Rachel Wall's Confession, the words of a Pirate?
By Rakashi Chand, Reader Services
For Talk Like a Pirate Day we bring you the words of a Pirate!
The MHS holds an interesting broadside featuring Massachusetts' only female Pirate: Life, last words and dying confession, of Rachel Wall : who, with William Smith and William Dunogan, were executed at Boston, on Thursday, October 8, 1789, for high-way robbery.
Arrested and convicted of highway robbery, Rachel Wall was the last woman executed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, hung on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet.
The broadside features a fascinating woodcut illustration of three criminals being hung on Boston Common. The middle figure is depicted as a woman wearing a dress. But this confession serves a much greater purpose as it is the autobiography of a very unique woman. Although Rachel’s crimes were dreadful, her life is an undeniable part of Massachusetts history. A criminal master mind? Perhaps. Ruthless and Vicious? Certainly. The perfect Halloween Costume? Definitely!
Who was Rachel Wall?
Rachel Wall was born in Pennsylvania, to a good family, by her own description. After running away from home, she met and married George Wall, with whom she moved to Boston. George left Rachel and went off to sea, only to return one day to reunite with Rachel and coax her into being a pirate. In her confession Rachel says, “for, as soon as he came back, he enticed me to leave my service, and take to bad company, from which I might date my ruin.” Supposedly, they attacked ships off the Isles of the Shoals, on the coast of New Hampshire although we do not have actual evidence and this is not mentioned in the Confession. It is believed that after storms, Rachel would stand on the deck of their ship pretending to be distressed and would scream for help; when sailors came to her rescue, George and his men would kill them and plunder their ships. In her confession, Rachel states that she does not know the whereabouts of her husband, “He went off again and left me, and where he is now I know not.” It is believed that George and his crew were washed out to sea. George Wall might have been a privateer during the Revolution, acquiring a taste for plundering ships.
Rachel returned to Boston and worked as a maid but could never fully become a law-abiding citizen. She continued to ‘plunder’ by sneaking aboard docked ships and grabbing what she could. She describes one excursion on Long Wharf in Boston, "On my entering the cabin, the door of which not being fastened, and finding the Captain and Mate asleep in their beds, I hunted about for plunder, and discovered under the Captain’s head, a black silk handkerchief containing upwards of thirty pounds, in gold, crowns, and small change, on which I immediately seized the booty and decamped therewith as quick as possible, which money I spent freely in company as lewd and wicked as myself." (Does anyone else hear Pirate-speak?)
Rachel was eventually convicted of highway robbery. Supposedly, she saw a lovely bonnet that she simply couldn’t resist and attacked 17-year-old Margret Bender, the woman wearing the bonnet. Having already been convicted of two counts of robbery, this, the third count, was punishable by death. She could not deny her proven past, so in her confession she lists many petty crimes, carefully avoiding the mention of any that might be a felony. She was wise enough to know that she could not convince people that she was innocent, so instead choose to portray herself as under the influence of her dreadful husband. Attorney General Robert Treat Paine requested “that sentence of death might be given against the said Rachel Wall, the prisoner at the bar” and Governor John Hancock signed the order of execution. One could perhaps speculate that she was being sentenced for crimes far greater than the attempted robbery of a bonnet, tried as a thief, but executed for piracy?
Rachel was unfortunate as her crime came at the height of turmoil for the new Nation, and the courts--which traditionally gave women lesser punishments than men--tried her as an equal sentencing her to hang with two other men also accused of highway robbery. Six years later un-armed burglary was no longer punished by death; the three were the last to be executed in Massachusetts for robbery. If there were ever a spirit to haunt the streets of Boston, It would certainly be Rachel Wall, executed on Boston Common for stealing a bonnet at 29 years of age.
Massachusetts Historical Society. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, (Boston: The Society 1905) Volume 39, March 1905 p.178-190
Rachel Wall, Pirate by the National Park Service (Accessed September 19, 2018)
http://www.cindyvallar.com/RachelWall.html (Accessed September 19, 2018)
| Published: Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 3:00 PM
This Week @MHS
This week at the MHS we have an author talk, our annual graduate student reception, and a discussion among hisotrians about the musical Hamilton. Details below:
- Tuesday, 18 September, 6:00 PM: If I Survive: Frederick Douglass and Family in the Walter O. Evans Collection with Celeste-Marie Bernier of the University of Edinburgh. Bringing to light previously unpublished manuscript letters, essays, speeches, and photographs from Frederick Douglass and his sons, Charles Remond, Frederick Jr., and Lewis Henry Douglass, If I Survive casts Douglass in the role of dedicated family man and inspirational figure to his five children. This family biography as accompanied by these personal documents comprises the first extensive study of Frederick Douglass and his family’s fight for the cause of liberty during the Civil War and in the post-emancipation era.
