (Derby) received it from an indian chief, who said, that the prong of the hook was made of one of the bones of the celebrated navigator, Capt. Cook.” In 1996 the hook was tested by the staff of the Kendall Whaling Museum; they confirmed that it is human bone, but could not narrow it down to the precise original owner.
The windpipes of a chicken and a turtle, given by S. Hall of Bridgewater, 31 January 1833. We have no idea which is which (informed suggestions gladly accepted).
Nail and tree bark supposed to be from Mercy Otis Warren’s home and tree near Patriot James Otis, Jr., when he was struck by the bolt of lightning which killed him in May, 1783. He had reportedly said to Mercy before this, “My dear sister, I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity that it will be by a flash of lightning.” He got his wish.
For more on the history of the Society’s collections, see Proceedings Vol. 28, pp. 312-348, in which then-librarian Samuel A. Green gives an extensive account of the subject.