A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 6:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders).
- Thursday, 20 September, 6:00 PM: Graduate Student Reception. Calling all graduate students and faculty in history, American Studies, or any related field! Enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres as you meet students and professors from other universities working in your fields. Take a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about the Society's collections as well as the resources available to support your scholarship, from research fellowships to our six different seminar series.
The reception is free, but we ask that you RSVP by 19 September by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (617) 646-0579.
- Saturday, 22 September, 4:00 PM: Historians on Hamilton with Catherine Allgor, MHS; Lyra D. Monteiro, Rutgers University-Newark; Joseph M. Adelman, Framingham State University. The musical Hamilton has catapulted a founding father to the heights of popular culture. Three historians will explore this creative approach to discussing the stories of America's founding, the conversations that have been created by this phenomenon, and how the excitement can be used to inspire the public to look at American history in greater depth.
A pre-talk reception bins at 3:30 PM; the speaking program begins at 4:00 PM. There is a $10 per person fee (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders).
Visit www.masshist.org/events for upcoming programs including Under the Starry Flag: How a Band of Irish Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt & Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship, an author talk on Monday, 24 September, and Radical Nonviolence & Interracial Utopias in the Early Civil Rights Movement, a seminar on Tuesday, 25 September.
| Published: Monday, 17 September, 2018, 1:00 AM
Triumph and Tragedy in History
By Kate Melchior, Education
School has started, which means that it is time to start brainstorming for this year’s National History Day projects! Each year National History Day selects a theme that is intentionally broad enough so that students can select topics from anywhere and any time in history. The theme gives students a lens through which they will gain a deeper understanding of history beyond facts and dates, and pushes them to think about perspective, context, and broader impact of historical events.
The 2019 theme has been announced as “Triumph and Tragedy in History.” While this theme sounds straightforward at first, it challenges students and teachers alike to think about the true meaning of both words in a historical context. National History Day advises students to begin with the definition of both words: according to Merriam Webster, the definition of triumph is “a victory or conquest by or as if by military force, or a notable success,” while tragedy is defined a “disastrous event.” While students do not need to necessarily include both triumph and tragedy in their work, many topics will end up including both: a military triumph, for example, might be defined as a tragedy by the losing side. NHD then poses the following questions for students starting to select their topics:
“Can one person’s triumph be another’s tragedy? Can the same person or group suffer from tragedy and triumph at the same time? How does one ultimately triumph after tragedy? Can triumph lead to tragedy?”
The Massachusetts History Day affiliate recently held an Intro to Mass History Day teacher workshop for educators from BPS, Lynn, and other schools in the Boston area. To put themselves in their students’ shoes, teachers built upon NHD’s questions about the meaning of “Triumph and Tragedy” and brainstormed their own questions (see image). Some of their questions included:
- Can war ever be a triumph? Is it always a tragedy?
- How long does triumph last in history?
- Does triumph always equal tragedy for someone else?
- Do people learn from tragedy? Can that lesson be a triumph?
- Can reform be both triumph and tragedy?
- Can whether something is thought of as a triumph or tragedy change through history? Does it depend on who remembers it?
Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman, 1811.
Along with many heritage organizations around the country, the MHS Center for the Teaching of History thought about how the NHD theme connects to our own collections at MHS. We set up a CTH Theme Page with ideas about topics, links to collections, and intriguing objects from our archives that might serve as a launching point for student research into triumph and tragedy. Suggested topics include early Boston smallpox inoculations, Massachusetts women in WWI, Boston marriages and LGBTQ+ history, Wampanoag and English settler interactions, and Elizabeth Freeman’s suit for freedom from slavery.
Henry A. Monroe, a young musician with the 54th Regiment.
Another example is the history of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first military unit consisting of black soldiers to be raised in the North during the Civil War. The 54th’s tragic losses at the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863 are also remembered for triumphant bravery shown and for how the soldiers paved the way for numerous other black units in the Union Army for the remainder of the war. The 54th also fought a lesser-known but just as critical battle against its own government: the fight for equal pay. African American soldiers in the 54th and other Black units refused pay for 18 months until the government granted them the same pay to their white counterparts. While the achievement of equal pay is regarded another triumph for civil rights, numerous tragedies shape this story: the hardship of the pay battle on Black soldiers and their families, the immense tragedy of the US Government’s racism and oppression, and the harsh punishments and even deaths of several soldiers for “mutiny” over the conflict.
How do you think that Triumph and Tragedy can act as perspectives for examining history? What items in our collection do you think connect to the theme?
| Published: Friday, 14 September, 2018, 12:00 AM
Barbara Hillard Smith’s Diary, September 1918
By Lindsay Bina, Intern and Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, Reader Services
Today we return to the 1918 diary of Newton teenager Barbara Hillard Smith. You may read our introduction to the diary, and Barbara’s previous entries, here:
January | February | March | April
May | June | July | August
September | October | November | December
As regular readers of the Beehive know, we are following Barbara throughout 1918 with monthly blog posts that present Barbara’s daily life -- going to school, seeing friends, playing basketball, and caring for family members -- in the words she wrote a century ago. Here is Barbara’s September, day by day.
* * *
SUN. 1 SEPTEMBER
Boys came to church. Park in afternoon. Boys to supper
MON. 2 LABOR DAY
Went up river with boys. Down to Spuds. K’s in evening.
In town. Went to Keith’s with the gang. Up to farm with [Spud].
Hung around K’s for lunch. Wendell took us to Revere. Park in evening
Peg’s for tennis. In town. Babe went home. Hospital with Dr. G-
Peg came over. Pete is going to Lasell. Hurrah! Sick?
Hung around. Felt rotten. Saw [Eli].
Cousin Mildred to dinner. Over to Peg’s for supper. Ben is home.
School. Mrs. Reed’s
School. Mrs. Reeds
School. In town
School. Mrs. Reed’s. Played tennis.
No school. It rained. Movies [+ overnight with] Lane’s. Babe + Mother went
Took flowers up to Bil Sybil + saw Bob. That boy was awfully sick
Church and Sunday School. Went up to see Bob with K. Spud to supper
School. Staid at home and studied.
School. Peg and I went to see Bob.
School. Went over to Pegs. Rained hard
School. Went to Surgical Dressings.
School. Went down to Connies. Night at Pegs
Down at station at 5:45. In town. Pegs for a dance
Sunday School. Came down with influenza.
In bed. Dr. G- came. Mother came home.
In bed. Feel rotten. School closed till Monday.
Got up and went out. Felt rotten.
Went over to Pegs. Hung around. Sick?
Tenn Went over to Pegs
Tennis at Pegs
Church. No Sunday School. Over to Pegs in afternoon
In town. Surgical Dressings. Spud very sick
* * *
If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.
*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the Barbara Hillard Smith collection may be found here.
| Published: Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 12:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
This week we have a pair of Brown Bag talks, an author talk, and the end of an exhibition. Details below:
- Wednesday, 12 September, 12:00PM : The first lunch talk this week is with C. Ian Stevenson of Boston University, and is titled "'This Summer-Home of the Survivors': The Civil War Vacation in Architecture & Landscape, 1878-1910." In the decades after the Civil War, its veterans built communal summer cottages in waterfront locations to merge memory and leisure among their comrades and families. Through interdisciplinary lenses, this talk considers the ways veterans used architecture and landscape to heal their wartime trauma and preserve their scripted legacy.
This talk is free and open to the public.
- Wedensday, 12 September, 6:00PM : On the night of March 5, 1770, British soldiers fired into a crowd gathered in front of Boston’s Custom House, killing five people. Denounced as an act of unprovoked violence and villainy, the Boston Massacre became one of the most familiar incidents in American history, yet one of the least understood. In "Boston's Massacre," Eric Hinderaker of the University of Utah revisits this dramatic episode, examining in forensic detail the facts of that fateful night, the competing narratives that molded public perceptions at the time, and the long campaign to transform the tragedy into a touchstone of American identity.
This talk is open to the public and registration is required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Fellows and Members or EBT cardholders). Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM, followed by the speaking program at 6:00PM.
- Friday, 14 September, 12:00PM : "A Possible Connection between a Scandal and Susanna Rowson's Last Novel" is the second Brown Bag of the week, this time presented by Steven Epley of Samford University. The talk will describe evidence in letters and public records suggesting that best-selling author Susanna Rowson may have based her last novel, Lucy Temple, at least in part on a scandal in which she was innocently but indirectly involved in Medford, Mass., in 1799.
As ever, this lunchtime talk is open to the public free of charge.
This is your last chance to view the current exhibition, Entrepreneurship & Classical Design in Boston’s South End: The Furniture of Isaac Vose & Thomas Seymour, 1815 to 1825, which ends on 14 September.
| Published: Sunday, 9 September, 2018, 12:00 AM